Attributed to Pheidias
Marble relief (Block V) from the East frieze of the Parthenon, 438-432 B.C., Marble
The British Museum, London
This scene forms the centre of the great frieze of the Parthenon – the great monument to Athens which stood (and still stands) on the Acropolis at the very heart of the city. It commemorates the culmination of the Great Panathenaia, which we heard about before with the Panathenaic amphora. Here, the festival in honour of Athena culminates with a procession to her temple on the Acropolis, and the dressing of her statue – the xoanon – with a specially-woven peplos. The youth on the right can be seen handing the garment to an older official; either side, as you can see in the first and second images, three women prepare for the dressing of the statue, whilst the gods – Iris, Hera and Zeus (from L to R on the top panel); Athena and Hephaestus (from L to R on the second panel) look on.
Bronze hand mirrors like this one are a fairly frequently found luxury good, preserved in burials of high-status Etruscan women. (On the Etruscans, see my previous post on the canopic vase from Chiusi.) One side would have been highly polished to create a reflective surface; the other was often inscribed with a mythical scene. Here, we see the goddess Eos (Dawn) carrying the corpse of her son Memnon, a hero of the Trojan War who was killed by Achilles: his story was originally told in the lost epic, the Aethiopis, of which only summaries and fragments survive.
This vase is very typical of the type of the so-called "Panathenaic amphora": amphorae (or vases) which were given as prizes for victory during the Panathenaic Games. These were games, held in Athens every four years from the 6th century BCE on, designed to commemorate the goddess Athena, the patron deity of Athens. One of the central features of the Great Panathenaea – the celebration within which the Panathenaic Games took place – was the dressing of the cult statue of Athena with a peplos, a woven robe. It is this ceremony which you can see depicted at the centre of the frieze on the Parthenon.
On this object, we have two sides – as with our Athenian coin, labelled obverse (for the "front") and reverse (the "back"). On the obverse, depicted here below the reverse, we have the goddess Athena herself, striding across the face of the vase: this was a typical subject for Panathenaic amphorae (unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the context of the festival). She brandishes a spear, carries a shield in one hand, and wears a helmet, signifying her status as goddess of war. Inscribed vertically along one of the two columns either side of her (each surmounted by a cockerel), we can read TON ATHENETHEN ATHLON (or, "From the games at Athens"), marking the occasion. On the other side, the reverse (at the top of this post), we see a quadriga, a four-horse chariot, with a charioteer holding the reins in one hand; the front leg of the first horse is just crossing past a marker, called a stele in ancient Greek, which signifies the end of the racecourse. It was typical on Panathenaic amphorae to depict the race for which the prize was won: other amphorae show, for example, runners competing in races, boxers, and wrestlers.
This marble fragment originally came from the centre of a longer relief depicting an Athenian trireme, or warship: most likely, it initially included twenty-five rowers, a helmsman at the stern, a look-out, and armed soldiers upon the deck. It's incredibly important evidence of a central object from ancient Athens of which we have sadly little evidence: the Athenian trireme, a ship with three banks of oars (hence the name: treis = three, eretes = rower). It was quick and agile, and was equipped with a ram at the prow for ramming into other ships during battle.
What's most evocative about this relief is that it provides very rare evidence of perhaps one of the most central objects to Athens' global success as an empire in the 5th century BCE. It was Athenian triremes which, ten years after the decisive Athenian victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (led by the general Miltiades), won the Battle of Salamis, the most important naval battle of the second Persian War in 480 BCE when Darius I's son, Xerxes, again attempted to invade Greece. And it was Athenian triremes, too, that were central in enabling Athens both to gain and to maintain their maritime empire across the Aegean.
We're moving back in time a little for today's object. As we make our way into the classical period of Greece, I wanted to pause and travel over to Italy for a moment – not to the nascent city of Rome, but to another civilisation known as that of the Etruscans. The Etruscan civilisation flourished in Italy from around 800 BCE until the gradual annexation of their cities by Rome around 100 BCE. It was an independent civilisation from that of the Romans, with considerable Greek influence from settlements like Pithekoussai along the coast; its people spoke a language known as Etruscan, which we only have an incomplete knowledge of today.
The vase above – known as canopic, after the canopic urns of Egypt, used to house the visceral remains of the dead – is, in fact, a cinerary urn: it would have housed the ashes of the deceased after cremation. It's one of a number of other such urns (for another example, click here), depicted in this extraordinarily eye-catching anthropomorphising style. The lid, as we can see, has been shaped into a head, bearing a (stylised) portrait of the deceased; the fact that it's a woman being depicted is demonstrated by the holes in her earlobes, which would initially have carried earrings. Adding to the imitative style, the arms, extending from the handles of the jar either side, are articulated so as to be moveable – creating the impression that the figure is gesturing towards us from beyond the grave.
This is one of the most remarkable objects to survive from ancient Greece. It's a bronze helmet, typical of the style of the early fifth century BCE; but what makes it so unusual is that its owner has inscribed his name along the side. And it's not just any old name, either: it's the name of Miltiades, general of the Athenians and victor of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, one of the most famous and decisive battles in all history.
You might be able to make out his name, inscribed along the bottom lip of the helmet: ΜΙΛΤΙΑΔΕΣ, or MILTIADES in the Roman alphabet. Whether this is, in fact, the helmet of the Miltiades of Marathon fame isn't a hundred per cent certain: but the idea that the general who won the battle came to the greatest Greek sanctuary, at Olympia, and dedicated his helmet to Zeus has resonated with visitors to the site ever since it was discovered.
Listen and subscribe here:
It is important that, in our history of the classical world in 100 objects, we don't disregard marginal populations of the classical world, just because there are fewer objects attesting to their presence. Today's object will attest to the lives of the women of archaic Greece; in tomorrow's podcast, we will be looking at slavery in Athens, and how it was the slaves working in terrible conditions in mines who produced the silver to support the booming democracy.
The object above is a spindle whorl, part of the equipment that would have been used by most Athenian women to spin wool into thread. Spinning was one of the tasks which was seen as particularly appropriate for women; in fact, as far back as Homer's Iliad (c.750 BCE) we see Hector admonishing his wife Andromache to "return to the house, and attend to your work, the loom and the distaff". The distaff is pictured above as item a) in the diagram, a rod upon which the wool was gathered; it was then drawn off onto the spindle (item b)), which was spun in a circle to spin the thread. The whorl (item c)) was a heavy object, usually made of stone or clay, which weighted the spindle and increased the speed of the spin.
We're travelling back in time today – back to the Geometric Period of Greek art, in the so-called Dark Age. Since we saw the Lapis Niger inscription a few days ago, with the earliest surviving instance of Latin writing, I felt that we couldn't miss Nestor's Cup: one of the oldest surviving examples of writing in the Greek alphabet.
The cup was discovered at Pithekoussai, an ancient Greek site on the island of Ischia just off the western coats of Italy near Naples – one of the earliest Greek colonies in Italy. Decorated in a typical geometric pattern in black slip, with symmetric lines, shapes and patterns, it's the three-line inscription which is most interesting. The text, dating to 740 to 720 BCE, appears to have been written very shortly after the alphabet was introduced to Greece by trade contact with Phoenicia (the modern Levant) – and it also appears to be one of the first ever literary references, to Homer's Iliad.
The text runs like this (given first in classical orthography, and then in English translation):
Νέστορος [....] εὔποτ[ον] ποτήριο[ν]·
ὃς δ’ ἂν τοῦδε π[ίησι] ποτηρί[ου] αὐτίκα κῆνον
ἵμερ[ος αἱρ]ήσει καλλιστ[εφάν]ου Ἀφροδίτης.
(?) Nestor’s cup, good to drink from.
Whoever drinks from this cup, him straightaway
the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize.
The literary reference revolves around the description of Nestor's cup, mentioned in the Iliad book 11, lines 632-637. In a sense there's a joke being made here: while the cup of Nestor described in Homer is a fabulously costly object, made of gold with four decorated handles, this is a simple two-handled clay drinking cup. It's been suggested that the lines may have been written as part of a sympotic drinking game, where attendants at the symposium had to alternate taking turns in composing a line of hexameter poetry each. To me, however, the most suggestive thing about it is that our earliest evidence of writing in Greek contains both a high-flung reference to Homeric poetry, an appeal to Aphrodite (in the style of Sappho), and a joke: a wonderfully suggestive nod to the richness of the Greek textual tradition and its ability to survey all the different registers of human experience.