Ivory head of Philip II of Macedon, 4th century B.C., Ivory
Vergina Museum, Greece
We can't talk about the 4th century BCE without mentioning Alexander – but we can't mention Alexander without talking about his father, Philip II of Macedon. Philip was the king of the kingdom of Macedon, to the north of Greece, from 359 until 336 BCE, and it was Philip's vision of Macedonian expansion through Greece which was said to have developed the ambitions of his son, Alexander the Great. This small ivory head was discovered in the tomb of Philip II at Vergina in northern Greece, a fantastic archaeological discovery which we'll be exploring more in the next few days. It bears many of the traits which Alexander the Great's portraiture would later take on: the limpid upward gaze, suggesting intercourse with the divine; the slightly turned head; the full, sensuous mouth. When Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE, having placed most of the Greek city-states under Macedonian rule and turning his mind to a planned conquest of Persia, it was his son, Alexander, who would have to take up the mantle.
Votive Relief to Achilles and Thetis, about 350 B.C., Marble
78.1 × 132.1 × 7.6 cm (30 3/4 × 52 × 3 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
So far in our History of the Classical World in 100 Objects we've come across the heroes of ancient Greek myth and literature – Agamemnon, legendary king of Mycenae, was an early example. But we haven't yet seen a conspicuous feature of ancient Greek culture: hero cults.
The relief above, discovered in Thessaly, gives an example of the cult of a particular (and particularly popular) hero: Achilles. Achilles is pictured on the right, riding in a four-horse chariot with his mother, the goddess Thetis. On the left we see a line of worshippers waiting to greet the hero, wearing the wide-brimmed hats of travellers and accompanied by rams for sacrifice. The inscription beneath the relief gives us some idea of who might have dedicated this object – likely a votive relief in a sanctuary to Achilles, who was born and raised in Thessaly. We can make out the names Lakrates and Gephes – probably the dedicators – as well as a reference to the Achilleides, a religious group and cultic association who claimed descent from Achilles. (A similar group, the Homeridae, said that they were descended from the poet Homer himself.)
This sarcophagus lid is one of my favourite artefacts in the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. It's in fact one of many similarly executed sarcophagi from the Etruscan civilisation, showing husbands and wives embracing upon the lid of the tomb. The description on the MFA website tells us:
What this description – as useful as it is – doesn't capture, however, is both the incredible skill of the sculpting, and the emotional effect of the two figures represented here. To achieve the illusion of such a fine sheet draped over the couple, including the folded material and the subtle suggestion of their limbs beneath, is a real skill and a testament to the achievements of Etruscan art. At the same time, the locked gaze of the couple, and the way in which their arms knot around each other – hers on the back of his neck, his on her left shoulder – hints at something more than simply a stock representation of a deceased husband and wife. For me, it's one of those uncanny instances which I discussed during the podcast on the Doryphoros, where we're both made aware of the situated culture of the work of art, and, at the same time, find it speaking to us on a direct, emotional level that seems to transcend time and place.
As we move into the late Classical period with the 4th century BCE, we begin with a small marble figurine of Socrates. Although this figurine was probably sculpted well over 200 years after Socrates' death (and maybe more), I've chosen it because we need in our History of the Classical World to mention the death of Socrates in 399 BCE. Socrates was one of the most important philosophical figures of classical Athens – and indeed, one of the most important philosophers to have ever lived, thanks in large part to the writings of his student Plato. His trial on the charge of 'corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods of the state', and subsequent death sentence in 399 BCE, have often been seen to mark the end of the Athenian golden age (along, of course, with the surrender of Athens to Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE).
Socrates is described as being notoriously ugly, and the portraits of him that survive from the ancient world show him in a similar manner to the statuette above: pot-bellied, with a broad flat nose and balding head. To what extent this was an accurate representation — and whether or not Socrates was in fact as ugly as he was said to be, or if this was an early example of the classic opposition between brains and beauty — we will unfortunately never know.
#HOCW35: Bust of Pericles. From Tivoli, Italy. 2nd century CE Roman copy of a 5th century BCE Greek original.
Original attributed to Kresilas
Portrait bust of Pericles, 2nd century CE Roman copy of a 5th century BCE Greek original, Marble
Height: 58.42 cm
The British Museum, London
Today is our last day in the classical period of the 5th century BCE, and I thought there couldn't be a more fitting epitaph to the classical age of Athenian democracy than this bust of the statesman Pericles, under whose leadership the final form of the democratic state took shape, the Delian League was created (a tribute alliance which he effectively transformed into an Athenian empire), and the Parthenon was built.
As we saw with the statue of the Doryphoros earlier in this series, Greek bronze statues rarely survive, and are often only known to us because of Roman marble copies – like this one, a copy of a late 5th century BC bronze statue of Pericles attributed to the sculptor Kresilas. We can identify it as Pericles because of the Greek word inscribed beneath the bust: ΠΕΡΙΚΛΗΣ (Pericles). It was found at the Roman emperor Hadrian's villa in Tivoli, Italy. Hadrian was a notorious Hellenophile, and the presence of a bust of the most famous Athenian statesman in his country villa attests to his interest in modelling himself on his Greek forebears.
Welcome back to the History of the Classical World in 100 Objects blog/podcast! We've been focusing so far in our survey of classical Greece on the city which, for most of us, has become synonymous with Greece in the ancient world: Athens. But Greece was, in fact, at this time – and for a while after – not the unified country that we tend to think of, but rather, a conglomeration of small city-states, each with their own dialect, their own customs, and their own form of governance. So today we are moving from Athens, the birthplace of democracy, where we have been following the story of the defeat of the Persians, Pericles' radical building programme, the rise of classical art and Polykleitos' kanon, and the political turmoil of the Peloponnesian War — and turn instead to Athens' major rival for supremacy in this period: Sparta.
The figurine above is slightly earlier than the period we are currently looking at, but she exemplifies much of the culture clash between Athens and Sparta which would lead, ultimately, to the long-drawn-out Peloponnesian War at the end of the 5th century between these two Greek superpowers, and the final defeat of Athens by Sparta. Just over ten centimetres high, the statuette shows a girl running: her back leg bent, toes pressed into the ground to propel her forwards; her front foot arched as she springs ahead; her left hand holding up the hem of her chiton (tunic). Women in other ancient Greek city-states were largely forbidden from taking place in sports: in Athens, the ideal wife and mother, as Pericles points out in Thucydides' famous version of his funeral oration, gains good repute if she 'is least talked about among men, either for her good deeds or bad'. Another, later ancient historian goes even further: 'neither the arm nor the speech of the self-controlled woman should be made public, and she should be modest in her voice and guard it in the hearing of men outside the house, as it strips her naked; for in her speech can be seen her emotions, her character, and her disposition.'
But in Sparta, things were different. Women were, as many Athenian commentators report in shocked tones, allowed to compete in sports and to train alongside the men; the idea being that the stronger and fitter the Spartan mothers were, the stronger their sons (and thus, the soldiers of the state, who were made up entirely of Spartan citizens or Spartiatai). One well-known story about Spartan mothers goes that they would send their sons to battle with the dictum: 'Either with it, or on it', referring to the soldiers' shields – either the Spartiatai should return holding their shields and victorious in battle, or lying dead upon them. How much this characterisation of Spartan females is a figment of the male Athenian imagination (and fetishisation) we cannot know; but this statuette, with its lithe silhouette and lightness of step, provides us with a tantalising and important glimpse into Spartan culture.