9. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus

A Greek Benefactor and Murderer?
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South-west facing Odeon of Herodes Atticus – 2016
While out for a wander this January in Athens, I was reading the placard next to the wonderfully restored Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The placard mentioned that the great second-century Athenian benefactor, Herodes Atticus, had built it in honour of his beloved Regilla. How touching!
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Detail of the niches – 2016

 The theatre was built after 160 AD, out of local stone and a roof of expensive Lebanese cedar. What is immediately striking is that despite Herodes’ noble Greek ancestry, the theatre he commissioned was particularly Roman.

The stone wall backdrop which enclosed the theatre was of a Roman conception of theatre, not a Greek one. As in all theatre spaces in the ancient world, those of a privileged position were seated up front, with everyone else further away from the stage.

This seemingly small adaptation in theatre design – a Roman interpretation of Greek culture – was emblematic of the way Romans interacted with the Greek world. Something like a patronising mixture of appreciation and the desire to improve on their creations.Digital camera pictures 523When I returned home, I began looking into who this beloved woman was and the story behind the dapper-looking Greek who commissioned this glorious theatre on the south-west slope of the Acropolis. The answers to these questions were pretty surprising!

Herodes Atticus was of noble descent and of consular rank. Tracing his heritage to the half-sister of Cimon, a famous Athenian statesman, and of course to Theseus (the hero) and (sure, why not?) Zeus. Interestingly, his family was rife with incest, which luckily he managed to avoid.

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Bust of Herodes Atticus – wikipedia

His close relationship with the ‘Good Emperors’ carried through serving Hadrian as a prefect in the Province of Asia, then Antoninus Pius as tutor to his sons (later emperors themselves) Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. So respected and trusted was Herodes that he was given the wealthy and powerful relative of Empress Faustina the Elder as his bride. The family that Regilla came from was very well connected. Her dowry was impressive and family brought her significant power.

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Facing north – 2008
When they resettled in Greece, Regilla was part of the upper echelon of the Greek elite and welcomed into service as a priestess to Tyche and Demeter Chamyne (in Olympia). Another example of the 1% getting everything, right? Actually, yes. She was not only able to participate in very important sacred rites, as a priestess of Demeter Chamyne, she was the ONLY woman allowed at the Olympic Games.
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Artists’ reconstruction
Regilla, in her own name (not that of her male family members, which would have been the norm for powerful women to make dedications) paid to have a nymphaeum at Olympia with a bull statue which bore her dedication.
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Dedication bull by Regilla – Wikicommons

The niches in her nymphaeum were typical of Hellenistic benefactor statecraft. The families and notable descendants of the emperors Antoninus Pius and Hadrian were represented, as were their wives and children. Regilla commissioned an impressive statement of dynasty and royal patronage placed beside busts of herself, Herodes, and their ancestors and children.
All of this looks like a pretty clear juxtaposition of power, perhaps making an ideological correlation to suggest that her dynasty was of the Emperors of Greece. In all ways they acted in the historic ways in which the Hellenistic kings had; and with the intimate support of the Roman emperors, there was no external military threat for them to worry about.

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View of Olympia – 2008
The statesmen, scholar and benefactor followed in the footsteps of the Hellenistic kings before him, sponsoring public works and art all over the Greek world. Following a similar pattern of linking one’s ancestry to divinity, and bestowing generous and beautiful civic structures, Herodes Atticus fits well into the tested and true history of benefactors and the City of Athens. A non-exhaustive list of some of the building projects they engaged in were aqueducts, baths, theatres and stadiums throughout Greece.

All this sounds well and good, but why the titillating title?

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Engraving by Piranesi of the supposed tomb / monument to Regilla – Wikipedia art commons

Though the busy couple traveled throughout Greece and Herodes received many honours, as did Regilla, something quite dark happened. Significantly (and stop me if you’ve heard this one), Regilla was heavily pregnant when she was kicked to death in her stomach. Very Nero-esqe. What followed is described in Sarah B. Pomeroy’s ‘The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity’. Regilla’s brother brought suit in Rome, where Herodes’ acquittal was influenced by his former student, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Following this, Herodes commissioned many building projects in his wife’s name.

Flipping through my “Oxford Archaeology of Greece”, Herodes’ name continues to pop up all over the country.Picture 051

His contributions to the architectural landscape of Roman-controlled Greece were impressive and varied. It seems to me, and other writers on the subject, that the building programme that followed her death looks like a guilty man playing the penitent to clear his name. Further, Herodes’ building projects with Regilla were exemplary of a desire to build their dynasty and be viewed through the same lensesas the Hellenistic kings once had, by leaving their mark through public benefaction all over the Greece.

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