In this week’s episode of Two Friends Talk History, Zofia is joined by Dr Sam Ellis, a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at the Chair of Ancient History in the University of Mannheim where his project focuses on the use of language to legitimise political power in the Greek polis. Sam is an expert in the language of tyranny in antiquity and the study of monocratic power in the Greek polis from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period.
In this episode, we explore how the language used to frame the actions of sole rulers has created a construct of ‘tyrant’ that remains with us today.
Greek attitudes towards tyranny are the topic of this week’s podcast. It may surprise listeners to hear that these attitudes changed over time; from the early stages of the Greek polis (the city-state), the ruling aristocracy ruled as a group over the citizen body, with the eventual rise of some aristocrats into positions of sole-rulership in the mid-7th century BCE.
These early sole-rulers tended to have popular political support and were generally viewed favourably among the citizens.
We discuss the Peisistratids of Athens in the podcast, one such family, whose founder, Peisistratus, was popularly received by the people for setting up law courts and investing funds into public projects like water fountains and religious buildings. The charismatic leadership of a sole-ruler could spur a relationship of political control through public support that rewarded the ruler with many types of honours. As we discuss, these types of relationships were precarious and could turn into tyrannicide, as was the case of the assassination of Peisistratus’ son, Hipparchus (brother of the sole-ruler, Hippias). The assassination was carried out by Harmodius and Aristogeiton and remained a famous story replicated across visual media for centuries afterwards.
The Syriskos Painter’s stamnos, ‘Death of the tyrant Hipparchus’, 475-470 BCE (and illustration of actions); Roman copy of Aristogeiton and Harmodius sculpture.
The inspiration for the episode art was the sculptural pair of tyrannicides, originally commissioned by Antenor after the establishment of Athenian democracy. It was taken as war booty during the Persian Wars in 480 BCE, then returned after the fall of the Persian Empire by one of Alexander’s generals-turned-king. The sculpture was so famous that it inspired Roman copies, of which several survive; the most famous of which is in the National Archaeological museum of Naples.
To learn more about the language, metaphors and stereotypes of ancient tyranny, check out the episode here:
You can get in touch with Dr Ellis on the Universität Mannheim website here, or you can follow him on Academia.edu. Sam is also on Instagram & Twitter @SamEllis1993. Seriously, check out his Instagram. The photos are stunning.
If you would like to check out some of Dr Ellis’ publications:
Ellis, S. (forthcoming). ‘Legitimising sole power in the Greek polis: A New Institutionalist approach’ in M. Canevaro & M. Barbato (eds.) New Institutionalism and Greek Institutions, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Ellis, S. (2021). ‘Greek Conceptualisations of Persian Traditions – Gift-giving and Friendship in the Persian Empire’, Classical Quarterly 71.1,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 77–88.
Ellis, S. (forthcoming). Review of C. de Lisle (2021). Agathokles of Syracuse: Sicilian Tyrant and Hellenistic King. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Bryn Mawr Classical Review.
For further reading:
Brock, R. (2013). Greek Political Imagery: From Homer to Aristotle. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Luraghi, N. (2013). The Splendors and Miseries of Ruling Alone. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH.
Börm, H. (ed.). (2015). Antimonarchic Discourse in Antiquity. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
This week on Two Friends Talk History, Zofia interviews Dr Elke Close about Polybius, an Achaean statesman, teacher, and historian from the Hellenistic period. Polybius was active in Megalopolis at the tail end of the period of Greek independence following the wars of the Hellenistic kings and the rise of the Roman empire. His surviving text, Histories, has provided scholars with unparalleled evidence for the social and political changes that led to the changing balance of power in the Mediterranean in the second century BCE.
From the introduction of Polybius’ Histories, we are told of the weight and significance of his treatise for readers to understand the rise to power of Rome, while synthesising the events more broadly around the Mediterranean.
But all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner, but making this the beginning and end of their labour, have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for political actions is the study of History.
His aims are outlined, and through his unique position as Achaean statesman and hostage in Rome, Polybius had intimate access as a teacher and client to one of the most powerful Roman families, the Cornelii Scipiones. Due to his proximity to power and usefulness, Polybius rode shotgun on several watershed moments of the Republic.
To keep my sanity and to take some art breaks during this time, I am making colouring sheets that are free to print, share and enjoy. I will be uploading printable PDFs here, and posting images to my social media pages. Since we are all staying in doors for the good of the realm/humanity, we might as well fill some of that time having some fun and learning about ancient art and archaeology!
Everyone who has grown up on Disney will feel strongly about these characters and how they imagine they can or should be re-imagined. This is a bit of fun and I selected the mash-ups that made the most sense to me.
If you are an educator, practitioner or just curious about these or any of my other work, please feel free to get in touch!
The close of a new decade is an inevitably reflective time. The last time the decade turned, I was in my twenties finishing my undergraduate degrees in Vancouver. It feels like a memoir’s worth of writing could barely sum up the last ten years, so I will stick to just one year. 2019 was possibly the most had some of the biggest highs and lows I have gone through in my academic and personal life. Perhaps it is fitting then that at the end of this decade, it was time to go through another life-changing gauntlet of challenges and opportunities.
Travel and Fieldwork
It was a big year for fieldwork. Luckily, that is my reason-d’être for travel. I discovered a few years ago that travelling with a question in your mind makes the whole experience richer and satisfying when you can answer those questions. When I started researching Isis and the Egyptian cults, it became quite consuming and fortunately for me, dispersed throughout most of the Roman Empire. This has been a blessing in most cases, and this year, with one of my dearest friends, we were able to combine forces and research topics to do fieldwork together across much of Greece.
Germany! Mainz and Frankfurt
In January, I popped over to Germany for a weekend to go check out the temple of Isis in Mainz. This site was excavated during the building of a shopping mall, which sits on top of it. A shared temple with Magna Mater, this city had some really great archaeological museums and things to explore. I used to travel alone a lot more, and scooting off for a few days on my own was a lot of fun.
My recent post about Padua highlighted some of the things that made it a delicious visit to one of my favourite countries, but for me, one really lovely part of the trip was getting to spend time around the kitchen table with the family of a dear friend. I miss that part of family life a lot as an ex-pat. I love spending time with the families of friends, feeling the warmth of their love and bonds of family, even doing normal things like grocery shopping and having a cup of tea.
Greece and Cyprus
Travelling together for a few weeks was a blast and we covered a lot of ground. Laying down groundwork for a future co-publication, hopefully, we learned a lot about each other’s research and where it intersects! Greece is a country that formed mythical impressions in our minds from studying these places over so many years, and getting the opportunity to drive to many sites here together was a dream come true.
With some careful planning and Jedi-level budgeting, Briana and I crushed it: Nicosia, Paphos, Palaepafos, Limassol, Mykonos, Delos, Thessalonike, Philippi, Amphipolis, Vergina, Dion, Volos, Nemea, Mycenae, Corinth, Athens, Epidaurus, Pella, Marathon, Nafplio, Sounion and Eleusis!
With so many beautiful locations, and fascinating material culture, I will definitely be posting some cool snaps and historical tidbits about these places in 2020.
Italy: Roadtripping and the Aeclanum Excavation
For the first time since I started going to Italy to try and learn new skills (excavating or public archaeology), I had the good fortune of jointly renting a car with several friends for the duration of our time there. Liberating and exhilarating would be the best summary of that experience. We were able to finally see some of the surrounding areas of Passo di Mirabella, which are incredibly beautiful. I am so grateful for the time I was able to spend with these ladies trying incredible foods, splashing around in creeks, going to ruins and museums and feeling a bit like a kid again!
Launching a graphic novella in Italy!
Vita Romana: at the baths of a Aeclanum was launched this summer in Passo di Mirabella. It was a labour of love that I am super proud of. Completing a project like this was exciting, and working with Ambra Ghiringhelli and Josef Souček- two creative and talented scholars- was so rewarding! With Vita Romana we learned a lot of things about a collaborative creative process, and it would be really cool to work on other stories about Roman daily life!
For the first year in my life, making art was a significant component of my earnings. I still make silly fun things ( #ImSorryChris ) for myself, but between small commissions, selling posters, paintings in Mariachi, and my public archaeology work this was my most successful year as an artist!
Our west coast wedding
One fateful day in the summer of 2017 I proposed to my husband, over a beer in front of the Pantheon in Rome. After a week on holiday of trying to find the perfect moment and location, everything went wrong. Comically wrong. After a cringe-worthy number of failed attempts, the end result was after a week of nearly asking Chris to marry me, I just went for it with a spontaneous and slightly rambling proposal.
Two years later we had our big day in Vancouver, surrounded by friends and family in a gorgeous location, we tied the knot. As a testament to how ridiculous I am and how accommodating my husband is, I insisted on sneaking in all sorts of archaeology and classics-themed elements into the wedding.
We were touched and grateful to have family members and friends from all over the world who joined us for the wedding. My new family, from the UK, got to explore the province I love so much.
With hot and sunny weather August weather, the guests were subjected to volcanic heat during the ceremony! It was a truly happy day, and absolutely impossible without the support of my mom, sisters (Alex and Anaise), father and my tribe of women warriors, mothers and friends. It felt like all these hearts and minds got me to where I am today, pursuing the things that I am most passionate about, married to a wonderful, brilliant man who enriches my life while I chase my dreams.
Following the wedding, there was no rest for the wicked with escape rooms to solve, babies to cuddle and some wee excursions to spend some time with my family. In a exciting opportunity to come to the Sunshine Coast by a private sea plane! We were over the moon to be invited to this beautiful area and hang with my super lovely aunts and uncles. Spending time with friends and loved ones this summer was so restorative and the best part of the whole time in Canada.
Upon our triumphant return to the United Kingdom, we had the ultimate penthouse wedding reception with our incredible community of friends, coleagues and family. It was marvellous.
Manchester & Liverpool
Drawing this year to a close, we decided that connecting with some of our friends who made their way up to celebrate at our reception would be the best way to spend some free time (lol, free time) this winter. We had a magic weekend in Manchester with some beloved friends and colleagues I met in 2013 during our Masters! Manchester is unarguably one of the coolest cities in the UK. It’s got the architectural edge and multi-culturalism that reminds me of Vancouver. With a quick afternoon trip to Liverpool to do some research, we got to cross that city off the list as well. It is always such a pleasure spending time with our pals in Manchester.
As a little treat for ourselves, Chris and I wanted to spend a week in Belgium. Having visited about two years ago to the day, we were stoked to stay with our lovely friends and colleagues in Leuven. The talented Dr Close (Hellenistic History Instagram) and her lovely partner Stijn.
New Year, Who Dis?
It’s hard to believe all of these things happened within the last 12 months alongside school, work, project work at Aeclanum and so on. Like a last grasp at the hectic-life that used to signal to me that I was working hard enough, if I was too busy to blink, surely it meant I was working as hard as possible. Working hard, but perhaps, not working smart. This year was a kind of awakening. For many years I believed I had some sort of super-human ability to multi-task and problem-solve, whatever else was going on in my life, I could get it done. Whatever ‘it’ was. I would just sleep less, or socialize less, or work during other work…the mind boggles how all this made sense. What I discovered, rather late, was that this balancing act wasn’t balanced at all. It was a very typical high-achiever’s cocktail for burnout. Even projects and activities that gave me great pleasure, if they were not my thesis, then it had to go. Coinciding with moving house, this fall was all about starting anew and positively.
This year I am trying something new and sustainable: in life, in art and school, I will pare everything down to a focused and balanced year ahead.
Athens and Hadrian’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated.
The special place Athens held in the minds of the Romans, due to their history and influence in the Mediterranean, was significant. But more broadly, it was the artistic, scientific and cultural accomplishments of the Hellenic people which the Romans were ravenous for.
Building designs, architectural elements, literary styles (poetry and playwriting) and painting techniques, were all introduced to Romans after several having enslaved and looted the Greek cities of Corinth and Epeiros. The goods were paraded in long processions into the city of Rome exposed many for the first time to the finer things Greek culture had to offer.
The legacy of this influx of Greek art into the Roman landscape and cultural sphere meant that those wealthy enough to possess these items were also possessed by them. The drive to collect, copy and emulate the high art of Greece was strong. As with art, literary and other cultural trends were brought in and filtered up the social hierarchy of Rome.
Farenese -style Herakles replica
As Rome took over politically and militarily, they brought in droves of Greeks into the capital city, though most initially were slaves. These slaves could be highly educated teachers, artisans, courtesans, writers and labourers. Fashionable aristocratic households increasingly required high-quality Greek tutors for their children, which would obviously influence the tastes of their students. Eventually, we end at a point where the Roman elite were importing tutors from Greece to educate their sons and daughters in the language, philosophical and rhetorical practices.
Isis Pelagia – Museum of Egyptology Turin – 2016
The impact of Roman tastes in art can be seen in the photos above and below. A topic unto itself, is the Roman art trade – something which I am very interested in! However, as an example of what it actually meant to have a powerful empire capture and integrate Greek art and ideas into their own is highlighted through these works. As Italian families grew wealthier through empire building, they could afford the purchase of fine works of Greek provenance, or an Italian-made replica. The above examples, cargo from shipwrecks, illustrate the ocasional hazard of transportation.
Even in their fractured states below, the Roman copies show an exquisite attention to detail and rendering of Greek styles. The costs for commissioning works such as these and their transport must have been a sizeable investment!
Crouching Venus – Museo Nazionale Romano – 2015
As mentioned in the previous post, Greeks in Rome could achieve incredibly high status and impact the values and development of future emperors. One such student was the Emperor Hadrian. Educated in the literary traditions of Greece, with notable emphasis on the visual arts, Hadrian was exposed to an appreciation of Greek culture which resulted in exquisite building projects we can see today.
A Roman copy of the Discuss Thrower (Discobolus) – Museo Nazionale Romano 2015
The influence of the ‘Romance of Athens’ on Hadrian, can be seen in his politics and building programme. Hadrian instituted a Panhellenion, and made Athens the capital city of this assembly of the Greek city-states, under Roman rule. This assembly was perhaps an attempt to hearken back to the period of a unified Greece emblematic of the 5th century BCE, their classical heyday. For political expedience and cohesion this move makes sense, but there is also an element of romanticising or idealising the Classical period of Greece by Hadrian, the philhellene (lover of Greekness).
The emphasis of Roman investment into the architectural landscape of Greece had a political motivation behind it. The Romans were basically carrying on the policy of Hellenistic eugeritism.
Having control over powerful former empires and influential cities enriched Rome’s cultural and political capital. Affixing their brand, sometimes directly over-top of a pre-existing architectural and social spaces in this ancient city, allowed them to write themselves into the history of Greece – a history which no one could deny was impressive and marked the most important events in the collective consciousness, often blurring between myth and reality.
Temple of Olympian Zeus toppled column – 2016
Temple of Olympian Zeus (the Olympieion)
I have been lucky enough to have a few encounters with this temple, and it never fails to impress. The massive and intricate Corinthian capitals and fluted columns are familiar examples of what people expect when they go to archaeological sites of the Mediterranean. However, these columns speak to the Roman habit of embeddingtheir brand on to the architectural landscape of Greece as it linked itself into the story of pre-democratic Athens.
Corinthian topped-columns -2016
The temple was built on the foundations of a pre-existing sacred outdoor sanctuary and temple to Zeus. The previous temple structure, built in around 520 BCE by the tyrant co-rulers of Athens, Hippias and Hipparchus, had commissioned a more monumental temple than had existed previously under their father, Peisistratus. They demolished their father’s temple, and set to the task of building a more magnificent temple.
However, their lofty building programme would remain unfinished. The young tyrants were ousted after a salacious and political scandal turned Athenian sentiment against them. In a series of ‘Telemondo’-esque unrequited love triangle developments, Hipparchus coveted Harmodius, who was already Aristogeiton’s lover. Insinuations and insults abounded on all sides, leading to the two lovers murdering Harmodius and later being killed themselves. Hippias was ultimately overthrown in a Spartan-supported coup, and made way for the democratic government in Athens to take shape.
Temple of Olympian Zeus – 2016
Simply fascinating narrative, you may say. Well, this series of events and all of the moral meaning read into it over time influenced how closely linked the sacred space was with these shameful tyrants. Thucydides and Aristotle discuss these events, with the impression that such massive building projects are vainglorious and lead in turn to loss of fortune and hubris.
Hubris, which brings us to the next phase of the history of this temple – the Olympieion. Whilst Hadrian set to work in the 120s CE on rebuilding the supermassive temple to Olympian Zeus, which was completed and dedicated in 131 CE. Hadrian, who at times was believed to call himself ‘Olympian’ had an altar to himself installed here as well.
Leads on to wonder who precisely was being worshiped here?
The Arch of Hadrian
This arch is not the triumphal sort you see in Rome, where the Emperor or senate would commission for the arch for an impressive military victory, but rather, this arch was an honorific from the Panhellenes or the Athenians themselves.Situated next to the Olympeion, the Arch of Hadrian has quite a few stylistically complex elements and details which are exemplary of Athenian architecture done in a Roman-style. Created from solid Pentelic marble, Corinthian capitals atop pilasters among other features, are representative of architectural imagery in Roman wall painting. There were sculptures in the central niche, it has been suggested, which were of Hadrian and Theseus. This is not such an odd paring when you consider the inscriptions.
The inscription towards the Acropolis (below) states “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus”, who was part of the mythical founding. The other side facing the Olympeion reads, “This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus”. These inscriptions denoted the physical and symbolic relationships of the Athenians; their glorious mythical past and their Roman present were delineated by this liminal space.
This, like other examples of eugeritism (benefaction), is how the reciprocal relationship worked. It was expected that they offer honours to Hadrian in this fashion, but that did not necessarily mean everyone was happy with the Romans having control in Greece.Hadrian’s Library
Situated in the Roman Agora, on the north-slope below the Acropolis, Hadrian’s library would have been a richly decorated and comfortable centre of intellectual pursuits. The great classics of Athenian theatre were housed in this, perhaps the greatest, of Hadrianic homages to the city that he loved so much.
Inner-east wall under reconstruction – 2008
East-facing outwards – 2016
West-facing outwards – 2008
The artistic elements that still remain betray Hadrian`s tendency to construct archaising monuments. A mixture of Pentelic marble, and Karystos marble and was comprised of many rooms – one of the most luxurious buildings in Athens. It may be hard to imagine given the images you see, but this ruin held gilded ceilings, painted walls, statues and a hundred columns of Phrygian marble according to the Pausanias.
Library Complex – 2008
Library Complex – 2016
The complex overall had decorative features and spaces for elite academic pursuits. Perhaps Hadrian wanted to re-invest in Athens, renew it as the cultural and intellectual capital of the Mediterranean, supplanting the position which Alexandria had held for centuries with its Great Library.
Tower of the WindsOne of the key buildings in the Roman Agora of Athens, which continues to impress tourists on the north side of the Acropolis, is the Tower of the Winds. As with the other buildings in Athens, it was built of that familiar Pentelic marble into a twelve-meter high clock tower. The building had just been restored with the scaffolding removed before I arrived, which was excellent timing to see a very ornate and beautiful ‘horologion’, or timepiece.
The building we see today, as in all things, is not complete. In antiquity, it would have been topped with a bronze (possibly) weathervane of Triton that would tell a passerby the direction the wind was blowing. If this seems irrelevant to modern viewers, we should always try to take into account that every piece of technology available at the time was as good as could be hoped for. In the seafaring culture of the Hellenes (Greeks), any advantage or extra measures taken for the weather and time was a useful tool.
The Doric GatewayThe Roman Agora shows another product of the Italic investment in the city of Athens. Marking the entrance to the west of the Agora, it bears a dedication to ‘Athena the Originator’, not unlike the other monuments in Athens. However, the Roman gifted through the generosity of Julius Caesar and his son, the Emperor Caesar Augustus.
Indulging me for a moment, let’s unpack that inscription. Augustus’ ascension followed Julius Caesar’s death, a surprise adoption, which ultimately led to Augustus’ years’ long civil war to wrestle control over the Roman Republic. As Augustus defeated his competitors, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, and thousands of Italian dead from both sides of the conflict, he sought to rebuild and polish his image. Further discussion about the impact and persona of Emperor Augustus will follow, but for now, you can rightly imagine, feelings were mixed among the survivors of the war and the purges which followed. Families loyal to the losing side were eliminated and embraced dependent upon their willingness to acquiesce to Augustus.
Part of the importance of smoothing over relations rested in the image he tried to sell, was to gain legitimacy.
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It has often been my inclination when in Athens to sketch the monuments and buildings, whether the drawings came out a bit wonky or not. If you look at the archaeological landscape of Athens, much of what you see was commissioned by the Romans. The Roman additions to the Athenian landscape have some incredibly beautiful examples of second century BCE imperial architecture, with emperors like Hadrian paying homage through benefaction to the heyday of Greek power.The Antigonid’s took over leadership of Macedon and Greece following the end of Alexander the Great’s family line, and successfully wielded the same ideology to justify their control over the Greeks: ‘protectors of Greek freedom’, an iron fist in a velvet glove so to speak; they controlled Greece through benevolent subjugation. Through the general practice of eugaritism (benefaction for honours), the Greeks were given beautiful buildings, festivals, and money in return for obeisance to Macedonian authority. For their own part, the Greeks had spent the last few hundred years restlessly under the yoke of the Macedonians, who they considered barely civilized.
The Antigonid’s power waned as the burgeoning Roman Empire began to orbit around Greece. After generations of skirmishes, battles and dynastic struggles, their depleted resources and weakness allowed a small wedge to open up for the canny Italian republic.
Playing the powers of the Mediterranean against each other and their respective leagues, the Romans effectively weakened them and loosened the Antigonid kings’ grip on their territories. Over time, any political disagreements, wars and finances had to be presented to the Romans for approval and action. Rome’s role in Greece in this period is perhaps it is better understood as a macro-level of benefactor to the Hellenic people, but with massive and tangled strings attached.
The Greek city-states chafed under this control. A last play for self-determination led the Greek city-states to throw their weight behind the pretender to the partitioned Macedonian throne, Perseus of Macedon. After a series of wars, aptly called the Macedonian Wars, culminating in the defeat of the allied Greeks under Perseus in 146 BCE, Greek independence gave way to foreign rule officially, though they were still left to govern themselves nominally. Macedonian cities fared less well however as a result of the war, and were depopulated.
Officially annexing Macedonia and making it a Roman Province, the landscape of power was irrevocably changed in Greece forever. As in most political takeovers, the elites of the conquered peoples are not slow to see the turning tide, and are often installed in important political positions if they are complicit in securing a smooth(ish) submission. Wealthy Greeks could still wield power, as in the case with Herodes Atticus, but they answered to the Romans.
While there is infinitely more to say about the transition of power between the Hellenistic period into the Roman, I will try not to throw it at you all at once. For the purposes of this blog, we can dip our toes into the mire when it suits, and hopefully the obfuscated picture of this complex period of history will form cohesive shapes.
This transition affected the Athenians positively and disastrously at times. Perhaps the Athenians’ position historically as cultural and imperial power over the Mediterranean awarded them a nod of respect from the Romans. Arguably however, not much had changed for the Greeks, as they were controlled again by foreign powers, except gone was the pretense that they were free.
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!
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.When 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.
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, Regilla, as his bride. The family that Regilla came from was very well connected. Her dowry was impressive and family brought her significant power.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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; 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.
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.
The Hellenistic period, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the period of time between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE (pictured below) and the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. This is a complex and nuanced period of time, with a previously unseen exchange of ideas, peoples and goods between the kingdoms of the Mediterranean. Rather than write a grueling chapter, I will say a few things briefly for now, and jump into this period more as I go along.
Fundamental to understanding why there were kings, and other powerful men and women building monuments and civic buildings in Greece, specifically in Athens, is discussing how benefaction worked in the ancient world. Hellenistic kings sought to be perceived by their Greek subjects as benefactors of their cities, for which Greek citizens gave them honours. This reciprocal transaction of inscriptions and proclamations of honours for benefactions, or more symbolic rewards, established the legitimacy that the kings needed, and in turn continued the cultural autonomy of the Greek citizens.
In tangible terms, this could take the form of a king, say Eumenes II of Pergamon, building a massive stoa (covered walkway/shopping arcade) for the leisure and enjoyment of Athenians. Eumenes II, in return, is possibly given an inscription and official proclamation that his patronage of Athens is appreciated, and they acknowledge him as a powerful ally and friend of the Greeks. Seems like an uneven exchange, does it not?
A defining feature of the period was the ongoing warfare and rivalry between the Hellenistic kings. Their kingdoms were composed of the partitioning of Alexander the Great’s spear-won territories. The problem that these generals of Alexander faced was that they were not princes or kings in their own right. Sure, they could claim a connection to the famous world conqueror and construct their reputation and dynasties, but there was nothing inherent in being a descendant of a Macedonian general that would necessarily dissuade the Greeks to revolt against them.
In fact, quite the opposite. The Greeks had fought against the encroaching Macedonian power as it had grown following the end of the Peloponnesian wars in 430 BCE. Even Alexander and his father, Phillip II, had to walk a fine line on occasion when dealing with the Greeks. The relationship of benefaction, illustrated by the stoas, on the surface appears as other empires doing homage to Athens, forms part of an intersection between the idea of Greek independence and the reality of their domination by the Macedonians and later Romans. The careful negotiation of power between the new rulers and their subjects was facilitated by the perception of mutual benefit.
Stoa of Eumenes
Eumenes II (who ruled from 197 – 159 BCE.) had a contentious reign, with plots against his life (as was typical). At one point, a rumor spread about his untimely death, and his brother Attalos II, was hailed as king of Pergamon and married his brothers widow. Once the truth was revealed that Eumenes was still alive, rather than causing a civil war, Attalos abdicated and returned his new wife back to his borther. Amazingly, they carried on as before until Eumenes’ eventual death when his brother once more took the reigns of empire, married his brothers widow again, and held up his promise to pass on the kingdom to his brother’s son upon his death. This could be the least toxic Hellenistic dynasty in history.
Built on the south slope of the Acropolis, between the Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, this stoa was a decadent promenade and one of the most costly benefactions which the Athenians received from a king of Pergamon. It is likely this stoa was designed by the same architect as that of Attalos II.
As in all things, location is key. The stoa served the Athenians going to the theatre, as a respite from the sun.
Stoa of Attalos
Attalos II of Pergamon (rule from 159 – 138 BCE.), who commissioned its construction, was the inheritor to the Attalid dynasty. Remember all that preamble about the reciprocal behavior of Hellenistic kings? To understand why half of the buildings and statues that we see in Athens are even there, you have to understand why non-Greeks spent the money and time to put them there. The Atallids were building their empire from the collapse of the Lysimachian empire. Where Lysmachus’ empire had created legitimacy in the wake and division of Alexander the Greats’ conquered lands through aggressive military exploits, marrying royal heirs and alliances with the other successor kings, once his territories were conquered, what remained was divided.
The Attalid dynasts needed to create some quick and culturally relevant links to power to legitmise their rule. The centre of their power base was the great Turkish city of Pergamon.
Built between 159 – 138 BCE., the stoa of Attalos II was a high end shopping centre. The two-storied collonaded stoa has two architectural orders: the ‘Doric order’ was used for the exterior colonnade, and the ‘Ionic order’ was used for the interior colonnade. As with other Hellensitic building projects of the time, the stoa was a very large and elaborate – a statement piece.
Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus
Considered to be the first theatre in the world, it was used to honour the god of wine, revelry and theatre, Dionysus. Prior to anyone getting on with the show, a jaunty sacrifice of a bull was needed to kick off proceedings and purify the theatre. The festival of the Dionysia was celebrated here, with some of the biggest names in Classical literature of the age: Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Aeschylus.
That is incredible to me is that you can actually stand in the spot where some of the most famous plays in literature were performed, in the shadow of the Acropolis. Tradition has it that the first tragedy was performed at the Dionysia by actor-playwright Thespis (Thespis- thespian…see what they did there?) in the early 530s BCE.There were several phases of the Theatre of Dionysus, commencing with wooden seating in the 6th century BCE. The theatre is currently in pretty rough shape, though reconstruction work was completed between 2009 – 2015. The main problem, as with most buildings from antiquity, was that much of the stone was pilfered and used in other buildings nearby, or possibly carried off to be burned down in lime kilns.
The Theatre of Dionysus held significance for the Athenians’ sense of identity and history. The famous plays, still studied by students today, were a popular feature on this stage, even several hundred years after the initial opening night.
The presence of the past was notable, even during the Roman period of control over Athens, and this theatre is an interesting case study of a ‘classical nostalgia’ which everyone since the Romans has been guilty of when considering Athens. It has been suggested by scholars that the dearth of new material in the Hellenistic and Roman period in Athens, coupled with the frequent re-staging of the greats by Aechylus and Euripides, can be interpreted as savvy business decisions by elites to invest money in revivals of Athenian theatre for which benefactors could be certain of quality and popular acclaim. Rather than making the riskier financial decision to invest in the support of new plays, which perhaps cut too closely to home (really reflecting the loss of autonomy felt by Greeks), instead the attention was focused on a golden age where their independence was trumpeted and powerful.
The Monument of Lysikrates
Built around 333/334 BCE, this interesting dedicatory monument speaks to a time which is perhaps difficult for us in the modern era to imagine. A time when, wealthy patrons could put on an impressive show for the citizens of Athens, and through their sponsorship of plays, compete against other wealthy elites for honours. Awarded to the choregos, who was responsible for the training and sponsoring of the chorus in dramatic contests held in the Dinonysia, this is the only existing example of remaining in Athens today. Sculptures like this, would have been crowned with a bronze tripod which no longer survives. The limestone podium is topped with a cylindrical tholos of Pentelic marble, and six Corinthian columns which are topped by eight acanthus leaves.
Apparently, the Corinthian capital was used for the first time on the exterior of decorative structure or building. It would not be until three hundred years later until the Corinthian ‘order’ became a recurring order in Rome. This type of column capital would go on to become the preeminent Roman capital type. The change of the governance of the Mediterranean would shift, favouring the rising strength of Italy. The Roman period of Athens follows similar pathways towards controlling Greeks through benefactions
and building projects.
The perception and goodwill of the public would be an ongoing preoccupation of the elites and leaders in Greece and Italy moving forward.
The story of the Erechtheion was one of constant change. Built to replace the Old Temple of Athena, though not atop its foundations, it accommodated several cults in the same space. The building’s namesake was the hero and foster-child of Athena, Erechtheus. The temple was also dedicated to Athena, Poseidon, Hephaistos, and the hero Boutes – all worshiped in the same space.
If you have been counting along, that is now three temples to Athena on the Acropolis. This temple offers an interesting glimpse at what was going on in Athens as it was building an empire. Pericles and other elites of Athensbrought together a mixture of local spaces routed heavily in the foundation mythology of the city and it’s heroes, and built up expensive, impressive buildings around them. The temple is on a slope (as you can see above) which sees the west and north side three metreslower than the southeast portion of the temple.The building size was reduced as a result of the shortage in funds during the Peloponnesian War, and the Caryatids placement hid the change in design.
The architectural features of the building are really quite unique, in beauty and creativity Phidias out-did himself. The decoration programme included gilded ornamental work, inset glass beads and bronze work. The design incorporated multiple levels, sections and marbles.
The frieze (not visible) which was made of dark Eleusinian limestone and the temple was constructed from Pantelic marble. The frieze’s subject matter is unknown, but an inscription recorded payments to the tradesmen who carried out the work.
The female figures which line the porch are called Caryatids. Though made most famous by their presence on the Erechtheion, Caryatids had been an architectural feature in other sacred sites in Greece; during the Archaic period there were possibly other buildings with standing female columns, most notably in Delphi. These Ionic columns carved to look like young women is pretty spectacular by anyone’s standards. The original Caryatids have been moved and restored, using state of the art technology, in the New Acropolis Museum. For quite some time they had been under restoration, but you could view the work being carried out. While visiting in 2016, I was able to walk right up to them (which you cannot do with the replicas), and they were stunning.
This cultic complex is an interesting oddity. It drew together many aspects that Athenians could use to define themselves; their foundation myths involved gods and local heroes, and all were represented within the Erechtheion.It was created in the period which followed ahistoric clash of cultures between the Persians and Greeks,and throughout the period of its creation the growing city-state of Athens developed into the imperial power it would belauded as for the next two thousand years.
Walking upwards along the processional way, passing the Temple to Athena Nike and under the Propylaea, the real feast for the eyes stands before you – the Parthenon. It is a building so thoroughly embedded in our collective imaginations through all forms of media, that seeing it evokes something in everyone.
My impression of the Parthenon has changed with each encounter. When I was 18 years old I could appreciate the elegance, but lacked any real understanding. At 24, when I returned back in 2008, much more was visible and my understanding of it was enriched by four years of studying Art History, Classics and Archaeology. I would have to try very hard not to be impressed. I sat and awkwardly sketched what my poor draftsman’s hand could barely grasp, but I was drawn to draw. Most recently, as a travel-wise woman in my 30s, I could appreciate the nuances at play within the monumental building of power, politics and art.
The painstaking nature of this current methodology of restoration work deserves comment. Previous restoration work in done in the 19th and 20th century led to problems which specialists are now trying to repair (wrong pieces were fit together and corrosive materials which were unknowingly unsuitable were also used).
The current mandate for repair work is to map out each stone to the smallest detail, and any structure that is assembled has to be done with an eye for future restoration (meaning, nothing that is done now cannot be undone). The slow pace of work might annoy some members of the public who wish to view the building in all of it’s glory, but preservation with a long-term view is obviously a worthwhile endeavour. The creation of this temple dedicated to Athena began in 447 B.C.E. and lasted right up to 432 B.C.E, built atop the previous “Pre-Parthenon” also destroyed by the Persians in 480 B.C.E. Under Pericles, Phidias designed a monumental Athena statue that once stood in the Parthenon, and the sculptural motifs along the metopes and pediments and frieze, though the architectural design was Callicrates and Ictinos.
Work on the Parthenon was slowed and interrupted by the outbreak of the Peloponnesian Wars, beginning 431 B.C.E., and ending nearly thirty years later. While the temple was dedicated to Athena, but also functioned as the state treasury. It bears contemplation that following the defeat of the Persians and the enrichment of Athens, they developed building projects which were all linked to their mythical patron and founding myths of the city. Even as hostilities rose between their main rival, Sparta, which ultimately led to a devastating war which divided all the Greek city-states against each other, the will of the Athenians (or at least the ones in power) was to carry on when possible with building. Perhaps, it was especially important in the face of foreign invaders, and even domestic ones, to complete an artistic and architectural legacy which presented their identity and power to the world.
Making a StatementThe main themes of the artist design surrounding the Parthenon focused on their history and identity. Themes of conflict are illustrated in the two sides of the metopes (almost like a film reel running along the long sides of the Parthenon). The north-facing metopes possibly depict the sack of Troy (though it is under debate).
The south side of the Parthenon’s metopes depicted the Centauromachy (the battle of the Centaurs against the Lapiths), which highlighted a lengendary hero connected to Athens, Theseus. The west-side, running underneath the pediment, featured the Amazonomachy (battle of the Amazons against the Athenians). The east-facing metopes which faced the entrance though the Propylaea, depicted the Gigantomachy (the battle of the Olympian gods and -wait for it- you probably guessed it- the giants).Did you guess that last one? Gold stars, whole class.
There is basically nothing you can glean from the west-pediment now, but once restoration is complete, the structural elements should at least be visible. As with the statuary from the east pediment, the Ionic frieze, the decorations have been stripped from the building and reside in several museums around the world.
The main components of the Parthenon’s artistic works are on display in the British Museum.Future blog posts will look at some of the artistic elements of Greek art, of which the Parthenon provides excellent examples.There is a lively academic debate about the nature and meaning of the images depicted on the frieze, which Mary Beard discusses in her book “Parthenon”.
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