The Seductive Elegance and Startling Cruelty of Greece’s Baroque Age

Power, Pathos and Prestige in Pergamon
and Other Hellenistic Kingdoms

1. Head of Woman (the “Beautiful Head”). Marble. ca 200-175 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Discovered at Pergamon (Terrace of the Great Altar) in 1879. As with all illustrations in this post, clicking on it will produce a larger version, and clicking on that version will produce a still larger one. (All illustrations in this post are of items displayed in the Met show unless indicated by an asterisk (*) before the illustration number.

The current show of Hellenistic Art at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World,” an exhibition that will run until July 17, left me, the first time through, with an unsettled feeling. (I emphasize “first time” because, if you have time and energy, you will be compelled to view it again, the second time lingering over particularly haunting pieces.) On the one hand there is no doubt that the peoples who created and patronized this art were sophisticated humanists; they were in many ways (though not all) the inheritors of the intellectual and aesthetic tradition of Athens at the time of Pericles, as sterling a pedigree as any intellectual or art pedigree in all of history. It is also true any time a Hellenistic artist deviated from the principles of symmetry and compositional balanced developed by the classical Greeks, the sacrifice was a purposeful choice intended to draw the viewer into the work, often evoking a personal, emotion response of recognition, or empathy or identification. In addition, after seeing the nearly 200 items on display, it is difficult not to be convinced that the societies that produced these works were full of energy, confidence, belief in their own values and a marked fearlessness in the face of uncertainty that makes them entirely unlike ourselves, unlike what we have been for half a century at least.

However admirable the last point may be, it makes them alien to us, however appealing the art is. And there is another point of difference. Their sense of self-assurance seems to manifest itself in a kind of cruelty we recoil from. Not satire or demonization of overbearing superiors, but a kind of mean taunt or smug satisfaction in the fate of social subordinates, it is hard to to dismiss. It is as though the baroque aspect of the art indulged in excess exceeding the bounds of decency. It is a characteristic not at all common in classical Greek art, and while not characteristic of most Hellenistic works, it is common enough to influence how we understand their self-expressions. But more on that later. First an overview of the exhibition.

Pergamon and Hellenistic Kingdoms

2. Scale model of the Great Altar (from Pergamon Museum) showing the Gigantomachy frieze on bottom level and continuing up the stairs, the stoa with statues on three sides of the altar plaza and statues on the roof of the stoa.

2. Scale model of the Great Altar (from Pergamon Museum) showing the Gigantomachy frieze on bottom level and continuing up the stairs, the stoa with statues on three sides of the altar plaza and statues on the roof of the stoa.

The remodeling of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin gave the Met the opportunity to display nearly 90 of its items from the ancient site of Pergamon, which has been excavated by German archaeologists since the 1870s. The Berlin Museum was founded in the midst of the period of increasing European Great Power competition, which had already involved war between France and Prussia and would play itself out in a scramble for colonial possessions around the world as well as for allies to bank on in the event of a Great Power confrontation (which, to the great surprise of all the participants, actually did happen with catastrophic consequences). The Pergamon excavations were a chance to enhance German cultural prestige with a collection that could rival the ancient cultural treasures looted by the British Museum and the Louvre. In the Ottoman Empire, Germany found a willing partner. The Sick Man of Europe desperately needed a Great Power patron, and the two came to an arrangement allowing Germany to take away a large haul of stunningly beautiful artistic creations by a short-lived kingdom, that in its day devoted as much of its resources to artistic and scholarly collections as any state ever. The Germans took individual statues, statuettes, and large monuments. The most spectacular item of the haul, which exists now largely built into the walls of the Berlin museum, consists of architectural elements and friezes from the Great Altar of Pergamon, a structure so famous in the ancient world that centuries later the Christian Apocalypse referred to it as Satan’s seat (Revelations 2:12-13). Sculpture from that altar complex and one of the friezes (as well as oversized photos the spectacular Gigantomachy relief which followed the celebrant up the altar’s stairway) give the Met visitor a glimpse of what the acropolis of Pergamon must have looked like at its height.

3. Gallery of the Great Altar in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition.

4. Statuette of Demosthenes. Leaded Bronze. 1st century B.C.E. to 2nd century C.E. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Roman copy of Greek bronze statue, ca. 280-279 B.c.E by Polyeuktos.

4. Statuette of Demosthenes. Leaded Bronze. 1st century B.C.E. to 2nd century C.E. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Roman copy of Greek bronze statue, ca. 280-279 B.c.E by Polyeuktos.

In addition to materials from Pergamon, the Met assembled about 180 more items from almost four dozen other institutions. The show is a spectacular display of the best Greek art of the kingdoms that succeeded Alexander’s empire and includes statues, reliefs, figurines, jewelry, luxury goods and historically important coins from the time of Alexander’s death in 323 B.C.E to the suicide of Cleopatra (the Ptolemaic Queen Kleopatra IV) in 30 B.C.E. (It also displays field notes and artwork of the German archaeologists who excavated Pergamon beginning in the 1880s). The collection shows just how exhilarating is the art that is now called “Hellenistic.” The items breathe not only life, but also the ambitions and despairs of a people who were heirs to, but fundamentally different from, their classical Greek forebears. Macedonian King Philip II and his son Alexander had ended permanently Greek self rule and set up in its place a form of eastern monarchy, which Philip justified as the way to save the Greeks from the Persians. Not all submitted willingly. The Athenians, who suffered a catastrophic loss to Philip, and still used every opportunity to revolt, honored Demosthenes [see #4], even after it was clear that he had led them to a bloody and bitter defeat, because the Athenians prized liberty over life, as Demosthenes unapologetically proclaimed in his Funeral Oration.

5. Head of Alexander I (the Great). The “Alexander Schwarzenberg.” Marble. ca. 20 B.C.E.-20 C.E. Glyptothek, Munich. One of several Roman copies of Greek original by Lysippos (?), ca. 330 B.C.E.

Perhaps it was the irrevocable shift from self-determination to monarchy that subtly permeated all Greek art from Alexander on. Charismatic, self-assured, decisive, Alexander held in thrall the most ambitious military leaders of his time, as the wars of his Successors (the Diadochi) would prove after his death. And yet he himself proved to be intellectually inclined and cosmopolitan. Was it his teacher Aristotle who instilled in him the confidence to trust his own counsel not only in matters of war and politics, but also in matters of art? Or was it simply his own self regard? In any event, Plutarch tells the story of how when Lysippos first carved Alexander’s likeness, it so impressed viewers (who saw it express a defiance of Zeus to keep to heaven because Alexander had claimed Earth) that Alexander decreed that only Lysippos was authorized to make statues of him because only he could “preserve his virile and leonine expression.” (De Alexandri magni fortuna aut virtute, 2.2.) For hundreds of years statues and statuettes of Alexander filled his former empire and Rome; for the Kings it was used to show their legitimacy, how their authority flowed from him. For others, his image probably represented the Fortune that never forsook his purpose. And perhaps in uncertain times (as was all Hellenistic times), Fortune would “rub off” from his likeness (Pollitt, p. 3). The likenesses deviated ever so slightly in intent from that of classical Greek art. Beauty was not the sole object, nor was emphasizing some abstract Platonic ideal, but rather self-expression was the goal.

6. Metope with Battle Scene. Limestone. late 3rd-mid 2nd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Taranto, Italy. Found in tomb at Via Unbria, Taranto.

6. Metope with Battle Scene. Limestone. late 3rd-mid 2nd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Taranto, Italy. Found in tomb at Via Unbria, Taranto.

The art of Alexander and his immediate Successors was not only about self-expression. It was also, and mainly, about action. Military action was of course central to the art of the conquerors, and in those pieces physical movement, how the body functions, what it looks like in victory and subjugation, provides the fascination. While classical Greek statues portrayed bodies in motion, usually involving athletes or mythological figures, it was in the age of Alexander and afterwords that contortions, bodies pushed to the limits of endurance and even in the throes of death, became common.

7. Statuette of Resting Herakles (Anticiter-Sulmona). Bronze and sliver. 3rd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Villa Frigerj, Chieti. Copy of work by Lysippos (?).

Alexander supplied the Hellenistic age with artistic tropes and tokens other than military ones. There are numerous statuettes of Alexander hunting or riding, usually with animal skins. Inasmuch as Alexander associated himself with Herakles, Alexander is frequently seen hunting lions or with lion skin. (The first labor of Herakles was to slay the Namean lion, and Herakles himself is often seen carrying a lion skin [e.g., #7].) The Diadochi (the Successors of Alexander) followed Alexander’s model. Unlike the classical Greek portrayal of philosophers and statesmen as old and wise [e.g., #4], the Kings of the Hellenistic Kingdoms showed themselves as young, virile and clean-shaven. As for Herakles, he will show up again in Pergamon, not because the dynasts of that city were Diadochi, or even because they saw themselves as warriors in the mode of Alexander. If anything, they saw themselves as philosopher-kings or at least patrons. Herakles, however, was the father of the traditional founder of Pergamon, who we will see is celebrated in a famous frieze in the altar complex which was Pergamon’s principal monumental achievement. First it’s useful to put its achievements in historical context.

A Brief History of the Pergamon Kingdom

*8. The Aegean World in Early Hellenistic Times.

Pergamon is located at a site that would be improbable for a good sized-habitation, let alone a cultural center of historic importance. It was within the province of Mysia, the region west of the Troad (the province in which Troy was located), bordering on the Sea of Mamara to the north and the Aeolian province (with Greek settlements) to the southwest. Pergamon is about 24 km from the Aegean Sea and not on any trade route. It sits atop an extremely high promontory that is inaccessible on three sides and rises about 1000 feet above the surrounding plains (1100 feet above sea level). Its chief virtue was that it was easily defensible; it was a natural fortress (the meaning of its name). Its major disadvantage was that it required extensive terracing on its accessible southern side to accommodate a sizable population. The upper part was eventually formed (by years of building activity) into four terraces. On the highest was the living quarters of the rulers (and in imperial Roman times a temple dedicated to Trajan). The second level, about 30 feet lower, contained the temple and precinct for Athena, Pergamon’s patron. The third level, about 80 feet lower, became the site for the Great Altar. The fourth level, still 45 feet lower, became the upper agora. [See model, #22, below.] None of that work took place until after the death of Alexander, however.

There are no historical records describing the settlement or early history of Pergamon, or indeed the settlement of Mysia. Homer said that the “lordly” and “stalwart” people of Mysia were allies of Troy (Iliad2.858, 10.430, 14.512). There was also Greek classical lyric poetry concerning the legendary founder of Pergamon.1 As for historical records, Pergamon is first mentioned by Xenophon as his last stopping point in the retreat of the remnant of his mercenary Ten Thousand in 399 B.C.E.2

Pergamon fell from Persian control early in Alexander’s campaign, shortly after his victory in the Battle of Granikos River in May 334 B.C.E. He there installed Barsine, a Persian noble woman who became war booty and may have been his mistress and mother of his child.

9. Bust of Antiochus I Soter (?). Bronze. ca. 50-25 B.C.E. Meseo Archicologico Nazionale, Naples. This piece is a copy of a statue from the Hellenistic period and was excavated in 1755 from the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. Antiochus I was the son of Seleukos I Nicator.

After Alexander’s death, war broke out among the Diadochi (the Greek military notables who vied to be Successors to Alexander). Lysimachos, the Macedonian commanders who was appointed King of Thrace in 306 B.C.E., crossed into Asia in 302 to gain possession of certain Greek cities on the Hellespont. All of “Hither Asia” had been ceded to Antigonas in the Peace of 311, but when he died in battle in 301, the territories in Asia Minor (except Bithynia and Pontos) rapidly fell into the hands of Lysimachos. One of the early defectors to Lysimachos, Docimus, had in his employ one Philetairos, whom he evidently recommended to Lysimachos, because the latter appointed Philetairos commander at Pergamon. (See Strabo, Geography, XIII.4.1. In that passage Strabo notes that at the time the inhabitants of Pergamon were still living only on the very top part of the “cone” of the hill.) Lysimachos entrusted Philetairos with war booty in the form of silver coins, which were deposited in the fortress atop the Pergamon hill. (Lysimachos had at least three other hidden treasures of war booty, but this was probably the largest. Hansen, p. 14 n.5.) Philetairos served Lysimachos loyally for nearly twenty years. But then a series of court intrigues revolving around Lychimachos’s third wife, Arsinoë, resulted in Lysimachos executing his son by his first wife. This behavior (among other signs of irregular rule), of course, unsettled his subjects and allies and gave his opponents room to maneuver. Seleukos I Nicator (the Conquerer), Lysimachos’s Diadochi rival, seized the occasion, and Philetairos offered his services to him when the former went to war. Lysimachos fell to Seleukos’s forces at the Battle of Koroupedion [see Map, #8] in 281 B.C.E. With this Seleukos became the last living of the original Diadochi, but he was shortly thereafter betrayed and assassinated by Ptolemy Keraunos (the Thunderbolt), who had been under Seleukos’s protection. Ptolemy Keraunos then seized the Macedon throne. Philetairos thus found himself ruler of Pergamon, though nominally under Seleukid rule, and Philetairos, quite fortunately, had Lysimachos’s large war booty at his disposal.

10. Herma of Philetairos of Pergamon. Pentalic marble. ca. late 1st century B.C.E. Museo Acheologico Nazionale, Naples. Roman copy (from Herculaneum) of Greek original ca. 250 B.C.E.

Using the silver Lysimachos entrusted with him (which amounted to 9,000 thalers of silver, an immense fortune), Philetairos began forging strategic alliances. Strabo (XIII.4.1) said that he opted “to manage things through promises and courtesies in general, always catering to any man who was powerful or near at hand.”3 Philetairos also used the funds to engage in significant urban improvement. The settlement was expanded, and the streets and roads were regularized. The temple and precinct of Athena in the upper acropolis was erected. Thirteen hundred feet south of that temple, Philetairos built another temple, this one to Demeter with its adjacent altar [see Plan #11 below]. With building on the lower acropolis, Philetairos had to expand the city walls and provide for defensive structures on the perimeters. Finally, and significantly, Pergamon added a large theater. The natural shape of the terraces in the area next to the plateau which would become the Great Alar (and raising above and descending below it) made for a natural seating area in something like a semi-circle. At first wooden chairs were placed on the existing levels, but during Philetairos’s reign stone seating was provided and a foundation supplied to make the seating area regular all around. On the stage a provision was made for a removable 122′ x 21′ scene building. The stage area was on a level 150 feet below the Athena precinct and on the same level as the stage was an altar and other structures. This building programme would be only the barest beginning of what was to come in the succeeding reigns, but the first ruler pointed the way and showed the ruler’s obligation to spend for public benefit.

11. Plan of Acropolis of Pergamon (Upper and Lower) before Imperial Roman times). From Hansen, between pp. 249-50. This plan includes all building through the end of the Attalid dynasty.

Philetairos was childless (possibly because, according to Pausanias (I:8.1), he was a “Paphlagonian eunuch”) and rule passed to his nephew Eumenes I (r. 263-41 B.C.E.), who set about heroizing his predecessor by putting his likeness on coins and having a heroic sculpture made of him [#10]. (By designating a successor Philetaros founded a dynasty, which was called, even by contemporaries, Attalid, after his own father, Attalos). These acts of sovereignty by Eumenes constituted a revolt against Seleukids’ dominion over Pergamon. The revolt was made good in 261 B.C.E. when Eumenes defeated Antiochus I near Sardis [see #8], and in the process expanded the state’s territory. His reign, however, was plagued from a different source—by plunder and marauding raids by the Galatians. Rather than fight them too, Eumenes used the same expedient as his neighbors; namely, to pay tribute to induce them to stop.

12. Galatian Warrior Crushed by an Elephant. Painted terracotta group. First half of 2nd century B.C.E. Louvre, Paris. Found at the Necropolis of Myrina.

The Galatians (or Gauls) (Γαλάται) were a group of nomadic, warring Celtic peoples from central Europe who having been repulsed in an attempt to invade Italy (around 390 B.C.E.), travelled through the Balkans and settled in Thrace around 280 B.C.E. The next year they drove through Macedonia killing its principal military leader and headed towards Thessaly. They were checked by a combined Greek force at Thermopylae. The invaders then marched toward Delphi and the Greek version has it that an assembly of Aetolian and allied forces only reached Delphi in time to prevent the invading Gauls from sacking the temple of Apollo. The Greeks repelled the nomadic warriors, who regrouped in Thrace. In 277 B.C.E. after sacking the territory of Byzantium, they crossed over to Asia Minor with the help of the Bithynians, who planned to use them as mercenaries. Once in Anatolia they wreaked havoc on their neighbors. It was Eumenes I’s successor who would deal the Galatians a crippling blow.

*13. Ludovisi Gaul. Asiatic marble. Late 1st century-early 2nd century C.E. Museo Nazionale--Palazzo Altemps, Rome. Copy of Hellenistic bronze statue, ca. 230=220 B.C.E.

*13. Ludovisi Gaul. Asiatic marble. Late 1st century-early 2nd century C.E. Museo Nazionale–Palazzo Altemps, Rome. Copy of Hellenistic bronze statue, ca. 230=220 B.C.E.

Attalos I (r. 241-197 B.C.E.), according to Pausanias (I:8.1), “received the kingdom from his cousin [first cousin once removed] Eumenes, who handed it over.” According to Livy (XXXVIII.16.12-13), Attalos took a decidedly different approach to the Gaulic threat than Eumenes and others in the region (including the Seleukids)—he refused to pay tribute and instead engaged the Galatians several times and finally met them in force at the headwaters of the Kaikos River [#8], where he won a decisive victory. As a result, grateful coastal cities gave him the title “Soter” (Savior) to append to his name. More significantly, he took for himself on monuments the title Basileus (βασιλεύς), a Persian title for “King” used exclusively by Alexander during his life and only by the Diadochi right after his death. Even in Attica, however, the title could not be disputed, for the Gauls were deemed as insidious as the Persians, perhaps more so since they were, after all, barbarians. Attalos celebrated his victory with a spate of public building. Outside the city he built a temple to Athena, the “Victory Carrier” (Athena Nikephoros). In the central plaza of Pergamon, the Athena precinct on the top level [Plan #11], he set up a monument to the Battle of Kaikos River. And he made a sacred walk space from the gate toward the city center, which contained larger than life-sized statues of the defeated and dying invaders, including the Dying Galatian (the “Trumpeter”) [#14], and the stunning “Ludovisi Gaul,” showing a warrior, having just killed his wife, in the act of killing himself. That piece [#13], unfortunately, is not part of the Met show.   If the evidence of Roman copies of two of the figures are a fair indication, it must have been a spectacular promenade.

14. Dying Gaul. Marble from Dokimeion, Turkey. First century B.C.E. or C.E. Musei Capitolini, Rome. Roman copy (excavated from Vila Ludovisi, Rome) based on original Greek bronze statue of late 3rd century B.C.E.

15. Head of a Dying Woman. Marble from Asia Minor. First half of 2nd century C.E. Museo Palatino, Rome. Found on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Copy of Greek bronze, late 3rd century B.C.E. probably part of the “large barbarians” dedicaton by Attalos I at Delphi ca. 220 B.C.E.

The Kaikos battle was not the end of the Gauls or their threat to Pergamon. In fact an alliance of sorts took place between the Gauls and one faction of the Seleukids which formed after the death of Antiochos II under his younger son Antiochus Hierax. The combined armies of the Gauls and rebel Seleukids apparently chased Attalos to the gates of Pergamon, where he defeated them in the battle of Aphrodisium (Hansen, pp. 24-35). Attalos pursued and then defeated the Gauls further to the east, then followed the Seleukids, defeating them as they fled northward toward Bithynia, and then southward in Caria. Finally, in 228 B.C.E. Attalos drove Antiochus Hierax from Anatolia in a battle in Eastern Anatolia on the banks of Harpassus near Cappadocia, leaving him, Attalos, with most of Anatolia. Attalos celebrated this second defeat of the Galatians with monuments in Athens, Delos and Delphi. Between 226 and 223 a monument was erected in the Pergamon acropolis in Athens recording all the victories of Attalos, including the victory at Kaikos, the later ones over the Gauls and Antiochus Hierax and others. Some time later, perhaps when Attalos visited Athens in 200 B.C.E., the so-called Lesser Attalid Dedication was made. Pausanias (I.25.2) described the monument as consisting of four sculptural groups depicting: battles by Athens against the Giants and then against the Amazons, the Greek battle against Persia at Marathon and the Pergamon battles against the Galatians. Romans made marble copies of dead and dying Amazons, giants [#16] and Persians. The dedications at the other sacred sites in mainland Greece (such as the large head (9″) of the dying woman [#15]) probably took place in Delphi in 210 B.C.E. ten years after the large monuments of the Galatians were dedicated in Pergamon). Significantly, all the sculpture which has survived involve dead or defeated enemies and not any of the victorious fighters or commanders. Is this a quirk of preservation or was the enemy the sole subject of the monumental displays? If so, what does that show?

16. Dead Giant. Marble from Asia Minor. Early 2nd century C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Copy of Greek bronze of early 2nd century B.C.E. Part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

16. Dead Giant. Marble from Asia Minor. Early 2nd century C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Copy of Greek bronze of early 2nd century B.C.E. Part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

17. Kneelling Persian. Marble from Asia Minor. ca. Early 2nd century C.E. Musei Vaticani, Vatican City. Roman copy of bronze statue of early 2nd century B.C.E. Possibly part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

The fighting was not finished in Anatolia. Achaeus, a general loyal to the legitimate line of kings, was able to retake Seleukid dominions in Hither Asia. Achaeus not only drove Attalos out former Seleukid holdings but also took lands long belonging to the Attalids like Aigai and Myrina [#8]. Pinned up behind Pergamon city walls, Attalos only could count on the loyalties of Smyrna and a couple cities in the Troad. Achaeus then took a step too far: he turned on Antiochus III. Attalos and Antiochos made common cause until Achaeus was captured (and viciously executed and mutilated4). In the end, Attalos regained more or less his original dominions and subject states, and with Attiochus busy with troubles to his east Attalos looked westward and inserted himself into Greek affairs, began creating a naval fleet and allied Pergamon with Rome.

*18. The Political States in the Aegean ca. 200 B.C.E. before the Peace of Apamea. (Modified from Wikipedia.)

Rome became interested in Greece when Philip V of Macedon entered into an alliance with Hannibal (whom Rome was fighting in the Second Punic War). Rome offered its assistance to the Aetolian League (which Philip was also threatening), and the latter reached out to Attalos. Pergamon’s fleet probably engaged Philip in the battle for Aegina, for when Philip was driven out, the League offered the island [see Map #8] to Pergamon for 30 thalers of silver. The island was useful as a naval station, but Attalos probably also was interested in its antiquities. The war ended in a stalemate (except Rome prevailed on Philip to break the treaty with Hannibal). Further adventures by Philip in the Aegean brought Pergamon back into the fight, this time with Rhodes as ally. When Rome finally defeated Carthage, it returned against Philip, this time defeating the Macedonians conclusively at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly [Map #18]. Attalos did not live long enough to see the allied victory. At a war counsil he suffered a stroke while addressing the Boeotian negotiators in Thebes. Taken back to Pergamon, he died shortly before the decisive battle in 197 B.C.E. Just three years before, the Athenians made him one of the eponymoi and in 200 B.C.E. named the twelfth “tribe” (phyle: φυλή) of Athens, Attalis, after him, and included his portrait in the statues of phylai heroes in the agora.

Tetradrachms of Pergamon

19. Silver tetradrachms minted in Pergamon. a. 263-41 B.C.E.; b. 241-197 B.C.E.; c. 197-159 B.C.E. Numismatic Museum, Athens. All these coins portray Philetairos on obverse and his name (ΦΙΛΕΤΑΙΡΟΥ) with seated Athena (identified by “A” under throne), armed with bow, spear and shield with Gorgon’s head on reverse.

Under Attalos’s successors, his sons Eumenes II (r. 197-159 B.C.E.) and Attalos II (r. 159-138 B.C.E.), Pergamon reached the zenith of its political power. Philip V, of all people, explained the success of the Attalid brothers as an example for his own sons: “though [Eumenes II and Attalos II] succeeded to but a small and insignificant realm, they have raised it to a level with the best, simply by the harmony and unity of sentiment, and mutual respect which they maintained towards each other” (Polybius, Histories, XXIII.11.7).  The brothers, in fact, were remarkably devoted to one another (Attalos II even refused Rome’s suggestion to depose his brother with Roman help). Eumenes at first continued their father’s strategic alliance with Rome, Eumenes acting as head of state and military commander, Attalos as subordinate military commander and chief diplomat. Pergamon supplied Rome and the Achaean League with both soldiers and ships for their War against Nabis of Sparta in 195 B.C.E. In return Rome sided with Pergamon in its war against the Seleukids, who became quite aggressive almost immediately after the death of Attalos I. (Antiochus III had aligned himself with Philip V after the first Macedonian War and goaded Philip into adventures in the Aegean which so alarmed Pergamon and Rhodes that they prevailed upon Rome  to intervene against Macedonia again. This was the Second Macedonian War which ended in 197 B.C.E.) The Romans inflicted a devastating defeat on the Seleukids in the Battle of Magnesia in eastern Anatolia [see #18] in 190 B.C.E., and the resulting Peace of Apamea in 188 B.C.E. gave all the Anatolian lands of the Seleukids north of the Taurus mountains to Pergamon (and the rest to Rhodes). Eumenes would soon enough fall out of favor with Rome, but since Rome did not rule its clients in Anatolia with an iron fist (as it would elsewhere), this meant for the time being that Rome would simply deny assistance or engage is diplomatic intrigue. When it was time to put down a Galatian revolt, Pergamon defeated them without Roman help much to the gratitude of coastal states, which in turn conferred the title of Soler (Savior) on Eumenes. Acting without Rome’s active approval complicated the life of any subordinate power but there was no rupture in their relations (Rome’s attempt to suborn Attalos II notwithstanding).

*20. From Perkins, p. 145.

*20. From Perkins, p. 145.

When Attalos II, at age 61, succeeded his brother (the son of Eumenes being a minor at the time), he was able to repair relations with Rome. He restored his brother-in-law Ariarathes V to the throne of Cappadocia. Attalos II added territory to his kingdom, and Ariarathes in turn came to Attallos’s aid in 156 B.C.E. when he was attacked by the Bithynians, who came dangerously close to storming Pergamon and desecrated the temple of Athena Nikephoros; they were successful in stealing the statue of Asklepios outside the walls. Attalos completed the building projects of his brother and added a few of his own, including a temple to Hera above the gymnasium [see Plan #12]. He probably also was responsible for the Little Donation of the Attalids [##16 & 17] in Athens, where he also build stoas as well as in the Anatolian city of Termessos.

Attalos II was seceded by his brother’s son, Attalos III (r. 138-33 B.C.E), who the ancient historians did not treat kindly. Justinus (XXXVI.4), for example, has him engaging in murderous rage against those he thought had harmed his mother and fiancée and then becoming a recluse. Many ancients record that he devoted himself to the study of natural history and medicinal plants, which he tested on prisoners (see Hansen, pp. 144-45). In any event, being without heir, he bequeathed the kingdom to Rome on his death.  The Republic made the kingdom its Province of Asia. Pergamon itself lost its central importance when the seat of government was transferred to Ephesos. It remained a health resort of sorts because of the cult of Asklepios, which had established a center for treatment (including the famous serpent therapy) outside the city walls as early as the reign of Eumenes I. Later, a temple was built for the emperor Trajan, but in the end, the inaccessibility and fortress-like remoteness of the elevated city, the thing that caused Lysimachos to select it for his fortune, the thing that made Pergamon important in the first place, was what caused its eventual decline.

21. Acropolis of Pergamon by Friedrich von Thiersch. Pen and ink with watercolor on canvas. 1882. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Pergamon as Cultural Center

*22. Model of Pergamon Acropolis from Burn, p. 83 (“showing how the various buildings, complexes and levels are grouped and linked one with the next.”) labelled by dkf.

The brief golden age of Pergamon took place during the reigns of Attalos I, Eumenes II and Attalos II. Impressive as their adroit expansion of territory was, it would remain a footnote to an age where econoies were largely based on conquest and tribute. But the Attalid kings were renown in ancient times for their dedication to Greek culture not only in Pergamon itself but also in Athens and elsewhere in Greece. A 2nd century B.C.E. poet hailed their fame: “The glory of the Kings of Pergamon, even though they are dead, shall remain ever living among us.”5

The glory of Pergamon is evident in the art on display at the Met. But before returning to it, two other aspects ought to be noted. First, the city itself was something of a marvel of urban design. Alexandria was praised in ancient times (see, e.g., Strabo, XVII.1). But Alexandria’s prestige largely came from Alexander having founded it and from its becoming the resting place for Alexander’s body. And it is of course easier to design a city on a flat ocean port. Pergamon was built on an uneven height, but the builders took advantage of the challenges and made, over time, a striking design. Burn (p. 82) describes it:

23. Statue of Athena Parthenos. Marble. ca. 170 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Discovered in Sanctuary of Athena in Pergamon. Copy of mid-5th century B.C.E. chryselephantine sculpture by Pheidias in the Parthenon.

“As the city lies on a steep hill that rises suddenly from the surrounding plain, terracing was needed to accommodate the monumental new buildings and enclosures, and here it was employed to astonishingly brilliant effect. The main view of the city is from the west, dominated by the huge theatre sunk into the side of the hill. The arc of the theatre seems to rest upon the giant stoa set below it that both served the practical function of a retaining balustrade and provided a panoramic walkway for strolling theatre goers. The main terraces on which lay the other main public buildings of the city—the temples, the library and the altar of Zeus—radiated outwards from the theatre, and many of these structures too are defined and linked by stoas.”

Moreover, the building complexes were oriented in such a way to give optimal views of each other. All of them were decorated by marble-columned stoas, many of which hosted exquisite statuary. The nature of the public art was more like Athens than like Alexandria or Macedon. The Pergamon dynasts did not exhibit themselves as masterful warriors or oriental gods. Unlike the Ptolemaic pharaohs, the Seleukids and the Macedonians, the Attalids celebrated the Olympian gods, especially Athena, who was not only a warrior but also the deity of wisdom. The city was thus seemingly a living entity, a body unto itself. And the residents were part of that living polis, not subjects of military masters.

Second, the Attalids, during Pergamon’s golden age, were  ardently pro-Athenian. Their aesthetics were principally influenced by that of Athens in the time of Pericles. In the Met show, the 2/3 size copy (over 10 foot without the base) of the famous Pheidias Athena from the Parthenon (created three hundred years before the marble copy) greets the visitor entering the gallery of Pergamon and its arts. Eumenes II probably commissioned the work, which was placed in the precinct of the temple of Athena in the upper plaza of the acropolis of Pergamon. What remains of the statue corresponds closely with the Athenian original, including the birth of Pandora relief on the base. Only the helmet is slightly simplified. It is impossible to tell if all the accessories were originally similar. Perhaps, some (like the serpent signifying Athena’s status as protector of Athens) were omitted, in which case the image may have been repurposed to emphasize her function as goddess of wisdom and learning. This would have been logical given the the famous Library of Pergamon was connected to the Athena precinct.

*24. Map of the Upper Acropolis of Pergamon (with building through Imperial Roman times). From Hansen.

25. Triton (Acroterion from Great Altar’s roof). Marble. ca. 160 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,

It was during Eumenes’s reign (according to Strabo, XIII.4.2) that Pergamon founded its great Library. Accounts of it suggest it may have been the largest library in the Greek world, with more manuscripts than the Library of Alexandria and a better cataloguing system. Unlike Alexandria, Pergamon used parchment, rather than papyrus, for its manuscripts. (The term “parchment” derives from “Pergamon” because it was such a large producer of the skin-based books.) The collection must have been a source of great pride, but it was not collected simply for vanity. The Attalids actively sought scholars and intended the library for research. Attalos I made an unsuccessful attempt to lure Lakydes, head of Plato’s famous Academy and a philosopher whom Attalos had laid out a special garden for in Athens, the Lacydeum, but Lakydes declined, saying “statues are best seen from a distance.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, IV.8.60.) Attalos, however, was successful in recruiting the historian Neanthes (the Younger) and the famous mathematician Apollonius of Perga, who produced a significant work on conic sections (Sandys, p. 151). Eumenes II also aimed for one of Athens’s pre-eminent philosophers and tried to entice the Peripatetic philosopher Lykon, but he also declined. He then offered the position to Krates of Mallos, who accepted. Nagy (p. 214) quotes a witticism that “[t]he Stoics came, and so the Stoa accepted what the Academy and Lyceum had declined.” The ancients tended to deprecate the scholarship of Krates, the Stoic, especially when compared to Aristarchos of Alexandria. Aristarchos devoted full time to editing Homer. As a Stoic Krates was especially interested in Hesiod, but work on Homer was considered the more prestigious. In fact, he was considered the font of all wisdom. Varro (De lingua latina, 8.23 and 9.1) is responsible for the conventional view that Krates used the critical tool of “anomaly” in teasing out the “correct” Greek of Homer, while Aristarchos applied the opposite principle of analogy. A belief also arose that as a “good Stoic” Krates sought an allegorical interpretation of Homer. Nagy argues that their approaches were more nuanced. Krates, however, inclined to retain the text of lines he believed spurious (with appropriate marginalia annotations), while Aristarchos often simply excised them. Krates’s Homer therefore tends to be more inclusive and larger than that of Aristarchos. Nagy argues that as an editor and critic of Homer, Krates at least rivaled Aristarchos.

*26. Scene of Athena subduing two giants; part of Frieze of the Great Altar. Installed in Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

However that rivalry may be, the arrival of Krates came around the same time that the Great Altar [#2] was being built (Kastner, p. 140). The altar itself was the kind of monumental architecture that Pericles would have approved. Its immense stairway was surrounded on three sides by a base which contained a very high relief of the Gigantomachy—the story of how the gods of Olympus defeated the Giants and saved our world from chaos. The stairway led to a flood on which the altar proper surrounded on three sides by porticos containing statues. The roof of the porticos also supported statues of  deities, horses in quadrigas and mythical creatures. On the courtyard wall were reliefs of scenes from the infancy of Telephos, legendary king of Mysia.

*27. Okeanos driving Giants up the stairs of the Great Altar. Pergamon Museum.

The Gigantomachy frieze around the Great Altar is a masterpiece of Hellenistic relief. The planners of the altar undoubtedly knew that the work would be significant, because they not only inscribed the names of the gods (above) and giants (below) in each scene of the work, but also the name of the sculptor who produced the scene. Each scene is firmly rooted in Greek classical principles of composition. Take, for example the scene involving Athena [#*25]. The arrangement of figures follows the geometric form of a triangle and reminds one of Hestia, Dione and Aphrodite from the East Pediment of the Parthenon, now at the British Museum. But while the statues from the Parthenon give a sense of order and calm (no matter what is being depicted), the Pergamon frieze is one of continual action. The frame seems to be moving in a clockwise manner as Athena pulls the hair up of one giant with her right hand and the other giant is being forced down. The faces and bodily contortions of the giants show their agony, the one on our right is shown trying to hold the goddess’s arm to prevent further harm. The serpent legs of the giants are writhing uselessly while on our right the eagles of Zeus are coming to further torment the enemies of order. The frieze has over a hundred figures, each larger than life, and each one participating in a ferocious hand-to-hand combat rendered with the highest technique. The scenes are so engaging that it is impossible to resist the elegant design and the dramatic narrative. But the artists took the effect one step further. In places the figures come so far out of the block that they appear to be entering “our” world. On the stairway for example, as Oceanus is forcing two giants forward, one has a knee resting on the step [#*27].

28. Relief of Herakles finding his son Telephos nursed by a Lioness. Proconessian marble. ca. 160 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. From courtyard of Great Altar, Pergamon.

Unlike the art which sought to duplicate Athenian classicism [such as #23], the art of the Great Altar explores new manners of expression, emphasizing movement, promoting surprise and attempting to make the viewer experience a connection with the characters or respond to the drama or theatricality of the scene. Even when the subject is not frenzied activity, the bodies are often shown in positions unlike the formal posture of the classical figure [see, e.g., #22, above]. For example, the relief of Herakles discovering his son Telephos [#28] is one several scenes of the birth and childhood of Telephos. In this one block, Herakles rests on his club with one leg crossed in front of him. The posture shows how the muscles throughout his body are either tensed or relaxed. Telephos is being suckled by a lionness when Herakles finds him. The usual story has the infant being nursed by a hind, but evidently the artist here thought that the juxtaposition of the nursing lioness with the skin of the Namean lion Herakles killed [see also #7] created a contrast that provoked thought (a characteristic of the Baroque stage of Hellenistic art). The viewer has been promoted by this art from a mere spectator, an admirer, to a participant, one whose attention must be engaged.

29. Head of Karneades. Marble. Late first century B.C.E. Antiknmuseum Basel und Sammlung, Ludwig. Roman copy of Greek bronze ca. 120 B.C.E. The Greek original stood in the Agora of Athens near the Stoa of Attalos.

But engaged for what? Is there a lesson in the frieze of the Great Altar, and, if so, what? Pollitt (pp. 81-82) says that it sets Pergamon up as the Athens of the East, as the force to quell the chaos of barbarian Asia. Erika Simon sees it as a philosophical allegory influenced by Krates’s Stoicism. Krates, for example, allegorized Zeus as Ouranos and Helios. This would explain why the Titans were fighting on the side of the Olympian gods. Kleanthes in his Hymn to Zeus makes Zeus the enforcer of rational order. And on the frieze, Zeus is seen on each side, except the one representing Hades where order is abandoned. The deformity of the giants (with snakes for legs, for example) is consistent with the Stoics’ belief that passion (the cause of chaos) is a deforming disease. I am not sure a close allegorical correspondence is necessary, however. The art is on such a high level that the viewer can supply his own context, based on his own belief system. The ability to engage the viewer as a participant makes narrative explanation unnecessary.

Theatricality, Novelty  and Shock in the Baroque

Once you see the theatricality of the Baroque aspect of Hellenistic art, you notice it in all the work of Pergamon which is not a strict copy of a classical original. The Beautiful Head [#1], for instance, tilts her head and opens her lips slightly, as though she is about to speak to us. The fleshy cheeks of the Dying Woman [#15] are contorted by her curled lip to create an impression of immense despair. The head of the philosopher Karneades [#29] is slightly titled and his arched eyebrow, wide open eyes and parted lips give the impression of someone in rapt attention.

30. Small Heads with Theater Masks. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

31. Head of Menander. Marble. First century C.E. Dunbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Roman copy of Greek statue probably set up in Athens, 3rd century B.C.E. From Tarquinia.

31. Head of Menander. Marble. First century C.E. Dunbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Roman copy of Greek statue probably set up in Athens, 3rd century B.C.E. From Tarquinia.

The theatricality of the art should not be surprising given how central (and long standing) the theater of Pergamon was to city life. And theater was widespread throughout the Hellenistic world.. The fact that small (3″ high) terracotta heads wearing masks [#30] were found in a tomb in northwest Asia Minor suggests that theater was a personal and important experience for the public. Hellenistic theater, like Hellenistic poetry, was far more intimate than classical theater. Tragedies were largely declamations and dance illustrating a myth presented abstractly to teach a philosophical or religious point. Classical comedy was satirical and topical, mostly related to the politics of the time. With Menander (ca. 342/41–ca. 290 B.C.E.) comedy became situational and centered on commoners. The plots were often formulaic and pandered to middlebrow tastes. But unlike classical comedy, emphasis was placed on characterization (albeit stereotypical) so that the audience could respond directly to the predicaments the characters found themselves in rather than as mere spectators to events beyond their control. The copy of the Athenian statue of the playwright [#31] was one of seventy found throughout the Hellenized word, and they testify to the popularity of the writer. His epigrammatic sayings were so widely disseminated that one ends up in a Pauline Epistle (1 Corinthians 15:33).

32. Emblema of SItinerant Musicians dress in New Comedy masks. Stone mosaic. 2nd-1st century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. From Pompeii.

Lyrical poetry also became more personal, more concerned with temporal rather than rather than moral or metaphysical questions. Lovesick shepherds prevailed. Kallimachos (Callimachus), a scholar at the Library of Alexandria and influential lyricist of the era, actively advocated for poets to move from the epic and political to the small and personal. From his fragment Aetia:

“[T]he Telchines, who are ignorant and no friends of the Muse, grumble at my poetry, because I did not accomplish one continuous poem of many thousands of lines on … kings or… heroes, but like a child I roll forth a short tale, though the decades of my years are not few. … Begone, you baneful race of Jealousy! hereafter judge poetry by [the canons] of art, and not by the Persian chain, nor look to me for a song loudly resounding. It is not mine to thunder; that belongs to Zeus. For, when I first placed a tablet on my knees, Lycian Apollo said to me: ‘… poet, feed the victim to be as fat as possible but, my friend, keep the Muse slender. …”

33. Cameo of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II. Indian sardonyx om hp;f dryyomh. 278-270 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

33. Cameo of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II. Indian sardonyx in gold bail. 278-270 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

The celebration of the personal (they might have said: the personal is poetical!) is seen especially in the luxury art. There are the usual items of ostentatious jewelry, necklaces, hair pins, diadems, pendants and one spectacular pair of gold serpentine arm bands that terminating in the bottom (the distal end?) with a sea monster and at the top in a male and a female triton. But two items especially struck me. The first was a royal (Ptolemaic) cameo from the early third century B.C.E. [#33]. The piece is an extraordinarily rendered portrait of the royal couple in dazzling onyx. But more interesting is how the composition portrays a perfectly serene and nearly matched couple, Ptolemy II Philadelphos and Arsinoe II, who were brother and sister before they were husband and wife. Their family relationship gives them nearly identical appearances. Although Ptolemy is fitted out as a warrior general, with a helmet sporting a serpent  and a portrait of Ammon on his neck guard, the portrayal resembles nothing like the heroic portrayals of any of the original Diadochi, of which his father was one, and perhaps the half-brother of Alexander himself). Arsinoe II wears the head covering of a bride, and this stone might have been carved to celebrate the couple’s wedding. Whatever the occasion, this piece is unmistakably “heterodox” in terms of classical aesthetics only one generation removed from Alexander.

34. Head of Man Wearing a Kausia. Bronze with copper and alabaster (?) inlays. 3rd century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Kalymnos.

34. Head of Man Wearing a Kausia. Bronze with copper and alabaster (?) inlays. 3rd century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Kalymnos.

The second particularly striking piece of personal/luxury art in the Metropolitan show is a head of a mature man in a kausia [#34]. Of course the inlaid metal/mineral eyes immediately attracts attention, but a close inspection of the man’s face shows a spare beard of a few days’ growth. Although the kausia, a headwear designed to protect against cold, is sometimes seen in Hellenistic coins, it is unique among statues of warriors or rulers. A number of features point toward the conclusion that the man is Macedonian, and some have speculated that it might be of Philip V. If so, this item shows how far the Greek Baroque had by that time affected portraiture of men presumably interested in projecting power and authority. The gaze is fixed, and this possibly is designed to substitute for the youthfulness and vigor of earlier portrayals of Hellenistic kings. The figure conveys a sense of realistism, at least one step away from the idealized versions of Alexander and the Diadochi.

35. Emaciated Youth. Bronze. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Copy of Late Hellenistic original found near Soissons, France.

35. Emaciated Youth. Bronze. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Copy of Late Hellenistic original found near Soissons, France.

The luxury items of the rich and powerful tended towards ostentation, on the one hand, and self memorial, on the other. For the less well off statuettes were available that veered into the grotesque. The Met show has two: one is a statuette of an old woman, the other is one of an emaciated youth [#35]. As for the latter, a recent medical opinion is that the young man is suffering from chronic lead poisoning. These two figurines belong to a subset of late Hellenistic art which Zanker (p. 125) lists as “boy-jockeys, old boxers, poor fishermen, drunken old women, dwarves, cripples and grotesques.” What could these images have meant to their owners? Did they provide humor (as Zanker suggests)? It is hard to imagine however, how having a severely diseased image could provide entertainment, no matter how decadent one imagines the society that produced them. Some new concept was aimed at, since such figures lay outside the boundaries of classical Greek art. According to Dasen (pp. 165-66):

“Greek artists, like Egyptians, had little interest in showing human physical anomalies. Monsters are usually composed of human and animal elements, otherwise normal when looked at separately. … [O]nly satyrs may have slightly unusual bodies, obese, acromegelic or hunchbacked. … [O]rdinary humans are very rarely individualized by physical deformities, apart from marginal figures, such as highwaymen or foreigners.”

36. Statuette of a Dwarf Dancing. Bronze. Early 1st century B.C.E. Musée National du Bardo, Tunis. Part of cargo of a shipwreck off Mardi, Tunisia possibly in the late 70s B.C.E.

36. Statuette of a Dwarf Dancing. Bronze. Early 1st century B.C.E. Musée National du Bardo, Tunis. Part of cargo of a shipwreck off Mardi, Tunisia possibly in the late 70s B.C.E.

The Met exhibition also has three renderings of dwarves. One, a late Hellenistic statuette now in the Louvre, probably was an object of merriment and ridicule, because it shows the man carrying a rooster which has planted one claw into his groin and had clamped its beak on the man’s lip. Another, a late Hellenistic or early Imperial Rome bronze statuette now in the Princeton University Art Museum, shows a dwarf jauntily carrying a small antelope across his back, his tunic failing to cover his disproportionately large penis. The third [#36] appears to me a representation of a dwarf as entertainer dancing. Dasen (p. 247) explains the difference between classical Greek and Late Hellenistic and Roman treatment of dwarfs:

The acceptance of dwarfs in Egypt and classical Greece contrasts with the centuries of exclusion which followed in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when attitudes to physical malformation changed drastically. … The uneasiness created by their appearance still provoked rejection, but it was counterbalanced by laughter. All kinds of deformities, including cretinism and severe disorders, appear in a wide range of works, from small terra cotta and bronze statuettes to wall paintings and mosaics. … Dwarfs are shown with an exaggerated realism, often with additionally grotesque features, such as overlarge genitals, and grimacing faces. Many dwarfs earned a living by exhibiting themselves as entertainers in shows which staged, for example, fights between pygmies and cranes [see Iliad III:1-9]. Western Romans and emperors delighted in them, as later Europeans did.”

Levi gives another example of the use of dwarf iconography in late Hellenistic times. In a building at Jekmejeh near Antioch the second story contained an emblema of an evil eye being attacked by a number of weapons and animals. As a dwarf is walking away from it, his overly large penis, wraps between his legs and faces the evil eye. Levi (p. 225) speculates that this is an example of ἄτοπία, the principle of “unbecomingness.”

“Beings with a funny appearance or in which some obscene details are accented are good apotropia, as well as normal beings represented in indecent attitudes, making vulgar gestures or noises. Behind this magic conception, perhaps, lies something more than what is generally explained; more than a simple popular trick in order to avert the demons’ attention from their evil purposes: laughter is the opposite pole of the anguish produced by the dark forces of evil; where there is laughter, it scatters the shades and the phantasms. The magic papyrus of Paris … expresses this idea in the most expressive terms, by saying when the Creator laughed, for the first time, light was created. … Dwarfs and pygmies are especially fit to be used as ἄτοπία because of certain shocking disproportions in their bodies, appearing also in other representations beside the magic ones.” [Footnotes omitted.]

The superstitious use of dwarf images for magical and prophylactic purposes has the hallmarks of sources which the Greeks would call “barbarian.” But where did the revulsion and the ridicule come from? Did the baroque nature of the art, constantly pushing for more discordant contrasts, force wider the bounds of acceptable depiction? (Is this what we have seen in the twentieth–twenty-first century C.E.?) Or did the mixing of cultures that began with Alexander’s conquests inevitably lead to the need to create “others” to remind the “us” of our status especially in times of distress? (Is this another phenomenon we have seen?)

37. Hermaphrodite and Satyr. Marble. 1st century C.E. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia. Roman copy of Greek bronze (?) original in 2nd century B.C.E. Discovered at villa at Oplontuis at the foot of Vesuvius.

Whatever the explanation, we can see the the boundaries of decency pushed to their ancient limits in the final gallery where we see Rome as a Hellenistic-influenced city. There we find the nude female body (first introduced in post-classical times), in the form of a marble Aphrodite from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection, not simply an object of beauty, but also an object of erotic desire. It is not far from there to the depiction of the sleeping hermaphrodite from the Met’s own collection—an object initially of erotic attractive from  behind, but one of surprise and possibly mirthful shock when viewed from the other side. The final step in this process of decadent eroticization is seen in the statue of the hermaphrodite fending off the attempted rape by a satyr [#37]. Here a deformed creature is portrayed as lustfully and violently pressing himself on a human that belongs to no “natural” sex. Not only does the work violate several of the “rules” that governed classical art, it seems also to show that art could be appreciated not only by how it conforms to “rules” but also by how it breaks them.

Regardless of one’s feelings about what the subject matter says about the patrons of such art, it is impossible to fail to be amazed at how the three dimensional composition of this work as well as the technical mastery required to produce two figures in such physical contortions. Both of these considerations are considerably beyond the conceptions of Athens during the classical period. And neither would be seen again for nearly a millennia and a half.  Whatever combination of Greek seed and foreign soil that Alexander and his followers sowed, the result was three centuries of art of imagination and quality at least equal to any other period of history. And the Metropolitan Museum’s presentation is a superb introduction, not to be missed if at all possible.


1According to Pindar, Telephus was king of Mysia when the Achaeans landed there mistaking it for Troy. Because he was most like his father Herakles, he was able to repel them. (Olympia, ix.12; Isthmian v.12.) Dionysus, however, caused him to trip over a vine, allowing Achilles to wound him. (Isthmian, viii.109: “Achilles, who stained the vine-covered plain of Mysia, spattering it with the dark blood of Telephus … .”) Telephus died from the wound. [Return to text.]

2Xenophon had gone to Pergamon to meet up with the Greek mercenaries who had assisted Cyrus in his expedition against his brother, the Persian King, and were now intending to join Thibron, a Spartan who had come to Asia Minor in force to free the Greek cities.
At Pergamon Xenophon met the the widow (Hellas) of a Greek defector, who was sympathetic to the Greek cause, and she suggested that Xenophon raid the estate of a wealthy Persian neighbor. The sons of Hellas came to Xenophon’s aid when surrounding areas came out against him, and eventually Xenophon obtained the treasures he was after along with the Persian family as his prisoners. Xenophon’s forces and Hellas’s sons then joined Thibron. (Anabasis, VII 7.57 & VII 8.7-23Hellenica, iii.1.6). After the end of Greek-Persian hostilities in 386 B.C.E., the Persians regained control and punished those dynasts and cities that aided Xenophon and Thibron (Hansen, p. 10). [Return to text.]

3Indeed his monetary “courtesies” were widely bestowed, such as to such far flung cities as Greek Pitane (he paid part of the debt owed to Antiochus), Aeolian Aigai (his contribution was reflected in a dedication to the Apollo Chresterios) and Kyzikos on the Sea of Marmara [#8] (over a five year period he gave significant sums to pay for such things as games, horses for defense, troops to protect against the Galatians, etc.). Inscriptions in mainland Greece also give evidence of substantial contributions by Philetairos to various temples (Hansen, p. 19). [Return to text.]

4Polybius, Histories VIII:23: “… the council met, and a long debate ensued as to what punishment they were to inflict upon Achaeus. Finally, it was resolved that his extremities should be cut off, his head severed from his body and sewn up in the skin of an ass, and his body impaled.” [Return to text.]

5Pseudo Scymnus in [Heinrich Theodor Dittrich (ed.)], Scymni Chii Periegesis quae supersunt. Recensuit et annotatione critica instruxit B. Fabricius (Lipsiae [Leipzig]: B.G. Teubneri, 1846), p2, lines 16-18, which can be viewed at Hathi Trust. There is, unfortunately, no English translation of this poet who seems to have flourished around 150 B.C.E. [Return to text.]


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  1. Looking at recent posts here, I happen onto this marvelous essay on Hellenistic art and Pergamon — via the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. I know little about this subject, but I read and enjoyed this whole report, a scholarly essay, in effect, by a writer in command of a long list of highly particular studies of this period of Greek history. I don’t know how one individual succeeds in covering the huge array of scholarly writings he cites here and on other posts on this blog — so detailed are these posts and so various the subjects undertaken!

    • Richard Chenoweth
    • January 29th, 2019

    This is a wonderful, well-studied article (review) and I enjoyed it very much… thank you!

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