Archive for the ‘ History ’ Category

Two-bit Nixon

If there was ever a proof about the adage about what happens when you ignore history, Trump just offered it up. The firing of FBI Director James Comey today has many of the hallmarks of Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” except Trump and side-kick Jeff Sessions are too clownish to even act with the degree of prudence as Nixon did during his stupidest act. Nixon the arch-plotter had hatched (with the aid of Alexander Haig and University of Texas Law Professor Charles Alan Wright) what he thought was the perfect trap to either cause Archibald Cox (the Independent Counsel who had in process indictments of cabinet officials and high advisers to the President and was breathing down the neck of Nixon himself) to resign or justify his firing. (It involved setting up a “compromise” for independent review of the subpoenaed White House tapes instead of compliance with the court order to produce them.) Wright bullied Cox into a position of not accepting the deal, and the conspirators thought they could fire Cox while retaining public confidence (at a time the U.S. was facing down the Soviets in the wake of the Yom Kippur War) by insisting that Cox was being unreasonable while the President had national security issues to worry about. As it turned out, Cox took to TV and persuaded the American people that he was being reasonable, not Nixon. Nixon fired Cox, public wrath fell squarely on the White House in a way and to a degree that they never expected. Nixon’s lawyer, Leonard Garment, said of Nixon’s reaction to the public response: “He thought of little else except to marvel ‘over the mischief we had wrought and the public relations disaster we had brought on ourselves.'” (Stanley I. Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (New York: Knopf, 1990), p. 410.)

All it will take is someone with half the folksy charm and reputation for impeccable integrity of Archibald Cox to bring down this administration. Do we have such a person? Probably not. But the Republicans had spent much of the last year puffing up the integrity of James Comey. That faux-integrity might serve as well as the real thing these days.

Let’s not get to far ahead, however. In those days, the Democrats had control of both Houses of Congress and it still had a tough slog. And from the Saturday Night Massacre to the resignation was another 10 months of gut-wrenching daily agony spilled out from the news each day. And this after we had become sick of the daily agony of news out of Southeast Asia for nearly a decade. So for those of my much younger friends who long for the romance of the 60s-early 70s (without having lived through those days), welcome to the new (old) reality. If History is as vindictive as we think it is, Trump will learn yet that Andrew Jackson is not the President he should have read the Classics Illustrated story of.


Trump’s Amateurish Modified Limited Hangout

Before Donald J. Trump took the oath of office (which seems like two years ago at this point), there was another U.S. President who was addicted to lying as policy—Richard M. Nixon. There are many similarities between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Both are thoroughly dishonest; both are contemptuous of their enemies (which group consists of anyone not showing unquestioned loyalty), and both think they are much smarter than they really are. But there are important differences. While not as smart as he though he was, Richard Nixon was vastly smarter than Donald Trump. And while they both surrounded themselves with men who were bad for the country, Nixon’s men only wanted to enrich his friends a little bit, not bankrupt the country so that they could roll around naked in money, which seems to be Trump’s singular goal. And while their regard for the truth was probably equally nonexistent, Nixon at least understood that other people had some, maybe even a lot of, regard for the truth. It’s uncertain whether Trump’s chronic narcissism allows him to believe that other people exist, let alone concern himself with what they think.

The difference manifests itself in how they go about deceiving the public. Nixon was smart enough to know how things work. Trump’s one bit of knowledge is that he has fallen into bucket-loads of problems all his life and by lying he has always gotten himself out and with a couple of showers he almost didn’t smell bad. So he leads his life believing in his unceasing luck. Nixon on the other hand knew that luck had to be prodded, and he spent his life plotting his deceptions. He was smart enough to surround himself with men who liked plotting grand deceptions, and on March 22, 1973, two months after his second inauguration and less than a year after the Watergate break-ins, his inner circle was plotting what deception would fly that would extricate them from the tightening noose. With Nixon were Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Counsel John Dean, and two of the most loyal hatchetmen ever to act as White House yes-men. They were plotting The Cover-Up. And the theoretical question came up, How much deception was necessary? They borrowed a concept from the world of spooks, “the limited hangout.” The phrase involves a spy whose cover has been blown. His backup plan is the “limited hangout”: where he admits some minor inculpatory information while hiding the major crimes. The theory of it is that the opponent will jump on the limited information and forego the more damaging rest.

The Nixon people decided that they were going to give a little bit of information to the Senate Watergate Committee that might look politically bad, but deny the truth, saying that none of them were involved in any crime. Nixon hesitated, concerned about what bad stuff they were giving up. Dean tells him that it is really limited. Haldeman jumps in and describes it as a “limited hangout.” Dean agrees. But to mollify the President Ehrlichman tells him, “It’s a modified, limited hangout” because it is really only going to go to the committee, not the public. And hence the most psychodelic phrase of this square but delusional administration was born.

The Flynn case has birthed another modified limited hangout. But this time it was created by a group who really are not skilled at the game, headed by a leader who doesn’t play well with others anyway. Now the chronology that we know is this: Flynn lied about what he spoke about to the Russian ambassador on the day that Obama ordered sanctions in retaliation for Russian interference in the U.S. elections in favor of Donald Trump. (Once you state the issue like this, the question is: Why go on? Shouldn’t this be the end of the Trump administration, without more?) A little more than 3 weeks ago Flynn lied to Vice President Pence about what was discussed. Almost immediately thereafter, the Justice Department advised the White House that Flynn has been compromised, because he discussed the sanctions, contrary to his statement to Pence (would he would continue to insist upon publicly thereafter). the discussions were potentially in violation of the Logan Act and possibly evidenced other felonies. For three weeks the President did nothing. Indeed, Flynn was given access to all national security material in the interim and as late as Monday White House Counsellor (the John Dean equivalent) Kellyanne Conway was telling the press that Flynn had the full confidence of the President. That evening Flynn resigned.

Today White House spokesman Sean Spicer, a man who really is in over his head and maybe (I know you will balk when you read this) even less articulate and intellectually on-the-ball than Donald Trump, was tasked with explaining how the president could have allowed Flynn to remain in his sensitive position given what the Justice Department told him three weeks ago. Here’s the story that came out: The president didn’t know anything about what Flynn discussed with the Russians. But “instinctively” (a word he used five times in the press conference) Trump knew that whatever Flynn talked about (namely, that the sanctions would be re-visited once Trump, the candidate the Russians helped to win the election) was not illegal. And Spicer maintains vehemently that nothing illegal happened. But because over the three weeks the president’s trust in Flynn eroded, he was forced, against his will, to ask Flynn to leave.

Now, given that they had 3 weeks to concoct a story (and that’s if you believe that Trump and Pence first heard of the talks three weeks ago), this would be a pretty flimsy cover-up. What does instinct have to do with it? Why didn’t the President listen to Justice? Why was there no further investigation? The answer might be that these guys are so sure of their ability to come out sweet-smelling from any muck they pour on themselves, that they thought it would go away. Especially since Trump fired the acting Attorney General. (This shows a tragic flaw in narcissism—not understanding that making an enemy unnecessarily will cost you.) So when the New York Times disclosed what Trump knew (at the latest three weeks ago), they finally saw the noose tightening. And they had to come up with a story. Instead of a limited hangout (like: Trump just couldn’t believe the intel because of other signs of honesty by Flynn; it was clearly a mistake) they reached too far. They wanted to make Trump look good coming out of it (intuitively knowing that what Flynn did was legal, even though he did not know what Flynn did) and avoiding any further scrutiny.

The fact is they modified this limited hang-out so much, that it doesn’t work. No one can rightly believe this story. Especially, since the acting Attorney General, the messenger, was fired.

But there is one little thread that might unravel the whole story if it’s given a little tug. The conversation between Flynn and the Russians took place on December 29. We can speculate that he advised the Russians not to retaliate against expulsion of their diplomats and other sanctions in like manner, because Trump would undo them. In fact, the Russians did not retaliate. The very next day, the compulsive Twitter-in-Chief pushed the send button on this message to Twitterdom:

Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!

Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)

Richard Nixon was undone after careful, long and intense scrutiny by dozens of lawyers in several branches of government and relentless investigative journalists turning over every rock. He was never dumb enough to create his own incriminating evidence.

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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Chamoux, François, Hellenistic Civilization trans. by Michel Roussel (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, c2003).

Dasen, Véronique, Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Dreyfus, Renée  and Schraudolph, Ellen (eds.), Pergamon: The Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar (San Francisco, California: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, c1996).

Fowler, Barbara Hughes, The Hellenistic Aesthetic (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, c1989).

Hansen, Esther V., The Attalids of Pergamon (2nd ed.: Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, c1971).

Holm, Adolph, The History of Greece from its Commencement to the Close of the Independence of the Greek Nation trans. Frederick Clarke, vol. 4 (London: Macmillen and Co., 1902) (at Google Books).

Kastner, Volker, “The Architecture of the Great Altar of Pergamon,” Pergamon, Citadel of the Gods: Archaelogical Record, Literary Description, and Religious Development edited by Helmut Koester (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998).

Kuttner, Ann, “Republican Rome Looks at Pergamon,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 97, pp. 157-78 (1995).

Levi, Doro, “The Evil Eye and the Lucky Hunchback,” Antioch on-the-Orantes vol. III: Excavations 1937-1939 ed. by Richard Stillwell (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1941).

Nagy, Gregory, “The Library of Pergamon as a Classical Model,” Pergamon, Citadel of the Gods: Archaelogical Record, Literary Description, and Religious Development edited by Helmut Koester (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998).

Perkins, Charles C., “The Pergamon Marbles. I. Pergamon: Its History and Its Buildings,” The American Art Review, vol. 2, no. 4 (February 1881), pp. 145-150 (at JStor).

Picón, Carlos A. and Hemingway, Seán (eds.), Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, c2016).

Pollitt, J.J.,  Art in the Hellenistic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, c1986).

Sandys, John Edwin, A Short History of Classical Scholarship from the Sixth Century B.C. to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915) (at Google Books).

Simon, Erika, Pergamon und Hesiod (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 1975).

Stewart, Andrew “Narration and Allusion in the Hellenistic Baroque,” Narrative and Event in Ancient Art  edited by Peter J. Holliday (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Thomas, Christine M., “The Sanctuary of Demeter at Pergamon: Cultic Space for Women and Its Eclipse,”Pergamon, Citadel of the Gods: Archaelogical Record, Literary Description, and Religious Development edited by Helmut Koester (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998).

Zanker, Graham, Modes of Viewing in Hellenistic Poetry and Art (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, c2004).

Human blood is salty and sweet

Two Films on the Indonesian Crimes Against Humanity
by Joshua Oppenheimer

Adi Rukun speaks to his mother about his brother's killing in The Look of Silence

Adi Rukun speaks to his mother Rohani about his brother’s killing in The Look of Silence

This past week Cinestudio at Trinity College showed The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion to The Act of Killing which I saw at the Montclair [N.J.] Film Festival in 2012. It is essential for anyone who wants to understand what an existential threat we pose to ourselves to see these films, preferably together. They both investigate the same question: What happens when immense crimes go unpunished? It is hardly a pleasant lesson to learn, and given that the crimes took place a half century ago, it is convenient to avoid these films as of antiquarian interest only and involving only people very much unlike us. That would be a mistake, for it is not just the victims and their families who suffer. These films make the case that all of society is distorted when fundamental human values are violated with impunity for the benefit of the powerful. The crimes that took place there continue to haunt that land, which is still ruled by the criminals. And Western, particularly US, fingerprints are all over the military coup, and, more importantly, the rationale for the crimes remain motivators of public policy, not only in Indonesia, but also in the West. The plutocracy-centered, change-resistant, capital-oriented reasons for clamping down on human aspirations not only still exist, they seem to have created a society here no less than there in which no alternative is possible.

The Historical Background

Suspects rounded up by the Army around Jakarta in 1965. (Photo: Bettman/Corbis/AP.)

Suspects rounded up by the Army around Jakarta in 1965. (Photo: Bettman/Corbis/AP.)

In 1965 Sukarno, a nationalist leader who led the struggle for independence from the Dutch (which involved collaborating with the Japanese during the war and the British after), was president-for-life of Indonesia. He had adroitly parlayed the relatively powerless office of president (Indonesia began as a parliamentary republic and executive power was lodged in the prime minister) into one fit for a strongman, and he moved the country away from the West, first helping to found the policy of non-alignment together with Egypt and India and then moving Indonesia into closer relations with China and the Soviet Union. The political power behind his “guided democracy” was threefold: the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI), the Islamic party and the Army. When the PKI urged the creation of a fifth security force separate from the established armed services, senior army officials acted with alarm. On October 1 members of the Presidential guard, calling themselves the September 30 Movement, kidnapped and then killed seven senior generals and they claimed that by doing so they had forestalled a CIA-backed army coup. Major General Suharto, reacting quickly, gained control of the capital and proclaimed that the September 30 Movement was actually a counter-revolutionary attempt on Sukarno’s life. Assembling the army under him, he spearheaded a purge of the communists. Top officials were rounded up and summarily executed. Under the still unclear supervision of the Army, paramilitary groups and death squad arose across the country and began the systematic murder of claimed communist sympathizers. The usual suspects were butchered as “communists”: union leaders, peasants, intellectuals, progressives and the like. From 1965 to 1967 over 500,000, perhaps over a million, and some have claimed 2.5 million Indonesians were massacred. Suharto replaced Sukarno as president, an office he would hold until 1998. No proceedings were ever brought against any of the killers, many of whom profited from their role either monetarily or with political power, or both. In addition to the political dimensions of the crime, there was ethnic cleansing of the Chinese population, who had been legally barred from conducting businesses outside certain urban areas.

Time celebrates the New Order with a July 15, 1966, cover story entitled

Time celebrates the New Order with a July 15, 1966, cover story entitled “Vengeance with a Smile.”

All of this took place at a time that the United States was becoming hopelessly ensnared in Vietnam under the dogmatic belief that the existence of communism anywhere was a threat to democracy everywhere. No differences were seen in socialist movements in different nations, all of which was lumped under a monolithic communism led from Moscow. The purge of communists in Indonesia was therefore praised in the West, whose economic interests were enhanced when unions at strategic industries (like rubber production) were broken. (An NBC News report seen in The Look of Silence shows how union members at a rubber plant were arrested and then forced to work there as prison laborers.)

The New Order presided over by President Suharto for 32 years was characterized by corruption, cronyism and above all iron-fisted capitalism. Unions were prohibited, farmers were moved off farms which were replaced by plantations to produce crops for export. (The farmers would then be “hired” under onerous long-term contracts to work for the plantation owners for subsistence or less compensation.) Above all the story of communist treachery was enforced and a nationalist mythology promulgated. The national myth was known as Pancasila, the “Five Principles” on which the New Order was to be based: (1) belief in one and only one God (symbol: star), (2) civilized society (symbol: chain (!)), (3) unity of the Indonesian state (symbol: tree), (4) “Guided democracy” (symbol: buffalo), and (5) social justice (symbol: rice and cotton).

The Sumur Maut at Lubang Buaya. (Photo: Chris Woodrich; CC license via Wikimedia.) The marker says

The Sumur Maut at Lubang Buaya. (Photo: Chris Woodrich; CC license via Wikimedia.) The marker says “It is not possible that the aspirations of our struggle to uphold the purity of Pancasila will be defeated by merely burying us in this well. Lubang Buaya 1 October 1965.”

A Sacred Pancasila monument (with the “martyred” generals whose kidnapping launched the coup) and in 1990 a museum (glorifying nationalistic militarism and called the “Museum of PKI Treason”) were constructed near the Lubang Buaya in Jakarta, which is tended like a holy site. The Lubang Buaya, or “crocodile pit,” was where the corpses of the generals were deposited. (Death squads around the country would visit the same fate on “communists” with interest.) The pit is located outside the former PKI headquarters where today visitors can see mechanized dummies re-enact the official version of the supposed communists’ torture of the kidnapped generals, complete with spurting blood. Suharto also commissioned cinematographer Arifin C. Noera to make a film in 1984, the bloody and violent Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (“The Betrayal Movement of September 30/PKI”), which needless to say follows the official version. Each year until 1997 all Indonesian television stations were required to air the movie on September 30. Even the end of Suharto’s reign did not let in sunshine. In March 2007 Abdul Rahman Saleh, Indonesia’s Attorney General, proscribed and ordered burned 14 school textbooks because they failed to adequately blame communists for a “rebellion” in 1948 and for the events which justified the army coup in 1965.

Only recently has there been any attempt to officially and formally examine the massacres. After a three-year investigation, the Indonesia National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) issued a report in June 2012 concluding that massive human rights violations were sanctioned by government in 1965-66 and local purges continued into the 1970s. It recommended criminal investigation by the attorney general, but no such proceeding has been instituted. According to Amnesty International in “late May 2015, the Attorney General stated that President Joko Widodo’s administration would resolve past human rights violations, including the 1965-66 violations.” There is widespread doubt, however, that any such investigation would produce anything other than amnesty for the perpetrators. It is these crimes that the two films by Texas-born but Danish-based and financed film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer address. They are not investigations of the crimes themselves but are rather about the twenty-first century resonance of those crimes in the criminals, the families of the victims and society at large.

The Act of Killing (2012)

A member if the film crew comments to Herman Koto, one of the gangsters, how bizarre making a film with these killers is. Koto is about to film a scene in drag.

A member if the film crew comments to Herman Koto, one of the gangsters, how bizarre making a film with these killers is. Koto is about to film a scene in drag.

It is a considerable understatement to say that The Act of Killing is an unconventional documentary. In fact, it wanders so far beyond the boundaries of the what we think of as a documentary that it might be called post-documentary filmmaking. The concept is this: While working on a documentary concerning plantation workers in North Sumatra, Indonesia, Oppenheimer came to know paramilitary members who openly bragged of their roles in the 1965-67 killings.* One of the killers in particular, Anwar Congo, agreed to Oppenheimer’s suggestion that he and others film their own account the killings. Scenes for a proposed movie were written, directed and acted in by the killers themselves.

The idea is of course stunningly bizarre. But it did not turn into a reality-TV episode. The film is both deeper and more true-to-life but also more surreal. Nor is it a papering over of the responsibility (or even existence) of the massacres. Perhaps because those at the helm of the project were thugs, and not politicians, they made no effort to shape the story to make themselves sympathetic to viewers or to render their cause apparently just. It doesn’t even occur to them at the beginning. Or perhaps by permitting these crimes, over such a scale and perpetrated so openly and notoriously, to go without redress, and in fact condoning them, Indonesian society had become so morally warped that no one weighs such events in a moral scale. It is the latter possibility that ought to concern us, because we seem headed in the same direction. (Widespread official exonerations of police who kill unarmed black men and children seem to partake of this same phenomenon, for instance.)

Act of Killing-2

Anwar Congo (l) and Herman Koto (r) discuss why their film should be more popular than Nazi films: because they can make theirs more sadistic.

The film begins with Herman Koto, a fat, brusque, coarse-featured gangster, attempting to recruit women and children to play the part of victims of a paramilitary attack on a village. Koto hectors and cajoles and eventually affects a falsetto to show how he expects them to plead for mercy. (In later scenes we see that Koto enjoys acting in drag. In one scene he plays a “communist” woman about to be raped by paramilitary ruffians.) In the background stands Anwar Congo, once a death squad executioner, but now a thin, white-haired, handsome man who is soft-spoken and often charming. He is later shown to be a doting grandfather. Congo will become the central character of the film, with Soto as his oafish side-kick and toady.

Congo (r) demonstrate the method of garotting he invented to reduce bloodshed.

Congo (r) demonstrates, on the very rooftop that he conducted executions, the method of garotting he invented to reduce bloodshed.

We become aware that whatever crimes Soto committed, he is a buffoon compared to Congo. Syamsul Arifim, governor of Northern Sumatra and a child during the massacres, says that “Everyone was afraid of [Congo].” Years of being shown respect out of fear (by the people) and gratitude (by the powers that be) have given Congo a sense of self that he wears gracefully. From his ordinary demeanor it’s hard to believe that he ever contemplated any crime, let alone killed hundreds with his own hands. And yet he demonstrates for the camera an innovation he came up with to reduce the amount of blood the killings caused (which created unpleasant odors). It involved fastening a wire to an anchor on the wall, wrapping it around the victim’s neck and pulling the wire to effect a quick and efficient asphyxiation. The demonstration used a playacting victim whose hands were tied behind his back. (Throughout the film “victims” seem to acquiesce in permitting the killers to brandish weapons and death contraptions without wincing.) After the demonstration Congo explains, in the very rooftop of “ghosts” where so many died, how he “tried to forget all this”: “with good music … Dancing… Feeling happy… A little alcohol… A little marijuana… A little… what do you call it?… Ecstasy… Once I’d get drunk I’d fly and get real happy.” He then begins to cha cha with his “victim” commenting on what a happy man he is.

Anwar Congo (l) demonstrates

Anwar Congo (l) demonstrates “feeling good” after killings and drugs.

Amid scenes in which Congo and Koto plan their movie, we are given glimpses at how Indonesian society is still shaped by the fascist-like putsch of the 1960s. Gangsters are shown shaking down Chinese shop-keepers. Governor Arifim muses that children of the “communists” will not prevail in overturning pro-government sentiment: “Communism will never be accepted here,” he says, “because we have so many gangsters. And that’s a good thing.” Newspaper publisher Ibrahim Sinik openly boasts about his role in the massacres: “… my job was to make them [the ‘communists’] look bad” and so he would change their answers to his questions. He then turned them over to the executioners. The army did not want to be involved (either for deniability reasons or because it would have taken too much personnel for so many bodies) and told him to “just dump [their corpses] in the river.” A chilling contemporary rally by Pancasila Youth is shown. This paramilitary group (claiming 3 million members today) performs a rousing martial exercise with women cheerleaders and flag majors. The group’s leader Yapto Soerjosoemarno does a remarkable il duce speech in which he proclaims himself the chief gangster. At a formal meeting the country’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla dons the jacket of the Pancasila and gives a speech extolling their lack of connection with the government (otherwise they would be bureaucrats he cracks), agrees that sometimes people need beaten up and extols the concept of gangsters as “free men.” But probably the most darkly comedic part of the film is the episode in which Koto runs for a seat in Parliament on the absurdly named Businessmen and Workers Party. Koto is unable to remember the remarks he is to deliver by megaphone while being driven, but he spends his time musing how, if elected and appointed to the building committee, he can shake down owners for bribes. He estimates that he can make $100,000 for every 10 buildings. But Koto was too bungling to be elected even when sponsored for the seat.

Anwar Congo (l) and Herman Koto (r) discuss why their film should be more popular than Nazi films: because they can make theirs more sadistic.

Congo and Koto discuss the good old days when they were carefree gangsters at the cinema and happy killers at the newspaper office.

As we see more and more of the gangsters’ behavior, we realize how cogent the movie-within-a-movie is as a device for understanding their behavior. Congo and Koto, standing beside the former cinema in Medan (the capital of North Sumatra), tell us how as young, unemployed gangsters they scalped tickets to make money. It was here they were recruited to become killers in the newspaper building across the street. Congo in particular had a strong affinity for American films and popular culture, which made his decision to oppose the “communists” that much easier, since, he says, they tried to ban Hollywood films.

In an interrogation scene out of a Hollywood gangster movie, Koto (l) confronts

In an interrogation scene out of a Hollywood gangster movie, Koto (l) confronts “communist” Congo: “Trying to ban American films in Indonesia?”

The scenes they film come right from the golden age of Hollywood: Gangster movies, of course, but also the dance-musicals, westerns, noirs, horror movies and an interrogation scene with the killers outfitted in American combat helmets à la World War II movies. Congo tells of his admiration for Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, John Wayne, all things Elvis (except when on killing business) and American casual wear.

It is in the combat-helmeted interrogation scene that we are introduced to the third of the killers, Adi Zulkadry, executioner from the old days. Together with Koto and Congo there are now a triad of personal responses to their ancient crimes. Koto, of course, is completely apathetic to questions of personal morality. A brutish amoral thug, it perplexes him that anyone would concern himself with issues of right or wrong; he is concerned only with self-interest. When it’s pointed out that showing what they did would cast them in a bad light, he says: “But why should we always hide our history if that’s the truth?”

Ali Zulkadry (l) states a moral truth that has so far been missing, as he and Congo are being made up for the combat-helmeted interrogation scene.

Ali Zulkadry (l) states a moral truth that has so far been missing, as he and Congo are being made up for the combat-helmeted interrogation scene.

Zulkadry, unlike Koto, fully understands and admits that they acted immorally. He also dismisses all equivocation and states that the death squads acted more cruelly than the “communists.” When he sees the movie they are making he understands the implications:

“It’s not about fear [of criminal prosecution]. It’s about image. The whole society will say ‘We always suspected it. They lied about the communists being cruel.’ It’s not a problem for us. It’s a problem for history. The whole story will be reversed. Not 180 degrees … 360 degrees.”

The entire scene is stunning and pivotal. Congo’s neighbor, who agreed to play the victim, tells the group of killers the his personal story: when he was 11 or 12 his step-father (a Chinese) was taken away from the house at 3 a.m. and later discovered under an oil drum. “We buried him like a goat, next to the main road. Just me and my grandfather.” He assures them he is not criticizing them, only offering the story to complete the history. Congo tells him that they will use it to motivate the actors.

Act of Killing-8

Congo peers into the abyss.

Congo is the third and most ambiguous of the killers. At first he gives no thought to the consequences of filming, more interested in appearing young for the camera (so he dyes his hair). But he does not deny the fact that he has had recurring nightmares since the events. In fact, the gangster-film-makers make his night fears part of their movie by staging an elaborately costumed ghost scene. Congo later talks to Zulkadry about his nightmres privately (on camera), and the latter advises he see a nerve doctor to get nerve vitamins. At night, staring from a pier into the dark ocean, Congo contemplates Karma, a law “direct from God.” But he sees only nothingness.

Zulkady ultimately comes up with his final rationalization strollikng through a mall with his wife and daughter. In the end what the killers achieved was a society that imported Western values: materialistic, driven by international commrcial trends, culturally homogenous and spiritually dead.

Zulkadry comes up with his final rationalization strolling through a mall with his wife and daughter. But in the end what the killers achieved was a society that imported Western values: materialistic, driven by international commercial trends, culturally homogenous and spiritually dead.

From this point on the mindscapes of Zulkadry and Congo part ways. Zulkadry restates the same arguments of all victorious war criminals: The winners define the rules. But with clear hindsight he claims he is untroubled. Strolling through a modern upscale mall with his wife and daughter, he recounts:

We shoved wood in their anus until they died. We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished.”

The climax of the killers' movie makes us realize we have nothing in common with that mindset. Here a

The climax of the killers’ movie makes us realize we have nothing in common with that mindset. Here a “victim” thanks his killer. But of course we have always been on the killers’ side.

Congo’s journey is more complicated and also strangely pat. Observing the conventions of film discussions (which would never be applied to literary discussions), I will not reveal “spoilers.” But needless to say the movie-within-a-movie reaches its absurd conclusion, in which Congo is beatified in a fascist-secular way, all to the tune of “Born Free.” (Throughout the film characters keep telling us that in English gangster means “free man,” an etymology I cannot find in any reputable source.) And that same device also causes him to take a journey of moral discovery. That journey is both simple and complex. Among the questions that occur to us are: Is Congo’s discovery true or is it an “act”? After all, the final shot could easily dissolve with the music from The Sweet Smell of Success, and I’m sure Congo would have been proud of that. But even assuming it is true, is it enough? And what next?

Koto, again in drag, this time as an avenging angel of nightmares, confronts Congo, who plays the victim he beheaded.

Koto, again in drag, this time as an avenging angel of nightmares, confronts Congo, who plays the victim he beheaded.

In the end, we come to several conclusions. Above all Act of Killing is a remarkably complex and oddly beautiful film. It is neither history nor real documentary, but rather a work of art. It therefore has both the attributes and deficits of art. It is a historical artifact that attempts a psychological and moral analysis of men who committed unfathomable crimes. In that it is destined to fail as all anecdotal accounts of evil are incapable of coming to a general truth. Nevertheless it uses art to undermine the false claims made by the killers, and maybe that is all that can be expected.

Suryono, victim himself, agrees to play victim in the killers' movie. Here he listens as Zulkadry makes the case for not making the movie at all.

Suryono, victim himself, agrees to play victim in the killers’ movie. Here he listens as Zulkadry makes the case for not making the movie at all.

But art itself is another way of distorting, “interpreting,” historical truth, and perhaps in a way less self-analytical than the killers’ own movie. Watching the film, nagging questions are raised about the nature of the narrative device. For example, all the shots in this film are complex, disturbing, and increasingly brutal, but ultimately beautifully staged. This is not something we expect from documentaries. How can intimate (and spontaneous) conversations be captured in perfectly framed shots without prior direction (especially when more than one camera is used)? And does that prior direction pollute the “truth” of the conversation? And what about the killers’ movie? Does it express what they wanted? Does it matter? These questions address a smaller part of the question that the movie embodies as a whole. Oppenheimer was an essential collaborator in the movie-within-a-movie as well as the scenes surrounding it. Does that contaminate the film? I suppose the answer has to depend on whether the content comports with your own view of how humans behave. There can be no other assurance. Maybe in the end all history follows a version of the uncertainty principle: If we try to learn something we disturb the very thing we are investigating and therefore can only know part.

As for the rest, it is hard to contemplate a more visually beautiful movie on such a morally debased subject. And the ambient sound, something that is normally smothered by music, is a marvel in its own right. That is something that becomes even more evident in the second film.

The Look of Silence (2014)

This second film, which is just now making its way around American art houses, offers both a simpler and more profound experience than Act of Killing. This is because it focuses not on multitudes of victims but just one and because it is seen not through the eyes of the criminals but those of the victim’s family.

Adi's mother has lived with a half century of memory amid silence and practiced forgetfulness.

Adi’s mother has lived with a half century of memory amid silence and practiced forgetfulness.

Early on in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera makes the observation that the history of atrocities has become so accelerated that we cannot remember: The massacre in Bangladesh replaced the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, which was covered over by Allende’s assassination, which was followed by the Sinai war, the Cambodian massacre, in a series without end. And so we remember nothing. Which is why Indonesia of 1965 has no power to hold us. Even if it happened in recent memory, hasn’t the recent civil wars in Congo killed five times as many? (Not that we follow that crisis either.) Our minds simply are not designed to understand, in any way that makes a difference, mass killings, which is why they occur so frequently and are so rarely punished.

But we are able to examine in minute particulars the unjust destruction of one life, the one thing we are given and the one thing we cherish above all else. And that is what The Look of Silence is about.

The other thing that makes this film more accessible is that the villains act in ways we understand—suspicious, wary of inquiry into their conduct and willing to threaten and maybe commit further crimes to keep the past hidden. It is reassuring that even in a land that celebrates paramilitary exercises and death squads, most criminals prefer to hide their crimes. And these circumstances provide the context for one of our favorite story-types: the intrepid searcher for truth who threatens to expose the dangerous and powerful. Except in this case, the story is true.

Like the first movie, this one deals with the killings in North Sumatra. These take place, not in the city as in Act of Killing, but in the rural countryside where the population consists of peasant farmers or plantation workers. International capital at the time wanted to move the population from subsistence farms to plantations harvesting valuable exports: rubber, palm oil, cocoa. So there already existed a substratum of thugs used to muscling the population, unlike the city where the killers were recruited among the unemployed urban gangsters. The organization that orchestrated the killings (and the forced plantation work) was the Kommando Aksi, a group, from the sample in this movie, that had none of the seemingly light-hearted frivolity of the urban gangsters. But this movie (just like the first) does not dwell on the particulars a traditional historian would be interested in: the dates, places, circumstances and social context of the events. We know only that it takes place in or near Aceh at a place called Snake River.

Adi Rikun watching video of his brothers' killers describing the deed.

Adi Rikun watching video of his brothers’ killers describing the deed.

At the center of the story is Adi Rukun, a 44 year old optometrist whose brother, Ramli, was murdered in a particularly gruesome way by the local death squad two years before Adi was born. Adi is shown to be a quiet and gentle family man. He has none of the swagger or boastfulness of the killers in the first movie, but he has a sustained intensity that can be seen in his eyes, an intensity that propels the movie along its tense and dangerous course.

Both of Oppenheimer’s titles have wordplays built into them. In this movie the “look” has multiple meanings. Facing the men complicit in his brother’s death, Adi’s only weapon is his fixed gaze, which betrays a determined, an unsubtle, moral clarity. It is fitting that he is an optometrist, and he uses this profession on two occasions to gain access to those he wants to interview, bringing with him a portable phoropter, a device designed to improve vision, continuing the central metaphor of the movie. His own eyes look deeply into the souls of the killers and also make the accusation that his soft voice never does. His eyes (and the camera) linger on the criminal long after he has stopped talking, and the stress this causes the accused is visible in his face. Adi’s eyes act like the eyes that haunted Anwar Congo in the first film, eyes of the man he beheaded which he failed to close and which come to him in his sleep.

Adi's ancient father bathing. Like society around him he is losing his memory and his sight.

Adi’s ancient father bathing. Like society around him the old man is losing his memory and his sight.

By contrast, his own father, now over 100, is nearly blind and losing his memory. His mother bathes her husband and puts him to bed. She doesn’t sleep with him any longer “because he smells of pee.” But she tenderly cares for him. She has not lost her memory. She clearly remembers the details of the night when her son came home, nearly disemboweled, begging for coffee and how the men hunted him down. They told her they were taking him to the hospital, but she knew better. They refused to let her come with him.

There is no doubt how Ramli died. Oppenheimer had filmed the killers themselves, walking down the same riverbank toward the Snake River, describe and even demonstrate dragging Ramli and the other victims, hacking him and cutting off his penis to finally let him bleed to death. His body seems to have been thrown into a well (a lubang buaya), although the bodies of thousands were tossed in the Snake River. (The corpses so polluted the river, we are told by a villager, that no one would buy fish any longer, fish that had eaten humans.) The incident was even recorded for posterity by a leader of the death squad who wrote and illustrated a book about the bodies thrown into the well. Oppenheimer films the man describing the killing and showing his book. His wife stands beside him, worshipping the hero. Adi would return late in the film with the book to the family of this man.

Securing the future by changing the past, always most effectively done with children.

Securing the future by changing the past, always most effectively done with children.

The film begins not with silence, but with a noisy elementary school. A male teacher is instructing the class in the elimination of the “communists,” eliciting responses as though it were a catechism. He drills them with propositions that the communists were cruel (he tells the children that they would slash people’s faces with razors and gouge their eyes out), that they denied God and were libertines. He explained that it was necessary to take them to prison and to keep their children from working for the government or becoming a policeman. When the students are asked what the heroes achieved, in one voice they shout “Democracy!”

Adi’s first task in this movie is to undo this teaching to his son. In a quiet conversation he tells his son that the communists were not cruel, they did not deny the existence of God. His son is quiet and respectful, but how is he to resolve the conflict between his loyalty to his father and the authority of his teacher? Adi has no first hand knowledge; he was not even born when the killings took place. Adi believes in family, as something you learn from and something you pass on. And while we see him adore his children, especially his young daughter, his idea of family is much more complex than that held by his wife. When she discovers that he embarked on the dangerous path of confronting his brother’s killers, she told him she would not have let him. Didn’t he think of the children? she asked. He has no answer. How could he? There is always a reason to be silent.

Adi’s wife is not the only one to counsel silence. An elderly lady tells him to forget the past. She said she knew that the communists were taken to the river but didn’t learn any details. Even Kemat, who had been one of those taken from prison on the trip with Ramli to be hacked to death and who made his escape and miraculously eluded recapture, even Kemat counseled forgetting: “It’s already covered up. It’s up to God to punish those who hurt our family and friends.”

The optical frames allows Adi to bore into Inong's soul.

The optical frames allow Adi (and us) to bore into Inong’s soul. It is a frightening place.

We meet the first killer in his forest property, an old man, named Inong, with his pet monkey on a leash. Adi begins examining him, adjusting the lenses to determine his prescription. Adi then begins asking questions quietly: Are your neighbors afraid of you? Inong answers in a matter of fact manner that they are and with good reason given his deeds in the old days. Inong needs little prompting to describe the killings.ƒ He tells of his work with a machete. He says that a woman’s breast when cut off looks like the inside of a coconut with all the fibers to filter milk. The woman was brought to him by her brother who was unable to kill her himself. It was tough business. One killer, he tells us, lost his mind in all the slaughter and would climb a palm tree to call for prayers. Fortunately, he took the precaution of drinking his victims’ blood and was able to retain his senses. It is he who explains the taste of human blood. When Adi, surprised by his description asks him what he said, Inong repeats that human blood tastes salty and sweet.

It took only a few gentle questions to unravel him. Adi accused him of hacking his victims, but he said that he only used one blow per victim. Adi asked him how he was able to cut the woman’s breast off and then kill her with one blow. Inong was flustered. When Adi began asking tougher questions Inong complained to Oppenheimer. It was “too deep”; it was all politics, which he didn’t want to discuss. (It has perhaps become commonplace that it is easier to motivate men to take up a cause that requires killing than it is for them to understand the nature of the cause.) The camera peered into his face for an uncomfortable length of time, but he did not blink.

The confrontations continue up the chain of responsibility and they become increasingly ominous. In a confronting with a local Kommando Aksi leader Adi points out that he became rich from his actions. When he tells him that his brother had been killed under his command, the killer asks for Adi’s address. Realizing the danger, Adi refuses, his resolve momentarily broken. At the local legislature, he confronts the leader of the regional Kommando Aksi, who claims his repeated re-elections showed the esteem he was held in. When Adi presses him further, he menacingly asserts: “If we keep asking the same questions, it will happen again, sooner or later.”

Interlaced with these confrontations, we see Adi’s father decline. In his dotage he says that he is 16. His wife asks him if he remembers his son’s name, but he keeps asking, “Whose son?” Finally, we see him, blind, pulling his useless legs across a patio unable to find his way out, crying that he had been put in a stranger’s house and begging for release. Forgetting gave him no relief.

In a pivotal scene Adi visits his uncle. Adi discovers that he had guarded the prison that Ramli was in and watched as the paramilitary group took them away by truck. He claimed he did not know what was to be done with them. In any event, he says, he was in the army and what could he do? He cannot even answer Adi’s question whether he “regretted” his role. He asks Adi to leave.

The final two confrontations involve the families of two killers. One, now senile, is with his daughter. The other (the one who had written the book containing Ramli’s death) is dead, and we see his wife and two sons. The reaction of relatives is intensely interesting. Not invested with the crimes, they make no excuses, except that they themselves didn’t know (however implausible that excuse was); they only want to avoid the subject. The pain inflicted when Adi reveals that he is Ramli’s brother is palpable. There is no escape from the consequences for the relatives of the victims or of the killers. Perhaps that is why the Israelites believed that God visited vengeance to the third and fourth generation.

Adi's children play with the larvae of butterflies, a metaphor with significance.

Adi’s children play with the larvae of butterflies, a metaphor with significance.

Like The Act of KillingThe Look of Silence is visually beautiful as well as suggestive. Danish cinematographer Lars Skree who shot both films is well-known for his personal courage and his ability to use filters, light, colors and post-production effects to create scenes that have almost mythological auras to them. He was director of photography for the Danish documentary Armadillo, which followed a Danish regiment into the Helmand Province of Southern Afghanistan. The scenes he achieved were mesmerizing, dangerous and intimate. (He won the Danish Roos Award for his work.) In The Look of Silence the framing, color, focus and extreme close-ups gives the audience a closeness that makes it hang on every word spoken.

Mother and son have a bond that goes beyond words over the son Rohani lost 50 years ago and the brother that Adi never had.

Mother and son have a bond that goes beyond words over the son Rohani lost 50 years ago and the brother that Adi never had.

The sound, once again, is remarkable. No musical tracks interfere, and nothing intrudes on the private, painful and deeply significant conversations that the characters have with each other. But the sound space is filled with quiet noises, forest sounds, animals, surrounding ambiance, which has the effect of putting the conversations in a three-dimensional world, of highlighting them and of making us quiet for fear of missing a nuance. The scene in which Adi tells his mother that he has been confronting the killers is tense, slow and emotional, filled with pauses. She alone does not discourage him. She only advises him to be careful, to go armed and if necessary deliver a blow right behind the neck to fell an assailant. (The scene quickly cuts to killers explaining how they beheaded by striking in just such a place. Where murder is riot, everyone knows technique.) The close up shows that Adi and his mother understood each other, that they shared the belief in the need to end the silence.

When the film ends the very real danger, the fact that this nation still remains a place of darkness, is quietly proved by the credits: position after position is noted with only “anonymous.” Adi and his family were relocated after the filming for their own safety.

The Act of Killing is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and can be streamed from Amazon’s video serviceThe Look of Silence was released in the US in July and is making its way among art houses around the country.


*That film was The Globilisation Tapes, made by the members of the international plantation workers union PERBBUNI, as an organization tool. Among other things it shows the inhuman working conditions forced on palm oil plantation workers today. It is currently hosted on YouTube and can be seen by following this link. The film is didactic and somewhat naive in its aims, but it shows what Suharto’s New Order brought about. Oppenheimer first saw the unabashed ways in which the killers described their participation filming this movie and early on you can see another killer describe his participation, egged on by a proud wife.

The Unpunished Crimes of John Chivington

It will not take long for the attentive reader to discover parallels between events this week and an event that took place 150 years ago today. Here’s the story.

At sunrise on Tuesday, November 29, 1864, John S. Smith, special Indian agent and interpreter was awakened by Indians who ran into his camp and told that U.S. soldiers were approaching their village. Black Kettle, chief of the Cheyenne band lodging there, had already taken precautions. He raised the U.S. flag that he had been presented by Colonel A.B. Greenwood years before and tied under it a small white flag, as he had been instructed to do to show that his villagers were not hostile to American troops. Smith left his camp to advise the troops (thinking them unfamiliar with the area) that the Indians were friendly.

He discovered troops under Lieutenant Luther Wilson, a battalion of the 1st Colorado cavalry from Fort Lyon. Since Smith had been sent to the Indian encampment by U.S. Indian Agent Major S.G. Colley with the express permission of Major Scott J. Anthony, commander of Fort Lyon, and since he was known by the troops, Smith had every reason to believe he would be able to discuss the matter with them. Instead, they began to fire on him. He ran back to his camp.

The U.S. troops swept through the camp. Almost all the male Indians escaped, some on horseback. But the troops did not follow. Instead they were engaged in mopping up operations around camp.

John Milton Chivington. (Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Dept.)

John Milton Chivington. (Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Dept.)

Smith emerged once again from his camp, and Colonel John Chivington, the commander of the attack recognized him and called him to come forward. Smith ran as fast as he could, and Chivington had him get on the other side of him, away from the troops. There was no spare horse, so Lieutenant Baldwin had him hold on to the caisson. Smith thus followed the Major and Lieutenant viewing what must have been a surreal scene. Soldiers were firing on small groups of Indians, mostly women and children, almost none of which had weapons.

Major Anthony testifying before a joint congressional committee on the matter in March, tried, for obvious reasons, to put a good face on this matter, but it was difficult for him; he was repeatedly caught in contradictions. He said he had only seen one attempt by a soldier to mutilate a corpse. One soldier scalped a woman next to Chivington. But perhaps, Anderson said, she had not been scalped; maybe her head was grazed by a bullet. He did volunteer that a squaw who had been mortally wounded drew her babies to her and cut their throats. “That was not done by our men,” Anderson asserted. He did recall another incident:

There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, traveling on the sand. I saw one man get off his horse, a distance of about seventy-five yards, and draw his rifle and fire—he missed the child, another man came up and said, “Let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him.” He got down off his horse, kneeled down and fired at the little child, but missed him. And third man came up and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.

If Major Anderson did not see any mutilations, other soldiers did. Affidavits sent to Congress from Denver detailed “dead bodies of women and children were horribly mutilated,” said Private David Louderback of the 1st Colorado cavalry. Lieutenant James D. Cannan of the 1st New Mexico volunteer infantry said he heard “of one instance of a child a few months old being thrown in a feed-box of a wagon, and after being carried some distance, left on the ground to perish. I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females, and stretched them over the saddle-bows, and wore them over their hats, while riding in the ranks.”

Painting by Robert Lindneaux (1871-1970) of surprise attack by troops under Major John Chivington on November 29, 1864 at the Big Bend on Sand Creek. (Reproduction NPS. Colorado History.)

Painting by Robert Lindneaux (1871-1970) of surprise attack by troops under Major John Chivington on November 29, 1864 at the Big Bend on Sand Creek. (Reproduction NPS. Colorado History.)

Smith was forced to see the battlefield with Chivington but all he would say was that a large majority of the dead bodies were of women and children, “all of whose bodies had been mutilated in the most horrible manner.” Chivington wanted him to view the old men to see if he could identify any chiefs. Smith couldn’t tell if a body was of Black Kettle; it was so mutilated he couldn’t tell one way or the other. But that was not the end of the trauma for Smith.  He testified:

I had a half-breed son there, who gave himself up. He started at the time the Indians fled; being a half-breed he had but little hope of being spared, and seeing them fire at me, he ran away with the Indians for the distance of about a mile. During the fight up there he walked back to my camp and went into the lodge. It was surrounded by soldiers at the time. He came in quietly and sat down; he remained there that day, that night, and the next day in the afternoon; about four o’clock in the evening, as I was sitting inside the camp, a soldier came up outside of the lodge and called me by name. I got up and went to have; he took me by the arm and walked towards Colonel Chivington’s camp, which was about sixty yards from my camp. Said he, “I am sorry to tell you, but they are going to kill your son Jack.” I knew the feeling towards the whole camp of Indians, and that there was no use to make any resistance. I said, “I can’t help it.” I then walked on towards where Colonel Chivington was standing by his camp-fire; when I had got within a few feet of him I heard a gun fired, and saw a crowd run to my lodge, and they told me that Jack was dead.

Anthony testified that he told Chivington before the execution that Jack Smith was not only friendly but could provide useful intelligence against the hostile Indians (he had in the past):

Colonel Chivington replied, “I have given my instructions; have told my men not take any prisoners. I have no further instructions to give.” I replied to him that he could make that man very useful, and I thought that perhaps he had better give the men to understand that he did not want him killed. The colonel replied again, “I said at the start that I did not want any prisoners taken, and I have no further instructions to give.”

The news of the massacre spread East and ignited a firestorm. The intelligence was not only that Chivington had committed heinous crimes, but also that the entire surprise attack had been undertaken against Indians under U.S. Army protection.

And the latter part, which makes the entire proceeding inconceivable, was not only true but Chivington took part in the meeting during which that protection was arranged. But he was part of the faction in the Territory that held that all Indians were responsible for depredations and at the time no one was in a mood to make fine distinctions.

The mountains around Denver had gold, and the area was undergoing a similar rush that had taken place in California a decade and a half previously. But the gold here could not be panned for. It required mining equipment, and hence Eastern capital. Any interruption in operations would make capital more expensive, if not dry it up altogether.

The Cheyenne, Arapahoes and several other nations had a treaty with the United States since 1851 granting most of what is now eastern Colorado and parts of surrounding states. The gold rush that began in 1858 saw easterners streaming through the Indian territory with many settling on it. In 1861 S.B. Greenwood was able to negotiate with the Arapahoes and the southern portion of the Cheyenne to accept a drastically reduced territory. The northern Cheyenne balked. The year 1864 was particularly bad, when the “Dog Soldiers,” as the non-settling Cheyenne were called, began depredations on the settlers around Denver. Beginning in June regular reports were spread of settlers attacked, sometimes killed. More worrisome to the inhabitants of Denver was the interruption of mail and other supply trains. By September many in Denver were beginning to fear mass starvation, especially if the Indian prevented the fall harvest.

Captain S.M. Robbins, Chief of Chivington’s calvary, but who was not present during the attack, tried to offer one word of exculpation to Congress on behalf of Chivington:

For a year and a half past there has been a state of war existing between the Indians and the whites, as far as the opinion of the Indians were concerned; whether by the authority of the head chiefs or not we cannot tell. At all events, the interruption of communication on the Arkansas route and on the Platte route raised the price of everything consumed by the people out here. And the people emphatically demanded that something should be done. The point I wish to make is, that perhaps Colonel Chivington might have been forced into this by the sentiment of the people.

Question [By Representative Daniel Wheelwright Gooch]. Would the sentiment of the people lead a man to attack Indians who were known to be friendly, and who were known to be trying to avert hostilities?

Answer. I should say it would. They wanted some Indians killed; whether friendly or not they did not stop to inquire.

The people demanded a hero or a butcher, it didn’t matter which. Chivington was uniquely willing to give them what they wanted.

Chivington had come from Ohio, near Cincinnati, born in 1821. Married at 18, he had three children in short order, whom he supported as an apprentice carpenter. At 21 he was “born again” at a religious revival and studied to become a preacher. Two years later he was in the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Ohio. He travelled about as an “itinerant” in Illinois, Missouri and Kansas, serving in the last place as a missionary to the Wyandot Indians. When Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, he became a warm abolitionist and soon Republican. He attempted to turn the slave-state of Missouri Republican from his pulpit, where, it was said, he kept revolvers. He moved to Omaha where he rose in the ranks of the church and joined the Masons. In 1860 he named presiding elder of the M.E.C. church in Denver, at a time when the city was enjoying the first blush of the gold boom.

With the Southern rebellion turning into hot war, Chivington saw his ambition and abolition sentiments merge into a new idée fixe: military and ultimately political preferment through military valor. He was offered a commission as military chaplain, but he made it clear he meant to fight. In 1861 he was commissioned a major in the 1st Colorado Regiment. This required him to engage in recruiting to fill his battalion. He did this while continuing to preach. Chivington’s massive frame and bold talk attracted men to him. But his sharp elbows made enemies with long memories of his superiors and peers.

Chivington’s commanding officer Colonel John P. Slough immediately took a dislike to him over his drilling practices. On their way to their first engagement (to prevent an attack in New Mexico by Confederate General H.H. Sibley), Slough called for Chivington’s court-martial, labelling him a “crazy preacher who thinks he is Napoleon Bonaparte.” But military necessity soon intervened. Chivington found himself in a shooting war, and he came to life. Riding around in a hail of bullets with a revolver in each hand and one under each arm, Chivington cut the dashing figure, avoided being shot and earned the respect of his men. In Apache Canyon, Slough directed Chivington to flank the enemy’s camp at the end of the canyon. On the way Chivington fell on the Confederate’s supply train, consisting of 60 wagons. Chivington destroyed the supplies and a 6-pounder gun and took 15 prisoners including two officers.

That event changed Slough’s opinion. When Slough resigned (due to lack of activity) in April 1862, Chivington’s men wrote an ardent petition that Chivington be appointed in his place. Chivington was appointed colonel, much to the disappointment of Slough’s next in command, Lt. Col. Samuel F. Tappan, a man who would dog Chivington the rest of his life.

Governor John Evans. (Colorado State Archives.)

Governor John Evans. (Colorado State Archives.)

The colonelcy was not Chivington’s final ambition, however. He was looking for a brigadier generalship as a stepping stone for a political career. He twice applied, the first time traveling to Washington to press his case to Secretary of War Edward Stanton himself. Chivington was warmly endorsed by the governor of the Colorado Territory, John Evans, who would become his political ally in the coming crisis. Slough even recommended him. Then a curious thing happened. Slough wrote to Stanton withdrawing his recommendation and made a stunning charge:

Judge Hall late Chief Justice of Colorado has just informed me that when I was Colonel of the Regiment and Chivington Major, he and others conspired for my assassination and that the attempt was made when en route to New Mexico in February and March 1862. The object was to secure the Colonelcy to Chivington who was recognized as a better military man than the Lt. Col. and the promotion of the other conspirators. . . . The base attempt upon my life was frustrated by Providence.

Nothing came of the charge, but then again Chivington was not promoted. And he left the army.

Recruiting poster for Chivington's 100-day men.

Recruiting poster for Chivington’s 100-day men.

But he was not done. Possibly with the backing of Governor Evans in 1864 he was appointed to command the Third Colorado Calvary, made up of hundred day men. It was a short time-table to deal with what was regarded as wide-spread Indian threats, and Colonel Chivington was a man with a short fuse. He avowed his purpose: “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”

Chivington and Evans were on the total-extermination side of the debate. But there were cooler heads (although not bleeding hearts), especially in the professional army). On September 4, 1864, Major Edward W. Wynkoop, commanding at Fort Lyon, received from three Cheyenne men approaching the fort a letter, written by a “half-bred” in the Cheyenne camp (possibly Jack Smith?) on behalf of Black Kettle and other Cheyenne and Arapahoe chiefs. The letter said the Indians desired peace and they had in their possession white women and children who they were willing to turn over if they could achieve peace terms.

Major E.W. Wyncoop (Photographer and date unknown.)

Major E.W. Wynkoop (Photographer and date unknown.)

Wynkoop, desiring to obtain the release of the hostages, took 120 men and rendezvoused with the Indians, even though they claimed thy had a congregation of two thousand. The assemblage turned out to be mostly old men, women and children. Many men were following thee buffalo, and those hostile inclined had left to join the Dog Soldiers. The old chiefs were desperate for peace for their people, who couldn’t fight in any event. Wynkoop was able to obtain the release of the four hostages simply on the promise of attempting to obtain some sort of peace for them. He felt confident that he could at least extend the protection of the U.S. Army over them in light of the fact that Governor Evans had on August 11 issued a proclamation advising friendly Indians to repair to Fort Lyon, Fort Larned, Fort Laramie or Camp Collins “for safety and protection” while at the same time authorizing “all citizens of Colorado, either individually or in such parties as they may organize, to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians … to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, where they may be found, all such hostile Indians.” The bloody proclamation had one (and only one) caveat: “scrupulously avoiding those who have responded to my said call in rendezvous at the points indicated …”

Photograph of the delegation of chiefs meeting in Denver in September 1864. Black Kettle is shown second from the left in the bottom row.(National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Suitland, Maryland.)

Photograph of the delegation of chiefs meeting in Denver in September 1864. Black Kettle is shown second from the left in the bottom row. (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Suitland, Maryland.)

Wynkoop arranged for a delegation of the friendly Cheyenne and Arapahoe chiefs to meet in Denver with Governor Evans, the acting superintendent of Indian affairs for the district. The meeting took place on September 28, 1864. Colonel Chivington was present. The Indians pressed their desire for peace, pointing out they took great risks in coming to Denver for the meeting. Despite his earlier call for the Indians to seek protection, however, Governor Evans tried to wash his hands of the matter. He said they would have to treat with the military for any protection and turned the matter over to Chivington. The colonel told the meeting that he would leave it to Wynkoop and that whatever the major arranged, he would honor. On return to Fort Lyon, Wynkoop invited the chiefs to bring in their families. Two weeks later they all arrived at the fort. Wynkoop began issuing them provisions.

Meanwhile, in Denver political intrigue by the hardliners arranged to have Wynkoop removed from Fort Lyon. He was replaced by Major Scott J. Anthony.

Anthony was above all a cautious man. At least, he was cautious as it concerned his own interests. He had no real fixed view on how to resolve the Indian problems. He was, however, not particularly sympathetic to their view. He was aware that his superior Major General Samuel R. Curtis had issued orders that Indians were not to be permitted inside forts without blindfolds and only for specific reasons. Curtis had only been recently assigned to Indian duty, having spent much of 1864 fighting Confederates in Missouri, and he was not used to dealing with Indians. On the other hand, Anthony found himself in a situation where his predecessor had offered the protection of the flag to a group of Indians, which was seemingly endorsed by the Governor and a colonel of the Colorado militia.

He tried to split the difference. He demanded that Black Kettle’s band and the Arapahoes give up their arms and all the property they stole from the whites. The chiefs readily agreed. Anthony reported that there were so few weapons and almost no ammunition, so the Indians could not have fought if they wanted to. They also returned a few pack animals. They camped outside the fort, and Anthony issued them provisions. What seems to have changed his policy (he could never explain it convincingly to the congressional investigating committee) was the dearness of provisions. With the rising price and increasing scarcity of everything, it became problematic to provide for the large number of mostly helpless Indians. Of course, the reason thee Indians were so pliable was the scarcity of food and their own inability to hunt. Nevertheless, Anthony ordered them away from the fort. He suggested they move on to Sand Creek. He told them he would advise them if he received any communication from his superiors to their request for peace terms.

Anthony J. Scott. Engraving from unknown book, linked at (which omits mention of Anthony's participation at the Sand Creek Massacre.)

Scott J. Anthony. Engraving from unknown book, uploaded to (which omits mention of Anthony’s participation at the Sand Creek Massacre.)

Over the next 12 days or so he was in communication with the Indians at Sand Creek. He twice received reports from One Eye, a Cheyenne chief, of bands of Dog Soldiers in the area. There was also Jack Smith there, who Anthony relied on for intelligence.

Then on November 28, Colonel Chivington arrived. His arrival completely surprised the fort. He sent no word in advance. In fact he prevented all mail and other communications in the area from reaching the fort so that he would not be discovered. (No one, including Chivington, ever explained why he took these measures. Perhaps he believed that someone at the fort would tip off the Indians he intended to ambush.)

When Chivington arrived that night, he disclosed his intention to attack the Indians at Sand Creek at dawn. He asked Anthony to provide additional men (Chivington having no command authority over Anthony), and Anthony agreed.

Having told the congressional committee that he assured Black Kettle that he would advise him of any response to his peace requests, he should have expected this question:

Question [by Missouri Congressman Benjamin Franklin Loan]: Did you send any word to Black Kettle that you intended to attack him or his band at any time?

Answer. None, whatsoever. It was a surprise, made without any notice whatever to them.

Anthony seemed unprepared for the consternation. Didn’t he offer them protection? Not in so many words. Didn’t he consider them his prisoners? No, he was under orders to fight all Indians, and he felt free to attack even this band, even after they offered to surrender and even while inside the army camp. So why didn’t he? Well, he thought that would lead to a general Indian war. But I thought you said you thought there was already a war, and that’s why you were justified any Indians you could. Yes, but we didn’t feel we could take on the 3,000 warriors we were told were in the area. So why did you go with Chivington to attack these same Indians? I thought we would go on and confront the larger hostile band.

It turned out that this could never have been the intention of Chivington because he did not pursue any who fled. Instead he stayed to massacre the women and children.

Anthony, trying to impress on the committee that the attack was not a craven slaughter, attempted to inflate the number of Indian warriors. As the number of casualties were subtracted there was a number of 500 warriors, according to Anthony’s calculation, unaccounted for. He explained that they must have run off.

Question. Was your command a mounted command?

Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. How did the remainder of the Indians escape?

Answer. On foot.

Question. What kind of country was it?

Answer. Prairie country, slightly rolling; grass very short.

Question. Do you say that Colonel Chivington’s command of 700 mounted men allowed 500 of these Indians to escape?

Answer. Yes, sir; and we ourselves lost 49 in killed and wounded.

Question. Why did you not pursue the flying Indians and kill them?

Answer. I do not know; that was the fault I found with Colonel Chivington at the time.

The inference to be drawn was plain: Chivington had no desire to pursue anyone that might fire back. He was content with slaughtering women, children and old men. In fact, the army never went on to pursue the 3,000 “warriors” supposedly beyond the peaceful encampment.

When the committee issued its report, excoriating Chivington, it highlighted the testimony of Anthony, which, it found, was “sufficient of itself to show how unprovoked and unwarranted was this massacre.” But neither Anthony (who mustered out of the Army on January 22, 1865) nor Chivington (who left the service on January 8, 1865) were subject to court-martial for the outrages. Nor was there any hope for local prosecution. In fact, just the opposite, Chivington had become a hero locally. The editorial of the Rocky Mountain News, which first broke the assault in Denver, was effusive: “Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results.”

It was clear to those who reproved his craven attack that Chivington was seeking political office or had some ulterior motive for striking a defenseless, friendly camp of Indians. The U.S. marshal for Colorado, A.C. Hall, thought he was looking for promotion. “He had read of Kit Carson, General Harvey, and others, who had become noted for their Indian fighting.” D.D. Colley, son of Major Colley, thought that he wanted to dispatch Indians quickly so as to rendezvous his forces to strike rebels in Texas. General Curtis thought the fault lay in the promotion given those involved in the Ash Hallow Massacre a decade before. No one offered a plausible military justification.

In fact, many believed that the slaughter increased the attacks by hostile Indians that winter. The army’s “voice of reason” in the vicinity, General Curtis, who condemned Chivington’s actions mostly on grounds of military regularity, told General Halleck, Army Chief of Staff, that he did not believe the increased attacks stemmed from Chivington. He reasoned on purely racist grounds: “The Indians of the plains are generally robbers and murderers, and act only from motives of hunger and avarice in their assaults, and by fear in their forbearance.” There was not much room between Chivington’s view of a solution to the Indian crisis and regular Army’s. And so the Indian war would be driven to a genocidal conclusion.

Although he was celebrated locally, he never achieved the political offices he thought he deserved. When he ran for Congress, the Republicans nominated another, perhaps wisely understanding that Chivington would find no ally in Washington Republicans. But he was repeatedly celebrated in Colorado and even held local office. Two years before his death he was Denver’s coroner (in which office he was accused of stealing money from a corpse). He never felt it was enough, and he sued the federal government for expenses of his expedition. (He won nothing.) Later in life a series of scandals surrounded his name, including accusations that he committed arson to recover on insurance. He was also arrested for forging a promissory note in his wife’s name. The sum of all of these later crimes, for which he escaped punishment as well, pales in comparison to the butchery on November 29, 1864, but suggests that Chivington was perhaps a sociopath. But for his great crime he escaped because the country that produced him was equally sociopathic, scrambling for gold, prostrate before Eastern capital, willing to break faith and shed blood for their enrichment. And the principle way to excuse the crimes they all wanted committed was to convince themselves that the victims had forfeited their right to live by failing to submit to the demands of the superior race.

Some things remain the same 150 years later.


Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston: [1971]).

Lori Cox-Paul, “John M Chivington: The ‘Reverend Colonel’ ‘Marry-Your-Daughter’ ‘Sand Creek Massacre,’” 88 Nebraska History 126-137, 142-147 (2007).

Obituary, “Col. Chivington, Preacher and Soldier,” New York Times, October 14, 1894, p. 23.

United States Senate, “Massacre of Cheyenne Indians,” Report of the Joint Committee on The Conduct of the War. Senate Report No. 142, 38th Congress, Second Session (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office: 1865).

Dawn of the Classical Age: The Globalization of the Early Iron Age

“Assyria to Iberia” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Recently New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened another important exhibition displaying objects gathered from international collections, selected and arranged to show the cultural interactions of a large geographical area at a critical time in human history. Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age, which runs to January 4, 2015, assembles art from Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, Anatolia, Greece, Crete, Cyprus and Mediterranean outposts along North Africa, Italy and Iberia at the beginning of the Iron Age.

1. Mycenaen soldier from Artemis sanctuary at Delos. (Ivory. Late Bronze Age, 14th-13th Century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Delos, Greece.)

1. Mycenaen soldier from Artemis sanctuary at Delos. (Ivory. Late Bronze Age, 14th-13th Century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Delos, Greece.) All images in this post may be enlarged by clicking on them. The photos are of objects in the Met exhibition (although not necessarily photos of their setting in the museum), unless indicated by an asterisk (*) preceding the title.

The heart of the time period covered is 900-600 B.C.E. when iro-forging technology became pretty much universal, although the events of the previous three centuries, the cultures that made them the Age of Heroes to later generations as well as how their political and commercial hegemony was brought down, thereby ushering in the world that would germinate Western Civilization are essential to the story. This first four centuries of the first millennium B.C.E was an age of great cultural and intellectual (not to mention artistic) importance to Western Civilization. It was a time when extensive cultural interchange took place from Iran to the Strait of Gibraltar. Spurred by those two major spurs of human innovation—commerce and conquest—the interconnected societies developed a global style where theme, techniques, visions and symbols were shared among different societies, spurring new cultural expression. The museum show, of course, emphasizes the visual arts and physical culture of the people, but it was also a time of great literary importance, so much so that much of what was written is still read and discussed today.

In Canaan, the principal part of the classical Hebrew canon was finalized: the editors of the Torah were compiling and editing various myths of Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt to fashion the origin legends of the Hebrews, while others were trying to harmonize the monarchist and antimonarchist stories of the early states of Israel and Judah to come to some sort of foundation story from which arguments of legitimacy and authority would thereafter be framed. To the west, in the Aegean sphere, Homer and Hesiod essentially invented Western literature with works that not only inspired generations up to our own time, but also provided the measure by which imaginative literature would be judged. The literary activities of the Levant and Greece harkened back to an earlier time. Hesiod saw the generation of the Late Bronze Age as peopled with ferocious heroes:

“They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armor was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.” (Hesiod, Works and Days 145-55; Loeb ed.)

Hesiod was quite explicit that his current time, the Iron Age, was degenerate. His Hebrew contemporaries implicitly agreed.

Stele of Ashurbanipal, in pose used based ancient kings as temple builders. From Esagil Temple, Babylon. (Marble. 668-665 B.C.E. British Museum.) Ashurbanipal restored the major temple of Babylon, which had been destroyed by his grandfather Sennacherib, when he sacked Babylon for its rebellion against Assyrian rule.

2. Stele of Ashurbanipal, in pose used based ancient kings as temple builders. From Esagil Temple, Babylon. (Marble. 668-665 B.C.E. British Museum.) Ashurbanipal restored the major temple of Babylon, which had been destroyed by his grandfather Sennacherib, when he sacked Babylon for its rebellion against Assyrian rule.

In the East the Assyrian kings would not have conceded that the Mediterranean race of the Bronze Age loved deeds of violence more than they. They commissioned art to show that now was the most valiant of times and they the most ferocious of kings, but to do so even they invoked ancient customs and standards to measure their own deeds. Ashurbanipal (#2), perhaps the king most certain of his place in history, collected one of the largest libraries of the ancient world in his palace at Nineveh. Thousands of baked clay tablets recorded his correspondence and military campaigns. But the library also preserved the history of the Akkadian people. Ashurbanipal collected not only king lists but the very best of ancient literature, including Gilgamesh, the creation epic and flood story, and the story of Adapa. Eastern tradition (probably untrue) has it that Alexander the Great saw his library and determined to create one of his own. He did not live to do so, but Ptolemy I fulfilled his dream at Alexandria. But that would be several centuries in the future.

However much literary men preferred the Bronze Age which had been swept away, it was the during the Iron Age that global interconnections were formed that would cross-fertilize new societies and provide the soil from which the Classical Period of Western Civilization would spring. The Met exhibition strikingly shows how intimately interconnected the new Iron Age world order was—a world order which basically survived until it would be rooted up and replaced with a Hellenistic one by Alexander himself.

Social and Economic Reorganization on Land and Sea

Relief inside Temple at Abu Simbel (Nubia), showing Ramesees II at the Battle of Kadesh. (ca. 1244 B.C.E.)

3. *Relief inside Temple at Abu Simbel (Nubia), showing Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (see Map 2, below). (ca. 1273 B.C.E.)

During the late Bronze Age, say around 1200 B.C.E., there were three big powers on the Eastern Mediterranean: The Mycenaeans were based in mainland Greece, but had settlements on the Palestine coast as well as the islands of the Aegean and Mediterranean. They also had trading partners in Anatolia, Palestine and Egypt. In Asia, the Hittites had possession of all of Anatolia and controlled Syria and the western Levant down to where they met Egyptian controlled land stretching from the South. The Hittites had once, 400 or so years before, been the major power in the Middle East having even sacked Babylon ca. 1590 B.C.E.  The kingdom was weakened by the expenditures of that campaign, and the Hittites didn’t even rule over Babylon, instead that fell to the Kassites, a mysterious people who were neither Semitic nor Indo-European and may have been the Hittites’ ally or perhaps their rival. The strife within the Hatti kingdom that followed tempted Egypt, the third great Mediterranean power of the late Bronze Age, into the Hittites’ sphere of influence, and in 1274 B.C.E. the Egyptian forces stumbled into a Hittite chariot ambush at Qadesh in western Syria. The Egyptians rallied from near disaster and fought to a draw before withdrawing to Egypt. A decade later the two powers agreed to a détente, dividing their respective spheres of influence approximately at Qadesh (see Map 2, below).

*Detail of relief from Mortuary Temple (Medinet Habu) of Ramesees III depicting Battle of the Delta, 1178 B.C.E. (Luxor.) (Represented in the exhibit by a photograph.)

4. *Detail of relief from Mortuary Temple (Medinet Habu) of Ramesses III depicting Battle of the Delta, 1178 B.C.E. (Luxor.) (Represented in the exhibit by a photograph.)

Beginning about 1200 B.C.E. a great dark age descended on the region which obscures our understanding of the period. But by 1000 B.C.E. the Mycenaean Palace States were destroyed, the Hittite Kingdom in Anatolia collapsed and the Twentieth Dynasty in Egypt ended and with it the New Kingdom itself. These developments seem all to be related to waves of new peoples entering the region. In the case of the Mycenaeans the people Homer called Achaeans (the people we conventionally call the “greeks” when referring ot the Trojan conflict) may have been the invaders that overthrew them. As Homer describes them, they seem to have been a collection of warlords and their vassals, who during this same time captured or at least sacked Ilion (Troy). For their part, the Hittites were defeated by the Phrygians from the north, possibly partly owing to the frontier’s defenselessness without Ilion’s protection. The Egyptians also faced new invaders. Ramesees III recorded three major battles with a set of mercenaries or invaders whom he called the “People of the Sea.” The inscription at Medinet Habu (Thebes) says that these people despoiled the coast of Palestine, but his Egyptian army defeated them each time they met and captured many prisoners. These peoples represented a confederation of migrating groups, from Anatolia, the Aegean or even Europe. Among the peoples were the Philistines who eventually settled in Palestine (which gets its name from this people) and eventually assimilated the customs and religious practices of the indigenous Canaanites.

Mycenaean Helmet from Sparta tomb reconstructed with boar's teeth from tomb, according to designs on pottery and description in Homer. (13th Century. From K. Demakopolou (ed.), The Mycenaean World: Five Centuries of Greek Culture, 1600-1100 BC. (Athens: Greek Ministry of Culture: 1988), p. 237.

5. *Mycenaean Helmet from Sparta tomb reconstructed with boars’ tusks found in the tomb, according to designs on pottery and description in Homer. 13th Century. From Demakopoulou (1988), p. 237. (Cf. #1., above.)

What made the three great powers so susceptible to attack by hitherto unknown invaders is a mystery. But the Hittites came to power and dominated the Near East when they had a near monopoly on iron smelting. At the end of the Bronze Age that technology was widely disseminated and so the technological advantage of the established powers was neutralized. Another hint is provided by the artifacts. The small (11.8 x 6 cm.) ivory plaque at the head of this post shows a Mycenaean soldier (#1). Aside from the fairly unwieldy 8-shaped shield, he has no other armor other than his helmet. The helmet, however, is hardly practical (see #5). According to a description in Homer (Iliad X:260-265; Loeb ed.) and designs on pottery and other plaques, the helmet is made up of rows of boars’ teeth (arranged in rows with alternating curves). The helmet in the plaque may also show cheek guards (of brass or leather). But given the helmet required the tusks of scores of boars, it must have been quite expensive to produce and therefore only available to the wealthiest of warriors. Armies led by ostentatious war lords probably start off at a disadvantage when fighting savage invaders.

*Stele of Kassite King of Babylonia Melishipak I , presenting his daughter to goddess Nanaya, consort to the scribe god Nabu. The stele is to commemorate a land grant. Above the figures are the celestial images of the three major Mesopotamian gods. (Black limestone. 1186–1172 B.C.E. Louvre). The piece was excavated at Susa, where it had been taken by the Elamites as war booty in 1158 B.C.E.

6. *Stele of Kassite King of Babylonia Melishipak I , presenting his daughter to goddess Nanaya, consort to the scribe god Nabu. The stele is to commemorate a land grant. Above the figures are the celestial images of the three major Mesopotamian gods. (Black limestone. 1186–1172 B.C.E. The Louvre). The piece was excavated at Susa, where it had been taken by the Elamites as war booty in 1158 B.C.E.

In the east the close of the Bronze Age saw the end of the 500-year rule of Babylonia by the Kassites. The kingdom had lost much territory to the rising power of Assyria, which became powerful enough to strike deep into the south and even to twice sack Babylon itself and to render that kingdom a vassal. Around 1200 B.C.E., hoqwcwe, during internal fighting within Assyria, Babylonia was able to recover all but the northern parts of its kingdom. The Late Bronze Age Collapse which brought down the Mediterranean powers had no effect on Mesopotamia, but by 1155 B.C.E. the Kassite Dynasty was overthrown by a combination of Assyrian invaders from the north and Elamite invaders from the east. A native Semitic regime rose up and drove the Elamites out of southern Babylonia, but could not expel Assyria from the north. Nevertheless, this dynasty lasted 200 years and then succumbed to more Kassite and Elamite invasions. It took an Assyrian invasion in 911 B.C.E. to drive out the non-Semitic peoples, and then Assyria established its rule over Babylonia for the next three centuries.

Winged guardian hand pollinating stylized date palm. From Ashurnasirpal II's Northwst Palace at Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. ca 880 B.C.E. Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachussets.)

7. Winged genie (apkallu) hand pollinating stylized date palm. From Ashurnasirpal II’s Northwest Palace at Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. ca 880 B.C.E. Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts.) This relief was located in Room F of the palace, shown in the schematic #15, below.

Assyria proper, the land of the winged bull Ashur, lay above the flood plains of Babylonia in the hills between the Tigris and Euphrates, but the Assyrian congregated mostly on the eastern part along the main branch of the Tigris. It was physically hemmed in at its east and north by mountains (the Zagros Mountains, the Armenian Upland and the Anatolian Plateau). To its west it faced the Aramaeans, who constantly harassed its trade to the Mediterranean and occasionally threatened its territory. The Aramaeans occupied most of Syria and much of the Levant, but they never united into one state. When the Hittite Empire collapsed, the Hittites moved into Syria and mingled with the Aramaean population. In the middle of the Second Millennium B.C.E. Assyria expanded into the steppes to its northwest with its fertile farmlands, north of the bulk of Aramaeans and east of the Hittites. By providing fair administration of the land, the Assyrians won the allegiance of some Aramaeans living there who assimilated. Briefly Assyria also conquered Syria all the way to the Mediterranean, but was pushed back. Assyria also aggressively pushed south into Babylonia. Since Elam was also seeking the same territory, the two powers clashed, but Assyria defeated the Elamites and subdued Babylonia. Although Assyria did not succumb to the Late Bronze Age Collapse, from 1200 B.E.C. for about 270 years Assyria was subject to rivalries for the throne and instability was the rule. At least two kings were deposed by relatives, something unheard of among earlier Assyrians. Surrounding peoples took advantage of the unrest and chipped away at Assyrian territory. Assyria shrank within its Mesopotamian borders until the reign of Ashur Dan II, which began in 935 B.C.E. This king reinvigorated the administration and began repelling the Aramaeans and other tribal peoples who had encroached on Assyrian territory and by the end of his reign (912 B.C.E.) Ashur Dan II had restored Assyria to its natural boundaries.

Thus, at the beginning of the 9th Century B.C.E. the world of the Mediterranean was no longer dominated by major powers and because those powers had maintained it, the Mediterranean maritime trade system had broken down. There was a political vacuum from Syria to Greece and throughout the Levant. And both empire and commerce abhor a vacuum. It would be Assyria that would attempt the empire and the Phoenicians who would tend to global commerce. The result was a globalization that would put its mark on modern Western Civilization from its beginning.

Map 1: The Near East in the early Iron Age.

Map 1: The Near East in the early Iron Age.

The Assyrian Empire and Imperial Art

Stele of Tukulti-Ninurta IIs defeating Araean-Hittites at Lakē from Tell Ashara Terqa on the Euphrates. Basalt orthostat. mid-9th Century B.C.E. Aleppo National Museum.)

8. *Stele of Tukulti-Ninurta II’s victory over Aramean-Hittites at Laqȗ. From Tell Ashara (Terqa) on the Euphrates. (Basalt orthostat. Mid-9th Century B.C.E. Aleppo National Museum, Aleppo, Syria.) Compare the Syro-Hittite (or Neo-Hittite) relief in #9, below.

The son of Ashur Dan II, Adad-nirari II, set Assyrian on a course of conquest that would last nearly three centuries. This new phase of Assyrian history has been named Neo-Assyria and it represents more than a rebirth of Ashur, because Assyria had never seen anything like it. Perhaps nowhere had such a thing existed. For Assyria developed into a single, unified, efficient military empire which acquired lands and disposed of peoples in nearly annual campaigns. The army became the first fully modern military: Its infantry was made up of conscripts and was divided into both light and armored spearmen, archers and slingers. The Assyrians developed cavalry (not simply ancient chariot riders), which was armored, much like the later Roman mailed cavalry. Assyria designed the world’s first siege engines, capable of battering down a city’s fortification. Organization and military intelligence was celebrated in cuneiform texts. The entire apparatus, which eventually brought down the entire known world (or at least that part that could be reached by land), must have consumed vast resources both in personnel and in materiel. Indeed, the battle monuments and royal inscriptions of the later kings suggest that the entire society was on total war footing all the time. The economy of the Empire probably derived in very substantial part from tribute and war booty. The expenditure and manpower needs for continuous war created the need for all the techniques of military dictatorships. The state became so all-encompassing that a new artistic style became uniform in the empire, one that put the King at the head, glorified Ashur above all, and celebrated uniformity, massed action and submission.

Relief of six-winged goddess from Tell Halaf (ancient Guzana in modern northast Syria). (Basalt orthostat. 10th-9th Cntury B.C.E. Walters Art Musuem, Baltimore, Maryland.)

9. Relief of six-winged goddess from Tell Halaf (ancient Guzana in modern northeast Syria). (Basalt orthostat. 10th-9th century B.C.E. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.)

The art of late Assyria, however, arose after total war became the defining feature of the empire. The beginning was relatively slow. During the reign of Adad-nirari II, the army quieted the frontiers, took a large chunk of Babylonian territory and engaged and defeated Aramaeans in two battles to the west. Tukulti-Ninurta II, the son of Adad-nirari II, continued his father’s campaign against the Aramaeans. His victory steles, however, had none of the characteristics of later (or even earlier) Assyrian art. The stele (#8, above left) celebrating the victory at Laqû, a site on the west of the Euphrates, is a work of Aramaean-Hittite art. The stele shows the West-Semitic god Adad (Hadad) striking Lakû, symbolized as a serpent. The god’s face is profiled with features characteristically West-Semitic. Compare the victory stele with the orthostat of the six-winged goddess from the Met exhibit, to the right (#9). Note that both figures have horns from their foreheads, and the goddess is even holding serpents. In the victory stele, Adad wears a Hittite helmet and his hair rolled up with one knee-length band behind in Hittite manner.

Ashurnasirpal II from Ishtar Sharrat-niphi temple, Nimrud (Magnesite on reddish stone. ca. 875-860 B.C.E. British Museum.)

10. Ashurnasirpal II from Ishtar Sharrat-niphi temple, Nimrud (Magnesite on reddish stone. ca. 875-860 B.C.E. British Museum.) Statuary in the round was not common in Assyrian art.

It was Tukulti-Ninurta’s son, Ashurnasirpal II (#10), who would not only turn the army into an unrelenting machine for imperial expansion but also stimulate the flowering of Assyrian imperial art. That art was bold, stylized and symbolic, and designed for a very specific political purpose—to show that the god of Assyria had selected the emperor to prevent chaos on earth by use of his might, which supported his irresistible authority. Art was to celebrate the prowess of the Assyrian king, shown by his military victories, the large and relentless army under his command, his unswerving fury against rebels, and the wealth he commanded from his vassals, all of which proved in what favor Ashur held him. As bold as the new art was, however, it was a pale reflection of the brazenness and audacity Ashurnasirpal would display in his military campaigns. The art that was invented under Ashurnasirpal II would be the official court art of Assyria (and because the court ruled over everything and dominated all economic life, it was essentially the only art of Assyria). But before Ashurnasirpal turned his eyes to art, he turned his attention to military matters.

*Fertilizing guardians with date palm from Northwest Palace, Nimrud. (Alabaster relief. ca. 883-859 B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

11. *Fertilizing guardians with date palm from Northwest Palace, Nimrud. (Located at designation “3” Room I on the northeast side next to Room J in #15, below.) (Alabaster relief. ca. 883-859 B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Evidently the frontier tribes learned of Tukulti-Ninurta’s death and considered the time ripe to test the empire’s control. (Succession disputes had preoccupied Assyria in the recent past.) Ashurnasirpal mobilized the army for his first campaign which he launched toward the eastern mountains. The tribal fighters fled into the mountains, but Ashurnasirpal’s forces pursued them, even though the mountain passes were not prepared for his chariots or infantry. His first “annal” inscription (in the Ninurta temple in Nimrud) tells how he descended on the Tumme people:  “With their blood I dyed the mountain red like red wool, [and] the rest of them the ravines [and] torrents of the mountain swallowed. I razed, destroyed, [and] burnt their cities.” This was just a foretaste of his cruelty.

12. *Winged, human-headed lion guardian (lamassu), which guarded an entrance from Court Y to Room G of the Northwest Palace, Nimrud (see diagram in #15, below). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859 B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The Assyrian army then turned north to the land of Ḫabḫu (possibly in the foothills of Armenia). At Nishtun the defenders escaped into the mountains. But “my warriors flew like birds. I felled 260 of their combat troops with the sword. I cut off their heads and formed [therewith] a pile.” When the remainder saw the army razing their settlements, they came down and sought terms. “I imposed upon them tribute, tax, and corvée. Būbu, son of Babua, son of the city ruler of the city Nishtun, I flayed in the city Arbail [and] draped his skin over the wall.” He then took his army westward where he brought more cities into the Assyrian orbit. On encountering a city that rebelled against Assyrian rule, he besieged it. When it inevitably fell “I felled with the sword 800 of their combat troops, I burnt 3,000 captives from them. I did not leave one of them alive as a hostage. I captured alive Hulāiia their city ruler. I made a pile of their corpses. I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls, I flayed Hulāiia their city ruler [and] draped his skin over the wall of the city Damdammusa. I razed, destroyed, [and] burnt the city.” And so he went burning and sacking cities, burning the civilians and skinning the leaders. As the campaign continued even these atrocities failed to slate his blood lust. When he reached the city of Tela, he resorted to mutilations, probably because the siege was more difficult. But the city eventually succumbed:

“I felled 3,000 of their fighting men with the sword. I carried off prisoners, possessions, oxen, [and] cattle from them. I burnt many captives from them. I captured many troops alive: from some I cut off their arms [and] hands; from others I cut off their noses, ears, [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city, I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls. I razed, destroyed, burnt, [and] consumed the city.”

The known royal inscriptions of Ashurnasirpal record at least one or more campaigns in each of sixteen years. The inscriptions celebrate atrocities and looting against those who resisted and tributes and taxes imposed on those who submitted. (The oppressiveness of the taxes he imposed is suggested by the fact that despite the terror that Ashurnasirpal inspired, some resisted.) He also resettled troublesome populations and took large numbers to use as conscript laborers. But the inscriptions mostly celebrate Ashurnasirpal himself:

13. *Remains of the Citadel of Nimrud and contour map, based on excavation of Max Mallowan in 1957. Note that the northern half of the Northwest Palace was destroyed by a rainwater wadi. From Crawford, et al. (1980), p. 11.

13. *Remains of the Citadel of Nimrud and contour map, based on excavation of Max Mallowan in 1957. Note that the northern half of the Northwest Palace was destroyed by a rainwater wadi. From Crawford, et al. (1980), p. 11.

“I am king, I am lord, I am praiseworthy, I am exalted, I am important, I am magnificent, I am foremost, I am a hero, I am a warrior, I am a lion, and I am virile; Ashurnasirpal, strong king, king of Assyria, designate of the god Sîn, favourite of the god Anu, loved one of the god Adad [who is] almighty among the gods, I, the merciless weapon which lays low lands hostile to him, I, the king, capable in battle, vanquisher of cities and highlands, foremost in battle, king of the four quarters, the one who defeats his enemies, the king who disintegrates all his enemies, king of the totality of the [four] quarters including all their princes, the king who forces to bow down those not submissive to him, the one who rules all peoples …”

14. *Diagram of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud after Mallowan. From Moortgat (1969), p. 127.

14. *Diagram of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud after Mallowan. From Moortgat (1969), p. 127 (with room designations added by dkf).

Those unfamiliar with the Ancient Near East will be surprised to discover that Ashurnasirpal sincerely believed that his brutality and arrogance was a form of humble obeisance to his gods. The gods rewarded his devotion by granting him the power, and he, in effect, was carrying out their rule on earth as their human agent. And of course Iron Age Middle Eastern gods were nothing if not vengeful and blood-thirsty. (Yahweh, for example, told King Saul to kill all the Amelekites, “man, woman, infant and suckling” as well as their livestock. Saul slaughtered all but one, the King, and saved the best livestock. But this disobedience, according to Samuel, made Yahweh regret setting Saul up as king. For saving this one person, Samuel advised Saul that Yahweh would deprive him of his kingdom. Samuel, Yahweh’s prophet, then killed the Amelekite king himself! See 1 Samuel 15.) And so it is not surprising that at home Ashurnasirpal devoted himself to building monuments and making offerings to the gods.

Detail of the extant remains (the southern half) of the Northwest Palace constructed by Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud. After Mallowan in Crawford, et al. (1980) p. 19.

15. *Detail of the extant remains (the southern half) of the Northwest Palace constructed by Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud. After Mallowan in Crawford, et al. (1980), p. 19.

During his first regnal year, he rebuilt temples and added to the collection of temples in Ashur. Ashur had been the seat of Assyrian royal government since 2500 B.C.E. It is difficult to comprehend how long that city acted as the capital of Assyria. To make the length of time comprehensible, consider: 1617 years ago, Augustine first began to write his Confessions, the Council of Carthage had just decided which books belonged in the Christian Bible, and Jerome had not translated it yet. But despite a tradition this long, which must have had profound religious and political significance to the courtiers and priests, in the sixth year of his reign, Ashurnasirpal decided to move the capital to Kalhu, an Assyrian city built in the mid 13th Century B.C.E. (and called Nimrud by later Arabs and most archaeologists today, but Calah (כָּלַח) in Genesis 10:11-12). The location was hilly and good only for sheep-raising. It had two advantages to him, however. It was the city of Ninurta, his father’s name-sake (and guardian deity?) and it was located near ample deposits of gypsum alabaster. He would put the latter to good use for reliefs in his new and lavishly-planned palace, because it was a mineral that could be rendered in fine detail without fine steel tools.

16. *Ashurnasirpal (with conical cap) and attendants (together with king as guardian figure on left). From Northwest Palace, Nimrud (in position 13 in Room S of #15, above). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

16. *Ashurnasirpal (with conical cap) and attendants (together with king as guardian figure on left). From Northwest Palace, Nimrud (in position 13 in Room S of #15, above). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Tribute bearers with monkeys for the King from northern courtyard leading to throneroom (D), northwestern entrance (in #15. (Alabaster gypsum. 883-859 B.C.E. British Museum.)

17. *Tribute bearers with monkeys for the King from northern courtyard leading to throne room (B), northwestern entrance (in #15). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859 B.C.E. British Museum.)

Ashurnasirpal employed the labor of thousands of conscripted Aramaeans to construct a citadel in the southwest corner of Nimrud and separately walled it (see #13, above). In the northwest corner of that citadel an elaborate palace was built (schemata in ##14 & 15, above). The design of the palace recalled the traditional royal architecture of the Middle Assyrian period with a central courtyard surrounded by rectangular rooms of various sorts. But Ashurnasirpal enlarged and transformed the palace. His new palace had at least two large courtyards (Courtyard Y in #15 and whatever courts were washed out by the rain wadi in the north and west of the palace (see ##13 & 14)). In addition there was a smaller court (AJ in #14) and possibly a similar one to the east (and possibly a similar arrangement in the washed out northern part of the complex). The small court AJ seems to be in the center of smaller domestic and residential rooms. All of the other courts are surrounded by rectangular rooms at least two rows deep. The two major parts of the palace are separated in the middle by a long narrow room (it is in fact the longest room in the palace), which served as the throne room (Room B in both ##14 & 15, above.) This basic plan would be used in all palaces for the rest of the Neo-Assyrian period, no matter how much larger and more lavish they would grow: A throne room surrounded on one side by a forecourt or gate-court (called bābānu in Akkadian); the second other part (the bītānu) contains the inner courtyard with its reception and residential rooms.

Attendant from Room L of the Northwest Palace in Nimrud (location 4 in #15, above). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

18. *Attendant from Room L of the Northwest Palace in Nimrud (location 4 in #15, above). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

But the features that made this a strikingly innovative monument of Assyrian art were the rows upon row of wall friezes of gypsum reliefs. Granted that the figures are highly repetitive. Not only are the same figures repeated, seemingly endlessly, but the figures themselves are executed in nearly exactly the same way. Faces (and feet) are shown in profile, while the bodies are turned about a quarter of the way. Muscles of the arms and legs are massive and highly defined. Beards and hair are rendered in like manner on all figures. Yet the impression must have been astonishing and drove home the point to be made: The King was the master of order. He was a favorite of the gods, and as such not only mastered the mysterious relations with things supernatural, but bestowed the benefit of it on the population. The rows of winged genii, both human and bird-faced (e.g., #11) had to have instilled in the viewer a sense of the wonder and dread of things unseen (see arrangement on one wall in Room I, for example, #22, below). Other scenes showed the deference accorded the king by both man and deities. And the sheer number of these massive works must have been daunting. There are literally miles of such relief and they are now held not only in the British Museum (which got the pick of the lot) and the Metropolitan, but numerous other museums in North America. The Brooklyn Museum, for example, bought the reliefs that the Metropolitan had no use for. The Met exhibition has the first such relief that arrived in the United States, the one now owned by Williams College (of a bird-faced guardian, #7, above). In all, at least 18 museums outside of Iraq possess reliefs from this palace.

Tile fragment of King (Ashurnasirpal II?) with attendants from Northwest Palace, Nimrud. (Glazed ceramic. 9th Century B.C.E. British Museum.)

19. Tile fragment of King (Ashurnasirpal II?) with attendants from Northwest Palace, Nimrud. (Glazed ceramic. 9th Century B.C.E. British Museum.)

The effect was enhanced in ways that we now are unable to fully experience. Pigment remains on the reliefs show that they were painted in bright colors originally. While reconstructing the colors now is conjectural, there are fire-glazed ceramics of the time that show how artists of the time used color. One is a rendering of the king with attendants (#19). The tile shows the King holding a bowl in the same manner he does in the relief above (#16). He wears a ceremonial robe with rosette figures. (The rosette as a design element seems to have been invented in Mesopotamia and became widespread later in Greece.) The attendant behind the king is beardless, just as are the attendants in the reliefs (see ##16 & 18) but wears a floral patterned robe as well. Perhaps this attendant is a eunuch (because beardless), in which case he would be bearing ceremonial arms or maybe he is simply the king’s arm bearer. The attendant second behind the king wears a helmet, has a beard and carries a spear and shield. He thus is probably a real soldier, maybe the king’s bodyguard. The figures are outlined in black and the pigments, green and yellow are painted within the boarders. The green in the fabric, however, was probably originally a shade of red because it was made of a compound with copper, which when oxidized turns green over time.

Vessel fragment with goat from Ashur. (Glazed ceramic. 8th-7th Century. Staatliche Mussen zu Berlin. Vorderasiatisches Museum.)

20. Vessel fragment with goat from Ashur. (Glazed ceramic. 8th-7th century. Staatliche Mussen zu Berlin. Vorderasiatisches Museum.)

The ceramic of the leaping goat (#20) is quite compelling in its own right. it comes from a slightly later time and different place (Ashur), which probably explains how it captures a kind of capriciousness not seen in Ashurnasirpal’s formal art in Nimrud. Because it does not follow the strict composition rules of the art in the Northwest palace it almost looks expressionistic. The ceramic is a fragment of a large beaker. It is possibly an object for domestic rather than ceremonial use, which might explain its somewhat whimsical look. In any case background in this case is probably true, because it was originally copper oxide mixed with ferrous oxide. The other two pigments were white and yellow. The figures were all outlined in black (as in #19), before being colored in.

Using the known colors available and pigment remains on various reliefs, the company Learning Sites Inc. has reconstructed a possible color pattern for the Williams College relief (#7), which you can see by scrolling down to the bottom of this linked page.

The so-called Banquet stele from Nimrud, which was located in a recess locatd just outside the throneroom. (Sandstone. ca. 877 B.C.E. Mosul Museum, Iraq.)

21. *The so-called Banquet Stele from Nimrud, which was located in a recess locatd just outside the throne room. (Sandstone. ca. 877 B.C.E. Mosul Museum, Iraq.)

Ashurnasripal left no doubt that he himself understood how important the art and architecture of his new palace was. For in an unusual stele at the site (unusual because it was mostly text, unlike the other reliefs and because its relief was inset in sandstone rather than gypsum block), the king describes a lavish 10-day long feast, which the text claims was attended by 69,574 guests, including 5,000 foreign dignitaries. The text also gives a list of the fare consumed: thousands of sheep, oxen and deer, tens of thousands of birds and fish, eggs, hundreds of containers of grains, vegetables, bread, cheese, nuts and fruit, garnished with hundreds of jars of honey and spices, as well as 10,000 jugs of beer and 10,000 skins of wine. All of this was designed to honor the gods of Assyria, because the figure on the “Banquet Stele” (#21) was the king himself standing in association with their avatars: The twin horns for the supreme god Ashur on his helmet; the disc of the sun god, Shamash; the crescent of the moon god, Sin; the fork of the storm god, Adad; and a star, representing the planet Venus, for Ishtar, goddess of love and war.

Drawing of the reliefs as (intended to be) mounted in Room I). From Crawford, et al. (1980), p. 17.

22. *Drawing of the reliefs as (intended to be) mounted in Room I. From Crawford, et al. (1980), p. 17.

In fact, setting aside the immense human suffering he inflicted to achieve it, Ashurnasirpal’s pride in the achievement he oversaw was justified, and this palace then was a fitting place for the world’s first gallery opening party. Whatever the painting on the reliefs may have added and however else the lavish setting of furniture, gold and silver works and ivory objects enhanced them, the reliefs themselves must have been astonishing to the ancient viewer. First, the composition of each individual block adhered to standards never before seen in the ancient world. The figures and other objects are arranged in a coherent manner not only with respect to each other but also in relation to the border of the blocks. This may seem like an elementary virtue, but it characterized art works before that time (even arguably great ones) only by accident. Frequently in Near Eastern steles, images aren’t even confined by the edges and spill over the sides (see #8, above). Placement within frames or borders was often haphazard (see #9, above), especially because of the convention not only to make the king larger than everyone else, but also to make him the center of the work. But in Ashurnasirpal’s palace reliefs the scenes are conceived as compositions within the confines of the block (or as parts of matched sets, as in the running series of patterned mythical figures, as in Rooms C, G and I).

King receives prisoners. From the Throneroom of the Northwest Palace in Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. 883=859 B.C.E. British Museum.)

23. *King receives prisoners. From the Throne room of the Northwest Palace in Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. 883=859 B.C.E. British Museum.)

More importantly, the compositions are designed in such a way that they are visually interesting, give a hint of perspective and provide the illusion of “movement” even though the figures are carved flat with the same body orientation. Take the two prisoner reliefs in the throne room (##23 and 24). In the block showing the king (#23), the convention that the king be larger than all other figures is observed without detracting from the authenticity of the picture. The charioteer’s head is actually slightly higher than the king’s but it’s clear that he is smaller, which contributes to the view that the artists intended to show a receding background. The vertical arrangement of heads, moreover, gives the impression of movement (“rhythm,” Moortgat calls it). That movement is all accomplished by the king’s men; the prisoners themselves, when in the presence of the king, prostrate themselves, so that their heads are at the level of the king’s feet.

23. *Train of Prisoners from Throneroom of Northwest Palace in Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. 883-859 B.C.E.)

24. *Train of Prisoners from Throne room of Northwest Palace in Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. 883-859 B.C.E.)

The column of prisoners, with the soldiers parading them, shows the same movement. The prisoners themselves are tied at the elbows and are indistinguishable except for the one pulled up abruptly by the guard at the center with the bow. The “bobbing” heads of the guards and the level heads of the prisoners suggested the monotonous march to the king, where the prisoners would beg for their lives. One can only wonder what additional effects painting would have on the scene.

High relief from Khorsabad from the throneroom of the palacee of Sargon II. (Gypsum alabaster. 721-705 B.C.E. The Louvre.)

25. *High relief from Khorsabad from the throne room of the palace of Sargon II. (Gypsum alabaster. 721-705 B.C.E. The Louvre.)

Ashurnasirpal’s reign would mark the high point in relief work for some time. His son, Shalmaneser III, concentrated on conquest. Although he made a palace twice as big as his father’s (see #36, below), his artists did not seem to have any ideas beyond those pioneered by Ashurnasirpal’s. He did however expand the empire well beyond anything that had been seen previously, but his last years were marked by the civil war that resulted from the succession pretensions of his sons. Vassal states, of course, use occasions like civil wars to assert their independence. It took much time to recover the empire Shalmaneser put together. It was not until Tiglath-Pileser III seized the throne in 744 B.C.E. that the empire was reorganized in such a way that it became, once again, a unified, strictly disciplined military state. From then until the end, the empire was always at war, constantly seeking to subjugate everyone. Sargon II seized the throne in 721 B.C.E. and established the last and most vigorous dynasty. Sargon, who died in battle, was progenitor of a line of warriors: Sennacherib (705–681 B.C.E.) who moved the capital to Nineveh, Esharhaddon (681–669 B.C.E.), who took Memphis and expanded the empire into Egypt, and finally Ashurbanipal (668-ca. 627 B.C.E.), the last of the great Assyrian kings. He was called “the great and noble Asenappar” in the Bible (Ezra 4:10) and Sardanapalus by Roman historian Justin (Historiarum Philippicarum, Book III), who said this “last king” was “a man more effeminate than a woman,” who spun “purple wool with a distaff” in a woman’s dress among the concubines. It is impossible to ascertain how Ashurbanipal earned this reputation first attested eight centuries after his death, but perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he remained in Nineveh while his army completed the conquest of Egypt.

To us, Ashurbanipal seems the most cultured of all the Assyrian kings, at least since Ashurnasirpal. He scoured the Near East for matters of literary interest and had a stable of scribes who rendered them into Akkadian, even though by then most of the Empire spoke Aramaean. He regarded himself as a servant of the gods and had himself so depicted (#2, above), when he restored the temple to Marduk, Babylon’s chief deity, which had been razed when Sennacherib sacked Babylon years before. The Met exhibition shows the three items he is most famous for in terms of art; items that rivaled the achievements of Ashurnasirpal: three reliefs in his palace, one of a lion hunt, one of the battle of Til Tuba and one of a banquet with a queen.

Reilief of lion hunt from North Palace, Nineveh. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 645-640 B.C.E. British Museum.)

26. Relief of lion hunt from North Palace, Nineveh. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 645-640 B.C.E. British Museum.)

Like other kings, Ashurbanipal staged lion hunts to prove his prowess. A three-panel relief in this show visually explains how these hunts work: In the top panel an attendant, protected inside his own cage, opens the door of a lion cage below. The lion leaps at the king, who is aiming a bow and arrow at him, while attendants stand around him to support him. A second panel shows the king holding a lion by the tail as he is about to strike it with his mace. He was apparently able to sneak up on the animal because it was being harassed by a chariot and a man wielding a spear on horseback. The bottom panel shows the king offering the bodies of four lions in some sort of ritual involving the pouring of liquid over their heads in front of a table with an incense burner. Behind the king are musicians playing harps.

This is but one of Ashurbanipal’s lion hunting reliefs. The scenes are rightly lauded for the sympathetic naturalism with which the lions are rendered. Some scenes show the agony of the lion in its death throes. The block at the Met’s show shows another innovation: the use of multiple figures to simulate the movement of the animal. In the top panel of #26 a lion is seen first cautiously leaving the cage, then running toward the king and finally leaping towards him. The king is shown with bow drawn, but the representation does not make the king more valiant than realistically possible—one other archer is also aiming at the lion and another attendant hold a shield.

Battle of Til Tuba from the North Palace, Nineveh. Limestone. ca. 660-650. British Museum.)

27. Battle of Til Tuba from the North Palace, Nineveh. (Limestone. ca. 660-650. British Museum.)

The relief of the battle of Tel Tuba, the second relief, describes a victory over the Elamites in 653 B.C.E. when the Assyrian army blocked the attempt to rest Babylonia from it. This large and intricate work attempts to show different aspects of the battle. Overall the Assyrians are charging from the left and driving the Elamites down a bank into the river. The overrun Elamites are depicted fleeing in utter confusion, offering only occasional resistance to the spear-carrying infantry, archers and calvary in hot pursuit. Bodies lie in profusion underneath the frantic soldiers. As a depiction of battle it has a sense of immediacy like nothing before it, including Egyptian battle scenes (cf. 3 & 4, above). The work is intended as history and includes cuneiform descriptions of particular scenes. But because the Assyrians lacked the literary scribal tradition of the Hebrews and the epic poetry tradition of the Ionian Greeks, Assyrian history is largely pictorial.

King and Queen at Banquet. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 645-635. British Museum.)

28. King and Queen at Banquet. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 645-635. British Museum.)

The third of the three reliefs on loan from the British Museum is in some ways the most curious. Breaking from the established tradition of showing the king only in ritual roles or battle array, this work (#28) shows the King reclining on a couch with a queen in a chair at his feet. Both are drinking from shallow bowls while attendants surround them, fanning, brushing away flies and playing music. The queen holds a cone-shaped object, and the king holds a lotus blossom. Their clothes are richly embroidered. Birds can be seen in the trees, as can as well the head of Teumman (in the tree to the left behind the harp player). Originally this relief was part of a group that depicted a large banquet celebrating the defeat of the Elamites (of which the beheading of the king was one part). When Nineveh was sacked by the Medes in 612 B.C.E., Ashurbanipal’s authority was expunged from this work by looters who literally defaced him.

The reliefs and statuary of the kings was the official art of Assyria for the entire empire. The last relief shows a couch that is arguably (although not definitively) Phoenician (especially given what looks like an ivory tusk). There is some dispute whether Assyrian kings (or even wealthy subjects) actually enjoyed the art of Phoenicia and other lands they looted or obtained tribute from. Since much foreign art was found stored in warehouses, some have thought that the Assyrians simply took the fine arts and luxury goods from lands that they subdued or made vassals simply to show their dominance. Whatever the truth of that (and it seems implausible to me), there is ample evidence that luxury goods circulated around the Near East and the entire Mediterranean, and that circulation was largely due in the Iron Age to the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians and the Iron Age Global Trade Network

From all that is apparent the rise of the Iron Age Assyrian Empire came about from internal organic causes. Its growth resulted in directed and forced diffusion of Assyrian culture (including material culture). Likewise, Assyria itself was enriched by contact with foreign societies and this is particularly noticeable in the non-imperial arts and other material culture. But Assyria also contributed greatly to the mixing of cultures over long distances. This is because as the empire grew in size and wealth (much of it plundered or from conscription labor), its demand for raw material (timber, metals, ivory, precious and semi-precious stones) and manufactured goods grew as well. The various sources of raw material, however, were scattered across the Middle East, into Africa, along the entire Mediterranean and throughout Europe, and possibly even Asia but Assyria was no naval power and it had no merchant marine.

Map 2: Eastern Mediterranean during the Early Iron Age.

Map 2: Eastern Mediterranean during the Early Iron Age.

Detail of a figure with feathered headdress, presumably one of the Sea People, likely a Philitine. Relief on the side of a Game Box found in a tomb at Enkomi in Cyprus (betwen Kition and Salamis on Mapy 2, below). (Ivory.1250-1100 B.C.E. British Museum.)

29. Detail of a figure with feathered headdress, presumably one of the Sea People, likely a Philistine. Relief on the side of a Game Box found in a tomb at Enkomi in Cyprus (see Map 2, above). (Ivory.1250-1100 B.C.E. British Museum.)

There had been a maritime trade network in the Bronze Age in which goods were exchanged among the triad of the Levant, Cyprus and the Mycenaean states with such regularity that a distinctive international art mixing Canaanite and Mycenaean styles was discernible. Moreover, the ivory carving and metalworking practiced both in Cyprus and the Levant eventually spread throughout the Mediterranean. Beginning around 1200 B.C.E., however, the Mycenaean palace states disappeared. Whether this was caused by the Dorians, the “Sea People,” insurrection or a combination is unknown. According to Rameses III, however, it was without doubt the Sea People who were responsible for the collapse of the Hittites (Hatti and other Hittite federations in Anatolia) and Mitani (in Syria) kingdoms, as well as the city-states Ugarit, Carchemish, Hazor and Ashkelon. All of this, according to the Pharaoh, took place before 1175 B.C.E. when vast numbers of the invaders had resettled along the Palestine coast and drove out the native Canaanite population.

Archaeology has confirmed the destruction of these and other Levant cities at the beginning of the Iron Age. But the Phoenician cities appear not to have shared in the destruction. Perhaps they purchased a reprieve. Or maybe it was just luck. But they survived to become a major factor in the globalization of the early Iron Age. The group of “Sea People” called Philistines in English versions of the Bible (פְּלִשְׁתִּים, Pelishtim, in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 10:14), Φυλιστιιμ, Phylistiim in Septuagint Greek (Genesis 10:14) and Παλαιστῖνοι, Palaistinoi by Josephus (e.g., Antiquitates Judaicae, V:275; Neise ed. (Samson story)) swept down the coast of Palestine (which was named after them) and settled in the southern coastal region, the famous pentapolis of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath (Judges 13:3). At the same time, taking advantage of the disruptions, the Aramaeans spread northward and eastward from southern Syria to the foothils of Anatolia across to the western borders of the Assyrian kingdom. The Hittite elite left Anatolia and joined with the Aramaeans in the west to form what some historians call (based on the surviving material culture) the Neo-Hittite or Hittte-Aramaean peoples. Egypt’s political influence in the Levant disappeared.

There is not enough evidence to ascertain how it was that the Phoenician cities, all acting more or less independently, became the maritime leaders of the early Iron Age. They were Semitic people, probably Canaanites, maybe from the Persian Gulf area as both Herodotus and Strabo attest. But inadequate seafaring know-how for long distance shipping and the absence of near maritime trade partners make the Persian Gulf then an unlikely place to learn maritime arts. Perhaps, once they found themselves on the Mediterranean a combination of necessity and opportunity caused the Phoenicians to engage in maritime trade. As for necessity: There simply wasn’t ample farming spots around Arwad, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre. On the other hand, those cities had naturally protected harbors, and there were ready-made near maritime partners on Cyprus, where Kition, Enkomi and Hala Sultan Teke would soon undergo major harbor constructions (see Map 2, above).

And so the Phoenicians, who were inheritors of the Canaanite traditions in ivory carvings, metalwork, jewelry and glass works, and added to it the production of a purple dye made from the mucous of certain local snails (in ancient times called Murex), which became internationally sought after. (A folk etymology associates the Phoenician name with Greek φοινός, phoinos = “crimson,” supposedly for their expertise in the art of purple production, but it is more likely the name ultimately comes from the Egyptian reference to Canaan.) They began trade first with neighbors and then ventured upon the seas. Phoenician craftsmanship became legendary, so much so that the Hebrew Chronicler writing in the fourth century B.C.E., had this to say about a master craftsman from Tyre: “skilful to work in gold, and in silver, in brass, in iron, in stone, and in timber, in purple, in blue, and in fine linen, and in crimson; also to grave any manner of graving, and to devise any device; to do whatever may be set before him …” (2 Chronicles 2:13.)

From manufactory the Phoenicians sought complete vertical integration in their commercial empire. First, they became master traders. The swineherd Eumaeus (“leader of men”) calls the Phoenicians “greedy knaves” (Odyssey XV:416, Loeb ed.; τρῶκται, a word used by others to refer to a “sharp toothed fish” and the “hands” of a usurer), who bring “countless trinkets in their black ship.” The ships themselves were the key to their success.

Fragment of embossed band from gates at the royal palace of Shalmaneser III in Balawat. (Bronze. ca. 848. The Louvre.)

30. Fragment of embossed band from gates at the royal palace of Shalmaneser III in Balawat. (Bronze. ca. 848. The Louvre.)

A bronze ornamental band that decorated an Assyrian gate in Balawat (ancient Imgur-Enlil, 16 miles southeast of modern Mosul) shows a Phoenician vessel of the mid-eighth century B.C.E. (#30). The scene depicts Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon delivering tribute to Shalmaneser III. The ship in the center has the characteristic stem- and stern-posts terminating in horses heads, the features which caused the Greeks to call the boats hippoi (“horses”). These vessels were relatively small and used mainly for short-distance hauls, particularly of lumber—the famous cedars of Lebanon, for example. (The Hebrew monarchist historians describe how Hiram I of Tyre provided Solomon with the cedars to construct the Temple in Jerusalem. From this arrangement the two monarchs developed a cordial commercial relationship during which they opened up new trade routes. See I King 5.) The Balawat band possibly shows the use of hippoi to transport lumber from a site south of Tyre northward on the Mediterranean to a place at the mouth of the Orontes River (approximately at the latitude of Aleppo) for overland transportation to Assyria.

Relief of Phoenician warship in Southweest Palace of Sennacherib, Ninevh. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 700 B.C.E. British Museum.)

31. *Relief of Phoenician warship in Southwest Palace of Sennacherib, Nineveh. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 700 B.C.E. British Museum.)

The Phoenicians also used a round-bottom ship for heavy cargo hauls, their stout shape earning them the Greek name gauloi (“tubs”), but they were called “ships of Tarshish” by the Phoenicians, indicating that they sailed as far as southern Iberia. These vessels were shown on Assyrian relief as employing oarsmen for maneuvering. The Phoenicians also invented a warship, used by Assyrians in the days of Sennacherib, with double rows of oarsmen and a shielded row of fighters (#31). The bow was formed into a large point, which enabled the warship to “spear” other vessels. The stacked rows of oarsmen was the origin of the famous bireme, which revolutionized ship construction. The Greeks would later improve on the concept allowing it to deploy a naval force that was swift and could out-maneuver larger naval transports or warships, which more than once allowed Athens’ navy to defeat larger forces, most famously the Persians.

Nora Stele from Pula, Sardinia. Discovered in 1773. (Sandstone. ca. 850-740 B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Cagliari.) An obscure Phoenician inscription, not because alphabets don't work, but mainly because Phoenicians didn't inscribe vowels. It is likely a votive inscription to the god Pumay, as the inscription seems to read (from left to right): bt rš š (

32. Nora Stele from Pula, Sardinia. Discovered in 1773. (Sandstone. ca. 850-740 B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Cagliari.) An obscure Phoenician inscription, not because alphabets don’t work, but mainly because Phoenicians didn’t inscribe vowels. It is likely a votive inscription to the god Pumay, as the inscription seems to read (from left to right): bt rš
(“temple of the cape, which …”).

The Phoenicians made an additional contribution that probably was not full appreciated at the time: They invented the alphabet. Previous methods of writing were not based on symbols for individual phonemes. The cuneiform script of the Assyrians and Babylonians, for example, used a large number of symbols to represent entire syllables (as well as complete words, unrelated to the syllable but rather the ideogram of Sumerian, a different language, from which the Akkadian cuneiform system was derived). Other cultures, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians, used symbols for entire words, not based on the sound at all. Using symbols for phonemes, syllables could be made up of a combination of thee symbols. Since there are fewer phonemes than possible syllables, the alphabet was both easier to learn and more flexible than a syllable-based system, and much more so than one based on ideograms. The Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the Greeks (once they began writing again in the 8th century B.C.E.). From there it was adopted by the Latins and others, and proved so flexible and enduring that it is being read by you at this very moment.

With the foregoing advantages the Phoenicians not only probed the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean for trade but also set up posts for that purpose and even settled colonies. The most famous (and successful) of these was Carthage, which, it turns out, was not so much a frontier, but rather a planned city for certain Phoenician elite. Nevertheless, it would be the longest living of all Phoenician settlement endeavors and would itself become something of an empire, sending out its own colonists over time. As for the others, artifacts show the reach of Phoenicia’s commercial activity, which became a “soft power” much more extensive than Assyria’s iron fist.

Map 3: The Western Mediterranean in the early Iron Age.

Map 3: The Western Mediterranean in the early Iron Age.

Male figure from Islote de Sancti Petri. (Bronze. ca. 710-640 B.C.E. Museo de Cádiz.)

33. Male figure (Melqart/Herakles) from Islote de Sancti Petri. (Bronze. ca. 710-640 B.C.E. Museo de Cádiz.)

Substantial Phoenician influence was early pushed west of the Strait of Gibraltar. Gadir (modern Cadiz) was founded by Phoenicians, who constructed a temple and brought other aspects of their Canaanite religion. Before the Late Bronze Age collapse in the Levant, the Canaanites were dominated by the Egyptians, politically and culturally, which was reflected in their art and religion. Long after Egypt withdrew from Palestine it still remained a presence in Phoenician religious symbolism and that influence was carried as far as Iberia in their statuary and ornaments. The male figure (#33) found in the waters off Sancti Petri island, where a temple complex existed is an example. That temple was for worship of both the Melqart and Herakles Gaditanos. Melqart was a Phoenician god—he was in fact the tutelary god of Tyre, whereas Herakles was pan-cultural. Herodotus maintained that this Herakles was an ancient god, earlier and separate from the hero Herakles. The figurine wears the atef crown worn by Osiris. (Herodotus equates Herakles with Shu, not Osiris, but his treatment Egyptian gods seems to have been driven by a rather hopeless attempt to find a one-to-one match between the twelve Olympian gods and a grouping of twelve Egyptian gods, a groping found in no other source. See Charlotte R. Long, The Twelve Gods of Greece and Rome (Leiden: E.J. Brill: 1987).) This association of Osiris with both Melqart and Herakles Gaditanos emphasizes that all three gods possessed redemptive powers over life and rebirth. This Phoenician figure and others like it were perhaps votive offerings. This one may have ended in the sea after being cast into a sacred well as part of a ritual. In any event, it seems to draw from the tradition, well established in Canaan in the Bronze Age, to associate a local Semitic god with the attributes of an Egyptian one. Many such figures took on the pose of the “striking god,” such as one found elsewhere in the Met’s collections. Those figures also wore the atef crown of Osiris.

Statuette of Astarte from El Carambolo (?), near Seville. (Bronze. 8th-7th Centures B.C.E. Museo Arqueológio de Sevilla.)

34. Statuette of Astarte from El Carambolo (?), near Seville. (Bronze. 8th-7th Centures B.C.E. Museo Arqueológio de Sevilla.)

A seated nude female figure (#34), possibly from El Carambolo, a site around two miles west of Seville that contained ancient gold jewelry also of Phoenician origin, likewise has an Egyptian headdress, in this case a wig which falls down to her shoulders. The pedestal she sits on is missing, but her feet are atop a foot rest, which has Phoenician script on its front side that explains that the work is a votive offering to Astarte, the goddess of love and war. Astarte herself was a transcultural figure. She was known in Babylonia and Assyria as Ishtar, who corresponded to Sumerian Inanna, and was also known to the Hebrews (as Ashtoret, using the same consonant roots as in Phoenician: ʻštrt = עשתרת). Although she wears an Egyptian wig, nudity was not a trait of Egyptian divine representation (as it was in the Near East). She would become Aphrodite in the Greek world and from there become an important fixture of the Classical Cosmos. In this figure, she is one of the earliest of the international Near Eastern gods in the Western Mediterranean.

Goddess with Hathoric Headdress. (Silver-plated bronze. ca. 8th Century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

35. Goddess with Hathoric Headdress. (Silver-plated bronze. ca. 8th Century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

The Egyptian affectation of the figure from Seville is probably nothing more than a holdover from centuries of artistic habit. Or it might have become part of Phoenician sensibilities or commercial worldview as a people whose outlook was global. But it falls in line with the observation of Henri Frankfort that “The hallmark of the Phoenicians is the lavish use of bungled Egyptian themes.” By this he meant that the use of Egyptian symbols, gods and motifs in a ways that Egyptians would not is a fairly good indicator that the object was of Phoenician origin. This is because the other cultures in the Near East never used Egyptian symbols. The Aramaeans grew closer culturally to the Mesopotamians (particularly once Assyrian conquered their principal cities). There is no trace at all of Egyptian motifs in Urartu around Lake Van (see Map 2, above). And of course the Assyrians themselves had a fairly rigid orthodoxy, at least since Ashurnasirpal II, and adhered to the imperial style without any international embellishments. Thus if a statuette designed for ritual purposes has a mixture of Egyptian symbols and other influences, it is a good bet to conclude that it is of Phoenician manufacture.

The goddess with the Hathoric headdress (#35), for example, wears the Egyptian horns and orb. In Egyptian depictions of Horath, the horns grow out of a base on top of the goddess’s head. In the Phoenician statuette the horns sprout from a palmette, a common Phoenician ornament. The use of divine headdresses in Phoenician ceremonial objects probably was only meant to signify that the figure represented was a divine being and no specific association with the symbols of the headgear was intended. One figurine, for example, had a globe and horns of Hathor sitting on top of an atef crown of Osiris. In #35 the face is silver-plated and perhaps her horns also once were. The orb between the horns might have been gilded and the rings that would have been attached at the holes near the ears might have been gold as well. All of that would have greatly improved the impression conveyed by this statuette. As it is, it is simply another nondescript form (we don’t know enough to even speculate what goddess this is supposed to represent), from a mold, and probably mass produced.

36. *Layout of Fort Shalmanezer, the court and residential palace of Shalmanezer III in southeastern Nimrud (see schematic of the city in #13, above). From Hermann (1992). Room numbers show rooms in which ivories below were located.

Phoenician style glass pendant. (Glass; rod-formed and trailed, mid-4th to 3rd Century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

37. *Phoenician style glass pendant. (Glass; rod-formed and trailed, mid-4th to 3rd Century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The one area that Phoenicians excelled in artistic production was in luxury goods. Homer, for instance, has Achilles offer as the prize for a footrace a silver Phoenician mixing bowl “richly wrought; six measures it held, and in beauty it was far the goodliest in all the earth, seeing that Sidonians, well skilled in deft handiwork, had wrought it cunningly” (Iliad, XXIII:740ff, Loeb ed.). The Met exhibition has numerous examples of Phoenician (and others’) metalwork. But more than even their metalwork and glass production, Phoenician ivory carving stands out. Two large caches of Phoenician and Syrian ivory objects in Assyrian palaces have been found. Because these objects were tribute or booty, it is not possible to date or locate their manufacture precisely. One of the caches was found at Arslan Tash (see Map 2, above), which we will look at in the next section. The earlier of the two large finds of Phoenician ivory work is in Nimrud, mostly in Shalmaneser III’s palace there, the so-called Fort Shalmaneser (#36; for location, see #13 inset, above). Many ivories were found in the principal residence of the palace and a smaller number in the palace’s workshop. Since some of the latter are done strictly in the imperial Assyrian style, presumably Assyrian artists were also carving ivory and perhaps studying the Phoenician examples.

Ivory fragment with incised banquet scene from Fort Shalmanezer, Nimrud. (Ivory. mid 8th century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

38. *Ivory fragment with incised banquet scene from Fort Shalmanezer, SE 9, Nimrud. (Ivory. mid 8th century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Ivory openwork plaque of sphinx in low relief from Fort Shalmaneser, Nimrud. (Ivory. ca. late eighth century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

39. Ivory openwork plaque of sphinx in low relief from Fort Shalmaneser, N.E. 21, Nimrud. (Ivory. ca. late eighth century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The incised relief of a banquet (#38) gives an example of the imperial style (also of the fairly unsophisticated techniques of Assyrian ivory workers one generation after Ashurnasirpal’s artists). The work focuses on the king (center left). Facing him is an attendant with a flywisk and a spoon or scoop. Behind the king are his attendants and behind them is the cook fanning pots of food. The drawing is crude and this perhaps suggests that during the reign of Shalmaneser III Assyrian artisans were only beginning to work with ivory. By contrast both Syrian and Phoenician artists had mastered intricate carving techniques. The Sphinx which was broken off from an openwork plaque (#39) is thought to have been part of a workshop in Northern Syria perhaps somewhat west of Tell Halaf (see Map 2, above) which operated until the end of the eighth century B.C.E. This school seems to have produced openwork plaques mainly of two types: sphinxes in profile with face forward and plaques of “a lady at the window” (a female head framed in rectangles, perhaps representing Astarte). These two subjects with similar style were found in a temple at Khorsabad and their association at both places provides the basis for the conclusion that they were fashioned by the same workshop. The Sphinx (#39) is expertly carved low relief. The beast wears a sun disk (broken off) surrounded by the uraei (sacred serpents symbolizing supreme power) on top of an Egyptian-style wig.

Tribute Bearer with Oryx from Fort Shamaneser, N.E. 2, Nimrud. (Ivory. ca. mid-8th century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

40. Tribute Bearer with Oryx from Fort Shamaneser, N.E. 2, Nimrud. (Ivory. ca. mid-8th century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Unlike the Egyptian religious symbolism in votary offerings, many Phoenician ivories at Nimrud carried African themes that were not mythological (at last overtly).  There is a group of statues all portraying men carrying animals and other goods, probably as tribute (although to whom is not clear). Four of the men appear African and two appear Asian. In one (#40) a Nubian is walking to the right (head facing forward), leading a gazelle by the horns and carrying a monkey on his shoulder. The monkey is playing with the man’s hair. On the other shoulder the man carries a leopard skin. The cat’s head hangs down, but the right hand of the man is missing. The pattern of the robe’s fabric, the leopard’s spots and the texture of his hair are rendered by incisions. The five similar carvings, known as the “Room 2 Group,” have other combinations of animals including two non-specific animals, a lion, a goat and an ostrich. The eyes and eyebrows of the figures were excised by looters for inlay. Two of the figures were burnt and lay in the fill on the rooms floor but four still were lined up in a niche in the wall.

Plaque with lioness mauling young male from Northwest Palace, Room MM, Nimrud. (Ivory, gold, semiprecious stones. 9th-8th Centuries B.C.E. British Museum.)

41. Plaque with lioness mauling young male from Northwest Palace, Room MM, Nimrud (see #14, above). (Ivory, gold, semiprecious stones. 9th-8th centuries B.C.E. British Museum.)

In Ashurnasirpal’s Northwest Palace in Nimrud an ivory carved plaque with similar aesthetic sensibilities but much more dramatic was found in the mud at the bottom of a well in the palace, which accounts for its good state of preservation (#41). The object’s exact pair was also discovered in the same location, but has since disappeared when it was stolen from the Iraq Museum during the looting which followed the American occupation of Baghdad in 2003. Nigel Tallis of the British Museum suggested that the items were stripped of valuable overlay (although the lapis lazuli inset still remains in the lion’s forehead in the surviving piece) and dumped during the sack of Nimrud by the Babylonians and Medes in 612 B.C.E. The pieces were probably part of an elaborate piece of furniture, perhaps a throne, because there are two mortice holes on the top with an incised letter aleph and two rectangular holes on the base also with the letter aleph, suggesting woodworkers’ notations.

Open work panel, one of the

42. *Phoenician open work panel, one of the “Ornate Group” from Trench X of the Residency of Fort Shalmaneser (see #36, above). (Ivory. ca. mid-8th century B.C.E. Iraq Museum, Baghdad.)

The meaning of the iconography is not readily apparent. Tallis suggests it represents Egypt’s domination of Nubia. The lioness not only is mauling the youth but is embracing him with its left forearm. Some have thought the youth exhibits an acceptance and that therefore the scene is something of an exorcism. Whatever the larger meaning, the piece must have presented a stunning appearance when in tact. The background of carved lotus and papyrus was covered with a layer of gold sheet and the recesses were filled with lapis lazuli and carnelian. The stones were fastened by a mortar that itself contained a blue pigment. The result was a background of colorful reflective flowers appearing out of gold leaves with a bluish base. In addition to being perhaps the most successful of the Phoenician uses of cloisonné, the piece is an elegant expression of the global culture of the time: excellent Phoenician artistry employing luxury items from around the world, employing Egyptian iconography and displayed in an Assyrian palace to proclaim the empire’s cultural superiority. The congruence is all the more remarkable when one considers that the raw material was imported not only from around the Mediterranean but also from Asia, where lapis lazuli mining had an ancient history and where the ivory likely came from, at least since the extinction of the Syrian herds in the early 8th century B.C.E. Given that the eastern border of Assyria was lined with mountains and the eastern border of Babylonia was facing the hostile Elamites, the trade from India must have gone either by means of the ancient lapis lazuli routes through Iran or along the coast of the Arabian Sea by ship to Arabia and by Arabian traders who worked in conjunction with the Phoenicians.

Phoenician crafts by themselves show that the world of the early Iron Age extended from the Tigris to the land West of Gibraltar. It was a world made up of commercial ties driven by the demand of the great empire and executed by the efforts of the great mariners. But cultural exchange was also the result of direct geographical contact. And given the expansion of Assyria and therefore the westward progress of the peoples in their way, the known world would soon be in physical contact with one or more eastern people and the result would be the “Orientalization” of this world.

The Rest of the World: The West becomes Eastern

Spinner with Attendant from Susa. Bitumen compound. ca. 8th-7th century. The Louvre.)

43. Spinner with Attendant from Susa. (Bitumen compound. ca. 8th-7th century. The Louvre.)

Two kingdoms on the eastern borders of Assyria played minor roles in the new Iron Age order: Elam and Urartu.

Elam, in southern Iran (see Map 1, above), directly faced Babylonia. At times it sought to conquer Babylonia, at others it allied itself with Babylonia against Assyria. Assyria resisted both Elam directly and its attempts to meddle with Babylonia. Eventually Ashurbanipal directed an army into the heart of Elam. The relief celebrating Assyrian victory at Tel Tuba (#27) presaged the end. In 646 B.C.E. the Assyrians sacked Susa.

Elam in its day participated in a trade route from southern Iran through Babylonia to Arabia, but does not seem to have much participated in the main cultural interchange from Assyria to the Mediterranean. The relief fragment of the spinner and assistant (#43) shows no traces of Assyrian or Babylonian influence. In fact, there appears to be no other contemporary visual depiction of a spinner, although of course there were literary ones (e.g., Penelope sits before her son Telemachus, “spinning fine threads of yarn” while the suitors sate themselves with food and drink, Odyssey XVII:96-97; Loeb ed.). The posture, headdress and object on the table are unknown from other depictions. Is it a domestic scene (as in Homer) or are they threads of fate? This is a wholly Elamite mystery.

Griffin from Karmir Blur. Bronze with gold foil. 8th-7th century B.C.E. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Vorderasiatisches Museum.)

44. Griffin from Toprakkale. (Bronze with gold foil. 8th-7th century B.C.E. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Vorderasiatisches Museum.)

Urartu, the land of Mount Ararat, was considered, from the beginning of the empire, a source of vexation, brigandry and insurrection. Ashurnasirpal II, you will recall, began his first campaign to put down an uprising there. But his father and grandfather had also conducted campaigns there. It would take years and more than one king to finally “pacify” Urartu. The mountains posed a large problem for Assyria’s professional army with its armored infantry, chariots and engines. The defenders could always slip into the hills and disappear, but the Assyrians had to make way through the inhospitable ground and also maintain supply lines. It was not until 842 B.C.E. that Urartu was made a province of Assyria by Shalmaneser III. But Assyrian looked at their possession there as the base for operations elsewhere, and therefore there remained little concrete evidence of Assyrian presence. And for their part the Urartuans had little interest in assimilating, so their own art and material culture shows no influence of Assyria or anything east of it. It is as though the dividing line between East and West that became so prominent in Classical Greek times had already been marked and this area was firmly already Persian.

You can almost imagine the origins of Persia in the griffin (#44) from Toprakkale (see Map 1, above). And while it contains some of the elements of Assyrian guardian lamassu (#12) or genii apkallu (#7) (bird head, winged-body, cat or bull body), the griffin clearly does not assembly the parts in the same way. The bird heads of both the griffin and the genie are raptors of some sort, but the griffin has the expression of a predator, while the genie is a bird of protection. (Perhaps this is because mountain people saw predators in action, while those in flatter lands only saw them hovering above.)

Scorpion Bird Man from Tell Halaf. (Basalt. Early 9th century B.C.E. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim-Stiftung, Cologne.)

45. Scorpion Bird Man from Tell Halaf. (Basalt. Early 9th century B.C.E. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim-Stiftung, Cologne.)

The peoples who absorbed Assyrian influence, thus, were to the west, and the largest and most influential were the Aramaeans. They were a tribal people who, even as late as the Iron Age congregated around solitary cities and had no aspiration for a unified state that would control contiguous territory. They had no discernible art tradition of their own, and for the most part their artists were unskilled. Their mythical system seems to have come largely from the Akkadians, and they had no scribal or other literary tradition. But it seems their very nondescriptness allowed for their great contribution to the Near East—a common language. Perhaps because they assimilated so readily into the empire, their language seeped into the empire itself. Eventually it was spoken all through the Levant and in much of western Assyria. When the Persians conquered Mesopotamia in 500 B.C.E. it would become the official language of the Persian Empire. The process by which it became the koine of the Near East is mysterious, but probably not any more so than how any other cultural artifact spreads and is assimilated. It was a time of globalization, and language was one of many things transmitted. Aramaic, however, lasted longer than most artifacts. After the koine dialect broke into regionalisms, one form became Syriac, a language used by religious specialists (much like Latin would later become) in Eastern Christianity and Jewish Talmudic scholars. But that’s too far ahead of the story.

Head detail of Scorpion Bird Man in #)). The sculpture has been reconstructed since its destruction in bombing during World War II.

46. Detail of Scorpion Bird Man in #45. The sculpture is a reconstruction, it having been extensively damaged in bombing during World War II.

The Aramaeans were the peoples most exposed to the Assyrians and therefore the ones most dependent on their favor.  Tell Halaf (ancient Guzana; Maps 1 & 2), the most eastward of the Aramaean cities, tells the tale. In 894 B.C.E. Tell Halaf chose to pay tribute to Adadnirari II rather than confront Assyria. From that time until 808 B.C.E., when it joined a confederacy who rebelled, the city flourished. In 808 B.C.E. it was burned to the ground for its insurrection. At the beginning of the city’s vassalage to Assyria, its notable art works consisted of large sculptures which appear barely to have escaped the block they were carved from. The best of these works is the Scorpion Bird Man (#45), a mythical guardian (girtablullu) in Aramaean belief with the head of a human, the body of a bird and the stinger of a scorpion. In Tell Halaf this figure with another (slightly different as though by another hand) guarded the entrance to an inner citadel of the palace. The palace complex was illustrated by sculpture of animals and animal deities. (The Scorpion Bird Men have four horns on their foreheads (see #46), indicating their divinity.) Some of guardian figures were carved into the column support of the palace. The Scorpion Bird Men, however, were the best rendered of the lot.

Max von Oppenheim with Seated Woman from Tell Halaf in 1930, before the bombing. The Met exhibit has the reconstructed statue.

47. *Archaeologist Max von Oppenheim with Seated Woman from Tell Halaf in the Tell Halaf Museum Berlin, 1930, before the bombing. The Met exhibit has the reconstructed statue.

More block-like and less competently rendered was the Statue of a Seated Woman (#46). The figure probably represents a V.I.P. because of the footrest. The hair suggests the figure was of a woman. A cup rests on the table which hides the legs in the block of the rock. The head is slightly upturned. Considerable technique was required to render the hair locks from the hard basalt. But although the sculpture is fully in the round, the side view shows that the modeling was incompetently done. Clearly the sculptures of Tell Halaf at the time (and this piece, like the Scorpion Bird Men, was completed at the beginning of the vassalage to Assyria) had no tradition to work from.

As time went on, statuary became less common and the artists took up relief on orthostats, just like Assyrian artists were doing. But the Aramaean artists had not gained nearly the competence and in any event chose subjects, not from the Assyrian reliefs (which they likely never saw) but from designs and representations on Assyrian bowls and pottery. Eventually the more “imperial” themes were drawn, such as the lion hunt (#48), a relief depicting a subject almost certainly having no reference in the life of any Aramaean. And although the subject and figures (such as the chariot, charging horses and lion) come from Assyrian royal reliefs the composition of the picture, execution of the relief and the features of the individuals are purely Aramaean. It is especially interesting to see the difference between the careful use of space by the Ashurnasirpal artists (e.g., ##16, 23 & 24) and the apparent need by Aramaean artists to fill all available space with figures (as in #47).

47. *Relief of lion hunting scene from Tell Halaf. (Basalt. ca. 9th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

48. *Relief of lion hunting scene from Tell Halaf. (Basalt. ca. 9th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Plaque representing the birth of Horus. (Ivory and gold. 8th century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

49. Plaque representing the birth of Horus. (Ivory and gold. 8th century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

Farther west Aramaean art fell under the influence of the Phoenician artisans. At Arslan Tash (see Map 2, above) a second large cache of ivory carvings was discovered. These figures were unearthed in a less than scrupulous manner and their exact provenance is uncertain. Most of those certainly from the site are held by The Louvre; others probably from the site were acquired by institutions (including the Met) from antiquities dealers. The group shows the “Egyptianizing” features that Phoenician ivory (and other artworks) exhibit. But the human-like figures (e.g., #49) are squatter than Phoenician ones and exhibit the characteristic facial features of Aramaean reliefs (e.g., ##8 & 9). For these and other reasons, many (if not all) of the Arslan Tash ivory are thought to be from a Syrian school west of Tell Halaf.

Ivory open work cow with calf from Arslan Tash. (Ivory and gold. 8th century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

50. Ivory open work cow with calf from Arslan Tash. (Ivory and gold. 8th century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

There are non-human ivories from Arslan Tash that are so “naturalistic” and well executed that they look, to me, as though they are from another school entirely and a Phoenician one at that. An open work plaque (#50) of a calf feeding from a cow which turns back to lick the calf at once looks both realistic (in the sense that the features appear in proportion and the animals are acting normally) and at the same time stylized, because of its flatness and therefore the design-like elements it is composed of. (The pattern-like effect would be more marked when a number of the plaques are lined up in a row, which is how they evidently were intended to be exhibited.) Whether or not these ivories are in fact Phoenician, the similarity shows how exceedingly close the material cultures of separate societies had become in the 8th century B.C.E.

Ritual Offering Figure from En Hazeva. (Ceramic. late 7th-early 6th century B.C.E. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.)

51. Ritual Offering Figure from En Hazeva. (Ceramic. late 7th-early 6th century B.C.E. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.)

The Met exhibition continues society by society from the Levant westward. Those interested in Biblical archaeology can see the famous Victory Stele of King Hazael of Aram-Damascus, the only source outside of Hebrew sacred literature to mention the “House of David,” the even more well known prism-shaped Annals of Sennacherib, which describes how Hezekiah and Jerusalem were blockaded “like a bird in a cage” before taking control of the city (a version which markedly differs from the account in 2 Kings 18 & 19 and 2 Chronicles 32), as well as items that shed light on Ahab, king of the northern kingdom and his Phoenician wife Jezebel. To me of most interest was the ritual objects found at En Hazeva some time in the early to mid 9th century B.C.E  on the southern frontier of Judah (see Map 2, above). The anthropomorphized urn-like figures (e.g., #51) have an oddly compelling appearance. The “primitiveness” of the composition almost appears modern. Our ignorance of their ritual purpose, or indeed what god was being worshipped, only adds to their mysterious attractiveness.

The exhibition examines, in more detail than one visit can take in, how this new global culture affected Midas, Croesus, Anatolia, Cyprus, Egypt and especially Carthage. Surprising confirmations of how the Assyrians projected power are steles far from Mesopotamia. Most surprising was a stele of Sargon II at Kition in Cyprus (see Maps 1 & 2), a place that the Assyrians could not bring physical force to bear. But then again this new order was not entirely about physical force, for how otherwise would Egyptian gods be found in royal Assyrian palaces?

The End and the Future

Relief of Lion from the Temple of Marduk, Babylon (ca. 604-562 B.C.E. Glazed Brick. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasistisches Museum.)

52. Relief of Lion from the Temple of Marduk, Babylon (Glazed 604-562 B.C.E. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasistisches Museum.)

The exhibit ends with the rise of Neo-Babylonia which destroyed Assyria. The great achievements of this new power were all destructive: They destroyed Assyria as well as Jerusalem (and Solomon’s Temple, if such a thing actually existed) and took many, including the elite of Israel, into captivity. This empire would not last a century and when it fell it was destroyed with fury. Nevertheless, it did create one of the iconic visuals of the ancient world: the gate of Ishtar, along a processional of outstanding painted relief. Two of the most famous reliefs from Babylon’s Processional Way (e.g., #52) from the State Museum of Berlin are included in the exhibit and are as astounding as you might expect.

When Cyrus the Great and his Persians in 539 B.C.E. ended the Babylonian pretensions to lead the world order, it represented the end of the period of Near Eastern hegemony in the Iron Age. But in fact, a new beginning had already begun to the East. It would be the Greek city states in the Aegean that would head a new Western world order, one that would confront the Persians more successfully than the Babylonians did. But the new order would be one radically different from the old because geographical empire and political domination would not be the sole criterion of civilization.

A substantial part of the Met exhibit involves the inception of this phenomenon and the question of how much of what would become Greece could be found in the East. The objects collected provoke interesting thinking about the “Orientalizing” influence on Greece. This subject, however, is far too interesting to relegate to a footnote here and will require a separate post.

Relief plaque of Huwawa from Gortyn, Greece. (Ceramic and paint. ca. 7th century. Archaeological Museum,, Hraklion, Greece.) The trip from Gilgamesh to Aeschylus has many routes.

53. Relief plaque of Huwawa from Gortyn, Greece. (Ceramic and paint. ca. 7th century. Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Greece.) The trip from Gilgamesh to Aeschylus has many routes.


* = Object not shown in the Met exhibition. (Objects belonging to the Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection, but not included in the Met exhibition, are found in the Ancient Near Eastern collection on the second floor on the east side of the building.)


John Arzuz, Sarah B. Graff and Yelena Rakic, Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art: 2014).

John Boardman & I.E.S. Edwards, The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume III, Part I (The Prehistory of the Balkans, The Middle East and the Aegean World, Tenth to Eighth Centuries B.C.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2003). 

Vaughn E. Crawford, Prudence O. Harper & Holly Pittman, Assyrian Reliefs and Ivories in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Palace Reliefs of Assurnasirpal II and Ivory Carvings from Nimrud (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1980).

K. Demakopoulou (ed.), The Mycenaean World: Five Centuries of Greek Culture, 1600-1100 B.C. (translated by M.E. Caskey & D.A. Hardy) (Athens: Greek Ministry of Culture: 1988).

Tamás Dezső, The Assyrian Army: I. The Structure of the Neo-Assyrian Army as Reconstructed from the Assyrian Palace Reliefs and Cuneiform Sources: 1. The Infantry (Budapest: Eötvös University Press: © 2012).

Henri Frankfort, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (from the series The Pelican History of Art ed. by Nicolaus Pevsner) (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books Inc.: 1970).

Albert Kirk Grayson, Assyrian Rulers of the Early First Millennium B.C. I (1114-859 B.C.) (The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia, Assyrian Periods, Volume 2) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press: © 1991).

Georgina Hermann, The Small Collections from Fort Shalmaneser (London: Butler & Tanner Ltd. for The British School of Archaeology in Iraq: ©1992).

Austen H. Leyard, The Discoveries at Nineveh and Babylon (London: John Murray: 1853) (at the Internet Archive).

Anton Moortgat, The Art of Mesopotamia: The Classical Art of the Ancient Near East (translated by Judith Filson) (London: Phaidon Press Ltd.: 1969).

Joan and David Oates, Nimrud: An Assyrian Imperial City Revealed (Norfolk, U.K.: Bindles Ltd for the British School of Archaelogy in Iraq: 2004).

A.T. Olmstead,  “The Calculated Frightfulness of Ashur Nasir Apal,” 38 Journal of the American Oriental Society 209 (1918).

Julian Reade, “The Evolution of Imperial Architecture: Political Implications and Uncertainties,” 46 Mesopotamia: Rivista di Archeologia, Epigrafia e Storia Orientale Antica 109 (2011).

Asturias, October 1934

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the miners’ strike in the northern Spanish province of Asturias, which represented the first attempt to resist fascism in Spain specifically and in Europe generally. The incident played out in miniature themes that would be repeated over and over in Spain and elsewhere in Europe as reactionary forces used much the same script and the response of the Left followed a predictably tragic pattern.

Popular acclaim in Madrid as the Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931.

Popular acclaim in Madrid as the Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931.

Briefly stated, in April 1931 the profoundly conservative country of Spain woke up a republic after King Alfonso XIII fled the country following municipal elections that returned a wave of republican candidates to office. The election was a sharp rebuke to the seven-year rule of military dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. The Depression had proved beyond Primo de Rivera’s ability to manage: Much of the country was in the midst of crushing poverty, but the conservatives blamed the government for too much spending on infrastructure and condemned the budget deficits that resulted. Student uprisings portrayed Alfonso as Primo de Rivera’s lap dog. Shocked, the king began distancing himself from the dictator. What caused the latter’s resignation, however, was the military’s loss of confidence in him. Primo de Rivera had been manipulating promotions in a way that alienated key blocks. In January 1930 the army signaled its lack of support, and Primo de Rivera resigned. Rather than placate the population, the resignation galvanized the anti-monarchical sentiment. Even Alfonso could not deny after the April 4, 1931 election that the worm had turned against him. Great popular demonstrations celebrating the landslide in favor of the republican coalition greeted the event. On April 14, the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed.

One of the churches set ablaze on May 11, 1931 in response to the Church's support of the departed King and in defense of its political privileges.

One of the churches set ablaze on May 11, 1931 in response to the Church’s support of the departed King and in defense of its political privileges.

Rightly fearing that its favored position was about to be undermined, the Church signaled its disapproval of events. In May Bishop Gomá of the archdiocese of Tarragona, a right-wing proponent of the “Confessional State” (who would later be rewarded with the office Cardinal for his work in defending the establishment of the Church) issued a pastoral letter condemning the republic and avowing outright monarchical principles. Public outrage led to a rash of church burnings in Madrid, Andalusia and Valencia. Although the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (“CNT”), the most radical of the union organizations, advised against violence, it remained on guard against the possible co-option of government by conservative forces. An interim government was formed, which set June elections for a constitutional assembly. By December a new constitution was framed. The Constitution established a variety of liberal principles including freedom of speech and assembly. It responded to popular discontent over the Church’s entrenched and reactionary role in public life by disestablishing it and barring its role in public education. Resistance by the Church resulted in predictable public reaction, and churches were set aflame from time to time over the next several years. Nonetheless, the political party that represented the Church, the Acción Nacional, later renamed the Acción Popular, remained overtly anti-republican, expressly sought a return to the monarchy and aligned itself with the most notoriously right-wing political elements of Spain.

From the English languag anti-Fascist pamphlet Spain October 1934 a Spanish farm worker, who was one of

From the English languag anti-Fascist pamphlet Spain, October 1934 a Spanish farm worker, who was one of “thousands” who lived in “holes in the ground.”

Great public expectations were invested in the Republic. In addition to a religious establishment, Spain still retained feudal privileges for the aristocracy. Monopolies prevailed. Wealth was highly concentrated. Over half of land was held by 0.2% of the population, while most farm workers (a group representing about 20% of the population) lived in dire poverty. Large fortunes were controlled by old nobles and new industrialists, the former seen as debauched leeches and the latter as rapacious predators by the popular parties. For the first two years the Congress of Deputies (the new unicameral legislature) enacted liberal social and political reforms: women were granted the suffrage, divorce was legalized, the army was reduced and even a mild agrarian land reform law was enacted. But although the constitution provided means by which certain monopolies could be nationalized (banks, railroads and the like), no such steps were taken. Prime Minister Manuel Azaña cashiered the worst of the Catholic army officers and expanded secular schools but temporized on any fundamental reforms. CNT’s distrust of the liberal parties proved well-founded when the center right parties came to power in 1933.

Characiture of Alejandro Lerroux on cover of Gracia y Justicia (1931) by  Areuger (Wikipedia).

Characiture of Alejandro Lerroux on cover of Gracia y Justicia (1931) by Areuger (Wikipedia).

Although the Radical Party had once been anti-monarchical and indeed originally part of the coalition to overturn the monarchy and although it participated in the interim government following Alfonso’s escape from Spain, in the Congress of Deputies it proved to be a center-right party. Even though Manuel Azaña was at best mildly republican, the Radical Party became government’s chief opposition party. In the 1933 elections (one seen as corrupt by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations) a coalition of conservatives won the largest number of seats and the Radical Party was given the right to attempt to form a government, but it had no majority. It tried three times: in November 1933, April 1934 and October 1934. All of which failed.

The Radical Party was founded in 1909 and was still led in 1933 by Alejandro Lerroux, who was a man of no fixed principles. As the centrist Foreign Affairs noted in January 1935, Lerroux was “dominated by senile vanity and ambition” and “it was all the same whether it was a republic or a more or less disguised monarchy, provided only he were in power.” After three governments were rejected by the Congress (in one of which he himself was proposed as the prime minister), Lerroux decided to reach out to a coalition partner that everyone knew was toxic—the Acción Popular.

Gil Robles:

Gil-Robles: “Society has only one enemy … Marxism. Only when the conservative classes seize the opportunity will a better day dawn.” From by Henri Barbusse,  Spain, October 1934 (Paris: S.R.I.: 1934).

The Acción Popular Party was led by reactionary ideologue and ardent fundamentalist Catholic Gil-Robles. Gil-Robles was secretary of the Catholic-Agrarian National Confederation during the dictatorship of Primo Rivera. He joined the writing council of El Debate, a very conservative clerical journal, which was conducted in a modern, racy, popular style. (It was the first Spanish newspaper with a sports section, for example.) From the very beginning of the Second Republic Acción Popular (under its original name Acción Nacional ) (and El Debate as its mouth-piece) made no attempt to disguise its anti-Republican programme. It represented the interests of the Spanish church and was funded by the right-wing money. In 1931 it voted against the adoption of the Constitution and made no bones about accommodating republicanism. It represented everything that liberals and leftist groups feared: naked, iron-fisted reaction. And 1934 was a year in which liberals and leftists had good reason to fear the forces of reaction. In Austria, for example, the fascist government, long in alliance with Mussolini, began a crack-down on the Social Democratic Party and suspended basic civil liberties and entrenched a one-party state by means of a new constitution.

Acción Popular election poster 1933.

Acción Popular election poster 1933: “Socialism destroys our economy. Vote for the Right. Vote against Marxism.”

Before the 1933 elections Gil-Robles formed the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right “CEDA”) as something of an umbrella group for conservative, right-wing and anti-republican interests. The coalition gained a plurality of votes, but President Alcalá-Zamora hesitated to give Gil-Robles the chance to form a coalition. Alcalá-Zamora himself was a lawyer and conservative. He was profoundly Catholic and had no great attachment to republicanism. But he knew that the country was a tinder box and Gil-Robles was a match. So the task was given to Lerroux. By summer 1934 Lerroux was so frustrated that he decided to do what no other republican party would consider—make Acción Popular a coalition partner. He obtained a vow from Gil-Robles to respect the republican constitution, probably a fig demanded by Alcalá-Zamora, and then agreed to give three portfolios to Acción Popular members. Gil-Robles had undoubtedly persuaded Lerroux that the threat described by the Socialists in Congress (that such action would result in a national uprising) was a bluff or at least would result in at most a transitory protest and then everyone would accept the inevitable. El Debate said so in an editorial on October 3. Even Alcalá-Zamora was convinced. When a banker warned against allowing Acción Popular participation because of the threat of an uprising, Alcalá-Zamora said: “Who will call it? The Socialists? They never make revolutions.” So the deed was done on October 4.

The President proved prophetic. None of the national republican parties lifted a finger, other than distancing themselves from government. The matter was left to a coalition of local radical working class groups.

Poster appealing for proletariat solidarity with the uprising in Asturias.

Poster appealing for proletariat solidarity with the uprising in Asturias.

Back in March 1934, as a result of the election of right-wingers in the November polls, a Workers’ Alliance was formed. The two labor groups, the CNT (largely anarcho-syndicalists) and the Unión General de Trabajadores (“UGT,” the trade unionists), had long concluded that radical action was necessary. After the November election even the socialists, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (“PSOE”), were talking about insurrection, although as it later turned out, this talk was largely a sop to their constituents. On March 28, 1934, despite the wariness of the CNT, a Workers’ Alliance was formed among these three parties as the Bloc Obrer i Camperol (BOC). The Federación Anarquista Ibérica (“FAI,” the Iberian Anarchist Federation), however, refused to join, not believing that any of the parties would follow through on their commitments. The concept behind the alliance was to organize local revolutionary committees, which would retain independence but coordinate with the national coordinating group. The hope was to initiate strikes and other insurrections much like the successful ones called by FAI in 1933. In December 1933 the CNT had also called a strike which resulted in attacks on right-wing forces around the country. In response Acción Popular held a rally in Covadonga, the place sacred to Catholic reactionaries because it was where the expulsion of the Moors was first begun. The Acción Popular rally was the beginning of its organizing of paramilitary groups.

Protestors violently dispersed in Madrid after the State of Siege was proclaimed. From Spain October 1934.

Protestors violently dispersed in Madrid after the State of Siege was proclaimed. From Spain, October 1934.

When the coalition with Acción Popular was announced on October 4, the PSOE, with the rest of the organized Left, considered it a “fascist coup.” It was now time to decide. Largo-Caballero, the head of the socialist PSOE, was far from a revolutionary. During the Primo Rivera dictatorship he came to an entente with government which permitted the UGT to exist (but not strike), and he was not constitutionally a decisive man. Nevertheless, in the crisis, according to vice secretary of the PSOE Juan Simeón Vidarte, although he was pale, his voice was steady: the comité insurreccional of the PSOE would unleash civil war.

At the same time in Catalonia, the local government used the event to pull the trigger on its long planned goal of declaring independence. In Madrid, the government was more interested in responding to the workers. Under the prodding of Gil-Robles, the Guardia civil was brought out to break the strike, and the government declared a state of siege. In Madrid, the police fired on protesters, and the streets were filled with uniformed men. In the face of violent repression most of the actions melted away. But in Asturias in Northern Spain the workers had prepared themselves for a real, rather than imagined, insurrection.

Asturian miners in the trenches in October 1934. (Photographer unknown.)

Asturian miners in the trenches in October 1934. (Photographer unknown.)

The miners of Asturias were the only ideologically disciplined group, and their sympathizers were a large segment of the population. Moreover, they had firmly united with the UGT, which was whole-heartedly behind insurrection rather than “reform.” When the time came, the FAI and eventually the small group of local communists joined the uprising.

On October 5, the barracks of the Guardia civil throughout the villages of Asturias were approached, and the workers demanded that they surrender. When they balked, the workers attacked and subdued them. Revolutionary groups were set up, and an attack on Olviedo, the provincial capital, was planned. On October 6, Olviedo was taken, the “Model Prison” there was opened, but although it contained a cache of weapons, it had no ammunition.

Olviedo after the Moors, October 14, 1934. (Printed card. Photographer unknown.)

Olviedo after the Moors, October 14, 1934. (Printed card. Photographer unknown.)

The general government on the recommendation of  Gil-Robles, sought the advice of Generals Manuel Goded and Francisco Franco, both of whom were experienced in brutal counterinsurgency: Goded had fought in the Rif War against the Morocco insurgents and Franco had put down a strike in Asturias in 1917. Both agreed that the regular army was unreliable. They recommended a combination of the Guardia civil, the Spanish foreign legion, and colonial troops of Morocco. Ironically, the right wing movement which celebrated the Expulsion at Covadonga would now depend on the Moors and mercenaries to save  Christendom. The 25,000 foreign troops were soon landed and their ferocity, legendary in Africa, was unleashed. I won’t go into detail on individual battles, except for two observations. First, the efficiency of the Guardia civil was debunked. Workers had taken them on and won. Second, the CNT fear of bourgeois liberal parties in the crunch proved true. When workers in Catalan supported the declaration of independence (evidently thinking it would bring revolutionary improvement in its wake) the Catalan government balked at arming them and the “Catalonia Republic” collapsed in 10 hours. It didn’t take resort to Engels (who had shown how German liberals acted in similar circumstances in 1849), because Foreign Affairs saw the historical verity plainly:

“What history has frequently demonstrated was proved once again, namely, that a petty bourgeois party, placed between the power of the upper middle classes who control the state, and the mass of the class-conscious workers, is ineffective in revolution and always surrenders to the strongest side.”

Women and children driven from their homes by the troops under General Ochoa. From Spain October 1934.

Women and children driven from their homes by the troops under General Ochoa. From Spain, October 1934.

In the end the miners and civilians suffered at least 3,100 casualties including 1,100 dead. The government took between 30,000 and 45,000 prisoners, including Largo Caballero (who from the experience would gain the prestige that would allow him to become Prime Minister in the crucial years of 1936-37). There would be large-scale dislocations of insurgent families and sympathizers. And while some pockets held out for several months, ultimately the insurrections was snuffed out.

Franco of course benefitted by having a dry run for the maneuver he would use two years later to roll up the entire country. Then it would be the Spanish Government itself that sought assistance from bourgeois governments on the plea that republicanism was facing down fascism. Once again liberal bourgeois democracy turned a deaf ear. Throughout Europe, the Popular Front would replay the same sad denouement that the Workers’ Alliance did in Spain. You can develop your own analogies to other aspects of this story for our own time.

Despite the brutal defeat and repression, workers took heart from the event. They were not crushed by valor or by conviction, but only by lack of preparation and matériel. Next time it would be different. They all knew this.

For those interested in hearing from participants (or closely interested contemporaries), the following documents are available:

  • La Revolución de Octubre 1934 by anarchist and journalist José Muñoz Congost was last month digitized by ting Cultural de Estudios Sociales de Melbourne y Acracia Publications, a group related to Spanish emigrants to Australia, and is available as a PDF here.
  • A fascinating collection of contemporary English trade union documents (pamphlets, correspondence and reports) in the collection of University of Warwick have been digitized and can be seen here.
  • The text of the Workers’ Alliance can be found here.
  • An interesting Spanish TV documentary entitled “Asturias, La Ultima Revolución Obrera” can be viewed on Youtube here.