The Legacy of Ancient Greece

Greek Art


Prev | Next | Contents | Greek History | Roman Empire |


The term "Transitional period" is rather meaningless in itself, but has acquired considerable currency as denoting that stage in the history of Greek art in which the last steps were taken toward perfect freedom of style. It is convenient to reckon this period as extending from the year of the Persian invasion of Greece under Xerxes to the middle of the century. In the artistic as in the political history of this generation Athens held a position of commanding importance, while Sparta, the political rival of Athens, was as barren of art as of literature. The other principal artistic center was Argos, whose school of sculpture had been and was destined long to be widely influential. As for other local schools, the question of their centers and mutual relations is too perplexing and uncertain to be here discussed.

In the two preceding chapters we studied only original works, but from this time on we shall have to pay a good deal of attention to copies (cf. pages 114-16). We begin with two statues in Naples (Fig. 101). The story of this group--for the two statues were designed as a group--is interesting. The two friends, Harmodius and Aristogiton, who in 514 had formed a conspiracy to rid Athens of her tyrants, but who had succeeded only in killing one of them, came to be regarded after the expulsion of the remaining tyrant and his family in 510 as the liberators of the city. Their statues in bronze, the work of Antenor, were set up on a terrace above the market-place (cf. pages 124, 149). In 480 this group was carried off to Persia by Xerxes and there it remained for a hundred and fifty years or more when it was restored to Athens by Alexander the Great or one of his successors. Athens however had as promptly as possible repaired her loss. Critius and Nesiotes, two sculptors who worked habitually in partnership, were commissioned to make a second group, and this was set up in 477-6 on the same terrace where the first had been After the restoration of Antenor's statues toward the end of the fourth century the two groups stood side by side.

It was argued by a German archaeologist more than a generation ago that the two marble statues shown in Fig. 101 are copied from one of these bronze groups, and this identification has been all but universally accepted. The proof may be stated briefly, as follows. First several Athenian objects of various dates, from the fifth century B.C. onward, bear a design to which the Naples statues clearly correspond One of these is a relief on a marble throne formerly in Athens. Our illustration of this (Fig. 102) is taken from a "squeeze," or wet paper impression. This must then, have been an important group in Athens. Secondly, the style of the Naples statues points to a bronze original of the early fifth century. Thirdly, the attitudes of the figures are suitable for Harmodius and Aristogiton, and we do not know of any other group of that period for which they are suitable. This proof, though not quite as complete as we should like, is as good as we generally get in these matters. The only question that remains in serious doubt is whether our copies go back to the work of Antenor or to that of Critius and Nesiotes. Opinions have been much divided on this point but the prevailing tendency now is to connect them with the later artists. That is the view here adopted

In studying the two statues it is important to recognize the work of the modern "restorer." The figure of Aristogiton (the one on your left as you face the group) having been found in a headless condition, the restorer provided it with a head, which is antique, to be sure, but which is outrageously out of keeping, being of the style of a century later. The chief modern portions are the left hand of Aristogiton and the arms, right leg, and lower part of the left leg of Harmodius. As may be learned from the small copies, Aristogiton should be bearded, and the right arm of Harmodius should be in the act of being raised to bring down a stroke of the sword upon his antagonist. We have, then, to correct in imagination the restorer's misdoings, and also to omit the tree- trunk supports, which the bronze originals did not need. Further, the two figures should probably be advancing in the same direction, instead of in converging lines.

When these changes are made, the group cannot fail to command our admiration. It would be a mistake to fix our attention exclusively on the head of Harmodius. Seen in front view, the face, with its low forehead and heavy chin, looks dull, if not ignoble. But the bodies! In complete disregard of historic truth, the two men are represented in a state of ideal nudity, like the Aeginetan figures. The anatomy is carefully studied, the attitudes lifelike and vigorous. Finally, the composition is fairly successful. This is the earliest example preserved to us of a group of sculpture other than a pediment-group. The interlocking of the figures is not yet so close as it was destined to be in many a more advanced piece of Greek statuary. But already the figures are not merely juxtaposed; they share in a common action, and each is needed to complete the other.

Of about the same date, it would seem, or not much later, must have been a lost bronze statue, whose fame is attested by the existence of several marble copies. The best of these was found in 1862, in the course of excavating the great theater on the southern slope of the Athenian Acropolis (Fig. 103). The naming of this figure is doubtful. It has been commonly taken for Apollo, while another view sees in it a pugilist. Recently the suggestion has been thrown out that it is Heracles. Be that as it may, the figure is a fine example of youthful strength and beauty. In pose it shows a decided advance upon the Strangford "Apollo" (Fig. 100). The left leg is still slightly advanced, and both feet were planted flat on the ground; but more than half the weight of the body is thrown upon the right leg, with the result of giving a slight curve to the trunk, and the head is turned to one side. The upper part of the body is very powerful, the shoulders broad and held well back, the chest prominently developed. The face, in spite of its injuries, is one of singular refinement and sweetness. The long hair is arranged in two braids, as in Fig. 96, the only difference being that here the braids pass over instead of under the fringe of front hair. The rendering of the hair is in a freer style than in the case just cited, but of this difference a part may be chargeable to the copyist. Altogether we see here the stamp of an artistic manner very different from that of Critius and Nesiotes. Possibly, as some have conjectured, it is the manner of Calamis, an Attic sculptor of this period, whose eminence at any rate entitles him to a passing mention. But even the Attic origin of this statue is in dispute.

We now reach a name of commanding importance, and one with which we are fortunately able to associate some definite ideas. It is the name of Myron of Athens, who ranks among the six most illustrious sculptors of Greece. It is worth remarking, as an illustration of the scantiness of our knowledge regarding the lives of Greek artists, that Myron's name is not so much as mentioned in extant literature before the third century B.C. Except for a precise, but certainly false, notice in Pliny, who represents him as flourishing in 420-416, our literary sources yield only vague indications as to his date. These indications, such as they are, point to the "Transitional period." This inference is strengthened by the recent discovery on the Athenian Acropolis of a pair of pedestals inscribed with the name of Myron's son and probably datable about 446. Finally, the argument is clinched by the style of Myron's most certainly identifiable work.

Pliny makes Myron the pupil of an influential Argive master, Ageladas, who belongs in the late archaic period. Whether or not such a relation actually existed, the statement is useful as a reminder of the probability that Argos and Athens were artistically in touch with one another. Beyond this, we get no direct testimony as to the circumstances of Myron's life. We can only infer that his genius was widely recognized in his lifetime, seeing that commissions came to him, not from Athens only, but also from other cities of Greece proper, as well as from distant Samos and Ephesus. His chief material was bronze, and colossal figures of gold and ivory are also ascribed to him. So far as we know, he did not work in marble at all. His range of subjects included divinities, heroes, men, and animals. Of no work of his do we hear so often or in terms of such high praise as of a certain figure of a cow, which stood on or near the Athenian Acropolis. A large number of athlete statues from his hand were to be seen at Olympia, Delphi, and perhaps elsewhere, and this side of his activity was certainly an important one. Perhaps it is a mere accident that we hear less of his statues of divinities and heroes.

The starting point in any study of Myron must be his Discobolus (Discus-thrower). Fig. 104 reproduces the best copy. This statue was found in Rome in 1781, and is in an unusually good state of preservation. The head has never been broken from the body; the right arm has been broken off, but is substantially antique; and the only considerable restoration is the right leg from the knee to the ankle. The two other most important copies were found together in 1791 on the site of Hadrian's villa at Tibur (Tivoli). One of these is now in the British Museum, the other in the Vatican; neither has its original head. A fourth copy of the body, a good deal disguised by "restoration," exists in the Museum of the Capitol in Rome. There are also other copies of the head besides the one on the Lancellotti statue.

The proof that these statues and parts of statues were copied from Myron's Discobolus depends principally upon a passage in Lucian (about 160 A. D.). [Footnote: Philopseudes, Section 18.] He gives a circumstantial description of the attitude of that work, or rather of a copy of it, and his description agrees point for point with the statues in question. This agreement is the more decisive because the attitude is a very remarkable one, no other known figure showing anything in the least resembling it. Moreover, the style of the Lancellotti statue points to a bronze original of the "Transitional period," to which on historical grounds Myron is assigned.

Myron's statue represented a young Greek who had been victorious in the pentathlon, or group of five contests (running, leaping, wrestling, throwing the spear, and hurling the discus), but we have no clue as to where in the Greek world it was set up. The attitude of the figure seems a strange one at first sight, but other ancient representations, as well as modern experiments, leave little room for doubt that the sculptor has truthfully caught one of the rapidly changing positions which the exercise involved. Having passed the discus from his left hand to his right, the athlete has swung the missile as far back as possible. In the next instant he will hurl it forward, at the same time, of course, advancing his left foot and recovering his erect position. Thus Myron has preferred to the comparatively easy task of representing the athlete at rest, bearing some symbol of victory, the far more difficult problem of exhibiting him in action. It would seem that he delighted in the expression of movement. So his Ladas, known to us only from two epigrams in the Anthology, represented a runner panting toward the goal; and others of his athlete statues may have been similarly conceived. His temple- images, on the other hand, must have been as composed in attitude as the Discobolus is energetic.

The face of the Discobolus is rather typical than individual. If this is not immediately obvious to the reader, the comparison of a closely allied head may make it clear. Of the numerous works which have been brought into relation with Myron by reason of their likeness to the Discobolus, none is so unmistakable as a fine bust in Florence (Fig. 105). The general form of the head, the rendering of the hair, the anatomy of the forehead, the form of the nose and the angle it makes with the forehead--these and other features noted by Professor Furtwangler are alike in the Discobolus and the Riccardi head. These detailed resemblances cannot be verified without the help of casts or at least of good photographs taken from different points of view; but the general impression of likeness will be felt convincing, even without analysis. Now these two works represent different persons, the Riccardi head being probably copied from the statue of some ideal hero. And the point to be especially illustrated is that in the Discobolus we have not a realistic portrait, but a generalized type. This is not the same as to say that the face bore no recognizable resemblance to the young man whom the statue commemorated. Portraiture admits of many degrees, from literal fidelity to an idealization in which the identity of the subject is all but lost. All that is meant is that the Discobolus belongs somewhere near the latter end of the scale. In this absence of individualization we have a trait, not of Myron alone, but of Greek sculpture generally in its rise and in the earlier stages of its perfection (cf. page 126).

Another work of Myron has been plausibly recognized in a statue of a satyr in the Lateran Museum (Fig. 106). The evidence for this is too complex to be stated here. If the identification is correct, the Lateran statue is copied from the figure of Marsyas in a bronze group of Athena and Marsyas which stood on the Athenian Acropolis The goddess was represented s having just flung down in disdain a pair of flutes; the satyr, advancing on tiptoe, hesitates between cupidity and the fear of Athena's displeasure. Marsyas has a lean and sinewy figure, coarse stiff hair and beard, a wrinkled forehead, a broad flat nose which makes a marked angle with the forehead, pointed ears (modern, but guaranteed by another copy of the head), and a short tail sprouting from the small of the back The arms, which were missing, have been incorrectly restored with castanets. The right should be held up, the left down, in a gesture of astonishment. In this work we see again Myron's skill in suggesting movement. We get a lively impression of an advance suddenly checked and changed to a recoil.

Thus far in this chapter we have been dealing with copies Our stock of original works of this period, however, is not small; it consists, as usual, largely of architectural sculpture. Fig. 107 shows four metopes from a temple at Selinus. They represent (beginning at the left) Heracles in combat with an Amazon, Hera unveiling herself before Zeus, Actaeon torn by his dogs in the presence of Artemis, and Athena overcoming the giant Enceladus. These reliefs would repay the most careful study, but the sculptures of another temple have still stronger claims to attention.

Olympia was one of the two most important religious centers of the Greek world, the other being Delphi. Olympia was sacred to Zeus, and the great Doric temple of Zeus was thus the chief among the group of religious buildings there assembled. The erection of this temple probably falls in the years just preceding and following

Prev | Next | Contents | Greek History | Roman Empire |


History of Greece | | Site Map | Privacy

History of Greece Online

Exploring Ancient World Cultures