Monday, August 31, 2009

Heracles first deed and how he gained his lion pelt

The Roman emperor Commodus (180-192 Ad) as Heracles with the traditional attributes and the golden apples. This is how Heracles normally wear the lion pelt.

Heracles was still a young man, only eighteen years old, when he accomplished his first great deed. The story goes that the great lion of Cythaeron was roaming the lands of Amphitryon and Thespius and Heracles went on to assist them. The latter of the two was so impressed by the hero when he arrived that the king decided to let him sleep with his fifty daughters, one ever night until he slew the lion after fifty days (Apollod. Epit. II.4.10, Athenaeus claims that it only took one week: Ath. XIII.4). This event had two direct consequences; the lion pelt came from this lion (according to Apollodorus, we will soon encounter and alternative story) and this is why so many of the Greek peoples counted themselves as the descendants of Heracles.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

How Heracles was involved in creating the Milky Way.

We, as stated yesterday, do not know much about Heracles youth but one that might be interesting to hear is how he was involved in creating the Milky Way. It is said that Alcmene, in fear of Hera, brought out Hercules to the fields outside of Thebes (since then called the fields of Heracles) to expose him. However Hermes (the messenger of the gods) found out and picked up the baby and put him to Heras breast. Hera was terrified when she woke up and threw away Hercules and the milk was spilled over the heavens (Eratosth. Cat. 44 non vidi.) It might be noted that Diodorus Siculus records another, more common version of the same story (Diod. Sic.IV. 9.6).

Now, over to what I intended to be the main subject today – Heracles attributes. This is important as it is how you recognize the hero in art. It’ll be presented how he gained these items later.

Anyway, there are three main items and several minor ones that you can recognize Heracles by. The first three are the lions skin (normally around his neck with the head as a helmet. Here it's used to cover the extra support as the marble statue would break without it.) The second one is the olive club and the third one a bow and arrows, usually next to the hero.

The minor ones are the items that represents his labours and deeds. It is no uncommon to see him carrying the apples of Hesperides, dragging away Cerberus or next to a man that it hiding in a pithos (a large vessel, the man is Eurystheus who is scared by the creatures that Heracles bring to him).

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Wraith of Hera

Hera decided to get her revenge in one way or another, when realizing that Zeus had been with a mortal woman yet again. Now, Zeus made a fatal mistake the same day that Heracles was to be born, boasting that the descendant of him born that day would rule the race of Perseus. Hera knew that she could use this against Zeus and made him swear that it would be so.

She then went down to the earth and caused Menippe (The wife of Sthenelus, a descendant of Perseus and therefore also of Zeus) to give premature birth to Eurystheus. The birth of Heracles was prevented at the same time and he and his one night younger twin brother Iphicles were born too late.

Now, Eurystheus was to be king (in Tiryns), due to Zeus oath and Heracles destiny was open for mischief.

We do not know much about Heracles childhood and youth, at least not from myths that seems to be as old as the labours and so on. There is however one very wonderful story that tell us how Hera, in an attempt to kill Heracles while he still was young, sent two serpents to him. However the trick failed as Heracles managed to strangle the snakes despite his young age.

[...]the queen of gods in the kindling of her
anger sent presently the two snakes, and they when the doors were
opened went right on into the wide bedchamber, hasting to entwine the
children, that they should be a prey to their fierce teeth.

But the boy lifted up his head upright and was first to essay the
fight, seizing with inevitable grasp of both his hands the two
serpents by the necks, and time, as he strangled them, forced the
breath out of their monstrous forms.

Pind. Nem. I.40, Translation by E.Myers

Friday, August 28, 2009



There are many stories about Heracles. Most of them begin with the line “Heracles was the greatest of the Greek heroes”. That is true. But what’s his story, what’s behind the Disney version? He is seen over and over again in Greek and Roman art and I therefore want to spend a few weeks going through the myths surrounding him, the labors and some of the other deeds. Remember that there are many different versions of these myths and I will only present one, which might not follow exactly the stores you’ve heard earlier.

The story begins, as it commonly does in Greek myth, with the gods getting involved with mortals. The mortals who played a role in the beginning of this story were Amphitryon, son of Alcaeus, and Alcmene (which both came from the Perseus Family). Among the immortals we find Zeus and Hera to be involved, the former as the father, the later as the constant plague of Heracles.

The story of his birth and how his destiny is complicated, but I’m going to try to make it simple:

Amphitryon killed Electryon (father of Alcmene) and he and his wife Alcmene got expelled from their home city Argos. They then went to Thebes where the king there, Creon, purified them (which was necessary after the murder). Everything was looking good for the couple at this point but Alcmene refused to sleep with her husband until he avenged the deaths of her brothers as he had promised to (how they got killed is another story) and Amphitryon left Thebes to fulfill this promise. It is after this point Zeus makes his appearance, coming to Alcmenes bed disguised as her husband telling her that the promise has been fulfilled. This is the night when Heracles came into being and Hera soon realized what had happened and she was furious...



Thursday, August 27, 2009

Leaving Greece

I could keep on posting pictures from Greece for another year but I've decided to end this theme now, as I want to try something another one. I hope that you've enjoyed the presented selection. The new theme will be be up tomorrow, until then, enjoy this panorama taken from the Athenian Acropolis (Bigger version here).

I would also like to pull this theme together by going back to where I began. Compare the shot I posted back then to this painting by Edward Lear from 1848. The city may have popped up around the site but the setting is, even so, still almost the same. There's in fact really only one thing that has changed since then - one column fell down in a storm 1852.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Theatre of Herodes Atticus

One of the more impressive (if not the most impressive) structures around the Athenian Acropolis is the theatre of Herodes Atticus (101-177 Ad) which was built in the end of his life (after 174 Ad). It was admired already in antiquity by Pausanias for it's beauty and extravagance, being built in very expensive materials such as pentelic marble and cedar wood. Experts estimate that it could hold about 5000 spectators. Note though that the construction is heavily restored today and might not quite mirror the original.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Library of Hadrianus

Another major building that was constructed in Athens during the reign of Hadrainus was a library. There's unfortunately not very much more than the front left of the building itself (but the front is magnificent on it self), as most of the inner section was later occupied by a church.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Arch of Hadrianus

This is the so called arch of Hadrianus from Athens, built somewhere around 130 Ad in Pentelic marble. The exact function is debated, but a “boundary marker” between the new and old areas of the city has been suggested and seems reasonable. There might also be a connection to the final construction of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, considering the proximity and construction date.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Augusts may have been the first Roman emperor but Hadrianus was the great benefactor of Athens and we'll soon see some of contributions to the city. Here he is at the Athenian Agora (without his head unfortunatley).

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Images of the Roman emperors were put up in Athens just as all over the empire from the late 1st century Bc and onwards. This is a rare portrait of Augustus (Emp. 27 Bc - 14 Ad, b. 63 Bc d. 14 Ad) in bronze.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Roman toilets

It's important not to forget the details when constructing an Agora. These are the toilets attached to the market, although in bad shape after 2000 years. You find a set that allow you to see much more clearly how they looked here (From Ostia, behind Casa de Triclinio)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tower of the winds

The tower of the winds is one of few structures that actually have been standing moer or less intact since antiquity, but one that relatively few studies has been done on. The tower is, as a result of this, rather unknown and even the constructuion date is being debated even though most scholars favour a date around the mid 1st century Bc.

The name comes from the motif, the eight winds, that cover the upper panels and the tower was probably used as some sort of clock (both water clock and sun dial has been suggested) but the ancient writings are dubious on the subject (foremost Vitruvius and Varro).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Roman Agora

Here's a shot of what's left of the central square and colonnade, unfortonately not very much.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Roman Agora

The original Agora in Athens was quickly loosing it's old function as a market/forum during the last century Bc due to all the new buildings and monuments being put up there. Caesar and Augustus thus so it fit to donate founds for the construction of a new Agora - this is the entrance to this new marketplace (constructed in Pentalic marble ca 11 Bc).

Monday, August 17, 2009

Greece under the Roman period

Greece soon came under the influence of Rome (Through many wars, revolts and other twists roughly between 216 and 146 Bc) and as the city quickly conquered the "known world" during the last centuries Bc. It might be interesting to know that you see almost as much from the Roman period in Athens as you see things that are "purely Greek". I will therefore spend some time going through important Roman pieces in Greece, most of the remains come from the Roman imperial period.

First out is Agrippas Odeon (from ca 15 Bc) in the central parts of the Athenian Agora, the building was once a "covered theatre" presumably used for recitations and music arrangements. Here we see what's left of the entrance, one of four pillars in the shape of men (or is it giants, tritons or something else?).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The seated boxer

I thought that a close-up would be useful. Notice the look on his face, the scars and blood.

[Edit 022010: read this post from 191209 for more information on boxing in antiquity]

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The seated boxer

Yet another original bronze (the bronzes that has survived in a complete state are so few that the most important ones perhaps get too much attention), this time a late Hellenistic piece from around 100-50 Bc. Notice the grim realism, the bleeding, the broken nose and torn ears.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Aphrodite, Pan and Eros

This group goes under the name the slipper-slapper group and it depicts Pan who is pushing his luck with Aphrodite (notice how her stance is close to the one of the Knidian Venus, but the mood very different) while Eros is (smilingly) gently pushing Pan away . It was found at the house of a merchant association at Delos and dates to ca 100 Bc (which we know thanks to an inscription).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The dying Gaul

Many of antiquities most praised works of art comes from this period. Here we have the statue called the dying Gaul which once was a part of a larger group called the large Gauls. These were also bronzes in original, but not from Athens. As the 3rd century continued Athens was challenged as the main artistic and intellectual centre by two other cities; Pergamum and Alexandria. This piece is from the former and dates to ca 220 Bc.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


This statue of Demostenes (the famous orator from Athens, 384-322 Bc) is an example of a statue that did not survive as a bronze original. It was originally created by Polyeuktos in 280 Bc to stand in the Athenian Agora and was later copied in marble during the Roman period. The significant of this statue is the move towards the first true Greek portraits, earlier work were more idealising with only some distinct features representing the whole (as Socrates nose). Here we find a statue that actually could be recognized.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A jockey

Most bronze statues from this period (as from all of antiquity) are since long gone. Here is one of the few that actually made it, a jockey on his horse dating to the220-200 Bc. Notice the stance, a marble statue could never carry the weight like this and most Roman copies are therefore supplied with supports.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The theatre at Epidauros

This is a must see if you ever get a chance to go there, the theatre at Epidauros. It was built in the 4th century Bc according to Pausanias but archaelogical investigations date it to the 3rd century - however, whenever it was constructed, they did a good job as it's still in use today. The sounds is absolutely amazing, you can hear a whisper from the scene all the way up to the top row.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Alexander the great and the Hellenistic period

Alexander the great is a natural choice to begin the Hellenistic period (323-30 Bc) with so here we go, Alexander himself.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Alexander Mosaic

This is the very famous Alexande Mosaic, found in Casa del Fauno in Pompeii (It was therefore made before 79 Ad). The mosaic we have preserved here is not from the 4th century Bc but it's generally accepted that the motif is a copy of a much older frescoes. This would then be one of few remaining 4th century paintings and the motif is typical - Alexander at the Battle of Issos.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Tomb lekythos

Here's another funerary lekythos in marble, this one from ca 390 Bc - notice how similar it is to the one yesterday in motif and shape!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A tomb Lekythos

This is a marble version of the lekythos shape that I posted a few days ago, used here as funerary monument. This kind of monuments are actually quite common and if you go to Athens you'll see a lot of them, not seldom with a small relief on the front as on this one - here a farewell scene between a seated and standing woman.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A lekythos

This is a so called lekythos, a type of vessel used for holding oil, the shape is recognizable by it's long neck and a single handle. This one dates to ca 350-340 bc and was found in Paestum. Assteas has been suggested as the painter - the motif is the garden of Hesperides where the golden apples were to be found (The 11th labour of Hercules was to steal an apple from the garden).

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A loutrophoros

A loutrophoros is a distinctive vessel shape with two handles and a long neck, used to hold water during funerals and marriage rites. This one dates from ca 320-310 Bc and is possibly done by the so called White Sakkos painter, the scene depicts Pelops (The man who gave his name to the Peloponnesus, the big southern peninsula of Greece) and his wife Hippodameia.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The so called Cat Stele

This should have been posted about a week ago but I though that it would act as a good counterpart to the Dexileos stele. It dates to about 430 Bc and derive its name from the cat (?) under the bird cage at the left side. Notice how different the animal looks here compared to the one in this relief.

The young man is probably the deceased and under his arm a mourning boy.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Grave stele of Dexileos

This grave stele, dating to around 390 Bc, was put up to honour a young man who died in a battle against the Corinthians 394 Bc. The scene is familiar, a young warrior on horseback killing a fallen enemy. Notice the deep relief, the depth tend to increase during the century until the figures stand out from the stone almost completely.

[Photo edited 100226, the old version can be found here]

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Perseus and the fourth century

Most people would include the greater part of the fourth century (up to 323 bc, with the death of Alexander) into the classical period, and I agree with them. It is yet useful to discuss the 4th century on it's own. What we find is that the development during the earlier period continues, but with change sneaking around the corner.

This piece is called the Antikythera bronze (due to it's find spot in the sea close to the island with the same name, and you might reckon that the Artimisian Poseidon was found under similar circumstances), dates from ca 350 BC and the stance is typical for the period. The piece is normally interpreted as Perseus, who should hold Medusa's head in his right hand and a sword in his left, but a more recent theory argue that this is Paris with who hold the apple of strife (which led to the siege of Troy).

[Text edited: 100225]