I start with a clay vase called an amphora made in Athens around 430 BC on which is a depiction of two young men preparing to wrestle under the supervision of a judge (Figure 26.1). Unfortunately, the find-place for this particular piece is not known, but this fact is less important here because we know precisely what its function was in Athens, where it was originally used. The technique used to paint the scene is called black-figure, in which silhouette figures with details incised are set against a background of the reddish Attic clay. But that technique went out of fashion in Athens soon after 500 BC and was replaced by a technique called red-figure, where the figures are reserved, that is they are left in the reddish color of the clay, and the background is painted black around them. Thus at first sight our vase would have seemed ‘‘old-fashioned’’ at the time that it was made. However, the black-figure technique was preserved in Athens on into the second century BC for the sole purpose of painting amphoras like this one that were given as prizes to victorious athletes at the Panathenaea, a festival held in late July or early August in honor of Athena, and which every fourth year included athletic and musical competitions.
The distinctive shape and the imagery on the prize vases was fixed as early as 566 BC, the date when the contests were probably added to the festival, and they changed very little during the more than three hundred years during which they were made. On one side was a depiction of a contest, presumably the one for which the vase was awarded, and on the other was an image of the warrior goddess Athena, who strides forward, her shield on her left arm, her spear raised for attack in her right hand. (Figure 26.2) She wears an Attic helmet and her snake-fringed aegis over her peplos, and on our vase the device on her shield is a winged Victory (Nike) with a wreath in her hands. On either side of Athena are columns surmounted by cocks, and beside one of the columns is the inscription ‘‘a prize for the games at Athens.’’ The retention of the old technique and the use of a consciously archaic style of drawing for the figure of Athena reflect the conservatism of religious customs and rituals. We will return to this image of Athena, which has a special place in Attic iconography, but first let us consider the use of the vase.
Many art museums in Europe and the United States proudly display Panathenaic amphoras as important works of Greek art, and recently a fifth-century example, much like ours, sold on the art market for more than half a million dollars. This is
Figure 26.1 Athletes preparing to wrestle in the presence of a judge on an Attic black-figure Panathenaic amphora. ca. 430 BC. Ny Carlsburg Museum, Copenhagen inv. 3606
Figure 26.2 Athena Promachos (reverse of fig. 26.1)
Slightly ironic, because for the Greek athletes who won the vases the contents were undoubtedly as important as the container (if not more so). The amphoras were filled with olive oil that came from special olive trees owned by the state and said to be descendants of a sacred olive tree on the Acropolis that was a gift from Athena herself. Competitions were arranged by age group (boys, youths, and men) and according to an early fourth-century inscription, the winner of first prize in the youths’ wrestling contest, as depicted on our vase, received not one, but fifty of them, while the youth in second place received ten (Neils 1992:15-16).
Our vase is 62.8 cm high and would have held something over 35 liters of oil, so the first prizewinner would have taken home close to 1,900 liters of oil. Based on another early fourth-century inscription, the value of the oil in one amphora can be calculated at about 12 drachmas, which means the youth who won the wrestling event received oil worth 600 drachmas (Vos 1981:42). Since a skilled laborer earned about 1 drachma per day, the youth’s winnings were not an insubstantial sum - almost two years’ wages. As many as 1,400 amphorae were awarded at the festival every four years, so there was also a clear economic benefit for the potters who received the state contracts to make the vases. Thus we can see economic, political, artistic, and religious strands woven together to form part of the fabric of the festival.
That the prize vases for the games in honor of Athena should be manufactured by Athenian potters was appropriate on more than economic and political grounds. One of Athena’s roles was as patron of potters (and other artisans); on an Attic red-figure vase from the middle of the fifth century, Athena and Nike themselves appear in a workshop to crown the artisans who are crafting vases (Boardman 1975: fig. 323). Athena was thought to have taught the crafts to the Athenians as well as being their patron, and there was an Attic festival in the late fall that honored Athena Ergane (goddess of labor) and Hephaestus, the smith god. It was at this festival, nine months before the Panathenaea, that a loom was set up and women began to weave a peplos, a garment that would dress the most sacred cult statue of Athena on the Acropolis, Athena Polias (Guardian of the City).
In fact, a central event of the Panathenaic festival each year was a procession that accompanied the newly woven peplos to the ancient statue on the Acropolis. Organized by a board of ten men appointed for a four-year term to oversee the preparations for the festival, the procession itself was what might today be called ‘‘performance art.’’ The various elements of the Athenian population, and even some non-Athenians, were chosen to participate in what must have been a colorful and elegant event. The choice of who would participate was carefully made on the basis of aesthetics as well as status; Xenophon (Symposium 4.17) tells us that even the old men who marched were chosen for their beauty. The procession ended on the Acropolis with the presentation of the peplos followed by the sacrifice, one by one, of a hundred heifers at the great altar of Athena Polias that dated back at least to the seventh century and probably earlier. The meat was then distributed to the Athenians gathered below in the agora. Sacrifices were probably the only occasions when most Greeks consumed meat.
Needless to say, none of the peploi woven for the cult statue has survived; however, literary sources tell us that the same subject, the battle between the gods and the giants called the Gigantomachy, was woven into the peplos every year. This battle, the last challenge to the authority of the Olympians, held particular significance for the Athenians as we shall see, and it is likely that a principal purpose of the Panathenaic festival itself, at least in the fifth century, was to thank Athena for her central role in the defeat of the giants, and thus to encourage her continued support.
Our knowledge of the Gigantomachy comes largely from images since the earliest surviving narrative account of it is in a first - or second-century AD summary (Apollodorus, Library 1.6.1-2), but even in the fifth century BC images were an important means of transmitting the story. There are few references to the Gigantomachy in fifth-century literature; neither Aeschylus nor Sophocles mentions it in extant works, and Euripides and Aristophanes mention it only in passing, mainly as it relates to the peplos. On the other hand, there is a substantial body of Attic images depicting the battle from both the sixth and fifth centuries on vases and in sculpture. Though depictions of the battle occasionally appear in images from other places, the Gigantomachy clearly had special meaning for the Athenians.
From before the middle of the sixth century large black-figure vases were dedicated on the Acropolis with depictions of the many gods in combat with the giants. Then, during the fifth century, on red-figure vases, duels between a god and a giant were more often shown, though the depictions of the gods usually followed the conventions established on earlier vases. The Athena who appears in these scenes is almost always precisely the Athena who appears on the Panathenaic amphoras, called Promachos (Champion). This is the Athena who fights a giant on the remains of the pediment from an archaic temple on the Acropolis, and it is the Athena of small fifth-century bronze votive statuette found on the Acropolis (Figure 26.3). This, in all likelihood, is the way Athena appeared on the peplos.
The cult statue of Athena Polias, which was dressed each year in the new peplos, was very ancient. We have no reliable description of it; however, we know it was made of olive wood, was probably no larger than life-size, and was only vaguely anthropomorphic. In any case, the statue was small enough for the Athenians to carry it with them when they fled the invading Persians in 480 BC. Pausanias (1.26.6) was told that it fell from heaven; thus it was not seen to be the work of a mortal artisan, and in that way it stands in sharp contrast to the more famous image of Athena, Pheidias’ huge gold and ivory Athena Parthenos, dedicated in 438 BC, less than a decade before our Panathenaic amphora was made.
Before turning to Pheidias’ statue we need to set the stage. In 480 BC and again in 479 BC the invading Persians sacked the Acropolis, the religious center of Athens. They destroyed the temples including an earlier ‘‘Parthenon’’ that was under construction, a thank-offering to Athena for defeat of the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC. In addition, they smashed or looted thousands of votive offerings, large and small. Before the battle at Plataia, where the Persians were finally defeated, the Greeks are said to have sworn an oath that they would not rebuild the temples destroyed by the Persians but would leave the ruins as memorials to the impiety of the barbarians (Diodorus Siculus 11.29.3) The cult statue of Athena Polias was returned to the Acropolis, probably to a makeshift building, but the site as a whole does seem to have remained desolate for thirty years until the Athenian statesman Pericles convinced the Assembly to fund a building program that would be commensurate with the newfound greatness of the city. Construction of the Parthenon, the great temple that
Figure 26.3 Bronze statuette of Athena Promachos dedicated by Meleso from the Acropolis in Athens. ca. 480 BC. National Museum, Athens inv. 6447. DAI Neg. NM 4742
Would house the statue of Athena Parthenos, was started in 447 BC. The statue was dedicated in 438 BC, and the last of the architectural sculpture on the outside of the building was probably finished by 432 BC.
The Parthenon surely stands as the epitome of Greek temple architecture, but there is a certain irony to that. There was never a cult associated with the temple. As far as
We know, there was no priestess of Athena Parthenos and there was no altar in front of it where sacrifices could be performed as there normally is with a temple. Rather, the Parthenon was itself an extravagant votive offering to Athena. Unlike most temples, it had two rooms instead of one. The larger east room was purpose-built to house Pheidias’ statue of Athena, and the west room served as a treasury where the wealth of the Athenians was stored. As one scholar has recently written of it, ‘‘the Parthenon should perhaps be considered not so much as a temple of Athena as a temple to Athens, a storehouse of its wealth, a marble essay on its greatness’’ (Hurwit 1999:27).The ancient olive-wood statue continued to be the sacred image of Athena on the Acropolis, though it was probably still housed in a makeshift setting when the Parthenon was finished. Eventually it was moved to the Erechtheum, a temple completed nearly three decades later.
Athena Parthenos was an extravagant showpiece, some 30 feet tall, made of plates of ivory and gold attached to a wood formwork, the gold alone weighing nearly 2,500 pounds (Leipen 1971:19; Figure 26.4). Thus, in the latter part of the fifth century we see an illustration of a notable disjunction between, on the one hand, religious significance and, on the other, physical grandeur or what we might call artistic merit. To see the giant statue shimmering with the light that came in through the door and two windows in the east wall would have been a moving experience, yet the message had more to do with pride and wealth and power than it did with religion in the strict sense.
The Parthenon was richly decorated with sculpture. Freestanding figures filled the triangular pediments at either end of the building. Ninety-two rectangular panels (metopes) in high relief, separated one from the next by grooved panels called triglyphs, went all the way around the building beneath the eves, and a continuous frieze carved in low relief went around the outside of the inner rooms (cella). Not surprisingly, much of the imagery associated with the Parthenon echoes themes from the Panathenaic festival.
Had you participated in the Panathenaic procession in 430 BC, the year our amphora was probably awarded, you would have entered the Acropolis through the new monumental gateway, the Propylaia (Figure 26.5). As you emerged, you would have seen the west pediment of the Parthenon rising up in front of you, with Athena and Poseidon in a moment of tense conflict. Between them was an olive tree, Athena’s gift that won her the patronage of Athens over Poseidon’s gift of a salt spring. That tree, of course, was the one that was the ancestor of those that produced the oil to fill the prize amphorae.
As you passed by the north side of the building on your way to the great altar where the sacrifice of a hundred heifers would take place, you would have caught glimpses, between the columns, of a procession of horsemen and youths and elders on foot and even of animals that echoed the very procession of which you were a part. In fact, the frieze of more than 524 feet that went around the cella of the building depicted the Panathenaic procession, moving down the long north and south sides toward the assembled gods on the east end, where a man and a child fold the peplos for Athena.
Later, had you gone to visit the spectacular new statue by Pheidias, you would have approached the east end of the building. Facing you was a pediment depicting the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus in the presence of many deities. Below the frieze were fourteen metopes, in each one of which a deity fought a giant or giants. As
Figure 26.4 Reconstruction of the Athena Parthenos in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of Photographic Services of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville
You moved into the porch you would see on the east frieze the assembled deities and on either side of them mortals with the peplos. Then, inside the cella, you would have seen the huge gold and ivory statue, of armed Athena at rest. In one hand she held a
Figure 26.5 Plan of the Acropolis showing the Propylaia, the great altar, the Parthenon, and the Erechtheum. After Travlos 1988:37, fig. 33
Nike and with the other she supported her shield on the inside of which was a depiction of the Gigantomachy.
The depictions of the gods at battle in the metopes are of particular interest because they give monumental form to images we know otherwise only from vases. Their prominence on the east end of the temple is an indication of their perceived importance. It seems clear that the Gigantomachy had meaning for Athenians that was much broader and deeper than just a mythic fight. More likely it was a kind of visual metaphor the terms of which could change over time. The treatment of Apollo helps to illustrate this point.
Figure 26.6 Reconstruction of east metope 9 from the Parthenon showing Apollo with a sword fighting a giant. After Praschniker 1928: fig. 126
In early depictions of the Gigantomachy, Apollo fights alongside his sister Artemis, and they both use their bows, which are their traditional attribute. Then, about 500 BC, Apollo, now by himself, is suddenly shown fighting giants with a sword, as he does on the Parthenon metope, and this becomes the new convention for him; however, his use of the sword is strictly limited to fights with giants (Figure 26.6). For all other scenes the bow continues to be his most common attribute. A sudden and dramatic change in a time-honored convention such as this must have conveyed a specific meaning to Athenians and it was not by chance that the distinctive swordswinging pose was used in 477 BC by the sculptors Kritios and Nesiotes for their famous statue of the tyrant slayer Harmodios, which stood in the agora. We can only guess at what that meaning might have been in 500 BC and in 477 BC, but we should also recognize that in 430 BC, a generation later, it may have held different meaning. When religion lacks texts to maintain orthodoxy, images can transmit traditions from generation to generation, but the meaning transmitted by such images does not necessarily remain the same over time. A generation separating images is not a statement of proximity but of distance.
To return to the Panathenaea, the most basic purpose of any festival was to thank the deity for past favors and to encourage the deity’s continued benevolence toward the city. For the Panathenaea that benevolence applies to those who tend the olive groves, to potters, to painters, and to women who weave, all of whom look to Athena as their patron. Ultimately, with the Parthenon, the celebration of her triumph becomes a metaphor for the triumph of the city itself with its military, economic, and political implications.