They trained. They fought. They conquered.
If there’s one thing to take away from Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes, at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, it’s that historic Mediterranean civilization was a melting pot of intense competition that prioritized excellence above all else. .
From a boat-shaped lamp cradling the demigod Heracles as a baby to a marble tombstone commemorating the wealth and generosity of an upper-class woman, many of the more than 170 artifacts on loan from the British Museum reveal how ingrained the appetite of the ancient Greeks was for fame was.
As Peter John Higgs of the British Museum, Acting Custodian of the Greek Collections, notes in the exhibition catalog: “For athletes, training sculpted the perfect body that would achieve victory in the sports arena or on the field. of battle. Education, philosophy, science and the visual arts have shaped and sharpened the mind ”.
Born of Zeus and a mortal woman, the athlete Heracles – or Hercules, as the Romans called him – was revered for his immense strength and courage, and on the delicate silver lamp from the 1st century CE, the lying tot can be seen calmly strangling a snake, depicting a first chapter in the legend of its life.
Along with Achilles, another demigod, Heracles was a hero worthy of being emulated, although, being partly mortal, the pin-up also possessed more “relatable” features. He was weak, had a short wick, and was something lush. Nonetheless, he was immensely popular, and his cult is reflected in a variety of votive and other objects on display.
Phila of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) must have had the gods on her side because she led a good life – so good, in fact, that she could afford to share her wealth. The wreaths decorating the top of his gravestone, which dates back to around 200-100 BCE, are special civic honors recognizing his benevolence – the ancient Greek equivalent of the honors system – while his gracious abode, beautiful clothing and his little servants underline his exalted stature. .
So, what was it that animated this culture of competition and aspiration for greatness?
“In the ancient Greek world, life would have been chaotic, uncertain and frightening,” says Lily Withycombe, curator of the National Museum of Australia.
“It was survival of the fittest and you had to be excellent at whatever you did.”
Since the average lifespan in ancient Greece is estimated to be well under 50 years for both men and women, time was of the essence.
“But their sense of competition was quite different from ours, because of all this chaos and uncertainty and the fact that death could be imminent,” Withycombe said.
“For them, it wasn’t really a question of individual merit. You could be the best athlete or the best playwright, but to truly achieve excellence you had to have the gods smiling at you.
Images and figures of gods from the Greek pantheon permeated the ancient world and can be seen on pottery, carved in marble, set in jewelry, and honored in relief throughout the exhibition space.
“The ancient Greeks also had a strong appreciation for aesthetics and a real connection to the human form as it relates to the divine form,” explains Withycombe.
“So when people worship gods, gods look like athletes, and when you train as an athlete, you look like a god. Everything is interconnected.
Those who were there to win it needed Nike, the Goddess of Victory, by their side.
“The exhibition opens with a marble statue of Nike, which was a popular subject for akroteria or decorative elements mounted on gables and roofs, positioned as if it descended from Mount Olympus,” says Withycombe.
Found in Halikarnassos (now Bodrum, Turkey), the dynamically carved statue dates to around 100 BCE.
“She is missing her head, neck, arms and feet, but you can still see the puffy robe and the fragments of her wings, and she embodies this notion that the gods give you victory.”
Elsewhere, there are terracotta pint-sized Nikes, tiny figures of her in silver and gold jewelry – and, on a blue chalcedony stone from around 350-300 BCE , a detailed engraving of the winged goddess assembling a victory trophy from the spoils of war.
“She’s a pretty scary goddess, being Zeus’ charioteer in battle, so you want her by your side – but more importantly, you want to make sure she’s not against you in any way,” Withycombe says.
This is a testament to the capricious nature of the gods, a temper that mortals attribute to them as a way to rationalize the vicissitudes of fortune and make sense of the unpredictability of their lives.
The genre of Nike highlights the role of women in ancient Greece. Could they take up arms?
“According to the literature, Spartan women had more freedom than Athenian women, in that they could train as warriors and soldiers,” says Withycombe, adding that the two city-states were at the throes of one another. on the other during the Peloponnesian War between 431-404 BC. , which Sparta ultimately won.
“But a lot of these accounts are written by Athenians, so maybe they try to emphasize the otherness of the Spartans, and to the Greek mind, women were meant to be within the oikos, or the household.”
This may be true, but what is the explanation for the popularity of the Amazons in Greek mythology? These formidable combatants can be seen in hand-to-hand combat with Greek soldiers on a marble frieze from the tomb of King Mausolus, found at Halikarnassos and dating from around 350 BCE.
“The Greeks had this great imaginative trope of the Amazonian warrior who cuts her breast to be a better archer, lives without the company of men, rides horses and does whatever wild people beyond the borders of the known world are. supposed to do, ”says Withycombe.
The Amazons are not a novelty act, however, but a serious force to be reckoned with.
“The sculptural relief of the tomb of King Mausolus shows Amazons defeating the Greeks and Greeks defeating the Amazons, so it’s certainly not one-sided,” she says.
Greek mythology also gave birth to the heroine Atalanta, considered the first female athlete.
Dressed in a tunic, she can be seen engaged in wrestling combat with a naked Peleus, the gifted warrior and athlete she defeated, on a bronze coffin handle dating from around 480-460 BCE.
“Like the Amazons, Atalanta is the antitype of the typical Greek woman. She is stronger and faster than men, and she has lived a life beyond the borders of civilization, ”says Withycombe.
“It’s the same with Athena, goddess of war and patron saint of the city of Athens. She is depicted in full armor in a way you would never see an Athenian woman otherwise depicted.
“But because she is so different, the Greeks have to conceptualize her birth in a radically different way – Zeus suffers from a terrible headache, has to have his head open, and Athena comes out.”
Compare these depictions of belligerent women with a life-size Parian marble statue of a high-ranking counterbalanced woman from around 150 to 100 BCE.
“She is surrounded by a surplus of luxurious silk, linen and wool fabrics which are bundled around her hands to show just how rich she is,” says Withycombe.
The curvy sculpture is important in that it commemorates a real woman.
“During the Hellenistic period from 323 to 31 BC.
Yet as a depiction of a modest and virtuous woman – her head and hands are covered – the statue conforms to the prevailing ideal.
For Withycombe, one of the most notable objects in the exhibition is a surprisingly well-preserved amphora or storage jar, made in Athens by the famous vase painter and potter Exekias, who signed it, circa 540-530 Before our era.
“The black-figure pottery shows the moment on the battlefield when the Greek warrior Achilles plunges his spear into the throat of Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, who is on her knees,” she said.
“Yet at the time of his death, they fall in love.
“Even though it is such a strange scene, I am fascinated by the drama and amazed that Exekias could convey this moment of death and this moment of love simultaneously.”
Another winning object, which, like the Exekias vase, Withycombe requested specifically for the exhibition, is Homer’s Apotheosis, a supremely carved sculptural relief in marble probably made in Alexandria and dating from around 220-200 BCE. time.
At the very least, it’s a practical guide to the Greek pantheon, with Grandpa Zeus, his Aunt Mnemosyne, their daughters the Nine Muses, and an Apollo playing the lyre.
In the lower register, many personifications (Myth, History, Poetry …) pay homage to Homer, author and epic poet, while he is crowned with a laurel wreath by Oikoumene (Inhabited world) and Kronos (Time), reflecting its semi-divine status.
While these masterpieces are undoubtedly fascinating, they are sometimes the most humble objects of material culture that manage to cut through the fog of millennia and provide a tantalizing glimpse into what everyday life might have been like in ancient Greece.
Dating from around 330-300 BC.
“With their arms bare, the women are either in a house or in a private place, and they are probably playing the game of chance known as Aphrodite’s throw,” Withycombe explains, noting that, as with most objects on display, the sculpture would once have been painted in a vibrant fashion.
“They are trying to determine their chances of getting married, if their marriage will be happy and what their husbands will be like.”
Given the traditional roles they were supposed to adopt – despite Sparta – who could blame them?
The many tasks of a woman as a household manager included the daily chore of water using a hydria or water jar. Several of them are on display, including one made in Athens around 510 BC.
“With this hydria, we see a perfect relationship between form and function, because all these women at the fountain who collect water with hydria on their heads are decorated on it,” says Withycombe.
“They talk to each other, and between them all these lines of letters run, but they are absurd words meant to indicate general chatter.”
It is reminiscent of a modern day cartoon with a speech bubble full of “yadda yadda yadda”.
And in doing so, this simple yet skillfully painted water pot also functions as a time machine, instantly connecting observers to the mindset of the ancient Greeks in a way that feels familiar and meaningful to them.
The exhibition is open until May. For more information visit nma.gov.au