Ancient Worlds, New Space, continued

The Greek World

Attic black figure lekythos

Greek Runners
This Attic black-figure lekythos depicts two runners racing in either the stadion race (600 feet) or the diaulos race (1200 feet) between two judges on the racecourse. The naked runners wear red fillets on their heads. The vase was made in Athens in about 550 B.C. and likely depicts an athletic event from the Panathenaic Games, a part of the largest religious festival of the city, including both musical and athletic contests held in honor of its patron goddess, Athena. The Panathenaic Festival was one of the largest and most famous local festivals in the Greek world in which athletic victors were given prize amphoras filled with olive oil. The vase, about 0.29 meters high, was excavated from a chamber tomb at Narce in Italy.

The two runners on this vase have been used as the model for a new U.S. postage stamp to be issued in conjunction with the 2004 Olympic Games.

Macedonian silver tetradrahm, obverse with head of Olympian Zeus, reverse with horse and rider.

Philip II and the Olympic Games
This silver tetradrahm, struck in Macedonia, depicts a walking horse and rider on its reverse side. The naked rider holds a palm branch symbolizing victory. The obverse side shows a bearded silhouette of Zeus, a portrait of the colossal gold and ivory cult image of Zeus by Pheidias that was housed in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. The coin was manufactured by Philip II, King of Macedonia, to commemorate his victory in the horse race at the Olympic games in 356 B.C. The letters above and to the right side of the horse spell out, “of Philip,” referring to the victory.

The Roman writer Plutarch in his Life of Alexander tells us that Philip received three messages on the same day in the summer of 356. The first told of the victory of one of his generals, Parmenio, over the Illyrians; the second mentioned the victory of his race horse at Olympia; and the third told of the birth of his son Alexander. Clearly Philip was not at Olympia during this contest, nor did he come in 352 or 348 B.C., when his equestrian teams won two additional victories there. Later, in 338 B.C., Philip defeated the allied forces of the Greeks at Chaeronea to assume leadership of the Greek states.

—Dr. David Gilman Romano Gr’81, senior research scientist, Mediterranean Section


Marble statuette of Aphrodite.

The Benghazi Venus
The malodorous salt-flats outside of the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi may have once marked the location of legendary Lake Tritonis and its island Temple of Aphrodite, today covered with a Moslem cemetery. This area is the place of origin of the Museum’s exquisite statuette of a naked Aphrodite daintily wringing the salt-water out of her hair while she rises from the sea—under the circumstances not unlike a gorgeous butterfly emerging from an ugly caterpillar. Carved from large-grain gray-white Parian marble, she rises less than 13 inches above her cut-off thighs. While some have argued that she might have been originally displayed standing thigh-deep in a pool of water, the angles of the cuts make her appear to be toppling backward. Perhaps she was damaged in antiquity, since laboratory analysis reveals no signs of her having been reshaped in modern times—nor clad in separately carved drapery below the waist for that matter. Her type ultimately derives from a famous lost masterpiece by the painter Apelles from the island of Cos. Goddess of physical desire and carnal sex, her raw physicality has been muted here by the figure’s refined carving and the slightly blurry, “veiled” expression achieved around the eyes by the deliberate crushing of the marble’s crystalline surface (unless she was over-cleaned with dilute acid before she came to the museum, a possibility one would just as soon overlook!). One of the smaller examples of the stone carver’s craft in the Museum’s collection, she is also one of our very finest, exemplifying perfectly the Greeks’ renowned abilities to create masterpieces in miniature.

—Donald White

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