A sampling of comments on Pausanias: 1.16.1–1.17.2

2018.01.12 | By Gregory Nagy

I continue from where I left off in Classical Inquiries 2018.01.04. I focus here on a passing mention made by Pausanias at 1.17.2 about the picturing of a famous mythological scene: it is the Battle of the Athenians and Amazons, known in other ancient sources as the Amazonomakhiā ‘Amazonomachy’. I have already commented on previous references made by Pausanias, at 1.2.1 and at 1.15.2, to the fighting between the Amazons and the Athenians as led by their hero-king Theseus. Here at 1.17.2, Pausanias mentions a picturing of the Amazonomachy by the great Athenian artist Pheidias. For the cover illustration, I have chosen a close-up of a detail from the Amazonomachy as originally pictured by Pheidias. The detail comes from the so-called Peiraieus Reliefs, dating from the second century CE, which replicate faithfully what was pictured in the Amazonomachy of Pheidias in the fifth century BCE. We see in this detail a fleeing Amazon whose head is violently jerked backward by a pursuing Athenian who has grabbed from behind the woman’s hair, which has come undone and is flowing luxuriantly in the air.

Amazonomachy_Piraeus_cover

 

 

Amazonomachy: an Athenian pursuing an Amazon. Roman relief, 2nd century CE. Image via.
Amazonomachy: an Athenian pursuing an Amazon. 2nd c. CE. Image via.

 

What we see here in this next picture, which zooms out from the picture on the cover page, is beautiful but disturbing. The picturing of the violence inflicted on the woman by the man offends our contemporary sensibilities, but, then again, the whole myth of the Amazonomachy is difficult in and of itself for us to understand. I will attempt to contextualize the difficulties when I get to my comment on Pausanias 1.17.2. In that comment, I will also elaborate on my statement, made just a moment ago, that the Peiraieus Reliefs replicate faithfully the visualization of the Amazonomachy by Pheidias.

{1.17.2} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2018.01.11:

Not far from the Agora is a gymnasium that is named after Ptolemy, its founder. In this gymnasium are stone Hermai worthy of viewing [théā] and a likeness [eikōn] in bronze of Ptolemy. Here also is Juba the Libyan and Khrysippos[1] of Soloi. Close by the gymnasium is a sanctuary [hieron] of Theseus, where are paintings [graphai] of Athenians battling Amazons. [The story of] this war [polemos] has also been crafted [poieîsthai] for them on the shield [aspis] of their [statue of] Athena and upon the base [bathron] of the [statue of] Olympian Zeus. There has also been painted [graphesthai] in the sanctuary [hieron] of Theseus the battle between the Centaurs and the Lapithai. Theseus has already killed a Centaur, but, for the others [= the other fighters], the fighting is still undecided.

{1.17.2} subject heading(s): graphē ‘painting’; Battle of Athenians and Amazons

I have already noted the passing reference made by Pausanias here at 1.17.2 to the Amazonomachy. And I have also already noted the previous references made by Pausanias, at 1.2.1 and at 1.15.2, to the fighting between the Amazons and the Athenians as led by their prototypical king and primary cult hero, Theseus. Here at 1.17.2, Pausanias is referring to the Amazonomachy as pictured in two different media of the visual arts. One of these media is monumental wall painting, while the other is monumental metalwork. At 1.15.2, Pausanias had said that he saw a monumental wall painting that pictured the Amazonomachy, and that the painting was housed in the Stoā Poikilē. Here at 1.17.2, Pausanias is saying that he saw another such monumental wall painting that pictures the battle—and, in this case, the painting was housed in the sanctuary of Theseus. Then, in practically the same breath, Pausanias now mentions yet another picturing of the battle. But here the medium is not monumental wall painting but monumental metalwork, and, as we know from the wording of Pausanias, the person who created this work of art was none other than the great Athenian artist Pheidias. In this case, the creation of Pheidias was a gigantic Shield of Athena, which was positioned at the side of a gigantic gold-and-ivory statue of a standing Athena Parthenos, likewise a creation of Pheidias, which dominated the interior of the Parthenon. This Shield of Athena will be mentioned one more time by Pausanias, in passing, at 1.24.7.

From other ancient sources, we can learn more about the Shield of Athena, this celebrated masterpiece of metalwork created by Pheidias himself. I have studied one of these sources in HC 4§§213–215, and here I give an epitome of what I said there:

{4§213.} As we see from the description of Pliny the Elder, the convex exterior of the gigantic Shield of Athena, positioned at the side of the gigantic gold-and-ivory statue of Athena herself in the Parthenon, featured a pictorial narrative of the Amazonomachy; as for the concave interior, it featured a pictorial narrative of the Gigantomachy (Gigantomakhiā), that is, the primal conflict between the gods and the giants (gigantes). Here is the wording of Pliny (Natural History 36.18): in scuto eius Amazonum proelium caelavit intumescente ambitu, <in> parmae eiusdem concava parte deorum et Gigantum dimicationes ‘on her [= Athena’s] Shield he [= Pheidias] chased [caelāre] the Battle of the Amazons in the convex part, while he chased in the concave part of the same shield the conflicts of gods and giants’.

{4§214.} The pictorial narratives featured on the two sides of the Shield of Athena were not painted by Pheidias, as had once been thought; rather, the Shield was a masterpiece of metalwork. Here is a useful formulation by an expert (Leipen 1971:49): “the interior as well as the exterior of Athena’s Shield was chased, not painted.” Pliny the Elder, in the statement I quoted just a moment ago (Natural History 36.18), says explicitly that Pheidias ‘chased’, caelavit, the surface of the Shield: that is, he worked it in metal (verb caelāre ‘chase’). Another expert has this to say about the testimony of Pliny (Thompson 1939:297–298): “caelavit means chased and is commonly used for metalwork in relief, certainly not for painting […;] the shield of the great Athena, being of gold, had no reason whatsoever for being painted inside or out.” Following the lead of these expert formulations I conclude that the metalwork of the Shield was in bronze, with a gilded surface.

{4§215.} I propose that there is a mythological symbolism inherent in combining the Amazonomachy on the convex surface of the Shield with the Gigantomachy on the concave surface. The exterior narrative of the Shield, about the Amazonomachy, celebrates the dominance of male over female, which corresponds to the dominance of Athena’s male exterior over her female interior. As for the interior narrative, it celebrates the dominance of the Olympian over the earthbound or “chthonic,” which corresponds to the dominance of Athena’s affinities with the Olympians gods over her affinities with the goddess Earth and the Giants that Earth generated in revolt against the Sky. Besides the mythological text, as it were, of these two narratives, there was also a political subtext: sub-narratives that were worked into the Shield may have evoked indirectly the prestige of Pericles and even of Pheidias himself (Life of Pericles 31.3–4).

Here in my comments on the monumental metalwork of the Shield of Athena as created by Pheidias, I concentrate not on any political subtext but rather on the mythological agenda inherent in the narrative of the Amazonomachy as paired with the narrative of the Gigantomachy. Such agenda, I argue, must be primarily relevant to the identity of the goddess Athena herself as an exteriorization of Athenian men and as an interiorization of Athenian women. Although it is disturbing for us to contemplate the idea of subordinating women to men in the picturing of foreign female warriors being defeated by Athenian male warriors, that idea is relevant, in terms of my argument, to the identity of Athena herself. I have presented such an argument in HC 4§§216–236 (supplemented in MoM Chapter 3), where I connected a scene showing the Presentation of the Peplos or Robe as pictured in Block 5 of the Parthenon Marble Frieze that wraps around the inside of the Parthenon with another scene showing the Birth of Pandora as pictured on a Bronze Frieze, again created by Pheidias, which adorns the base of the gold-and-ivory statue of Athena Parthenos. There is not enough space for me here to analyze the interconnectivity of the visual narratives that were sculpted into the Marble Frieze and metalworked into the Bronze Frieze, but I do need to offer a brief summary of what I argue about the interconnectivity of the visual narratives metalworked into the Shield and sculpted into the marble metopes of the Parthenon. The summary that follows is an epitome of a lengthier argument as presented in HC 4§224:

The marble metopes adorning the exterior of the Parthenon show the Battle of the Gods and Giants on the east side, the battle of the Athenians and Amazons on the west, the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs on the south, and the battle of the Achaeans and Trojans on the north. In this case, the Gigantomachy that is sculpted into the east metopes balances the Amazonomachy sculpted into the west metopes. Similarly, the Gigantomachy that is metalworked into the concave interior of the Shield of Athena balances the Amazonomachy that is metalworked into the convex exterior. So, the contents of the east and the west metopes of the Parthenon’s exterior correspond respectively to the contents of the concave interior and convex exterior of the Shield of Athena.

From this brief summary of my argumentation, I hope I have made it clear that the narrative of the Amazonomachy needs to be treated as a myth that is interconnected with other myths that are relevant to the goddess Athena and to her city of Athens. And we cannot afford to lose sight of the more basic fact that the narrative of the Amazonomachy is a myth. I find it most unhelpful, therefore, to ignore the semantics at work in this myth by trivializing its narrative as if it were some kind of pseudo-modern fiction—or, maybe even worse, some kind of ancient pseudo-history. I am convinced that this myth cannot be analyzed without an anthropological perspective, and, for such an analysis to be successful, we need to compare other myths that are traditionally correlated with the Amazonomachy, such as the myth of the Gigantomachy. This kind of comparison is what I have attempted here, however briefly.

I should add that the correlation of the Battle of Athenians and Amazons with the Battle of the Lapithai and Centaurs in the marble relief sculptures of the metopes adorning the exterior of the Parthenon needs to be compared with a parallel correlation in the monumental wall paintings of the sanctuary of Theseus: as we saw in Pausanias 1.17.2, the Battle of the Athenians and Amazons as depicted in the wall paintings there is correlated with the Battle of the Lapithai and Centaurs: our traveler notes that he saw depicted in the wall paintings there the moment when Theseus, fighting on the side of the Lapithai, had just killed a Centaur.

Such correlations of multiple myths, I suggest, show us how to deal more effectively with whatever strikes us as disturbing in the content of any single myth. And I have something more general to say about things we find in myths that are in fact morally disturbing to us. My overall experience in reading ancient Greek myths has led me to expect that these narratives will accentuate the dysfunctionality of human behavior in the age of myth. In terms of myth, any error in the remote past of myth will need to be compensated by the correctness of ritual behavior as practiced in the post-mythical age of the notional present. The point I have just made has been developed at length in the book H24H, as at 8§§18–21. In the case of the Amazonomachy, a myth about prototypical Athenian men fighting prototypical non-Athenian women, I see a story of human error in the age of myth that needs to be corrected in the post-mythical age by a pattern of human correctness where men and women become united in marriage as overseen by their goddess Athena.

One element that was missing in my earlier study of the Amazonomachy was an exploration of the narrative action that was metalworked by Pheidias into the convex side of his monumental Shield of Athena. In that study, HC Chapters 1 and 4, I explored only the narrative of the action that this artist had metalworked into the concave side of the Shield. That narrative from the concave side, which was the story of the Gigantomachy, has been meticulously reconstructed by art historians, mostly on the basis of one particular vase painting that I analyzed at some length in the chapters I have just cited. Whereas the primary basis for reconstructing the narrative of the Gigantomachy as pictured by Pheidas has been the evidence of attested vase paintings that picture the same basic narrative, the primary basis for reconstructing the narrative of the Amazonomachy as metalworked by the same great artist into the concave side of the Shield has been the evidence of attested sculptures that were evidently meant to replicate the metalworked visualization of Pheidias himself. In the present study, I have started to take a close look at these attested sculptures, especially at the so-called Peiraieus Reliefs dating from the second century CE. In this regard, I am most persuaded by the work of Volker Michael Strocka (1967; also 2005) and by the earlier work of Evelyn B. Harrison (1966) on the Peiraieus Reliefs and on other related sculptural evidence in arguing for a faithful replication of the relevant images as composed by Pheidias himself in the fifth century BCE.

In closing, I focus on two pictures. The first picture is a line drawing that reconstructs the world of images that had been metalworked by Pheidias into the convex surface of Athena’s Shield. The second picture is a close-up color photograph showing the reconstructed Athena-with-Shield as housed in Nashville. Featured there on the surface of the Shield is the narrative of the Battle of Athenians and Amazons in all their metallic glory. I find it most moving, somehow, to see the ivory fingers of the goddess as they make contact with the upper rim of her gigantic metal Shield. Both in the line drawing and in the color photograph, you get a good view of Athena’s white fingers poised over the action of the battle that is ongoing below. And, if you look closely in both pictures, you can see on the lower right corner of Athena’s Shield that striking detail from the Amazonomachy where the beautiful Amazon with the flowing hair, in her stop-motion choreography of death, is forever prevented from leaping forward and reclaiming her freedom from domination by men.

 

Reconstruction of the Amazonomachy scenes on the exterior of the shield of the Athena Parthenos. Plate 38 of E. B. Harrison, “The Composition of the Amazonomachy on the Shield of Athena Parthenos,” Hesperia 35 (1966), pp. 107–133. Courtesy of the Trustees of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
Reconstruction of the Amazonomachy scenes on the exterior of the shield of the Athena Parthenos. Plate 38 of E. B. Harrison, “The Composition of the Amazonomachy on the Shield of Athena Parthenos,” Hesperia 35 (1966), pp. 107–133. Courtesy of the Trustees of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

 

Shield of Athena Parthenos, Nashville Parthenon, Tennessee. Image via.
Shield of Athena Parthenos, Nashville Parthenon, Tennessee. Image via.

 

 


Bibliography

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Inventory of terms and names

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Notes

[1] The Stoic philosopher, 280–207 BCE.



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