A variation on the theme of Athena: The Palladium, as viewed by Pausanias on the Acropolis of Athens

2020.06.19 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. This excursus is a commentary on a passage in Pausanias, 1.28.9, where our traveler, while visiting the Acropolis of Athens, refers to a statue of the goddess Athena there. He is referring in this case not to Athena Parthénos, that is, to Athena the ‘Virgin’, who was housed in the Parthenon. Nor is he referring here to Athena Poliás, that is, to Athena as the Lady of the Citadel, who was housed in the old temple of the goddess. Rather, the referent here is an ancient wooden statue known as the Palládion, conventionally latinized as Palladium. There were many divergent myths about the Palladium, but there was general agreement on at least one convergent detail: originally, myth has it, the Palladium was housed in the temple of Athena, situated on top of the acropolis of ancient Troy. In the lead illustration for my comments, I show a picturing of a familiar scene involving what I think is this very same Palladium. In this picture—and I could show many other such pictures, some of which are considerably more ancient than the one I have chosen—we see the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in the act of violating Cassandra after the capture of Troy by the Achaeans. Seizing her by the arm, he is about to drag her away from a statue of Athena to which she is clinging as a suppliant. The goddess, fully armed, with spear in the right hand and with shield in the left hand, is just standing there, statue that she is. Now, it goes without saying here that the goddess will have her vengeance, since she will ultimately punish the sacrilegious violator. But that is another story. My concern here is different: the question for now is, how did the Palladium find its way from the citadel of Troy to the citadel of Athens? And the answer has to do with the power of the Palladium in the scene that we see pictured in the illustration that we are considering. The Palladium is so much more than a static statue—if I am right in thinking that the statue that we see in this and other such pictures is in fact the Palladium. I have to say “if” for now, since I cannot simply assume that this statue, as represented in such pictures, can actually be identified with the Palladium. As I will argue, however, such an identification becomes most likely when we consider an Athenian myth, as reported by Pausanias, 1.28.9, about the appropriation of the Palladium by the Athenians.

Cassandra clings to the Xoanon, the wooden cult image of Athene, while Ajax the Lesser is about to drag her away in front of her father Priam (standing on the left). Roman fresco from the atrium of the Casa del Menandro (I 10, 4) in Pompeii.
Cassandra clings to the Xoanon, the wooden cult image of Athena, while Ajax the Lesser is about to drag her away in front of her father Priam (standing on the left). Roman fresco from the atrium of the Casa del Menandro (I 10, 4) in Pompeii. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. Before we can examine the Athenian myth, I need to say more about the Trojan myth of the Palladium. In a source dated to the second century CE, the Library of “Apollodorus” (3.12.3 p. 39 ed. Frazer 1921 II), we read that the Palladium was a wooden statue that fell from the sky, sent by Zeus (it was diīpetés ‘sky-fallen’), and it landed on earth at Ilion or Troy, where it was received by Ilos, founder of Troy; this Palladium had been celestially hand-crafted as a xoanon ‘wooden statue’ by the goddess Athena herself in expiation for her involuntary killing of her mortal body double, the girl Pallas (3.12.3 p. 41).

§2. Similarly, as we read in Pausanias, 1.26.6, there was an Athenian myth about a statue of Athena Poliás that descended from the heavens and landed on the acropolis of Athens. In this myth as well, the statue was made of wood—olive wood, as we read for example in the Library of “Apollodorus” (3.14.6 p. 93 ed. Frazer 1921 II; further sources surveyed by Frame 2009:348n13).

§3. But there is also a significant dissimilarity between the two statues: whereas the Palladium, in terms of my argument, was standing, the statue of Athena Poliás was seated (the relevant evidence has been assembled by Frame 2009:360–361, with bibliography). We find a striking point of comparison reported by Pausanias himself in another context: at 7.5.9, he speaks of another Athena Poliás, whose temple graced the citadel of Erythrai in Ionia, and, in this case, Pausanias says explicitly that this Athena Poliás was in a seated position.

§4. Also, in the Homeric Iliad, 6.92/273/303, the statue of Athena as worshipped at the acropolis of Troy is pictured as seated, not standing (that is why the offering of woven treasures can be placed on her knees). In Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2009|2010:207–209), I trace this detail back to phases in the transmission of Homeric poetry where the statue of the goddess was pictured in terms of a tradition that contradicted an alternative tradition as exemplified by the statue of Athena housed in the citadel of New Ilion, built on the ruins of Old Troy: as we know from Strabo (13.1.41 C601), the statue of the goddess in the citadel of New Ilion was not seated but standing, and the same pose is reported about her statues in citadels elsewhere, as in Phocaea and Chios (Nagy 2009|2010:207–208).

§5. As I show in Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2009|2010:270), the contrast between seated and standing statues of Athena can become politicized: a case in point is the choice of a seated Athena in Homeric poetry, which favors the city of Sigeion in its “Ionic” phase of existence and disfavors the city of New Ilion in its “neo-Aeolic” phase. The two cities were rival claimants to the status of being the “real” Troy, and their rivalry was expressed by way of a contrast between a seated statue of Athena in her temple at Sigeion and the standing statue in her temple at New Ilion. I should add that the non-Homeric standing statue of Athena at New Ilion was linked with rituals involving the so-called Locrian Maidens, who performed seasonally recurring expiation for the primordial sacrilege committed against this statue of the goddess by the lesser Ajax, native son of Locris (details about the Locrian Maidens in Nagy 2019).

§6. That said, I can resume my argument, that the non-Homeric standing statue of Athena in the citadel of Troy was the Palladium. As I indicated from the start, the traditions about the Palladium in Athens will prove to be decisive for the argumentation that follows.  For now, however,  I must first consider another statue of Athena, prominently situated on the acropolis of Athens. She is Athena Promakhos, the Warrior Goddess of the Athenians. She is standing in guard, forever protecting the acropolis of Athens, brandishing a spear in her right hand and a shield in her left hand.

§7. This Athena Promakhos made quite an impression on Pausanias, as I will now try to show. Picturing our traveler as he ascends to the heights of the Acropolis, I ask myself: what would be the very first thing he sees after he reaches the top? To prepare an answer, I am conjuring in my mind some happy memories of conversations I have had with my friend Gloria Ferrari Pinney about this question. The answer I am about to formulate owes much to my dear friend’s deeper insights. I start by imagining the moments that elapse right before that final moment when you get to the top of the Acropolis—if you were living in a time long gone, when Pausanias was making his own ascent. Before you finally get to the top, you pass through the Propylaia, that extravagantly palatial gateway that leads out into the open space of the sacred ground defined by Athena, goddess of Athens. So, what do you see when you emerge into that open space? Well, one thing you cannot see very well, not yet, is the Parthenon. That palatial abode of Athena Parthénos, Athena the Virgin, which is so ostentatiously visible to all from down below, from almost any angle in metropolitan Athens down below at ground zero, would be temporarily eclipsed up above, now that you have reached the heights of the Acropolis. You will focus on something else for now, something that is standing right in front of you. To my way of thinking, the very first sight to be seen by Pausanias at the top of the Acropolis would be Athena Promakhos. Our traveler looks up and sees this colossal bronze statue of the goddess, around thirty feet tall and armed as a mighty warrior. The epithet of the goddess, Promakhos, can be interpreted as ‘leading the battle’: Athena leads the battle in protecting her Acropolis. She is ever ready to fight in defense of her citadel overlooking her city, with a spear in her right hand and a shield in her left. While Pausanias is looking up at her, she is looking downward, down toward her approaching adorants. I show here an outdated reconstruction of such a visual moment—though the angle of viewing here, as Gloria Pinney points out to me, is quite different from the view I had originally reconstructed:

Reconstruction of Athena Promachos at the Acropolis of Athens.
Reconstruction of Athena Promakhos at the Acropolis of Athens. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§8. Just as the sight of Athena Promakhos, protector of the Acropolis, can preoccupy the vision of Pausanias when he enters the Acropolis—now he only has eyes for the goddess—this same sight had preoccupied him retroactively, back when he rounded the headland of Sounion: already back then, he only had eyes for Athena—in that case, for Athena Souniás, the goddess who protects the headland just as Athena Promakhos protects the citadel. The visibility of the spear tip of Athena Promakhos, as highlighted by Pausanias when he was rounding the headland of Sounion, has already been noted at §1.7 of the commentary on Pausanias 1.1.1. Elsewhere too, as we read further in Pausanias, we find situations where Athena is worshipped as a protector presiding over headlands jutting out into the sea: at 2.34.8–9, for example, where he is describing headlands and nearby harbors while sailing along the coastline of the Peloponnesus, Pausanias draws attention to a hieron ‘sanctuary’ of Athena, and the epithet of the goddess, presiding over the landscape and seascape, is in this case reported to be Promakhormā ‘protector of anchorage’.

§9. With this background in place, I am ready to comment on Pausanias 1.28.9, where our traveler refers to a statue of Athena that is actually named the Palladion or Palladium, housed in a building that is likewise called the Palladium, situated on the Acropolis of Athens. In introducing my commentary, I start with an epitome of my relevant analysis in Homer the Classic (Nagy 2008|2009 I §§93–98):

{1§93} According to the local mythology of the city of Argos, as implied by the narrative of Pausanias 2.23.5, it was the hero Diomedes who captured the Palladium from the acropolis of Troy and ultimately brought the sacred object to the city of Argos as its final resting place. But Pausanias rejects the Argive version of the narrative. He has good reason for this rejection, since the Roman version of the narrative was dominant in his time. More later on the Roman version. For now, it is enough to note that Pausanias was faced with many variations in narratives about how, when, and why Diomedes took the Palladium from the acropolis of Troy, and many of the variant stories involve Odysseus as a partner of Diomedes in the quest to take it. [I summarize those variants at 1§§93–96.]

{1§94} According to the local mythology of the city of Athens, which rivaled the local mythology of the city of Argos, the final resting place of the Palladium was not Argos but Athens. Here is a summary of this Athenian mythology as reported by a variety of sources, including the narrative of Pausanias 1.28.8–9:

Diomedes, sailing home from Troy with the Palladium in his possession, happened to stop over at the Athenian seaport of Phaleron. Mistaken for an enemy, Diomedes was attacked by the Athenians, led by a hero called Demophon. The Palladium was taken by mistake from Diomedes, and thus it found its final resting place in Athens. It was housed in the ancient building used for trials involving involuntary homicide; by metonymy, the building itself was called Palladium. [Frazer 1929 IV 263 collects the sources, including Pausanias 1.28.8–9, Polyaenus 1.5, Harpocration (s.v. ἐπὶ Παλλαδίῳ), and the Suda (s.v. ἐπὶ Παλλαδίῳ).]

I should add here that the ritualized linking of the Palladium with cases of involuntary homicide can be matched with a myth, which I have already cited from the Library of “Apollodorus”  (3.12.3 p. 41 ed. Frazer 1921 II), about the celestial crafting of the wooden statue of the Palladium—hand-crafted by the goddess Athena herself in expiation for her involuntary killing of her mortal body double, the girl Pallas.

{1§95}  [What follows here is a comment on an argument that started in 1§89: that the Palladium is not absent but very much present in Homeric poetry—as an absent signifier—and that Virgil was aware of such an absent signification, weaving it into his Aeneid.] In Virgil’s time, the canonical final resting place of the Palladium was the circular temple or aedes of Vesta in Rome: Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 1.69, 2.66.5; Plutarch Camillus 20; Pausanias 2.23.5. The question is, who brought the Palladium to Rome after the capture of Troy? A contemporary of Virgil, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, says it explicitly: according to Dionysius, Aeneas was the one who rushed up to the acropolis of Troy and snatched the Palladium from the fires of destruction at the very last moment, as the city was going up in flames; then he brought the Palladium with him to Italy, along with other sacred objects he rescued from the acropolis of Troy (Roman Antiquities 1.69.2).

{1§96} Such a version of the myth is perfectly suited to the ideology of the Roman empire in the age of Augustus. It links Augustus with the heroes of Troy, since his adoptive father Julius Caesar was a notional descendant of Aeneas by way of Ascanius, otherwise named Iulus, the son of Aeneas. Our source is Strabo (13.1.27 C594–595). [I go on to argue at 1§§97–98 that the actual rescuing of the Palladium by Aeneas is a theme that predates—and is thus originally independent of—any such Roman appropriation.]

§10. I regret that Pausanias rejected the myth of the Palladium as narrated by the people of Argos. But I see relevance in a detail mentioned elsewhere by Pausanias, 2.24.2, where he reports on an epithet given to Athena by her worshippers at a temple situated in the heights of Argos: she is invoked there by way of the epithet Oxuderkḗs, ‘she with the sharp vision’, because—as the story has it—she helped Diomedes see through the mist. To my way of thinking, her epithet indicates also her role as seeing far and wide from her vantage point as Mistress of the Heights.


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Frazer, J. G., translation, with commentary. 1913. Pausanias’s Description of Greece. 6 vols. 2nd ed. London.

Frazer, J. G., ed. and trans. 1921. Apollodorus: The Library. London. https://archive.org/details/library00athegoog.

Hedreen, G. 2001. Capturing Troy: The Narrative Functions of Landscape in Archaic and Early Classical Greek Art. Ann Arbor, MI.

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Nagy, G. 2019. “A ritualized rethinking of what it meant to be ‘European’ for ancient Greeks of the post-heroic age: evidence from the Heroikos of Philostratus.” In Thinking the Greeks: A Volume in Honour of James M. Redfield, ed. B. M. King and L. Doherty, 173–187. London and New York. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:NagyG.A_ritualized_rethinking_of_what_it_meant_to_be_European.2019.

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