Homer in Houston

2016.03.07 | By Gloria Ferrari Pinney

Notes for the panel discussion “A Poet or a God: The Iconography of Certain Bearded Male Bronzes” at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, February 25, 2016.

Bronze head, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Rob Shelley.

§1. The head lent to the exhibition of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures entitled Power and Pathos by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts is an extraordinary piece in several respects (Daehner and Lapatin 2015:238–239). To begin with, it is relatively new. While many of the bronzes in this exhibition have been known for a long time and many appear in handbooks on Greek art, this head was in private collections for most of the past century. It was only when it was acquired by the Houston Museum in 2001 that it came to the attention of viewers and students of Greek sculpture. That is to say, there hasn’t been much conversation about it yet, and that makes the prospect of looking at what it has to tell us all the more exciting. Beautiful and intensely expressive, it is a perfect example of the pathos that ancient bronzes might evoke and, perhaps for that reason, it graces the cover of the catalog.

§2. We know nothing of the ancient context of this head: where it was deposited, where or when it was displayed. It is a floating fragment and its appearance is all we have to go on as we begin to consider a first unresolved issue: is this the image of a god or the portrait of a poet?

§3. I begin with a look at the object then move on to puzzle out its iconography, and finally propose a candidate for identification—but the title gives it away—that might resolve the issue and throw some light on the striking quality of the portrait.

§4. Much of the back of the head is destroyed but the front is well preserved, with minor corrosion scars on the left side. There is damage along the fillet atop the head; the locks that would have come down to cover the ear on the left side, as they do on the right, are missing.

§5. The subject, as you see, is a man at the threshold of advanced old age, to judge by the sunken cheeks, pronounced circles under the eyes, and deep furrows on the forehead. The eyes seem slightly downcast in a pensive attitude or perhaps gazing at something the figure held in his hands.


Bronze head, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Side view. Photo via Flickr, courtesy of Enrique Camacho.

§6. The head cranes forward.


Bronze head, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Rob Shelley.

§7. Particular features deserving notice: the hair is brought forward from the crown, then parted in the middle, and fans out in open strands across the forehead and covers the ears in thick open curls. A round fillet encircles the head.


Bronze head, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Detail of teeth. Photo by Rob Shelley.

§8. The lips are parted, revealing the upper teeth, which probably were once coated with silver.


Bronze head, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Rob Shelley.

§9. The expression is somber but intense. There is drama created by the contrast between the soft, smooth surfaces of the flesh and thick, almost sensual lips and the restless, overwrought rendering of hair and beard. Visible contraction of the forehead muscles suggests concentration or emotion, perhaps both, as do the forward inclination of the neck and the downcast glance.

§10. The advanced age, the fillet, the knitted brow, the half-open mouth: scholars who study Greek portraits have identified in this combination of features a standard, if flexible set in the representation of poets (on these criteria, see Dillon 2006:124–125).


Hellenistic bronze head (the “Arundel Head”). British Museum, no. 1760,0919.1. Photo courtesy of the British Museum.

§11. All these features are present, for instance in the famous Arundel Head, also in the exhibition (Daehner and Lapatin 2015:244–245). Over the past four centuries several candidates were proposed for an identification—Homer, Sophocles, even a Macedonian king. But no one has ever proposed that this disagreeable-looking man with very individual physiognomic traits is a god.


Bronze head, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Rob Shelley.

§12. The reason why in the case of the Houston head both possibilities have been entertained is that it looks somewhat like a god, because like certain images of the gods it represents an idealized countenance not without a suggestion of beauty. The only scholar who has studied the piece in detail, Christiane Vorster, is inclined to see in it a representation of Poseidon, or Asklepios (Vorster 2007; Vorster 2015).

§13. Some features indeed find correspondences in images of Poseidon, such as the hair and beard in the marble statue of Poseidon from Melos (Athens, National Museum 235), where the support in the form of a dolphin helpfully identifies the god.


Silver tetradrachm of Antigonus Doson, ca. 229–221 BCE. Obverse: Poseidon; reverse: ship’s bow. Photo courtesy of the Münzkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin.

§14. An even closer resemblance has been seen to the image on a coin of a Macedonian king, Antigonus Doson, on which appears Poseidon, identified as such by the wreath of seaweed. Without such helpful markers, or attributes—such as the dolphin and the seaweed crown—we would often be at a loss as to which god it is. Such features as in the Houston bronze suggest a god, in fact appeal to a model, which German archaeologists have labeled the “father god”: that of the mature male divinity. It is the type adopted not only for Poseidon, but also Hades, Asklepios and, most of all, for the father of gods and men: Zeus (Thiemann 1959; Vorster 2007:372–373).


The “Dresden Zeus.” Roman marble copy of a 5th century BCE Greek original. In Dresden, Albertinum Staatliche Kunstsammlungen. Photo by Kathleen Cohen, via WorldImages Kiosk.

§15. I show as an example of the type, a work that is thought to reproduce a famous statue of the fifth century BC. The original is lost but can be approximately reconstructed on the basis of several copies of Roman date. This is most often identified as Zeus—although specific clues are missing. In classical style, key elements in common with the Houston bronze are there: mature age, the hair parted in the middle and falling in open curls over the ears, the tight curls of the beard. But the marks of old age are missing, the brow is smooth and the mouth closed. No one would mistake him for a poet.


Bronze head, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Rob Shelley.

§16. With all of this in mind, let’s return to the Houston head and to the question: god or poet? The way out of the dilemma, I think, is to realize that the set of features that conventionally mark the portrait of a poet: old age, fillet, knitted brow, half-open mouth here have been mapped onto not an individual physiognomy but onto the idealized model used in the portrayal of “father gods”. The question to ask then becomes: which poet was regarded as divine and was moreover visually represented in the semblance of a divinity, namely Zeus? There is really only one candidate: not a poet but the poet: Homer. Here are the grounds for this hypothesis.


Silver didrachm with the head of Homer. From Ios, ca. 350–300 BCE. Photo courtesy of the Münzkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin.

§17. In the last decades of the fourth century BC the island state of Ios, in the southern Aegean, minted a fine series of silver coins featuring on the obverse the portrait of Homer, so labeled by the inscription facing the profile: homerou, “of Homer” (illustration after Kraay and Hirmer: pl. 163, no 535). The island thus claims as its own the poet, who according to one of the traditions of the lives was conceived on Ios, and on Ios he at last came to die and was buried. On his tomb was inscribed the epigram he himself had composed: “Here the earth covers the sacred, hieren, head of divine, theion, Homer, marshaler of heroes” (Certamen 337–338 Allen). Like all portraits that have been identified as Homer, this is an imaginary portrait: it tells us not what Homer looked like but how the legend of Homer was configured in the imagination. Everyone has seen—there is no disagreement on this point—that this image of Homer is modeled on the Zeus type (Zanker 1995:164–166). Indeed, it was noted, were it not for the inscription we would think it was Zeus. The fact itself that the portrait is placed on the obverse of the coin carries intimations of divinity, since obverse would normally show the image of a divinity (Sheedy 2009:266). Comparing the miniature on the coin to a nearly life-size Houston head is risky, but it is easy to see that the idealized countenance, the shape of the hair and beard have a good general correspondence to the Houston portrait.


Greek, minted in Pella, Macedon Tetradrachm (Coin) Depicting the God Zeus, Reign of Phillip II (359–336 B.C.) Silver Diam. 2.6 cm; 14.47 g REV: ΦΙΛΙΠΠΟΥ "(minted by) Philip" Gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4923
Silver tetradrachm of Philip II, from Pella. Obverse, head of Zeus with laurel wreath. Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4923. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

§18. I show, for comparison, images of Zeus on coins, this one somewhat earlier in date than the coins of Ios.


Silver stater from Elis (Olympia). Obverse, head of Zeus.; reverse, standing eagle with thunderbolt. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ancient and Medieval Art & Numismatics.

§19. A closer parallel may be this stater of Olympia with the head of Zeus on the obverse and the god’s eagle and thunderbolt on the reverse.


Tetradrachm of Alexander the Great, from Macedonia. Reverse, enthroned Zeus. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. Photo, Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.

§20. The idea of representing Homer in the guise of Zeus was not a vagary, an eccentric choice by the engravers of the mint of Ios but reflects a widespread and long-lived notion of the poet. For instance, in all media, as on this coin, Zeus was often represented enthroned, his chest bare, mantle draped around his lower body, holding the scepter in his left. Here the eagle perches on his right hand.


Silver drachma from Smyrna. Reverse, enthroned Homer with scroll (right hand) and scepter (left hand). Photo from J. G. Milne, “Silver Drachma of Smyrna,” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, Series 5, vol. 1 (1921): plate III, fig. 2.

§21. Second-century coins of Smyrna, one of the cities with a strong claim to have given birth to him, show Homer straightforwardly cast as another Zeus: he holds the scepter in his left but his right hand holds a book-roll.


Bronze head, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Rob Shelley.

§22. We come now to a central problem in discussion of the portraiture of Homer. In the Houston portrait nothing in the shape of the eye-sockets suggests blindness, while blindness is a dominant feature in literary accounts of the poet. The lives of Homer give various versions of how he came by it, whether he was blind since childhood or was blinded after being taken hostage by the Lydians, or as a result of a sickness, blinded by the apparition of Achilles in his new set of armor, or in punishment for his treatment Helen (on which see Greg Nagy’s blog post of 2016.02.18). Not everyone agrees, though. Proclus, for instance, denounces those who say Homer was blind as intellectually blind themselves (p. 101.3–4 Allen). Of the portraits that are interpreted as Homer, four types in all, two, identified neither by an inscription or nor by attributes, show him blind (Richter 1965:45–56).


Portrait of Homer, “Blind Type.” Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic original. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Henry Lillie Pierce Fund, accession no. 04.13. Photo, Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

§23. Most often reproduced in copies of Roman date is the deranged-looking Hellenistic Blind Type (Richter 1965:50–53). Here blindness is indicated by the raised lower eyelid and the bulb rolling upward under lifted eyebrows.


Silver didrachm with the head of Homer. From Ios, ca. 350–300 BCE. Photo courtesy of the Münzkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin.

§24. It is a fact, however, that portraits for which the identification is certain, because they are inscribed, show a sighted Homer (Graziosi 2002: 126–132). Nothing in the image on the coins of Ios signifies blindness: the eye is wide open, with the pupil clearly drawn, in what looks like a perfectly normal, seeing eye.


Drawing of a miniature bronze portrait of Homer, of the “Modena Type,” ca. 400-350 BCE. Galleria Estense, Modena. For a photo of the head, see here.

§25. The same is true of the portrait of Homer on two miniature bronzes, the so-called Modena type (Richter 1965:48): the eyes are open, the pupil marked. And the subject is unequivocally labeled: homeros. Here again the telltale elements of the portraits of poets are present, and in the curls hanging over the ears and the shape of the beard I note correspondences with the Houston portrait.
The Zeus model, variously adapted on the coins of Ios and Smyrna, in the Modena bust and, I argue, in the Houston head is key to understanding why Homer may be represented as sighted. While the Hellenistic Blind Type represents him as a blind seer, in agreement with the literary traditions, what I would like to call the “Zeus Type” represents Homer the divine, theios Homeros, the Homer who in many Greek cities received honors and cult more appropriate to a god than a hero (Graziosi 2002:154–157). Apparently in the construct that assimilated Homer to Zeus blindness has no place.


Relief: the “Apotheosis of Homer,” attributed to Archelaos of Priene, ca. 225–205 BC. British Museum, London. Photo, Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.

§26. The metaphor casting Homer into a Zeus is commonplace in Hellenistic poetry, and it is fully played out in the learned, belabored allegory of a late Hellenistic sculpture, a large marble relief nearly five feet tall, signed by the sculptor Archelaos of Priene (Zanker 1995: 159–161). The relief honored a poet, whose statue may be seen at right against the background of the tripod won in a competition. The larger, upper part of the field is shaped like a mountain, probably Parnassus. Distributed on three registers are figures that have to do with divine inspiration. At the top is Zeus, reclining on the rocky ground, holding the scepter, and next to him Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory: they are the parents of the Muses. The Muses are distributed on two levels, leading on to the arched opening of a cave where Apollo, stands holding his kythara.
The lower register has instead an architectural setting in which is depicted a sacrifice to Homer.


Relief: the “Apotheosis of Homer,” attributed to Archelaos of Priene, ca. 225–205 BC. British Museum, London. Detail: the crowning of Homer. Photo courtesy of the British Museum.

§27. The poet sits on a throne, holding a scepter in one hand and a scroll in the other, as on the coin of Smyrna, flanked by personifications of the Iliad and the Odyssey. No room for guessing here, all characters are inscribed. Behind him stand the figures of Oikoumene and Khronos, the whole inhabited world and Time, in the act of crowning him.


Relief: the “Apotheosis of Homer,” attributed to Archelaos of Priene, ca. 225–205 BC. British Museum, London. Photo, Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.

§28. Before Homer is a round altar behind which stands the bull to be sacrificed, flanked by a personification of Myth as a young boy in charge of libations and Historia. There follows a crowd of personifications of arts and virtues: Poetry, holding torches, Tragedy, Comedy, and the child Physis, Nature, raising his hands toward embodiments of moral entities: Virtue, Memory, Pistis or Trust, and finally Sophia, Wisdom.
The rather obvious key to this allegory is the equivalence it establishes between Zeus and Homer, both appearing in the role of a “father god”: Zeus is the father of divine inspiration in all its variables, the Muses; Homer has the same role, and assumes Zeus’ image, with respect to all the arts and wisdom of mankind (Hunter 2004:235).


Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, “The Apotheosis of Homer,” 1827. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo, Wikimedia Commons.

§29. The Archelaos relief was a prime source of inspiration for a grand painting of Ingres, which extends the image of Zeus-like Homer as the fountainhead of all knowledge into modern times. The poet in enthroned in front of his own temple, “Homer the god”, homeros theos, as one reads on the architrave. On the dais an inscription quoting from the epitaph of Homer on his tomb on Ios, andron heroon kosmetori, “marshaler of heroes”, and on the step below are personifications of the Iliad and the Odyssey.


Bronze head, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Rob Shelley.

§30. Returning to the question with which we opened—does the Houston head represent a poet or a god—I would answer: both, the poet who was also a god. In turn, the Zeus type of Homer poses the next question: what is the relationship of this image to that of the blind poet or how does Homer recover his sight? On this see again Greg Nagy’s blog post of 2016.02.18.



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———. 2015. In Daehner and Lapatin 2015.

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