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date: 25 May 2024

portraiture, Greekfree

portraiture, Greekfree

  • Sheila Dillon


Portrait statues were a major component of Greek sculptural production, and many of these statues were made by the most famous sculptors of Greek antiquity. A public honorific portrait statue was in fact the highest honour an individual could receive and as such was much coveted. However, as most of these monuments were of bronze, very few have survived. Given the absence of the statues themselves, we are left to reconstruct the history and appearance of Greek portraiture primarily through other kinds of evidence: later literary sources, Roman-period copies primarily of portrait heads, inscribed statue bases, decrees recording the decision to award an honorific portrait. Based on this evidence, it is clear that portrait statues were a prominent feature of the statuary landscape of Greek cities and sanctuaries, particularly in the Hellenistic period, when their numbers increased and the range of people represented by them came to include women and children.


  • Greek Material Culture

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Although Archaic-period gravestones and other marble sculptures already represented specific named individuals (see Antenor (2); Theodorus (1)), Greek portraiture proper is usually thought to begin in the first half of the 5th century bce, when the setting up of statues in commemoration of the extraordinary deeds of particular individuals first took place. Portrait statues of victorious Olympic athletes are a major genre of sculptural production in this period, perhaps a product of the refinement of the technique of lost-wax bronze casting, which facilitated the creation of figures in dynamic movement. The statues of the Tyrannicides, made by the sculptors Kritios and Nesiotes and set up in the Athenian agora in 477/6 bce (see Critius), were also action figures, represented in the historic act of assassination for which they were later heroized. Because all of these portraits were of bronze, they were eventually melted down and the metal reused. What is preserved are a series of much later marble copies created to decorate the villas of elite Romans. Examples include Pericles (c. 425: see Cresilas), Herodotus, Thucydides, and Socrates “A” (c. 380), Xenophon (c. 350), Plato (1) (c. 345: see Silanion), the “Acropolis” Alexander the Great (c. 338), Sophocles (c. 336), Aristotle and Socrates ‘B’ (c. 320: see Lysippus (2), Demosthenes (280), Epicurus (c. 270), Metrodorus and Hermarchus (c. 260), and Carneades (c. 150). Like the portraits of the Tyrannicides, most if not all of these were copied from statues in Athens. Subjects included victorious generals, statesmen, poets, philosophers, orators, and historians—the great men of the Classical Greek past most admired by Roman patrons.

Votive portrait statues of female priestesses become an important category of Greek portraiture beginning in the 4th century bce. Demetrius (2) of Alopece is known as the sculptor of one of the earliest portraits of a woman from Athens: the statue of Lysimache, an old priestess of Athena Polias, that stood on the Athenian Acropolis. As it was made from bronze, the statue itself is not preserved; only the inscribed base of the statue remains. Portrait statues of women were also made in marble, a material with a greater likelihood of surviving. One of the best-preserved represents Aristonoe, priestess of Nemesis, from the site of Rhamnous in north-east Attica, dedicated by her son c. 150 bce. Unlike Greek male portraiture, which tended to stress individuality and recognisability, portraits of women were usually more generic and idealized in the characterization of their facial features.

Alexander’s conquests both revolutionized the genre of ruler portraiture and stimulated a massive demand for portraits at all levels of society. Lysippus (2) idealized Alexander’s features and blended them with a version of the nude spear-bearing Doryphoros (see Polyclitus (2)) in order to show him as a latter-day Achilles, while Apelles represented him as a Zeus on earth, complete with thunderbolt (Plut. Mor. 335a–f, 360d; Alex. 4, 15.4–5). They and others also first portrayed the ruler in narrative situations (hunts, battles, processions), such as on the Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul or the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii, and accompanied by gods and personifications. Posthumous portraits of Alexander depicted him with divine attributes, such as the horns of Ammon, the lion skin of Heracles, and the aegis of Zeus. Alexander’s successors eagerly followed suit, choosing the diadem (which he had assumed in 330) as their royal symbol and adopting various divinizing attributes in their own portraiture. Whether equestrian, armoured, cloaked, or nude; striding, standing, or seated; spear-bearing or with trident, sceptre, or cornucopia; or wearing a solar crown, winged petasos, panther-scalp, elephant-scalp, or horns, their statues, pictures, coins, and gems represented them as charismatic and often semi-divine rulers in their own right. While most such ruler portraits are idealized, this seldom obscures their individuality, for easy recognition is one of their prime aims; indeed, some Bactrian (see Bactria) and Asian rulers opted for a no-nonsense realism as an alternative, attention-getting, device.

After Alexander, portraiture became the central Hellenistic art form. While the old subject categories continue, and portraits of elite citizens are mostly conventional, others are markedly original. Most striking are the sharp-featured Menander (c. 290), the aged Chrysippus (c. 200), the bronze Antikythera Philosopher, and some inspired “baroque” portraits: the Antisthenes (c. 200: see Phyromachus), the “pseudo-Seneca” (c. 150; perhaps Hesiod), and the Homer IV (c. 150). Athletes represent the opposite pole: surviving examples, such as the statue of Agias in Delphi, suggest hardly any individualization in the majority of cases. Portraits of Romans made in Greece by Greek artists reflected both traditional Greek attitudes about outsiders and the sitters’ own tastes: examples range from the aquiline, impetuous T. Quinctius Flamininus (after 197; cf. Plut. Flam. 1.1) to the hard-boiled Italian merchants (e.g., Delos Museum inv. no. A 4187) who settled on Delos between 166 and 88 (see negotiatores). Abbreviated formats such as the portrait bust and the portrait herm seem also to have been introduced to Greece under Roman influence; earlier Greek portraits always included the complete body of the subject. See also portraiture, Roman.


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