Skip to content

See Plan your visit for health and safety information including mandatory check-in and use of face masks.

Introduction

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Welcome. My name is Patricia Karvelas, and I’m a proud Greek-Australian broadcaster. My parents were both immigrants to Australia from the Peloponnese, the south of mainland Greece. I have always been fascinated by the Ancient Greeks, which I feel a strong and powerful connection to, and also share with the world. I will be joining you on this tour and sharing with you 20 objects that have been chosen for their beauty, significance and fascinating stories. These have been selected by one of Australia’s foremost scholars in Ancient Greek culture, Professor Alastair Blanshard from the University of Queensland – the researcher and author of this tour.

For thousands of years the culture of the Ancient Greek people has fascinated all those who have encountered it. We have been captivated by its tales of heroes and monsters. Its tragedies have reduced us to tears. We’ve been left breathless by the beauty of its sculpture.

Such works do not happen by accident. As this exhibition shows, they emerge from an environment of intense competition. In every field of Greek life, there was a reluctance to settle for second best. Whether it was writing a play, carving a statue or competing in the pentathlon, the desire was always to come first, to triumph. This spirit of competition was accompanied by a sense of freedom to innovate and challenge norms. This Greek willingness to risk everything in seeking perfection makes them a continuing subject of admiration.

The Greek culture that we are exploring today first emerged on the shores of the Mediterranean between the 10th to the 8th century BCE. Throughout this tour you’ll encounter the terms BCE, Before Common (or current) Era and CE, Common (or current) Era. BCE and CE are alternatives to BC and AD, terms you might also be familiar with.

Greek culture would soon spread throughout the Mediterranean. By the 6th century BCE there were Greek communities all the way from Spain and southern France through to Italy and North Africa, and then onto the Black Sea. Two hundred years later the sphere of Greek influence would be further expanded by Alexander the Great and his successors, whose conquests would cement the place of Greek culture in locations such as Egypt, Persia and Afghanistan. Throughout this exhibition you’ll see objects from many of these different parts of the Greek world. Yet, in all of them is that spark of genius, that unquenchable Greek fire that burns brightly throughout the ages.

Marble statue of a woman with flowing robes. She is missing her head, arms and right foot. - click to view larger image
Statue of Nike

Statue of Nike

Behold Nike, the goddess of victory. She was the goddess whose favours determined the fortune of gods and mortals alike. Cities, generals, artists, athletes and poets all courted her. The outcome of battles turned on her whims. When Zeus, the all-mighty father of the Olympian gods went to war, it was Nike who drove his chariot.

This impressive statue of Nike probably once stood at the apex of a large public building. Carved in the 1st century BCE it stands almost life-size at just over 143 centimetres. Of course, it is immediately obvious this statue is missing its head, and the vibrant paint that would have been visible in ancient times is long gone. Very few statues have survived from antiquity intact. In most cases, those that look complete have been heavily restored.

Despite the damage to this statue, we know it is Nike by the remains of wings still attached to the body. Only a few Greek goddesses possess wings, and none were as popular as Nike. Keep an eye out for the so-called Winged Goddess in a more complete form – she appears often throughout this exhibition.

When the statue was originally displayed, different coloured paint would have distinguished the flowing garments from the large wings. The sculptor has skilfully captured a sense of wind and movement in the fabric of this figure, as well as a sense of the body beneath. Folds of drapery billow around the body, the garments press against the breasts and outstretched leg.

The missing head, neck, arms and feet would have been carved separately from finer, white marble. You can see the sockets that would have been used for the joining of these elements. Carving in different marble would have achieved finer details and a greater contrast in the flesh of the statue. Greek women, both mortals and goddesses, displayed pale, white skin. The lack of tan demonstrated the high status of the individual and the fact that they did not need to work in the sun to obtain a living. Nike may have been an active goddess, but she wasn’t a labourer.

Even today Nike is a name to conjure with. In 1971 the US shoe company Blue Ribbon Sports decided to adopt the name ‘Nike’ as its brand name. The rest is history. These days we find Nike’s name emblazoned on millions of sports shoes, clothing and equipment – a fitting tribute to the most powerful goddess.

Group of women playing knucklebones

A marble statue of two women crouching and facing one another, holding several small hollowed-out objects in their hands.
Women playing knucklebones

The Ancient Greeks loved games of chance. One of the most popular games was knucklebones. We know this from the numerous scenes of the game that survive. Knucklebone players appear on wall paintings, as statues, and on vases. Here we see one of the finest representations. It is a terracotta group of two women at play. It comes from the final decades of the 4th century BCE from the region of Campania in southern Italy. Greek communities had been settled there since the 8th century and this terracotta group shows the influence of the Greeks in the region. The detailing in the terracotta is of particularly high quality. Each figure was produced separately. A peg allows them to be slotted into the rectangular base and detached for transport or storage.

This game is happening in a private or a domestic setting. Look at the bare heads and arms of the figures. These indicate both the youth of the figures and tell us that this scene is not happening in public. When out in public, women covered up – they tended to be more heavily veiled and wrapped.

Although called knucklebones, the game pieces were actually modelled on the anklebones of sheep and goats. This game swept the Mediterranean. Not only popular with the Greeks and Romans, Persian kings and Egyptian pharaohs also played with knucklebones. Sets of knucklebones carved in ivory have been found in Egyptian tombs.

In the Greek world, knucklebones was a popular game with the young. Most children would have carried around a bag of them, and they frequently appear in the graves of children. We don’t know the exact rules for the different games that would have been played, but we know points were awarded according to which of the four different sides appeared face-up after a throw.

As fate and chance was seen to be controlled by the gods, Greeks also used throws of knucklebones to get a glimpse into their future. A person would ask a question and then throw. Throwing five knucklebones produces 56 possible combinations of results. Tables were created to help interpret the result. Such consultations were particularly popular with young women who were very keen to find out about future husbands. The choice of husband was crucial in a girl’s life. Yet it was a choice that very few girls had any say in, so they were naturally anxious about what the future may hold. We can imagine them holding their breath as they waited to see how the knucklebones fell.

Bronze head from the statue of an athlete wearing a close-fitting leather cap. - click to view larger image
Head from a statue of an athlete

Head from a statue of an athlete

This head is a truly remarkable find. Bronze was the prize medium for sculpture and very few large statues have survived from antiquity. The metal was valuable and was often melted down and made into nails and arrowheads.

The most distinctive feature of this head is its close-fitting cap. Look at the way it grips the skull. This unusual cap has led some scholars to suggest that this head belongs to a Roman priest of the god Mars. There are surviving depictions of these priests as young men wearing leather skullcaps, fastened with straps under the chin. However, a stronger clue to the owner of the head is the man’s facial features. Look closely – notice the slightly bent nose and swollen ears. He has certainly received some damage. This is a head of a fighter, one involved in one of the many combat sports that featured in Greek athletic competitions. He was likely to have competed in boxing or wrestling competitions during which competitors wore caps to prevent opponents grabbing their long hair.

Boxing and wrestling enjoyed a long history in the Greek world. Our earliest depictions of boxing date to 1700 BCE in a fresco from the island of Santorini. In the epic poem the 'Iliad', we are given vivid descriptions of boxing matches between heroes, Epeius and Euryalus. Epeius was eventually victorious after delivering a stunning blow to the cheek, flattening his opponent and leaving him spitting out blood into the dust. The popularity of the sport continued into the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. In Ancient Greek boxing competitions there were no weight categories, so heavier opponents had a distinct advantage. Competitors did not wear gloves, but they tied up their hands with leather thongs. This was to give them protection rather than to increase the severity of the blow.

Wrestling also enjoyed a high profile. The most famous Greek hero Herakles was a renowned wrestler. Neither man nor beast could defeat him. He defeated a wild lion that was tormenting the people of the town of Nemea and the story became so famous, Greek athletes sought out lions to wrestle in imitation of their hero.

The Romans adopted and adapted these Greek combat sports, but in doing so they profoundly changed their nature. Roman boxing resembles a gladiatorial combat. Gloves were introduced but they were weighed with pieces of iron and had metal spikes placed around the knuckles. For all their admiration of Greek athletics, under the Romans the nobility of boxing disappeared and the contest became a blood sport.

A tall vase with a tapered lid, engraved design on its neck, and an illustration of three black figures running. - click to view larger image
Panathenaic prize amphora

Panathenaic prize amphora

This large ceramic container known as an amphora, would once have held olive oil harvested from the sacred olive trees of Athens. These trees were believed to be descended from the olive tree planted by the goddess Athena in her contest with her uncle, the sea-god Poseidon, for control of the city of Athens. According to this myth, each god was asked to provide one gift to the city and the city would then choose the best. Poseidon went first and provided a spring of salty water. Athena followed and planted the olive tree, a gift whose fruit and oil would nourish the city. Athena was declared the winner of the contest and became the patron goddess of Athens.

The descendants of this first olive tree were venerated by the Athenians and it was illegal, on pain of death, to cut one down. Oil was gathered from the fruit of the trees and presented in these large distinctive amphorae, as prizes, to victors at the Panathenaic games. The design of these prize amphorae is always the same. On one side they feature a representation of the sport for which the prize is being awarded. In this case, it was running. But you will see others in this exhibition for boxing, horse and chariot racing. The other side always features the goddess Athena.

On this amphora she stands with her spear raised ready to enter battle. She is flanked by two inscriptions. The one on the left is the name Nikokrates, the chief magistrate for the year in which the prize was awarded. In this case, it was 333 BCE and it’s extremely rare to be able to date a Greek pot so closely. The other inscription tells us that this was a prize amphora presented during the Athenian games.

These games were held every four years in honour of the goddess Athena. They were designed to rival the older and more famous games in places like Olympia and Delphi. They attracted competitors and spectators from all over the Greek world. In addition to the athletic games, the festival for Athena included musical contests between tribal choirs, Homeric recitations, competitive gymnastics, equestrian and pyrrhic dancing – a type of military-style dancing – as well as torch races and a regatta. In this festival, sport was not separated out but included as part of a celebration of all human activity.

A marble statue of a naked man holding his arms up, his right hand missing. - click to view larger image
The Vaison Diadoumenos

The Vaison Diadoumenos

This statue is a Roman copy from the 2nd century CE of a now lost masterpiece of Greek art. The Romans were great admirers of Greek culture and they were keen copyists of its most famous sculptures. Very few original Greek statues survive. It is thanks to the Romans and their numerous copies that we know so much about Ancient Greek sculpture.

This statue was found in Vaison, one of the important Roman archaeological sites in southern France. The original sculpture was most likely produced in bronze and it’s attributed to one of the most significant figures in Greek art, the sculptor Polykleitos. Polykleitos was active in the later part of the 5th century BCE. He is famous for developing a system of proportions for the human body, which he called ‘the canon’. This system of proportion began with the fingers and toes, and ensured that every part of the body was related mathematically to every other part. These rules of proportion became the standard for Greek art and later heavily influenced artists in the Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci.

The statue represents a victorious athlete tying his victor’s ribbon around his head. The word ‘Diadoumenos’ literally means ‘the man wrapping or binding himself’. These ribbons were a symbol of victory and on other objects throughout this exhibition you will see the goddess Nike awarding them as prizes.

Although Polykleitos also made statues of gods and heroes, his statues of athletes were regarded as his greatest creations. The Vaison Diadoumenos is an excellent example of the idealised naturalism that became so popular in Classical Greek art. He represents the apex of male beauty. This was a body that inspired envy and not a little bit of lust in viewers, both male and female alike. Look at the way the figure stands with most of his weight on one foot. This stance was made famous by Polykleitos. It’s referred to, usually by art historians, as contrapposto or counterpoise. This stance is admired for the way it animates the body. While clearly drawn from nature, there is certainly a great deal of idealisation in the musculature. Like the photoshopped images of models today, this body is an impossibility. Worthy of admiration, but practically unachievable.

Bronze statuette of Peleus (Pele) and Atalanta (Atlenta) wrestling; from top of cista. - click to view larger image
Handle of a cista (casket)

Handle of a cista (casket)

It may be small, but this statuette brings together two of the biggest names in Greek mythology, the warrior Peleus and the famous huntress Atalanta. Peleus is shown naked. Atalanta wears a short tunic – women did not compete naked.

This bronze would have originally been used as a decorative handle on a cylindrical box, now lost. It would have reminded its owner of one the most famous sets of athletic games in Greek myth. These games were held at the funeral celebrating the death of the villainous king Pelias, king of the northern Greek city of Iolcus (and not to be confused with Peleus the warrior shown on this statuette). Among many other dreadful deeds, Pelias attempted to kill the hero Jason by sending him off on a treacherous voyage to retrieve the Golden Fleece. The splendid funeral games commemorating the king’s death marked the end of a dark period in the history of Iolcus and attracted heroes from all over the Greek world. These games became a favourite subject in epic poetry and pottery painting.

The heroes Peleus and Atalanta enthusiastically participated in these games. Peleus was a skilled hunter and athlete. In antiquity, he is famous as the father of the greatest of Greek warriors, the hero Achilles. His skill in wrestling was legendary. He managed to capture his wife, the shape-shifting sea goddess Thetis, by wrestling her to the ground and not letting go no matter how many times she transformed from woman to fire, to water, to wind, to tree, to bird, to tiger, to lion, to snake, and finally to cuttlefish. However, for all his skill in wrestling, Peleus was no match for Atalanta.

Abandoned on a mountainside by her parents at birth, Atalanta had been raised by a bear before she was taken in by a group of hunters. She rejected the company of men, and spent her time hunting as a companion to the goddess Artemis. During this period she single-handedly killed two centaurs who tried to rape her. In the wrestling match with Peleus, Atalanta was victorious and this only confirmed her views on the weakness of men. She challenged any man who wanted to marry her to a running race. If she defeated them, she speared them to death. Many men died at her hands until eventually Hippomenes managed to beat her by dropping some golden apples on the track, which Atalanta stopped to pick up. To the Ancient Greeks, Atalanta was a fascinating figure who broke all the conventional stereotypes about the female body and character. Pilgrims would go to Arcadia to visit where she ran her fatal races, intrigued by tales of this remarkable, unconventional woman and keen to make offerings to her heroic spirit.

Marble portrait of a bearded man. - click to view larger image
Head from a statue of Euripides

Head from a statue of Euripides

χρὴ τῶν ἀγαθῶν διακναιομένων πενθεῖν ὅστις χρηστὸς ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς νενόμισται.

When the virtuous are ruined, the good join in their suffering.

With these words, Euripides captures the spirit of tragedy. Watching heroes suffer on stage, you inevitably and vicariously feel their pain. Only those who are dead inside feel nothing.

You are staring into the eyes of a genius. This marble head is a portrait of one of the three great writers of tragedies in Athens, the poet and playwright, Euripides. It is a copy taken from an original full-size bronze statue that was produced in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE. The head is reasonably intact and has been shaped so that it could be inserted into a statue.

Statues of the tragedians were popular amongst the elite who used them to decorate their gardens and villas as a sign of their cultural sophistication. Although statues of Euripides were produced shortly after his death, we know of none produced during his lifetime. As a result, these statues of literary figures tend to be imaginative reconstructions based on biographic information and what the sculptors thought they looked like. This is a face that has looked deep and unflinching into the human soul.

Although only moderately successful during his lifetime, Euripides enjoyed considerable fame following his death in around 406 BCE. A radical innovator who experimented with plot, staging and music, he wrote some of our best-loved tragedies, such as Medea, Bacchae and Trojan Women. Even today, Euripides is the artist to whom we turn when we want to explore some of humanity’s darkest emotions or gravest moral dilemmas. Each year his plays are staged in numerous theatres all over the world. The setting may be updated to contemporary times, but the truths contained in his plays are eternal.

It was Euripides’ skill as a dramatist that possibly saved Athens from destruction. At the end of the Peloponnesian War, the great war between Athens and Sparta, Athens was soundly defeated. The Spartan allies, led by the city of Thebes, called for the complete razing of the city. However, according to one version, at this proposition one of the other allies started to sing the chorus from Euripides’ play Electra. The assembled throng were so moved by the beauty of the work that they lost all interest in wiping out Athens, thinking that it would be a crime to destroy a city which had produced such poets.

Red-figured bowl with a design featuring black on red ground, with white accessories and various figures. - click to view larger image
Volute krater

Volute krater – saving Iphigeneia

This vessel is called a krater and was used for mixing water and wine in a manner similar to the modern punchbowl. Servants would ladle out the water-wine mixture from the krater into cups for serving to guests at drinking parties.

The decoration of this ceramic vessel was possibly inspired by one of Euripides’ most famous plays, Iphigeneia in Aulis. The vase was made in southern Italy, a region that we know was particularly fond of Euripides’ plays. A considerable number of vases from this region seem to have theatrical connections. It is even said that captured Athenian prisoners of war were supposedly able to get better treatment from their jailers in Sicily by reciting Euripides to their captors in return for provisions.

The play Iphigeneia in Aulis tells the story of the terrible sacrifice made by the Greek general Agamemnon in order to get to Troy. On his way to Troy, Agamemnon found himself becalmed at Aulis. After consulting the seer Calchas, Agamemnon learnt that the reason for the lack of wind was that he had offended the goddess Artemis, and to appease her he must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigeneia. Agamemnon was initially reluctant to perform the act, but his heart hardens and he tricks his wife Clytemnestra into bringing Iphigeneia to the Greek camp on the pretext that he is going to marry her to Achilles. Both women arrive at the camp, joyful at the prospect of the coming union. At this point, Agamemnon reveals his deception. Clytemnestra is distraught, and her love instantly turns to hate and she begins to plot Agamemnon’s destruction. However Iphigeneia, realising that she has no other option, agrees to sacrifice herself for the greater cause of the expedition against Troy. She is led to her death at the altar but at the last minute, Artemis whisks her away and substitutes a sacrificial deer in her place.

In the central scene on the vase we see Agamemnon (or possibly Calchas) standing over an altar with a knife in his hand. Iphigeneia stands with her head bowed, ready to be sacrificed. Look closely at the figure. We can also glimpse behind her the deer that will be her sacrificial substitute. Above this scene, Artemis, and her twin brother Apollo, look on.

Aulos (musical pipe)

Fragmentary flute featuring a bone mouthpiece and bronze lower section.
Aulos (musical pipe)

There were few sounds more ubiquitous in Ancient Greek lands than the buzzing, melodic sound of the Greek flute or aulos, as it was called. The flute was thought to be brought to Greek mainland and islands from central Anatolia, the region of modern-day Turkey. It proved instantly popular and there was a strong musical flute tradition from the 6th century BCE onwards.

Traditionally, a musician placed both flutes into their mouth and played them simultaneously. A similar technique is used in parts of Sardinia today. The flutes were often held in place by bands that went around the back of the head. This unusual aulos has a bone mouthpiece that would have allowed it to be played from the end or the side.

The flute could be heard on any number of occasions in the Greek world. It accompanied banquets and drinking parties and was an essential part of dramatic performances. When warriors marched into battle, they were accompanied by flute players, whose tunes helped keep the army in time and roused their spirits. Flute-playing competitions were also popular. Alongside athletic events, the Pythian Games held at Delphi, for example, included competitions for both single flute players and flute players accompanied by the lyre. The lyre may have been the most prestigious instrument, but it was impossible in Greece to escape the sound of the flute.

A marble block with a relief design and using a linear perspective to represent multiple figures along four rows, the top featuring a single man reclining. - click to view larger image
Honorary stele

Honorary stele – The Apotheosis of Homer

This is a very special object, brought to Australia for the first time for display in this exhibition.

When Alexander the Great conquered the kingdoms of Egypt and Persia, he ushered in a new era of Greek history. The new Greek rulers of these lands were keen to spread Hellenic culture. In their new capital cities of Alexandria, Pergamum and Antioch, they created a world that was wealthy, cosmopolitan and innovative.

This relief sculpture, by the artist Archelaos of Priene, is a masterpiece from this period of Greek history. There is simply nothing like it in Greek art. Carved, perhaps, to commemorate a poet’s victory in a literary competition, it was created in Alexandria and captures the sentiments of the age. It is a complex, sophisticated allegory carved in stone.

Look at the bottom left-hand corner. Here we see Homer. He is no longer just a poet, he’s being worshipped as a divine figure. Homer is crowned by two personifications representing Time and the Inhabited World, thereby signalling that the poet’s fame is both eternal and widespread. Kneeling on either side of his throne are figures representing his two great works, the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey'. In front of him, personifications of the various arts come to offer him sacrifice. We can identify Poetry (carrying two torches), Tragedy (wearing a mask) and Comedy.

Above this scene, we see the Muses. These goddesses were patrons of the arts and the inspiration for all cultural achievement. On the left with the lyre is Terpsichore, the muse of dance. Standing next to her, pointing to a globe is Ourania, the muse of astronomy. On the level above, on the left, is Clio, the muse of history, reading a book. Next to her, with a dagger in her hand, is Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. The tall woman standing above the Muses, with her hand on her hip, is Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, and mother of the Muses.

In the centre of the cave stands Apollo. The figure to his right and standing on the plinth is possibly the figure this relief is designed to commemorate. Behind him in faint relief is the trophy he was awarded for his victory – a large ceremonial tripod. Through this relief the sculptor indicates that, with this victory, the winner has now joined the pantheon of literary gods.

Bronze statuette of a warrior on horseback. The warrior wears a Corinthian-style helmet and a short tunic. - click to view larger image
Statuette of a warrior on horseback

Statuette of a warrior on horseback – The Armento rider

This small statue comes from Armento, an Ancient Greek site in the region of Basilicata in southern Italy. Dating from the 6th century BCE, it is among the earliest works of art to come from the Greek communities of Italy. It is a wonderful piece of construction. Both rider and horse are cast – separately – in solid bronze. Such casting is particularly difficult as large solid bronzes run the risk of cracking as the metal cools. This may in part account for the elongation of the horse’s body, as a deliberate measure to avoid too large a mass of metal. Hollow-casting was known at this period, but was not widely practised.

The statuette depicts a Greek warrior proudly mounted on a horse. If you look closely, you’ll see that in one hand he would have held a spear, now lost. The reigns and crest of his helmet are missing as well. A curious feature of this sculpture is the prominent display of the genitals, particularly odd given that he’s wearing a tunic that should cover them. Their prominence should probably be read as a sign of the warrior’s virility. Masculinity and bravery were synonymous in the Greek world. The Ancient Greek word for courage is literally ‘manliness’.

This rider is clearly a member of the elite. Buying and maintaining horses was an expensive business. Ownership of a horse is normally taken to be a sign that a person belongs to the wealthiest five per cent of society.

For all their elite associations, the cavalry rarely played a decisive role in Greek warfare. Battles were normally decided by the clash of infantry. Cavalry were primarily involved in mopping-up operations, once the main battle was over. That said, there does seem to have been slightly more interest in the effective use of cavalry amongst the western Greeks, where the terrain allowed for more effective use of warriors on horseback.

Body armour cast in the form of a man’s torso with eyelets for threading on both sides. - click to view larger image
Cuirass (body armour)

Armour

Shouting, their spears held high, their bronze armour glistening in the sun. Few sights were more terrifying in the ancient world than the vision of massed ranks of Greek soldiers bearing down on you.

This collection of armour, although drawn from different places and time periods, gives you a good sense of the type of protection worn by heavily armed foot soldiers as they went into battle. The name for such a soldier was a hoplite, after the Greek hoplon, the name of the large distinctive shield that he carried. From the 7th until the 4th century BCE, these infantry forces were decisive in determining the outcome of Greek battle.

In the Greek world, only Sparta had anything that resembled a professional standing army. The rest of the Greek city-states, Athens included, relied upon the equivalent of a militia.

Individual soldiers were called up from the citizen body to fight. They had to provide their own equipment and, in many cases, their own rations. For this reason, the nature and quality of armour in any particular unit varied considerably. The cheapest set of bronze armour would have cost the equivalent of $14,000 Australian dollars, and these were often passed down from father to son. In Athens, children who were orphaned due to losing a father in the war were given gifts of weapons and armour by the state. Very few soldiers would have fought with an expensive bronze cuirass like the one on display. Scholars estimate probably as few as one in 10 soldiers would have one. Most soldiers would have relied instead on padded linen garments for protection.

Bronze armour was a very effective way of protecting the body. Modern reconstructions have demonstrated that ancient armour would have provided excellent protection against arrows and other projectile weapons. However, this protection came at a cost. The armour is heavy to wear. Estimates for the weight of armour vary from 22.5 kg to 31.7 kg. In addition, the soldier would need to carry a spear and a large heavy round shield weighing approximately 7.5 kg. Given that the average Ancient Greek would have only weighed 60–65 kg, this is a tremendous weight to bear. And to make things more challenging, the close-fitting helmet had a severe impact on a soldier’s peripheral vision and his ability to hear in battle.

For these reasons, Greek hoplites tended to favour fighting in large formations in which they stood shoulder to shoulder with other soldiers and moved in a solid group with their shields overlapping. This was called a phalanx. In such formations, soldiers would burst through enemy lines through sheer weight of numbers. Greek warfare was conducted in close quarters. It was intimate and it was brutal.

Engraved oval-shaped stone with a winged figure hanging a sword on a trophy. Beside the trophy is a spear with an attached scroll inscribed ONATA. - click to view larger image
Engraved sealstone

Engraved sealstone

Sometimes it is the tiny things that take your breath away. This is one such object. This gem represents one of the most exquisite examples of high-quality gem carving that survives today. Lean in closely and admire the details. Although the carving of gemstones was known in the Bronze Age, the rediscovery of the process of gem carving began in Greece in the 7th century BCE, possibly as the result of influence from Egypt. It reached its highpoint in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, the period to which this example is dated. Artists became famous for their virtuoso carving.

Engraving was accomplished using a drill and a wheel. A slurry of powdered emery was used to assist in the cutting. The stones that were most favoured for engraving owing to their durability, moderate hardness and absence of grain were quartzes, of which chalcedony is an example.

The scene depicts Nike erecting a standard battlefield victory marker called a tropaion. It is from this word that the modern term ‘trophy’ is ultimately derived. These markers were dedications to the gods in thanks for victory and traditionally took the form of a tree-like structure on which the armour of the defeated foe was hung. They were set up on the battlefield usually at the site of the turning point, at which the routed enemy’s phalanx broke, turned and ran. In this example, in addition to the armour, we can see swords, shields and banners forming part of the victory marker.

Black-figured vessel featuring designs of black on red panels, with borders of double honeysuckle along the top, and several figures. - click to view larger image
Amphora

Amphora – Labour 3: Capture the Erymanthian boar

This fine example of black-figure painting is attributed to the Antimenes Painter, one of the most prolific artists of the late 6th century BCE. Over 140 of his vessels survive, and decorated amphorae seem to have been his speciality. Like much of his work, this vessel was produced in Athens and then exported to Italy where it ended up, like other examples of his work, in a grave in Etruria (modern Tuscany).

On one side of the vase is a conventional scene of warriors bidding farewell to their families as they head off to war. The more dramatic scene is the one facing you. This side of the amphora depicts the 4th of Herakles’ 12 labours, the capture of the monstrous boar that lived on Mount Erymanthos in the north-west Peloponnese. The monster was terrifying, but most Greek artists were drawn to an amusing anecdote about Herakles’ return with the animal. The story features Herakles’ enemy, cowardly King Eurystheus. We can see him hiding in a large storage vessel built into the floor of his palace. Eurystheus was responsible for commissioning the various labours of Herakles. He hoped to eliminate Herakles by sending the hero against impossible foes and so have him destroyed. Unfortunately, Herakles kept succeeding and Eurystheus grew increasingly alarmed by the monstrous beasts that Herakles kept returning with. In the scene we see Herakles scaring the king with the captured boar. Eurystheus holds up his hands in supplication and fright. Watching the scene are Athena, the goddess who supported the hero as he carried out his labours, and his nephew (and according to some accounts, lover), Iolaus.

The labours of Herakles were popular subject matter in this period. In the exhibition you can see other black-figure examples of his labours. Look out for him wrestling the invulnerable lion that was terrorising the community of Nemea, as well as his trek to the far west to defeat the triple-bodied monster, Geryon, and steal his cattle.

Marble statue of a female figure, her arms crossing her body, the right hand missing. Her hair is tied up in a top-knot and then loose locks fall down onto each shoulder. By her side is a tiny figure, with head missing. - click to view larger image
Statue of Aphrodite

Statue of Aphrodite

Unlike men, Ancient Greek women are rarely depicted naked. Among the exceptions are prostitutes, Amazons and the goddess Aphrodite. Like so many others, this statue of Aphrodite is a copy of the lost original. The original sculpture dates to the 3rd century BCE. This copy belongs to the 1st century CE. It was supposedly found in a well and once belonged to the maverick poet and devoted lover of Greece, Lord Byron.

The statue depicts Aphrodite in a very typical pose with one arm covering her breast and a hand covering her genitals. It is an arrangement referred to by art historians as the pudicitia, or modesty pose.

She is accompanied by Eros, the god of wild, passionate, uncontrolled love, who rides a dolphin with a cuttlefish in its mouth. Aphrodite was a goddess with strong marine connections. According to Hesiod, the name Aphrodite means ‘the one from the foam’. The name is supposedly a reference to her emergence from the sea, when the castrated genitals of the sky god Uranus flew down from heaven and landed in the sea near Cyprus (or in some versions, the island of Kythera). From the mixing of the genitals and the sea, Aphrodite was born. She was a popular goddess with sailors who would often offer prayers and sacrifices to her prior to undertaking long sea voyages. A number of important sanctuaries of Aphrodite are located near the sea.

In addition to her maritime associations, Aphrodite’s primary identification was as the goddess of love and fertility. It was this aspect that caused her to become embroiled in the events surrounding the Trojan War. When Paris, the young Trojan prince, declared Aphrodite the most beautiful of the goddesses, she rewarded him by arranging for Helen to fall in love with Paris and abandon her husband, and steal away with him to Troy. It was this event that triggered the Trojan War. During the Trojan War, Aphrodite frequently intervened on the side of the Trojans. On one occasion, the goddess even manifested on the battlefield to whisk her beloved Paris away to safety, just before a fatal blow could be delivered by Helen’s husband, King Menelaos. She was even wounded in battle. The hero Diomedes piercing her wrist with his spear and causing her to take flight. Love may be powerful, but it is not invulnerable.

A vase with a rounded body, curved handles and a floral motif pattern on the neck. The vase features an illustration of two men with spears in combat. - click to view larger image
Amphora

Amphora – Killing love

This is another very special object, brought to Australia for the first time for display in this exhibition. The vase depicts the death of the Amazon queen, Penthesilea, at the hands of Achilles, and was made by arguably the greatest of the Greek black-figure vase painters, the artist Exekias. Greek vase painting does not get better than this. Look at the quality and economy of the lines, the exquisite detail of the Amazon’s clothing.

We know the vase was produced by Exekias because it carries his signature. You can see it if you look at the left of Achilles’ elbow. The inscription reads ‘Exekias epoiese’, ‘Exekias made this’. From this we know that Exekias was responsible for potting the vase as well as decorating it. There are three other inscriptions on this side of the vase. Two identify the main characters. Achilles’ name is placed near his helmet, Penthesilea’s runs outwards from her shield. The final inscription on the right which, together with the artist’s signature forms a frame for this image, is a kalos inscription. These were homoerotic inscriptions that paid homage to well-known and particularly attractive youths in the city, in this case a young man called Onetorides. We see a similar use of inscriptional labels on the back of the vase, where the figures Dionysus and his son Oinopion are identified and, once again, Onetorides is praised for his beauty.

Exekias is famous for the dignity and emotional intensity of his scenes and these aspects are well illustrated here. The scene is taken from a now lost Greek epic that formed part of the cycle of stories told about the events of the Trojan War. Penthesilea arrived in Troy carrying blood-guilt for accidentally killing one of her companions. She was purified of this guilt by King Priam of Troy and in gratitude, she brought back an army of Amazons to assist the Trojans when they were attacked by the Greeks. Penthesilea was a fearsome warrior and only Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, was able to defeat her. It is said that when Achilles removed her helmet and caught sight of Penthesilea, he fell instantly and passionately in love with her. This image captures the tragedy of this moment. Achilles and Penthesilea stare into each other’s eyes. Achilles’ moment of triumph will be his moment of greatest despair. Death and love, the greatest forces in the universe, are here intertwined.

Pinakion (personal identification tag)

Bronze rectangular object broken into two pieces. It is stamped with an owl in an olive branch and a gorgoneion, and punched with a seal. There are characters engraved along its length.
Pinakion (personal identification tag)

For the ancient Athenians the most democratic way to select a person to carry out a civic duty was sortition, that is to say, choosing people randomly by lot. On the whole, they preferred this method over voting in an election. Elections, they thought, gave unfair advantages to the wealthy and the educated. Choosing people randomly created a level playing field.

In order to make these selections, they used elaborate sortition machines, called, in Greek, kleroteria. Here we see a ticket for one of those machines. This ticket functioned as a citizen’s identity card. On it we can see punched out the citizen’s name, in this case, Thucydides, and the name of the local village where he was enrolled as a citizen. When it came time to make a selection, this ticket along with others could be inserted in rows into a stone board with slots carved to hold the tickets. Once all the tickets had been installed, black and white balls would be poured into a hopper which fed into a long tube. This allowed a person to pull balls out of the tube, one at a time. If a black ball was pulled out, all the tickets in the row were disqualified. A white ball meant the candidate had succeeded in the selection.

One of the most regular forms of sortition in Athens involved selecting people to sit on a jury. The Athenian law courts sat over 200 days a year and required huge numbers of citizens to participate as jurors. The most minor matters required a jury of 201 citizens, and the largest recorded jury involved 6000 citizens. Juries of 501 citizens were common. Every morning thousands would gather to see if they could be selected to serve as a juror. A half-day’s wage acted as an incentive for this service. For the average citizen, it was an empowering experience. A character in Aristophanes’ renowned comedy, The Wasps, captures the sentiment perfectly. ‘When I sit as a juror, I feel equal to the gods.’

A vase with a broad opening, small base and an illustration of a row of women carrying vessels on their heads, with animals below. - click to view larger image
Hydria (water jar)

Hydria (water jar) – A woman’s realm

In ancient Athens houses did not have access to running water and the collection of water was a daily activity. It was also one of the few opportunities for women to get out of the house. Fountain houses, fed by either pipes or springs, were an important gathering point for women to socialise away from the presence of fathers and husbands. It also provided an opportunity for women to be independent of their male guardians. Greek literature makes reference to a number of illicit affairs initiated by women that began at wells and springs, where young women would go to collect water and secretly meet young men who had caught their eye.

This vase shows a large number of well-dressed women gathered at a fountain house. One woman collects water from a lion’s head spout. Others balance their water jars on their heads. Their pale skin reflects Athenian notions of propriety and beauty. Appropriately, the scene is painted on a hydria, a vessel designed to carry water.

This vase brilliantly captures the sense of conviviality which attended this task. In Greek vase painting there is a convention that when a character is speaking, words come out of their mouths into the open space between characters. Here there is so much conversation that the voids are full of practically nothing but letters.

Most of the words are nonsense, just random letters designed to evoke the hubbub of animated conversation. Against this background, one set of letters stands out. This is the sentence found between the second and third pairs from the left which reads, ‘Sime is a beautiful girl’. Such sentences are relatively common on Greek vases. There is one on the vase showing the battle between Achilles and Penthesilea. However, in the vast majority of cases, the object of praise is a boy. Only in extremely rare cases is it a girl. How should we read this sentence? Whose voice are we hearing here? Are we to imagine that this expression of desire is coming from one of the women? Or the painter of the vase? In its deliberate ambiguity, the vase plays with our expectations.

Marble stele featuring a seated female and two smaller figures on either side. IN the upper section is a wreath with two floral motifs on either side. - click to view larger image
Gravestone

Gravestone – Phila, the generous benefactor

This stone memorial is evidence of the change in the status of Greek women that occurred in the Hellenistic period, the period that runs from the end of 4th century BCE onwards. In the preceding periods, especially in a democracy like Athens, there were very limited opportunities, outside of a few religious roles, for citizen women to have a public profile. Indeed, the only women who enjoyed any fame were the talented and highly educated courtesans, known as hetairai or companions. Their displays of wit and skill at Greek drinking parties made them the talk of the town. However, to the respectable wives and daughters of the Athenian citizens, such women were scandalous. To the Athenian male mind, the respectable woman was the invisible woman.

Paradoxically, it was not democracy, but the return of monarchies with Alexander the Great and his successors, that created new opportunities for women. Royal families gave prominence to women. Even today, Hellenistic queens such as Cleopatra are household names. This prominence trickled down the social scale. In addition, the tremendous wealth of the period allowed women access to economic resources that were previously unimaginable. We see during this period the rise of a number of wealthy female civic benefactors.

We know the name of this woman from an inscription in the architrave. She is Phila, daughter of Apollas. You can see some of the elements that speak to her extreme wealth on the memorial. She is finely and elaborately dressed. Her servant approaches her with possibly an open jewel casket. The cabinet behind her may have once been painted to show luxurious possessions. Another servant approaches carrying a spindle, but Phila shows no interest in such domestic chores. Proudly she stares out, her eyes defiantly meeting the gaze of the viewer.

Phila had every reason to feel proud. We know that this woman was the recipient of important honours from her local community. This is signified by the wreath carved prominently in the centre of the entablature. Such carved wreaths on tombstones regularly denote victories in competitions or the award of honours. In this case, we know that the honours were civic awards because at the centre of the wreath is carved the words ho demos, signifying that the wreath was awarded by the people.

Frieze block from the tomb of King Mausolus

A marble block with a relief design featuring a battle scene.
Frieze block from the tomb of King Mausolus

This sculptural panel comes from one of the ancient world’s most famous buildings, the colossal tomb built for King Mausolus of Karia, the so-called ‘Mausoleum of Halikarnassos’. The term ‘mausoleum’ literally means the ‘building of Mausolus’, and the fame of Mausolus’s tomb was such that it became the standard term for any grand monumental tomb.

Mausolus was one of the most dynamic statesmen of the 4th century BCE. When he died in 353 BCE his wife (who was also his sister) Artemisia orchestrated the completion of his tomb.

Not since the pharaohs of Egypt had the Mediterranean seen anything like this tomb. The building stood about approximately 45 metres high. It had a 36-metre-high podium, an extensive colonnade and was surmounted by a pyramid of steps. Artemisia found the finest sculptors available to work on the decorative elements of the tomb.

This panel comes from a decorative frieze that ran around the outside of the tomb. It depicts one of the great battles of Greek mythology, the fight between the Greeks and the Amazons. The weapons are missing. They would have been metal attachments, now lost. A Greek solider is struck down, an Amazon warrior entreats for mercy. It is a delicately poised battle scene. The refusal to depict one side clearly triumphant is one of the distinctive features of Greek art, and separates it from other artistic traditions in the region. The Greeks preferred to depict scenes which brought out the pathos and danger of battle – the moment when the victory hangs by a thread.

In Greek myth, the Amazons were a race of fierce female warriors. The name ‘Amazon’ means ‘breastless’ in Greek and a story was told that they cut out and cauterised the right breast so as not to impede their javelin-throwing. Despite this story, Amazons in Greek art are always depicted with both breasts.

There are numerous accounts of Amazons invading Greece in Greek myth. They are always defeated by Greek heroes. There is a clear gender message in these stories about ‘real men’ putting wild women back in their place. The Greeks may have used the story of their defeat of the Amazons to affirm their ideas about male superiority, but that has not stopped generations of women being attracted to the power, independence and capability of these women. From Wonder Woman to Xena Warrior Princess, the image of the Amazon has captivated and inspired many.

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 17 December 2021

Return to Top