Skip to content

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

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

PATRICIA KARVELAS: 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