Guardians of Greek Identity

Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World
Edited by Carlos A. Picón and Seán Hemingway
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 368pp £40

The forehead is the plainest part of the face. Compared with the eyes or the cheeks, there is little one can do to alter it, which is why, of all the fashion accessories of the ancient world, the diadem is most deserving of a revival. 

When Alexander the Great adopted the Persian diadem – a gold band that encircled the head and sparkled above the eyes – he was aware of its potential. Not only did it announce to all who saw him his conquest of eastern territories, but in its design it could convey how enthusiastically Macedon had absorbed Hellenic culture. A diadem featured in this book, a catalogue produced to accompany an exhibition of Hellenistic art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is decorated not with the figure of Herakles, Alexander’s hero, but with a Heraklean knot, modelled on the tie Herakles used to secure the Nemean lion skin on his shoulders. One is struck as much by its subtlety as by its symbolism.

Alexander is the paradigm against which all later dynasts of the Hellenistic world are measured. In this book, the comparison is with the often-overlooked Attalid rulers of Pergamon, a remote, thickly forested kingdom in Mysia, Asia Minor, situated 25km inland from the west coast of modern Turkey. It was here that Alexander’s Persian lover Barsine and their illegitimate son Herakles are said to have been residing at the time of Alexander’s death. It was here, too, that Lysimachos, Alexander’s former bodyguard, deposited a weight of silver with an eye to acquiring power and appointed one Philetaeros, a eunuch, to guard it. Philetaeros decided to defect to the rival general Seleucus, who battled down Lysimachos, then died himself. Philetaeros survived and, adopting his nephew, established the Attalid dynasty, with Pergamon as its capital. 

Like Alexander before them (and sundry rulers since), the Attalids strove to use art as a means of legitimising their power, which in effect meant endowing it with the age and pedigree it lacked. It perhaps comes as no surprise that many of the pieces they owned were therefore traditional (we would say ‘classical’) in style. Several of the Hellenistic period vases featured in this splendidly illustrated book retain the shape of those made in the fifth century BC, although the decoration is often cruder. More impressive and more effective at challenging our preconceptions about propagandistic, legitimising art today is the most famous Attalid commission of all, the Dying Gaul. The sculpture was made to commemorate the Attalids’ victory over migrating Galatians (Gauls) in the third century BC. As Massimiliano Papini argues in his introductory essay to the Attalid defeat of the Galatians, these sculptures, which originally stood in the Sanctuary of Athena Nikephoros (‘Bringer of Victory’) on the Pergamon acropolis, enabled the Attalids to present themselves ‘as guardians of Greek identity’. Isolated from their context, and known today through Roman marble copies, they stand rather as timeless elegies of human suffering.  

No less affecting are some of the smaller scale items examined in the comprehensive catalogue: a terracotta model of a cock fight, presided over by children, and a first century bc-first century ad statuette of an emaciated young man, whom, we learn, a pathologist recently ‘diagnosed’ as a victim of chronic lead poisoning. The curators of the Pergamon exhibition have been conscious to set the Pergamon treasures in the broader context of the fourth-first centuries BC, so we also find objects from, for example, Ptolemaic collections, including a vase that perfectly encapsulates the fashion for fusing Greek and Egyptian styles; cast in faience using Egyptian techniques, the oinochoe (a Greek vase shape) was inscribed in Greek ‘For the Good Fortune of Berenike [II]’. And, from a rubbish heap near El-Hibeh in Egypt, we see the earliest written fragment of the Odyssey ever discovered – a piece of papyrus from c.285-250 bc with lines from Book XX.

 It is no surprise that the Romans were keen to gather up as many Hellenistic treasures as they could when the final, heirless, Attalid bequeathed them the kingdom in 133 bc. Paul Zanker, in a characteristically incisive essay on the subject, suggests that the Romans were willing to include portraits of the Hellenistic dynasts in their collections ‘because they themselves toyed with the idea of a kingship in Rome’. But perhaps it was more that they felt that, in many cases, the craftsmanship and beauty of the art trumped its original context and meaning. Faced with a work such as the Dying Gaul today, we may be inclined to feel the same way. 

Daisy Dunn is author of Catullus' Bedspread: The Life of Rome's Most Erotic Poet (Willian Collins, 2016)

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