Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.37


SYMPOSIUM: "From Pasture to Polis: Art in the Age of Homer" (Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri-Columbia, October 23, 1993)


Commentary by Carla Antonaccio, Wesleyan University and Jenifer Neils, Case Western Reserve University.

The Greek "Renaissance" of the 8th and 7th centuries was revisited in a symposium held in conjunction with the exhibition "From Pasture to Polis: Art in the Age of Homer." The curator of the exhibition, Susan Langdon (University of Missouri-Columbia) organized the one-day event, which attracted nearly 300 classical scholars and students. It consisted of ten papers dealing with the art, cult, poetry and ideologies which occur at the junction of the Iron Age and Archaic period in Greece.

In the first paper entitled "The Art of Citizenship in the Early Polis," Ian Morris (University of Chicago) distinguished two class ideologies operating in early Greece: an elitist, and a so-called "middling". According to Morris, the privileged aristocratic elite are characterized by a love of luxury (cf. Sappho "I love luxury"); associating themselves with the heroic tradition, they participated in elaborate symposia, inter-polis athletic competitions, and guest friendship. The middling ideology, on the other hand, stressed moderation and the common bond of citizenship as expressed in the poetry of Hesiod, Solon and Archilochos. Morris then proceeded to apply this ideological construct to the visual arts of the period (alas without slides). After surveying regional variations in the adoption of orientalizing art, Morris tried to demonstrate that it was a class phenomenon, i.e. that the elite integrated the East more readily since it resonated with their perceived sense of sophistication and proximity to the gods. In using style as an index of the success of a particular value system, his paper would have benefitted by the use of specific examples from the artistic sphere. Nonetheless Morris's paper set up a useful frame of reference for the papers which followed.

Barbara Bohen's (World Heritage Museum, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana) talk entitled "Eighth Century Athenian Burial Grounds" concentrated on a body of material salvaged from the Agia Triada mound in the Kerameikos cemetery at Athens. These sherds, which come from fill rather than intact burials, became confused during the Second World War, but provide important additional information on the burial customs and ceramic industry at Athens in the Iron Age. Bohen reported specifically on the results of her studies of two shapes: the krater and the pyxis (a round, covered container often with one or more terracotta horses on the lid, produced from the Early Geometric period on). Some pyxides are preserved with holes drilled in the bottoms or made before firing, indicating that they sometimes served a ritual purpose, i.e., for libations, as well as a container for jewelry or food. The horses, she believes, may symbolize the land holdings of the richest Athenians, like the model granaries sometimes found in graves of the period. The krater (a shape which goes back to Mycenaean times) is represented in her sample as early as the Protogeometric by approximately fifty examples. Interestingly, this large form (used to mix wine) is not found in intact burials except for one sherd which closed the mouth of a burial urn. Many show signs of having been broken and repaired; on the evidence of a Late Protogeometric burial ground at Nea Ionia she suggests that kraters were broken on the pyre. The Middle Geometric period appears to be wealthier outside Athens, at Eleusis and Anavyssos, but Bohen corrected Coldstream's report that pyxides were produced at Anavyssos and exported to Athens. The kraters fall off (along with the horse pyxides) after Late Geometric II (ca. 725).

The three-dimensional world of Geometric art was introduced in a lively paper by David Gordon Mitten (Harvard). He surveyed the remarkable array of cast bronze figurines which are evidently all by-products of sanctuaries, i.e. votives, since they are seldom found in a secular context. In spite of Bronze Age precedents in the smiting gods of the eastern Mediterranean and the Cretan bronze statuettes, the Iron Age series appears ex nihilo ca. 800. It shows a tremendous range in type and sophistication from simple beetles to groups of dancing figures and men fighting lions. A special love of bulls and horses is evident at Iron Age Olympia. The only figure conspicuous by her absence is the human female, and the reason may well be that the Near Eastern prototypes are nude, and so not acceptable to the Greek world.

Sarah Morris (University of California-Los Angeles) emphasized the longevity of "orientalizing", a phenomenon which can be said to have existed for nearly a millennium, from the Bronze Age to the 7th c. She argued that certain eastern motifs were temporarily adopted, tried out so to speak, and then dropped because they could not be connected to a specific Greek myth. An example of such a short-lived subject is the man-eating lion (which clearly would not do for Herakles), but this scenario does not explain other transient Geometric themes like the shipwreck. S. Morris claimed that other Near Eastern subjects resonated with Greek tales and so remained in the canon. As an example she related the Canaanite practice of child sacrifice at the walls of an attacked city to the death of Astyanax, who according to literary sources was thrown from the walls of Troy. However the fact that Astyanax is never depicted in art being killed in this fashion is not broached. S. Morris's paper also took issue with Ian Morris's contention that orientalizing was rationed to certain classes or that like-minded elitists exchanged orientalia as symbols of status. She believes that the concentration of oriental finds in sanctuaries indicates that class and gender are not relevant, and it is the encounter between Greek and non-Greek in such international settings that determines the popularity of foreign goods.

A wide-ranging paper, "Thiasos and Marzah: Ancestor Cult in the Age of Homer," by Jane Carter (Tulane University) considered the veneration of ancestors by men's groups in the Levant, Sparta and Crete. While subscribing to Ian Morris' "elitist" model, Carter leavened it with genuine religious expression on the part of Iron Age Greeks. Carter connected small bronzes which depict lyre players and seem to have a Cretan provenance with singing in the syssitia or andreia. Rather than epic, she suggested performance of Alkman or Tyrtaios, and linked these practices with the Syro-Palestinian institution of the marzeh. This was a gathering of males associated with a divinity which (like the Attic orgeones and other Greek cult associations) leased property for their meetings and owned storerooms and land. At the feasts celebrated by the group, heroic ancestors could be summoned to eat and drink with the living. Carter then proposed that ivory plaques found in several eastern sites belonged to the couches used in the celebrations; their subjects include winged guardians, walking sphinxes, the birth of Horus, suckling calves and grazing stags. She suggested the practice (which can be traced from the Bronze Age to the 6th c. A.D.) was carried into the Mediterranean by the Phoenicians. With these observations, Carter supported R. Koehl's reinterpretation of Temple A at Prinias on Crete as an andreion where feasts and songs in honor of heroic ancestors were staged; the sculptural decoration of this structure, she suggested, reflects in many instances the themes on the ivory plaques found in the Levant. Noting that Aristotle groups Carthage, Sparta and Crete together as similar states, Carter suggested that they may have all shared this institution. She reported that several Greek texts (one a partially bilingual inscription from the Piraeus, 4th c. in date) equate the thiasos or koinon with the eastern institution. After thus locating the marzeh in Attika, Carter associated some motifs and themes on Attic Late Geometric funerary pottery with those from the Levant (e.g. the grazing deer found on both vases and the gold bands used in burial). The links between all these data tantalize, but accepting the idea of a Greek syssitia or thiasos functioning like the marzeh ultimately depends on accepting the association of the ivory plaques with the marzeh in the first place.

Merle Langdon (University of Washington) spoke about "Cult in Iron Age Attica". He confined his remarks to funerary practice and sanctuary sites, excluding tomb or hero cult and evidence for Athenian activity at other sites. Buildings in the Academy, Thorikos and Anavyssos located near Middle or Late Geometric cemeteries were associated with a familial funerary cult; Langdon did not discuss the structures (so-called sacred houses) at Lathuresa, Eleusis or Velatouri. On the Acropolis, fragmentary ceramic material may be connected with an Iron Age cult of Athena, but there is no architecture to accompany it. Bronze tripods possibly served as prizes in funeral games, rather than an early Panathenaia. Aside from the Acropolis, only four other Attic sites were of importance: a sanctuary of Artemis Mounichia in the Piraeus, with material dating from the 10th c. to the Classical period; Eleusis, with very tenuous evidence for an Iron Age cult which Langdon doubted was a mystery cult; Brauron, which saw activity by the later 8th c.; Mt. Hymettos, with its cult of Zeus Ombrios (published by Langdon in 1976) was important throughout the Iron Age. Langdon suggested here that not all the material on Hymettos should be regarded as votive; the cups should not necessarily be taken as indications of ritual dining, but were humble farmers' offerings or used to make a simple libation. Langdon ended by offering an assessment of Athens different from that of F. de Polignac and other scholars who have followed his analysis of Iron Age cult (La naissance de la cité grecque, Paris 1984). Rather than accepting in Athens a unique polis because of its one cultic 'pole' (the Acropolis), Langdon suggested that Argos, which provides a bipolar model for cult location (city and extramural sanctuary) is actually atypical. In the discussion of this paper, the presence on the Acropolis of sherds of Dipylon style vases, i.e. funerary vessels, was noted. We were left wondering if their lack of context renders this meaningless (S. Morris), or if burials might have been made on the Acropolis so late, or whether such vases were appropriate offerings in an early cult of Kekrops (J. Neils).

Christopher Simon (College of the Holy Cross) discussed "The Archaeology of Cult in Geometric Greece: Ionian Temples, Altars and Dedications". His account touched on Miletus, Ephesos, Claros, Smyrna, Erythrae, and Chios. A common pattern is the absence of construction in the 8th c., except at Ephesos, which now is known to have had a late 8th c. peripteral temple. That is to say, within the first century or two after the accepted date of the Ionian migration, there are few altars or temples. Instead, votive offerings indicate ritual activity, and an altar or temple is only built in the 7th c. or later (not all sanctuaries had temples). At Samos and Miletos, the votives included kraters, cups, kernoi, small bronzes and a few tripods (at Samos). Clay whorls, fish hooks, and other personal or unusual objects, suggested Simon, reflect specific occasions, or the identity of the worshippers and their concerns, rather than the deity. The locations of the sanctuaries were a manifestation of the relationship of polis and territory, supporting the "bipolar" model of de Polignac, and of particular importance in Ionia where Greek communities were surrounded by non-Greeks. (Non-Greeks, however, do not seem to have participated in the cults until rather late, the 7th c.) Furthermore, rites of passage celebrated in Greek communities needed the countryside as a venue.

John Foley (University of Missouri-Columbia) presented his thoughts on "Oral Tradition and Homeric Art: The Hymn to Demeter". Ceding a big role to tradition in epic poetry, Foley asked if formulae served only as metrical counters and turned to the Homeric hymns for an answer. While accepting that the shorter hymns might be preludes, as Thucydides was the first to propose, Foley called the longer hymns, such as that to Demeter, freestanding works. The remarkable consistency in form and language, which are panhellenic features, served to unify epic poetry. From this beginning, Foley considered the formula applied to Hermes as "mighty slayer of Argus", an epithet he bears even as an infant, and before he has slain the watchman. Such formulae often appear at the end of a line, and it has been suggested that they are place markers which the poet can use while composing under pressure. On the other hand, with Demeter entire scenes play a metonymic role: her reaction upon hearing the news of Persephone's abduction follows a traditional pattern which resonates with other such situations. This sequence goes from indistinct news, to some form of grief-stricken self-defilement (varied according to gender), disfigurement, lamentation, refusal of nourishment, and recompense for loss. Foley compared Demeter's reaction (38-46) with Achilles' to the news of Patroklos' death, and Andromache's reaction to Hektor's. Therefore, such patterning can never be out of place, and Foley proposed that Hermes is always Argeiophontes because of such resonances, which may also be true in contemporary visual representation.

"Writing and the Invention of Narrative Style in Greek Art" was the title of the paper presented by Barry Powell (University of Wisconsin-Madison). In describing the various phases of narrative in ancient art he first illustrated the ultimate stage by means of a vase-painting which depicts a scene only related in a messenger's speech in Euripides Andromache, and so not enacted on stage. The initial stage of narrative is represented by the Egyptians' idealized depictions of the Battle of Kadesh based on a poem. In both cases the imagery is based on a text. He then posed the question of why there were no narrative depictions in the Bronze and Iron ages. The answer, according to Powell, is that there were no written narratives. With the advent of the Greek alphabet, Homer was "democratized", and written epic texts in turn brought about the first Greek mythological representations in the 7th c. However, if early Greek narrative art is only textual illustration, then we are missing a great deal of those texts. In the case of Homer, where the text survives, it remains to explain why early Greek artists ignore large portions of the poem.

Gregory Nagy (Harvard) concluded the program with "The End of the Iliad and the Beginnings of the Polis". He began by identifying not one 'Age of Homer', but five: first, a fluid period without a text, lasting from the second millennium to the late 8th c.; second, a formative, panhellenic phase down to the mid-6th c.; third, a definitive stage, located in Athens with transcription taking place, down to the 4th c.; fourth, a standardizing period, where scripts were used, down to the mid-2nd c.; and finally, the most rigid phase, beginning with Aristarchos, where the texts went from scripts to scripture. Nagy focussed on Book 24, where Achilles is persuaded to accept the apoina, ransom, blood price, from Priam. While this ransoms Hektor's body, it also serves as compensation for Patroklos. In this Nagy detected a new spirit, the spirit of the polis. Epic cannot refer overtly to the polis; however, the famous scenes on the shield of Achilles in Book 18 tell us a great deal. In the city at peace, a key scene is the adjudication of a blood feud, and Nagy identifies the juridical function as central to the polis. Drawing on the work of L. Muellner, M. Davies and R. Westbrook, he pointed to the perata, limits, which in the shield passage are limits to the blood price, as referring also to the limits of the Iliad, and to the judicial function in the polis. The story within the story on the shield is the key to the Iliad; it "spills over", like a simile, and interprets the whole. The decision of whether to accept recompense for loss (Briseis' or Patroklos'), has been Achilles' dilemma all along. In this line of thought, Nagy and Foley's contributions had much in common. In the end, Achilles accepts compensation for Patroklos, his other self. Compensation is provided even for the death of Achilles, who is "a man who died" (24.499), at once plaintiff, victim, and claimant.

The first four papers benefitted from the remarks offered by the discussant Jeffrey Hurwit (University of Oregon), and it was unfortunate that Mary Voyatzis (University of Arizona) could not be there to comment on the other six. There are plans to publish the papers with University of Missouri Press. Together with the very informative catalogue, they will be a solid contribution to Iron Age studies. Though the participants had very varied definitions and visions of the period, and coverage of some important topics was entirely lacking (e.g. the rise of panhellenic festivals and the colonization phenomenon), we only wished for more time for discussion.