Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.01

Cornelia Thöne, Ikonographische Studien zu Nike im 5. Jahrhundert v. Chr.: Untersuchungen zur Wirkungsweise und Wesenart. Archäologie und Geschichte Band 8.   Heidelberg:  Verlag Archäologie und Geschichte, 1999.  Pp. 162; 12 plates.  ISBN 3-9804648-2-2.  



Reviewed by Richard Hamilton, Bryn Mawr College (rhamilto@brynmawr.edu)
Word count: 1357 words

This lightly revised 1992 dissertation considers the 5th C. BC representations of Nike, mostly ceramic but also sculptural, and concludes that there are two fundamental changes: in the early 5th C. when Nike (found only on vases) instead of an infrequent and stereotyped figure becomes a favorite topic presented in a variety of contexts and poses; and in the late 5th C. when she begins to be used for public victory monuments. Both changes are fitted to a social context. The first shows the effect of democracy in stressing personal excellence: "die neu gewonnene Freiheit fordert ein neues Selbstbewusstsein der Menschen ... die Wertschätzung des einzelnen beruht auf den erworbenen Leistungen des einzelnen, auf seiner Tüchtigkeit" (34). The second shows the fading of the traditional gods: "Sieg ist nicht mehr vordergründig an die Wirkung alter göttlicher Macht gebunden, sondern wird sehr viel mehr als Eigenverdienst empfunden, losgelöst von göttlicher Fügung" (119).

Rather than being the culmination of a developed argument these conclusions recur at different points in what is at its core a systematically organized catalogue of the 5th C. ceramic material. The study begins with three introductory chapters: first on the extremely limited literary sources for Nike, showing that she was connected to real life with no role in myth; then on her few certain 6th C. representations, showing she was connected to athletic not military activities (the Kallimachos monument is not to be connected to Marathon); and finally on the early 5th C. change, where the great profusion of Nikes in a variety of contexts at that time is attributed less to the Persian war (since Nike is virtually never depicted in a miliary context) than to the fundamental changes wrought by democracy, "einer tiefgründigen Veränderung im gesellschaftlichen Denken, welche wesentlich mit der Errichtung der demokratischen Staatsordnung in Athen einhergeht" (33). The following chapters treat the major divisions used for the catalogue of red-figured vases found in the appendix: Nike in her sacred context, her athletic context, her mythological context and her political context, followed by a brief conclusion, with a chapter on Nike cult inserted after the chapter on sacred context.

Chapter four discusses the many images of Nike at an altar, which show her either performing or ministering to a libation or sacrifice, not in a specific context (even when shown with gods) but as a general expression of the piety that arose as a result of the Persian wars. Her active role shows the individual's striving for honor and social recognition. Her essential attributes of wings and kerykeion (!) bring that recognition to the gods. Her help to gods in libations shows they too must now justify their power. The following chapter notes that Nike does not gain independent cult until the 4th C. (the Themistocles decree being dismissed as doubtful) but that her strong connection to Athena, evidenced in the Panathenaia, reached its peak in the Temple of Athena Nike, whose balustrade honors (generalized) tribal victory in the "small contests" of the Panathenaia and not military victory and so fits with the many Nike vases expressing the excellence and success of the individual ("die Sieghaftigkeit und die Tüchtigkeit eines einzelnen" 73), discussed at length in the following chapter on Nike in an athletic context. Here once again we find that the context is not specific; by showing Nike handing over victory tokens rather than an actual prize the vases show the contestant's "agonale Sieghaftigkeit", especially in musical contests, whose frequency shows the importance of music in Athenian society.

The penultimate two chapters, on myth and politics, note a change in the iconography in the late 5th C. Nike is rarely found in myths (and then often miniaturized) since she represents the striving of the individual for public recognition, but when she is, the most popular mythic context is the apotheosis of Heracles, a sign of the late 5th C. search for spiritual health (Seelenheil). Likewise with the gods, she is shown only late, at a time when the traditional power of the gods has weakened, and she can be seen to indicate their excellence (not their power to bestow victory -- the Nike in the hands of Olympian Zeus and Athena Parthenos is not victory-giving since she is not frontal; only one vase shows a victory-giving Athena). Likewise, Nike is rarely found in a specific military or political context since she is essentially private, marking individual arete. Only one vase shows her give a crown to a warrior. Paionios' late 5th C. statue of Nike, which honors a military victory, is a turning point, showing that the old gods fade, that victory is due to the individual.

Even this brief summary shows the way major themes return as each category of vase is discussed. The danger is that the argument for these broad and complex conclusions is scattered and undeveloped. On the other hand, though such an organization runs the risk of diluting the main thesis, it allows the author to pursue a number of different related topics, such as the notorious "wingless" Nike, the Nike balustrade, Nike doublets, miniature Nikes, incense offerings, gods pouring libations.

These topics are discussed fully and sensibly and the resultant short essays are what scholars will probably find most useful in the book, particularly the identification of figures on individual vases such as the first named Nike (Vienna KhM IV 84), Eos not Nike (so Beazley), on a lekythos by the Providence Painter (New York Met.07.286.67) and Nike not Hebe on the Sosias cup (Berlin F 2278), or discussions of stylistic development, like the Nike flying over a chariot derived from Sicilian coins. The more general discussions are uneven; for instance, the connection of Athena Nike with the re-establishment of the Panathenaia does not address the criticisms raised by Mark and Shapiro (and sits ill with the equation of Nike and democracy), but the interpretation of the Nike balustrade in terms of tribal victories at the Panathenaia is attractive (even if the connection of the Persian shields with prizes in the "kleine Agone" of the Panathenaia is weak).

The concluding chapter is rather disconcerting for in the midst of a quick summary of her main points T. turns to a discussion of Nike in marriage and domestic contexts, which ends with the statement that more work needs to be done before we can understand Nike here, and finally turns to a comparison of Nike and Eros, pointing out their closeness in representation, development, and context on vases but not considering that this raises the fundamental problem of the degree to which vase iconography can be assumed to reflect societal values rather than, say, market conditions or findspot, an issue hardly addressed in the rest of the study (though occasionally T. mentions that the some aspect of Nike on a particular vase or sculpture could be purely aesthetic). The one statement T. makes is that the variety of contexts in daily life, the speed and quantity in production, make pottery the most immediate witness of the times ("unmittelbar Zeugnis von den menschlichen Erfahrungen und Bedürfnissen ihrer Zeit" 55). The problem is that modern viewers may be misled by sheer quantity: how much more do fifty Nikes flying by an altar tell us than one, especially if they are mostly on lekythoi?

The catalogue too raises questions: why include no black-figure vases (esp. if so few winged females are Nikes)? Why not include all red-figure vases? The Beazley Archive now lists 1821 Nike vases (252 black-figure); T.'s catalogue has 598. My guess is that T. lists only vases of which she was able to find illustrations (and certainly 598 is a large sample), but that will not explain the absence of all Nikes with torch (unless that is considered part of the marriage / domestic group).

Finally, there is a methodological question: most of the vases show Nike alone (often holding an object such as a phiale or crown); are these to be read as excerpts? If so, of what? If not, how do we know what they mean? These are not easy questions, but those of us who study iconography historically would certainly like some answers.

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