Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.09.12

Emma Stafford, Judith Herrin, Personification in the Greek World: from Antiquity to Byzantium. Centre for Hellenic Studies, King's College London, Publications no. 7.   Aldershot:  Ashgate, 2005.  Pp. 376.  ISBN 0-7546-5031-6.  $99.95.  

Reviewed by Alan Shapiro, Johns Hopkins University (

Table of Contents

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

The study of personification in Antiquity, as a literary and philosophical mode and, especially, as an iconographical phenomenon, has been a growth industry in Classical scholarship of the last several decades. When this reviewer set out, in the mid-1970s, to write a dissertation on the representation of abstract personifications in Greek art, there was little to go on, apart from a German and a Greek dissertation (both published with no illustrations!) and a number of entries in older reference works such as Roscher's Lexicon. Recent years have seen the publication of a number of important monographs, including one by the co-editor of this conference volume.1 The conference took place in September, 2000 in London, under the auspices of King's College, and the list of participants is notable for its international flavor (only just over half the 21 contributors are based in Great Britain, and of those about half are not British) and for the preponderance of younger scholars. Clearly the subject of personifications has not been exhausted.

The scope of the volume is welcome in other ways as well. Text-based studies are fully integrated with visually oriented ones, and indeed most authors, whether coming from literary or art-historical/archaeological backgrounds, are at pains to bear in mind the interplay of both kinds of evidence when studying the phenomenon of personification. Illustrations in the book are numerous, if usually of no more than adequate quality. The chronological scope, from Archaic Greece to Byzantium, is unusually wide and makes clear the continuing relevance of personification as a central mode of Greek thought in every period in history. If it is unusual to find scholarly books that bridge the gap between Classical Antiquity and Byzantium, this is the result of a collaboration between a classical archaeologist (Stafford) and a distinguished Byzantine historian (Herrin). Even the Roman world is not slighted, despite the book's title, since there are several contributions dealing with material from the Eastern Roman Empire, such as Huskinson and Leader-Newby on Antioch mosaics.

In a brief review of such an ambitious volume, it is possible to single out only some of the chapters that particularly interested the reviewer. Pride of place at the beginning of the book is given to Walter Burkert, the agathos daimon of so many conferences and doyen of the study of Greek religion. The paper is also the earliest in time, reaching back to a whole spectrum of Near Eastern civilizations--Akkadian, Hittite, Iranian/Avestan, Old Testament--in a typically erudite effort to determine how abstract personification became such a central part of Greek religious and social life, while meeting a variety of practical needs.

Among the iconographical papers, Burton's is an excellent and original study of how death and dying were conceived in Greece, with the most thoughtful treatment in this volume of the "gender issue": whether the gender of personifications simply follows the grammatical gender of the noun personified and what the implications of this are. This paper also has the best selection of illustrations in the book. Also of interest is Smith's paper, which, despite the flippant title, is actually a quite 'sober' discussion of the political associations of various maenad names. The illustrations, unfortunately, do not do justice to the paper, and on one that is supposed to show a vase inscription (225, Fig. 15.2--always a tricky proposition in red-figure), only one letter is visible. In a kind of role-reversal of Smith's paper, Borg's revisionist reading of Eunomia and Eukleia on Meidian vases downplays the political connotations that have usually been seen as paramount in these figures, in favor of an association with private pleasures.2 The last part of the paper is a highly theoretical discussion of allegory that is presented more fully in the authors's book that was in press at the time of the conference.3 The gender issue crops up again in the thoughtful paper by Seaman, calling attention to statues of Iliad and Odyssey that are female yet wearing an elaborate cuirass. The tension implicit in the cross-dressing motif lends an added dimension to the relationship of author, text, viewer, and statue. Lastly, at the far end of Antiquity, the 4th-6th c. C.E., Leader-Newby studies a wide range of mosaics from Antioch, Apamea, and Nea Paphos on Cyprus, providing an excellent overview and a thoughtful, original interpretation of what the personifications on them tell us about the visual culture of Late Antiquity. Among the interesting questions she raises is why the wealthy patrons wanted so many abstract personifications decorating their houses and whether the regular use of naming inscriptions implies a desire to show off classical paideia or a need for explanatory labels.

Among the more literary papers, Murray offers a very clever meditation on the nature of the Muses, whether as personifications or some indefinable other. The gender issue is once again of central importance in the complex power relationship between the (usually) male poet and the female muse. The paper opens with the only discussion in the volume that attempts a typology of different personifications, using the work of the literary scholar J. Whitman. Sommerstein's paper is a witty and brilliant reconstruction of a new phenomenon in Old Comedy, the personification of an art form who doubles as the wife of the poet. Ranging over the whole of Greek literature from Homer to Aelius Aristeides (with a postscript on the 19th c.), Yatromanolakis meditates on the motif of the city as a human being and a human body.

The papers dealing with the Byzantine period are far from this reviewer's competence, but particularly fascinating is James's investigation of the exceptionally ornate dress of Byzantine emperors and empresses and the different ways in which male and female were assimilated to divinity. Leader-Newby had earlier noted the similarly elaborate dress and jewelry of Late Antique personifications in the mosaics, one of many examples where the papers in this book shed light on one another.

The volume ends with a consolidated bibliography that could serve as an up-to-date starting point for any future research on personifications and a reasonably thorough index. The very fact of this conference, just in time for the new millennium, and its publication in 2005, suggests that the study of personifications has arrived as a recognized sub-discipline of classical studies, one that will not be exhausted any time soon.


Walter Burkert, "Hesiod in context: abstractions and divinities in an Aegean-Eastern koiné."

Naoko Yamagata, "Ate and the Litai in Homer's Iliad."

Eva Parisinou, "Brightness personified: light and divine image in ancient Greece."

Diana Burton, "The Gender of Death."

Kerasia Stratiki, "The Greek heroes as a 'personification' of the past in the present."

Lucas Siorvanes, "Neo-Platonic personifications."

"Efthymios G. Lazongas, "Side: the personification of the pomegranate."

"Nicolas Richer, "Personified abstractions in Laconia: suggestions on the origins of Phobos."

Arlene Allan, "Situational aesthetics: the deification of Kairos, son of Hermes."

Irina Kovaleva, "Eros at the Panathenaea: personification of what?"

Penelope Murray, "The Muses: creativity personified?"

Alan H. Sommerstein, "A lover of his art: the art-form as wife and mistress in Greek poetic imagery."

Kristen Seaman, "Personifications of the Iliad and Odyssey in Hellenistic and Roman art."

Barbara E. Borg, "Eunomia or 'make love not war?: Meidian personifications reconsidered."

Amy C. Smith, "From Drunkenness to a Hangover: maenads as personifications."

Ruth Leader-Newby, "Personifications and paideia in Late Antique mosaics from the Greek East."

Janet Hunkinson, "Rivers of Roman Antioch."

Yorgis Yatromanolakis, "Poleos erastes: The Greek city as the beloved."

Iskra Gencheva-Mikami, "Personification in imperial context: late Roman bureaucracy and the illustrated Notitia dignitatum."

Liz James, "Good Luck and Good Fortune to the Queen of Cities: empresses and Tyches in Byzantium."

Elizabeth Jeffreys, "The Labours of the Twelve Months in twelfth-century Byzantium."


1.   E. Stafford, Worshipping Virtues. Personification and the Divine in Ancient Greece (London 2000). Other notable contributions on the iconographical side include: W. Messerschmidt, Prosopopoiia. Personifikationen politischen Charakters in spätklassischer und hellenistischer Kunst (Cologne 2003); C. Aellen, A la recherche de l'ordre cosmique. Forme et fonction des personnifications dans la céramique italiote (Kilchberg/Zurich 1994); G. Bühl, Constantinopolis und Roma. Stadtpersonifikationen der Spätantike (Kilchberg/Zurich 1995); and two works by contributors to this volume: A. C. Smith, "Political Personifications in Classical Athenian Art" (diss. Yale 1997) and B. E. Borg, Der Logos des Mythos. Allegorien und Personifikationen in der frühen griechischen Kunst (Munich 2002). The published version of my diss. is: H. A. Shapiro, Personifications in Greek Art. The Representation of Abstract Concepts, 600-400 B.C. (Kilchberg/Zurich 1993).
2.   A similar approach, not cited by the author, had been adopted by I. Wehgartner, "Das Ideal massvoller Liebe auf einem attischen Vasenbild," JdI 102 (1987) 185-97, discussing a vase that also has both Eunomia and Eukleia.
3.   Cf. above n. 1.

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