Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.06

S. Rebecca Martin, The Art of Contact: Comparative Approaches to Greek and Phoenician Art.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.  Pp. vii, 282.  ISBN 9780812249088.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Jessica Doyle, University College Dublin (


In this important book, Rebecca Martin seeks to reconfigure and reframe our approaches to the study of culture contact between Greeks and Phoenicians during the first millennium B.C., and the art that resulted from this contact. Scholarly discourses in ancient history, she observes, shape our perceptions and all too frequently conform to Hellenocentric and primordialist narratives that promote the notion that Greek culture and art were inherently and exceptionally superior, and therefore that assimilation and acculturation by other Mediterranean societies were inevitabilities of this Hellenic triumph. The term for this process, ‘Hellenization’, and the assumptions that lie behind it, argues Martin, reflect the essentialism and chauvinism at the heart of scholarship in classical history. Furthermore, to even speak of distinct, self-identifying and defined ‘Greek’ and ‘Phoenician’ cultures in antiquity is, in itself, problematic, and a more holistic, nuanced and theoretically informed approach must be adopted. Towards this end, Martin reconsiders select examples of visual culture, from a variety of contexts, attributed to Greeks and Phoenicians over several centuries in the first millennium B.C.

In her Introduction, Martin sets out the four principles that guide her study. The first is that ‘barbarians matter’. That is, that groups and peoples like the Phoenicians matter in their own right, and that scholars of ancient history should duly take them as seriously as they do the Greeks and their Hellenic culture. Furthermore, we must exercise more caution in applying convenient etic terminologies indiscriminately to peoples and cultures that defy clear delineation. Her second principle holds that it is incumbent on us as scholars to apply theory in appropriate and responsible manner, acknowledging the reluctance of classical scholarship to unabashedly embrace theory as potentially useful, tiptoeing around it with terminology such as ‘approaches’ and ‘perspectives’. Her third and fourth principles concern the question of identity and its expressions in art: that cultural contact is a significant factor in how identity is expressed artistically, and that it is the visual arts that offer us the most fruitful ground for addressing the question of Phoenician collective identity as an emic reality. The five subsequent chapters, informed by and aligned with these principles, build the case for an appreciation of how contact between cultures has an impact on the visual arts in ways that are best understood when approached via appropriate theories of cultural interaction. Chapter 1 reviews the theoretical landscape as it has developed to date, with regard to art history–both Greek and Phoenician–and ideas of culture, contact and interaction. The primary models employed in this discourse are Orientalizing and Hellenization. It is the latter with which Martin’s book is most concerned, and, as mentioned above, it is found to be a problematic concept.

Chapter 2 comprises a juxtaposition of the Archaic kouros and the Hellenistic picture mosaic to expose the inconsistencies and double-standards in approaches to arts of contact. In the case of the kouros, whose distribution is within a quite narrow Aegean context, scholarship has frequently attempted to frame the sculpture-type as largely a Greek innovation, an expression of the kalokagathia ideal neatly concurrent with the emergent polis ideology. Acknowledgement of similarities to Egyptian statuary is expressed as ‘influence’ or ‘inspiration’, in view of the fact that kouroido not appear to conform to the Egyptian canonical system of proportions. Martin convincingly argues, however, that the kouroiwere in fact heavily reliant on Egyptian prototypes, despite scholarship’s proclivity to stress the selectivity of Greek artists, and the apparent spirit of innovation in which the kouroswas produced. Conversely, the Hellenistic picture mosaic was relatively widely distributed throughout the Aegean, with examples signed by artists of Arwadian and Alexandrian origin, and yet the alleged Greek origins of the type are not questioned, but rather taken for granted in line with the concept of Hellenization. In further support of this contrast, Martin rounds off the chapter with a discussion of the anthropoid sarcophagi that are peculiar to Phoenician funerary art, and demonstrates that they, like the kouroi clearly emulate Egyptian models. In this instance three Egyptian sarcophagi looted by Sidonians on campaign with Cambyses, found in the Ayaa necropolis at Sidon, appear to have catalysed the trend. These sarcophagi, Phoenician in type, manufacture and distribution, like the kourosrespond directly to the stimuli produced by Egypt and its art.

Chapter 3, titled ‘Exceptional Greeks and Phantom Phoenicians’ further explores the ways in which ideas of essentialism dominate modes of thinking and stand as obstacles to clear understanding of cultural contact. Racial ideologies regarding imagined groups or entities influence how we receive and label the art we associate with these entities. In order to better understand the nature and consequences of contact between cultures, we must relinquish our tendency to ascribe collective identities and their associated cultures to conveniently constructed groups. Much of the material and visual culture we associate with Phoenicia—metal bowls, ivories, carved tridacna shells and painted ostrich eggs—are more broadly representative of the Levant and appear to have been produced largely for export, in contrast with, for example, the anthropoid sarcophagi explored in the preceding chapter, which offer a much stronger example of objects produced for Phoenician consumption in Sidon. Martin, therefore, urges a shift towards exploration of non-portable objects and from sites such as Sidon, Tyre and Byblos in search of tenable emic evidence of a conscious Phoenician collective identity.

This shift is partially effected in Chapter 4, which examines the evidence for Phoenician collectivity in both monumental and portable art. Votive stelai from Byblos and Sidon are found to exhibit selective and judicious use of Achaemenid and Egyptian iconography in conjunction with Phoenician inscriptions, in service of elite self-expression. Bilingual inscriptions from Athens testify to a Phoenician collective identity outside the Levant. Martin also explores the archaeological evidence from the temple of Eshmun just outside Sidon and the sanctuary at Hammon south of Tyre. At both sites, artistic and architectural elements associated with various cultures are found, and so, for example, an Aštart throne co-exists with stylistically Greek architectural features at the Hammon sanctuary. Coins, though a portable category of evidence, have much to offer in terms of an emic view of the desired civic image for circulation, and Martin finds that a similar judicious eclecticism in iconographic choice is seen in Phoenician coins. The robust symbolism of the Athenian tetradrachm’s owl, for example, can be appropriated towards an expression of Tyrian power and identity with some iconographic adjustments that do not necessarily prioritise a Greek style.

In Chapter 5, the discussion is scaled down to reconsider just two specific pieces of Hellenistic sculpture, both of which are well-known and are generally taken for granted as essentially Greek–the so-called ‘Alexander’ Sarcophagus found in Sidon, and the group of Aphrodite, Pan and Eros (the ‘Slipper-Slapper’ group) dedicated in the Berytos Poseidoniasts’ guild on Delos. Arguing that neither piece can easily be classified as simply Greek or Phoenician, and wishing to effect a more nuanced perspective than that afforded by Hellenization, Martin adopts hybridity theory to examine the Alexander Sarcophagus, and Richard White’s ‘Middle-Ground’ theory to examine the ‘Slipper-Slapper’ group. Her close reading of the Alexander Sarcophagus convinces Martin that the application of hybridity theory to the piece runs the risk of perpetuating the colonialist attitudes that have been applied in the past, particularly when the Sarcophagus is viewed through the lenses of Hellenic achievement or Sidonian marginality. Martin, in fact, concludes that the tomb was above all an expression and celebration of Sidonian identity, with a political statement that could only be understood by a Sidonian audience. Her reading of the ‘Slipper-Slapper’ group finds that it is a work of greater complexity than is immediately apparent, with the depiction of Aphrodite perhaps most obviously referencing the Knidia, but also alluding to goddesses like Isis Euploia and Tanit, while the figure generally identified as Pan may be taken to represent Ba‘al-Hammon. The group should be firmly interpreted in alignment with its context, in a clubhouse frequented by Beiruiti merchants and shipowners.

Martin concludes her study by revisiting the principles she outlined at the book’s opening and sets out some objectives that might guide future scholarship: that we avoid perpetuating notions that Greece and ‘the East’ are axiomatic entities; that we responsibly apply theory consistently, in a bid to encourage momentum of thought and in our treatment of the evidence; that we avoid essentialist, axiomatic approaches to artistic traditions and seek suitable approaches to the arts of contact that will permit better understanding of their origins and contextual meanings.

The book is very well produced. Illustrations are judiciously chosen and of good quality, with a section of coloured plates for the key pieces under discussion as well as black and white images throughout the book. The index and endnotes are comprehensive and easy to use. Martin has an elegant written style, and makes her points very clearly, for the most part, though at times the text could perhaps have been a little more concise. The editorial standards are high, but some small errors did jar: most glaringly the spelling of the emperor Tiberius’s name as Tiberias, not once but twice (on page 173). Also, surely on page 144 ‘Hellenic funerary rights’ should read ‘Hellenic funerary rites’.

Martin shows herself to be fully conversant with the material under consideration and with a range of theoretical approaches and their limitations. The book’s argument is clear and consistent throughout, and each chapter builds on its predecessor towards a strong conclusion. Her study is an important one, and is an assertive contribution to the ongoing conversation, re-appraising the idea of Hellenization and its inherent polarisation of Greek and eastern art and culture, reminiscent of Ann Gunter’s interrogation of Orientalization (Greek Art and the Orient, Cambridge University Press 2009). This volume will be of immense value to students and researchers seeking an introduction to the histories of Greek and Phoenician art, and the question of culture contact and scholarly approaches thereto. It will be particularly useful to researchers in the arts of contact seeking to move the debate forward, and no contribution to the debate can now consider itself informed without consulting this book. Anyone planning to continue the conversation will do well to bring Martin’s concluding exhortations to bear on their endeavours.

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