BMCR 1996.08.04

1996.8.4, Zanker, Mask of Socrates

, The mask of Socrates : the image of the intellectual in antiquity. Sather classical lectures ; vol. 59. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 1 online resource (x, 426 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780585139937. $45.00.

This is the English translation of the most recent (and—as the earlier ones—highly readable and interesting) book of Prof. Paul Zanker (henceforth Z.), one of the most distinguished scholars in the field of ancient portraiture. The title is almost as provocative and inviting as Socrates’ snub-nosed face that looks at the reader from the book’s cover, for in fact the intellectual did not exist either in Greek or in Roman society, 1 but poets, philosophers, orators etc. have always played a special role, not least in their own self-perception. Zanker’s book, dealing with these “intellectuals”, covers the wide ground from the Athens of the 5th century B.C. to the Christian Rome of 400 A.D. By placing famous sculptures—often misunderstood as real, individualistic portraits—squarely within their Greek and Roman environment and social context and by analysing the changes these images underwent in antiquity, Z. offers us a new approach to and a fascinating insight into the culture of the ancient world.

Z. starts with a short look at what he calls the modern intellectual hero, a chapter that may be of rather more interest for German than non-German readers, for the kind of hero-worship and cult of statues here described arose mainly in 19th century Germany as a compensation for the lack of political freedom and national unity. But just as in the case of Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven a successful interpretation of their images is not possible without reconstructing their context and perceiving the connection of image, space and social values, the same must be done for ancient sculpture. In dealing with these issues and trying to make clear the relationship between the individual intellectual and his society, Z. shows that it is often more important how an intellectual is represented than who he actually was. It must be remembered that we know portraits of Greek poets and thinkers only in Roman copies, which were influenced by the taste of their time and had a function that was much different from their originals; in most cases, the Romans copied only the heads, while for the Greeks the true meaning of a figure was contained in the body (10 ff.). One of the first portraits known to us (ca. 460 B.C.) is that of Homer; it characterizes the poet as a “distinguished old man of an earlier generation” (16), wearing a late-archaic hairdo, his blindness being a kind of requisite for unusual power of memory and wisdom. As Z. convincingly argues, the original votive statue could have been a “conservative response” against enlightened critics like Xenophanes and therefore a statement of traditional piety and the values of aristocracy. But this portrait also shows one characteristic feature of Greek culture, namely its ‘polarity’: while the statues of athletes and warriors celebrated youth and strength, the ultimate spiritual and religious authority was always represented by an old man (21). In a similar manner, the statues of Pericles and Anacreon (the latter one done posthumously, ca. 440 B.C.) are symbols of certain social ideals and values, which explains why the poet, who was a friend of several tyrants, was honoured after his death in democratic Athens: he is shown as a restrained, exemplary symposiast, keeping his self-control, betraying no emotion in his face, and being kalos kai agathos in his behavior—in short, displaying a set of values similar to the one found in Pericles’Epitaphios (25-30). In this society, Socrates’ ugly portrait with its thick lips and snub nose (created about twenty years after his death) was a kind of denial of all collective norms, and Athenian citizens must have felt challenged by it almost as much as by the philosopher’s questions when he was alive. As the book’s title suggests, we are not looking at a portrait drawn from life, but at a mask, inspired by the passage in Plato’s Symposium in which Socrates is compared to a Silen, a creature beyond human and conventional norms, but also a teacher of heroic and divine children in myth. The ostensive ugliness hints at the paradox of a perfect soul within an ugly body—but this new dimension questioned the fundamental values of the classical Greek polis; it claims, in fact, that the common standard of kalokagathia was something external and deceptive. It was natural that this kind of representation of an individual should have follow-ups in Hellenistic times, when the traditional standards of behavior of the democratic city were no longer valid (32 ff.).

In 330 B.C. the conservative Athenian statesman Lycurgus undertook an ambitious program of patriotic renewal, which contained among other things the establishing of the authentic and definitive text of the works of the three great tragedians Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides and the setting up of their statues in the theater of Dionysus. As Z. shows (45 ff.), nothing distinguishes these men as poets; they are rather represented as models of the good citizen: Sophocles is even shown as a speaker, an elegant, self-confident elderly man, wrapped up in a heavy mantle covering his arm, which was a topos for sophrosyne, because that pose doesn’t allow him to wave his arms about wildly while speaking. The two other are “Athenian everymen”, noble figures with subtle signs of a type of older age that we find countless times on Attic grave-reliefs, where it represents the venerated ancestor who exercises the solemn authority of the pater familias in oikos and polis. Even the serious expression on Plato’s face—forming a vertical line on his brow—is often seen in figures of grave-stelae and meant to convey contemplative intelligence which counted as a civic value, too. Now within Lycurgus’ program (which was to remind the Athenian people of their cultural and political heritage), Lysippus had to create a new statue of Socrates, and in it the one-time ugly outsider now became a “model citizen”, standing in the classical contrapost with meticulously draped himation, showing features of old age, but no more those of a silen—and this statue of the man once executed for corrupting Athenian youth was erected in the Pompeion, where people gathered for the Panathenaea and the ephebes held her training! So, as Z. points out (77), the search for the portrait of the intellectual in classical Athens led to a kind of dead end, for people had so much interiorized a certain common set of moral standards that citizens and outsiders alike were identified with the same highly conformist image of the good citizen.

This situation changed after Alexander’s death, when people were looking for new spiritual values in an insecure time. The third century was the most creative age for portraiture of the ancient intellectual (90 ff.); he was shown no more as citizen, but as a “thinker at work”, displaying an intense expression of hard mental exertion, e. g. Zeno with his furrowed brow or the seated Chrysippus, whose tortured body shows the strenuous efforts of the old man’s mind, and whose irregular beard (reminding the spectator of slaves, peasants and satyrs) indicates that social categories don’t exist for philosophers. The philosopher portraits of the 3rd century try for the first time to show the process of thinking and to make visible the mental struggle involved, the triumph of the mind over the body. The philosophers’ “pathos of tranquillity” was also placed in contrast to the “pathos of power” of the Hellenistic kings (134 ff.). At this time artists, moreover, invented a whole range of retrospective portraits (Panyassis of Halicarnassus, Hipponax, Anaximander etc.) that aimed at a cultivated spectator and are to be seen in connection with Hellenistic philology and the scholars at kings’ courts; they were a kind of “icons in the cult of paideia” (180).

In the course of the 2nd century, philosophers are more and more integrated in social and political life: the portrait of Poseidonius of Apamea shows a man at peace with society, no more wanting to change anything and enjoying authority mostly as an interpreter of classical traditions, educator and counselor (181 ff.). Since at this time education had become an outstanding value for ordinary male citizens, too (reading is a favorite motif on grave-stelae), the exterior difference between the images of philosophers and citizens grew very small in late Hellenism.

In Rome the sociological situation was very different; there the world was sharply divided into otium and negotium and intellectual activities were strictly private; statues of famous Greeks were set up in villas, but almost never in public buildings and theaters as in Greece (200 ff.). In the first century B.C., however, a profound change of Roman society took place; when one-man rule made political activities unimportant, a “cult of learning” began to arise which lead to an almost “epidemic” literary dilettantism in Augustan Rome, and in the villas the guests of the now politically powerless senators could contemplate statues of famous Greek poets ‘crowned’ by the head of the cultivated Roman patron (210 ff.). Still, it was only Hadrian who elevated Philhellenism to a kind of political program, and, since from the very beginning the Imperial family had been the highest arbiter in taste and fashion, Hadrian’s beard (in contrast to his clean-shaven predecessors) with its connotation of learning and Greek culture can soon be found on portraits all over the empire. The individuality of citizen portraits vanishes in favour of what Z. calls “Zeitgesicht”; the upper classes display a new cultivated look, using stereotypes of the earlier iconography of intellectuals. The “revival of the glorious past” is not only a phenomenon in portraiture, but also in general cultural life, e. g. in Hadrian’s renewal of ancient traditions in Greek cities or in the rituals of learned conversation at a symposium (described by Gellius, Athenaeus, Plutarch), where good memory and wide knowledge were more important than originality.

Caracalla’s portrait was an abrupt break with the noble and distinguished appearance of his ancestors: The new conception manifested by it was probably directly addressed at the army, and it remodeled with astonishing rapidity the image of the average Roman citizen (267 ff.). Learning and philosophy survived the following times of crisis, not in the least because more and more people were looking to them for practical help in daily life; they were no more an activity of otium but the very content of life, and many sarcophagi of the time show the deceased as a learned couple (the pater familias teaching with a book-codex in his hand, his wife listening). The question if a wise man should withdraw from the world (much debated in the 3rd century A.D.) is mirrored in many representations where the philosopher is closely associated with a shepherd (287). Though the sarcophagi of Christians show Christ as the teacher of wisdom instead of the cultivated Roman citizen, in other respects the continuity of the imagery is striking. The image of Christ as philosopher-teacher within the circle of his pupils is even more astonishing as there is nothing like it in the bible, and Christianity in its beginnings was above all the religion of the common people (289 ff.). These images show the Hellenisation of Christians; in the 4th century A.D. the metaphor of Christianity as the true philosophy was widely accepted. There is a long history of mutual influence between the image of Christ and the θεῖος ἀνήρ, a type of philosopher with extraordinary spiritual powers, whose authority was mainly based on personal charisma and who had appeared for the first time under Nero and the Flavians. The need of both Christians and non-Christians in Late Antiquity to believe in some sort of incarnation of the divine led about 400 A.D. to the image of a philosopher who was a “spiritual superman”, capable of prodigies, prophecies etc.; differences between philosophical schools seem to have become unimportant. Portraits of faces with great, upward-turned eyes show this inner enlightenment and the connection with the divine. In the 4th century, prominent popular heroes of the past were Socrates and the Seven Wise Men, often shown in mosaics. An important role is also played by the Muses, who are now not only the poet’s personal inspirators, but learned figures transmitting wisdom as a mercy of God, while the poet himself has become a largely passive recipient (320ff.).

This summary may have made clear how enthralling an experience it is to follow Z. charting the developments and changes in the image of the intellectual in antiquity; not the least of Z.’s merits may be that his treatment throws a fascinating new light also on modern intellectuals and their public perception. Throughout the book, there are only some minor slips, not all of them due to the original version: p. 110, the book-number (3) of Alciphron is lacking; p. 370 note 13: read Gaba thuler (not – thuber); p. 258 below: “Thrasea Paetus” is divided by a colon and thus split into two persons; p. 363 note 21: the man whom Z. thanks for his advice is of course not the late ancient historian Matthias Gelzer, but the philologist Thomas G. The book is richly illustrated, which makes it even more a pleasure to read and use. The translation provided by A. Shapiro is blameless; nevertheless, I may be forgiven to add a slightly critical remark with regard to it: In a field like archaeology (as in Classics in general), where German is as much an international lingua franca as English, Italian, French or Spanish, students all over the world should be capable to read scientific literature originally written in this language. The increasingly widespread business of translating scientific literature (most of all into English) should thus be not only superfluous, but actually carries the danger of leading people into linguistic isolation in a world where multi-language communication across borders is more necessary than ever.

  • [1] The term “intellectual” and the kind of ‘group identity’ that was created by it arose for the first time in late 19th century France in connection with the Dreyfus affair (2).