BMCR 2001.08.14

From Pergamon to Sperlonga: Sculpture and Context

, , , From Pergamon to Sperlonga : sculpture and context. Hellenistic culture and society ; 34. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. xxiv, 315 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0520223276 $70.00.

This is a scholars’ book. The extended proceedings of a 1997 Florida conference, it is produced by scholars for scholars exercising the art of what the Library of Congress’ ‘Cataloguing-in-Publication data’ on the ISBN page likes to call ‘expertising’. There are tremendous advantages and virtues to this process: not least the relentless exposure of what Peter Green quotes T. S. Eliot in calling the method of ‘hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses’ (p. 172) for the identification, dating, attribution and understanding of both the Great Altar of Pergamon and the various sculptural groups discovered in the cave at Sperlonga. At the end of this collection of essays, I at least know less than I thought I did about everything to do with both sets of monuments, but I certainly know a great deal more about the morass of my (our) ignorance. To sum it up, most ‘facts’ are debatable and if they are at all established (or semi-established) all facts are certainly interpretable in several ways, most of them mutually exclusive and incompatible. If I have an instant criticism, it is that—given this strategy of exposition—the infinite breadth of our ignorance is all-too-limited by the editorial choice to exclude such vast areas of related and relevant uncertainty as the Laocoon or the tradition of colossal statues from the Colossus of Rhodes to that of Nero (which is roughly contemporary with most people’s best guess at the dates of Laocoon and the Sperlonga groups). Effectively, however good a job this volume has done in highlighting the depths of our incapacity to know the main objects of its focus of study, it belittles the true grandeur of our darkness by failing to illumine us with the extent of the gloom that covers all the positivist questions one might ask of all the surviving and lost monuments in the class that was once called ‘Rhodian’ but has now been rather effectively exploded by J.J. Pollitt’s elegant piece (pp. 92-110).

A brief summary of contents. After a scene setting introduction by the editors, Erich Gruen treats us to a brisk overview of Attalid culture as policy. It is full of Tacitean sentences (‘They needed to’; ‘Perhaps too much so’ etc), very readable and lures the reader into a trap. We all know Hellenistic history is full of gaps, doubts and uncertainties; dogged by a dreadfully inconclusive primary literature. But mock at your peril—this is nothing beside the uncertainties of the Hellenistic and early Roman art history we are soon to meet. The next chapter chucks us into the depths. Andrew Stewart’s excellent account of the Great Altar (opening tartly with the observation that the hard evidence has hardly increased since the site’s excavation over a century ago) finds one of the altar’s most expert connoisseurs admitting that ‘we do not know when and to whom it was dedicated; where much of its free-standing sculpture stood and what it signified; and (most embarassing) what purpose it served’ (p. 32). Or—to quote Peter Green’s summary of the positions: ‘When? Why? Who? For Whom? How arranged? To send what message?’ (p. 174). It seems somehow against the grain that Stewart should offer a few ‘tentative answers’ to some of these questions. Mary Sturgeon concludes the Attalid section with a bit of context—the altar amidst its local monumenta—the Nereid Monument from Xanthos, the Mausoleum, other tombs and other altars, even theatres.

Then we move to imperial Rome. Brunhilde Ridgway provides us with a no-nonsense summary of interpretations of Sperlonga, less humorous perhaps than Tonio Hoelscher’s now classic ‘Praise be to Nonsense’ piece on Laocoon,1 but trenchant nonetheless. She does not remind us (as H. Anne Weis later does) that the four groups of sculptures always discussed have been reconstructed from but a few of the over 7,000 fragments discovered in the Sperlonga cave, most unpublished and many from as late as late antiquity.2 This is followed by Pollitt’s careful and sensible investigation of the Rhodian School which finds this famous school only if one creates ‘a visionary scenario out of hints and hypotheses…appropriate for the world of pipe dreams’ (105-6) and by Anne Weis’s discussion of Odysseus at Sperlonga. This latter piece is an elegant explosion of some of the grander speculations espoused by Bernard Andreae, Sperlonga’s supreme mythographer (as Green comments later on ‘Andreae’s argument (if argument is the right name for it)’, p. 173). But Weis’ turn to a text (the Aeneid) as an explanation, however tentative, of the Sperlonga programme seems a most unfortunate case of letting the side down. If certainty is to languish in the abyss, it is clutching at straws to go looking for some. But there is relief that the main evidence for a Vergilian interpretation of a first century AD programme is a third or fourth century epigram by one Faustinus Felix inserted much later into the grotto’s walls.

In response to this wealth of revisionism, Peter Green does well to turn to fiction (in despair?)—though the reference to detective fiction and Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey at an Oxford College (my own brief here?) might be meant to inspire hope… If so, the substance fails to achieve its goal: elegantly Green debunks any bit of likelihood left standing after the previous contributors’ assault. And his prose is elegant too: from Churchill (‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, p. 177) to ‘there’s hardly a preponderance of evidence let alone conclusive proof’ (p. 177).

The final three contributions veer away from the two monuments proper: to John Marszal’s ‘Ubiquitous Barbarians’ (who turn out to be Gauls), to Stephan Steingraeber’s ‘Pergamene Influences on Etruscan Hellenistic Art’ (interesting if not cardinally relevant), and to Nancy de Grummond’s final summing up—a pendant to that of Peter Green. These last three papers seem like an attempt to add something substantive to leave the reader with, in the plain of desolation resulting from the earlier contributions. But it’s the totality of deconstruction demonstrated by the vigorous and ‘old-fashioned’ application of the positivist method that is what I’ll take home as the volume’s gem.


1. T. Hölscher, ‘Laokoon und das Schicksal des Tiberius: Ein Akrostikon’ Antike Welt 31.3 (2000) 321-3.

2. For some lively thoughts on this, see M. Beard and J. Henderson, Classical Art: From Greece to Rome, Oxford, 2001, 74-82.