BMCR 2005.04.19

Life, Myth and Art in Ancient Greece

, Life, myth, and art in ancient Greece. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 144 pages : color illustrations, map ; 26 cm. ISBN 0892367733 $19.95.

Life, Myth and Art in Ancient Greece purports to be a “richly illustrated guide” to “one of the wellsprings of Western civilization.” Its scope is sweeping: deities, myths, art, architecture, colonies, worship, family life and politics from the Mycenaeans to the Hellenistic period. The book is organized by themes (“The Gods of Olympos”; “Pride, Fate and Glory”), not necessarily in chronological order. The accompanying images, generous in number, nicely illustrate points made in the text. Emma Stafford has produced a wide-ranging, concisely-written survey of ancient Greek culture. With its punchy prose, peppered with interesting, insightful anecdotes, the book will be easily accessible to an undergraduate and lay readership, and useful to scholars seeking a ready image bank of Greek artefacts and sites.

The opening chapter, “Image and Imagination,” orients readers to the topographical setting, stressing the effect of mountains and the sea on the development of Greek civilization. Stafford discusses the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples briefly, moving swiftly into the early archaic period and the foundation of the Olympic games in 776 BCE. The history of the Greeks from that moment through the sack of Corinth is rapidly summarized in four paragraphs, highlighting the advent and spread of writing, the emergence of the polis, accomplishments of the playwrights and philosophers, and cultural legacy under Alexander of Macedon. The chapter also includes a sub-section on Greek art, including Archaic korai and kouroi, stone temples and monumental wall paintings.

“The World of the Hellenes” centres on Greek political and cultural landmarks, with three points of contrast uniting the themes: Athens versus Sparta, citizen versus slave, and Greek versus Barbarian. The rise of the poleis is partially attributed to the dispersion of the population over mountainous terrain that lent itself to political disjunction. The focus of Stafford’s discussion here is Athens and Sparta, and she neatly contrasts their political formation, organization, and wider importance. A sub-section devoted to citizens, women and slaves suggests to readers that a wide range of wealth and social status was possible within Greek societies, and within such broad categories as “citizen” or “slave”. The third point of contrast, Greek versus Barbarian, is mostly situated within the Persian Wars, which were the impetus for the “invention of the barbarian”. The chapter is rounded out with glosses over Greek colonization, poets and artists, and the art of writing.

The third chapter, “The Gods of Olympos”, recounts the births of the gods following Hesiod’s Theogony. A handful of the more important deities — Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo, Artemis — are discussed in their own two-page subsection, while others are considered in lesser detail in groups (Hestia and Hephaistos are the “Guardians of the flames,” while Hermes and Dionysos are “Lords of transition”). The myths of the gods segue into the fourth chapter, “Pride, Fate and Glory,” which concerns itself with myths of heroes. Homer’s best fighters give the reader an image of the “ultimate warrior role models” throughout antiquity, their arete carrying them to glory. Homer’s impact on heroic ideology is continued with a sub-section entitled “Many-towered Troy” (but which could also justifiably be called “The Trojan War in 339 words”). A catalogue of heroes, summarizing the feats of the usual suspects, follows: Odysseus, Herakles, Theseus, Jason and the Argonauts, and Perseus are given two-page biographies. Sub-sections on beasts and monsters, heroes in Greek tragedy, and transgression and punishment round out the exposition on heroic ideals in Greek society.

The fifth and final chapter, “The Life of the Spirit,” is devoted to the social and cultural place of religion in Greece. Places of worship, reasons for worship, modes of sacrifice and cults (including the Mysteries) were part of the religious observance that was of fundamental importance to the ancient Greeks. Theatrical displays and athletic competitions are also examined in this chapter, for their demonstration of the igniting of the Greek spirit and for their ties with religion. Missing from this chapter, I thought, was discussion of the everyday impact of the pantheon on individuals’ lives. Who entered temples? How often would a person visit a temple or sanctuary? Did anybody question the wastefulness of devoting an entire ox to a hero? Do we know whether the Greeks actually believed in the gods and goddesses at the heart of their religion? Some of these are difficult questions to answer, but giving them a mention, at least, would inform readers that our knowledge of Greek religious observance and belief is not complete. Stafford certainly knows a lot about the social and philosophical importance of personifications and deities; I suspect her scope for discussion was curtailed by editorial concerns.1

The book is concluded with a glossary of Greek or architectural terms, bibliography for further reading, and index.

Throughout the text, vignettes devoted to iconography or geography are interspersed. In this way, larger themes are touched upon briefly but intriguingly. “Geometric motifs,” for example, explains to readers what those early pots are decorated with (concentric circles, maeander, lozenge chains) and why. From a two-page spread devoted to the home of the gods, we learn that Greek thinking was inconsistent in its portrayal of Mt Olympos. Was it in the sky? Or on snowy peaks inaccessible to humans? The section points out that there are several mountains in Greece called Olympos and that we must take a best guess as to which one housed the gods (on the border between Thessaly and Macedonia). The geographical circumstances of Greek civilization are not always examined in this sort of survey, and the breathtaking photographs of the Temple of Artemis at Sardis, the Athenian acro polis, Ithaca and Delphi provide readers will a more complete view of the Greeks and their surroundings.

The choice of images is sound, with some obvious candidates for inclusion (everybody loves the Tomb of the Diver) and others not so obvious (the terracotta relief from Rhodes, ca. 460 BCE, is highly unusual and works nicely in Stafford’s section on metamorphosis as punishment for transgression). I disagree with the assertion (in caption) that the Artemision Zeus is “just as likely to be his brother Poseidon” (the image is used in the Poseidon section). The evidence from bronze figurines showing a bearded, naked god striding forward and holding a thunderbolt (like the one from the Berlin Antikenmuseum, pictured on page 55) points to the Artemision figure being Zeus (thunderbolt now missing). But this is a minor detail that hardly detracts from the quality of Stafford’s book.

The Summer 2004 Olympic games triggered widespread interest in the host city, Athens, and its history. Publishing houses were keen to meet the demand for accessible literature on the Games, their origins, and the people who founded them. Stephen Miller’s Ancient Greek Athletics, for example, and Robin Waterfield’s Athens: A history, from ancient ideal to modern city deal with complicated topics in straightforward terms that are intended for lay readers as well as scholars.2 Life, Myth and Art in Ancient Greece was part of this publishing wave, but differs from the others in concerning itself solely with ancient Greece; there are no (overt) attempts to link antiquity with the 2004 games. Which of the many “Olympics books” will still be read in ten years’ time is anybody’s guess, but with its lavish illustrations and clear, thoughtful prose, Stafford’s book is a solid candidate for attracting a long-term readership.


1. E.J. Stafford 2001. Worshipping Virtues: Personification and the Divine in Ancient Greece. Swansea: Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales. Reviewed for BMCR by A.C. Smith (BMCR 2001.08.20).

2. S.G. Miller 2004. Ancient Greek Athletics. New Haven: Yale University Press. Reviewed for BMCR by W.S. Morison ((BMCR 2004.12.10). R. Waterfield 2004. Athens: A History, from Ancient Ideal to Modern City. New York: Basic Books.