BMCR 2005.07.40

Hellenistic Art from Alexander the Great to Augustus

, Hellenistic art : from Alexander the Great to Augustus. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 190 pages : illustrations (chiefly color), map ; 25 cm. ISBN 0892367768 $35.00 (pb).

The subject of Hellenistic art is a complex one. The works from this period fall into a wide chronological and geographical range. Recognizing this problem, in this introductory survey Lucilla Burn (henceforth B.) presents a thematic approach to Hellenistic art. Rather than concentrating on the great works of architecture and sculpture, she attempts to examine the artistic, political, and social impulses behind them and the general artistic characteristics and trends of the period (p. 13). The book therefore is not divided by chronology or artistic media, but into six chapters based on broad themes. By including in her discussion the so-called minor arts B. also hopes to “visualize, colour and furnish the Hellenistic age itself” (p. 12). Because of this thematic multidisciplinary approach the work is a useful introduction to Hellenistic art for students, but scholars interested in the subject will also find some valuable insights.

In the introduction B. provides a brief historical outline and an overview of recent scholarly opinion about what characterizes Hellenistic art. She then defines the aspects she emphasizes in the course of her work, namely that Hellenistic art has no clearly defined starting point (although many of the ideas can already be seen in the fourth century), that the art was international due to the mobility of artists and craftsmen, and that it was eclectic, blending tradition with new styles, subjects, and themes, something that is also seen in literary works of the period.

In the first chapter, “Imitations of Opulence: Macedon and the fourth century BC”, B. traces the emergence of a distinctive Hellenistic cultural character to fourth century BC Macedon. The art produced for the royal house of Macedon saw the beginnings of many of the major hallmarks of Hellenistic art, such as personal opulence and display, the development of a royal style, and the blending of styles that included eastern influences. In order to illustrate these features B. presents a survey of the artifacts discovered in the tombs at Derveni and Vergina as well as the architecture and decorations of the tombs themselves, the design of royal palaces such as Aigai and the aristocratic houses at Pella, including the pebble mosaics that decorated them. One of the strengths of B.’s approach is her contextual examination of the material culture of the Hellenistic world. For example, B. underlines the importance of dining and feasting in Macedonian culture and discusses evidence for this practice in palatial houses and palaces, such as the form of drains for the wine dregs and the position and decoration of dining couches. It is the addition of this sort of material, often not included in introductory texts, that gives this work its value. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how Alexander started the process of blending traditional Classical elements with displays of royal power and wealth derived from eastern models.

B. begins Chapter 2 called “Ancient Faces” with the questions (p. 50) “How did people want to be seen in the Hellenistic world? What sort of images of themselves or others did they want to project?” B. first discusses statue portraits of “civic worthies”: philosophers, statesmen, and poets. The next section deals with portraits of ordinary people, particularly the portraits found at Delos depicting Italian businessmen. One might argue with B.’s definition of these people as ordinary, since they had enough wealth to commission these works. Although the origins of these portrait types is greatly debated, B. does not make any reference here to the possible Italic/Roman influence and misses an opportunity to reinforce the mingling of styles that she sees as an important trend in the art of this period. B. then turns to the so-called “worried man” from Delos, which she calls a more Greek portrait, although she does not define what this means. A digression from faces to other aspects of people’s appearance, such as dress and jewelry, then follows. The next section concerns portraits of Alexander and his successors in marble and bronze as well as images on coins. The last two sections of this chapter discuss “type portraits: the dramatic mask” and “genre figures and grotesques.” Many of the examples here are terracotta figurines, and an interesting aspect of this section is an attempt to examine the context and function of these objects.

Chapter 3 is entitled “Public Life: Hellenistic cities and sanctuaries.” It begins with a brief discussion of what distinguished the Hellenistic city from earlier cities, in particular the attempt to unite groups of buildings with stoas to create appropriate vistas, and to make the city more opulent by the construction of such permanent buildings as bouleuteria and theatres. B. examines the use of architecture and sculpture to create feelings not only of awe and admiration but also drama and excitement, with the temple at Didyma as an example. She also attempts to reconstruct what cult statues looked like by examining the Apollo from Cyrene and a bronze head of a goddess found at Satala, both now in the British Museum. The Nike of Samothrace and the Great Altar of Pergamon are also given separate treatments as examples of the setting of ancient sculpture in sanctuaries. The chapter concludes with works from Priene and Knidos in the collection of the British Museum that further illustrate the public landscape of Hellenistic cities and sanctuaries. B. takes account of famous works of art such as the Demeter of Knidos and also the cheaper, smaller-scale offerings that were left in the sanctuaries, in particular terracotta statuettes. Again the inclusion of these types of objects offers a full picture of how the sanctuaries played key roles in all levels of Hellenistic life.

In Chapter 4, “Private Life: the Hellenistic house and tomb,” B. examines the physical settings in which people lived, died, and were buried. She begins with a brief discussion of the plans of houses and room functions and then examines the mosaics and wall paintings that were used to decorate them. The next section discusses the production of smaller-scale sculpture for use in a domestic setting and attempts to reconstruct where these pieces were placed within the house. B. continues with a discussion of banqueting equipment, such as couches, braziers, lamps, and metal, ceramic, and glass tableware. The chapter concludes with an overview of funerary practices and monuments. B. focuses on the cemeteries at Alexandria, where extensive tomb complexes have been excavated (including rock-cut dining rooms used for funerary meals), and the more monumental example of the Lion Tomb from Knidos. The discussion of grave goods and their possible significance in the burial, particularly the terracottas from Myrina, is again illustrative of B.’s attempt to place the material culture in its context.

Chapter 5, “Themes in Hellenistic Art,” examines how artists expressed the intellectual, social, and political ideas of the age in their art. Some of the themes B. examines in detail in this chapter are the interest in literary history and scholarship, personification and allegory, nature and man’s place in the natural world, and the erotic and the exploration of human relationships and sexuality. B. goes on to discuss the development of new portrayals and iconographies for divinities, the exploration of emotion and experience in the portrayal of heroes such as the weary Herakles of Lysippos, the development of new heroic types such as the Gauls, and realistic depictions of athletes.

Chapter 6 is entitled “Artists, Patrons and Collectors, and the Hellenistic Legacy to Rome.” B. begins with a discussion of how artists created their art and presents the evidence for workshops, mass production, and collaborative work. The technological advances that allowed Hellenistic artists to produce such large-scale works like the Colossus of Rhodes as well as innovations in gem cutting, glass production, and other minor arts are also considered. B. then turns to literary sources in order to evaluate the social status and mobility of artists. She suggests that the common artistic style that developed during this period is evidence for the greater mobility of artists and craftsmen. While the literary sources supply valuable evidence about the lives of artists, B. acknowledges that there are many gaps in our knowledge and concludes this section with a caveat against overzealous attempts to connect surviving works of art to artists mentioned in the literary record. The next section of the chapter deals with the patrons and customers of Hellenistic art. B. notes that the state commissions of art of the Classical period were replaced by the patronage of individual monarchs, who were in turn emulated by wealthy private individuals. For these patrons art became an increasingly important status symbol and a means of displaying their wealth, taste, and power. Gift-giving, including endowments to cities, also became an important aspect of Hellenistic patronage. The changing social structures of Hellenistic society also saw the development of new kinds of patrons, such as merchant associations or schools of philosophy, which commissioned works to decorate their premises. The final section of this chapter deals with the influence that Roman patrons and collectors had on the development of Hellenistic art. Using Cicero’s letters, the collection of sculpture found at Sperlonga, and the Mahdia shipwreck, B. explores the Roman desire for original works and copies of Hellenistic sculpture in the first centuries BC and AD and also discusses how Roman taste and lifestyle directed late Hellenistic art in new directions. Although a survey of this type must be limited, B. could also have explored here more examples of the “Hellenization” of Roman art that took place during the late second and early first centuries BC. Such a discussion would have reinforced her emphasis on the internationalism of the art of the period as well as set the stage for the further development of Roman art in which she sees continuity with Hellenistic traditions.

B.’s book is broad in scope, drawing on examples from various media. It is written in a clear and engaging style. The division into chapters based on themes is for the most part successful, except perhaps for the second chapter “Ancient Faces” which seems to be a bit of a catch-all. The endnotes are useful, if not extensive. The book contains photographs of excellent quality, 82 colour and 26 black and white, and most of the works discussed are illustrated. Many of the illustrations are from the collections of the British Museum. While this does give the opportunity to include many examples outside of the mainstream, the reliance on the collections from the British Museum at times has its drawbacks.1 While many works from other museums are illustrated, the lack of photographs of some of the subjects discussed, such as the portraits from Delos, the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, or the Odyssey Landscapes, might prove frustrating for the non-specialist reader.2 Because of these shortcomings, and the fact that its broad scope does not allow for the inclusion of many of the major works of the period, this book is not a replacement for a standard introductory textbook for an undergraduate art class, though for students it would serve as an excellent supplement. Through her attempt to understand the social context and purpose of Hellenistic art, B. presents a fuller picture of this period. It is especially in her discussion of the minor arts, such as furniture, glass, pottery, and particularly terracottas, that B. provides evidence for the everyday reality of the Hellenistic world.


1. For example, the illustration of miniature versions of the Lysippan Herakles (p. 23) with a terracotta head from the Museum’s collection and no example of the larger scale models on which it is based would not be helpful to a reader unfamiliar with the subject. A similar problem occurs in the discussion of the various portrayals of Aphrodite (pp. 146-147), illustrated with only a single small-scale statuette from the collection.

2. B., however, does provide references in the notes to other sources where illustrations of these works may be found.