BMCR 2007.07.15

Heroas kai Pole: To Paradeigma tou Herakle sten Archaike Eikonographia tes Korinthou

, Hērōas kai polē : to paradeigma tou Hēraklē stēn archaikē eikonographia tēs Korinthou. Thessalonike: University Studio Press, 2006. 374 pages : illustrations ; 28 cm. ISBN 9601214941 €45.00.

This book is the unrevised dissertation presented by A. Arvanitake (hereafter A.) to the University of Thessaloniki in 2004. As its title suggests, Hero and the Polis. The Example of Herakles in the Archaic Iconography of Corinth, it investigates the role of Herakles in the art and society of Corinth during the Archaic period, primarily through his representations in Corinthian vase-painting of the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. The main purpose of the study is to place the Corinthian vase scenes with the hero as protagonist in their cultural context by attempting to integrate relevant iconographic, textual, and archaeological evidence. It addresses specialists in vase-painting, in particular Corinthian, and students of Archaic Greece in general.

This study makes a significant contribution to existing scholarship on Corinthian vase-painting, especially given the dearth of iconographic studies in the field. It satisfies the need to look beyond Athens to other areas of Greek visual culture, and it does so successfully on many counts. The study reveals an earlier stratum of representations of myths that are well known from elsewhere, especially Attica, such as the Gigantomachy on a PC alabaster from Corinth (cat. PK 7), or the first attempt at psychological characterization as exemplified on the famous “Eurytos” crater (cat. K 39), both of which are characteristic of the artistic vitality and originality of Corinthian vase-painters. A corpus of surviving vases with Herakles, often of small scale, poorly preserved, and generally neglected, is assembled almost exclusively from published material. The author’s careful and often insightful readings of fragmentary and difficult to read scenes as well as her skillful presentation of comparanda advance our knowledge of Corinthian iconography. One of the major strengths of this book is its numerous illustrations and drawings that serve the text well. The bibliography is comprehensive (updated to 2004) and the references meticulous throughout.

The book comprises an introduction, three chapters, conclusions, an appendix, an extensive summary in English, and comprehensive indices. In chapters one and two the material is organized according to the established chronological and stylistic divisions of Corinthian vase-painting, namely Protocorinthian (PC) and Corinthian (C). More innovative is A.’s thematic arrangement of the myths presented according to the nature of Herakles’ adversaries: monsters and wild animals, anthropomorphic creatures, and divine or daimonic powers, complemented by Herakles and women, Herakles alone, and Herakles in non-identifiable scenes. This organization is deemed more appropriate for the Corinthian material than the traditional 19th century classification of the hero’s exploits in the twelve labors ( dodecathlos), military expeditions ( praxeis), and incidental deeds ( parerga). This established classification is much later than the period concerned and does not cover some episodes of the hero’s life that are present on Corinthian vases from the Archaic period. A.’s claim that her arrangement comes closer to the Archaic way of thinking is attractive, and it would merit further elaboration. The choice of Herakles as a case study for a more detailed look at Corinthian iconography is an obvious one, not only because he is the most popular hero in both the PC and C period but also because he enjoys an illustrious Panhellenic pedigree that offers the possibility of cross-regional comparison of his mythology. At the same time, it poses some difficulty in establishing local interests and connections that exceed the solely iconographic level. While the author rises to the iconographic challenge admirably, only a study with a scope wider than that of a thesis will accommodate the complex relationship of regional mythologies to Archaic Greek societies.

Chapters one (pp. 29-67) and two (pp. 69-214) have the same format: a descriptive list of vases pertinent to the particular episode under discussion is followed by an analysis of the compositional schemata being employed and the iconographic traits of the protagonists. Each section is concluded by comparing the Corinthian material with vases from the Attic, Laconian, and East Greek workshops, as well as other media such as shield band reliefs, gems and statuettes. The marshalling of the evidence is praiseworthy. In the treatment of the centauromachy at Pholoe, for example, the author integrates well the evidence of the Thermon metopes and the chest of Kypselos (p. 107). A. proposes that a Middle Corinthian (MC) aryballos now in Göttingen (cat. K 36) depicts Geras (Old Age) and thus preserves the only known personification in Archaic art (besides the appearance of Geras on the lost Kypselos’ chest). She proposes new identifications such as the capture of the Cerynian hind on an Early Corinthian (EC) alabaster from Perachora (cat. K 21) — so far the sole surviving example of the myth in Corinth — and the arrest of Cerberus on a pinax fragment from the Potters Quarter (cat. K 49). Moreover, she recognizes on a Late Corinthian (LC) aryballos in London (cat. K 27) the only Corinthian representation of the killing of Diomedes’ horses. An MC kotyle from Argos depicting the labors of the Lernaean Hydra and Cerberus (cat. K 5/K 35) preserves Herakles attacking Hades, the master of Cerberus, a scene unique to Corinth. A. suggests convincingly that the coexistence of these two myths on this vase is not haphazard but due to the monsters’ shared genealogy and role as guardians of Peloponnesian entrances to the underworld. Also in Corinth we find the earliest example of ‘cyclic’ narration on a kylix from Perachora showing the labors of the Cercopes, the Nemean Lion, and Geryon (cat. K 41). A. rightly points out that the grouping of these myths is not based on temporal or spatial criteria but thematic: they signify space at the limits of the polis and the known world.

Chapter three is divided into two parts: the first part (pp. 219-227) summarizes the findings of the previous chapters on the Corinthian iconography of Herakles. Here an overview of the general repertoire of Corinthian vases would help place the Herakles scenes in perspective. The relatively small stock of secure scenes in the PC period, comprising the killings of Hydra, Nessos, and Geryon, the centauromachy at Pholoe, and the Gigantomachy, is followed by an “explosion” of scenes illustrating Herakles’ exploits in the MC period when new themes appear, including the Amazonomachy, wrestling with the Nemean lion, Triton, Nereus, and Acheloos, the arrests of the Cercopes and Cerberus, the killing of Kyknos, Herakles’ wedding to Hebe, and the rescue of Hesione. Overall the killing of the Lernaean hydra appears most frequently, with 16 examples. Herakles’ image becomes standardized: he is usually naked, with short, rich, curly hair, and short beard. According to the demands of the action represented, he uses a bow and arrow — his favorite arms in Corinth — , a sword and even his bare hands. Lastly, a drastic decline in his presence is noted in the LC period despite the popularity of mythological scenes on the large craters of the time. As A. contends the reasons are mainly practical, since most of these multi-figured crater scenes relate to symposia, horse-riding, or warfare — all representative of an aristocratic world where so few of Herakles’ deeds belong (p. 225).

All of the above sets the stage for the interpretive second part of chapter three (pp. 227-245). A. explores the main issues symbolized in the depicted myths and their connections with Archaic Corinth and Greece. The author maintains that we can detect changes in the way of life, values, and mentality of an ancient society by studying the surviving vase-paintings, despite cautioning that poor preservation — very few myths survive in more than two instances — prevents us from following the development of most themes over time. The methodological question then becomes quantitative: how many examples constitute a “safe” number to draw conclusions from? In the case of Corinth, as with most Archaic city-states, the lack of surviving written sources compounds the difficulty. Nevertheless, these a priori constrictions imposed by the nature of the material and the focus of this study do not detract from the value of its conclusions in regard to the cultural history of Corinth. Herakles’ multiple roles and humanitarian services are explored. He is a slayer of monsters, both of land and sea, a defender of civilization and facilitator of polis formation. He is the archetypal hunter and shepherd as he hunts or domesticates wild animals. As traveler, both within mainland Greece and beyond, he is an intrepid adventurer and banner-holder of colonization, a theme quite appropriate for Corinth. Herakles safeguards law and justice, defends women and marriage, advocates sports and hoplite warfare. As a symposiast he participates in the aristocratic institution of guest friendship. Above all, he is the only mortal that challenges old age and conquers death. Thus, Herakles exemplifies strength and bravery and serves as a preeminent role model.1 The author draws interesting parallels between Corinthian politics and certain Herakles myths to account for their appeal. The tyrant Periander, for example, arbitrated the dispute for the possession of Sigeion in the Troad, a region where the rescue of Hesione from the ketos was thought to have taken place, while his falling in love and subsequent marriage to Melissa present striking resemblances to the symposium at the house of Eurytos (pp. 238-239).

One of A.’s main arguments is that Herakles myths become “modernized” with time, as the hero’s opponents progress from monsters and supernatural creatures to human-like beings while his involvement increases in polis-related activities such as the symposium, wedding, and hoplite warfare (p. 225). Rather than a conscious effort on the part of the vase-painters as A. implies, it seems that this iconographic shift denotes a preference for the depiction of certain myths in more contemporary settings. A. doesn’t discuss the provenance of the surviving fragments, which, when known, can often elucidate the connection of imagery with cult (many of the vases come from the Corinthian sanctuary of Hera at Perachora where they probably served as votives). Although many myths are preserved only on pinakes from Penteskouphia, the author discusses these pinakes briefly (pp. 144-5, n.186), without elaborating on the nature of the assemblage or their functional difference with vases. In general, Corinthian cults are represented piecemeal in footnotes (p. 148 n.215; p. 226 n.74), and they would be better served in the main text. Although integral to the study, the discussion of the relevant written sources is also relegated, for the most part, to footnotes. The issue of authorship of the The Shield of Herakles is not addressed, an epic poem which in antiquity was ascribed to Hesiod but is now assigned to a writer of a later date. Overall, chapter three is a little short and repetitive and I wish the analysis of heroic myth in relation to polis ideology would have gone into greater depth.

Finally, some quibbles. Loraux is mistakenly cited in place of Lacroix on pp. 227 n. 83, 230 n.107, and 237 n.188. The definite article ston is missing in p. 241 n. 224. In two instances notes do not appear on the same page as their references: ns. 24 and 25 are on p. 128 instead of p. 127 and n.33 on page 129 instead of 128.

To sum up, this is an important work because it presents a large amount of data in a clear and accessible manner and develops ideas that contribute to our understanding of the context of Corinthian vase-painting. It is a necessary starting point for future discussions on the topic.


1. Conversely, as it is often stressed, Herakles is the hero who best embodies the tensions of culture vs. nature, and thus he is not devoid of negative traits such as sheer aggression and brutal force. For a good survey of his contradictory persona see M. W. Padilla, The myths of Herakles in ancient Greece: survey and profile (University Press of America 1998), 20-33.