BMCR 2007.11.08

Temple Decoration and Cultural Identity in the Archaic Greek World: The Metopes of Selinus

, , Temple decoration and cultural identity in the archaic Greek world : the metopes of Selinus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xvii, 352 pages : illustrations, map ; 27 cm. ISBN 052185797X. $90.00.

Table of Contents

In his preface, Marconi argues against the tendency to view architectural decoration in typological terms and thus to isolate temple sculpture from the context in which it functioned. Instead, his approach is to examine decoration in regard to its place within the building and, more broadly, the sanctuary and city. He looks at the Archaic period generally but focuses in particular on the metopal sculpture associated with Temples Y and C at Selinus. These metopes have long been known but have remained incompletely published. V. Tusa added to the known corpus in his 1983 book on Selinuntine sculpture1 and Marconi expands it further as a result of his investigations in the Palermo Museum. He thus includes (at the back) a detailed catalog with descriptions, dimensions, illustrations, and bibliography of all associated pieces, some previously unpublished. His ultimate goal is the placement of these reliefs within the social and cultural context of the site.

The first two chapters set the background for the Selinuntine material. Chapter 1, entitled “Figure and Temple in the Greek World until the Beginning of the Late Archaic Period,” begins with an explanation of how scholarly interests have evolved from the building overall to its separate parts. According to the author, this development has prioritized stone over other materials and has led scholars to overlook early evidence for architectural decoration. He corrects these inadequacies through a survey of decorated monuments dating from about 700 to 530 B.C.

One of the earliest examples cited of figural representation on a Greek temple is a fragmentary plaque from Cycladic Naxos, which has been attributed to a frieze of the third temple at Iria, dated ca. 680 B.C. The early date of this relief and its tentative association with an entablature make it potentially important in the history of architectural decoration, but its identification as architectural rather than votive remains uncertain. As the author notes, other depictions that are more firmly associated with buildings in this early period served instead on walls. These included both non-figural and figural representations. In my opinion both categories provide important evidence of a desire to give prominence to the temple, although the author’s interests are mainly on the latter. Metal reliefs must have been a major form of decoration and the author correctly highlights their often-overlooked role. In the period 630-600 B.C. architectural decoration gravitates toward the entablature and roof, an event that Marconi considers a “revolution” in sacred architecture. Indeed, from this point onward, figures will be linked almost exclusively with the upper parts of a building.

Marconi associates the use of figural decoration with the monumentalization of the temple. This seems generally clear from the evidence, although the terracotta friezes on wooden and mud-brick buildings in southern Italy dating from ca. 620 to ca. 560 B.C. suggest that “monumentalization” can be expressed in various ways. Usually it entails larger and more solidly built temples that, as the author recounts, also receive some type of figural embellishment. In these temples, the decoration may serve different purposes, such as to enhance the religious experience, to express aristocratic ideals, or to encourage social identity.

These motives have particular significance to our understanding of monumental architecture in Archaic Sicily (Chapter 2). Several scholars have interpreted Western Greek temples and their decoration as statements of ethnic identity within a non-Greek context. Marconi (pp. 30-31) instead accepts the view that they reflect polis identity which, at least in the Archaic period, came before Greek identity. Indeed, studies of various media support the primary promotion of the polis. Most of this chapter surveys the initial (pre-550 B.C.) development of architecture in Sicily, including (but not limited to) temples and their decoration. The author examines not just stone temples but also lesser-known shrines and both peripteral and non-peripteral structures. Significantly, even the latter attest to the importance of figural decoration. One distinctive type is the terracotta horseman akroterion, which Marconi connects with the ruling class although he does not accept a specific identification, as proposed by others.

Chapter 3 narrows the focus to Selinus, tracing the evidence for its foundation, early history, and urban development. Marconi takes a skeptical, but logical, approach to these issues. He notes the limited and often contradictory nature of literary information and gives more weight to archaeological evidence. Thus, he prefers the foundation date suggested by Thucydides (628-627 B.C.) over that of Diodoros (651-650 B.C.) because of its correlation with the beginning of Early Corinthian pottery, which is now more firmly dated. He dismisses explanations of Selinuntine prosperity as arising from its relations with Carthaginians and Elymians because they are based on tangential mentions in the literature. Rather, coins and transport amphoras are cited as secure evidence for trade with the wider Greek world. Although some scholars have ascribed the urban development of Selinus to tyrants, Marconi does not consider this valid or necessary. He notes that major temple projects arose at Selinus during the fifth century, after the period of tyrants, and that Paestum produced temples without this form of government. Instead he attributes these developments to economic and demographic growth, factors that are confirmed by the physical record.

The title of Chapter 4, “The Small Metopes,” might suggest an examination solely of the reliefs traditionally attributed to Temple Y. Instead, Marconi devotes the beginning of this chapter to the early history of monumental constructions at Selinus. He reasonably dates the beginning of stone temples to the early sixth century. The initial group on the acropolis, dating 600-570 B.C., includes Temple R, also known as the Megaron; Temple S, sometimes called the Temple of the Small Metopes; and the predecessor of Temple C. Beyond the Selinos (Modione) River, temples were built in this period in the Sanctuary of Demeter Malophoros and in the nearby area named “Triolo N.” The eastern hill also received the first phase of Temple E, although Marconi expresses doubts about all aspects of this largely unpublished building. Construction continued in the second generation (570-540 B.C.) with greater size, complexity, and sophistication. Yet there was no consistency, as exemplified by Temples M, Y, and Demeter Malophoros II. Additional, still-unidentified buildings are attested by members re-used in the fortifications of the acropolis. This material includes the metopes in question, which correspond to two groups, only one of which is accepted by Marconi as probably belonging to Temple Y.

Marconi offers a detailed iconographical analysis of the “small metopes” and a discussion of their various interpretations. In the end, however, he is usually unable to resolve the debates. Throughout this chapter he emphasizes the divisions between the two groups, which are especially clear in the type and size of the frames, but which he also sees in their dating (ca. 550 and ca. 540 B.C., respectively) and style. Given the overall similarity in dimensions, the poor preservation of some reliefs, and the minimal chronological difference assigned to the two groups, however, one wonders whether this separation is really warranted. Nothing in the author’s earlier discussion of buildings suggests a candidate for the second set of reliefs. Instead, his own observation of the plurality of the building tradition speaks against such similar decoration on two separate temples, especially because metopal sculpture is otherwise unknown in this period at Selinus.

Chapter 5 examines first the architecture and then the metopes of Temple C. The author recounts the history of exploration that led to the discovery of the entire east frieze where it had fallen in front of the temple and the archival documents that recorded this information. Using these documents and the known remains, along with the additional fragments that he identified, Marconi presents evidence for all ten metopes and unattributable fragments. Several metopes are too poorly preserved (I, II, IX) or the information insufficient (III-IV) to determine the scene represented. Number V was known to depict a quadriga and the author’s investigations retrieved parts of it. Together with the well preserved quadriga in VI, this would have occupied the central intercolumniation. Most metopes on the right half of the faade are virtually (VI, VII, VIII) or sufficiently (X) complete and allow for detailed discussion of their subject and iconography. These often suggest a local interpretation of the scene, as concluded especially for VII, with Perseus and Medusa. Although Marconi sees no thematic unity in the frieze, he does suggest an overall organization that represents epiphanies of gods in the center, stories of heroes that involved gods to the sides, and perhaps heroes killing monsters beyond.

A major problem regarding Temple C is its chronology. As Marconi notes, the foundations have never been excavated, although alterations to the sanctuary offer a terminus post quem for the temple of 560 B.C. The date of its metopes is obfuscated by inconsistencies in the rendering of figures and drapery. The author reconciles these problems by positing two phases of construction (as attested also by the use of both monoliths and drums for the columns). Most of the metopes were carved in the first phase, ca. 540-530 B.C., while others were carved (X) or completed (VII) in the second, ca. 510 B.C. This places the initiation of the Temple C metopes only slightly later than the execution of the “small metopes” although their style and treatment are very different. Other scholars have recognized the difficulty of determining the relationship between these two groups. Marconi alludes to this as well in his comparison, but he accounts for the differences as a reaction to the problems of visibility in the earlier metopes.

Chapter 6 offers a broad interpretation of the Selinus reliefs. It draws in part on discussions from previous chapters and thus provides an overall unity to the book. Referring to the introduction of figural decoration in Greek architecture at a time of increasing social identity during the second quarter of the sixth century (from Chapter 1), Marconi attributes the Selinus reliefs to this same process, although occurring at a slightly later date. The exclusive presence of deities in so many of the extant reliefs at a time when heroes or gods in mythological scenes prevailed elsewhere leads him to assume a cultic association. Accordingly, the depictions of Apollo as kitharoidos or with his family demonstrate the importance of his cult and in turn the religious connection with Megara, one of the founding cities of Selinus. Megara did indeed send the leader of the expedition, but the majority of colonists must have come from Megara Hyblaia, which is generally understood to be the mother city of Selinus (see Chapter 3). Therefore, the emphasis on common cults, if demonstrated, does not necessarily support Marconi’s view that Selinus was promoting its ties with the motherland.

The author builds his case for the Mainland orientation of Western Greek colonies by citing the locations of myths and the origins of protagonists in architectural decoration, especially that from the so-called Treasury at Foce del Sele. Likewise, the Sicilian poet Stesichorus writes mainly of events in Mainland Greece and Troy. This does not, however, imply a colonial emphasis on the motherland but merely a participation in shared Greek traditions. At the same time, Marconi suggests that the episodes of Herakles and the Kerkopes and of Orestes killing Klytaimnestra have particular meaning for Selinus. This suggestion is based generally on colonists’ perceptions of their non-Greek neighbors as the Other and specifically on the Archaic history of Selinus itself. Yet as discussed in Chapter 3, the value of the early literary evidence for that history is questionable. Marconi considers another major theme of the metopes, travel, to be especially relevant for a colony. It is combined with the defeat of danger, perhaps a constant concern for colonists, in the triumph of Perseus over Medusa.

While the episodes depicted on the Selinus metopes can thus be associated with the colonial experience, they are not unique to this context. Rather, as discussed in the iconographical analysis, they form part of a broader repertoire in use in the Archaic Greek world. Their role in expressing the cultural identity of the city is thus not as clear as the author suggests. A more distinctive feature noted by Marconi in the metopes is the emphasis on frontal heads, not only in depictions of deities but also in heroic scenes. In conjunction with the head of Medusa in the pediment of Temple C, this treatment does, indeed, enhance the sense of the sacred. That seems to have been the purpose of architectural decoration from the beginning and must have been the primary function of the Selinus metopes.

This book raises some significant points regarding the development and meaning of architectural decoration, which makes it useful to students or others interested in exploring broad themes in Greek art. Yet its real contribution is more specific. Through his meticulous study of the archival records and the remains stored in the Palermo Museum, Marconi is able to expand our knowledge of the appearance and arrangement of some of the earliest metopes known in the Greek world. He offers an exploration of their iconography that, if not always conclusive, is certainly thorough. He also recounts the enormous amount of building activity at Selinus during the early sixth century and the eclectic nature of these constructions. His current book thus reflects the same detailed approach to the material as his earlier one on the metopes from Temple E,2 but it offers a more extensive context—both architectural and historical—for these reliefs.


1. V. Tusa, La scultura in pietra di Selinunte (Palermo 1983).

2. C. Marconi, Selinunte: Le metope dell’Heraion (Modena 1994).