BMCR 2012.07.13

Brill’s Companion to Aphrodite

, , Brill's Companion to Aphrodite. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010. xvii, 452. ISBN 9789004180031 $216.00.


Not a “companion” in the conventional sense, this volume is a collection of papers presented at a conference held at the University of Reading in 2008. The project is ambitious in scope, with contributions from an international group of philologists, archaeologists, and art historians at all stages of their careers, on topics ranging from Asertu/Aphrodite in ancient Near Eastern poetry to the influence of ancient sculpture on twentieth century French painting. While admirable in its breadth of vision, such an interdisciplinary approach does not naturally lend itself to cohesion, and the result is rather mixed.

The volume is arranged thematically, following the organization of the conference, with a two-part introduction. Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge’s keynote address provides an overview of scholarship on Aphrodite since the 1970’s, in which she identifies three general themes: increased focus on the regional contexts of Aphrodite, the political and martial roles of the goddess in various poleis, and the continual search for her origins. Pirenne-Delforge offers several explanations for the “success” of current scholarship on Aphrodite. While the author acknowledges the perennial erotic appeal of the goddess, she emphasizes the ambiguities of Aphrodite, who encompasses a kind of polytheism in herself. The editors’ introduction likewise underscores Aphrodite’s polyvalence, as the goddess of “not only love, sex, fertility, and abundance, but also work, war, craft, politics, and many others” (25).

The multiplicity of “Aphrodite’s Identity” is explored in Part One. Vered Lev Kenaan’s analysis of the appearance of the goddess contrasts the aniconic image of Paphian Aphrodite with the famous Knidian Aphrodite by Praxiteles in the light of Plato’s Symposion, in which an abstract conception of beauty is privileged. Although the author raises interesting questions surrounding the various manifestations of the goddess, it is not clear that the Platonic text is an appropriate lens through which to view to the visual and material evidence. James Burbidge’s contribution on Virgil’s account of the encounter between Venus and Aeneas demonstrates the difficulty of identifying the goddess—even when she is your mother! The author suggests that the many visual and textual references in the Aeneid were intended to influence the reader’s emotional response to the work. The final two papers in this section offer opposing views of the martial character of the goddess. While Stephanie Budin argues that, prior to the Roman period, Aphrodite was worshipped as a goddess of warfare only in Sparta, Gabriella Pironti emphasizes Aphrodite’s association with Ares throughout the Greek world from an early period.

Part Two, “Aphrodite’s Companions and Relations,” includes only two papers. Annette Teffeteller demonstrates parallels between a fragmentary Hittite text and the story of Ares and Aphrodite as told in Homer’s Odyssey, which the author suggests had its sources in Near Eastern myth. In her analysis of divine father-daughter relationships in the Iliad, Kassandra Jackson posits that Homer uses Aphrodite and Athena to emphasize Zeus’s conflicts with the other Olympian gods.

Part Three describes “The Spread of Aphrodite’s Cults” from her birthplace on Cyprus to ancient Rome. Anja Ulbrich’s contribution, derived from her recent PhD thesis, provides a descriptive account of images of Aphrodite on Cyprus, which indicate a range of influences from other regions and even other divinities. Elisabetta Pala analyzes the iconography of Attic pottery together with the literary and archaeological evidence for the worship of Aphrodite in Athens to demonstrate the increased importance of her cult under democracy, which required proper marriage to produce a legitimate citizenry. Chryssanthi Papadopoulou traces the nautical character of Aphrodite in Attic imagery and proposes that the relative popularity of marine iconography reflects the rise and fall of the Athenian fleet in the fifth and fourth centuries. Although tempting, her conclusions should be viewed as tentative given the limited number of extant examples. One of the strongest papers in the volume is Alexander Nagel’s contextual analysis of a fragmentary terracotta figurine excavated at Stratos on the western Greek mainland. Nagel offers only preliminary conclusions about the significance of the figurine, but his sophisticated discussion of the difficulties of reconciling texts and material culture, and his sound methodological approach, are exemplary. Sophie Montel revisits the controversy surrounding the architectural setting of the Knidian Aphrodite. She reconsiders the Roman textual and archaeological evidence, including the ruins at Knidos and the nymphaeum at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, to find the evidence inconclusive. Finally, Jenny Wallensten traces the changing meanings of Aphrodite in the Greek world during the period of Roman expansion in the fourth to second centuries BCE. Inscriptions on statues dedicated in sanctuaries and in public spaces show Greek recognition of the goddess as ancestress of the Romans, making her an excellent choice of patroness for local politicians.

The final section on “The Reception of the Goddess” is in many ways the most interesting. Rachel Kousser convincingly reconciles several of Aphrodite’s ambiguities in Augustan Rome, arguing that images of Aphrodite are at the same time propagandistic and aesthetic; imperial and religious; martial and sensual; public and private. Margherita Carucci’s analysis of a floor mosaic from Roman North Africa in light of feminist visual theory rightly emphasizes the potential danger of viewing a naked goddess, but does not explain the sexual vulnerability suggested by her pose. Anthousa Papagiannaki recounts Aphrodite’s enduring appeal in late antique and medieval Byzantium, despite her official sanction. Statues of Aphrodite were collected by the educated elite, and images of the goddess decorated private dining sets as well as toilet articles and personal ornaments. The author suggests that such imagery may have been influenced by the popular “mimic plays” that reenacted classical myths. The final two papers, on the reception of Aphrodite in modern European painting, are the only two accompanied by color plates. David Bellingham’s sophisticated reading of the Neoplatonic imagery in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars demonstrates how later audiences reconciled Aphrodite’s ambiguities for their own personal and political purposes. According to Anna Gruetzner Robins, Bonnard’s series of paintings depicting a female model posed like a Greco- Roman statue should be read not as a return to classicism, but part of a modernist tradition that could be construed as “anarchist.” The author makes some interesting connections between archaeologists and working artists, and ancient and modern art.

The papers are followed by a comprehensive bibliography, a brief “Periodization of Antiquity” for non-classicists, and a general index, as well as separate indices of place-names, personal names (ancient and modern), monuments, and ancient texts. The volume is generally well edited, though some typos remain; figure 16.2 is incorrect (it appears to be a detail of fig. 16.1). The quality of the images is generally fine, but, given the cost of the book, it is disappointing that only two are in color. The exorbitant price of this book will place it out of reach for most individuals, though presumably libraries will be happy to purchase an edited volume marketed as a “Companion”. It is difficult to determine the intended audience for this book. Students will be better served by Monica Cyrino’s volume in the Routledge “Gods and Heroes” series.1 As a snapshot of the state of scholarship on Aphrodite, the “Companion” is already out of date with the publications surrounding the current exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.2 Nevertheless, this volume serves as a good starting point for further research on this endlessly fascinating goddess.


1. Monica S. Cyrino, Aphrodite (New York, 2010).

2. Christine Kondoleon, et al., Aphrodite and the Gods of Love (Boston and New York, 2011).