BMCR 2020.11.09

Rhetoric and innovation in Hellenistic art

, Rhetoric and innovation in Hellenistic art. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xv, 186. ISBN 9781108490917 $99.99.


The preface to this short book sets out two main research questions: “Why did some notable examples of Hellenistic art look so different from previous Greek art? And why did some key elements of Hellenistic art and literature appear so similar?” (p. xi). With respect to the first question, the Hellenistic period clearly witnessed striking innovations in visual production: individualised portraiture, genre realism, and trompe l’oeil mosaics, to name just a few. Regarding the second question, the nature of any ‘similarity’ between text and image of course requires more careful qualification.

Seaman offers a bold central thesis that responds to both questions: “Rhetorical education…  taught students how to be Greek, and it appears to have been the root of many Hellenistic innovations in both art and literature” (p. 132). That is, some of the crowning achievements of Hellenistic art can be explained with reference to the rhetorical education of artists, patrons and viewers. Seaman assigns a particularly important role to progymnasmata: the ‘preliminary rhetorical exercises’ for schoolboys aged about twelve to fifteen, best known from later rhetorical handbooks, which can be traced back to Hellenistic times.

An introductory chapter sets the scene. Seaman begins by revisiting some familiar ground: Pliny the Elder, Winkelmann, Droysen, and the problems attributing innovations in Hellenistic art to either Greek-Eastern fusion or the self-directed trajectories of Hegelian Kunstgeschichte. There follow interesting sections on progymnasmata and rhetorical education, on the status of artists during antiquity, and on the nature of interactions between high-level artists and their royal patrons. A vivid picture emerges of wealthy, (rhetorically) educated artists, who sometimes interacted with kings on familiar terms. Seaman argues persuasively that the itinerancy of such artists accounts for the common language (koine) of much Hellenistic visual production, but that the finest artists were responsible for innovations, “most of which were directly associated with the seats of the courts” (p. 21). This royal context presupposes highly educated viewers who were themselves well versed in rhetorical theory and techniques.

The following three chapters treat case studies – the Telephos Frieze of the Great Altar at Pergamon, the Archelaos Relief from Bovillae, and Sosos’ Un-swept Room mosaic – that for Seaman demonstrate the impact of rhetorical education on art and its reception at court. Specialists will know that these compositions have already generated long bibliographies. A key strength of this book, then, is Seaman’s willingness to examine them with fresh eyes, allowing her to reach new – sometimes provocative – conclusions.

Chapter Two offers a stimulating account of the Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar courtyard. After a summary of previous scholarship, Seaman sketches the composition’s architectural and historical context. While her description is clear and concise, there are places where difficult and/or controversial issues are perhaps made to seem deceptively simple. For example, the Great Altar’s dedicatory inscription is reconstructed and quoted in full, with no discussion of its woeful state of preservation; and the hypothesis of spolia  being displayed on the courtyard’s ‘sacrificial altar’ is taken as fact, without much consideration of other possibilities. Next comes Seaman’s reconstruction of the frieze, which differs from previous arrangements in one significant detail: Panels 44-46, depicting satyrs and other figures in a rural sanctuary, are relocated and re-interpreted. Usually taken to depict ceremonies in a Pergamene sanctuary of Dionysos, Seaman suggests that the satyrs in a rocky landscape point instead to the sanctuaries of Pan and Dionysos Mystes on Mount Parthenion in Arcadia. Not all readers will be convinced, since other scenes in the frieze seem to establish the antiquity of specifically Pergamene cults,[1] and a base from Pergamon records the dedication of a statue of the satyr Skirtos to Dionysos by a high-ranking courtier under Attalos I.[2]

The second part of the chapter turns to the ‘rhetorical’ aspects of the composition. Seaman suggests that the frieze—with its well-documented narrative format—was informed by diegema, a rhetorical exercise of narration, and by the kind of life-writing familiar from Plutarch but practiced already in Hellenistic times. Given this focus on possible textual cognates, more space might have been devoted here to the suggestion that the frieze was inspired by a lost Attalid court epic.[3] There follows a sharp analysis of why Telephos was chosen as a royal ancestor, which touches on Trojan imagery in Attalid art and literature, events in the reign of Eumenes II, and the humble origins of the Attalid dynasty. This sets up Seaman’s conclusion that the frieze invited a synkrisis (comparison) between Telephos and Eumenes II. While this is a neat hypothesis, we should remain alert to the possibility that some scenes alluded to Attalid achievements and institutions that were less directly associated with Eumenes II. For example, the panels showing the battle of Greeks and Mysians at the River Kaikos may have recalled Attalos I’s victory over the Tolistoagian Galatians at the same location in the 230s BC.

Chapter Three, on the Archelaos Relief, is the most provocative of the volume. After discussing the relief’s Italian find location, Seaman turns to the question of its artistic origins. Like most commentators, she concludes that the composition’s iconography originated in a Ptolemaic milieu, thanks largely to the personifications of Chronos (Time) and Oikoumene (Space) in the lower register, identified as crypto-portraits of Ptolemy IV Philopator and Arsinoe III. She rightly connects this register to the Homereion built by Philopator in Alexandria, but then advances several heterodox readings that challenge the traditional interpretation of the relief as an Alexandrian votive taken to Italy (pp. 76-79). Firstly, she argues against a votive function. Secondly, she suggests that the relief is a Roman ‘copy’ of an earlier Alexandrian ‘original’. Finally, she proposes that this ‘original’ may have been a topographical painting comparable to the Nile Mosaic at Praeneste, displayed in a royal context. Readers will decide for themselves whether they find these new interpretations persuasive. To this reviewer, however, they seem influenced by a desire to identify the Archelaos Relief as an example of ‘court art’ alongside the other compositions treated in the volume.

There follows a strong discussion of the labelled personifications in the relief’s lower register, which sheds important light on the cultural currency of the personified entities in their original Ptolemaic context. Seaman then identifies some points of intersection between these personifications and prospopoiia, a rhetorical technique of characterisation. Less successful, in my opinion, is the chapter’s final section, in which the structure of the relief is compared to the literary form of the enkomion. Here there are several proposals that seem un-provable or unlikely: that the upper registers of the composition, depicting Zeus, Mnenosyne, the Muses and Apollo, allude directly to Hesiod’s Theogony; that the himation-wearing statue in the second register may represent Hesiod himself; that the structure of the relief might have been informed by Theokritos’ Idyll 17; that Ptolemy IV’s assimilation with Chronos was perhaps a “challenge to Zeus’s superiority” (p. 108).

Sosos’ Un-swept Room mosaic is the subject of Chapter Four. According to Pliny the Elder, this mosaic depicted “refuse from a meal on a pavement, and whatever things usually are swept out, just as if they were left behind”.[4] Although Sosos’ original is lost, a series of later versions allow us to imagine its appearance. The finest version, signed by the mosaicist Herakleitos, was excavated in a villa on the Aventine in April 1833 and is today kept in the Vatican Museums. Seaman handles this composition expertly throughout, and rightly draws attention to its vignette depicting a small mouse nibbling on a walnut shell.[5]

The first part of the chapter is a thorough attempt to re-contextualise Sosos’ Un-swept Room in its original Pergamene context. Seaman presents a strong case that the composition decorated a royal andrōn (dining room) under Eumenes II, and even proposes a specific display context: Room I in Palace V. She then connects the mosaic to the rhetorical technique of ekphrasis, which involved describing people, animals, artworks and other things. Noting the emphasis on narrative and time in ekphrastic theory, she suggests that the mosaic alluded specifically to the aftermath of the symposion. There follows an analysis of the factors that inspired this iconographic choice. Taking her lead from a passage of Cicero’s speech In Defence of Quintus Gallus, Seaman supposes that the Un-swept Room would have evoked “a filthy room that was overseen by a disorganized, overindulgent host” (p. 130). She therefore concludes that Sosos’ composition was a sophisticated and playful joke, since Eumenes II would never have hosted such a messy party. Although this interpretation accords well with the performative aspect of Hellenistic symposia, it is debatable whether Sosos’ Un-swept Room necessarily elicited a negative (and so humorous) response from viewers. Other texts, such as Hippolochos’ description of the wedding feast of Karanos,[6] might be taken to imply a more positive register of reception rooted in ideas like tryphē (luxury).

The arguments of these chapters are then summarised in a short conclusion. As well as the exciting new suggestions on offer, the central value of this book lies in its portrayal of life at the Ptolemaic and Attalid courts. Seaman paints an evocative picture of this royal milieu, characterised by grand monuments, knowledgeable patrons, talented artists, high-flying intellectuals and extravagant dinner parties.

What, then, of Seaman’s central thesis? She is surely correct that the best Hellenistic artists were well educated and enjoyed considerable respect in court circles. To my mind, however, it remains difficult to trace direct connections between the rhetorical education of artists and their patrons on the one hand, and the great innovations of Hellenistic art on the other. Two considerations should perhaps be highlighted here. Firstly, Seaman’s explanatory model risks prioritising rhetorical education at the expense of the other social and cultural factors that shaped artistic production in the Hellenistic world. Despite her suggestive arguments, we have little direct evidence that Hellenistic artists and art criticism were much concerned with rhetorical theory and techniques. Given this, some readers might still prefer to focus on those factors that we can identify and analyse with greater precision. Secondly, Seaman’s model risks overstating the ‘similarity’ between texts and artworks, which are presented here as the twin offspring of Greek rhetorical education. We should perhaps envisage a looser connection between these distinct spheres of cultural production, founded not so much on specific rhetorical techniques that are attested only sporadically during Hellenistic times, but on the life of luxury and learning in leading cultural centres that Seaman evokes so effectively.

Despite this difference of opinion, Rhetoric and Innovation in Hellenistic Art is an original and thought-provoking contribution to our understanding of Hellenistic visual culture. Seaman’s arguments are supported by an excellent set of Figures and Plates, though the publisher’s choice of endnotes is not reader-friendly.


[1] See Panel 11, perhaps showing Auge establishing a Pergamene cult of Athena (though Seaman, following C. Bauchhenss-Thüriedl and F. Queyrel, locates this scene in Arcadia); and Panels 49-50, showing Telephos building an altar.

[2] Müller, H., ‘Ein neues hellenistisches Weihepigramm aus Pergamon’, Chiron 19 (1989), 499-553.

[3] A possible connection with ‘the ancient novel’ is mentioned only very briefly at pp. 56-57. For the notion of a lost Attalid court epic, see e.g. Stewart, A., ‘A hero’s quest: narrative and the Telephos Frieze’, in E. Schraudolph and R. Dreyfus (eds), Pergamon: the Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar, vol. 1 (San Francisco, 1996), 39-52, at 42-43.

[4] Pliny, Natural History 36.184 (Seaman’s translation).

[5] Seaman identifies this detail as one of the mosaic’s ‘modern restorations and additions’ (p. 110). It is interesting, in this context, that the mouse is mentioned in a description of the mosaic composed prior to its piecemeal removal from the Aventine and subsequent restoration. This is the description published by L. Vescovali in Diario di Roma on 8 May 1833, referring to ‘un sorcetto che tra que’rifìuti degli uomini va trovando per se lautissimo banchetto’. The description is quoted by Werner, K. E.: Die Sammlung antiker Mosaiken in den Vatikanischen Museen (Vatican, 1998), at 269 n. 3.

[6] Athenaios, Learned Banqueters 4.128a-130d.