Ancient Sources on Aphrodite

Hesiod, Theogony

On the birth of Aphrodite (lines 175-205):
[175] “… And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her. Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle [180] with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round [185] she bore the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, [190] they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass [195] grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, [200] and Philommedes because she sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honor she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods,— [205] the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.”

Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1914. <>

Pliny the Elder, Natural History

On the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles (XXXVI.20-21):
20. “Superior to any other statue, not only to others made by Praxiteles himself, but throughout the world, is the Venus, which many people have sailed to Cnidus to see. He had made two statues and was offering them for sale at the same time. One was clothed, and for this reason was preferred by the people of Cos who had an option to buy, although Praxiteles offered it at the same price as the other—this way he thought the only decent and proper response. So the people of Cnidus bought the Venus when the Coans refused, and its reputation became greatly enhanced.”
21. “Subsequently King Nicomedes wanted to buy it from them, promising to cancel all the state’s debts, which were vast. The Cnidians, however, preferred to endure anything rather than sell the statue. Nor without just cause, for with it Praxiteles made Cnidus famous. The shrine that houses it is completely open so that the statue of the goddess can be seen from all sides, and it was made in this way, so it is believed, with the goddess’s approval. It is admirable from every angle. There is a story that a man who had fallen in love with the statue hid in the temple at night and embraced it intimately; a stain bears witness to his lust.”

Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Penguin Books, Ltd., trans John F. Healy, 1991, XXXVI.20-21. <”pliny” natural history&lr=&pg=PA346#v=onepage&q=&f=false>

For another translation, see also:
The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, 1855, Book XXXVI, Chapter 4. (5.). <>

[Note, the numbering of Book and Chapter notation in this edition that does not correspond with other editions. E.g. Bk. XXXVI, Ch. 20-21 in most editions equals Bk. XXXVI Ch. 4 in the Bostock edition. The advantage of the Bostock edition available through the Perseus Digital Library is that the entire text is online.]

“…superior to all the statues, not only of Praxiteles, but of any other artist that ever existed, is his Cnidian Venus; for the inspection of which, many persons before now have purposely undertaken a voyage to Cnidos. The artist made two statues of the goddess, and offered them both for sale: one of them was represented with drapery, and for this reason was preferred by the people of Cos, who had the choice; the second was offered them at the same price, but, on the grounds of propriety and modesty, they thought fit to choose the other. Upon this, the Cnidians purchased the rejected statue, and immensely superior has it always been held in general estimation. At a later period, King Nicomedes wished to purchase this statue of the Cnidians, and made them an offer to pay off the whole of their public debt, which was very large. They preferred, however, to submit to any extremity rather than part with it; and with good reason, for by this statue Praxiteles has perpetuated the glory of Cnidos. The little temple in which it, is placed is open on all sides, so that the beauties of the statue admit of being seen from every point of view; an arrangement which was favoured by the goddess herself, it is generally believed. Indeed, from whatever point it is viewed, its execution is equally worthy of admiration. A certain individual, it is said, became enamoured of this statue, and, concealing himself in the temple during the night, gratified his lustful passion upon it, traces of which are to be seen in a stain left upon the marble.”

On the polychromy of Classical sculpture (XXXV.130, 133):
Nicias, an Athenian … “who was an extremely careful painter of female portraits….It is this Nicias of whom Praxiteles used to say, when asked which of his own works in marble he placed highest, ‘The ones to which Nicias has set his hand’–so much value did he assign to his colouring of surfaces.”

Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Penguin Books, Ltd., trans John F. Healy, 1991, XXXV.130, 133. <

[Completely irrelevant to Aphrodite, but just for fun, the famous story…]
On the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius (XXXV.65):
In a contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, Zeuxis produced so successful a representation of grapes that birds flew up to the stage-buildings where it was hung. Then Parrhasius produced such a successful trompe-l’oeil of a curtain that Zeuxis, puffed up with pride and judgement of the birds, asked that the curtain be drawn aside and the picture revealed. When he realized his mistake, with an unaffected modesty he conceded the prize, saying that whereas he had deceived birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Penguin Books, Ltd., trans John F. Healy, 1991, XXXV.65. <”pliny” natural history&lr=&pg=PA330#v=onepage&q=&f=false>

Pausanais, Description of Greece

On Praxiteles and Phryne’s relationship (Vol 3, Book X, Ch 14):
“The golden statue of Phryne here was made by Praxiteles, who was one of her lovers; but the statue was dedicated by Phryne.”

Pausanias. The Description of Greece, Volume 3. Trans. Thomas Taylor. London, 1824, p. 125. <”Pausanias”&pg=PA125#v=onepage&q=&f=false>

Note: Quote appears in the last line of chapter 14 in this edition. Other editions place this text as the first line of chapter 15; c.f.:

Pausanias. Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918, X.15.1. <>

On Phryne tricking Praxiteles to reveal his favorite work (Vol 1, Book XX, Ch 1-2):
“Leading from the Prytaneum is a road called Tripods. The place takes its name from the shrines, large enough to hold the tripods which stand upon them, of bronze, but containing very remarkable works of art, including a Satyr, of which Praxiteles is said to have been very proud. Phryne once asked of him the most beautiful of his works, and the story goes that lover-like he agreed to give it, but refused to say which he thought the most beautiful. So a slave of Phryne rushed in saying that a fire had broken out in the studio of Praxiteles, and the greater number of his works were lost, though not all were destroyed. Praxiteles at once started to rush through the door crying that his labour was all wasted if indeed the flames had caught his Satyr and his Love. But Phryne bade him stay and be of good courage, for he had suffered no grievous loss, but had been trapped into confessing which were the most beautiful of his works. So Phryne chose the statue of Love…”

Pausanias. Description of Greece, Volume 1. Trans. William Henry Samuel Jones. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1918, p. 97. <”Pausanias”&pg=PA97#v=onepage&q=&f=false>

Amores, attributed to Lucian

On the rotunda temple to Aphrodite at Knidos and the statue of Aphrodite (13-16):
“13. When the plants had given us pleasure enough, we entered the temple. In the midst thereof sits the goddess–she’s a most beautiful statue of Parian marble–arrogantly smiling a little as a grin parts her lips. Draped by no garment, all her beauty is uncovered and revealed, except in so far as she unobtrusively uses one hand to hide her private parts. So great was the power of the craftsman’s art that the hard unyielding marble did justice to every limb. Charicles at any rate raised a mad distracted cry and exclaimed, “Happiest indeed of the gods was Ares, who suffered chains because of her!” And, as he spoke, he ran up and, stretching out his neck as far as he could, started to kiss the goddess with importunate lips. Callicratidas stood by in silence with amazement in his heart.

The temple had a door on both sides for the benefit of those also who wish to have a good view of the goddess from behind, so that no part of her be left unadmired. It’s easy therefore for people to enter by the other door and survey the beauty of her back.

14. And so we decided to see all of the goddess and went round to the back of the precinct. Then, when the door had been opened by the woman responsible for keeping the keys, we were filled with an immediate wonder for the beauty we beheld. The Athenian who had been so impassive an observer a minute before, upon inspecting those parts of the goddess which recommend a boy, suddenly raised a shout far more frenzied than that of Charicles. “Heracles!” he exclaimed, “what a well-proportioned back! What generous flanks she has! How satisfying an armful to embrace! How delicately moulded the flesh on the buttocks, neither too thin and close to the bone, nor yet revealing too great an expanse of fat! And as for those precious parts sealed in on either side by the hips, how inexpressibly sweetly they smile! How perfect the proportions of the thighs and the shins as they stretch down in a straight line to the feet! So that’s what Ganymede looks like as he pours out the nectar in heaven for Zeus and makes it taste sweeter. For I’d never have taken the cup from Hebe if she served me.” While Callicratidas was shouting this under the spell of the goddess, Charicles in the excess of his admiration stood almost petrified, though his emotions showed in the melting tears trickling from his eyes.

15. When we could admire no more, we noticed a mark on one thigh like a stain on a dress; the unsightliness of this was shown up by the brightness of the marble everywhere else. I therefore, hazarding a plausible guess about the truth of the matter, supposed that what we saw was a natural defect in the marble. For even such things as these are subject to accident and many potential masterpieces of beauty are thwarted by bad luck. And so, thinking the black mark to be a natural blemish, I found in this too cause to admire Praxiteles for having hidden what was unsightly in the marble in the parts less able to be examined closely. But the attendant woman who was standing near us told us a strange, incredible story. For she said that a young man of a not undistinguished family — though his deed has caused him to be left nameless — who often visited the precinct, was so ill-starred as to fall in love with the goddess. He would spend all day in the temple and at first gave the impression of pious awe. For in the morning he would leave his bed long before dawn to go to the temple and only return home reluctantly after sunset. All day long would he sit facing the goddess with his eyes fixed uninterruptedly upon her, whispering indistinctly and carrying on a lover’s complaints in secret conversation.

16. But when he wished to give himself some little comfort from his suffering, after first addressing the goddess, he would count out on the table four knuckle-bones of a Libyan gazelle and take a gamble on his expectations. If he made a successful throw and particularly if ever he was blessed with the throw named after the goddess herself, and no dice showed the same face, he would prostrate himself before the goddess, thinking he would gain his desire. But, if as usually happens he made an indifferent throw on to his table, and the dice revealed an unpropitious result, he would curse all Cnidus and show utter dejection as if at an irremediable disaster; but a minute later he would snatch up the dice and try to cure by another throw his earlier lack of success. But presently, as his passion grew more inflamed, every wall came to be inscribed with his messages and the bark of every tender tree told of fair Aphrodite. Praxiteles was honoured by him as much as Zeus and every beautiful treasure that his home guarded was offered to the goddess. In the end the violent tension of his desires turned to desperation and he found in audacity a procurer for his lusts. For, when the sun was now sinking to its setting, quietly and unnoticed by those present, he slipped in behind the door and, standing invisible in the inmost part of the chamber, he kept still, hardly even breathing. When the attendants closed the door from the outside in the normal way, this new Anchises was locked in. But why do I chatter on and tell you in every detail the reckless deed of that unmentionable night? These marks of his amorous embraces were seen after day came and the goddess had that blemish to prove what she’d suffered. The youth concerned is said, according to the popular story told, to have hurled himself over a cliff or down into the waves of the sea and to have vanished utterly.”

Lucian (attributed). Amores. trans. A.M. Harmon (Loeb edition). <>

Greek Anthology

On the goddess Aphrodite’s reaction to the Knidia by Praxiteles (VI.160):

“Where did Praxiteles see me naked?”


26: Aphrodite of Knidos

Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host, Lucas Livingston. Last time in episode 25, “Beheaded Beauties,” we explored the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2nd century Roman headless statue of a seated woman. We closed with a glimpse of the also-headless and roughly contemporary 2nd century statue of a standing nude woman.

There are a number of indicators that tell us that this is a copy of the famed Aphrodite of Knidos by the prolific Hellenistic sculptor Praxiteles from the 4th century BC, approximately five centuries earlier than the Art Institute’s copy.

The Aphrodite of Knidos has her claim to fame as being the nude that ushered in the era of Greek nudes. She’s widely considered one of the first and certainly the most famous of Greek nude female sculptures. She gets her name from, well, of course, the subject depicted, Aphrodite, goddess of love, the Roman Venus. And Knidos comes from the ancient city that purchased the statue from Praxiteles. Knidos was located on the southeastern coast of Turkey on a narrow peninsula jutting far out into the Aegean Sea. You might also come across the pronunciation [ni’dus], but that’s just plain silly.

In his work called the Natural History, the 1st century Roman historian Pliny the Elder recounts the story that Praxiteles was commissioned by two cities for a statue of Aphrodite, Knidos and Kos. So, Praxiteles created two different statues of the goddess, one traditional draped figure and then the very Avante-garde nude. Kos, the wealthier of the two cities, got first dibs and went with the less controversial draped Aphrodite and Knidos got the leftovers, although that’s really not fair to say. They still got a Praxiteles. And the world fell in love with her. This controversial nude depiction of a goddess put Knidos on the map. So stunningly beautiful was the work of art, that the goddess Aphrodite herself is said to have asked, “Where did Praxiteles see me naked?” Pliny states that, “…superior to any other statue, not only to others made by Praxiteles himself, but throughout the world, is the Venus, which many people have sailed to Cnidus to see.” People came from far and wide throughout the Mediterranean World to visit her. The citizens of Knidos set her up in a rotunda, a round chapel, so she could be equally admired from all angles. There’s an interesting account of the setting in the Amores:

“…we entered the temple. In the midst thereof sits the goddess–she’s a most beautiful statue of Parian marble–arrogantly smiling a little as a grin parts her lips. Draped by no garment, all her beauty is uncovered and revealed, except in so far as she unobtrusively uses one hand to hide her private parts. So great was the power of the craftsman’s art that the hard unyielding marble did justice to every limb….The temple had a door on both sides for the benefit of those also who wish to have a good view of the goddess from behind, so that no part of her be left unadmired. It’s easy therefore for people to enter by the other door and survey the beauty of her back.”

To add further scandal to this already controversial nude depiction of a goddess, various stories begin to emerge in the centuries following the statue’s debut identifying the famous Greek courtesan Phryne as having supposedly been the model for this sacred icon of the goddess Aphrodite. Other accounts also surface of the supposed romantic affair between Praxiteles and Phryne.

Later during the Roman era, it became vogue for sculptors to produce copies of famous works for wealthy patricians to decorate their villas. The Aphrodite of Knidos was one such statue and her image soon flooded to Roman empire. Figures based on the Aphrodite of Knidos are commonly referred to as “Knidia.” What distinguishes the Knidia from other nude representations of the goddess is the general pose, for one. She’s commonly interpreted as engaging in the rather private act of bathing and we’re peering at her with this almost voyeuristic gaze. Her right arm reaches down seemingly in a gesture of modesty. We see two small bumps on her inner left thigh where two fingers of her right hand one engaged with the thigh. That’s something of a remarkable feature to this Roman copy. The torso and at least the right arm are composed of a single unbroken piece of marble skillfully carved to produce the long curving limb structurally reinforced by its engagement with the hip. Remember from last episode’s Statue of a Seated Woman that it was common for sculptors to carve limbs and other precarious projections separately and then attach them with wooden or metal dowels, or more properly called tenons. So while the Art Institute’s heavily weathered Knidia may not be the hottie that she used to be, she’s still quite artistically remarkable. On her outside left thigh is a fairly long fragmented tab from some now lost section. Most likely the characteristic Roman period support pillar once connected with the rest of the figure at this point.

The support pillar was probably in the shape of a vessel that held the water for her bath. The evidence can be seen in other copies of the Knidia, one of the more famous being the Colonna Venus in the Vatican’s Museo Pio-Clementino. Also the Venus Braschi in the Munich Glyptothek. In her left hand she holds her drapery that she has removed for her ritual cleansing, which is now missing from the Art Institute example. Perhaps our best evidence for the appearance of the original Praxitelean Aphrodite of Knidos comes not from later copies, but from coins, like this 1916 engraving of an ancient coin from Knidos supposedly depicting the original statue. Also, don’t forget … as we’ve seen in many other episodes of the podcast, this statue, too, like so many others, was painted. The 19th century neo-classical sculptor John Gibson shocked audiences when he debuted his Tinted Venus in an attempt to recapture the Classical taste for polychromy.

As we already learned, the Aphrodite of Knidos was one of the most famous statues in her day and extensively copied during the Roman era. There are a bunch of copies existing today, and for each surviving copy we can imagine dozens of copies that didn’t withstand the ravages of time and mankind. The whole notion of a Roman “copy” of a Greek original, though, is a very loaded term that demands a little more attention. When we think of a copy, we likely think of an exact duplicate, like a photocopy. But when we’re talking about Roman copies of Greek statues, the copy in this context can more so be thought of having been inspired by the original. Putting two copies of the same original side-by-side reveal distinct differences. Often the Roman era artists may not have even seen the original, and were working from a description, another copy, or at best a tiny image on a coin. In the case of the Knidia, in the successive centuries, we begin to see some variants on the original form.

One popular variant is dubbed the “Venus Pudica” — the “modest Venus.” A particularly famous example is the Venus de’ Medici in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Here we see both hands of the goddess posed in what are generally interpreted as gestures of modesty, the right hand now at her chest and the left hand below the waist. The drapery is gone and the vessel in this example has been replaced with a small cupid figure riding a dolphin. The dolphin alludes to the sea, out of which, according to one legend, Aphrodite was born. Check out Hesiod’s Theogony around line 175. It’s a bit gruesome, but nothing you can’t handle. You’ll find a link to the full ancient text translated into English at Just click on “Ancient Sources on Aphrodite” in the Additional Resources section. There you’ll also find links to some of the other primary sources that we’ve learned about in this episode on the Aphrodite of Knidos. Aphrodite rising from the sea is perhaps most famously captured not in an ancient work of art, but in Sandro Botticelli’s the Birth of Venus from 1482-86, also in the Uffizi. The pose of the goddess by the Florentine master strongly reflects the Venus de’ Medici, which Botticelli had plenty of opportunity to study.

Despite first-hand accounts from ancient sources stating that Aphrodite is covering up her private parts for modesty’s sake, you’ll come across some revisionist interpretations of the gesture not as a shameful attempt to cover her sexuality, but rather to emphasize it. Check out, for example, Christine Mitchell Havelock’s 1995 publication The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors, where the author argues that her nudity signifies her divine birth from the sea, and we’re not catching her off guard at her bath. Rather, the vessel is for ritual cleansing and renewal. So, we shouldn’t necessarily take any interpretation at its face value, even an ancient one. But it’s important to remember that our own contemporary culture can easily be a filter that shapes and guides our interpretations. And that’s what makes art the gift that keeps on giving.

Don’t forget to check out for image credits, bibliographic references, and links to lots of other relevant things. I appreciate your feedback and suggestions for future episodes. You can reach me at or with the feedback form on the website. You’ll find me on Twitter at lucaslivingston. And you can leave your comments on YouTube, iTunes, or on the website itself. You might have heard that the Art Institute of Chicago’s podcast Musecast has reached its final episode, but don’t worry. The Ancient Art Podcast ain’t goin’ anywhere! Thanks for listening and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2009 Lucas Livingston,

Image Credits

1. Statue of a Seated Woman, Roman, 2nd century A.D. The Art Institute of Chicago. Katherine K. Adler Endowment, 1986.1060. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009.
2. Galleries of Roman art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009. (photo #DSC03599)
3. Galleries of Roman art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009. (photo #DSC03598)
4. Statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos, 2nd century A.D. Roman copy of a fourth century B.C. Greek original by Praxiteles. The Art Institute of Chicago, Katherine K. Adler Endowment, 1981.11. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009.

1. Shepherd, William R. “ Reference Map of Asia Minor under the Greeks and Romans,” The Historical Atlas, 1923, from the University of Texas Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.
2. “Venus Temple at the Villa Adriana in Tivoli,” photo by Jastrow, September 2006.
3. Temple of Venus at Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Italy. Image from “Tivoli.” Encyclopaedia Romana. Accessed 28 November, 2009.
4. Unidentified statue of of a woman, presumable Aphrodite, in the Louvre Museum, Paris, France. Photo 20 October, 2007.
5. The Colonna Venus. Roman period copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos. Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican, Italy. Image from “Aphrodite of Cnidus,” Encyclopaedia Romana. Accessed 4 December, 2009
6. The Colonna Venus from Paul Carus, Venus of Milo: An Archaeological Study of Woman. The Open Court Publishing Company, 1916, p. 172.
7. Head of Aphrodite, of the Aspremont-Lynden/Arles type, 1st AD copy of an original from Praxiteles. Christian mark (cross) defacing the chin and forehead. Found in the Roman Agora of Athens. National Archaeological Museum in Athens (MNA 1762).
8. Ludovisi Cnidian Aphrodite. Roman copy after a Greek original of the 4th century. Marble; original elements: torso and thighs; restored elements: head, arms, legs and support (drapery and jug). Ludovisi Collection, Palazzo Altemps, National Roman Museum, Inv. 8619. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, September 2009.
9. So-called Aphrodite Braschi, 1st century BC copy after a votive statue of Praxitelean Aphrodite of Cnidus type, ca. 350–340 BC). Glyptothek, Munich, Germany, Inv. 258. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol, 2007-02-08.
10. An engraving by Roscher of an ancient coin from Knidos, showing the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles, from Paul Carus, Venus of Milo: An Archaeological Study of Woman. The Open Court Publishing Company, 1916, p. 162.
11. John Gibson, The Tinted Venus, c.1851-6. Tinted marble, height 175 cm Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England (WAG7808).
12. “John Gibson: The Tinted Venus.” Encyclopaedia Romana. Accessed 4 December, 2009.
13. Modern cast in Pushkin Museum, Moscow, of the Venus de’ Medici, 1st century BC, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
14. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). The Birth of Venus, ca 1482-1486. Tempera on canvas. 172.5 cm x 278.5 cm (67.9 in x 109.6 in), Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.


25: Beheaded Beauties

Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast, bringing you the chart-topping hits from the ancient art billboard three years running now. Every month or so the Art Institute of Chicago publishes a neat little self-guide that draws connections between different works of art in the collection. You can download it or pick it up at the museum, or just keep it on your smartphone while you go around browsing the artwork. In keeping with the Halloween season, the October 2009 self-guide is called “Off with Their Heads,” inspired, as it says, “by the playfully disembodied human heads that practitioners of Victorian photocollage whimsically grafted on to animal bodies or morphed into household objects…[T]his guide reveals the bounty of beheadings in the collection, from the ghoulish to the gorgeous.”

One humorous disembodiment is a page from the Madame B Album of the 1870’s where little portrait photos of Madame B’s family were cut out and pasted onto the tail feathers of a watercolor turkey. And then the rather grisly Head of Guillotined Man by Théodore Géricault from 1818 to 1819. Supposedly Géricault kept this severed head of a thief in his studio for two weeks! On the flip side, some headless bodies include the provocative, yet disturbing 1988 sculpture of a Woman in a Tub by Jeff Koons. You can only wonder what’s at the other end of that snorkel poking out of the water. And then we come to a Roman period Statue of a Seated Woman.

The Art Institute self-guide reveals that this 2nd century marble sculpture didn’t lose its head as an accident. You can tell from the deep cavity in the neck that the head was carved separately and then attached to the torso. It was common among Roman statuary to make the head removable and interchangeable, especially with imperial statuary. In our current economic climate we can appreciate that marble was expensive. So instead of throwing away the whole statue of someone after they passed away, it made more sense simply to remove the distinctly identifiable portrait head and replace that with the head of the new emperor or whoever has just inherited the work of art, because the clothing that they wore, or in the case of the emperor, the military regalia, didn’t considerably change enough to warrant the cost of a whole new body.

If you look closely, you’ll see that the arms too were separately carved and attached with dowels, like little rods. See the holes carved into the shoulders of the woman? Dowels could be made from wood or metal and a simple analysis could tell you in the case here, but the reason for separately carved arms wasn’t so they could be interchangeable. Wipe those images of Mr. Potato Head from your mind. No, it served the very practical function of permitting them to bend a little bit. Marble along with any kind of stone has a very low tensile strength, meaning it’ll break before it bends. Wood and metal have a far greater ability to bend, so it was wise to insert dowels at points of precarious joints, like where an outstretched arm meets the shoulder. Without the dowels, the arms would have long since snapped off and would be forever lost … um … well.

Moving right along, the elaborate drapery is befitting of a goddess, perhaps Juno, the Roman Hera, or perhaps a wealthy patrician matron casting herself in the light of a goddess. As the self-guide suggests, perhaps one of the imperial wives: Faustina the Elder or her daughter Faustina II, both elevated to goddesses posthumously. Whomever the original subject may have been, it’s thought that the artist was likely looking back to the grand sculptural legacy of the Periklean Acropolis. We examined the Parthenon frieze ad nauseam in episodes 10, 11, and 12. Nearby the Parthenon, jutting out on a precipice of the Acropolis is the diminutive Temple of Athena Niké, that is Athena in the guise of Nike, goddess of victory. The Nike temple of 410 BC was once adorned with richly carved depictions of the goddess striking various poses, like the exquisite and thankfully surviving example of Nike fastening her sandals in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, or some might say unfastening her sandals as she prepares to enter a sacred space. You see how deeply carved the folds of her drapery are? There’s this almost unnatural suspension of gravity and physics. She’s definitely having a massively bad static cling day. In these figures of Nike, the desperately realistic and idealized images from the High Classical Greek era are beginning to give way to the more exaggerated and outlandishly baroque style of the later Hellenistic period. Her robe becomes almost liquid as is pours and cascades down her frame revealing the not so subtle contours of her nude physique underneath.

We see a strong stylistic influence taking place on a somewhat more prudish Roman level in the figure from the Art Institute. The drapery spilling over her leg also has this rather liquid appearance to it, like some ancient Roman wet toga contest effectively revealing her leg beneath. Her undergarment produces a sort of tidy meander at the ground level similar to the earlier Nike. Note also the belt clenching her waist and bunching the fabric. We also see a similar tight cinching of the waist on other fragmentary Nikes from the Temple of Athena Niké as well as a similar horizontal billowing of an especially large fold of drapery. The many stylistic similarities in the rendering of drapery strongly suggest that the Roman era artist of the Art Institute’s 2nd century AD Statue of a Seated Woman was indeed likely receiving strong inspiration from that pinnacle of Greek artistic achievement, the 5th century BC Athenian Acropolis.

It’s not entirely surprising that a 2nd century Roman artist would receive inspiration from the Ancient Greek sculptural tradition of six centuries earlier. Many of the artist in the Roman Empire were in fact Greek slaves. The size and scope of the Roman slave force was phenomenal. The HBO series Rome gives you some sense of the proliferation of slavery. Many of the highly skilled laborers in the Roman Empire were slaves, including artists, accountants, physicians, secretaries, tutors for Rome’s privileged children, and, get this, corporate management! So, it’s quite likely that our Roman era artist here would have received his artistic training in Greece, with many Classical and Hellenistic prototypes, including the Acropolis sculptures, serving as models.

This Statue of a Seated Woman isn’t the only beheaded beauty in the Art Institute’s Roman art collection. Here’s a lovely lady contemporary to the seated woman. This is a 2nd century copy of one of the most notable statues from the Hellenistic world, the famed Aphrodite of Knidos by the 4th century BC Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. The Aphrodite of Knidos was the nude that ushered in the era of Greek nudes. This is one of countless copies of the Praxitelean Aphrodite produced during the Roman era, which demonstrates the feverish popularity of the original work. The Aphrodite of Knidos deserves much more attention than what we’re able to cover in the short span of this episode, so we’ll just have to defer our satisfaction until next time when we’ll take a close detailed look at the fantastic history, legacy, and artistry of the Aphrodite of Knidos.

In the mean time, download “Off with Their Heads,” the October self-guide to the Art Institute of Chicago. If you follow me on Twitter at lucaslivingston, you’ll already have the link — check out Also, try to visit the special exhibition “Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage” at the Art Institute on view through January 3, 2010. You’ll find a nice little interview with the curator Liz Siegel in the October episode of the museum’s podcast Musecast. Thanks to everyone who’s sending the feedback and questions. You can contact me at You can also leave comments at the website, on YouTune, and on iTunes. You’ll find the feedback form at, plus the nice little survey that helps me get to know more about you all and your interests. Happy Halloween and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2009 Lucas Livingston,

Image Credits

1. Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier (French, 1831-1906). The Marvelous Album of Madame B, 1870’s. The Art Institute of Chicago. Mary and Leigh Block Endowment, 2005.297.1-141.

2. Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault (French, 1791-1824). Head of a Guillotined Man, 1818/19. The Art Institute of Chicago. Through prior gift of William Wood Prince; L. L. and A. S. Coburn Endowment; Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1992.628.

3. Jeff Koons (American, born 1955). Woman in a Tub, 1988. Porcelain. The Art Institute of Chicago. Collection Stefan T. Edlis Trust, partial and promised gift to the Art Institute of Chicago, 2005.472.

4. Statue of a Seated Woman, Roman, 2nd century A.D. The Art Institute of Chicago. Katherine K. Adler Endowment, 1986.1060. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009.

11. The British Museum, Room 18 – The Parthenon Galleries (North Slip Room). Photo by Mujtaba Chohan. 8 January 2007.

12. Cavalcade. Block II from the west frieze of the Parthenon, ca. 447–433 BC. British Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. 2006.

13. Areopagus with the Acropolis of Athens in the background.

14. Temple of Athena Nike, Acropolis of Athens Greece. Photo by Steve Swayne, 26 August, 1978.

15. Nike adjusting her sandal from the parapet of the Temple of Athena Nike, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, c. 410 BC, Acropolis Museum Athens. [Official website]

16. Two Nikai leading a bull to sacrifice. Slab north IV, figures 10-11 from the parapet of the temple of Athena Nike, Greece, c. 410 BC, Acropolis Museum Athens. [Official website]

17. Image of Acropolis hill and Parthenon at night. Photo by Thermos, 29 June 2006.

18. Title image from the HBO television series “Rome,” 2005-2007. [Official website]

19. Galleries of Roman art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009.

20. Statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos, 2nd century A.D. Roman copy of a fourth century B.C. Greek original by Praxiteles. The Art Institute of Chicago, Katherine K. Adler Endowment, 1981.11. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009.

12: The Parthenon Frieze, Part 3

Welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host, Lucas Livingston, your guide on our journey across the Ancient Mediterranean World. Last time in Episode 11, The Parthenon Frieze, Part 2, we continued to inch toward our understanding of the Persian influence on the Parthenon Frieze. We discovered that Ionian Greek artisans played a significant role in the construction of the Persian imperial cities of Persepolis and Susa. We also looked at further evidence for the employment of Ionian artists in the Ancient Near east, in particular Asia Minor, like at Xanthos in Lycia. So, in this cultural melting pot of the Persian Empire, we see a significant exchange of artistic, iconographic, and social ideas, some of which shape Persian and Near Eastern art, while other ideas make their way over from Persia to Greece.

In this episode, we’ll begin with a brief history of the Ionic frieze before diving headlong into the Persian influences on the Parthenon Frieze of the Athenian Acropolis. It’s not absolutely necessary to trace the history of the Ionic frieze, but since the Parthenon Frieze participates in this history, it’s important to isolate what’s traditional and what’s new and innovative, so we can more easily identify the various influences.

The early Ionic frieze was basically just a continuous decorative band running around the perimeter of sacred structures, like temples, shrines, and sanctuaries. It’s called the Ionic frieze, because it develops in Ionia, which we learned last time means the Greek nations along the western coast of what’s now Turkey. You typically see animals and human figures on the Ionic frieze engaging in hunting, horse and chariot races, feasting, and ritual processions or parades, but there’s really no attempt at representing specific identifiable stories … not at this early stage. Also, there’s seldom a clear beginning, middle, or end to the scene and we see a strong sense of repetition among the figures, creating a sense of rhythm as one passes by. As we’ll see more closely later on, many of these subjects and themes are also found on the Parthenon Frieze, coming together under a grand artistic and civic vision.

While the early Ionic frieze had a largely decorative function, with little mythological or historical narrative context, there seems to have been a change towards the end of the Archaic Period as the Ionic frieze regularly began to depict mythological stories. One of the earliest examples of this transformation is seen on the treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi from about 530 to 525 BC.

The Siphnian Treasury was a small sacred structure, like a chapel or shrine, dedicated to the god Apollo. It was built by the island city-state of Siphnos in the Aegean among the Cycladic Islands. It’s called a treasury, because it was where many devotional offerings dedicated to Apollo were housed, mostly statuary given by the people of Siphnos. This was a common practice by Greek city-states, especially at the sanctuaries of Apollo at Delphi and Zeus at Olympia. Dedicating a treasury was a form of national marketing, so other city-states could gawk at its lavish splendor and be jealous of your wealth and power.

The east face of the frieze on the front of the treasury is divided into two panels of equal length. We see an assembly of the Olympian gods to the left of center and a battle scene from the Trojan War to the right. The organization of the figures is very balanced and thoroughly planned. Even though the left and right panels are architecturally one single unit, they are perceived of as being separate. For one, they represent different narratives. They also, quite literally, have their backs to one another. Also, notice how within each of the two panels, the figures change directions? This helps create a sense of momentum in the figures and draws the attention of the viewer to the centers of each panel where just beneath stood the Caryatid columns, which we see here in a beautiful reconstruction of the Siphnian Treasury at the Delphi Museum. Unfortunately, the original center of the Olympian panel is now lost, but in the Trojan War scene we see what’s thought to be the lifeless body of Sarpedon lying in a crumpled pile, over which the warriors are contesting. So, we see two interesting changes to the Ionic frieze taking place on the Siphnian Treasury. First, there’s the introduction of narrative or stories, no longer just a repetitive meander of galloping horses and flittering birds. Second, further abandoning the traditional repetitive ornamental meander that stretched the entire span of the architrave, we see that the frieze is broken up into different segments with different stories and even subplots as groups of three or four figures interact more closely with each other. These innovations—the introduction of narrative and breaking up the frieze into isolated segments—directly carry over to the Parthenon Frieze.

If you’re looking for more nitty-gritty details on the Siphnian Treasury, check the article “Notes on the Development of the Greek Frieze” and other publications by one of the modern pioneers of Greek art history, Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Also check out Richard Neer’s article “Framing the Gift: The Politics of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi” in Classical Antiquity. You can find these references in the bibliography of the Additional Resources section at

We see another transformation to the Ionic frieze taking place in the Classical Period directly on the Parthenon Frieze itself. For the first time in the history of the Ionic frieze, an immediately contemporary ritual practice is alluded to or directly represented, what you might call the history of the now. As I briefly mentioned toward the beginning of this episode, the traditional Ionic frieze could represent ritual processions and cavalcades of horses. Here on the Parthenon Frieze, however, we see the Athenians representing not anonymous figures or mythic characters, but themselves. Sort of a civic self-portrait of the Athenians high above their heads as they parade alongside below in ritual procession.

A brief side note. Some of the images used here are modern replicas of the Parthenon Frieze. You’ll find these replicas of the original frieze decorating the front entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue and also on the north and south sides. You’ll also find them inside the Art Institute high above the grand staircase in the large day lit atrium officially known as gallery 200. These replicas look back to the early tradition and origin of the Art Institute as an art school rather than art museum. The galleries were once filled with plaster casts of great Classical and Renaissance sculpture to serve as models and teaching aids for the art students. But over the past century, the Art Institute has gotten rid of nearly all examples to make room for original works of art from throughout the world. One fun little thing I want to point out can be seen on the north side of the building. Here high above your head, you’ll see not only a replica of a portion of the east west [sorry … I meant to say “west” in the podcast] frieze of the Parthenon although the figures on the Art Institute aren’t actually in the same order as the current generally accepted reconstruction), but you’ll also see two of the three pivotal artists involved in the construction of the Parthenon. We have Pheidias, sculptor of the frieze and overall designer of the Classical Acropolis, and Ictinus, architect of the Classical Parthenon itself. Not present here is Callicrates, co-architect with Ictinus. Instead we have Praxiteles, famed Hellenistic sculptor of many well-known works, including the Aphrodite of Knidos, of which you’ll find a Roman period copy within the Art Institute. Perhaps we can take a closer look at this fabulous statue in a later episode of the podcast.

The traditional interpretation of Parthenon Frieze is that it represents the Grand Panathenaia, a parade held every four years in Athens that celebrates the birth of Athena and foundation of Athens with the offering of a new peplos or robe to Athena along with a hefty offering of tribute from all the different city-states within the Athenian Empire—technically still called the Delian League. The Delian League was a union of Greek city-states that came together as allies under the threat of Persian invasion and subjugation. It was formed after the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC, an early monumental victory for the Greeks over the Persians. The Delian League gets its name from the little island of Delos in the southern Aegean Sea where the treasury was kept for the money contributed by each city-state. Later on in 454 BC, Athens moved the treasury from Delos to Athens supposedly to keep it better protected, but that solidified Athens’s control of the finances and political dominance of the Delian League. With this turn of events historians often begin referring to the Delian League as the Athenian Empire, and Athens really starts to behave in a manner befitting an empire, which we start to see reflected in the arts. One of the many new purposes Athens assigned to the finances of the league was construction of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, and with that the Parthenon Frieze. It makes sense, then, that we see the Parthenon Frieze depicting the offering of tribute at the Grand Panathenaia—a portrait of the very civil practice by which the frieze was conceived. Thereby the Parthenon Frieze could also be seen as a form of propaganda—a justification or legitimization of the offering of tribute to Athens by cloaking the tribute in the context of a traditionally mythic, sacred, and even heroic context. As a side note, there are a few other interpretations of what the Parthenon Frieze might depict. If you’re interested in exploring some alternate theories, like the representation of the sacrifice of the daughter of Erechtheus, check out for starters Joan Connelly’s 1996 article “Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze,” in the American Journal of Archaeology, volume 100, pages 53-79.

So, why the big change? What caused this shift from an anonymous, almost generic representation of procession on the traditional Ionic frieze to a very specific Athenian parade on the Parthenon Frieze during this new Athenian imperial age? And I kinda just gave away the answer there. This is where we come to the Persian influence. Persepolis and the Athenian Acropolis show a pretty similar function when you look a little more closely. Both sites were ritual centers for their civic festival processions, both sites functioned as bureaucratic and administrative capitals of empires, and both sites served as treasuries to house the tribute given by subject nations of their empires.

These functional similarities could have led Athens to emulate the architectural model of Persepolis and the programmatic vision of Persia, her imperial forebearer, whose government Athens oddly enough came to parallel more and more in the wake of the Persian War. Similarly, it’s probable that Athens chose to model the Parthenon frieze in part after the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis to demonstrate a similar sort of civic pride and to pay respect to their national and now imperial godhead, Athena.

For over a century before beginning the new Classical Period Acropolis in 447 BC, Athens built little major, monumental statuary or sacred architecture. Pheidias was the artistic director of the building program on the Acropolis under the auspice of the great Athenian democrat Pericles. Pheidias gets credit for the general design and layout of the Parthenon’s frieze and sculptures and most likely for the initial models of the sculptures, but numerous artists and craftsmen from Athens and the many subject nations of the Athenian Empire were employed to execute most of the actual carving on the Parthenon.

By employing Ionian craftsmen, Athens sought to create an artistic style immediately relevant to and representative of this age of Athens as the new cosmopolitan center of the Mediterranean and leader of a panhellenic empire. Under the administration of Pericles and artistic genius of Pheidias, Athens carefully designed a new monumental architectural tradition, incorporating the local Doric order and the now more so than ever relevant Ionic order. Thus, the Ionian artists brought with themselves to Athens their traditional frieze design, and along with that their recently acquired ideas of Persian imperial propaganda.

We already mentioned some of the functional similarities between Persepolis and the Acropolis. Let’s look at some of the artistic similarities and perhaps some similarities in the way one might experience the two architectural wonders. The Audience Hall at Persepolis, called the Apadana, was the building used at the capital of the Persian Empire to received the tribute-bearing ambassadors of the subject nations. Emphasizing this function, the Apadana prominently displays extensive reliefs depicting the dignitaries with Persian and Median escorts lined up in a huge ritual procession paying honor to their ruler, patron, and protector, the Persian King. Similarly, the Parthenon frieze depicts a great assemblage of Athenians in festive, ritual procession to honor their protector and patron goddess, Athena. There’s no sense of domination or malevolent subjugation in the Apadana reliefs by some tyrannical, oppressive super-power. The ambassadors are peacefully guided by Persian and Median escorts holding hands with each other and with the lead dignitaries of each foreign party. Similarly, on the Parthenon Frieze the Athenians leading sacrificial victims and bearing gifts for their goddess are, themselves, being led by Athenian marshals. With Athenians guiding themselves in a ritual procession to the deities of the east façade, the implication here seems to be that Athens is divinely sanctioned to rule themselves, which is befitting of the placement of mortal Athenians at the culmination of the ritual procession on the east side of the frieze, the holiest external location of the Greek temple. The Olympian gods are actually pushed from the center of the Parthenon Frieze and mortal Athenians, engaging in an offering to Athena, take their place. With this, Athens effectively elevates herself to a sort of divine status, or the closest there is among Greek peoples. Similarly, at the center of the Apadana reliefs was the king—the closest human being to the divine, if not himself a living god—and around him the king’s court, where dignitaries present tribute to their patron. The event is so ritualized, so emblematic, as to become, in effect, the offering of sacrifice to their deity.

And then we come to the similarities between the Apadana reliefs and Parthenon Frieze that may function more so on a subconscious level—the common experience one might have had when participating in a ritual procession at Persepolis and on the Acropolis. What we’re looking at here on the Parthenon Frieze are different scenes of a long parade from beginning to end marching through Athens. Riders at the west end mount their horses and strap on their sandals, getting ready to take off. Horses, riders, and chariots speed along the north and south sides of the temple with the parade in full swing. Participants carry gifts and present sacrificial victims to the divine assembly at the east, with the ultimate culmination of the festival and parade being the presentation of Athena’s new peplos. Athenian and allied participants walking alongside the Parthenon in the Panathenaic procession would look up at the frieze through the intermittent breaks of the colonnade and see a familiar representation—the same thing that you’re doing right there—participating in a religious procession. And to help you engage with the frieze further, the occasional figure even looks out to the participants below. So the real life participants in a ritual procession are invited to associate themselves with the event of the Parthenon Frieze, the Parthenon itself, and the whole Acropolis.

And at Persepolis on the Apadana reliefs, the same technique is used to encourage onlookers to identify with the figures represented in the artwork, and also with Persepolis itself. The Apadana reliefs are thought to represent the annual festival of Nauroz, the Persian New Year’s celebration, when dignitaries of the subject nations were obliged to present their annual tribute, not entirely unlike the Panathenaic festival during the Athenian Empire. So, just as the figures in the Apadana reliefs are shown lined up marching to their king in a ritual parade, so too would the real-life dignitaries and soldiers be parading during the festival of Nauroz. And those aren’t just any figures in the Apadana reliefs. Their different styles of dress and the items they carry help us identify them as emissaries of the various nations subject to the Persian Empire, those very same tribute-bearing dignitaries and those very same Persian and Median soldiers, who themselves once long ago walked along these quote-unquote portraits in relief as they brought tribute to the king. The Apadana reliefs even help to channel the tribute bearers in procession as they climb the staircases to the Apadana terrace proceeding inward towards the king. And when seen in its entirety, all the hundreds of figures on the Apadana reliefs directly face the figure of the king, where he’s already receiving a Median marshal and spear-bearers, as seen here in this reconstruction drawing of the northern terrace of the Apadana from Margaret Cool Root’s 1985 article in the American Journal of Archaeology “The Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana Reliefs at Persepolis: Reassessing a Programmatic Relationship.”

So we’ve seen how the Acropolis of the new Athenian Imperial Age and the audience hall at Persepolis share a functional similarity as imperial treasuries and centers for tribute from subject nations. They were also both festival grounds for annual parades when the tribute was received. And they both served to unite a diverse group of cultures under a singular figurehead, in one case, the divine maiden and protector of democracy, Athena, and in the other, the Persian King, a living god.

We also explored a similarity in the experience of these sites by their respective festival participants in that the Apadana reliefs and the Parthenon frieze both demonstrate the same effect of connecting with the viewer, having him or her identify with the religious and imperial function of the site. We don’t see a lot of formal or stylistic similarities between the two sites, and that makes sense when you think that Athens wouldn’t directly and literally want to mimic the Persian government. Instead, by metaphorically associating themselves with their most immediate imperial forebearers, the Athenians justify their ascent to the role of emperor over the Eastern Mediterranean. By employing similar themes of tribute and the patriotic festival parade, Athens further manages to justify its claim in the eyes of the Ionian Greeks, who had long been familiar with these themes under Persian rule. And to bring it all home, Athens does all of this in the distinctly Ionian sacred artistic tradition of the Ionic frieze. How could the Ionians have possibly rebuffed their obsequious Athenian compatriots building bridges towards a new, allied, democratic Greece? Yeah, right.

Well, that concludes our long haul from Persia to Athens. I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to visit where you’ll find the image library from the podcast and the ever-expanding bibliography in the Additional Resources section. And as always you can also read the transcripts for each episode plus search them, in case there’s something you know we covered previously, but don’t want to go back and listen to each episode until you find it. Plus the transcript helps to figure out how to spell all these strange ancient names I’m spouting. Also found among the transcripts is a list of links to more great Parthenon and Persepolis resources online. If you’d like to email me, you can do so at And if you’d like to help me out, please consider offering your review of the podcast on iTunes. You’ll find a link at to visit the podcast in iTunes. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2008 Lucas Livingston,