Ancient Worlds, New Space: Greek Runners

Greek Runners

Attic black figure lekythos Attic black figure lekythos

This Attic black-figure lekythos depicts two runners racing in either the stadion race (600 feet) or the diaulos race (1200 feet) between two judges on the racecourse. The naked runners wear red fillets on their heads. The vase was made in Athens in about 550 B.C. and likely depicts an athletic event from the Panathenaic Games, a part of the largest religious festival of the city, including both musical and athletic contests held in honor of its patron goddess, Athena. The Panathenaic Festival was one of the largest and most famous local festivals in the Greek world in which athletic victors were given prize amphoras filled with olive oil. The vase, about 0.29 meters high, was excavated from a chamber tomb at Narce in Italy.

The two runners on this vase have been used as the model for a new U.S. postage stamp to be issued in conjunction with the 2004 Olympic Games.

Philip II and the Olympic Games

Macedonian silver tetradrahm, obverse with head of Olympian Zeus, reverse with horse and rider. Macedonian silver tetradrahm, obverse with head of Olympian Zeus, reverse with horse and rider.

This silver tetradrahm, struck in Macedonia, depicts a walking horse and rider on its reverse side. The naked rider holds a palm branch symbolizing victory. The obverse side shows a bearded silhouette of Zeus, a portrait of the colossal gold and ivory cult image of Zeus by Pheidias that was housed in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. The coin was manufactured by Philip II, King of Macedonia, to commemorate his victory in the horse race at the Olympic games in 356 B.C. The letters above and to the right side of the horse spell out, “of Philip,” referring to the victory.

The Roman writer Plutarch in his Life of Alexander tells us that Philip received three messages on the same day in the summer of 356. The first told of the victory of one of his generals, Parmenio, over the Illyrians; the second mentioned the victory of his race horse at Olympia; and the third told of the birth of his son Alexander. Clearly Philip was not at Olympia during this contest, nor did he come in 352 or 348 B.C., when his equestrian teams won two additional victories there. Later, in 338 B.C., Philip defeated the allied forces of the Greeks at Chaeronea to assume leadership of the Greek states.

—Dr. David Gilman Romano Gr’81, senior research scientist, Mediterranean Section

The Benghazi Venus

Marble statuette of Aphrodite. Marble statuette of Aphrodite.

The malodorous salt-flats outside of the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi may have once marked the location of legendary Lake Tritonis and its island Temple of Aphrodite, today covered with a Moslem cemetery. This area is the place of origin of the Museum’s exquisite statuette of a naked Aphrodite daintily wringing the salt-water out of her hair while she rises from the sea—under the circumstances not unlike a gorgeous butterfly emerging from an ugly caterpillar. Carved from large-grain gray-white Parian marble, she rises less than 13 inches above her cut-off thighs. While some have argued that she might have been originally displayed standing thigh-deep in a pool of water, the angles of the cuts make her appear to be toppling backward. Perhaps she was damaged in antiquity, since laboratory analysis reveals no signs of her having been reshaped in modern times—nor clad in separately carved drapery below the waist for that matter. Her type ultimately derives from a famous lost masterpiece by the painter Apelles from the island of Cos. Goddess of physical desire and carnal sex, her raw physicality has been muted here by the figure’s refined carving and the slightly blurry, “veiled” expression achieved around the eyes by the deliberate crushing of the marble’s crystalline surface (unless she was over-cleaned with dilute acid before she came to the museum, a possibility one would just as soon overlook!). One of the smaller examples of the stone carver’s craft in the Museum’s collection, she is also one of our very finest, exemplifying perfectly the Greeks’ renowned abilities to create masterpieces in miniature.

—Donald White

The Museum’s Lead Coffin

Lead Coffin from Tyre; inset: Detail of symbolic rope decoration. Lead Coffin from Tyre; inset: Detail of symbolic rope decoration.

Purchased in 1895 from a Newark, New Jersey, dealer with roundabout connections with the Museum, our third-century Roman lead coffin reveals its story in a symbolic language that is not easily deciphered. While both abundant and relatively cheap, lead carried for the ancients the stigma of being gold’s opposite. While gold was “noble,” lead was “base.” The gloomy planet Saturn, itself thought to be made of lead, was associated with decaying old age and death, while the life-giving sun was thought to be of gold. And if bright gold symbolized the perpetuation of life, its cold and dark opposite was used to engender destruction and death as the preferred medium on which to write curses and magic spells. The coffin’s long sides are covered in low relief with Medusa heads and dolphins surrounded by laurel and ivy leaves; one of the short ends pictures the facade of a Corinthian temple, the other an eight-spoked “rope star” design interspersed with more ivy. All of these devices are symbolically connected with either the cult of Dionysus, which promised its initiates an existence beyond the grave, or the repulsion of evil spirits and demons. But the coffin’s most arcane message lies in the triple lines of twisted rope that bind its box lengthwise and doubtlessly would have looped over the missing lid to seal its vaulted cover firmly in place. The Roman world was popularly believed to swarm with malignant spirits, succubi, and ghosts, and nowhere were they more apt to be found than in a cemetery. The ropes consequently serve a dual purpose, the one preventative, the other prophylactic. The first was designed to keep external spirits from harming the dead, the other to keep the ghost of the deceased from escaping its coffin to wander abroad and molest the living.

—Donald White

Diana’s Gifts

Head of Diana, Sanctuary of Diana, Nemi. Head of Diana, Sanctuary of Diana, Nemi.

“No one who has seen that calm water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban Hills, can ever forget it,” wrote Sir James Frazer in the opening sentences of his 1890 opus The Golden Bough, which immortalized Nemi and the myths associated with Diana’s cult along the lake. Since antiquity, Lake Nemi and the virgin huntress Diana’s important sanctuary on its shores have been the stuff of legend, lore, and artistic inspiration. Lake Nemi is located just south of Rome in the cool and wooded Alban Hills, where Aeneas roamed and where the rich and well-connected have kept vacation villas since Republican Roman times.

The Museum’s collection of 45 pieces of marble sculpture from the Sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, acquired in 1896, were among the first for the newly founded Museum. The collection is made up of mostly late-second-century B.C. votive statuettes and a set of inscribed marble vessels of early Imperial date, all gifts to Diana from devotees, as well as fragments of cult statues of Diana that would have been set in one of her temples. A display on the Sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis in the Roman World gallery, which includes many of these sculptures with a mural backdrop of the lake, is my favorite part of the exhibition.

—Dr. Irene Bald Romano Gr’80, research associate in the Mediterranean Section, co-curator and coordinator.


Ancient Worlds, New Space: Greek Runners, The Pennsylvania Gazette, May/June 2003.