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Iconography: Greco-Roman Iconography


The religious structures of both Greeks and Romans conform to the typical patterns of divinity and belief found among the Indo-European peoples. Most notable of these is an organized pantheon of deities related by birth or marriage and presided over by a god of the sky who is both ruler and father (e.g., Zeus Pater and Jupiter). Nevertheless, although it is clear that such gods accompanied the movement of the Indo-Europeans into Greece and Italy, it is impossible to state with certainty what iconographic representation, if any, was used to worship them during this earliest period. The attempt to discern early iconographic patterns is further hampered by the fact that both peoples were invaders whose later religious outlook was influenced by older, settled cultures. When the Greeks arrived at the beginning of the second millennium bce, they found not only an indigenous population on the mainland (whom they called the Pelasgians) but also the flourishing civilization of nearby Crete, whose art and architecture show evidence of Egyptian and Near Eastern influences. Thus, not only all the gods who constituted the classical Greek pantheon but also their iconography must be considered the products of a long process of syncretism and synthesis of Indo-European, pre-Hellenic, Cretan, and Near Eastern concepts of divinity. Similarly, the Indo-European settlers in Italy mixed with a variety of peoples already well established on the peninsula. Therefore, any attempt to understand the development of the form and content of Greco-Roman iconography must necessarily entail a consideration of the often disparate parts of the traditions.

Minoan-Mycenaean Iconography (20001200 bce)

The study of Cretan (Minoan) religion may be compared to a picture book without a text. The two symbols of Minoan civilization, the double ax and the horns of consecration, clearly had religious significance, perhaps as tools of worship, but their function is not understood. From the archaeological evidence, however, which includes frescoes, seals, and figurines, one may conclude that the representation of the divine was both anthropomorphic and theriomorphic. Found are depictions of female deities encoiled by snakes or with birds perched upon their heads; these figures may explain the prominence of snakes in later Greek religion as well as the association of Greek deities with specific birds. In addition, animal-headed figures reminiscent of contemporaneous Egyptian material have been uncovered. One such type, a bull-headed male, may be the source for the Greek myth of the Minotaur. Also found are representations of demonlike creatures who appear to be performing various ritual acts; these have been cited as evidence of Mesopotamian influence. A number of seals portray the figures both of a huntress, who is called "mistress of the beasts" and whom the Greeks associated with Artemis, and of a male deity, who stands grasping an animal by the throat in each hand. Finally, the seals present strong evidence for the existence of tree cults and pillar cults, the survival of which perhaps may be seen in the Greek myths about dryads, the woodland spirits of nature who inhabit trees. To what extent the traditions of Minoan iconography immediately influenced the Greeks can be explored through a consideration of Mycenaean remains. Indeed, although the Linear B tablets from Pylos have provided valuable linguistic evidence about the names of the earliest Greek deities, most of our information, as in the case of Crete, comes from archaeological sources. From the excavations at Mycenae have come a number of clay snakes, and at Tiryns a fresco depicts a crocodile-headed creature reminiscent of those seen on Crete. Persistence of the Minoan traditions may also be found in the Lion Gate of Mycenae, over which two lions, carved in relief and leaning on a central pillar, stand guard. Providing further evidence for the continuing influence of Minoan iconography are a number of Mycenaean seals, rings, and ornaments that display representations of sacred trees, bird-decorated shrines, and demons carrying libations. To what extent, however, the continuity of form indicates a continuity of content is difficult to determine. In 1969, further excavations at Mycenae uncovered the Room of the Idols, which contained a quantity of clay statues with arms either raised or outstretched. Although possessing only an approximation of human form, each has a distinctive individuality; it has been suggested they may be the earliest representations of those Olympian gods later described by Homer. However, perhaps most characteristic of Mycenaean religious iconography are the thousands of clay statuettes called phi and psi figurines (after their distinctive shapes). Although most are rendered recognizably female by the accentuation of the breasts, they do not necessarily portend future anthropomorphic representation. They are often found in graves, but there is no general agreement as to their function. It is possible that they once served as votive offerings but that, like much of later Greek art originally sacred in nature and function, they became separated from their original purpose.

Archaic and Classical Iconography

The difficulty of establishing the continuity of the iconographical tradition from the Mycenaean into the later periods of Greek history is illustrated by a comment of the historian Herodotus (fifth century bce), who credits Homer and Hesiod with describing the gods and "assigning to them their appropriate titles, offices, and powers," but who concedes that the two poets had lived not more than four hundred years before him. Homer and Hesiod are in fact our earliest sources for the iconography of the Greek gods after the Mycenaean age. But another four hundred years separate the destruction of Mycenae and the life of Homer, and the poet's descriptions of the Olympian gods bear little resemblance to the representations of the divine found at Mycenaean sites. Hesiod's account of the birth of the gods in his Theogony indicates that, while earlier generations of deities were often monstrous in appearance as well as behavior, the victorious Olympian gods, with Zeus as their ruler, were clearly anthropomorphic. Homer elaborates upon this concept, describing not only their very obviously human physical appearance but also their often all-too-human behavior. It has been suggested that the source for the relentlessly anthropomorphic quality of the Greek gods in both literature and art is a general rejection of the concept of an abstract deity. Despite criticism by philosophers such as the pre-Socratic Xenophanes, who commented rather cynically that "mortals consider that the gods are born and that they have clothes and speech and bodies like their own," or Plato, who banned poets from his ideal state because they told lies about the gods, the Greeks persisted in depicting their gods as human in form and action. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of evidence to indicate that, in the conservative ritual of Greek religion, the older forms of representation of the divine persisted. Aniconic images of the divine, such as the omphalos at Delphi, provide proof of its survival. This stone, which in Greek myth was described as the one that Rhea gave to Kronos to swallow when he wished to devour his infant son Zeus, and that the ruler of the Olympians then placed at the center of the world, is clearly a baetyl, a sacred stone that contains the power of the divine. Similarly, the widespread appearance of the herm, a pillar on which was carved an erect phallus and that acted as an agent of fertility and apotropaic magic, points to the survival of earlier conceptions of the divine. Myth also provides a clear illumination of the remnants of a theriomorphic iconography: Zeus changes himself into a bull in order to rape Europa and into a swan in order to seduce Leda; Athena and Apollo metamorphose themselves into vultures to watch the battle between Hector and Ajax. The amalgamation of a number of functional deities during the Archaic and Classical periods can be seen in the great variety of epithets by which each god was addressed. In the use of such epithets, we see once again the particularism of Greek religion. The disparate types, which link seemingly unconnected functions from both the world of nature and the world of humans in a single deity, are probably a result of the continuing processes of synthesis and syncretism described above. Owing to the conservative nature of Greek religion, no epithet was ever discarded. Thus, the most primitive expression of the power of nature embodied in the god as well as the most sophisticated conceptions of divine political power can be found in the iconography, but it is clear that not all aspects of a deity can be equally well expressed through the various cultic epithets. Nevertheless, many of the epithets of the Olympians can be considered as proof of older iconographic substrata that reveal functions closely linked to the world of nature: horselike Poseidon, owl-eyed Athena, cow-eyed Hera, cloud-gathering Zeus. Although deities were often portrayed with their attributes of naturethe thunderbolt of Zeus, the trident of Poseidonthe connection between iconography and function may at times be difficult to establish because it is clear that many of the earlier "nature" functions of individual deities could not be expressed with clarity in the monuments. The frequent dichotomy between mythic meaning and ritual function also presents one with difficulties in understanding the iconography of a particular god. In Greek myth, Poseidon is clearly the god of the sea, who appears in sculpture and vase painting brandishing his trident or rising from the sea in his chariot. Yet, Poseidon was also worshiped as a god of horses, and he is depicted on coins in the form of a horse. Likewise, the Artemis of myth is the eternal virgin, yet it is clear from both cult and iconography that she was worshiped as a goddess of fertility. It would seem that myth often serves to create a coherent portrait while religious ritual and practice see no such need. The medium, too, often shapes iconographic conceptualization: the narrative of myth can be more readily portrayed in vase painting and reliefs than through freestanding sculpture. The evolution of the form and content of Greek iconography as a means of expressing spiritual ideals generally parallels that of Greek art, especially in sculpture. The earliest religious sculpture and architecture were executed in wood and have vanished; but in the seventh century bce we see the development of monumental stone architecture and sculpture. The most representative forms of sculpture are the kouros and the kourē (female) figures that stand rigidly with stylized features and dress. Perhaps votive offerings, they have been variously identified as divine or human but may represent something in between: an idealized existence shared by gods and mortals alike. One cannot divorce iconography from the history of Greek art and architecture, for there is no such concept as purely hieratic art: the Classical Apollo, for example, is not only presented as the youthful god, naked and beardless, but comes to embody the idealization of youth. Similarly, a bronze statue of a muscular, bearded god with his left arm stretched out in front of him and his right arm extended behind as if to hurl something is identified as either Zeus or Poseidon; without lightning bolt or trident, it is impossible to distinguish between the spheres of sky and sea. Increasing emphasis on the beauty of the human form in repose and in action informs both Greek sculpture and the understanding of the divine. Furthermore, iconography is linked not only with the development of the artistic ideal but with that of the political as well. As the institutions of the state evolved, the original gods of nature were made citizens of the polis and given civic functions as protectors and benefactors of the city. Thus, the gold and ivory statue of Athena in the Parthenon portrayed the armed goddess in full regalia as the protector and patron of Athenian civilization, the goddess who had led her people to victory against the Persians. The Parthenon itself is a symbol of the bond between Athena and her city, for the temple frieze depicts the procession of the Panathenaea, a festival held in honor of both the goddess and the powerful city that worshiped her, the pediment portrays scenes from the life of Athena, and the metopes record various victories of Greeks over barbarians. Similarly at Olympia, which served as the religious and political center of Greece during the Classical period, the Phidian Zeus sat enthroned in the inner sanctuary of the great temple, the concrete expression of the god's power and majesty. Crafted of gold and ivory, nearly twelve meters high, the Lord of the Universe held in one hand a statue of Victory and in the other a golden scepter on which sat an eagle. Behind the throne were the Graces and Hours, goddesses of the seasons and regulators of nature. The worlds of nature and culture become one. Phidias himself reportedly said that he had meant to portray the king in his supremacy as well as in his magnanimity and nobility. The god may be seen as the source out of which all realitysacred and profaneflows. The temple itself was also an expression of the all-encompassing might of Zeus: twenty-eight meters wide, sixty-nine meters long, and twenty meters high, its colossal size emphasized those attributes of power and universality that Phidias had sought to convey in his sculpture.

Hellenistic and Roman Iconography

The declining political fortunes of the Greek states after the Peloponnesian War paved the way for the rise of Macedon and the magnificent career of Alexander the Great. His military conquests produced a new cultural synthesis of East and West that radically altered the perception and portrayal of the divine; for although the Classical understanding of the nature of deity survived, it was now informed by new religious, social, and political ideals. Absolute monarchy, an altered concept of the divine as embodied in Eastern mystery cults, and the rise of a middle class eager to display its wealth all contributed to the development of different iconographic sensibilities. Religious iconography in the Hellenistic period presents a curious admixture of Eastern and Western values, of monumentalism and individualism, of divine rationality and pathos, amalgams that expressed themselves in the formal magnificence of the tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus as well as in the representations of Aphrodite that emphasize her naked human beauty, in sleeping satyrs and playful cupids as well as in the struggling Laocoön doomed by the gods. The Great Altar of Zeus at Pergamum, with its wide monumental stairway, was encompassed by a frieze that, in depicting the ancient Greek myth of the war between the Olympians and the Giants, displays a remarkable range and intensity of human emotions. In a world where kings were hailed as living gods and apotheosis was a constant possibility, and where gods suffered and died, the division between sacred and profane iconography became even less distinct. With the conquest of the Hellenistic kingdoms the Romans acquired the values that had informed later Greek religious art and architecture. Although the earlier Etruscan culture of Italy had been strongly influenced by Greek and Oriental ideologies, it shows evidence of a religious outlook distinct from both. Tomb paintings from the Archaic period, for example, portray lively Dionysian revels and rowdy funeral games that, while drawing on Greek sources, perhaps indicate a more optimistic view of the afterlife than that of the Greeks. Roman iconography, on the other hand, reflects the conscious choice of the Greek ideal. Roman religion seems to have remained rooted in nature to a much greater extent than civic Greek religion had; the early anthropomorphic representations of Mars and Jupiter are exceptions, perhaps occasioned by their clear identification with the political rather than the agricultural life of the Roman people. Mars was the father of Romulus and Remus and thus the ancestor of the Roman people; but even so it was the she-wolf, nurse of the twin boys, who became the emblem of Rome's auspicious origins. Only when old Italic spirits of nature became identified with their anthropomorphic Greek counterparts did the Romans build temples as houses for their gods and represent them in human form. The conservative values of Roman religion not only inhibited the development of a distinctive iconography but at the same time led to the adoption of those elements in Hellenistic art that seemed best to reflect those values. Although Augustus's attempt to recreate the old Roman religious values through the resurrection of archaic rituals and priesthoods and the rebuilding of ancient temples and shrines was ultimately unsuccessful, his Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis) illustrates the Roman understanding of the connection between traditional expressions of piety and political success. One of its panels depicts Augustus offering solemn sacrifice; another reveals Mother Earth holding on her lap her fruitful gifts. The peace and prosperity of mortals and gods are attributed to Augustus's piety and devotion. More than three hundred years later, the Arch of Constantine was to reflect the same themes: celebrating the victory of the emperor over his enemies, its inscription attributes his triumph to the intervention of an unnamed divine power and his own greatness of spirit. Over three millennia, the iconography of Greek and Roman religion became increasingly concrete, locating the divine first in nature, then in objects, and finally within the human realm.

See Also

Temple, article on Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean Temples.


Boardman, John. Greek Art. Rev. ed. New York, 1973. A useful and thorough survey of the development of Greek art forms from the Mycenaean age through the Hellenistic period. Dumézil, Georges. Archaic Roman Religion. 2 vols. Translated by Philip Krapp. Chicago, 1970. An analysis of early Roman religion that depends primarily on a structural analysis of Indo-European religious institutions and mythologies. Farnell, Lewis R. The Cults of the Greek States (18961909). 5 vols. New Rochelle, N. Y., 1977. Although lacking recent archaeological and linguistic evidence, this work remains the standard reference for ancient sources on Greek religion in all its forms. Guthrie, W. K. C. The Greeks and Their Gods. London, 1950. A well-balanced view of the origins of each of the Greek gods, with detailed discussion of the multidimensional roles of the divine in Greek society. Hauser, Arnold. The Social History of Art, vol. 1. New York, 1951. A combination of art criticism and social analysis, Hauser's work attempts to define the cultural forces that determine artistic sensibilities. Nilsson, Martin P. A History of Greek Religion (1925). Translated by F. J. Fielden. 2d ed. Oxford, 1949. Emphasizes the continuity of tradition between Minoan and Mycenaean ritual and practice. Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Piety. Translated by Herbert Jennings Rose. Oxford, 1948. This short work presents a thoughtful study of the various social, historical, and political forces that shaped Greek attitudes about the nature of the divine. Peters, F. E. The Harvest of Hellenism. New York, 1970. A historical, cultural, and religious survey of the Greek and Roman world after Alexander.

Tamara M. Green (1987)

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