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Early Greek Portraiture. Monuments and Histories

Early Greek Portraiture. Monuments and Histories

By Catherine M. Keesling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017. Pp. xviii + 309. $99.99. ISBN 978-1-107-16223-5 (cloth).

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In this well-researched book, Keesling tackles the history of early Greek portraiture, which she reconstructs through extant Greek statues, Roman copies of original Greek artworks, inscriptions on statue bases, and ancient literary sources. She pays attention to words and images, and she draws on scholarship about portraiture and early Greek culture. She also questions many traditional interpretations, including those that are framed in terms of likeness and realism. The book contains a helpful image program, with illustrations of sculpture, cuttings on statue bases, and inscriptions. Moreover, it is accessible to a range of readers: Keesling provides Greek inscriptions and the English translations of them. The book is at its very best when she extracts useful information from these inscriptions, opting to explore contemporary evidence for portraits instead of relying on the potentially anachronistic information in later sources.

Keesling sets the stage for her study in the introduction, describing the shift from “statue practice” to “portrait practice” in early Greece. She defines what she means by “portrait” (“any representation of an historical personage, living or dead”) and “early Greek culture” (“the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BC” [1]). Her use of “early Greek” to describe this period of antiquity is reminiscent of the broad chronological framework that previous generations of Greek art historians and archaeologists used. For example, this book ends where A.W. Lawrence’s Later Greek Sculpture and Its Influence on East and West (Harcourt Brace 1927) begins. She also offers a two-fold explanation for the growth of portraiture in the late fifth century BCE: the start of what she calls an “epigraphical habit” (after Ramsay MacMullen’s “epigraphic habit”) and a documentary culture. She considers Greek portraits, then, as historical documents, associating them with tekmeria, or “proofs.” And she emphasizes the similarities among images of humans, gods, and heroes. Along the way, she offers interesting observations about the use of Roman copies in the study of Greek art.

In chapter 1, Keesling investigates the shift from votive statues to honorific portraits at the end of the fifth century BCE. Here, she outlines the problems with reconstructing the history of early Greek portraiture. As she notes, it largely consisted of now-lost bronze statues, and surviving bases for portraits are not readily identifiable by their inscriptions’ votive formulae. She also finds that later literary sources such as Pliny the Elder’s Natural History discuss early Greek portraits teleologically: they consider these portraits to be the first step in an evolution of artworks that ends with honorific portraiture in the Hellenistic and Roman world. Therefore, she uses inscriptions and other contemporary evidence to explore early Greek honorific portraiture within the context of its own time. 

In chapter 2, Keesling explains Archaic and Classical portraits in light of arete (excellence) and aristos (being the best), using the treatment of portraiture in Herodotus’ Histories as a starting point. For Keesling, role portraits developed because arete was role-specific in ancient Greece. She determines that there were particular reasons to make portraits of worthy subjects such as warriors, athletes, and kings: for example, dying young, longevity, being a teacher of arete, and being chosen by the gods. Early Greek portraits then marked the arete of other worthy subjects such as poets and priestesses. Next, in chapter 3, Keesling turns her attention to the local histories of portraiture in sanctuaries at Olympia, Delphi, Samos, Athens, Epidauros, and Lindos. She affirms that investigating the portraiture of sanctuaries is particularly useful. Sanctuaries provide ample evidence for local differences in the history of portraiture. They contained a multitude of honorific portraits. And a variety of local and external people such as priests and priestesses, athletes, and traveling sculptors contributed to the creation of the portraits in them.

To my mind, the most stimulating portions of the book are in chapters 4 and 5, which return to an exploration of the documentary function of portraiture. Chapter 4 examines retrospective portraits as historical documents in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Keesling proposes that portraits serve the same function as, for example, the Themistocles Decree from Troizen: they commemorate important people from the past, be they participants in the Persian Wars such as Themistocles or poets such as Anacreon. Moreover, she suggests that these retrospective portraits affected the construction of Greek views about archaic and classical history. In Chapter 5, Keesling continues her study of retrospection, this time looking at the reuse of archaic and classical portraits in Roman Greece. Like Rachel Kousser’s The Afterlives of Greek Sculpture: Interaction, Transformation, and Destruction (Cambridge University Press 2017), this chapter addresses the Nachleben of Greek sculpture, a fascinating but often neglected topic. Keesling devotes considerable attention to the reinscription of statue bases, a practice that is criticized by ancient authors such as Dio Chrysostom. Keesling maintains that these reinscriptions were “not attempts to obliterate the past” (215–16). Instead, she sees this metagraphy as a creative way to make visual analogies between the people who lived and ruled in Roman Greece and their earlier Greek predecessors.

Keesling ends with a conclusion and two helpful appendices on portrait statues from Olympia and Delphi that are welcome contributions to the field. Assembling a wealth of information about statues, their sculptors, the inscriptions on their bases, and the sources that document them, these appendices will be a useful resource for years to come.

There is a lot of information for the reader to process in this volume, and a review cannot address all the points that Keesling makes. With its special consideration of inscriptions on statue bases, the book serves as an interesting complement to recent thought-provoking studies of Greek portraiture that concentrate on the appearances of extant sculpture. In this respect, it builds on Keesling’s previous work on statues, their bases, and their inscriptions, most notably The Votive Statues of the Athenian Acropolis (Cambridge University Press 2003). And, as she mentions in the acknowledgements, its impetus was the paper that she presented at the Early Hellenistic Portraiture conference (9–10 November 2002 at the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut in Athens), which was organized by Peter Schultz and Ralf von den Hoff. I had the pleasure of hearing Keesling’s talk, and I appreciate her pursuit of the fruitful line of inquiry that the conference prompted. The field of early—and later—Greek art and archaeology is all the richer for it. 

Kristen Seaman
Department of the History of Art and Architecture
University of Oregon

Book Review of Early Greek Portraiture. Monuments and Histories, by Catherine M. Keesling
Reviewed by Kristen Seaman
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Seaman

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