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Art in Athens During the Peloponnesian War

July 2010 (114.3)

Book Review

Art in Athens During the Peloponnesian War

Edited by Olga Palagia. Pp. xvi + 286, b&w figs. 77, color pls. 8. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009. $90. ISBN 978-0-521-84633-3 (cloth).

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The 10 essays in this volume come together as the result of a colloquium (“The Timeless and the Temporal: The Political Implications of Art During the Peloponnesian War”) held at the 104th Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in 2003. Palagia’s book represents some of the latest ideas in understanding art in its political and cultural context. The essays treat the Peloponnesian War quite specifically as a point from which art and literature in fifth-century Athens can be understood. Interest in the relationships among art, culture, context, and political phenomena has a long history in modern scholarship, of course (e.g., W.W. Lloyd, The Age of Pericles: A History of the Politics and Arts of Greece from the Persian to the Peloponnesian War [London 1875]; S. Scott, “Art and the Archaeologist,” WorldArch 38 [2006] 628–43; E. Bridges, E. Hall, and P.J. Rhodes, eds., Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars [Oxford 2007]).

In this book, Flower, Kallat, Bosworth, and Shapiro take a predominately historical point of view, while Palagia, Clinton, Lawton, Shultz, Oakley, and Goette use a mainly art historical vantage point, though none takes a particularly theoretical approach. Flower is interested in exploring the challenges that war posed to beliefs and rituals and how the Athenians responded to those challenges. He argues quite effectively that continued performance of traditional rituals and ceremonies, and the desire to influence the gods, remained important in Athens (as evidenced by petitions to the Delphic oracle, the expedition that nearly captured Epidaurus in 430 B.C.E., the purification of Delos in 426/5 B.C.E., and acts of divination and purification prior to the Sicilian expedition). Comments by Thucydides about the effect of the plague on Athenian ritual notwithstanding, evidence suggests that “traditional and fundamental Athenian religious concepts had remained unaltered by the war” (17–18). Flower’s essay, while aimed at the specialist, also provides an excellent, cogent, and brief introduction to the study of Athenian religion.

Kallet is more interested in major political and military events and the impact these had “on the individual and the oikos” (94). Kallet’s essay goes over some familiar territory, for example, the origins of the Archidamian War and the attitudes of Athenians and others as recorded in Thucydides and enriched by other evidence. However, she also considers the era of new politics (after the plague and death of Pericles) and its negative impact on private life in Athens; this period is remarkable for its enormously deep “individual and family distress” (111). Evidence for this distress can be seen in plays (e.g., Aristophanes’ Acharnians and Lysistrata), pottery (e.g., somber scenes on lekythoi), and relief sculpture. These data are evidence for an increased concern to put family interests first and the polis’ second (112), while recognizing that the peace following the Archidamian War was for Athens a time “devoted to rebuilding the strength of the city” (120).

Bosworth, in his persuasive essay, investigates Thucydides’ attitudes toward death and dying—both through war and disease. Notably, Thucydides appears primarily interested in exceptional circumstances that caused deaths rather than in individuals (the plague and the suicides in Corcyra are cases in point). Ultimately, for Thucydides, it was the collective experience that was of interest (however, cf. Brasidas, whose individual nature fascinated Thucydides): “No individual or group of individuals stands out from the rest” (181). Shapiro, in contrast, considers Alcibiades, one of the most controversial individuals in Athenian history, an individual who embodied and defined the collective. Alcibiades stirred the passions of his contemporaries, as well as of modern scholars and students (e.g., D. Gribble, Alcibiades and Athens [Oxford 1999]). Indeed, Shapiro claims that “many controversial issues of sexuality, masculinity, and excess crystallized around the figure of Alcibiades” (236). This well-written essay delves deeply into aspects of Alcibiades’ personal style, using evidence describing his overall appearance, his clothing, hair, love of luxury, and “voracious sexual appetite” (237). After careful consideration of both texts and material culture (as well as the Roman mosaic on the cover of the book), he concludes that Athenian masculinity was far differently configured than what we might expect. For fifth-century Athenians, Alcibiades embodied a masculinity that was sometimes beloved and sometimes reviled, one that was eternally youthful, beardless, and androgynous, but ultimately desirable (256–57).

Palagia continues her work on Athenian sculpture in her essay, which considers the emergence both of archaizing characteristics in freestanding sculpture and themes of immortality and returning from the underworld in relief sculpture. Her examination of freestanding sculpture (24–34) shows a revival of archaic clothing, hairstyles, and poses, which indicates a “nostalgia for the past” that was generated “by a need for reassurance in times of crisis” (24). The quest for immortality can be seen in expanded interest for the subject in the form of reliefs and monumental sculptures (e.g., the relief with Herakles on Slab B of the Ilissos temple [Athens, Acropolis Museum, inv. no. 1329]). She finds this interest in life after death unsurprising and notes that “new narratives tend to be created in times of crisis, and the Peloponnesian War was no exception” (43). Lawton similarly considers what sculpture can tell us about responses to the Peloponnesian War. She notes an increased interest, after 420 B.C.E., in commissioning votive reliefs, linking these commissions to a new religious initiative. She also connects these initiatives to those cults most affected by the war and the plague (esp. the Eleusinians, Athena, Asklepios, and Artemis). Also interested in the Eleusinians, Clinton discusses the decreased status of the sanctuary at Eleusis during and immediately after the war. He, like Lawton and Flower, discusses the first fruits decree in some detail and links the failure to collect first fruits to the weakened stature of the sanctuary.

In a nicely illustrated and argued essay, Oakley records an increase during the late fifth century in the occurrence of children’s images on lekythoi and gravestones. On lekythoi, the major change is the increase in detail and care with which children are depicted (213). Gravestones, however, see an increase in the numbers of stones with children depicted. Between 430 and 400 B.C.E., Oakley estimates that 40% of all sculpted gravestones show children (218). In both cases, the children in later artwork are often pudgy (idealizing and indicating a desire for health and wealth) and are often accompanied by a sibling. Inscriptions mention children explicitly. Furthermore, it is estimated that between 430 and 426 B.C.E., one-third of the adult male population of Athens was lost (207). It is clear from the evidence of laws and literature that Athenians thus felt that children were their hope for the future (208). Oakley concludes that, like the French after World War I (see esp. fig. 66), Athenians desired that women stay home and reproduce to counter an overwhelming population loss—a desire that is represented in funerary iconography. Goette, also interested in the evidence from funerary contexts, studies extant grave monuments in the public cemetery outside the Dipylon Gate to understand the iconography of Athenian state burials and how they influenced Athenian art generally. He also comments on the historicity of funerary battle scenes found on private monuments, concluding that state iconography did influence private funerary monuments (e.g., the fallen warrior under a rearing horse). Further, he argues that there is little historical reality represented in the monuments: “The grave reliefs ... can be described as generic, depicting young Athenian warriors anonymously” (198).

Schultz considers the north frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike as evidence for Athenians’ responses to their victories in the Archidamian War. First, he notes that the Nike temple was unusually lavish (128). Its subjects include scenes both mythical (e.g., the birth of Athena) and historical (e.g., the Battle of Marathon as a stand-in for later victories). While we should read the story told on this temple as revealing the powerful sense of pride the Athenians felt at their victories in 426 and 425 B.C.E., Shultz is careful to urge us to read beyond this temple into the larger context, which includes great victories, triumphs, and beauty, coupled with slavery, totalitarianism, and genocide (154–55).

Ideally, an edited volume will have a true organizing chapter or introduction. The short preface to Art in Athens During the Peloponnesian War does not pull the various pieces together into a coherent whole, and the order of papers appears random. If the papers had been organized by some principle, the whole may have held together more effectively. In this book, it is the individual parts, and not necessarily the collective, that work. Nevertheless, the essays are well written and edited, and most contribute significantly to current discourse on the effects of war on art and society. The essays have their own endnotes and bibliography. Finally, the images are of fine quality and the selected bibliography, index locorum, index of museums and collections, and general index at the end will be useful to both scholars and students.

Cynthia K. Kosso
Department of History
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, Arizona 86011

Book Review of Art in Athens During the Peloponnesian War, edited by Olga Palagia

Reviewed by Cynthia K. Kosso

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 3 (July 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1143.Kosso

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