Sunday, May 26, 2013


Bonna Daix Wescoat, The Temple of Athena at Assos. Oxford monographs on classical archaeology. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xxiii, 318; 111 photos, 101 figs, 15 fold-out plans. ISBN 9780198143826. $180.00.

Reviewed by Tuna Şare, Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University​ (

Version at BMCR home site


Since its archaeological discovery during the first expedition by the Archaeological Institute of America in the Eastern Mediterranean in 1881, the Temple of Athena at Assos has been perceived as the 'ugly duckling' of Greek architecture. The only extant Doric temple in Archaic Asia Minor, the structure does not fit any norms; it presents a fusion of Doric, Ionic, and Aeolic orders and various iconographic traditions. Wescoat undertakes the difficult task of reconstructing this enigmatic building, for which several dates and reconstructions have been proposed by previous scholars. Indeed, she explains the process as follows: "In attempting to come to terms with the Temple of Athena at Assos, I have found myself more frequently in the position of dismantling rather than reconstructing the building." The basic contribution of the book to current scholarship lies in Wescoat's approach, which refuses to see the temple as a provincial variation of Greek-mainland norms, but rather views it as a conscious hybrid experiment reflecting both Western Anatolian and Greek traditions. Wescoat tries to reconcile problems of chronology and reconstruction by positing two major construction phases in the Archaic period, and a later one in the Hellenistic period. Thus, she documents and analyzes the material from each period in separate chapters.

In the introduction, Wescoat criticizes early scholarship that considered the temple as the result of an unsuccessful experimentation in Greek architecture. She stresses that the "messy vitality" of the structure does not make it an outsider; rather, it should be perceived within the larger narrative of Archaic Greek architecture. The two main objectives of the book are to reconstruct a precise plan of the temple and to provide an iconographical interpretation of its sculptural decoration based on the extensive remains. These objectives face the challenge of the temple having had different construction phases, thus making it hard to assign each surviving piece to a specific period.

In the second chapter, Wescoat confirms the attribution of the temple to Athena by tracing the archaeological evidence (coinage and inscriptions) from the area, and then explores its history during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. After an excellent summary of early travelers' accounts on Assos and the temple, she outlines the excavation history at the site.

The third chapter discusses building materials and technical aspects of the construction, the latter including traces of mason's tools, lifting and setting devices, clamping, dowelling and nailing, mason's marks, protective fillets, direction of construction, and color. Purplish gray volcanic andesite porphyry and softer volcanic tuff —the latter mostly for the repairs— are used for the building. The porphyry is quarried from the akropolis of Assos, minimizing the cost of construction.

In the fourth chapter, Wescoat systematically examines the architectural elements of the original temple from the foundation to the roof. The Athenaion is a Hekatompedon, having a hexastyle peripteral colonnade with 13 columns on the flanks. It rests on a krepidoma composed of euthynteria, a single step, and a stylobate. The plan consists of a distyle in antis pronaos and cella, without opisthodomos. The pseudo-dipteral arrangement at the eastern end creates a deep pteroma. There is no evidence for stylobate curvature and corner contraction at the flank intercolumniations. The columns do not carry any traces of inward inclination or entasis. Except one, all the surviving columns have 16 flutes. Wescoat argues that the only 18-fluted column is simply a variation, not a column from the pronaos or a replacement column. The 32 extant capitals fall into three groups based on the profiles of the echinus; thus the author traces different construction campaigns. Group C with the broadest dimensions represents the earliest phase at the eastern end and Group A with steeply sloping echinus represents the latest phase at the western end of the temple. The inscription on Capital 10 possibly refers to the number of persons connected with the cult. The author's recalculation of the dimensions of the architectural elements argues against Clarke's theory of the use of an 'Assian foot' as a fixed measurement unit. There seems to be no standardized interaxial spacing for regulae and mutules either. From the examination of surviving cover tiles, Wescoat also argues that the building did not have a hybrid style roof (consisting of Corinthian and Lakonian cover tiles, as Martin and Åkerström suggest), but a Corinthian style roof. Her thorough analysis shows that the overall design is based on simple proportional relationships rather than established rules of architectural precedents.

Soon after it was built possibly an earthquake damaged the temple. In the following chapter, Wescoat traces the major repairs during the Archaic period. Her examination of the nail holes, lifting sockets, clamp cuttings of the reworked blocks, and findspots of the architectural elements suggests that the colonnade at the northwest corner, the roof, tympana, and the geison on the eastern, western, and northern sides were replaced, while the southern side of the temple stood undamaged. Since the repair does not show any major change from the original design, Wescoat reasonably concludes that the Assians were satisfied with their original format. The Hellenistic renovations discussed in the next chapter include a mosaic floor and a new wooden roof.

The next chapter presents a detailed analysis of the sculpture. The discussion clearly shows that the combination of sculpted metopes with an ionic frieze on the epistyle blocks was not the result of a bold experiment. Assians were already familiar with the aesthetic effects of the multi-tiered decoration with reduplicated motifs and visual emphasis on the short ends of a temple. The figural style is northeast Greek; the hands of several sculptors, even in the carving of a single block, can be detected. The scenes on the epistyle include heraldic sphinxes, bulls with locking horns, lions attacking herbivores, the story of Herakles routing drunken centaurs at Mt. Pholos, Herakles wrestling Triton, and a symposium. Comparable depictions of animals, fabulous creatures, mythological episodes and scenes of human activity can be traced on the extant sculpted metopes. Perhaps the most enigmatic of all the scenes is the depiction of a symposium on a temple. Considering the typology of the vessels used and the absence of klinai, Wescoat argues for an outdoor symposium, a semi-sacred festivity of aristocrats popular in East Greek sanctuaries. Although the absence of furniture might simply be the artist's omission due to lack of space, representation of a cultic symposium makes more sense on a sacred building.

In her examination of the sculpture Wescoat adopts a functional approach; she starts with the analysis of the iconography and the meaning of each individual scene and then explores the patterns of relationships among the images and their meaning within the social and religious context. She argues that the ensemble should be evaluated according to the Archaic idea of an iconographic program in which images do not respond to a single idea, but express the "key themes of natural and supernatural power with exemplars of human and heroic values, mainly shown through the medium of myth or aristocratic activities." Accordingly, she interprets the confronting sphinxes as the guardians of the temple and the other imagery; butting bulls and savaging lions would metaphorically represent the natural powers of sexual potency and physical power, while also standing as social models for human virility and strength; the combination of centauromachy on a mountaintop and a sacred symposium next to a civic building exemplify the failed and successful expressions of xenia. The story of Herakles and Triton does not accord well with Wescoat's theory of interrelated power symbols; thus she prefers to interpret it as an expression of human control of sea power. The themes on the metopes seem to be extensions of the ones on the epistyle blocks. The author suggests that the metopes with narrative scenes might have represented events of the Trojan cycle, mostly those in the life of Achilles.

In the absence of a local visual tradition, Wescoat looks at other regions and different media for iconographic comparanda. She could, however, have used more extensively contemporary material from the minors arts, especially from Assos. Terracotta figurines of riders and symposiasts from the nekropolis of Assos, for example, would make good comparanda for the similar imagery on the temple.1

The plan of the building, the dimensions of the surviving epistyle blocks, and the regula spacing of the surviving decorated blocks indicate that the temple had relief sculpture on both facades, along the first two intercolumnations of the eastern façade, and across the pronaos. In the following chapter, Wescoat offers a possible arrangement of the sculpture for the second phase of the temple. Her placement of the heraldic sphinxes, centauromachy, and symposium at the eastern façade works well in terms of thematic unity and balanced direction of action. She offers two different arrangements for the eastern flanks: a) centaurs on the south and animal combats on the north, or b) centaurs and animal combats intermingled. The pronaos could have shown the raging bulls, heraldic sphinxes, lions attacking herbivores, and the Herakles and Triton frieze; the west façade could have had the Herakles Triton frieze along with lion combats. Wescoat thinks that the closest scheme to the arrangement at Assos is the Archaic Temple of Artemis at Corycra, which also had a two-tiered sculptural decoration since its pedimental sculpture combined with sculpted metopes on both facades.

Divided into its separate constituents in the previous chapters, in the final chapter the Temple of Athena becomes a united whole with an individual identity within Greek architecture. Drawing arguments from previous chapters, this section provides an overall unity to the book. The problematic chronology of the building lies in the fact that its plan exhibits Late Archaic features, while the architectural elements of the elevation and sculptural style are mostly High Archaic. After a lengthy discussion of the possible inspirations for the plan, proportion, and sculptural design of the temple, she suggests a "great dependence on models from the Athenian Akropolis." Yet, it is mainly the parallel with the Herakles and Triton relief from the H Temple on the Athenian Akropolis which leads her to this claim. One wonders if there was a more immediate source for the specific imagery, now lost to us. Wescoat explains the Western affinities, especially with the Temple of Athena at Poseidonia, as either due to the shared sources of inspiration or to a similar process of 'invention' generated in a peripheral environment.

Wescoat reveals her dating of the Temple on the very last two pages of the book. Despite the recent downward shift in the dating of Archaic temples, she prefers a High Archaic date, around 540 BCE for its initial construction, and a Late Archaic date between 520-470 for the major repairs. Thus, she suggests that the 6x13 plan with a deep eastern pteroma and aligned pronaos, which was to become popular in Attica in the Classical Period, as well known from the Hephaisteion, is the invention of the Assian architects. This dating also seems to rest heavily on her theory of an Assian designer's copying of the Herakles and Triton relief from Athens, which was standing and visible on the Akropolis between 570 and 520.

Wescoat's thorough study puts the Temple of Athena at Assos in the larger context of Greek architecture and architectural sculpture. Contrary to the popular perception of it as a poor peripheral experiment, Wescoat's study reveals the Temple of Athena as a rich and hybrid member of Greek architecture with its Anatolian, East Greek, and Aegean elements. With its fluent text, fold-outs, graphics, appendixes, and pictures this meticulous study is an excellent contribution to scholarship.


1.   Tolun, V. 2002. Assos Batı Nekropolü 1988-1994 Kazılarında Bulunan Pişmiş Toprak Heykelcikler. PhD Thesis. İstanbul Üniversitesi. ​

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