Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Amy C. Smith, Polis and Personification in Classical Athenian Art. Monumenta Graeca et Romana, 19. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011. Pp. xlv, 202; 32 p. of plates. ISBN 9789004194175. $173.00.

Reviewed by Emma Stafford, University of Leeds (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume has its genesis in Smith's doctoral thesis of 1997 (Yale), but the long gestation period has allowed considerable development. 'Personification' is here broadly defined as 'the representation of a thing, place or abstraction as a person' (2), irrespective of whether the figure has any mythological role, a personification being identifiable in the visual arts by attributes and/or a label. The particular figures under discussion are personifications of 'civic or political phenomena...: virtues, political institutions and divisions, festivals and geographical entities' (4) of the classical period. After some introductory matter, a series of short chapters looks at individual personifications, grouped thematically according to the type of concept they embody. A substantial catalogue details the artworks discussed, listed by medium: 49 document reliefs, 8 monumental paintings, 2 'miscellaneous' reliefs, 16 sculptures and 72 vase-paintings, each entry providing bibliography as well as basic reference details; Smith is scrupulous in noting which works she has studied at first hand (over two thirds of the corpus).

Chapter 1 provides an introductory discussion of the volume's scope and an overview of previous scholarship, to which the author makes meticulous reference throughout. Smith contends that 'increasing politicisation characterises both the visual arts of ancient Athens and the Athenian use of personifications' over the classical period (4).

Chapter 2 covers further introductory matter: ancient terminology for phenomena related to 'personification', the role of personifications in myth and cult, pre-classical personification, parallels to the images under discussion in contemporary Athenian literature and on the comic stage, the broader category of 'symbolic figures' to which personifications belong, and the use of labels to identify personifications. The account of ancient terms (11-13) could have made reference to more extensive treatments of prosopopoeia and related tropes in rhetoric, and the brief overview of personification in archaic literature and art (14-15) overlooks Phobos, Eros and Hebe (cf. Stafford 2007).1 It is puzzling to see reference to Bia as 'a masculine deity' 'commonly paired with Kratos in Archaic art...' (20: cf. 166-7 and 189): the fact that bia is grammatically feminine makes it almost inevitable that Bia would be represented as a woman, and Shapiro (1993, 166-7, cited by Smith) catalogues no archaic examples at all.

Chapter 3 is a particularly useful addition to existing scholarship in its discussion of personifications of place. The first category to be considered is the family of Okeanos and Tethys, which includes some of the oldest figures in the book, rooted in a mythological tradition which goes back to Hesiod. They undergo significant development, however, in classical art, losing their theriomorphic elements, and new figures are added, especially as indicators of location. An interesting example of the potential for political interpretation of such figures is the case of Amymone (29), personification of a spring at Lerna, representations of whose rape by Poseidon might, Smith argues, reflect Athenian interest in Argos in the mid fifth century and again ca. 420-380 BC. The second category, the daughters of Asopus, includes Aigina (29-30), whose relatively numerous appearances may again reflect Athenian ambitions to control the island. Other figures in this category, like Nemea, Thebe and Salamis, have less of a mythological pedigree, making their role more clearly that of 'geographical indicators' (30) with potential as bearers of political meaning; a separate heading is given to 'Eleusis and more eponymous heroines'. The third category, of 'nymphs, Nereids, and maenads', introduces the complication of proposed distinctions between types of non-human female figures, and their relationship to personifications. Overall the chapter usefully demonstrates the considerable range of local personifications already to be found in the fifth century. The case for their political import could perhaps have been made stronger by juxtaposition with the later figures considered in chapter 9, whose political role is more overt.

Chapter 4 brings us on to the first examples of personifications of 'civic virtues': Nemesis (Retribution, Righteous Anger or Indignation) and Themis (Established Custom, Justice or Social Order). The issue implied by the chapter-title 'Goddess before personification?' is not explicitly addressed, but an account of Nemesis' appearances in archaic literature and the fifth-century history of her sanctuary at Rhamnous provides background for the more detailed discussion of the iconography of the cult statue and its base, and of Nemesis' one appearance in vase-painting. The discussion of Kratinos' Nemesis (45) is slightly undermined by Smith's assumption that Perikles died in 427 BC rather than the more- usually-cited 429 BC, but the suggested identity of Eukleia for the figure accompanying Nemesis on the Heimarmene Painter's Berlin amphoriskos is persuasive. For Themis there are half a dozen classical vases to consider, all tending to emphasise 'her role as the personification of religious order or custom' (47); Smith is rightly cautious about scholarly attempts to identify as Themis a number of unlabelled figures in vase-painting and sculpture.

The title of chapter 5 is again not entirely helpful, since 'the independence of epithets' is not a central feature, nor do the 'Kharites... & other nymphs' get more than a passing mention; rather, the chapter usefully brings together a selection of personified virtues which are usually depicted in the company of Aphrodite, especially in the work of the Meidias Painter and his workshop. Smith develops Borg's reading of these figures as sophisticated 'allegorical comments on... the pleasures and limits of the aphrodisia',2 focusing rather on their relevance to political discourse via the civic implications of the virtues they personify. Hygieia can plausibly be understood as the Health not just of the individual but of the city, especially if thought of as reflecting the cult of Athena Hygieia, her appearance on the vases associating her with other Athenian virtues. Smith excludes from consideration here the many representations of Hygieia with Asklepios on votive reliefs, which she sees as lacking political significance: this is perhaps to miss a trick, although the Peloponnesian origins of the cult for which these were made would complicate the narrative here. The case of Peitho is more straightforward, since the cult which Persuasion shared with Aphrodite Pandemos is exclusively Athenian, and both goddesses can be shown to play a civic role via the promotion specifically of marriage, and more broadly of public consensus, with Peitho encompassing both erotic and rhetorical 'persuasion'. Harmonia can similarly be read as embodying 'harmony' at the level both of the individual oikos and the city. The three other figures discussed here have no known cult in the classical period, but all appear in various combinations with those already discussed: Eudaimonia (Happiness) and Eutychia (Good Luck) may represent aspects of public as well as prosperity; Paidia (Play) is less obviously a civic virtue, but Smith argues that she represents the pleasures of peace-time in the civilised polis. The chapter's concluding section strengthens the case for a 'civic' interpretation with a brief survey of the contexts for public display of many of the vases under discussion.

Chapter 6 treats Eukleia (Good Repute) and Eunomia (Good Order), figures who again appear in Aphrodite's retinue but also appear independently, and are later paired in Athenian cult. Once again a reasonable case can be made for each of these personified virtues having both private and public connotations. The possibility of Eunomia having a particular appeal for those with oligarchic leanings is worth airing, though Smith is rightly cautious of imputing politically partisan motives to the Meidias Painter's workshop in their choice of figures.

Chapter 7 looks at the figures personified in Aristophanes' Peace: Eirene herself, and her attendants Opora (Harvest, Autumn) and Theoria (Spectacle, Festival Embassy). I was surprised to see no mention of Alan Sommerstein's translations in discussion of the words' meanings, and more might have been made of the title 'visual personifications in literature and art': to what extent might the appearance of the stage characters have influenced contemporary representations in vase-painting?

Chapter 8 examines 'ephemeral personifications', figures who appear only once or twice, and often only in the visual arts. These include Basileia (Sovereignty) and Soteria (Salvation), Pompe (Procession), and a variety of individual festivals, both Athenian and Panhellenic. The festivals are of particular interest for the complexity of the notions they embody, including both time and place.

Chapter 9 takes as its subject personifications of 'the body politic', ranging from the polis and its institutions to more localised political groupings. While a few such figures appear in fifth-century vase-painting, their floruit might be said to be in fourth-century document reliefs. An issue here is the possibility of alternatives to personification (as strictly defined): e.g. Athens itself is invariably represented by Athena, and the Attic tribes and even individual demes may be represented by their eponymous heroes. Not one of the possible instances of Attika or Phyle is labelled, rendering the identifications proposed by various scholars at best hypothetical. Demos, however, is a much more substantial figure, with a cult (with the Nymphs) from the fifth century onwards and monumental paintings by Parrhasios, Euphranor and the fourth-century Aristolaos; his identification on 32 decree reliefs is supported by 4 labels in four cases. Of the cities and regions beyond Attika, most striking are the one-off representations of Epidauros, Sparta, Messana and Kios. A point asserted throughout the chapter is that personifications on decree reliefs are represented at an intermediate scale between mortals and gods, reflecting a status below that of the Olympians: I would have liked to see some discussion of this generalisation, which seems untrue, e.g. in figs 9.8 and 9.10 where Boule and Korkyra (respectively) are slightly taller than Athena. The chapter's concluding point, however, is an important one: that document reliefs put local personifications firmly in the public eye.

Chapter 10 brings us back to Peace: the separation from chapter 7 is slightly awkward, though chronologically comprehensible in terms of the move from fifth-century material to a focus on Kephisodotos' statue group of ca. 370 BC. The claim that Eirene was 'absorbed into the Eleusinian Mysteries' 'by association' with Ploutos (109) is debatable, but the latter's significance in fourth-century Athens is well demonstrated.

Chapter 11 surveys the variety of 'civic virtues' personified in fourth-century Athens, noting a lack of continuity from the figures popular in the previous century. A striking feature is the extent to which the fourth-century figures—Tyche, Philia, Homonoia and Demokratia—received both public and private cult.

Chapter 12 offers concluding thoughts on the motivations for Classical Athenian artists to represent 'civic virtues and other political things' (127) in personified form, and the likely reception of these images by Athenian and other audiences.

The volume has high production values, with crisply laid out text and glossy plates with over 90 black-and-white images. Illustration of some less familiar pieces, such as the Makaria Painter's name-vase in Reading's Ure Museum, is especially welcome. Very occasionally something goes wrong with the numbering system— e.g. p.73 directs the reader to fig. 5.11 for VP 49, which is in fact illustrated at fig. 5.7—and 'honorary' is sometimes misspelt as 'honourary'. My only real gripe about presentation, however, is the slightly pedantic use of fully Hellenised spellings of authors' names ('Homeros', 'Aristoteles', 'Ploutarkhos'): this has the virtue of consistency, but risks making the volume rather inaccessible, as does the use of transliterated Greek titles for literary works (Aristophanes' Sphekes) rather than the widely used English equivalents. This is a pity, since there is much here of potential interest to scholars of various disciplines other than Classics, as well as undergraduate students, who may be put off by the unfamiliar names.

Altogether, though, this is a useful contribution to the growing literature on Greek personification, particularly for its treatment of material not covered by Shapiro 1993, and for the attention it draws to the potential political connotations of these figures.


1.   E.J. Stafford, 'Personification in Greek religious thought and practice', in D. Ogden (ed.) Blackwell Companion to Greek Religion, Oxford: Blackwell 2007, 71-85.
2.   B.E. Borg, 'Eunomia or "make love not war"? Meidian personifications reconsidered', in E.J. Stafford and J.E. Herrin (eds.) Personification in the Greek World: From Antiquity to Byzantium, Aldershot: Ashgate 2005, 193-210. Quotation: p.95.

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