Sunday, February 25, 2018


Catherine M. Keesling, Early Greek Portraiture: Monuments and Histories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xvii, 309. ISBN 9781107162235. $99.99.

Reviewed by Janet Burnett Grossman, Spokane (

Version at BMCR home site


The fresh and original perspectives offered by Catherine Keesling in this book on the genesis and development of Greek portraiture from its beginnings up to the early Hellenistic period have had a 15-year gestation period.1 In 2002 she accepted an invitation from Peter Schultz and Ralf von den Hoff to take part in a conference on early Hellenistic portraiture held at the DAI Athens.2 That was the beginning of a focus by Keesling specifically on portraiture, although it was a natural extension of her previous work on honorific statuary.3

Keesling begins her investigation with a question, why portraits? That is, what were the motivating factors that led Greeks in the Archaic period to commission and erect honorific portraits of mortals? Assuming that any representation of a historical personage, regardless of style or appearance, can be regarded as a portrait, then their first appearance begins in early Greek culture, which is defined by the author as ca. 600-323 B.C. During this period, as Keesling, and others before her have noted, portraits of historical figures are frequently indistinguishable from images of gods and heroes. Keesling identifies a key transitional moment at the end of the fifth century when the emergence of honorific portrait statues became a genre distinct from divine images in the context of a broader documentary culture in Greece. As monuments became proofs supporting historical narratives, portraits became historical documents alongside literary and epigraphical works. In this early period, a naturalistic rendering of an individual was not the aim of a portrait, rather the intention was to obscure the divisions between images of mortals, gods, and heroes. Mortals proved their worthiness to receive commemoration by sharing space in the sanctuaries, where most were erected, with statues of gods and heroes.

Chapter 1 explains the origins of honorific portraits and places them in the context of a broader documentary culture in the Greek world between ca. 430 and ca. 380 B.C. Observing the synchronicity in this time period of the production of honorific portraits with the documentation of historical events in literary texts and inscriptions leads Keesling to theorize that these changes were but a manifestation of a broad documentary revolution at the end of the fifth century B.C.

Chapter 2 offers a new approach to the historic problem of studying portraits of Greeks of the Archaic and Classical periods, since most are known from marble copies produced in the Roman period, literary references, or inscribed statue bases. Rather than following subject categories used by previous scholars to organize the material 4, Keesling utilizes the Greek concept of arete as defined in texts of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato as well as in inscriptions to demonstrate that what constituted arete had a broad meaning that is relevant to the origin of portraiture. An expansive use of the term resulted in its being applied to poets, priests and priestesses, individuals saved by the gods, and sophists, along with the traditional exemplars of arete such as athletic victors, warriors, generals and kings. And, indeed, portraits of poets, priests, priestesses, and sophists began to be erected in sanctuaries along with those of athletic victors, warriors, generals and kings.

Chapter 3 examines the context and placement of portraits in sanctuaries. Keesling provides a series of local histories of portraiture at Olympia, Delphi, the Samian Heraion, the Athenian Acropolis, the sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidauros, and the sanctuary of Athena Lindia at Lindos on Rhodes. It appears that portraits of mortals were placed to connect them with particular divinities and monuments dedicated to them. Particularly valuable to Keesling's argument is the inclusion of plans of the sanctuaries at Olympia and Delphi with portraits discussed in the text highlighted (figs. 23 and 26, respectively). The typical subjects of portraits commonly erected in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. in these sanctuaries were inspired by the character, biography, or deliverance by the gods with whom they were then associated.

Chapter 4 examines retrospective portraits created during the late Classical period in a number of places including Athens, Argos, Delphi, Plataia, Troizen, and Samos. Retrospective portraits of Archaic poets and of figures associated with the Persian Wars, such as Themistokles, had a symbiotic relationship with Archaic and Classical literature. They either reinforced or subtly challenged the testimony of canonical texts such as Herodotus' Histories. Some portraits seem to have been erected to erase, or at least lessen, the role of certain individuals in historic events. On Samos, for example, a portrait dated ca. 300 of the fifth-century naval commander Maiandrios, was erected to retrospectively enhance the role that the Samians played in the Greek victory over the Persians at the mouth of the Eurymedon river, thereby lessening the effect of Kimon and the Athenians. Keesling demonstrates with her selected case studies in the sites above that the erection of a retrospective portrait in a particular location was frequently for the benefit of local concerns.

The afterlives of early Greek portraits during the late Hellenistic (ca. 150-30 B.C.) and early Roman imperial (ca. 30 B.C.- A.D. 68) periods is the subject of the final chapter. Again, Keesling examines the evidence at a number of sites including Samos, Olympia, Delphi, Epidauros, Oropos, and Athens. Keesling focuses on the practice during those periods of inscribing the names of new individuals over earlier names on the bases supporting older portraits, which still remained in original contexts. Although portrait reinscription in Roman Greece was condemned by ancient writers, Keesling interprets it as a positive practice, which made a visual analogy between Greek of earlier periods and contemporary Roman rulers and Greek benefactors, thereby continuing the documentary function of Early Greek portraits even when the identities of their subjects were no longer recognized or even relevant.

Keesling's text is supported by meticulous and detailed footnotes as well as a generous inclusion of illustrations. Two tables and two appendices are extremely useful for anyone wishing to engage in the study of Greek portraiture. One table lists all portraits cited by Herodotus, the other lists literary sources citing the removal of specific statues from Greek sanctuaries in Athens, Delphi, Epidauros, and Olympia and on Delos and Samos ca. 88 B.C. to A.D. 68. Appendix 1 lists portrait statues at Olympia, ca. 600-300 B.C. Appendix 2 lists portrait statues at Delphi, ca. 600-300 B.C.

A minor issue for this reviewer is the title of the book and the use of "Early Greek" to discuss objects created during the Classical and Late Classical periods. Typically "Early Greek" has been used by scholars for works produced down to the end of the Archaic period, or 480 B.C.5 There is no discussion in the text as to the decision to use "Early Greek" to designate the period ca. 600-323 B.C.

Keesling's book is significant, a masterful exploitation of every scrap of evidence for portrait sculpture in the Greek world from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C. Keesling has scoured contemporary literary texts, combed corpora of epigraphical monuments, tramped the ground of multiple sacred sanctuaries, and examined stone blocks that formed the bases supporting portraits to prove that civic honorific portraits emerged as a sculptural type at the end of the fifth century B.C. It is a book that is now an essential reference for future studies on Greek portraiture.


1.   Keesling's book, however, is appearing at an opportune time with interest in Greek portraiture demonstrated by related publications. For example, R. von den Hoff, F. Queyrel and E. Perrin-Saminadayar, eds. Eikones: portraits en context: recherches nouvelles sur les portraits grecs du Ve au Ier s. av. J.-C., Venosa, 2016, and an exhibition on portraiture at the Munich Glyptothek July 12, 2017 – January 14, 2018, with a related catalogue, F.S. Knauss and C. Gliwitzky, eds. Charakterköpfe: Griechen und Römer im Porträt, Munich, 2017.
2.   The conference papers published in 2007, P. Schultz and R. von den Hoff, Early Hellenistic Portraiture: Image, Style, Cambridge. Keesling's paper is "Early Hellenistic Portrait Statues in Athens: Survival, Reuse, Transformation," pp. 141-160.
3.   C. M. Keesling, The Votive Statues of the Athenian Acropolis, Cambridge, 2003.
4.   For example, G. M.A. Richter, abridged and revised by R.R.R. Smith, The Portraits of the Greeks, Ithaca, 1984.
5.   For example, J.M. Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C., Ithaca, 1987.

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