Athens-Sparta in New York

This is a review of the show I wrote for the current issue of Minerva Magazine. For images ... buy the magazine - or see the show. I dug at Sparta, and it's a great site. Also, the plague material has just gone on show in Athens.


By Dorothy King.

In the 2nd century AD Pausanias wrote a guide book to Greece, in which he claimed that there were as many beautiful buildings in Sparta as there were in Athens. Almost none has survived and, despite over a century of excavations, many modern guide books suggest skipping the Peloponnesian city altogether. Sparta has many wonderful treasures, which too few people have the opportunity to see. The exhibition ‘Sparta-Athens’ at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York is thus a welcome celebration of Laconian culture, showing that the treasures of Sparta Museum stand up well to better-known Athenian art. Sparta Museum is being refurbished, hence the availability of some of its masterpieces. The New Acropolis Museum is due to be completed in 2007, and preparations are being made to move the contents of the former Acropolis Museum. These two unique events mean that some sculptures not usually loaned abroad are available for this exhibition.

The excavations of Sparta’s Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia have yielded some of the oldest artefacts from the post-Mycenaean city, with many Geometric period bone carvings dating to the 7th century BC (Fig 1). Their heavily emphasised almond-shaped eyes, and wig-like hair suggest the influence of imported Levantine and Egyptian originals. Artemis was linked to the training of young boys, and Spartans took part in ceremonies at the sanctuary between the ages of seven and 20, making it a focal point in Laconian religion. One of the steps on the road to becoming a warrior involved a ceremony where youths were whipped at her altar; these rituals continued well into the Roman period, when a small amphitheatre was built centring around the altar, and non-Spartans were also allowed to be initiated at the festival.

The most famous sanctuary in Sparta is the so-called Menelaion, whose foundations date back to the Mycenaean period. Sometimes described as a palace - although this is unlikely since there was no water source on the mound - its cult was based on Helen, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, and to some extent included her twin brothers Castor and Pollux. We cannot be certain of continuous ritual, but the site was in use during the Geometric period and the cult continued into Late Antiquity. The number of sculptures defaced by the Christians, who carved crosses over eyes and mouths, and the effort put into destroying them, reflects the Menelaion’s particular importance.

Numerous stone and terracotta reliefs depicting the twin Dioscuri have been excavated, and an example from the Archaic period is included in the exhibition (Fig 2). On other reliefs the couple are a man and a woman, often representing the famous Helen and her husband. In local myth her phantom went to Troy, and after the Trojan War she was returned by the gods to Menelaus, her reputation unsullied. Helen’s cult at Sparta shows the extent to which myths and worship varied within the Greek world. Hades, rarely represented in mainland Greece, is also sometimes represented on Spartan votive reliefs with his queen Persephone. Rarely of high artistic quality, these continued into the Roman period, showing how conservative Spartan sanctuaries were.

Studies of Greek pottery tend to concentrate on Athenian wares - whether black-figure or red-figure – as for much of the Archaic and Classical period Athens had a near-monopoly on production and export. Pots made of red Attic clay, and decorated in that unique shiny black glaze can be found throughout Italy and the Greek world (Fig 4); they are so ubiquitous that we sometimes forget that other cities were both producers and exporters. A surprising number of Archaic Spartan vases found in tombs around the Mediterranean remind us that Laconian wares were also popular in the 6th century BC: examples in the exhibition come from a variety of Etruscan cemeteries, as well as from the island of Rhodes (Figs 5-8).

As early as the Hellenistic period Athens was famous as the cultural capital of the Mediterranean. Sparta’s martial lifestyle became codified under the Romans, so it is wonderful to see the sculpture of a hoplite included in the exhibition (Fig 11). The marble from which the figure was carved was imported from Paros, which was considered the best for sculpture. In combination with its find-spot near the Temple of Athena on the Acropolis, this suggests that it was an important commission. Many scholars like to identify him as Leonidas, the hero from the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, although he could represent a contemporary Spartan king such as Pausanias. The figure wears a beard but no moustache - banned according to Plutarch - showing that whoever he depicted, the hoplite was certainly a Spartan warrior. He is one of the few extant free-standing stone statues of the Greek period - many of the other examples found in Sparta seem to have been produced by foreign sculptors. Even when making dedications at Panhellenic sanctuaries, the Spartans often did not erect the usual statues - at Olympia they attached a gold shield to the Temple of Zeus to commemorate Tanagra instead. As one of the few quality sculptures found in Sparta, the hoplite is illustrated in almost every book on Greek sculpture, but it too may be the work of a foreigner rather than local artists. Until further excavations reveal more Laconian sculpture of the Classical period, scholars cannot comment further on the origins of this unique piece.

The Throne of Narcissus at Amyklae was a famous Archaic sanctuary outside Sparta, but its lavish carving was the work of Bathykles of Magnesia, a sculptor from Asia Minor. Athenians were influenced by Ionian sculptors, but the Spartans seem to have preferred to bring in foreigners rather than to encourage the development of a large, internationally-renowned local school. There were certainly some local sculptors - enough to meet demand – but after the Persian Wars in particular, emphasis was put on military duty rather than the arts. Laconian pottery was exported in the Archaic period, but largely ceased to be in the 5th century - works in the exhibition dating to the Classical period tend to concentrate on Athens, which flourished under Pericles and his successors.

The two powerful states might no longer have been artistic rivals, but they continued to vie against each other politically, culminating in the Peloponnesian Wars, which in turn led to the end of Athens’ political independence and then her dominance by Philip of Macedon and a succession of largely foreign masters. These wars are represented by two inscriptions: one recording funds paid by allies to the Peloponnesian League, the other a treaty between Athens and Corkyra. We know from literary sources that a plague ravaged Athens during the War, killing a third of her citizens including Pericles in 429 BC. A few years ago, during excavations for the Metro, a mass grave was found in the Kerameikos. Although the grave goods were rich, the unusually hurried and mass burial suggested some sort of a crisis, and it soon became associated with the plague of 429 BC, the first archaeological evidence for it. Scientists are still testing the remains, and identifying the nature of the plague, but a vase from the pit is being exhibited outside Athens for the first time. The white ground funerary lekythos - its neck broken - is of a form reserved for the dead, and can be reasonably accurately dated stylistically to the Reed Painter, executed in 430-426 BC. The scene depicted on the body of the vase is highly appropriate - it represents a woman visiting the tomb of a loved one.

Athens and Sparta were the two most important Greek States. Although Athens is rightly more famous for her long artistic tradition, an exhibition which sheds light on the material culture of the Spartans as well is a welcome addition, and shows how the artists of the city flourished during the Archaic period.

‘Athens-Sparta’ is at the Onassis Cultural Center, New York, until 12 May. For further information: tel. +(1) 212 486-4448; www.onassisusa.org.
A catalogue of the same name is edited by Nikolaos Kaltsas (Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA) and the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, 2006. 206 colour illus. Paperback $35).

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