Book With ConfidenceOur Safe Travel Policy

The Motya Charioteer statue in SicilyLook at him! A fine figure of male beauty, subtle and forceful at the same time. You might already have guessed which ancient culture created this piece, but even if you have, you may realise that this is a rather unusual piece.

More often than not, our 'another thing' posts are about items in museums or on sites that we encounter on our tours and that are worth a bit - or a lot - of additional attention, because they are, as the intro says, "particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual" (or all three, as it be!). After all, on this blog we aim to show how travelling with Peter Sommer Travels offers you extra insights, at the hand of our expert guides, into the many things you may see on our tours, and extra ways to understand and enjoy them. By that logic, we have often focused on lesser-noticed objects for this series, because in many cases you can find accounts of the better-known items relatively easily. This time, however, I have chosen a very famous piece. Why? Because although it is celebrated among connoisseurs of ancient sculpture, it has not entered the public imagination or our shared visual memory to the extent that the Artemision Zeus in the National Museum of Athens, or the Primaporta Augustus in Rome, or the Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul, or the Hermes of Praxiteles in Olympia, have. That said, maybe we'll write about those very famous pieces, too, at some point!

The Motya Charioteer statue in Sicily from behindLet's return to looking at the actual artefact. What you see is an extraordinarily fine work, made of marble from the Cycladic Island of Paros, depicting a young man in a somewhat enigmatic posture and wearing a long thin garment, concealing his body - but only to an extent. He is standing upright, but there is torsion in his posture, twisting his upper body to the left. His weight is borne by his left leg, the right one being slightly bent forwards (the only way you can bend a human leg naturally), and his torso's leftward turn is emphasised by his left hand resting on his hip and his head turned leftwards as well. Unfortunately, both arms are missing: the left must have angled back or sideways sharply to bring the hand where it is, and the right, if you look closely, was clearly raised upwards and perhaps forwards. His face displays the aloofness that is typical of Greek Classical sculpture.

At this point, let's be clear about one thing: the figure, although it is a little unusual and although there are many questions about its context, meaning and exact date, undoubtedly fits within the continuum of Greek sculpture of the fifth century BC, most likely around 460 or 450 BC. Its material and craftsmanship and its details are also unequivocally Greek. As regards the archaeological context, bear with me for a little longer.

A closer look reveals more detail. Although he is clothed, his garment is thin enough to reveal the shape of key parts of his body: the sculptor made sure that the youth's muscular torso and legs, his genitals and his rear are clearly discernible through the textile (all rendered from a single block of marble!)! Of course, if you have seen any Greek sculpture before, you are aware that males were usually depicted naked. Male nudity is a standard in Greek sculpture and it permits the sculptor to play with the postures and formations of skin and muscle, also their textures, not entirely freely, but reasonably so within the conventions of the era. The challenge of showing the body through and within clothing is usually reserved for female imagery, where it allows a discrete erotic allure without breaking the taboo of females being shown clothed. We have recently alluded to these topics on this blog and will surely do so again before long...

The Motya Charioteer statue in Sicily facing the cameraThree more details are worth noting. The statue, when discovered in 1979, still had visible traces of paint on it, indicating that it was once painted, as should be expected. Also, it originally had further adornments made of another material, most likely metal. The odd spike on the top of the young man's head is most likely a support for or part of some kind of head-dress, maybe a victor's crown (I'll tell you why). Also, the drilled holes in his chest suggest another metal add-on, perhaps meant to depict some kind of textile or leather harness, as outlined on his upper torso.

By now, you should be eager to learn where this wonderful piece was found and where it is to be seen now. The answer is the same for both: Mozia (also known as San Pantaleo), ancient Motya (or Motye), a small island off the western coast of Sicily. Motya was, rather famously, a Phoenician settlement. Phoenician, to put it simply, describes a cultural and political sphere that started in the Levant, essentially in modern Lebanon, at the very eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, subsequently gained footholds across the Mediterranean and relocated its centre and capital to Carthage, in modern Tunisia, before 800 BC. From then onwards, that civilisation is known as Punic and becomes a major player in the western and central Mediterranean, a long-term rival of the Greek westward expansion and later the first major overseas foe of Rome (the Romans call it Punic), until its final defeat in 149 BC. In antiquity, Sicily was a theatre of conflict between Phoenicians and Greeks who established 'colonies' on the island and often fought one another (sometimes along with the island's fierce natives). Motya was one of the most significant Phoenician strongholds in the region. The Punic or Phoenician culture had its own architectural and artistic expressions, and the statue is certainly not one of those.

Back to what we know of Greek sculpture: Young men wearing long flowing garments are a rare motif, but not an unknown one. Usually, they are charioteers (the other very famous example, somewhat earlier but also wearing a long garment and harness, is the famous Delphi Charioteer). This feeds into an entire narrative of Greek mythology and early history and habits of social display. As is well known, the Greeks set great store by athleticism and athletic contests, including most famously the games in honour of Zeus at Olympia. Among the events performed during such athletic games, there were usually chariot races. They were the only contests where the winner was not necessarily the actual performer, but the owner of the chariot and horses, very much a privilege of the wealthy, putting their elaborate garments in contrast against the nakedness of mere runners or wrestlers. Like all winners of contests, such individuals were often commemorated in various ways, for example by honorific poems or indeed by statuary. So, maybe our well-dressed young man is a wealthy citizen of one city-state or other, perhaps even a Sicilian one, depicted as the victor at some major contest, and wearing the winner's crown or wreath. Alternatively, he may be part of a narrative scene, a mythological character or hero, or an adjunct to one. He is known today as the Motya Charioteer.

Approaching the island of Motya off Sicily by boat in spring

Approaching Motya in spring

What is such a masterpiece of Greek sculpture, and an unusual one at that, and perhaps a part of a group of sculptures, doing on a Phoenician islet, some 1,125km or 700 miles away (as the crow flies) from the origin of the marble block it was sculpted from?

the ancient bronze Delphi Charioteer statue in Greece

The closest comparison, if somewhat older and of bronze: the Delphi Charioteer in Greece.

Archaeological excavation is what revealed the statue, but it does not really answer that question. The Charioteer was found in an area of mixed material, what archaeologists call a destruction level, probably dating to 397 BC, when the island was conquered and the city razed to the ground by the armies of Dionysios I, tyrant of Syracuse. As the statue was not directly associated with a building of identifiable function, this is eventually an unclear context, allowing neither dating nor interpretation.

Essentially, two different explanations have been suggested for the presence of the Motya Charioteer on the islet. Perhaps, the sculpture was commissioned or acquired as a high-value object for the island itself and has thus been found near its place of pride, its intended location. Although this is not most scholars' preferred interpretation, it is certainly possible: during decades of excavation at the site, much evidence has been revealed that suggests the presence of Greeks with Greek-style material culture, even architecture, on Motya, which should perhaps be understood as a trading settlement with a mixed population, rather like Delos a few centuries later. That said, there is little comparable 'background noise', no regular presence of high-quality Greek sculpture on Phoenician sites. Thus, the more popular suggestion is that the statue was brought to Motya during one of the many wars between Phoenicians and Greeks in Sicily, prized as a worthy piece of loot. In that interpretation, it might have been damaged during a raid or attack on whatever place, then recognised for its value and quality (probably after the damage to its arms), carried back to the Phoenician stronghold on Motya and placed somewhere important within the settlement or shrines on the island.

One way or the other, we are looking at a masterpiece of Greek sculpture, found within an extraordinary Phoenician site. We will never know the statue's story in detail, nor how Phoenician eyes on Motya looked at this extraordinary piece of art. What did they see in it? Was it the same beauty and purpose we now discern, was it part of a strange 'foreign' aesthetic, was it simply a 'trophy', a fine piece of treasure?  We will probably never know.

There is more to the Charioteer than fits in a blog post - and he really is extraordinarily beautiful! So, you can join Peter Sommer Travels' expert guides to see the Motya Charioteer for yourself, and also to see the site of Mozia. On our Exploring Sicily tour, it is just one of many great highlights, but certainly one of the most memorable.

2 responses to “The Motya Charioteer: a world-class ancient sculpture in Sicily”

  1. Leonie says:

    How sexy can a statue be? I love his daring attitude, his reassurance, his defiance, his “Schwung”. Wow!
    I couldn’t get enough of him! He is worth the sole trip to Sicily as far as I’m concerned.

  2. Heinrich Hall says:

    Thank you, Leonie. He is, beyond any doubt, sexy indeed. Even within the context for him that we understand, Parian sculpture, he is unique – but not quite isolated. And I agree, travelling to Sicily just for him makes every bit as much sense as travelling to Paris for Leonoardo’s Mona Lisa, or to Kalymnos for the Lady of Kalymnos – and so on. And in each case, there’s so much more to justify the trip!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


AITO Tour Operator of the Year 2015 Gold Award AITO Tour Operator of the Year 2017 Gold Award AITO Tour Operator of the Year 2018 Silver Award AITO Tour Operator of the Year 2019 Silver Award Best Travel Company for Arts and Culture Holidays Silver British Travel Award 2022 Member of AITO The Specialist Travel Association Member of ABTA the Association of British Travel Agents Member of ASTA The American Society of Travel Advisors Member of ABTOI the Association of British Travel Organisers to Italy

Rated as Excellent on Aito Reviews with over 500 reviews