“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
A painting, clearly. We see an older man, seated on a white bench, bearded and with receding hair, wearing a toga-like garment that leaves his well-tanned upper body exposed. His left hand is holding a cane or stick, his right is leaning on the seat. He's not looking at us, but turning to his right (our left), with a rather serious and alert facial expression. The figure is not part of a larger scene or composition, it 'floats' in isolation on a striking red background.
The painting is not large, with the seated figure only measuring about 34cm (just over 13") from top to bottom. The artist has used a very limited palette, essentially just shades of white/grey and red/brown, managing to render the muscular arms and torso as well as the distinctive face quite masterfully, using white highlights on the man's arms, chest, nose and forehead to add a three-dimensional, lifelike feel to the body. Arguably, he's been less successful with the bench, though.
We would be able to guess who is depicted just from the face, but we don't need to, since an inscription above the head names the man in Greek letters as ΣΩΚΡΑΤΗΣ (ςωκρατης) - Socrates. That name opens an entire field of association, but let's take a step back first.
The painting, more precisely a wall-painting in the technique we call fresco, is on display in the Archaeological Museum at Selçuc in Western Turkey, a museum dedicated entirely to finds from ancient Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia and an archaeological super-site. It was discovered decorating a wall in the atrium of an upscale Roman dwelling, namely Residential Unit 4 of Terrace House 2 (we have written about the wonderful Terrace Houses before on this blog). Archaeologists used to date it in the third quarter of the first century AD, i.e. the same era as the more recent frescoes at Pompeii, but more recently, a date a generation later, a little after AD 100, is being favoured.
So, what's a portrait of a Greek philosopher of the fifth century BC (Socrates lived from 470 to 399 BC) - identified by a Greek inscription - doing in a Roman house built five centuries after the man's death? Easy: it reflects the cultural connections, ambitions, perhaps also pretensions, of the very wealthy Roman-era inhabitants of that particular house, and by doing so, it throws a sidelight on the long-lasting cultural influence of Classical Athens.
Socrates was certainly a larger-than-life character, a man who taught first himself and later some of his fellow Athenians to question supposed truths and then to use logic to answer those questions. He did so at a time when Athens was the leading cultural force in the Greek World, and eventually he paid the ultimate price for his inquisitive approach, famously being sentenced to death for impiety and 'corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens'. Equally famously, Socrates did not commit his ideas to writing.
What we know about him comes through the writings of his most famous pupil, Plato, who recreated Socrates' approach in a series of dialogues and conversations that were by themselves a highly innovative form of literature and that I cannot recommend highly enough. They are easy and fun to read and the way of querying reality they push is not hard to follow: it still helps us in thinking for ourselves, in discerning information, analysing it, defining how we judge it and drawing conclusions eventually. It might be argued that Plato's Socrates is a literary construct as much as a reflection of a real person, but what does it matter? Through Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle, one of the most influential thinkers of all time, Socrates became a father figure of thought itself, and he remains so. That's why he's on a Roman wall centuries later.
We do not really know quite what Socrates looked like. Plato and two other contemporaries, namely Xenophon (a historian) and Aristophanes (a comedic playwright), offer elements of description, indicating a short, stubby man with staring eyes, and one not conventionally attractive; Plato, using the voice of Alcibiades, even compares him to the caricature-like satyr Silenus. Broadly, we assume that Greek art did not engage in realistic portraiture for nearly a century after the death of Socrates. Nonetheless, there is a conventional image of the man, with the receding hairline, stubby nose and unkempt hair seen in the Ephesus painting. It is normally ascribed to Lysippos, a major sculptor of the fourth century BC. At best, Lysippos might have met people who had met Socrates long before. But it doesn't really matter: the Hellenistic image of Socrates as the unkempt, balding stubby-nosed philosopher became canonical and was copied countless times in the following centuries: it's the standard image of the man, copied to the present day. Similarly, we have standard images of Homer, Pericles or Herodotus - even of Caesar. They don't depict an actual individual but an idealised and essentialised image.
But still, what's Socrates doing in a Roman house in Ephesus? To start with, the Romans of the first and second centuries AD did not separate Greek from Roman the way we might be tempted to now. Rome, having received cultural influence from Greek art and scholarship even earlier, began to take political control of Greece by the 2nd century BC and had taken over the entire East Mediterranean by the late first century BC. That part of the world had first been united by Alexander the Great centuries earlier, so Greek cultural habits and the Greek language were well-established and Rome, always practical, adapted to that while conquering, retaining Greek as the language of administration and preserving much continuity. Before long, powerful Romans in Asia Minor spoke Greek and were embedded in Greek culture. The Imperial Roman system was not very concerned with ethnicity: members of the Roman-era upper classes of Ephesus in the first century AD may have been of Roman or Italian descent, or of Greek descent (especially including Ionian Greeks from the region), or of Anatolian descent, or of any other. The emperors of the era, Trajan and Hadrian, were descended from Roman families in Iberia, which is why they are sometimes described as Spanish.
But back to Socrates! In the atrium of Residential Unit 4 at Ephesus, the Socrates fresco was part of a larger composition, showing people or scenes in the centres of rectangular red panels around the yard. Unfortunately, they only survive in fragments, but they include the Muse Urania, personifying the science of astronomy, across from him, and two scenes from the Trojan War, associated with the great literary works of Homer, on his left, both involving the hero Achilles. Most unfortunately, we don't know what was on his right, the direction he looks in the painting.
But it's enough: by combining Socrates with Homeric epic and with Greek legend, the Roman-era sponsor of those paintings, the owner of the house, was laying out a narrative about himself and also about his city. We cannot know exactly what he tried to say, of course, but we get the drift. This household knew its philosophy, and it did so in a context.
We were never the target audience of that fresco. We're its accidental audience. Let's pursue that: read Socrates.
For more of this, we visit the sites where Socrates and other philosophers used to hang out in the Agora at Athens on our Athens tour, we visit the home-town of Aristotle at Stageira in Macedonia and we see Ephesus on our cruises of the Ionian coast.
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