“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.
What are we looking at? A mostly nude marble lady with no head, holding a shield. In other words, just another typical piece of ancient sculpture: doesn’t that form of art seem to always depict naked people in ostentatious postures, occasionally holding things?
Well, that’s true to some extent. Ancient (Greek and Roman) sculpture certainly tends to depict people in dramatic postures and shows them quite frequently in the nude. What we often forget is that nudity (both male and female) carried different meanings at the time than today: it was habitually used as an accepted and understood shorthand for a “more-than-normal” status, applied especially to heroes and gods and – as a result – sometimes to aspiring politicians or rulers who aimed for such unworldly status.
But that does not apply to this near-naked lady. She is part of the sculptural decoration of a sumptuous 2nd century AD Roman bath in Perge, an immensely wealthy Roman city in Pamphylia on the southern coast of modern Turkey, not far from the border with Lycia. Theatres, being very public places frequented by large crowds, were typically lavishly decorated with sculpture, more often thjan not of a commemorative or propagandist nature.
The lady shown here is now part of the spectacular sculpture exhibition in the archaeological museum of Antalya, where she shares a gallery with many other spectacular statues from Perge.
She is the goddess Aphrodite, the personification of female beauty and sexuality. Thus, her depiction makes perfect sense – or does it? What about the shield? Where’s the connection between a piece of defensive armour and the alluring sensuality of female nudity? Hmm, that’s tricky. The juxtaposition can be read to imply many issues and cultural attitudes, but we can defuse it: it primarily refers to a central element of Aphrodite’s mythology. Married to the unattractive and crippled Hephaistos, god of smiths and artisans, Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans) had a long-standing affair with Ares (Mars in Latin), the god of war. Greek mythology is often deeply psychological, but what that connection means is for you to decide. That said, as a result of that dalliance, Aphrodite (in myth) was sometimes confronted with Ares’ accoutrements, his weapons and armour, when he was not currently wearing them (and probably asleep). As befits a god of war, his armour would be well-maintained, and as she was what she was, the idea is that she used the polished outside of his shield as a mirror to admire her own beauty.
I’m not making this up. Around the mid-third century BC, in the epic Argonautica the poet Apollonios of Rhodes, describing the embroideries on a cloak worn by the hero Jason, included this scene: Next in order had been wrought Cytherea (another name for Aphrodite) with drooping tresses, wielding the swift shield of Ares; and from her shoulder to her left arm the fastening of her tunic was loosed beneath her breast; and opposite in the shield of bronze her image appeared clear to view as she stood. That is pretty much exactly what we are looking at in Antalya Museum!
So what is this very Greek motif doing in a Roman bath in Asia Minor? In the Roman Empire, Greek cultural values, ideas and expressions had become a lingua franca, a common language or rather a common set of cultural references across an empire that stretched from the borders of Scotland in the north to the cataracts of the Nile in Egypt in the south, and from what is now Portugal in the west to the Arabian desert in the east. Especially in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the preceding Greek tradition of ideas and images was copiously used throughout the Roman era.
In Perge, a city that thrived in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, one of the expressions of those cultural choices was sculpture. As the city was apparently very wealthy, it was decorated with high-quality sculpture, adorning especially its baths and its (superb) theatre. The sculptures in question were not locally made but came from specialised workshops elsewhere in Anatolia. They were also not original works, but modified copies of sculptures created centuries earlier in the tradition we call Greek. In antiquity, individual sculptures could reach great fame and great influence (as we have discussed for the Aphrodite of Knidos and the Zeus of Olympia) and were copied copiously in many locations. The copies, in themselves great works of craftsmanship or even of art, were meant to convey the dignity and meanings of the famed originals onto their chosen settings. The reference to beautiful Aphrodite and her relationship with Ares is certainly not inappropriate in a bathhouse.
The sculptor or workshop that created the Perge Aphrodite were superb at their job – but they were not artists in the sense of creating something new. Most likely, they created a high-quality (and modified, see below) copy of a famous work from centuries earlier – Perge was full of such reproductions. The original Aphrodite with the shield of Ares is unknown, but it was probably a work of the 4th century BC, created by an Athenian or Rhodian sculptor and it may well have stood in the temple of Aphrodite at Corinth, a city uniquely committed to the worship of that goddess.
The Perge copy is striking, but it is not the only one. The National Archaeological Museum of Naples (Italy) holds another very famous version of the motif, found in Capua centuries ago. For generations, scholars had speculated that she was of the shield-bearing type mentioned in ancient literature and shown on some Corinthian coins, but the object she had been holding was gone (perhaps it had been made of metal), so one could not be sure. It was only the 1981 discovery of the Perge figure, which is very clearly based on the same original and which still has its shield, that proved the identification. Some scholars suggest that the most famous depiction of Aphrodite, the so-called “Venus de Milo” (or Aphrodite of Melos), now in the Louvre and discovered on the Cycladic island of Melos (Milos), may also have held a shield – her non-existent arms are among the most famous absent limbs in art history.
The Perge Aphrodite has another very striking and unique feature – her shield is inscribed. It identifies Klaudios (Claudius) Peison as the donor of the sculpture – and probably of whatever else decorated that bathhouse at Perge. Peison was evidently a wealthy and influential individual in the area at the time, and he was eager to underline that. Modifying a “model sculpture” to have your name on it is a bold move, but not unheard of at the time – but having the goddess of love point at your name is certainly not subtle. It adds an element of local and temporal politics to what is, for us, a key representation of ancient sculpture. In other words, the inscription on the shield, reading “Claudius Peison had me put here” translates as “this superb work of art, with all its associations and implications, including the great shrine of Aphrodite at Corinth and the long pedigree of Greek sculpture, was brought to you by Claudius Peison, whom you can rely on as a wealthy and beneficial Roman citizen of this area who is also fully and actively aware of the Greek heritage that underlies our local culture – enjoy!”.
You can see the Perge Aphrodite on our Cruising the Lycian Shore, her Capuan sister on our Cruising the Amalfi Coast, and the likely home of the original at Corinth on our Exploring the Peloponnese tour. Other images of Aphrodite can be seen on many of our escorted tour.