“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.
If you have any knowledge or experience of ancient art, the word that comes to your mind on looking at our image is probably “typical”. That is entirely correct, and also entirely wrong. Let me explain.
It is a relief showing a young man, completely nude with the exception of a garment covering his left shoulder and arm, holding an object in each hand. Facing the viewer, his perfect and idealised body shows a subtle hint of the contrapposto, the slight asymmetry of arms and shoulders caused by the figure’s weight resting primarily on his left leg.
In other words, it is a typical late Classical (late 5th to late 4th century BC) depiction of an athlete, a standard motif of Greek art. As such, it is a familiar type for anyone who has experienced Greek sculpture, be it at one of the world’s great collections of ancient art, such as the British Museum, the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum, or be it at the local archaeological exhibits in the areas where such art was produced: Greece, Southern Italy and Sicily, the western coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey), parts of North Africa, and so on.
Beyond that, the sculpture is very worn, evidently due to centuries of exposure to the elements. It is, as far as we can discern, quite well executed, but not particularly daring or original, simply reproducing an established motif. Thus, it can be described as being of a middling quality that would be considered fairly fine in a provincial location.
The little triangular pediment or gable above the head of our athlete is also quite typical. It identifies the sculpture as a grave marker, essentially a tombstone. Again, such depictions are very common in that context, especially in the fourth century BC.
The carving is not too well-preserved, but it is still discernible (and known from earlier records) that the athlete’s left hand (right from our point of view) holds a vessel, and his right hand an object that looks like an elongated spoon, now lost to weathering. Again, these are typical for images of Greek athletes and connected with the actual practicalities of Greek athleticism. The vessel would have contained the oil that the athlete spread on his body before exercise (running, jumping, wrestling, throwing, boxing and so on) and the bronze tool, known as a strigil was used to scrape off that oil, mixed with sweat and dirt, afterwards. In sculpture and vase painting, athletes were nearly always depicted holding a strigil, as the object was a visual shorthand, identifying its bearer as an athlete. Strigils are also frequently found accompanying the remains of the dead as grave offerings, especially alongside the remains of young males.
So, our athlete is a standard image of his time, an image that would be familiar in any part of the “Greek World” then – but more than that, he is a cultural trope, a standardised visual expression of an entire cultural package: a particular lifestyle and particular ideals and values. That package, those notions and that ideology derive from Classical (5th century BC) Athens, then the political, economical and cultural centre of the “Greek World”, where and when such imagery first developed. In that context, the young fit male was indeed an ideal, the model image of a citizen able to participate in the city-state’s social, religious and political life. Athleticism had become a central aspect of male identity in Athens and elsewhere, as a pastime, as a social environment and as training for the men’s occasional role as warriors defending their city’s interests. Athletic contests played an important role in many religious festivals, most famously in form of the “games” held in honour of Zeus at Olympia, where athletes from the entire “Greek World” competed every four years. The image of the athlete implied all that and thus described a social and physical ideal, deemed desirable in every sense.
On nearly all our European tours and cruises in Greece, Turkey and Italy, our guests have the opportunity to see such athletes, usually during museum visits. So, at a casual glance one might assume that our figure is just another example of that type of sculpture and that its context is the cemetery of a Greek or Hellenised city in Greece itself or perhaps in the other core areas of Greek settlement, i.e. Southern Italy, Sicily or Western Turkey.
Well, not quite.
What makes our figure especially interesting is its particular context. Our athlete does indeed decorate a tomb, but one that would have looked strange and exotic to nearly all Greeks, because it is not a Greek tomb at all. That tomb is part of a necropolis or cemetery, but not one belonging to a Greek city, in fact apparently belonging to no city at all at the time it was made. Also, our athlete is not in a museum: since he, along with the entire tomb he belongs to, was carved from the “living” natural rock, he remains where he’s always been.
The tomb is at Üçagiz in Lycia, on the southern coast of Anatolia. It is a typical “Lycian rock-carved house-tomb”, with a façade, common in Lycian tombs of that time, imitating some kind of wooden architecture in considerable detail.
We even know whose tomb it was, as it bears an inscription, not in Greek but in Lycian, naming the occupant as one Kluwanimi, most likely a local nobleman, who was of some importance in earlier part of the 4th century BC. A small fortification nearby was probably the local aristocrats’ manor and a town, ancient Teimiussa, developed nearby somewhat later. At the time when the tomb was carved, the region was by no means substantially Hellenised – that was to happen later, namely after Alexander’ the Great’s conquest of Asia Minor in the 330s BC.Early 4th century BC Lycia was very much a region between cultures, drawing influences from local tradition, from its then Persian overlords and from its Greek contacts. It appears that the Lycians were quite aware of this position “between” places.
At the time of Kluwanimi’s death, the Lycians had been in contact with Greece for many generations, partly through trade and partly through conflict. In the mid-5th century, Athens had tried to incorporate Lycia into its empire, known as the Delian League. That effort did not succeed, probably as the result of local resistance. Nonetheless, from that period onwards, aspects of Greek art and culture began to occur in Lycia. Judging from the archaeological evidence, the Lycians then took an à-la-carte approach to Greek culture, adopting aspects of it where and when they thought it suitable.
That’s how we end up with our early 4th-century BC Greek athlete in Lycia, a typical motif in an unlikely spot. Kluwanimi, whoever he was, or his descendants, commissioning his grave, decided that the image of a Greek-style athlete would be an appropriate decoration for his tomb. The athlete was at this time a quintessentially Greek motif. Most likely, a Greek sculptor was brought to the area to carve him, possibly from nearby Rhodes. Perhaps those who made that decision knew of the complex cultural associations of Greek civic identity that such an image implied or perhaps they did not. Maybe he was placed there as an idealised portrait of Kluwanimi himself or maybe he was just there to underline how cultured, sophisticated, well-connected and affluent his family was. Who can tell?
You can see the Üçagiz athlete, among many other wonderful sights, on our Lycian itineraries: Walking and Cruising Western Lycia, Cruising the Lycian Shore, Cruising Western Lycia and the 2-week Walking and Cruising the Lycian Shore.