Back in 2010, I did a series of four posts reflecting on the concept of Equality (you can find them here, here, here, and here).
Now I begin a series of similar meditations on Liberty with this post. Liberty, like Equality, is something we all recognize when we experience it (and especially when we lose it), but it is very elusive when we try to define and articulate it. Equality is a word that is now out of fashion, but Liberty is hot these days. Politicians from both parties seldom use the word “Equality” anymore (that seems to be the domain of women, racial minorities, and sexual minorities now), but they saturate their speeches with the word “Liberty.” “Liberty” and “Freedom” are great red-meat words that fill even the most elderly arteries with piss and vinegar. Politicians use those words to fire up crowds and toss them out like mackerel to dolphins. “Liberty” and “Freedom” have become rhetorical cudgels we use to beat our opponents to bloody pulps. If we are The True Sons and Daughters of Liberty, then our opponents must be the lackeys of Tyranny.
But what does Liberty mean? What does it really mean to be Free? Do these ideas have a history? Where did they come from? How did they change down through time? How did we arrive at our present understanding of those terms? As in the posts on Equality from 2010, I do not propose any exhaustive scholarly study on these huge central ideas. Instead, I will be thinking about them out loud, and certainly incompletely. I hope that my readers will do their own thinking and investigating, and come to their own conclusions. As in the Equality series, I will make generous use of works of art, not as illustration or decoration, but as philosophical and historical testimony.
We sometimes forget how precarious life was in the ancient world. Threats of violence and starvation were ever present. Someone bigger and stronger could always take what little a person had and kill her for it. Nature was sometimes benign, but more often fickle and hostile. We forget that until 150 years ago, human settlements were small islands in an ocean of wilderness. People fell prey to disease, accident, violence, starvation, etc. more often than not. The 90th Psalm says that the allotted time for human life is three score and ten years, but few people lived long enough to see that. People hoped to live long enough to see old age, but most expired by their thirties and forties. In traditional China, living to see one’s 70th birthday was considered a great good fortune and cause for public celebration.
What people expected most of all from their gods and from their rulers was protection. They worshipped gods and bowed to kings who could guarantee their safety from all the predators and misfortunes that threatened them. Ancient humankind wanted safety first and foremost.
The Egyptians feared what was unknown and chaotic in life. For them, the whole point of civilized society was to minimize risk and guarantee safety. They made this idea explicit in their art repeatedly. Hunting scenes appear frequently in Egyptian tomb art beginning in the later part of the Old Kingdom and continuing all the way through the New Kingdom. These hunting scenes were not always about leisurely activities.
One of the earliest and finest surviving hunting scenes comes from the mastaba tomb of Ti from the 25th century BC, in the later part of the Old Kingdom. Ti was an official of the royal court who owned vast manorial estates, probably in the Nile Delta. Thousands of people lived on these great estates, and the lord of the manor had responsibilities to his tenants. The foremost of those responsibilities was their safety. This magnificent relief sculpture shows Ti fulfilling his duty to safeguard his tenants. He hunts two very great dangers, crocodiles and hippos, in order to clear them out of the papyrus reed swamps on his lands.
Ti Hunting Hippos and Crocodiles, relief from his tomb, Saqarra, Old Kingdom, circa 2150 BC
The artist reduces the visual chaos of a reed swamp to a pattern of perfectly straight and even striations. This forms a kind of architectonic backdrop to the drama of Ti delegating out the dangerous and dirty work of hunting swamp monsters to his subordinates.
The reeds also form a backdrop for an animal drama toward the top. Two civets or foxes climb into the reed tops looking for a meal. Young birds in their nests call for help and their parents fly in to defend them.
This relief sculpture brings order to a scene of natural chaos through monumental form, just as much as Ti restores peace to his estates by vanquishing predators.
The most charismatic of all ancient rulers was the Pharaoh of Egypt. He was king over his people, and he was a god himself, the living mediator between mortals and the gods. For the average ancient Egyptian, even a fleeting glimpse of the Pharaoh must have been the experience of a lifetime, a supreme religious and patriotic moment. Pharaoh was God and the Flag all in one person. The inhabitants of history’s first and longest lasting nation state found their focus for unity and identity in the person of the Pharaoh. The Egyptians never forgot the pastoral origins of the institution of Pharaoh. The cattle herders who roamed the vast savannah of prehistoric North Africa settled around the Nile River when the savannah dried up and became the Sahara. The Pharaoh began as a pastoral chieftain and the memory of that beginning is there in the Pharaoh’s regalia; in the cloth Nemes headdress, in the crook and flail scepters. The Pharaoh was the great herdsman and the people were his cattle that he would care for and protect. The immense monuments that the Egyptians raised to their Pharaohs – the vast underground tombs, the huge mortuary temples, the enormous obelisks, the stone colossi, and above all the pyramids – bear witness to the power of the Pharaoh’s charisma.
One of the finest remaining testaments to that charisma was originally made for the valley temple of the pyramid complex of the Pharaoh Khafre, the second son of the Pharaoh Khufu who built the largest of all the pyramids.
The Pyramid of Khafre at Giza, circa 2520 - 2494 BC, with the Sphinx
Valley Temple of Pharaoh Khafre at Giza
The valley temple was the gateway to the Pharaoh’s vast burial complex of which his pyramid was only the centerpiece. In this temple, the Pharaoh’s body was prepared for burial. Like many deeply conservative peoples, the Egyptians were preoccupied with issues of decay and decline. They always saw the present moment as the decadent shadow of a more glorious past. The Egyptians tried strenuously to stop the devouring passage of time to the point of working to arrest the natural disintegration of the flesh after death. Stone was the most durable material that anyone knew about, and the Egyptians invested it with the magical power to somehow stop time and its ravages.
Khafre’s valley temple is a showpiece of fine stone. The posts and lintels are red granite from Aswan in the far south of Egypt.
Interior of the Valley Temple of Khafre
Originally, they were polished to a mirror smoothness. Some of that original surface still survives. The floor was alabaster, also polished to a shine. There is no evidence that any inscriptions or relief carvings were made on these stones. The temple is surprisingly bare, though it must have been very beautiful in its original state.
There was one image in the temple that was repeated ten times; a series of ten almost identical statues of the king along the interior walls of the temple, all made from the hardest stone, a beautiful black and green diorite. All of them were smashed to bits in ancient times and the pieces buried in a nearby pit. One statue survived almost intact, and it is a masterpiece of Egyptian art from a time that set the standards for three millennia to come.
Pharaoh Khafre, statue originally from the Valley Temple at Giza
Never again would kingship and its charisma find a more focused and powerful expression in art. This statue is an image of what the king wanted to look like for eternity. More importantly, the sculpture is an image of what his subjects expected from their king. The sculptor shows the king as the most perfect of men in the prime of life, physically strong and able to defeat the enemies of his people and to protect them from crime and violence. The expression on his face is confident and otherworldly in its serenity, embodying the peace that he promises to his people. He has the wisdom of the gods and can be trusted to secure justice among his subjects.
The sculptor of this great work finessed a very difficult conundrum in this statue. The Egyptians believed that sculpture had a kind of magic. A statue was more than an image, it was a home for the spirit. The Egyptians believed that the spirit needed a physical home, so the statues of the Pharaoh in his valley temple were substitute bodies for eternity (that there were once ten of them shows the Egyptian inclination toward security through redundancy). The sculptor had to make an image that could conceivably come to life. Egyptian sculpture at its finest has an expectant quality of waiting for the right formula or prayer to come to life. On the other hand, the Pharaoh wanted a sculpture that would showcase the hard stone that guaranteed his immortality. The Pharaoh did not want a Madame Tussaud waxwork. Pharaoh Khafre probably wasn’t even interested in a likeness. On the other hand, he did not want a stone robot either. The sculptor solved this dilemma through monumentality. The Egyptians invented monumentality, taking particular things out of time and remaking them to stand for all time. The strong and confident Pharaoh sits securely upon his throne. On the sides of the seat of the throne is the national emblem of Egypt, the papyrus of Lower Egypt tied in a knot with the lotus of Upper Egypt on the hieroglyph for “unity,” the Union of the Two Lands. While his head and body are portrayed with convincing naturalism, in every part, we are reminded of the stone block out of which it is carved, from the hard angles of the Nemes headdress to the block of the throne to the stiff upright pose of the figure.
Sculptures like this would set the standards for Egyptian art for another three thousand years. As the Pyramid Age of the Old Kingdom receded ever further back in time, its reputation as a golden age of national greatness only increased in the memories of subsequent Egyptian generations.
Before the magnificence of this statue, the word Liberty dies on the lips.
If we are to believe the testimony of Greek art, then the ancient Greeks were all athletic teenagers, mostly boys, with a few girls. The elderly, the middle aged, and small children rarely appear in their art. The world of Greek art is a perpetual springtime of brave athletic youth. In the past, some were misled by this image, most notably Johann Joachim Winckelmann the pioneering 18th century hellenist. He was one of the few convinced that this art did indeed reflect some kind of literal reality. The Greeks themselves cherished no such illusions. Art for them was never a mirror held up to reality. Art made visible the world of ideas and ideals. If art showed us what we were to aspire to, then what about the world we all actually live in? How did the Greeks see that? Our answer comes from Greek literature, and when we read this chorus from Sophocles, the contrast with the world depicted in Greek art is startling and even shocking.
Who craves excess of days,Life is one awful damn thing after another that ends finally in death and an eternity in the shadow world of Hades. It is all so horrible and so hopeless.
Scorning the common span
Of life, I judge that man
A giddy wight who walks in folly's ways.
For the long years heap up a grievous load,
Scant pleasures, heavier pains,
Till not one joy remains
For him who lingers on life's weary road
And come it slow or fast,
One doom of fate Doth all await,
For dance and marriage bell,
The dirge and funeral knell.
Death the deliverer freeth all at last.
Not to be born at all
Is best, far best that can befall,
Next best, when born, with least delay
To trace the backward way.
For when youth passes with its giddy train,
Troubles on troubles follow, toils on toils,
Pain, pain for ever pain;
And none escapes life's coils.
Envy, sedition, strife,
Carnage and war, make up the tale of life.
Last comes the worst and most abhorred stage
Of unregarded age,
Joyless, companionless and slow,
Of woes the crowning woe.
--Sophocles, Chorus from Oedipus at Colonus translated by F. Storr, 1912
And yet this is not the end of story, and certainly not the last word in Sophocles’ play. This is the beginning of all stories, that backdrop against which life is played. Life is frightening, mysterious, and fatal. We must find our way through a world that is unknown and dangerous, and finally succumb to time and chance.
The Greek view of life was heroic. While the Egyptians feared chaos and the unknown, the Greeks feared futility above all else. The idea that one’s life could pass without meaning, fulfillment, or notice as an anonymous cog in the machinery of a vast state (like Egypt), or as a tiny speck in the ocean of the wilderness was unbearable for the Greeks. The Greeks expected each person to live out their lives to their fullest potential within the bounds assigned by fate. That was happiness and success for them. A successful life required the warrior’s virtues of strength, courage, and cunning, but also something more, strength of character; wisdom and self-knowledge. Success in the world required not only training of the body for struggle, but also education and the shaping of character. The successful and happy man knew his limits, knew those bounds assigned by fate and respected them (the Greeks believed that only men were entitled to be happy, and not all men at that). The idea of a healthy mind in a healthy body began with the Greeks, and shapes education around the world to this day.
The warrior athlete embodied all that made life worth the bother of living to the Greeks.
No sculptor I, to carve an image standing
Idle upon its step.
But upon every craft and sail
Speed, lovely song, from Aegina
To tell abroad that Lampon’s son,
Broad shouldered Pytheas,
Has won at Nemea the Pankratiast crown,
Though not yet on his cheek is seen the dower
Of rich-flown summer, mother of the vine-bloom
--Pindar, Fifth Nemean Ode, translated by GS Conway and Richard Stoneman
The warrior-athlete (in Pindar’s poem above a youthful victor in the Nemean Games from the early 5th century BC named Pytheas) is celebrated in magnificent art and poetry, and always appears nude in unadorned splendor. The nudity is not artistic license, but based in fact. Athletic training and public competition were done in the nude. Our word gymnasium comes from the Greek word gymnasios that means “the place where people go naked.” Greek athletics were rooted in military training. None of the Greek city-states had standing professional armies. All men between the ages of 15 and 50 were required to do military service and do periodic military training. Athletic events like the javelin throw, boxing, wrestling, sprinting, etc. came out of military training.
The Greeks considered young men in the prime of youth competing for athletic excellence to be the most worthy of offerings to the gods. All of the ancient Greek games were sacrificial. The Olympic Games in honor of Zeus held at his sanctuary at Olympia were only the best remembered and longest lasting (Emperor Theodosius ended the Games in 394 CE when he made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire). There were the Pythian Games held at Delphi in honor of Apollo. The Athenians honored their goddess Athena with the Panathenaic Games.
A prize amphora from Athens; originally filled with olive oil,
it was presented as a token of victory to the winner of a foot race
in the Panathenaic Games, 6th century BC
A victory ceremony from a black figure prize amphora
from the Panathenaic Games; the goddess of victory, Nike,
crowns a winning athlete.
The warrior-athlete was the living embodiment of everything that the Greeks considered happy and praise-worthy; courage, strength, and wisdom, the healthy mind in the healthy body in the full summer of youth. Young athletes testing themselves and each other in competition were the best of offerings to the gods, but second best was a marble or bronze statue of an athlete, not any particular athlete, but the very idea of the perfect athlete brought to life in stone and bronze by the artist’s skill.
Whole armies of these stone and bronze athletes once populated the sanctuaries of the Greeks, left there as offerings to their gods.
Antikythera Youth, bronze, 4th century BC, discovered by sponge divers in a shipwreck in 1900
Head of the Antikythera Youth
Riace Warrior A, bronze, 5th century BC;
discovered in an ancient ship wreck off the Italian coast in 1981;
This warrior originally held a sword and a shield,
probably real ones that were removed before it was shipped.
Riace Warrior A from the back
Another detail of the Croatian Apoxyomenos
The question that preoccupied the Greeks was how to make this glorious vision a living reality. How does one live to make this possible? How do we organize society so that men can be free to pursue this idea of happiness? What kind of city could we create to make such endeavors worthwhile and meaningful?
Ancient Greece was never a single nation-state like Egypt. It was a collection of independent and fiercely competitive city-states. In each of these city-states, there was an unprecedented range of political experimentation, everything from the traditional monarchies of the Greek east to that strange military state of Sparta. I would imagine that the Egyptians thought all this playing around with constitutions to be sheer madness. In the ancient world, it was no small accomplishment to create a state in which most, if not all, of its inhabitants had enough to eat and could go to bed every night confident that they would not be murdered before sunrise. The Egyptians, even from the social bottom, felt fortunate to live in so rich and so secure a country, and rightly so. They needed only to look at their perpetually war-torn neighbors to remind themselves of their good fortune. Why put all that at risk?
It could be argued that the Greeks invented the idea of Liberty. Security was no longer enough. Life had to be somehow worth the bother of living it. The point of living was to be happy. What did that mean? How could we make that possible? I’m reasonably sure that the Greeks were not the first people to ask such questions. But, they were the first to articulate them and to organize life around their pursuit.
The ancient Greeks started out as sea-traders and pirates from a country impoverished by a four century long dark age following the Dorian invasion that ended the Helladic culture that Homer sang about. The Egyptians were farmers and city dwellers going back to prehistory who valued continuity above all else. They were deeply proud of the antiquity of their kingdom on the Nile. The Greeks were arrivistes, parvenus at the beginning of their history who had little to lose, and who borrowed freely from the much older civilizations around them. The Egyptians innovated when necessity compelled them to do so. When they came up with something that they liked, they would keep it for nine hundred years. Fierce rivalry drove the Greek city-states. When one state did something remarkable, other states felt compelled to top it.
We can see that rivalry driving the remarkably rapid development of the Archaic kore and kouros from wooden provincial knock-offs of Egyptian monumental sculpture to figures that seem to move and breath on their pedestals, figures that had no real precedent anywhere else in the ancient world. That whole remarkable progress happened in barely two centuries.
Kore from the island of Chios, painted marble, circa 520 BC
The Sounion Kouros, marble, circa 600 BC
The New York Kouros, marble, circa 600 BC
The Anavysos Kouros, marble, circa 525 BC
The Aristodikos Kouros, marble, circa 500 BC
We can set an early 6th century kouros next to an early 5th century athlete, and the differences are so striking that, if we didn’t know better, we’d conclude that they were the creations of completely different cultures. Compare that rapid progress to the conservatism of ancient Egypt. Here are statues of three different Pharaohs from over a period of 1200 years. They are remarkably similar for so long an expanse of time.
Three statues of Pharaoh Senwosret III, circa 1860 BC
Colossus of Pharaoh Ramses II, circa 1250 BC
The total span of time among these sculptures is around 1200 years
Athens was the first state anywhere in the world that could be called democratic. We would hardly recognize it as such. It was certainly no liberal democracy. The liberal idea of universal enfranchisement would not appear anywhere until the 18th century, and would have seemed alien to the ancient Athenians as well as to other ancient peoples. The entire free male population of Athens eligible to vote and to hold public office would barely fill a high school football stadium in rural Texas. Women and foreigners were completely disenfranchised, and there was a large slave population outside of all legal protection. The franchise was limited to free-born men native to Athens. Athens was a democratic phallocracy.
What made Athens unique was that wealth and nobility did not legally privilege any free-born Athenian man, and their lack did not legally disable any such. All men, noble or common, rich or poor, had the same vote, the same eligibility for public office, and the same political and legal obligations to maintain the state, including taxes, jury duty, and military service. Political participation was obligatory. There were penalties for failing to show up and vote at the assemblies on the slope of the Pnyx hill.
Athenian men were keenly aware of the uniqueness of their democracy, and attributed the greatness of their city in the 5th century to their freedom. They believed that their state made their freedom possible. They even went on to claim that there was no real freedom outside of the city-state, beyond the polis. Outside the polis was the iron cage of chance and necessity, or the solitary futility of the wilderness that made freedom meaningless. The Athenians scoffed at the very idea of “private” happiness outside of public life. Thucydides said as much in the famous funeral oration that he put in the mouth of Pericles (which may or may not record an actual speech).
“Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well informed on general politics – this is a peculiarity of ours; we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.” --Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner
In this remarkable speech, Thucydides presents an ideal image of a state made up entirely of free men, a vision to be realized in life, like the ideal images of warrior-athletes populating temple precincts and public squares.
“Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility. And to show that this is no empty boasting for the present occasion, but real tangible fact, you have only to consider the power which our city possesses and which has been won by those very qualities which I have mentioned. Athens, alone of the states we know, comes to her testing time in a greatness that surpasses what was imagined of her. In her case, and in her case alone, no invading enemy is ashamed of being defeated, and no subject can complain of being governed by people unfit for their responsibilities. Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present wonders at us now” --Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner
Let us recall that Thucydides confined all this triumphalism to the beginning of his book. The rest of it casts Athens as a tragic hero undone by her own hubris: spending her power wantonly on pointless and disastrous imperial adventures like the Sicilian Campaign; tarnishing her glory with the massacre of the inhabitants of Melos; and seeing her much vaunted freedom exploited by demagogues who stampede her citizens from one disastrous decision to another for their own profit. Thucydides documents major abuses of democratic rule such as the votes to expel and exile citizens, even ones who did Athens great service.
And yet, Thucydides did not intend this speech to be merely an ironic dramatic device. This is an ideal, but one that he truly believes. The rest of the book is an account of how that ideal was betrayed.
“Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.” That includes the courage to be able to face the facts of history without illusion and without cynicism.
And in that spirit, let us look at those who were not free in Athens. This is the tombstone of a woman named Hegeso, daughter of Proxenos, according to the inscription.
The Grave Stele of Hegeso
She lived in Athens toward the end of the 5th century BC. The stone was originally painted and showed her going through her jewelry with her servant present. The servant was almost certainly a slave, and this may be a portrait of her personal slave intended to be a testament of affection between the two women.
Slaves appear very rarely in Greek art, and when they do, it is in contexts such as this, memorial tributes to faithful servants. Neither of these women would have been considered full citizens in Athens or in any other Greek city-state. Hegeso would have been barred from political participation because of her gender. She would have been mostly confined to her home, and her education would have been limited. She was effectively the property of her husband, though she commanded a certain measure of power and authority over the management of the family household. In domestic matters, she had the last word.
The slave girl standing before her had no power or authority at all. She did not own her own person, body and soul. She belonged to Hegeso and to her family as much as the chair that Hegeso sits upon. Hegeso enjoyed at least some minimal protection by the law. The slave girl was entirely outside the law and its protection. She was completely at the mercy of her owners who had the power of life and death over her.
Slaves in ancient Greece were usually other Greeks. The most common way to be a slave was to be born into slavery. The second most common way to fall into slavery was through debt. If a debtor defaulted, then his creditors could sell him and his entire family into slavery to satisfy the debt. Sometimes people ended up enslaved through kidnapping. Bandits abducted travelers by land, pirates by sea. Victims would be held for ransom. If the family and friends could not pay the sum demanded, then the victim was usually sold on the slave market instead of killed. Warfare was another path to slavery. It was assumed at the time that surrender on the battlefield meant that a soldier valued his life more than his freedom. Prisoners of war were usually sold into slavery. If a city was conquered, then it was at the mercy of its captors. The victor could, and sometimes did, sell the entire population of a defeated city into slavery.
Athens in this respect was not exceptional in Greece or in most of the ancient world. Perhaps the real exception was Sparta, which depended on a large slave class, the Helots, to an unusual extent. Slaves in ancient Greece, as in much of the rest of the ancient world, usually worked as farm laborers, domestic servants, and bedroom toys. Slavery in ancient times, as in modern times, was an institution founded in violence and perpetuated by violence.
Everywhere in the ancient world, men and women could see all around them what it meant not to be free. They thanked Fortune and the grace of the gods that they remained free in a world that depended upon slave labor, and took slavery for granted.
The men of Greece, and Athens in particular, began to see other constraints as a kind of bondage. There were the constraints of poverty and necessity. Wealth and slaves freed a man to pursue his happiness and ambitions. But even the responsibilities of a great fortune could be seen as a constraint. Greek men saw disenfranchisement as a kind of bondage, an idea that would have never occurred to the average Egyptian. An Egyptian tenant farmer had no say whatever in the governing of his country, or even his region, but he certainly did not consider himself to be a slave. The government of Pharaoh and of the Lord of the estate were as remote and far away as the gods. As far as that farmer was concerned, it made as much sense for Lord and Pharaoh to consult with him as for Ra to ask his permission for the sun to rise.
But Athenian men saw enfranchisement, the right to participate in governing, as crucial to Liberty. Governing the city was not only an obligation, but an opportunity for ambition that they began to see as a right. Politics was not only an arena for the struggle for power, but an opportunity for men to distinguish themselves, to do great and memorable things before an audience of their peers. Even now, we see enfranchisement as essential to Liberty. To us, those who are excluded from political participation are by definition not free.
These differing concepts of being free -- the Greek idea that freedom means the ability to participate in governing, versus the larger view of the ancient world that freedom meant being left alone by those who govern – clashed in the Persian Wars at the beginning of the 5th century BC. The Greeks won an unexpected and unlikely victory over the dominant power in the world at the time, the Persian Empire. In 492 BC, the Persians landed at Marathon with a 90,000 man professional army and faced 10,000 citizen soldiers from Athens, Corinth, and Plataea. The Greeks won with 6400 Persians dead and only 192 Athenians dead. The Persians suffered a humiliating defeat which they would try to avenge by invading again in 480 – 479 BC. The Persians ravaged Greece and destroyed Athens, but were defeated again by the Athenian navy at Salamis. The Greeks saw this improbably victory as vindication for their civilization.
A Greek hoplite soldier
The Athenians decided to build a new temple to their goddess Athena to replace the one destroyed by the Persians. In so doing, they broke a solemn oath taken by all the Greek city-states not to rebuild those temples destroyed by the Persians. The Athenians compounded the scandal by paying for the construction out of funds from the Delian League, a mutual defense fund among all the Greek city-states. Out of those scandals rose the Parthenon, the most celebrated of all Greek temples.
One of the most celebrated and scandalous sculptures that Phidias designed for the Parthenon was the Ionic frieze that ran around the entire exterior of the temple naos.
The subject of that frieze gravely strained the protocols of Greek temple art that decreed that only the gods and their doings belonged on the temple. Phidias put the Athenians themselves on the temple to their goddess. The Parthenon Frieze shows the Athenians making a religious procession in honor of their goddess, Athena.
Scholars argue over just which Athenian religious procession this is, but the Frieze probably is meant to stand for them all. The procession on the Frieze once began over the west entrance to the Parthenon, continued down the north and south sides, and concluded over the east entrance. A cavalry escort made up of very young horsemen form the bulk of the Frieze procession on three sides of the temple. The scholar John Boardman counted the horsemen and arrived at 192, the same number of Athenian dead in the Battle of Marathon. Boardman suggests that the Frieze might be a memorial to those war dead.
These riders are young men from the wealthiest and most high-born Athenian families. There was no Government Issue in the Athenian military, so every citizen had to buy his own weapons and armor. These young men were from those families wealthy enough to keep horses. They are probably cadets who usually rode escort in religious processions. Although they are all carefully individualized, these figures are not portraits. These are not any particular Athenian young men. They are the idea of Athens come to life. Greek art here, as always, is not a mirror held up to reality, but the embodiment of a concept. These horsemen once thundered down the north and south sides of the Parthenon in a kind of controlled stampede.
The solemn faced young men strain to control their wild-eyed horses that always seem about to bolt away with them. Human intelligence remains superior over animal strength and instinct no matter how powerful. The young riders always remain in command over their spirited animals.
Remarkably, Phidias and his sculptors kept every rider and horse distinct. The legs of horses and humans are never a confused tangle. No horse and no rider are ever repeated.
Though they are not portraits, each rider is a unique individual. Each has their own independent life apart from the group and from the whole composition.
In this respect, the frieze is the most original work of the 5th century BC and one of the most original of the ancient world. The Apadana, or audience hall built for the Great King of Persia in Persepolis, may have been the inspiration for the Parthenon. The Apadana was completed around 485 BC, around 38 years before construction began on the Parthenon. The famous carved friezes on the staircases of the Persian monument may have inspired Phidias, if only by reputation.
A staircase of the Apadana, Persepolis, circa 500 - 485 BC
We can appreciate the originality of Phidia’s conception when we compare it with its slightly older prototype from Persepolis. Most sculpture in the 5th century BC looked like the reliefs from Persepolis, not the Parthenon. These beautiful relief sculptures from the Apadana reflect the cosmopolitan culture of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenids. We can count off the influences in these figures; Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, even Archaic Greece in the carving of the draperies with their folds and zig zag hems. As in all of those prototypes, everything is reduced to pattern. The Persian soldiers have a kind of cookie-cutter sameness. They have no meaning and no life apart from their role as soldiers in the army of the Great King. To the Greeks, these figures embody the nightmare of futility, of finding one's self reduced to a tiny expendable part in the machinery of a vast impersonal state.
Persian soldiers from the Apadana of Persepolis
A section of the Parthenon Frieze designed by Phidias
Even in its bare broken state (the Frieze was originally brightly painted with gilded bronze fittings), removed by Lord Elgin and the British Navy far from its original home, the Parthenon Frieze remains one of the most daring and adventurous works of art in the ancient world, and testimony to the transformative power of the idea of Liberty, an idea that would eventually leave the Athenian phallocracy far behind.
Athens’ incomplete democracy would end in the long grinding catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War, as Thucydides documented in excruciating detail. That war would leave Greece vulnerable to foreign invasion. Foreign occupation first came in the form of Alexander of Macedon, and then later the Roman Empire.
The image of the free warrior athlete eventually degenerated into the Hellenistic ruler portrait. The sculptor Lysippos supposedly made a life size bronze statue showing a ruthless and arrogant Alexander of Macedon nude and leaning on a spear. Many later Hellenistic rulers imitated that lost statue having sculptors make life-size and over life size statues of them, likewise nude like a warrior athlete and leaning on a spear (usually lost in most surviving examples). The latest examples were made for some of the Soldier Emperors of Third Century Rome, a last dying gasp of classical form from a culture that could no longer sustain the humanist convictions that originally shaped classicism.
Unknown Hellenistic ruler, bronze, 2nd Century BC
Emperor Trebonianus Gallus, bronze, 3rd century CE
The brave young champion of Liberty becomes the sneering brutal thug of Domination in the end.
Next we will look at the great primordial story, the ur-text, of all Liberation, and the idea of Liberty taken into the realm of the spirit in both the West and the East.