CJ Online Review Platt, Facing the Gods

posted with permission:

Verity Platt, Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xviii + 482. Hardcover, £75.00/$130.00. ISBN 978-0521-86171-7.

Reviewed by Francesca Tronchin, Rhodes College

In our age of IMAX movies, skyscrapers, and colossal billboards, it is hard to imagine seeing a statue and believing it to be a manifestation of a divinity. Yet when seeing Alan LeQuire’s scale replica of the Athena Parthenos in Nashville, Tennessee, one of my companions started and gasped audibly. How could a plaster statue have evoked such a physical response, in a scholar of Greek sculpture no less? Was this a kind of epiphany? Clearly this is no mere depiction of a goddess; the factor of size is heightened by workmanship, setting, and materials (even if mundane compared with Phidias’ gold and ivory). Yet it is an extreme case of cognitive dissonance to feel Athena’s presence inside a building in central Tennessee (all due respect to Mr. LeQuire). And now that I have seen the replica a number of times, I continue to be surprised by the awesome (in the truest sense of the word) presence of this statue.

Transforming an epiphanic encounter into either image or text requires the highest levels of technē and enargeia (54). Such qualities of both ancient sculpture and ancient texts (hymns, ekphrasis, epigrams) are Verity Platt’s subject. In an extended and revised version of a doctoral thesis written under the guidance of Jaś Elsner, Platt explores the formal means by which Greeks and Romans made “the gods present through acts of human creativity” (2). She expresses her thesis perhaps best at the end of Chapter 2: depictions of the gods “reveal how an active and self-conscious engagement with the ontological and theological problems raised by the mutual dependence of epiphany and representation was fundamental to religious art and its literary reception” (122). Such representations are, naturally, not unproblematic and Platt deals deftly with the ways in which artificial creations can sometimes undercut the spectacular aspects of epiphany.

Speaking most generally, this volume’s argument lies in a variety of binaries regarding supernatural and “man-made,” carried over different media or textual types. The book is divided into three Parts, arranged chronologically (Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greece; the Second Sophistic; Roman sarcophagi). Part III (Chapter 8) is the most narrowly defined, examining “how the relationship between epiphany, representation and paideia” on mythological sarcophagi was addressed in ways different from the Second Sophistic philosophical and literary evidence (27), which is explored in Part II. Individual chapters deal with epiphany in assorted settings/media: votive reliefs and early Greek poetry (Chapter 1); Hellenistic politics and sculptural production (Chapter 3); Callimachus and epigrams on sculpture (Chapter 4, in particular the Aphrodite of Knidos); Dio Chrysostom (Chapter 5); dreams and cult statues in the Second Sophistic (Chapter 6); and a discussion of Hellenic anthropomorphism in book 6 of Philostratus’ biography of Apollonius of Tyana (Chapter 7).

One of the clearest and best case-studies in Platt’s collection of visual analyses is that of Phidias’ colossal Athena Parthenos and the more ancient Athena Polias (Chapter 2, especially pp. 83–100). The question of which image was more potent to ancient viewers, which was “closer” to Athena in appearance or sacredness has been an issue since at least Herrington 1955[[1]]. While more recent studies[[2]] have mostly assigned numinous qualities to Parthenos and Polias based upon expensive materials and miraculous appearance, respectively, Platt more carefully articulates the shared functions of these two statues with respect to the variety of possible epiphanic qualities. Indeed these two statues illustrate the conceptual crisis of sacred images in Greek culture, the tension between “their phenomenological effect (when they are experienced as a form of epiphany) and their ontological status (that is, their material … nature, their existence as objects)” (82, Platt’s emphasis). Phidias’ Parthenos might have been the very definition of agalma, blending as it did luxurious materials, essential iconography, Classical naturalism, and a high level of technē. This was essentially a hand-crafted divine manifestation. Viewers lucky enough to actually lay eyes on the Parthenos[[3]] would have been charmed into thinking they had witnessed an actual epiphany as “cognitive reliability” surpassed “cognitive dissonance” (83). That is to say that the accuracy of the statue as a real depiction of the goddess (as described in literature or reinforced through common knowledge) was more apparent to viewers than the statue’s status as a man-made object. Yet the mysterious origins of the Athena Polias, combined with a (purported) aniconic appearance and olive-wood material, might have positioned it as something theologically “closer” to the goddess. The fantastic advent of the Polias, having fallen from heaven,[[4]] confirms “the gods’ power to materialize” (97) in the physical world. The epiphanic nature of the more formally humble Polias was also bound up in its status of not being worked by hand, according to Platt, as well as its olive-wood material, a metonym for the goddess’ gift to the city (98).

Platt’s deftness with both literary and visual analysis, across a broad chronological range, is impressive. Yet this reviewer found Platt’s writing style to be syntactically abstruse and heavy-laden with the jargon of critical theory. While Platt’s theoretical approaches could be of tremendous help to graduate students approaching textual and visual material with similar hermeneutic aims, such students might be alienated by her dense prose and use of trendy buzzwords. One thinks of the maxim attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

To conclude, two technical observations and one more general: The bibliography is comprehensive and up-to-date.[[5]] The illustrations are of generally good—not excellent—quality; the fifty-odd photographs are all black and white. In short, this book is ultimately a valuable exploration of an under-studied phenomenon worthy of attention, yet this reviewer fears Platt’s style will be a hindrance to its receiving broad appeal.


[[1]] C. J. Herrington, Athena Parthenos and Athena Polias (Manchester, 1955).

[[2]] E.g. A. A. Donohue, “The Greek Images of the Gods. Considerations on Terminology and Methodology,” Hephaistos 14 (1997) 31-45;K. D. S. Lapatin, Chryselephantine Statuary in the Ancient Mediterranean World (Oxford, 2001).

[[3]] One compelling question not raised by Platt’s book is the functional accessibility of ancient cult statues. How many viewers would have had the opportunity to study these statues with the same kind of diligent eye with which modern scholars can conjure up even now-lost images? Moreover, the volume takes for granted an intellectually elite viewer, one with vast knowledge of literature and art history.

[[4]] Paus. 1.26.6.

[[5]] I was surprised not to find the following volume in the bibliography, as it seems relevant to Platt’s aims: James I. Porter, The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 2010).

Roman Curse Tablet from Kent Followup

The BBC’s coverage of that curse tablet that was recently looked at by Roger Tomlin hinted that more work might be done on it (A Roman Curse Tablet from Kent (and a Phylactery from West Deeping)), and now we hear that there will be … from Kent Online:

Work to conserve a Roman scroll believed to be more than 1,700 years old is to be carried out in Sittingbourne.

Archaeologist and conservator Dana Goodburn-Brown will pick up the lead tablet from Oxford University towards the end of next month.

She will then bring it back to her CSI (Conservation Science Investigations) lab at The Forum shopping centre, giving visitors and shoppers the chance to watch her working on the artefact in October.

The scroll was unearthed by members of the Maidstone Area Archaeological Group in a field in East Farleigh, in 2009.

Measuring just 60mm by 100mm and only one millimetre thick, it is believed to be a curse tablet.

Used by the Romans to cast spells on people accused of theft or other misdeeds, they were rolled up to conceal their inscriptions then hidden in places considered to be close to the underworld, such as graves, springs or wells.

Since its discovery, Dana has sought ways of reading its inscription without unrolling it due to its fragility.

She said: “We took it to the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland for neutron-computed tomography imaging but the scroll is very thin and the resolution of the tomography was not good enough to see the writing.”

Several months ago the decision was finally made to unroll it.

It was then sent to Dr Roger Tomlin, lecturer in Late Roman History at Wolfson College, Oxford, and an authority on Roman inscriptions, who spent four days examining it.

He found, in capital letters, the Latin names SACRATUS, CONSTITUT[US], CONSTAN[…] and MEMORIA[NUS], the Celtic names [ATR]ECTUS and ATIDENUS, and eight others which are incomplete.

As the Romans were the first inhabitants of Kent who could read and write the names are likely to be the earliest written record of inhabitants in the village.

Dana now plans to carry out further work to reveal more of the scroll’s letters.

She said: “It’s corroded in some places so I will be testing methods to reveal more of the letters and our new Scanning Electron Microscope, which allows us to magnify and take pictures of the letters, will hopefully be installed at CSI around the same time. So we should be able to get some more of the names.

“I’ll have it until I’m finished with it then it will go back to Dr Tomlin and eventually back to the archaeological group.”

CJ Online Review: Dowden and Livingstone, eds., A Companion to Greek Mythology

posted with permission:

Ken Dowden and Niall Livingstone, eds. A Companion to Greek Mythology. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Pp. xxvii + 643. Hardcover, $199.95/£110.00. ISBN: 978-1-4051-1178-2.

Reviewed by Hugh Bowden, King’s College London

What is the difference between a guide and a companion? On an expedition, you might employ a guide if you know where you want to get to, but are not certain about which way to go. You would bring along a companion, on the other hand, if you were less concerned about getting to the destination by the shortest route, and instead were interested in learning more about what you might see on the way; a companion might encourage you to go down by-ways, pause to see the view, and possibly even persuade you that your original destination was not really where you should be going. On this basis, Dowden and Livingstone’s volume is very much a companion, and distinctly not a guide.

The book is made up of twenty-eight chapters, which, after the introduction, are arranged in six parts. The titles of the parts (“Establishing the Canon,” “Myth Performed, Myth Believed,” “New Traditions,” “Older Traditions,” “Interpretation,” “Conspectus”) do not immediately make clear what the individual chapters discuss, and chapters within sections take very different approaches to superficially similar material. Two examples must suffice. Part I, “Establishing the Canon,” consist of three chapters: in “Homer’s Use of Myth” (27–45) Françoise Létoublon identifies references in the Iliad and Odyssey to stories known from the Epic Cycle, and then discusses how these stories and some others, are used in the poems. Ken Dowden, in “Telling the Mythology: From Hesiod to the Fifth Century” (47–72), gives a brief history of mythography, that is, concentrating on works that compile stories of gods and heroes, and despite the chronological limits suggested by the title, he ends with an analysis of Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Library. Radcliffe Edmonds starts his chapter on “Orphic Mythology” (73–106) with the statement that “there was no such thing as Orphic mythology in the classical world,” before going on to discuss the various stories that, in antiquity or more recently, have been attributed to Orpheus and “Orphic tradition,” which are bound together more by their exoticness than by their sharing any distinctive doctrine. Létoublon provides a page of notes, Dowden half a page and Edmonds fourteen pages.

Similar diversity is to be found in the three chapters that make up Part IV, “Older Traditions.” Nicholas Allen’s “The Indo-European Background to Greek Mythology” (341–56) is mainly about Dumézil’s methods, and is applied to four “case studies,” two of which are about early Roman history, while the other two make comparisons between Indian texts and Hesiod and the Epic Cycle. Alasdair Livingstone and Birgit Haskamp’s chapter on “Near Eastern Mythologies” (357–82) presents the basic features of Mesopotamian, Anatolian and Ugaritic mythologies, essentially as comparative material. In contrast Nanno Marinatos and Nicolas Wyatt, in “Levantine, Egyptian, and Greek Mythological Conceptions of the Beyond” (383–410), are much more ready to engage in comparisons, amongst other things offering a distinctive interpretation of the location of Hades in the Odyssey on the basis of Egyptian comparanda, illustrated with helpful diagrams.

Sometimes the allocation of chapters to parts might appear a little arbitrary. Susan Woodford’s study of visual material, “Displaying Myth: The Visual Arts” (157–78), a useful guide to what was depicted where, which includes an appendix on “how to identify myths depicted in images,” is placed in Part II, “Myth Performed, Myth Believed,” but in Part V, “Interpretation,” Woodford contributes, “Interpreting Images: Mysteries, Mistakes, and Misunderstandings” (413–23), which discusses a number of case-studies of misinterpretation, and is effectively a coda to the earlier chapter. Here it sits alongside chapters by Sian Lewis on “Woman and Myth” (443–58), which mainly discusses women in myth, but also myth in women’s (or gender) studies, and Richard Armstrong on “Psychoanalysis: The Wellspring of Myth?” (471–85), a critical, but sympathetic, discussion of the place of myth in Freud and Jung, among others. All these chapters are in some sense about interpretation, although not necessarily interpretation of myths: and all scholarship is interpretation of something. Dieter Hertel’s “The Myth of History: The Case of Troy” (425–41), a clearly presented revisiting of the age-old question of the historicity of the Trojan War, has also been put under the “Interpretation,” while Alan Griffiths’ similarly titled, but considerably more wide-ranging “Myth in History” (195–207), has been placed in “Myth Performed, Myth Believed.”

This slightly haphazard organization contributes to the character of the book. The editors make no claims to completeness in the areas they cover, and in the introduction, “Thinking through Myth, Thinking Myth Through,” happily identify a number of topics they were unable to include. Above all, anyone looking for discussion of the reception of Greek myth in modern literature should look elsewhere. Nor is it the case that all the contributions are of equal quality, although most have something to interest the inquisitive reader. Although many volumes in the Wiley-Blackwell series of companions may set out to provide a single place for students or general readers to get an introduction to the subject, and an indication of current trends in scholarship, Dowden and Livingstone have recognized that this would be impossible to achieve in a manageable volume on Greek mythology. So this is a book to dip into, rather than to read through from cover to cover. But that is equally a way of saying that it is a volume to which the reader can return often with profit.

Catiline: Victim or Villain?

Speaking of Cicero and Catiline (see next post), my spiders brought back an article from something called Student Pulse, which is some sort of online student journal, which includes this piece (typo in the title):

… it’s not bad as far as undergraduate papers go; folks might want to be aware of it because it is probably good plagiarism material.

Another Anniversary I Missed ~ Second Philippic

… in addition to our (and NT Blog’s) blogiversary, September 2 (I keep meaning to mention it) is the anniversary of Cicero’s launching of the Second Philippic … fortunately the OUP blog remembered (although they somewhat incongruently illustrate it with Maccari’s Cicero Denouncing Catiline):