Athena: A Window Into the Hellenistic World

Published on October 12, 2015 by Hicham Aboutaam in Aboutaam, Phoenix Ancient Art

Religion and belief in the power of the Gods were part and parcel of life during the Hellenistic Period in Greece. The influence is captured in works like The Iliad and The Odyssey, both immensely popular in the Hellenic World. Homer depicts the gods as intimately involved in the lives of the people. They were consulted about domestic matters and were relied upon in times of warfare.

In 334 B.C., for instance, when Alexander the Great crossed the Hellespont and went to Troy, he dedicated his armour to Athena and laid a wreath at the tomb of Achilles. He also dedicated an entire temple to Athena at Priene in Asia Minor as part of his quest to liberate the Greek cities from Persian rule.

Statues of the Goddess of War were used to pray to and to celebrate around. Prior to going into battle, soldiers would pray to the statues of the goddess, asking for victory and assistance. And afterwards, they would offer their thanks to the Athena for her assistance.

Athena: Phoenix Ancient Art

Athena: Phoenix Ancient Art

One example of the statues created at the time is the Athena from the Greek Hellenistic, 1st century B.C. period owned by Phoenix Ancient Art. One can easily identify that this is a representation of Athena with the presence of the aegis and with the peplos that is left open along the right side. Athena was most often portrayed as a warrior, wearing a breastplate and typically with a coat of armor.

In this depiction, the young woman has on a peplos that reaches to her feet and has an ample fold (kolpos) that covers her torso up to the waist. The garment is tight across the chest and is pinned up with fibulae on the shoulders. An aegis, which is the skin from a goat that would have fed Zeus, Athena’s father, covers the chest, the shoulders and the upper back in two panels. These are sculpted, as such pieces often were during the period, with raised serpents that have triangular heads. There is also a Gorgoneion, which is the head of Medusa. Through these details, Athena personifies excellence in close combat, victory and glory. The breastplate that she was typically depicted wearing, and shown in here, shows fear, strife, defense and assault with the snake and Medusa imagery.

Athena: Phoenix Ancient Art

Athena: Phoenix Ancient Art

It is interesting, when making a comparison among ancient statues of Athena, to see the similarities among them. The Athena of Myron, the Athena Parthenos, the Athena Ince and the bronze Athena at Piraeus all show the same position of the legs with the right supporting the body and the left set a bit back and slightly bent. In virtually all of these statues there is the same sensuality, the use of elongated proportions, the same peplos worn open on the right with a long kolpos and the same use of snake and Medusa imagery.

And, of course, there is typically the same motif of the Goddess ready for battle – the goddess who will help her people to get through their struggles.

Such invaluable statues, that have stood the test of time, allow us a unique window into the lives and values of a people from so long ago.