ElAnt v3n2 - Peisistratos, The Peisistratids and the Introduction of Herakles to Olympos: An Alternative Scenario

Volume 3, Number 2
September 1995


Robert Hannah,
Department of Classics,
University of Otago,
P.O. Box 56,
New Zealand.
e-mail: robert.hannah@stonebow.otago.ac.nz

In a recent issue of Electronic Antiquity, K. Cavalier reopened discussion of the question of political influence on Athenian vase paintings -- 'Did not potters portray Peisistratos posthumously as Herakles?' EA 2.5 (1995).

The discussion in Cavalier's article is centred on black-figured vase paintings of the Introduction of Herakles to Olympos, most examples of which belong, according to conventional chronology, to the last third of the sixth century B.C. Over twenty years ago John Boardman ('Herakles, Peisistratos and Sons', RA (1972), pp. 57-72) put forward the hypothesis that the growth of interest in, and the noticeable change of iconography for this theme on vases from the mid-sixth century onwards might reflect the extraordinary means by which Peisistratos had once recovered the tyranny of Athens: to gain the tyranny of Athens after his second exile, Peisistratos is reported to have had a woman named Phye, dressed as Athena to act as his charioteer and drive him into Athens as if the goddess herself supported him (Herodotos 1.60).

The thrust of this latest paper on the topic is to investigate again the likely links between the scenes of the Introduction of Herakles to Olympos and the Peisistratids; and to ask whether aristocrats in Athens patronised the local potters and vase painters. Cavalier has argued that the motif of the Introduction of Herakles symbolised the idea of apotheosis, and in particular the apotheosis of Peisistratos, and that the paintings of this theme could have been a posthumous justification for, or legitimisation of Peisistratos's earlier seizure of power through the Phye-Athena trick. The message would have been that Peisistratos's ends (the seizure of power) justified the means (the Phye-Athena ruse). (1) Having proposed this hypothesis, Cavalier then discussed whether the Athenian potters and painters could have been working under the direction of the Peisistratids themselves. He concluded that a two- tier hierarchy of artists must have existed. In the top tier he is prepared to make social bedfellows of sixth and fifth century artists like 'Exekias, Smikros, Pheidias, Polykleitos [does he mean Polygnotos here?], Iktinos and others', who had 'more opportunity to experiment and develop aesthetics in new directions', because (he implies) of their contacts with the aristocrats. The lower tier, on the other hand, is occupied by the majority of artists who produced hack work to suit current fashion. Both tiers would nevertheless have been subject to influence from their patrons, since both depended on the latter in varying degrees for a living. But on the central question whether the specific vase painters of the Introduction of Herakles were working under the influence of Peisistratid patrons, Cavalier was in the end surprisingly reticent.

Unfortunately, Cavalier's paper is seriously flawed from the start in its misrepresentation of Boardman's original thesis as a claim 'that Peisistratid patronage was responsible for the large number of pots portraying Herakles, most particularly the Introduction of Herakles to Olympos'. No such direct connection between the Peisistratids and the vase painters was originally posited by Boardman. Indeed, in his later comments on the hypothesis, Boardman has been at pains to downplay the role of vase paintings in establishing public opinion, and has rather characterised them as reflectors of it:

"In RA 1972, 57-72 ... I tried to demonstrate that the exceptional popularity of Herakles in Athenian art of the Peisistratan period was due to some degree of deliberate identification between tyrant and hero, both appearing as special prot=E9g=E9s of the goddess Athena, and that this association was mirrored by certain changes and innovations in the iconographic tradition of Herakles as represented on Athenian, and only Athenian, works of art of those years. The most explicit association was expressed in Peisistratos's return to Athens after his second exile, in a chariot accompanied by a mock Athena ... . This episode was mirrored by or inspired a change in the usual iconography of Herakles' Introduction to Olympos by Athena, on foot, to a version in which the hero is shown with the goddess in a chariot." (J. Boardman, 'Herakles, Peisistratos and Eleusis,' JHS 95 (1975) 1)

"This manipulation [of Athena/Herakles to mirror the fortunes of the Athenian state, and sometimes its leaders] was not in the hands of vase-painters, who merely reflect new opinions and stories, though they may sometimes be led to express them in a manner suggested by their narrative medium and its conventions. ... It is sad that we have to rely so much on the vases. I see no need to look on them for any 'political intent' or any possibility that they were the medium for any deliberate political propaganda, though some may have been bespoke with a purpose. They mirrored, through their own conventions, views of myth expressed more explicitly in literature, song or narration, inspired by the needs of society, its leaders and its cults. That Greeks used their myth- history as a mirror to their life, and one which they could readily distort to suit their needs and circumstances, is a commonplace." (J. Boardman, 'Herakles, Peisistratos and the Unconvinced,' JHS 109 (1989), 158-59)

Cavalier has ignored completely this devaluation of the role of vase painting in the proposed establishment of an identification between Peisistratos and Herakles. Instead, he has, in comparison, over-emphasised the role that vase painters could have played, and made of them primary promoters of Peisistratid propaganda.

Certainly, some explanation is desirable for the growth of interest in the Introduction of Herakles as a theme for Athenian vase painting in the last third of the sixth century. Direct influence by the Peisistratids on relatively minor vase painters (2) would, however, seem to be unlikely: Cavalier has presented no cogent evidence to alter the current view. His argument fails to address the complexities of the iconography of the vase paintings, and relies on anachronistic literary evidence regarding the likely status of potters and painters (in particular on the special case of the sculptor Pheidias in Periklean Athens), which has nothing to do with the actual period of production of the vase paintings in question.

An artistic source of inspiration, internal to the ceramic tradition, has been posited by Moon, in the form of a vase painting of the scene by Exekias about 525 B.C. (Athens, Agora AP 1044; ABV 145.19; Moon, 'The Priam Painter,' 102). At the other end of the developmental line, the conservatism of vase painting has been held responsible for the continuation of the production of paintings of the theme after the fall of the Peisistratids (Boardman, JHS 109 (1989), 159). But it is hard to see precisely how the theme was transmitted across various workshops over a period of twenty-five or thirty years. Could there have been something external to the ceramic tradition, but close to it visually and even technically, which might have generated an interest among vase painters in this theme and perhaps kept it before their eyes through to the end of the Peisistratid rule?

That Athenian vase-painters may have derived their inspiration for some of their paintings from common originals in the same or other media is a generally accepted hypothesis, especially for the fifth century B.C. The now lost murals of Polygnotos and Mikon are regarded as probable models for some mid-fifth century vase paintings (see M. Robertson, A History of Greek Art (Cambridge, 1975), 240-270, for a useful discussion); while the painting of the Gigantomachy on the interior of the shield of the Athena Parthenos seems to have influenced some late fifth century vase paintings (see A. von Salis, 'Die Gigantomachie am Schilde der Athena Parthenos,' JdI 55 (1940) 90-169). The homogeneity of iconographical details among some vase paintings has raised the suspicion that common models existed in other forms, such as other vase paintings, textiles, metalware, or even "copy books". Moon's suggestion that Exekias's vase painting of the Introduction of Herakles may have been the prime source of inspiration from about 525 B.C. exemplifies the idea. Michael Vickers' suggestions ('Artful Crafts: the Influence of Metalwork on Athenian Painted Pottery,' JHS 105 (1985), 108-28, esp. 126-28) not only that vase painters derived some of their compositions from metalware, but that some of the now better known names of vase painters may originally have been the names of metal engravers, whose work was taken holus-bolus into vase painting, complete with signature, is an extreme form of this hypothesis. Ultimately, though, the point is that vase paintings, especially from the fifth century, were to some extent a derivative art form.

If this view of dependency by some vase painters on outside sources, for all its simplifications, is accepted, then the question arises: if a new iconography of the Introduction of Herakles to Olympos became particularly popular in the last third of the sixth century B.C., was there produced at that time an image of this theme which could have acted subsequently as a model and a spur for increased interest in the theme among vase painters? Such an image would best be posited in the public sphere to allow ease of access. A proposition, which at first sight seems to satisfy the requirements of both time and opportunity, would be that when Peisistratos died and was buried in 528/7 B.C., his tomb may have been decorated in some fashion with a scene of the Introduction of Herakles.

Such decoration on this particular tomb might have held a number of meanings. It might signify most simply the idea of death and reward in the afterlife for labours performed in this life. It might also signify the desire for the special reward of heroisation. Whether it could have meant identification between Peisistratos and Herakles, is more difficult to ascertain. (3) The motif itself would have been chosen, one would imagine, because of Peisistratos's method of gaining the tyranny with the apparent support of Athena. Now, in death, he perhaps sought her support again in the afterlife.

An impression of how such a scene might have looked can be gained from some surviving Attic grave monuments. A fragment of a gravestone from Attica, in New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art 36.11.13, ca. 530 B.C., J. Boardman, Greek Sculpture: the Archaic Period (London, 1978), fig. 234) presents now only the lower part of the major element of the decoration, a warrior. But below his feet is a predella-like panel in very shallow relief, in which is represented a warrior mounting beside his driver into a two-horse chariot. The iconography is clearly very similar to that of the Introduction of Herakles as a chariot scene. If something more substantial is considered more likely for the tomb of the tyrant, then perhaps the later (ca. 500 B.C.) statue-base found embedded in the Themistoklean wall in Athens is more suitable for comparison (Boardman, Greek Sculpture: the Archaic Period, fig. 241): in slightly higher relief on one side of the base, a similar scene of chariot-mounting is encountered, extended this time by the addition of two hoplites who follow the chariot on foot. Technically both of these relief panels, but especially the former, are very close in their linearity to the initial draughting of the composition of a vase painting, and even to the detailed engraving of a black-figure vase painting.

It might be argued, then, on the basis of surviving gravestones, that Peisistratos's own grave monument may have carried (at least?) a scene of the Introduction of Herakles to Olympos. Where this monument would have stood, if not just outside Athens itself, can only be conjectured, but the Peisistratid ancestral home at Philaidai in Attika (Plutarch, Solon 10.2) might be a possibility. If the monument was in Athens, then it could have been seen without difficulty by all and sundry at least until the fall of the Peisistratids. If not in Athens, but elsewhere, it is still not necessary to envisage a steady pilgrimage of artists to such a monument, but only a sighting by one or two artists - including Exekias? - in order to bring the basic design back to the potters' workshops in Athens. (4)

Such a scenario, however, must also take into account the obvious variations in the iconography of the vase paintings. In a more recent article overlooked by Cavalier, Boardman has organised more tightly the typology of the paintings of Herakles, Athena and a chariot (LIMC V. 1 (Zurich, Munich, 1990), 'Herakles', VIII. B, pp. 126-28, nos. 2877-2908). The types include: Herakles and Athena both standing in the chariot; Athena mounting the chariot; Herakles standing on the chariot, while Athena mounts it holding the reins; Herakles standing on the ground, while Athena is on the chariot; and Herakles mounting or standing on the chariot, while Athena stands beside it. In addition, the accompanying divine figures change from vase to vase within these principal types. Furthermore, within vase painting alone, the general theme of Herakles, Athena and a chariot must be set against the backdrop of other chariot scenes involving gods (as Boardman hints, LIMC V. 1, 126; see also Moon, 'The Priam Painter,' 98).

So differences among the vase paintings, such as Boardman has listed, warn us against too easy an acceptance of a single prototype, or at least of a slavish adherence by vase painters to such a prototype. It appears that the motif of the Introduction of Herakles, or his apotheosis, started around 560 B.C., and became the most popular of the divine epiphanies in chariot on vases, appearing regularly from the 530s until about 510 (Boardman, LIMC V. 1, 131; cf. Moon, 'The Priam Painter,' 102, who distinguishes three phases of iconographic development: from ca. 565 to ca. 525, from ca. 525 to 515, and from 515 to 500). It appears, then, that we have to acknowledge various strands of influence in the development of the theme on vase paintings: an external influence, such as the putative tomb monument of Peisistratos, which would presumably have shared the general iconography of chariot groups in sculptural reliefs and on vases, but which could have provided the special impetus for the sudden popularity of the theme of Herakles' apotheosis from the 520s; and internal influences, as the motif slotted into the various compositional arrangements already current for chariot groups, and as a prominent vase painter like Exekias adopted the motif and created a model for others to follow.

But, we may still ask, why should vase painters even consider re- presenting a scene from someone's tomb monument, whether it be that of Peisistratos or of someone else less notable? The answer would lie in the projected use of the vases themselves. If the vases were destined for burial in tombs, in Greece or overseas, (5) then the scene of the apotheosis of Herakles might have been considered as appropriate for others' tombs, albeit in a different medium, as it had been for Peisistratos's (cf. Moon, 'The Priam Painter,' 106, on the likely Etruscan interest in the theme in a funerary context). Only the specifically Peisistratan echo of the seizure of the tyranny of Athens through the Phye-Athena trick would be likely to be lost in the transmission of the motif to vases which were placed in others' tombs.

In the end, then, it is probable that there is no need at all to look for intentional political propaganda in the scenes of the Introduction of Herakles to Olympos which occur on Athenian vases from the 520s to about 510 B.C. Nor perhaps do we have to concern ourselves overly, in this instance, with the vexed question of the influence of aristocratic patrons on Attic potters and painters. Instead, it may be argued that the motif of the Introduction of Herakles to Olympos was, iconographically, just one of a number of chariot-centred compositions current in Athenian black-figure at that time. In those instances where the vase was intended for funeral use, the motif may have been considered appropriate decoration because it signified apotheosis or reward in the next life for labours performed in this life. But there may have been a particular spur to the usage of this theme, and this is where the Peisistratids may come into consideration. A funeral monument for Peisistratos himself, made in 528/7, may have carried the image of the apotheosis of Herakles. Such a monument could have used a current iconographical pattern, or it could have established a new, slightly varied type for the theme. Either way, its production could have encouraged artists to think of this theme as an appropriate image for funeral vases. On Peisistratos's own tomb monument, the theme of Herakles' apotheosis would undoubtedly have political connotations, since it could refer to the tyrant's seizure of power through the Phye- Athena trick. The motif on the supposed tomb monument could also have encouraged people to think of granting honours to Peisistratos equivalent to the cult offered to Herakles. But once the theme was transferred to vases, and particularly to vases which were destined for the Etruscan market, those political messages would presumably have been more or less lost. The vase paintings, then, would be no more than mirrors of a concept, the political connotations of which were able to be grasped only elsewhere.


* My thanks go to my wife, Pat, for important bibliographical references and for sharing her ideas on this issue.

1. Contrast W.G. Moon, 'The Priam Painter: Some Iconographic and Stylistic Considerations,' Ancient Greek Art and Iconography W.G. Moon, ed. Madison, 1983), 102, who judged 'unlikely' any attempt by Peisistratos's sons at legitimisation through the use of the 'Introduction of Herakles' theme on vases.

2. See Moon, 'The Priam Painter,' 102 for a list of painters which emphasises their relatively lower status within the workshops responsible for this scene.

3. I am suggesting here that if the formal honour of heroisation was sought for Peisistratos, then it would have been done after his death. In late sixth-early fifth century Greece, heroic honours were offered to historical individuals who were regarded by a city as its saviours. Thus, the tyrannicides, Harmodios and Aristogeiton, were honoured in Athens as heroes (Aristotle, Ath. Pol. 58. 1), while the soldiers who fell at Marathon and at Plataia in the Persian Wars were similarly honoured at those places (Pausanias, 1. 32. 4; Plutarch, Aristides 21). In these instances, the heroised were already dead. By the late fifth century, however, living individuals could be honoured not only with heroisation (the Spartan Brasidas), but even with divine honours (Lysander).

H.A. Shapiro, Art and Cult under the Tyrants in Athens (Mainz am Rhein, 1989), 162 considered actual identification of Peisistratos with Herakles would have been "unthinkable". Boardman, on the other hand, has always been more sanguine about the possibility, and has drawn attention to the case for identification between Kimon and Theseus: 'Herakles, Peisistratos and the Unconvinced,' JHS 109 (1989), 158.

4. But to argue that just one person proficient in both relief painting and vase painting design could have established the path of transmission, would be carrying things too far. The case of the apparent inventor of the red-figure technique, the Andokides Painter, who may have worked as a painter on the reliefs of the Siphnian Treasury in Delphi before taking up vase painting in Athens, remains highly speculative: Beth Cohen, Attic Bilingual Vases and Their Painters (New York & London 1978), 110-17; differences in medium, technique and scale between the Siphnian Treasury reliefs and the vases would seem to militate strongly against the notion.

5. The recorded findspots of the vases range from Athens to both east and west, with, of course, the tombs of Etruria forming the principal source. Moon, 'The Priam Painter,' 106, counted 'twenty-eight or more from Vulci, at least thirteen from other Etruscan and Italic sites, only six or so from Greece.'

Robert Hannah
e-mail: robert.hannah@stonebow.otago.ac.nz

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 2 - September 1995
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606
by Kaavya Giridhar