In an effort to share more of our favourite ancient objects from around the world, Ancient History Encyclopedia staff have taken a closer look at some really amazing objects or structures. Today’s Object in Focus is the Francois Vase.
Roman glassware includes some of the finest pieces of art ever produced in antiquity and the very best were valued higher than wares made with precious metals. However, plain glass vessels such as cups, bowls, plates, and bottles were also used as everyday containers, in particular, for storing and serving food, drinks, and perfumes. The Romans also used glass for its decorative qualities and could be incorporated in mosaics and decorative panels in both walls and furniture. The material was also used for windows, to create jewellery, mirrors, game pieces, magnifying glasses, sculpture and, in the form of powder, even as a medicine and toothpaste. The sheer quantity of Roman glass would not be matched until the boom in Venetian glass in the 15th century CE.
These cups, bottles, and perfume containers all date to the 1st and 2nd century CE.
Ivory, with its ease of carving and exotic rarity, has been used to make art objects for millennia. True ivory actually refers to only the dentine of elephant tusks but it may also refer to the tusks and teeth of walrus, hippopotamus, narwhal and sperm whales, amongst others. The ancient world acquired its ivory either directly or through trade with Africa and India via the Levant, as attested by the Bronze Age Ulu Burun shipwreck which had ivory as part of its cargo.
In the modern day ivory is, of course, a strictly controlled commodity and its trade and use are illegal if taken from endangered species. In the ancient world, though, ivory could be carved alone or added to metals or wood and used as inlay. The Egyptians buried ivory objects with the dead, the Greeks used it for giant statues such as the Parthenon Athena, and the Romans even burnt it at funerals. Below are just some of the objects made from this precious and fragile material which have survived the centuries.
Apollo was considered an epitome of youth and beauty, source of life and healing, patron of the civilized arts, and as bright and powerful as the sun itself. He was, arguably, the most loved of all the Greek gods.
Although he was associated with many positive aspects of the human condition such as music, poetry, and medicine, the god also had his darker side as the bringer of plague and divine retribution. Most famously as the remorseless slayer of Niobe’s six sons as punishment for her boasting and as the flayer of Marsyas after his presumptuous claim to be more musically gifted than Apollo himself.
Objects traditionally associated with the god include: a silver bow, a Kithara or a lyre, a laurel branch, the omphalos of Delphi, and a palm tree. These can be variously seen in the many depictions of Apollo from Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic Greece and through to Roman times.
If you’re staying in Athens then you will almost certainly visit the world famous National Museum and so have your breath pleasurably taken from you as you marvel at the treasures of Greece‘s glorious past. As this stupendous collection seems to have been pillaged from every local museum across Greece you might be forgiven for thinking that those other museums must have nothing more to present than empty shelves and little cards indicating, with some apology, that said artefact has been moved to Athens. Astonishingly though, even more wonders await the more intrepid traveller, in this case just down the road in nearby Piraeus.
The triumphal arch was a type of Roman architectural monument built all over the empire to commemorate military triumphs and other significant events such as the accession of a new emperor. Arches were often erected over major thoroughfares and as the structure had no practical function as a building it was often richly decorated with architectural details, sculpture and commemorative inscriptions, typically using bronze letters. The city of Rome has four outstanding examples of these lasting testaments to Roman vanity.
Arch of Constantine I, 315 CE
The Arch of Constantine I, erected in c. 315 CE, stands in Rome and commemorates Roman Emperor Constantine’s victory over the Roman tyrant Maxentius on 28th October 312 CE at the battle of Milvian Bridge in Rome. It is the largest surviving Roman triumphal arch and the last great monument of Imperial Rome. The arch is also a tour de force of political propaganda, presenting Constantine as a living continuation of the most successful Roman emperors, renowned for their military victories and good government.
The Erechtheion temple of the Athenian acropolis was constructed between 421 and 406 BCE under the supervision of the architect Philocles. The temple was built to house the ancient cult wooden statue of Athena and as a shrine to other local gods such as the early Athenian kings Erechtheus and Kekrops, and Boutes and Pandrosos. Poseidon and Zeus also had sacred precincts within the building. The south porch has the iconic Caryatids which make the building one of the most distinctive surviving structures of antiquity.
The Erechtheion, named after the demi-god Erechtheus, the mythical Athenian king, was built using local Pentelic marble. The largest inner chamber housed the diiepetes, the olivewood statue of Athena Polias (of the city-state), clothed in the specially woven robe which was carried in the Panathenaic procession, held in the city every four years. In front of the statue stood a gold lamp designed by Kallimachos which had a bronze palm-shaped chimney and an asbestos wick which burned continuously. The sacred serpent (oikouros ophis), which was believed to be an incarnation of Erechtheus, dwelt in one of the western chambers and acted as guardian to the city. Well looked after, it was regularly fed with honey cakes.
Greek Sculpture from 800 to 300 BCE took early inspiration from Egyptian and Near Eastern monumental art, and over centuries evolved into a uniquely Greek vision of the art form. Greek artists would reach a peak of artistic excellence which captured the human form in a way never before seen and which was much copied. Greek sculptors were particularly concerned with proportion, poise, and the idealised perfection of the human body, and their figures, especially in their favoured material of bronze, have become some of the most recognisable pieces of art ever produced by any civilization
The larger bronze statues, as in this collection, had a non-bronze core which was sometimes removed to leave a hollow figure. The most common production of bronze statues used the lost-wax technique. This involved making a core almost the size of the desired figure which was then coated in wax and the details sculpted. The whole was then covered in clay fixed to the core at certain points using rods. The wax was then melted out and molten bronze poured into the space once occupied by the wax. When set, the clay was removed and the surface finished off by scraping, fine engraving and polishing. Sometimes copper or silver additions were used for lips, nipples and teeth, and eyes were inlaid. The result was figures which had become sensuous and appeared frozen in action; it seems that only a second ago they were actually alive. Quite simply, the sculptures no longer seemed to be sculptures but were figures instilled with life and verve.
You can read more on Greek sculpture in our article here.
The Delphi Charioteer
The mythology of the ancient Greeks is positively packed with stories involving weird and wonderful creatures. Represented on pottery, in sculpture, and in literary tradition, they typically create havoc with the best laid plans of the Greek heroes but they could also prove helpful in certain situations. Hercules, Odysseus, Theseus, Perseus, Bellerophon, and Jason all had to fight monsters which were very often a mix of other more familiar creatures or were just downright bizarre. The heroes usually won, of course, and their battles with these monsters made them seem even more heroic. The imaginative blend of animals also served to represent the disorder of both the animal and foreign kingdoms in the Greek view of the world and perhaps also represented the unfamiliar wildlife of distant lands. The triumph of Greek heroes over these terrible creatures was an entertaining metaphor for the perceived superiority of the Greek way of life, the victory of light over darkness, reason and order over chaos.
You can read more extraordinary tales from Greek mythology in our article here.
Centaur: Half man-half horse
Masks were used for a wide variety of purposes across many ancient cultures. Some of the most common purposes were as funerary masks for important persons, as protection in warfare, worn during theatre performances, or to be worn by impersonators of gods during religious ceremonies. Materials were typically of high value such as gold, jade, and turquoise. This collection spans some 3,000 years from Egypt to the Americas.