Source : The Journal of Indo-European Studies. Volume 2, Number 4. Winter, 1974. 385-406.
Author : R. Peterson
Additional Material : A gallery of the individuals discussed in this article, with some additional photos.
From the point of view of physical anthropology the ethnic complexity of Greek society during the first millennium B.C. prohibits any attempt at a generalized statement of physical type based upon statistical averages of data derived from the available skeletal material. Substantial caste-like stratification, accompanied by relatively strict principles of caste endogamy separated the Indo-European-derived Eupatrids from the freemen and slave classes among whom the genetic influence of the autochthonous 'Pelasgian' population may have predominated. In addition the persistence of cremation among so very many of the aristocratic families from the time of Homer to well into the Classical period destroyed much of the physical evidence concerning this latter strata. In this article the author expresses the need for a more exhaustive examination of portraits, busts and hermae classified and interpreted in the light of historically verifiable information regarding the social status and ethnic background of the specific individuals commemorated thereby.
There must be very few Indo-Europeanists who have not entertained some degree of curiosity regarding the physical appearance of the peoples whose language, literature, mythology, artifacts and history they study.
As Childe (1926), Palmer (1955) and others have suggested, the undivided proto-Indo-Europeans probably comprised a numerically small population. The Omaha kinship system prognosticated by Friedrich (1966) and Wordick (1970) would have ensured a high degree of genetic homogeneity, as is common in tribal populations. However, although some skeletal remains have survived from the Caucasoid populations which occupied the extensive plains from the Baltic to the Caucasus during the seventh and sixth millennia B.C. — the general area and time period in which the PIE people are believed to have lived — I do not propose in this brief essay to comment on the physical characteristics of any of the several populations that have been tentatively identified as PIE. Instead I wish to confine myself to a lew socio-historical comments regarding the reliability of historical hermae and statues — specifically of Greek origin — as indicators of the physical characteristics of the Indo-European component of classical Greek society.
In any discussion of the physical anthropology of Indo-European speakers we must immediately recognize that whatever genetic unity the PIE speakers may have possessed, the speakers of the subsequent variety of IE languages represented a relatively diverse variety of peoples from a racial or genetic point of view, following the successive waves of IE expansion which carried Indo-European speech to the Atlantic and the Bay of Bengal. In the course of some five or six millennia of expansion and conquest, an expanding IE upper caste may undoubtedly have preserved a high degree of genetic continuity (Pearson, 1974), while simply superimposing itself upon the autochthonous populations. Those who brought Indo-European speech into the newly-colonized territories became a ruling warrior nobility, as testified by the connotation 'noble' for arya in India and Persia, ariothez, in Greece (hence our 'aristocracy') and aire among the Celtic peoples. Indeed, the evidence-indicates that to a greater or lesser extent the invading arya, art, or aire maintained strict principles of endogamy in the choice of their official wives, and although in many areas they appear to have made a disproportionately high contribution to the gene pool of the indigenous population through the practice ol keeping large numbers of concubines, they differed from the Uralic and Semitic peoples in their refusal to grant the illegitimate offspring of such marriages the social status of the father. Thus so far as legitimate offspring were concerned, in aristocratic Greek society, as in most early historic I.E. societies, the strict endogamy of the conquering classes was evidenced by the admission that 'we choose our wives like we choose our horses: by the lengths of their pedigrees' — and the high respect in which the Greeks held their horses is well known!
It would thus seem probable that the successive waves of Indo-Europeans who settled the Aegean, commencing in the Helladic period at the start of the 2nd millennium B.C. and concluding with the Dorian invasions of the 11th century B.C., exercised a very substantial genetic influence on the population of that area. However, attempts to make a general statement about changes in the physical anthropology of the Aegean have been handicapped by the fact that the heavily caste-like social stratification imposed by the Indo-European Eupatrid classes prevented the establishment of a single Aegean gene pool and resulted in the perpetuation of a variety of racial sub-types. To complicate the problem the practice of body-burning remained in fashion among the upper castes for a number of centuries, thus destroying the physical remains of the Indo-European elements of the population during such periods.
The fact that the immigrant Indo-Europeans had a clear-cut conception of what they regarded as their own distinctive and characteristic physiognomy — which would have been preserved and even accentuated by close inbreeding — is amply evidenced by Greek literature. Thus in the Odyssey (XII, 222) we undersland that the disguised Athena was described as being 'delicate ol countenance such as are the sons of kings', whereas in the Iliad (II, 216) Thersites, of autochthonous origin, is described as 'ill-formed and warped of head'. As among the Celts, physical defects were regarded with abhorrence by the Greek aristocracy and the practice of infanticide ensured that despite inbreeding any individual physical or mental degeneration, resulting from the recombination of defective recessive genes, was immediately weeded out whenever revealed in the phenotype. The aristocratic 'ideal type' was therefore further promoted by conscious if somewhat severe eugenic measures, and great emphasis was placed upon the maintenance of the breed. Every effort was made to ensure the survival of noble families, and the volunteers who died with Leonidas at Thermopylae were selected from amongst men who had already fathered sons, so that their deaths would not annihilate the noble Spartan lineage to which they belonged. Indeed, as Amphinomus described it, it was 'a dreadful thing to destroy a royal race'.
Several attempts have been made to discuss the physical anthropology of Greece from the point of view ol the available skeletal evidence. Some early references were made by pioneers such as Ripley (1899), Schuchhardt (1926), and J.L. Myres (1930). More recently Coon (1954) and Angel (1944, 1945, 1946 [a] [b]) have added considerable information. In his most recent work on the subject, a detailed analysis of the numerous skeletal remains found in different cemeteries in the excavations at Lerna, Angel (1971) concludes that the immigrant Hellenic or Indo-European population reflected a 'Nordic' type which probably arrived from the Danubian area, and also a related 'Iranic' type. This latter appears to reflect a separate Indo-European invasion from the direction of Anatolia, although Angel assumes that both these related types originated ultimately from the area of the Pontic steppes. However, as a potential supplement to the study of the incomplete skeletal remains, I would like in this article to propose the possible utility of a detailed analysis of the surviving Greek portraits, busts, herms and sculptures of all kinds, classified according to the historically verifiable tribal and family background of the individual portrayed. Such a classification becomes important in view of the generally accepted view that throughout the first millennium B.C., the population of the Aegean remained subdivided into a number of genetic isolates, instead of representing a simple homogenous Mendelian population.
Let us immediately recognize, however, that the use of Greek sculptures as evidence for the physical features of the Hellenic population is fraught with dangers. In the first place most of the surviving busts, herms, statues and other representation of prominent Greek personalities from the Classic era are merely copies of earlier originals, few of which original works remain extant. Secondly, Greek sculptors and artists flattered their models, frequently attempting to idealize their features. Thirdly, artistic techniques have always been subject to local fashions, with the result that a purely artificial emphasis can be placed upon specific physical features quite apart from any conscious intention of the artist to flatter or distort his subject.
Against these observations, we may safely say that a very substantial uniformity of appearance tends to characterize many of the Greek busts, hermae, and portraits purporting to represent the same individual and most artists appear to have attempted a largely true-to-life representation of the original subject when copying original works. The fact that a close resemblance exists between most portraits and busts purporting to represent the same individual, and that this resemblance is sufficient in many cases to permit the identification of the subject, even where the sculpture bears no name and all documentation has been lost, suggests that these representations are reasonably faithful, thus largely negating our first reservation. So far as the second reservation is concerned, although it is apparent that Greek sculptors and artists did to some extent idealize the aristocratic features of the noblemen whom they were portraying any exaggeration in this direction would merely serve to emphasize what were regarded as the characteristics of the traditional aristocratic face, and would merely further emphasize what were regarded as characteristic features of the original Indo-European Hellenic physiognomy.
Finally, the close similarity of appearance which marks the hermae of Greek aristocrats as a class during the Classical Period should not be casually attributed solely to artistic convention the entirely different features revealed in hermae representing the non-aristocratic Socrates destroy such reasoning. As already indicated the membership of a small and consistently inbreeding group of families such as constituted the Greek aristocracy at that time must necessarily have resulted in a high degree of similarity in physical appearance.
Let us now illustrate our argument with a random selection of hermae representing individuals drawn from aristocratic families of ancient lineage and therefore of likely IE immigrant origin.
Our first illustration (Fig. 1) is a herm of Alkaios, a member of the Aeolic nobility of Lesbos. Born in 620 B.C., Alkaios' life was typical of that of a Greek aristocrat of his day, a class whose power was threatened by ambitious politicians who sought to play the common freemen against the Eupatrids in order to overthrow the latter and establish themselves as tyrants. The Aeolian migration legends claimed that their forebears hailed from Boeotia, and like other Aeolian nobility, Alkaios claimed descent from Agamemnon who had conquered Lesbos during the Trojan wars. Born in Mytilene, the political capital of Lesbos, Alkaios fought against Athens for the control of Sigaum on the Hellespont, but lost his shield in battle to the Athenians, which shield was subsequently hung as a war trophy in the temple of Athena (Herod., V. 95).
Alkaios was reputed by Aristotle (Rhet., 1, 9. 20) to have been enamored of Sappho (Figs. 2 & 3), the daughter of Sea-mandronymus, another member of the Lesbian aristocracy, who conscious of the family status, berated her brother, Charaxus, for his involvement with a notorious courtesan, and even chided Alkaios for his 'indelicate advances'. Sappho was herself a lyric poetess of no small status, who removed to Sicily when her family was exiled, but eventually also returned to Lesbos where she became the leader of a small group of women of aristocratic background, who in the custom of Lesbian nobility spent their ample leisure in graceful participation in the arts, especially in the composition and recitation to each other of poetry.
Another lyric poet of fame, also of aristocratic descent, was Anacreon (c. 572-487 B.C.), born the son of Skythinos of the Ionian city of Teos (now the Turkish city of Sighalik) around 570 B.C. (Figs. 4 & 5). Despite his family background Anacreon became so enamored with the pleasures of the gay and elegant life then beginning to appear in Greece, that his carefree songs of love and wine made him famous, as did his rejection of the ancient tradition of epic songs and legends praising warfare and heroic deeds. Indeed, Anacreon is quoted as declaring that : 'I do not like the man who sings of strife and tearful war at a banquet when the cups are full' (Athenaios, XI, 463a).
By contrast with Anacreon, Heracleitus of Ephesos, (c. 535-475 B.C.), who was of royal blood but is reputed to have renounced the kingship of Ephesos in favor of his younger brother, gained a reputation of being 'lofty minded beyond other men and overweening' (Dios. Caert. IX I). Taking to a life of philosophy, Heracleitus (Fig. 6) stressed the ancient Indo-European concept of a hidden harmony that held the universe together, expressing itself in the interlocking divinity of nature, the secret of which could be revealed by logos or reason.
One of the major reasons for the increasing social dislocation in Greece during the 7th and 8th centuries B.C. was the increase in commerce. Many freemen inheriting small family estates found themselves impoverished by inflation, and since the land was the inalienable property of the family, and therefore could not be sold, many heads of freeman families were obliged in place themselves, as individuals, into slavery to their creditor. leaving their heirs to work the land. The untraditional and shameful nature of a situation in which many respected free men were reduced to slavery caused widespread dissent among the populace, and Solon (Fig. 7), son of Eyekeslides, and a kin-man of Persistratos, born in Salamis (in Attica) of noble descent but moderate wealth, resolved to restore the freeman to their original dignity. Although he found it necessary to break many of the more ancient traditions to achieve this goal, Solon the reformer nevertheless remained true to his aristocratic back ground, as reflected in his love of poetry and literature, and his willingness to involve Athens in a war with Megara to recover his own native Salamis.
Most Greek tyrants of the 7th and 6th century who displaced the older aristocracies to seize dictatorial power for themselves were actually of noble descent, and Periander (627-586 B.C.) the second tyrant of Corinth (Figs. 8 & 9) was similarly a true
Eupatrid by birth, although he dealt harshly with the remainder of the Corinthian aristocracy, playing the growing political consciousness of the artisans and merchants against his fellow aristocrats for his own ends. Yet Periander's rule was urbane and cultured. A patron of the Muses and himself the author of some 2000 verses, he proved to be a successful statesman expanding the power of Corinth considerably, and ordering the erection of numerous beautiful public buildings.
Bias (c. 570-550 B.C.), son of Teutames, of noble Ionian lineage, and a leading statesman of his native city of Lydia, reflects the same characteristically Greek features. Renowned for his sense of justice, his respect for custom, and his moderation as a political leader, Bias (Fig. 10) is reputed to have possessed many of the personal characteristics of his Homeric forebears, declaring that he who could not bear misfortune is truly unfortunate'. Indeed, many similar aphorisms of this kind led him to be honored by future generations of Greek writers as one of the 'Seven Wise Men'.
A noble Spartan visage (Fig. 11) is represented by the head of Pausanias, a member of the Agiad royal family of Sparta, who gained fame as the Greek general who won the battle of Plataea against the Persians in 479 B.C., and subsequently became a regent of Lacedemeon on behalf of his nephew Pleistarchus, the son of Leonidas, who was still a minor when his royal father was killed at the head of the immortals at Thermopylae. Another of the Greek heroes who helped to repulse the Persian invasion was Miltiades (550-488 B.C.). A member of the noble Athenian family of the Philaidae, which claimed descent from Aeacus, Miltiades (Fig. 12) achieved renown as a statesman, and was elected archon of Athens in 524. Marrying the daughter of the King of Thrace, however, he later left Athens to assume the Thracian throne, ruling Thrace with outstanding success, thanks to the loyal assistance of a large 'comitatus' of some 500 warrior 'companions'. Nevertheless Miltiades responded to the call of kinship and returned to his native Athens in 493 B.C. to lead the Greek forces to victory against the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C., only to die from wounds received at the subsequent Battle of Paros.
But possibly the most famous orator, statesman and general in the history of Athens was Pericles (Fig. 13), the victor of the battle of Mykale who was a member of the aristocratic Attic family of the Buzyae on his father's side, and was descended from the renowned Alcmaeonid family on his mother's side. Despite his noble background, which gave him the support of the aristocracy, Pericles was able to command the enthusiasm and loyalty of the Athenian freemen not only through his gift of oratory but also because of his unblemished reputation for personal integrity and honor. Responsible for the building of the Parthenon, the Propylaia and the Odeon, Pericles also had the military foresight to link inland Athens by strong defensive walls to the harbour of Piraeus, as well as giving constant encouragement to all the arts protected by the Muses.
At this point let us turn away from the portraits of statesmen and generals to look at some of the major poets of the Greek world. Although Homer may possibly be a mythical figure, it may be of some interest to see how the Classical Greek sculptors envisaged this legendary figure. Large numbers of busts of Homer were made through several centuries, and all these may be classed into three or four different traditions, most being copies of older works like that described by Pausanias in the fifth century. But although few of the earliest examples have survived, there is still a general likeness which characterizes all of these busts, herms and portraits, and this presumably reflects the Greek concept of the lofty, aristocratic dignity with which Homer and his works were always associated. Our example in Figure 14 is taken from a herm which is believed to have been copied from an ancient original now lost.
Two or three centuries after Homer, the Homeric spirit still persisted, and it is hard to say whether Pindar (518-438 B.C.) or Aeschylus (525-450 B.C.) best reflects the ancient traditions and former reverence for the Gods among the poets of the Classical Age. Although no portraits ol Pindar, born in Boetia of aristocratic lineage, survive in good condition, reproductions of Aeschylus are plentiful. Aeschylus (Fig. 15) was also the scion of a Eupatrid or aristocratic family, the son of Euphorion of Eleusis. One of the heroes ol Marathon, Aeschylus' great tragedies reflect the deep reverence that the Greeks still preserved for their ancestral customs and time honored gods even as late as the great Persian invasion, after which, in the non-Doric states at least, rapid changes in social attitudes began to appear as a new prosperity rooted in commerce transferred economic and political power from the landowning aristocracy to the merchant and artisan classes, many of whom were of foreign extraction. Written shortly before this era of rapid change, the plays ol Aeschylus reflect the grandeur and drama of the Indo-European past of military victories, recounted at great length in beautiful song and verse, such as his account of the Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis. Essentially Aeschylus reflects the traditions of the Homeric epic, Norse Sagas and the Indo-Aryan Rig Veda, in his total concentration on great thoughts and heroic deeds.
Euripides (c. 480-406 B.C.) was the scion of a minor aristocratic landowning family from Salamis, who was also a priest of Phyla. Despite his aristocratic background and his deep love of Athens, Euripides (Fig. 16) was a revolutionary thinker who espoused many Sophist ideas, and advocated greater freedom for the large number of slaves that filled the homes of the well-to-do Athenians of his day, while seeking to deprive free Greek women of the many privileges they had enjoyed in Homeric and pre-Classical t.imes.
Herodotus (c. 484-424 B.C.), represented in Figure 17, the renowned historian and geographer, was born in Halicarnassus a Dorian settlement in Caria, the heir to a noble family, but was obliged to leave Halicarnassus with other aristocrats to escape from the democratization program of the tyrant Lygdamis. Settling in Samos for some time, he then travelled widely in Europe, Asia and Africa, before returning to his native city to help expel Lygdarnis. This done, he settled down to write his nine histories, which when read at the Olympic gathering were so well received by his peers that each volume was honored with the name of one of the Muses, and the young Thucydides, who was present at the reading, was so deeply impressed by Herodotus' masterly work that he was moved to tears.
Later in life, Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.) himself became a distinguished historian as well as a distinguished general. Born into a noble Attic family on his father's side, and descended from an aristocratic Thracian family through his mother, Thucydides (Fig. 18) inherited substantial landed estates and gold mines in Thrace, but remained an Athenian citizen to become a leader of the aristocratic party.
Xenophon (c. 430-354 B.C.) was another historian-soldier, who like Thucydides was descended from an ancient Athenian family of the Erchemia deme. Reputed to be modest, fond of horses and hunting, Xenophon (Fig. 19) was a pious believer in the traditional religion, devoting much time to regular sacrifices in honor of both gods and ancestors. As a professional soldier he fought in many wars, and was chosen to lead the famous March of the Ten Thousand, after the massacre of the Greek generals by the Persians. Xenophon then served with the Spartans before retiring to his estate near Olympia, to hunt, entertain his friends and write his histories.
Another contemporary of Xenophon, who reflected essentially the same values, was the Athenian, Phokion (c. 401-318 B.C.), an austere general and statesman of aristocratic origin (Fig. 20), who was recognized as an advocate of moderation and respect for the ancient laws, but who became unpopular because of his open support for the aristocratic party of Athens, and his sympathies for the more conservative and aristocratic traditions of Sparta. Accused by his political enemies of complicity with the Spartans, Phokion was eventually sentenced to death, and like Socrates, complied with the judicial decision by drinking hemlock.
Also a junior contemporary of Xenophon, was Demosthenes (c. 386-322 B.C.), the renowned Athenian orator, descended from a wealthy and aristocratic Attic family of the Paeania deme. As a distinguished Athenian patriot, Demosthenes (Fig. 21) played an important role in stimulating Athenian opposition to the rising power of Macedon. When Athens was finally occupied by the Macedonians in 323 B.C., he took his own life by poison, dying in the temple of Poseidon on the island of Calauria.
No collection of portraits of the Greeks would be complete without some reference to the leading philosophers. Of these Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.) was perhaps the most highly born, and therefore most likely to have represented the traditionally Greek element in appearance, unlike many of the earlier Sophists and later philosophers who were often of Phoenician or other Asian origin.
Plato (Fig. 22) was descended from noble Athenian families both through his father Aristos, and his mother Periktione, who was actually a descendant of the old royal family of ancient Athens. Despite his attempt to devise a perfect system of social political organization, Plato essentially still thought in terms of small 'tribal' city-states and highly stratified societies, reflecting much more of the older Indo-European tradition than did the Sophists or his mentor Socrates.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), the pupil of Plato, was of Macedonian, or at least Ionian, rather than Athenian descent. The Macedonians retained the ancient Indo-European culture and possibly also their genetic identity longer than did the Athenians and Aristotle (Fig. 23) therefore, resembles the Greek nobility in appearance. Indeed, his philosophy represented the logical exposition of traditional Indo-European social beliefs even more than did that of Plato, so that his teachings may be regarded as reactionary compared with those of the Sophists, who were in fact challenging traditional Greek values with ideas imported from overseas. Studying under Plato, he married a daughter of the ruling house of Assos in Mysia, and then returned to Macedon to become a tutor to Alexander the Great.
Possibly the best confirmation of the determination of the sculptures to portray lifelike replicas of their subjects is to be found in the contrast between the foregoing illustrations and those of non-Greeks and of Greeks who were not of aristocratic descent. These latter generally reveal distinctly different features, thus the busts of the philosopher Socrates (c. 469-399 B.C.), whose father was an artisan and whose mother was a midwife, sharply contrasts with all the portraits so far illustrated. Described historically as stocky, broad-nosed with flared nostrils, prominent eyeballs and a thick neck, the features of Socrates (Fig. 24) clearly suggest his non-Eupatrid descent, possibly reflecting Pelasgian ancestry. It is perhaps not surprising that his philosophy also reflected a more revolutionary viewpoint than that of his aristocratic pupil Plato, or of the Macedonian-born Aristotle. Indeed Socrates studied under the Sophists who were often of non-Athenian origin, members of the Levantine and other non-Greek merchants permitted to reside in Piraeus but not allowed to live in Athens or to become Athenian citizens — since Athenian citizenship, for freemen and nobles alike, was an inherited privilage, acquired by right of birth into an Attic phratry, and was granted only to those whose fathers were members of a phratry, and whose mothers were of aristocratic or free-born Greek descent.
Even when one examines the bust of Archilochus, the distinguished lyric poet of the 7th century B.C. whose father was a Parian nobleman but whose mother was a slave, we observe a distinct variation in the facial features, which may possibly be attributed to the genetic influence of his slave mother (see Fig. 25). Similarly the cripple slave Aesop (Fig. 26), who lived in the early sixth century B.C., and who recounted the wonderful animal fables which are of pre-Indo-European, Mediterranean antiquity, is portrayed quite differently. The 'dark-skinned' Zeno (c. 333-264 B.C.), founder of the novel Stoic philosophy, was referred to by Krates as a Phoenician, also reveals in his undoubtedly noble visage evidence of his Semitic ancestry (Fig. 27). The same can be said of the herrn (Fig. 28) of the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus (c. 281-208 B.C.), of Cilician origin. The distinctive and seemingly 'true-lo-life' representation of Menander (c. 342-293 B.C.) also testifies to the sculptor's attempts to faithfully portray individual appearances, rather than a standarized concept of Greek beauty.
Menander (Fig. 29), was born into an Athenian freeman family, in an age in which large numbers of slaves and aliens had already been granted citizenship, so that his freeman status in no way implies original Attic descent. Described as 'perfumed & effeminate', Menander pioneered the 'New Comedy' which totally rejected the old Indo-European tradition of heroic and mythological poetry, using novel poetic forms and language, which was criticized by Phrynichos as 'lacking Attic purity'.
But the most obvious evidence of the realism of the Greek sculptures and the accuracy of their later Roman copies is to be found in the head of Memnon, the Ethiopian favorite of the Sophist (Fig. 30), Herodes Atticus, who lived during the period of Roman domination, when the old god-descended aristoi were virtually extinct, and Greece had become a Roman colony, supplying educated slaves as schoolteachers for the more prosperous Roman families. His African features are clearly indicated by the sculptor, standing in sharp contrast to the Greek and Semitic features illustrated in the other hermae identified in this article.
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