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Rhetorical education – specifically, the advent of the progymnasmata, or preliminary rhetorical exercises – taught students how to be Greek, and it appears to have been the root of many Hellenistic innovations in both art and literature. The wealthy and elite backgrounds of some Greek artists enabled them to be well educated, and their intellectualism aided their adult pursuits in oratory, teaching, and scholarship, not to mention art. Kings and courtiers, too, received Greek rhetorical educations, which allowed them to appreciate the rhetorically informed art in the courts. The courts also played a role in Hellenistic artistic production by drawing Greek artists around the ancient Mediterranean. The result of all this seems to be a standardization of Greek art that is analogous to a linguistic koine.
When the modern spectator tries to work out the imagery on the Archelaos Relief (Fig. 3.1), she quickly realizes that it thwarts a straightforward interpretation. Consisting of a lower interior scene surmounted by an upper mountainous landscape, the Archelaos Relief produces a constructed space that looks quite different from most ancient representations of the real world. The relief’s directed composition, moreover, draws the spectator’s eye up and down through its many levels, zigzag or boustrophedon fashion. And, what is more, the relief explicitly announces its rhetorical technique. For not only does it name an artist, Archelaos of Priene, it also glosses the figures in its bottom scene: personifications of abstract concepts.
Hellenistic artworks are celebrated for innovations such as narrative, characterization, and description. The most striking examples are works associated with the Hellenistic courts. Their revolutionary appearance is usually attributed to Alexander the Great's conquest of the Near East, the start of the Hellenistic kingdoms, and Greek-Eastern interactions. In Rhetoric and Innovation in Hellenistic Art, Kristen Seaman offers a new approach to Hellenistic art by investigating an internal development in Greek cultural production, notably, advances in rhetoric. Rhetorical education taught kings, artists, and courtiers how to be Greek, giving them a common intellectual and cultural background from which they approached art. Seaman explores how rhetorical techniques helped artists and their royal patrons construct Hellenism through their innovative art in the scholarly atmospheres of Pergamon and Alexandria. Drawing upon artistic, literary, and historical evidence, this interdisciplinary study will be of interest to students and scholars in art and archaeology, Classics, and ancient history.
The Telephos Frieze (Fig. 2.1) asks a lot of its spectators. Today, the modern viewer must use the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin as a stand-in for the frieze’s original architectural context, the second-century bce Great Altar at Pergamon (Figs. 2.2–2.5). Thinking away the gaps of missing sculpture, and employing the museum’s multilingual handouts, she must figure out the correct order of the frieze’s panels before she can appreciate its narrative. In antiquity, the task of viewing was of course much easier – the frieze was complete and contextualized – but it was far from unchallenging. For centuries, Greek spectators had been accustomed to viewing single moments of action in architectural sculpture. But here, they instead were asked to journey through both time and space in order to follow the life story of one hero, Telephos.
Today Hellenistic art is celebrated for its innovation. To get a sense of how it differs from the Greek art of previous eras, we only need to compare two well-known artworks that are separated by centuries but united in medium: the Classical frieze from the Parthenon in Athens (Fig. 1.1) and the Hellenistic Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar at Pergamon (Fig. 1.2).
The modern spectator’s first contact with Sosos’s now lost Unswept Room mosaic whets her appetite. Many handbooks illustrate it with a detail of a mosaic in the Vatican’s collections (Pl. I). Decontextualized, this close-up looks like a distinct composition, and it seems divorced from the rest of the mosaic in the Vatican Museums (Pl. II); from its ancient context in a Roman house; and from the lost mosaic in Pergamon on which the whole Vatican mosaic is based. What is more, this close-up contains modern restorations and additions – including its most famous and memorable feature, a mouse nibbling on a cracked nut. Yet it is intriguing. Here, the spectator sees hyperrealistic representations of all manner of discarded scraps from the table, complete with the shadows that they cast: a lobster shell, a crab leg, grapes, grape stalks, chicken bones, sea shells, nuts, and a fig. This small excerpt, then, leaves her hungry for more.