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Forgotten Masterpieces of Art: Reflections of External and Internal Policy in Fifth Century Greece

Journal: Athens Journal of History (Vol.1, No. 1)

Publication Date:

Authors : ;

Page : 51-64

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In his Naturalis Historia (34.68) Pliny the Elder refers to the famous Greek artist Telephanes (dated to the first quarter of the 5th century BC), who came from Phocaea, and has worked not only in Greece (Larisa/Thessaly) but also in Persia, for the Great Kings Darius and Xerxes. He also informs us that none of his glorious works of art has been conserved because they were ?concealed? (latuerint) in Thessaly. Some modern researchers have assumed that the meaning of this contradictory passage is as follows: because of the disgraceful fact that one of their countrymen has been engaged by the ?enemy?, they decided to hide his works from the eyes of other Greeks and strangers as well. But is such an interpretation possible at all? Is it imaginable that any Greek artist ? sculptor, painter or architect ? would have been judged as immoral by his own people or even punished as a traitor, just because he offered his services to a hostile patron? The analysis of the ancient text corpus shows that the Greeks distinguished between the sphere of state affairs and arts policy, at least when it was about inner-Greek relations. It seems that artists could work wherever their talent was needed and for whom they wanted to, without limitation. But was the Greek?s attitude liberal as well when it concerned art-transfer with the enemy par excellence, namely the Barbarians? Modern scholars have interpreted Pliny?s text passage about the sculptor Telephanes as example for the hostile attitude of the Greeks towards those countrymen who created works for the Persian Kingdom. But, by analyzing Pliny?s narration on the basis of the historical background of the involved parties (Phocaea, Larisa/Thessaly and the Persian court) it becomes clear that this is not the case at all. The text which appears to be illogical at first glance does make sense when one regards the following connections: the Ionians of Phocaea had tight relations to the Persian kings, shown by their money which was coined in accordance with the Persian standard. Therefor the idea of a Phocaean artist who was commissioned by his city?s business partner is not erroneous at all. In addition to it, the relation between the Persian Kingdom and the Thessalian polis of Larisa which existed even before the outbreak of the Persian wars (ca. 500 BC) explains why a Phocaean sculptor should have worked for the people of Larisa with whom his hometown had no alliance at all. It seems that the talented artist Telephanes was mediated to Larisa by the Persian kings who maintained tight contact with the rulers of this city, namely the Aleuads who acted as heads of the Thessalian League. Following this thesis it becomes clear too why Telephanes? masterpieces of art vanished somewhere along the line: after Iason of Pherae became the League?s new ruler about 375 BC the Aleuads lost their power over Larisa and were expelled. These political changes obviously involved the destruction of whatever was connected to the hatred dynasty, who once had assisted the Persians in their plan to subdue the Greeks, and this destructiveness concerned Telephanes? works too. But in the end, it was not the artist who had been prosecuted by his countrymen for collaboration with the Barbarians but his former employers, the Aleuads of Larisa.

Last modified: 2015-04-01 22:00:12