If you have ever climbed the steep steps up to the Acropolis in Athens, you will hopefully agree that the arduous ascent is worth every breath, as you reach the stunning collection of 5th century BC temples built as a celebration of Athens’ might and power. An earlier temple housed on the Acropolis had been destroyed in 480BC when the Persians invaded Attica. The story goes that following this destruction, the Athenians swore the oath of Plataea, vowing never to rebuild the Acropolis so that it would serve as a permanent reminder of barbaric impiety. However, under Pericles, general and statesman, an ambitious building programme resulted in the magnificent monuments which still stand today; a giant pro-Athenian billboard, you may say.
Even if you haven’t visited, you might have seen the Acropolis on the news this summer. Hoards of overheated tourists, panting and sweating, were adamant that the soaring temperatures and fierce sun would not prevent their pilgrimage to the Parthenon. The Parthenon is the most famous of all the temples on the Acropolis but just to its north, in its shadow, is a temple which has long intrigued me, not least because of the statues of women in its south porch.
This temple is known as the Erechtheion and was a replacement for the old temple to Athene Polias (‘Protectress of the City’) destroyed by the Persians. The building was started in 421 BC but most of it was completed between 409 and 406 BC. It probably housed the old cult statue of Athene, but it was also a temple for the cults of Erechtheus (hence its name) and Poseidon. Erechtheus, the only semi-offspring of Athene, was an Athenian hero and all Athenians claimed to be descended from him.
The south porch faces the Parthenon and here stand six Caryatids, statues of females acting as columns. The Caryatids are massive figures (appropriate to their function). They have clinging drapery, a feature of much Greek sculpture, known as ‘diaphanous’ drapery (or, to quote one of my former lecturers, ‘The wet T-shirt competition’ look). Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology, Sir John Boardman, describes the Caryatids as having an ‘emphatic set of hips and legs that look forward to the yet richer styles of the later century’.
‘Architects should inform themselves about history’ according to Roman architect and writer, Vitruvius, in his De Architectura (1.1.5). He goes on to say that someone might ask why an architect has replaced columns with ‘marble statues of long-robed women, which are called Caryatids’. Vitruvius explains that Caryatids are so called because during the Persian wars, the Laconian city of Caryae was one of those Greek states which sided with the Persians. After defeating the Persians, the Greek allies turned on Caryae. They murdered the men; and enslaved all the women, regardless of individual women’s social background. The architects of the time symbolised their shame by creating ‘Caryatids’: statues of the women bearing their heavy load. Thus, their punishment was to be publicised forever.
Vitruvius’ theory, however, has not always received support among scholars. Some point out that the Erechtheion is not the first building to use female figures as columns: the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi (late sixth century BC) also has them. However, this doesn’t prevent the possibility that the meaning of their use was ‘reinvented’ in the fifth century. At the time, it could have been seen as a modern twist on an old custom. Vitruvius also tells us that the Spartans built similar statues as supporting columns in their ‘Persian Stoa’ (a roofed colonnade). The statues were dressed in Persian clothing. Thus, these were architectural victory trophies as Sparta had defeated Persia at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC.
The capitals of the columns placed on the heads of the women ensure the weight of the roof and its forces are directed downwards. Their dresses are peploi (Greek plural of peplos), the vertical folds of which recall the flutes of columns. Their hair is thick and plaited and rests on their shoulders and back, which cleverly provides further strength to the structural weak point of the neck. We do not know the name of the sculptor but believe they are from the workshop of Alkamenes, pupil of Pheidias. Pheidias was the artistic director of the construction of the Parthenon and also the sculptor of Athene Parthenos (‘Maiden’) on the Acropolis and of Olympian Zeus at Olympia. This chryselephantine statue of Zeus was regarded by the later Greeks as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Other scholars believe that, as they stand above the grace of Kekrops, they represent mourners for this ancestral figure. If they do represent an above-ground monument for the tomb of Kekrops ('the Kekropeion') located directly below, then they were ‘choephoroi’: devotees who offered libations to the dead hero-king using the 'phialai' (shallow libation vessels) they once held in their hands, as known from ancient copies of these statues. In the building inscription for the temple, the statues are simply called ‘Korai’ (maidens). Caryatids was a name given to them in later years.
The Erechtheion was repaired shortly after 21 BC following a destruction by fire. In the 7th century AD, it was converted into a church, while under Ottoman rule (1458-1833) it hosted the harem of the Turkish commander. In 1803 the column at the northeast corner and one of the Caryatids (known as 'Kore C') were removed by Lord Elgin (of the 'Elgin Marbles' notoriety). The Museum Guide to the Acropolis Museum has something to say about this:
‘The abduction of the Kore, who was replaced by a pilaster, made such an impression on the enslaved Athenian people that they claimed thereafter they could hear the lamenting of the remaining maidens mourning the loss of their sister at night. However, this was not the end. In 1827 during the Greek struggle for liberation, the building was struck by a Turkish bomb that destroyed Kore F. The five remaining Karyatid [sic] statues (Korai A, B, D, F and F, the last having been restored from fragments, are today exhibited in the Acropolis Museum, while the sixth (Kore C) is in the British Museum.’
If you are wondering who the imposters are in situ on the Erechtheion today, they are simply replicas made from stone. The originals are made from the superior Pentelic marble. Versions of them can be seen as far afield as Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and, in terracotta, in the porch of St Pancras New Church in Euston Road, London. The Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge houses a cast of one in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, removed from the temple in 1979. If you would like to get up close and personal with one of the originals, the Caryatid in the British Museum is tucked away in a rather modest location and is quite separate from the Parthenon Gallery. Whenever I have visited her, I have had her all to myself. The debate about the Parthenon sculptures and their possible return to Athens rages on and the British Museum has been in the news rather a lot recently. As to whether Kore C will be in London for much longer, who knows. I am taking some students to the British Museum later this month to introduce her to them, while I still can.
Boardman, J. (1985) Greek Sculpture: The Classical Period. Thames and Hudson.
Mitropoulos, A. (2017) Morrison T., Renshaw J. and Steinhauer J. Greek Religion and Democracy and The Athenians. Bloomsbury.
Pandermalis, D., Eleftheratou S., Vlassopoulou C. (2016) Acropolis Museum Guide. Acropolis Museum Editions.
Spivey, N. (1996) Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings. Thames and Hudson
Caroline K. Mackenzie is the author of three books and is a private tutor in Greek, Latin, and Classical Civilisation. Caroline's online Classics Club meets weekly during term-time and is currently studying Virgil's Aeneid in translation. 'Learn Latin' meets fortnightly on Zoom.