The glorification of Greece began with the onset, around 330 B.C., of Alexander the Great’s empire-building campaign, after his father, Philip of Macedon, had defeated the city states. The Romans were already appropriating Greek culture in the second century B.C., and various Greek revivals over two millennia have significantly shaped the course of Western civilization. Most of the attention has been focused on Athens, the city of Pericles and Plato, with the iconic Parthenon crowning the acropolis, dedicated to the city’s patron, the goddess of wisdom. But Athens had a great rival, Sparta, known not for its art and philosophy but for its military prowess and legendary personal discipline. This ancient city-state gave us two English words: spartan, meaning warlike, stoical, frugal; laconic (after the region), meaning pithy, concise. This spring an exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City, “Athens-Sparta,” is confronting modern perceptions about the two ancient city-states. The 289 artifacts on view make a good case for the beauties of Laconian art, seen side-by-side with more celebrated Attic works. This is not a radically revisionist show. Athens was clearly the more innovative and refined of the two cities. As Nikolaos Kaltas, director of the National Archaeological Museum of Greece, writes in the catalogue, “grandeur and opulence were outside” the worldview of the Spartans, whose city was a loose group of settlements rather than a planned urban space studded with monuments. But the Laconians were famous for their pottery and metalwork, which was widely exported. A Laconian Lion Figurine (c. 570 B.C.) turns up, for example, as a votive offering at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. Represented sedent (seated), this small-scale yet majestic bronze feline would have ornamented the rim of a large vase or cauldron.
A Laconian Kylic (560–50 B.C.) by the Arkesilas Painter was imported to Etruria and recovered in Cerveteri. The subject is one of the first depictions of the myth of Atlas, bending under the weight of the world. Next to him we see the punishment of his brother titan Prometheus, with an eagle pulling at his liver. Probably inspired directly by Hesiod’s Theogony, it’s a striking composition, with black figures, touched with red, crisply silhouetted again a cream background. A Laconian Cup (c. 560 B.C.) with an unusual contemporary scene—King Arkesilas of Cyrene overseeing a group of workmen—is another dynamic black-figure composition. The weighing motif suggests an Egyptian model, but the lively details and crisp decorative friezes make it a fine example of Laconian pottery. An Attic Red-Figure Kylix (c. 500 B.C.) is pure Athenian, with a bearded man reclining on a couch, probably at a symposium. His head is wreathed with vines, and he sings to the beat of the krotala (rattles) he holds in one hand. His song, the beginning of a poem by Theognis, is inscribed above his head, and he fondles a hare—an erotic emblem—with his other hand. The figure is much fleshier and more relaxed than those in Laconian art, and the situation truly Athenian. The Spartans dined in communal messes, not at private drinking parties.
The exhibition and informative catalogue examine Athens and Sparta in the context of two historical events: the Persian Wars (500–449 B.C.) and the Peloponnesian War (431–04 B.C.). A Persian threat united the rival cities and led to a number of famous battles, including two that have become proverbial, the Athenian victory at Marathon under Miltiades (490 B.C. ) and the heroic sacrifice of the Spartans under Leonidas at Thermopolyae (480 B.C.). The Persian Wars left Athens and Sparta as the dominant powers in the region, until their rivalry erupted in the Peloponnesian War, ending in a Spartan victory. Warrior iconography is pervasive. A bronzed Warrior Figurine (540–20 B.C.) from a Laconian workshop provides a record of ancient armor and weaponry, from crested Corinthian helmet to the greaves covering the legs. An Attic Black-Figure Lekythos (500–490 B.C.) depicts warfare among hoplites, their curved helmets and shields combining with the thrusting lines of spears to form a complex pattern. Two other works, both depicting women, deserve mention as characteristic of their respective cultures. A Laconian Figurine of a Girl Running (550–40 B.C.) was probably designed for the rim of a ceremonial krater. The girl is highly stylized but expressive, with an alert face, rippling hair and the well-muscled legs of a competitive runner. (Women competed in Panhellenic footraces at Olympia.) Trim and dynamic, this figure has an art deco modernist energy. In contrast, a fragment of the Attic Grave Stele of Aristomache (420–10 B.C.) is both more ethereal and more naturalistic. Only the lower part of the body remains, but the way the sculptor has depicted the body in motion—the turning of the feet, the fluttering of the drapery—is masterful. The carving of the marble captures the delicacy of the chiton and himation clinging to the body beneath. There is something undeniably humanistic about this monument to a woman who died over two millennia ago. We think of this as an Athenian quality, but the more simplified form of a Laconian Grave Stele of a Young Man (475–50 B.C.) is also deeply moving. The stylized gesture of melancholy of the figure in the bas-relief is effectively terse. Against a plain background, he holds a chthonic fruit in one hand and supports his bowed head in the other. This is a fine example, in every sense, of Laconic beauty. Not everything in this exhibition is as stellar as the objects mentioned here, but a selection of Athenian coins offers a fascinating sidelight into the commercial aspect of Greek civilization. “Athens-Sparta” remains on view through May 12, 2007, at the Onassis Cultural Center, Olympic Tower Atrium, 645 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10022. Telephone (212) 486-4448. On the web at www.onassisusa.org