Thursday, 4 August 2016

On Symposiums and Vases - an Interview with Professor Sir John Boardman.

It's not long now until the release of a brand new vase animation. The animation is being made for Oxford University’s Classics Faculty and Ashmolean Museum, so, in anticipatory celebration, we're talking today to one of Oxford’s leading lights, Prof. Sir John Boardman, Senior Research Associate at the Classical Art Research Centre and Emeritus Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art. Sir John is the author of four indispensable handbooks on Greek vase painting, as well as numerous other works including The History of Greek Vases: Potters, Painters and Pictures (2008) and The World of Ancient Art (2006). He has served as the Assistant Director of the British School at Athens (a wonderful archaeological institute in Greece) and as Assistant Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean. Today he’s sharing thoughts on vases, symposiums, and gems...

1) You have worked with so many vases throughout your career; is there one in the Ashmolean collection that you find particularly interesting?
Yes. In my first days in the Ashmolean I came across fragments of an East Greek black figure vase which I could restore as showing the carriage of the boat of Dionysos. The vase was from Karnak in Egypt where there were similar processions, inspiration for the Dionysiac. I retained an interest and it formed a key element in my short book on The Triumph of Dionysos in 2014.

2) The vase in the new animation depicts a symposium scene of men drinking and playing music together. What values were being expressed through scenes of this sort?
The symposion was an important social event in Greek life – the wine was well watered! Many houses had rooms especially furnished for a symposion although I suspect that most Greek homes were not so well furnished.

Above, the vase that will feature in Panopy’s next animation, out soon. An Athenian black-figure footed cup (kylix) (AN1974.344), c.500 BCE. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

3) Would a vase of this sort have been a high status item?
This example was almost certainly an export model, sent to Italy, possibly for the Greek market but just as probably for the Etruscan where its message might not have been so clear.

4) The people in the symposium scene are depicted drinking from all sorts of shapes of cups. Did symposium culture encourage innovation in vase-making?
Drinking watered wine was an important event for Greeks and the potters were especially ingenious in creating new shapes for the drinking cup, whether practical or not, and often after foreign models.

5) Much of your recent work has looked at carved gem stones. Is there any overlap between the art we see on vases and that on carved gems?
The gem stones were a more personal matter and their subjects could be inspired by various different factors – religion, the name of the owner, or simply display. The idiom and overall style was uniform in the arts of classical Greece so it's a matter of parallels rather than any more positive links, I think.

Above, a carnelian gem, showing a young Heracles, 4th century BCE, Private collection (photo: Beazley Archive).

6) Who’s your favourite ancient Greek?
It has to be Heracles, for the variety of his adventures and his role in both mythology and the everyday religion of the Greeks.

Above, the hero himself - Heracles wrestles a water god in Panoply's animation of a tiny amphora from the Ure Museum.

Many thanks to Professor Sir John Boardman for talking to us today. If you’d like to hear more, you’ll enjoy the short video below exploring what can be deduced from an ancient Athenian symposium cup, and the podcast below that, which discusses the discipline of Art History.

Above, Treasures of Oxford - Athenian Wine Drinking Cup. Sir John Boardman talks about a wine drinking cup made in Ancient Athens - what we can learn from it about Ancient Greek culture and the kind of lifestyle the Greeks had.

Above, Introduction to Art of the Ancient World. Prof Donna Kurtz and Prof Sir John Boardman talk about Sir John's life, career, and experiences as a classical scholar, and the relationships between the artworks of different ancient cultures.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Conference Season

Late Spring - Early Summer is traditionally conference season. Panoply have been out and about accordingly, so here’s a quick run through some of what we’ve been up to.

May saw us making a trip to the beautiful University of Warsaw in Poland. We were there for a conference called Chasing Mythical Beasts...The Reception of Creatures from Greco-Roman Mythology in Children and Young Adults’ Culture as a Transformational Marker. This conference brought together a range of scholars working on an impressive array of children’s culture, including Elizabeth Hale on Medusas and Minotaurs in Australian literature, Roehampton’s Susan Deacy on Bright-Eyed Athena and her Fiery-Eyed Monster, Helen Lovatt considering how Greek Harry Potter’s mythical animals are, and Hanna Poulouskaya discussing Mythical Beasts in Soviet Animation. Vase fans would particularly have enjoyed Deborah Roberts’ presentation, Picturing Duality: The Minotaur as Beast and Human in Illustrated Myth Collections for Children. It explored the way that the Minotaur’s half-bull-half-human duality is depicted in varying ways depending on how sympathetic or frightening it’s intended to be, with vases serving as the starting place for picturing this strange hybrid.

Deborah H. Roberts of Haverford College

Steve and I were delighted to have the opportunity to visit the National Museum in Warsaw. Not only is it a very fine museum, this was also a chance to see Panoply’s Hoplites! Greeks at War on display in the exhibition Hoplites. On the Art of War in Classical Greece. The vase animation complements the exhibition’s selection of hoplite equipment by helping to illustrate how those items would be used and what their wearers would go through. We also gave a presentation in the museum’s media room, outlining the work that we hope to do with the museum in the future. Many thanks to Prof Katarzyna Marciniak for organising an excellent conference. We’re looking forward to being back in Warsaw.
Panoply's Sonya and Steve with Hoplites! Greeks at War on location in Warsaw

Sonya gives a vase animation demonstration at the National Museum in Warsaw

Above, a short video of Chasing Mythical Beasts.

Come June I was visiting London for A Celebration of Greek Language and Culture Education in the UK. This event was organised by Oxford University’s Classics in Communities project and hosted by the Hellenic Centre. Attendees got together to hear what good things are going on in the teaching of ancient and modern Greek and classical civilisation. If you have ideas for a project, get in touch with Classics for All – they want to help! Also expect good things from the new classical civilisation textbook created by OCR and published by Bloomsbury.

Ambassador Bikas, Greek ambassador to the UK, opens the event

Sonya outlines the work of the Panoply Vase Animation Project

Teachers discuss what’s hot in Greek teaching

Most recently, I’ve been in Dublin for the 9th Celtic Classics Conference, hosted by University College Dublin. This 4-day classics extravaganza saw 350 delegates gather from all over the world to talk classics, ancient history, and classical reception. Highlights included Bridget Martin’s presentation Comfort in the Unfamiliar: The Depiction of the Winged Dead on Greek Funerary Vases (which we’ll hear more about in due course), Hans van Wees on Greek warfare’s relationship with Near Eastern warfare, and Philip de Souza on Greek fleets at war. My presentation was Icon Appropriation in Ancient Warfare, discussing the do’s and don’ts of taking other communities' religious statues. It featured some of the ideas I’ve been exploring for my forthcoming book, Military Leaders in Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare: Temples, Sanctuaries, and Conflict in Antiquity. There’ll be more on that here closer to the publication date in October, but till then, here’s one of the vases that made an appearance – a belly amphora featuring Athena accompanying Diomedes and Odysseus with the Palladion. Thanks to everyone at UCD for all the hard work they put in to making the conference a great success.

Athena accompanying Diomedes and Odysseus with the Palladion, Stockholm Medelhaus Museet, 1963.001

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

New-look Website

The new-look Panoply website is up! We hope you like the new lay-out.
Overall we’ve made it:

• Easier to read - with bite-size text boxes.
• Easier to navigate - with more cross-page connections.
• Easier to find the animations you want – now arranged by project, by theme, and A-Z by title.

You may also have spotted the new shop. The designs are all based on vase animations. We hope you enjoy taking your favourite scenes off-screen and into real life.

I must say I’m particularly keen on the Field of Spears mug:

and the Nike and Bull t-shirts.

The products are made by Zazzle, which means that you can choose them in a wide range of colours and styles. We’ll be adding more designs over time; keep an eye on the website or our Facebook page for updates.

One further change has been the adoption of a new logo:

We’ve moved to using the full name – Panoply Vase Animation Project (instead of just Panoply). The logo image combines an amphora vase and the figure of a soldier taken from the vase used in Hoplites! Greeks at War and Combat. He’s leaping off the vase to express the way that our animations bring vase scenes to life.

If you have any links to the website saved in presentations and so on, you’ll find that they’re still the same. The only ones that have been removed are the umbrella project pages, Ure View, Ure Discovery, and Ancient Olympics. Their content is now on the individual animation pages from those projects.

We’d love to know how you get on with the new site, so feel free to drop us a line if you have any comments. Have fun exploring the new site.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Recreating the Ancient Past

We're looking forward to talking vases and animation at Recreating the Ancient Past, a day school organised by the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies at Athens. It will be held at Trinity College Dublin this Saturday. Fantastic line-up. If you're in the Dublin area, sign-up!

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Ships and Pirates on the Ancient Seas - a Panoply Interview with Dr Philip de Souza

Today we’re talking to Dr Philip de Souza, Senior Lecturer at University College Dublin. An expert in ancient naval warfare, Philip’s publications include Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World (1999), and Seafaring and Civilization: Maritime Perspectives on World History (2001), with Ancient Naval Warfare coming soon, along with an edited volume, (with Robert Hohlfelder and Boris Rankov) The Oxford Handbook of Seafaring in the Classical World. Philip is also a special friend of Panoply having supervised Sonya’s doctorate and having seen all our animations from day one. Today he chats to us about ancient vase-scenes of ships, and pirates - curse of the high seas…

1. When do depictions of ships on vases begin?
They probably begin around 3100BCE, with some sketchy images on prehistoric Egyptian vases. The earliest depictions of sails seem to date from about this time. In the Greek world vessels with oars and sails are depicted on a variety of Mycenaean objects with some very clear ones dating to around 1700BCE.

2. To what extent are vase paintings of ships stylized or realistic?
I think it’s a bit of both. There are some obviously stylized depictions, such as the early Greek depictions of “double-decker” oared ships from c.700BCE, which in fact seem to be trying to show the oarsmen on both sides of a ship in profile. There is a good example on a Theban krater in the British Museum. Realism was certainly possible, and some black figure painters seem to be consciously trying to represent features of sailing ships and galleys accurately by the late sixth century BCE, although it seems to me that when a boar’s snout is depicted on a ship’s prow it’s more likely to be an artistic embellishment than an authentic detail. There is also the likelihood that some unusual features are the result of indifferent artistry. My favourite in this category is the so-called Aristonothos krater, a South Italian piece of painted pottery dated to c.650BCE. It features two ships with warriors on them, one of which has a very oddly shaped prow. The image has encouraged several scholars to develop elaborate theories of local ship design, but when I look at it all I see is a poor attempt to sketch a standard prow on the curving surface, done by an obviously inept artist who was not at all concerned about realism.

Above, double-decker oared ship as depicted on a spouted krater from Thebes, c.700. British Museum, 1899,0219.1

Above, The Aristonothos Krater, Capitoline Museum, Rome

Aristonothos Krater, both sides, drawing by Natacha Lubtchansky.

3. How do ancient images of ships help you in your research?
Images of ships are essential for the study of ancient seafaring. They tell us a great deal about the design and operation of seagoing vessels. The reconstruction of a Classical Athenian trireme, Olympias, could not have been undertaken without key pieces of information provided by ancient images. They also tell us a lot about what people thought about ships and seafaring. It is noticeable that, while triremes were vital to the Classical Athenians’ military activities, they seem to have featured only very rarely in public art. In contrast, there are quite a lot of images of ships in the surviving public art of the Roman Empire, in spite of the conventional view of the Romans as landlubbers.

4. Was piracy a big problem on the ancient Greek seas?
It was for those on the receiving end, but what Professor Vincent Gabrielsen has dubbed “the raid mentality” was an integral part of Greek warfare, so seaborne raids for plundering were commonplace, and almost a way of life from Homeric times onwards. The two Greek words that are usually translated as “pirate” are leistes and peirates, but neither is used exclusively for seaborne armed robbers. Leistes appears in the Homeric poems, composed c.700 BCE, and essentially means a “raider”, although it is noticeable that none of the Homeric heroes is ever called a leistes. When city-states with large armed forces emerge in the Greek world the word is used for raiding in warfare, by land and sea, but it becomes a pejorative term, often applied to the activities of political opponents in order to delegitimize them and justify military action against them. Peirates appears only on the 4th century BCE as a synonym for leistes, by this time seaborne raiding is widespread and the distinction between legitimate warfare and illegitimate “piracy” is very hard to establish. The Romans adopted peirates into Latin as pirata, from which we get “pirate” using it exclusively for seaborne raiders whose activities were deemed illegitimate by the state. Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean reduced the problem considerably because wars were far less frequent and their standing armies and fleets could quickly suppress outbreaks of piracy.

5. Is there any way to tell if a vase shows pirates rather than other types of sailors?
Not definitively, because in Antiquity “pirate” was a subjective label, one that people applied to others to delegitimize them. No-one ever declared themselves to be pirates and there are images that might be interpreted as piracy – e.g. an Athenian black figure vase in the British Museum that seems to show a small galley attacking a merchant vessel – but none that are necessarily depictions of piracy.

Above, a galley ship attacks a merchant vessel, on a krater from Athens, c.500. British Museum, 1867,0508.963

Above,some anti-social behaviour at sea, from a black-figure vase c.490-480 (National Museum of Athens, NM487), drawing by Hans van Wees

6. Do you have a favourite story about ancient seafaring?
My favourite story is the one about Alexander the Great and the pirate in book 4 of The City of God, by St. Augustine. Alexander supposedly asked a captured pirate, “How dare you molest the sea?” “How dare you molest the whole world?” the pirate replied. “Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a pirate. You do it with a great army, and so you are called an emperor”. That anecdote has both a political and a philosophical message, and it shows us that the ancients could be every bit as sophisticated in their analysis of the dynamics of power as modern political theorists. Noam Chomsky used the story as the starting point for a whole book about the hypocrisy of modern western states’ attitudes to “terrorism”. There’s a very sharp cartoon based on it that you can find on Youtube (and below).

Many thanks to Dr de Souza for all this fascinating info. Keep your eyes open for ships next time you’re hitting the museums, and check-out Seafaring and Civilization: Maritime Perspectives on World History to find-out more. In the meantime, enjoy Pirates and Emperors:

Above, Pirates and Emperors.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Force Awakens New Greek Vase-Scenes

Myth is malleable. Myth is fun. Myth is thought-provoking. No surprise then that in every generation artists turn to myth for inspiration. This post is dedicated to a whistle-stop tour through art inspired by a two-fold love of ancient Greek vases and Star Wars. Yes, celebrating the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we’re looking at the modern myths of Star Wars as channelled through that classic art-form, the vase scene. If we’ve missed one you love, feel free to post it in the comment section. This post contains no Force Awakens spoilers, but plenty for parts I-VI.

Above, Vader vs Luke, by Wharton.

We begin with this fabulous combat scene by Wharton, a designer at It gives us the monumental fight between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, channelling the famous Rhodian plate:
Above, the Rhodian plate, Trustees of the British Museum, BM 60. 4.4-4.1

Wharton has captured the lay-out nicely, including the additional features that fill the space around the main figures. The Greek plate, made on the island of Rhodes in the late 7th century, features Menelaus (left) and Hector, fighting over the body of Euphorbus. The decorator has captioned the figures to make sure we know who they are. Book 7 of the Iliad describes the action. Menelaus ran to protect the body of Patroclus when he saw him die; Euphorbus tried to win the body back so he could strip its valuable armour. Menelaus stood over Patroclus ‘as a mother-cow stands over her first calf’, and killed Euphorbus, ‘stabbing him in the base of the throat… through his soft neck.’ Hector ran to protect the body of Euphorbus. The Rhodian plate shows them sizing each other up for the fight. The Iliad describes Menelaus backing away, as he knows Hector is the better fighter. In vase iconography, the winner is usually depicted on the left of the scene. Wharton has echoed that effectively by placing Vader on the left, with Luke on the right, even though the Rhodian plate has Menelaus on the left. Vader and Luke have been given shields to up their Greekness. They should perhaps be holding their light sabres as spears, but instead we see them fighting with light-sabre-like leaf-blade swords. Still, a nice piece of work that makes sympathetic use of the ancient lay-out and a simple palette.

Above, Vader vs Yoda, by Andre Minoru Asai

This next piece you might recognise from an earlier post on vase-remixes. It's by Brazilian-based Andre Minoru Asai, aka. asaifactory. The image has less detail than Wharton’s piece, but what it lacks in tie-fighters, it makes up for in clarity of vision. We’ve got the intense orange and black contrast that we know and love from Attic pottery, and a Greek key of death stars and droids across the top and bottom. In the Star Wars films, Yoda and Darth Vader never fight each other, but vase remixes, like ancient vases, can play around with myth, making tweaks and changes as the artist sees fit.

Above, Hoplite Bobba Fett and Cyclops Vader, by Aaron McConnell.

The next two pieces are a bit different, really going to town merging Star Wars characters and ancient features in an illustrative style that draws on Greek vase scenes. The hoplite-like helmet of Bobba Fett’s Mandalorian panoply is really brought out in this drawing. (A topic we’ve looked at in a previous Star Wars post). The Cyclops Vader is really inspired – myth lovers will remember that the Cyclops Odysseus encounters, Polyphemus, is a shepherd who lives with his flock of obedient sheep.
Above, space sheep.
Artist Aaron McConnell has done a whole set of these. You can find more of them on his site:

Above, Luke waits for adventure, by Ace Techne.

This sweet scene by Hapo (aka Ace Techne) also uses an illustrative style. We have a bit more shading and a sense of perspective that we wouldn’t expect on a vase, but on the other hand, we also have the unmistakable take on the reddy-orange and black colour scheme, and a Greek-key-like frame around the scene. Hapo has steered clear of the combat-scenes and opted for the pastoral scene of the young farm boy biding his time waiting for adventure. What’s that? You wanted to go to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters? Too bad, Luke, too bad.

Above, Vader vs Luke, by Antium.

Above, Achilles vs Penthesilea, by Exekias, trustees of the British Museum, BM 1836.0224.127.

This is our last example, a splendid piece of work by Antium, depicting the moment that Vader cuts off Luke’s hand. Antium has gone explicit with the vase theme by placing the scene on a vase background. The image is also explicit about where in the Star Wars saga this comes from, with the V for Episode V (The Empire Strikes Back) on the neck. The attention to detail in the figures’ armour and clothing is marvellous, and very in-keeping with the style of Exekias, the master vase-painter who has been imitated. The dynamic of raised victor, lower loser has also been replicated, as we can see by comparison with Exekias’ Achilles-Penthesilea. So too has the eye contact. Achilles-Penthesilea lock eyes in a slightly creepy erotic dying scene, while Luke looks reproachfully at Vader, perhaps finding it difficult at that moment to see the good in him.

You’ve seen a few examples. What scene would you re-work?

The Force Awakens poster, by Matt Needle.

An update to include this actual real Star Wars tea-pot, made for Mai Musie, Classics Outreach Officer at the University of Oxford. Thanks for sharing Mai!:

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Electra, Ancient and Modern. A Panoply Interview with Dr Anastasia Bakogianni

Today we’re talking to Dr Anastasia Bakogianni, Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies, and formerly a Lecturer at the Open University. A leading light in the understanding of the impact of antiquity on later ages, Anastasia is the author of Electra Ancient and Modern: Aspects of the Reception of the Tragic Heroine and the co-editor of the newly released War as Spectacle: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Display of Armed Combat. We caught up with Anastasia following her return from a successful research trip to Brazil, to talk to her about Electra, murder, and sibling affection...

1) Who is Electra?
Simply put Electra is the daughter of King Agamemnon (of Trojan War fame) and Clytemnestra, and the sister of Orestes. You see in ancient Greece a woman tended to be defined in terms of her birth family. Her parents and sibling are much more famous in Greek epic and lyric where she is just a minor character. In Greek tragedy, however, Electra takes centre stage. She becomes a key player in the dramatic plots about her troubled family and a shockingly transgressive female character. She is the chief mourner of her father, in process becoming closely associated with the act of lamentation. Crucially, Electra also aids her brother in carrying out his plans for vengeance against their mother Clytemnestra and her paramour Aegisthus. They murdered Agamemnon upon his return from the war and dispossessed Orestes. He returns after many years to reclaim what is rightfully his and to avenge his father. The vagaries of textual survival mean that Electra is unique in the Greek tragic corpus because we have her treatment by all three Greek tragedians. She features in Aeschylus’ Choephori (part of the famous Oresteia trilogy, 458 BCE) and is a principal character in Sophocles and Euripides’ Electra plays (the former is dated between 420 and 410 BCE, while the latter to 422-413 BCE). She is also an important character in the latter’s Orestes (408 BCE). What has fascinated later generations of artists and audiences about Electra is her passion for revenge and the lengths to which she will go.
Above, Orestes and Electra at the tomb of Agamemnon, as shown on an Athenian white-ground lekythos, 460-440 BCE.© The Trustees of the British Museum

2) Does Electra appear on any ancient Greek vases?
She certainly does, but not as an avenger. She was most often portrayed as a mourner at the tomb of her father (as in vase above), but it was the theme of her meeting with her brother Orestes that captured the imagination of fourth-century vase painters, especially in southern Italy. Athenian potters tended to avoid portraying scenes from tragedy, but south-Italian potters had no such compunctions, and a number of vases featuring Electra from that region survive. Here are two particularly fine examples:

Above, Scene at Agamemnon’s tomb. Orestes and Pylades encounter a mourning Electra. Campanian red-figured hydria, 350-320 BCE. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Above, probable meeting of Orestes and Electra, on an Apulian red-figured bell-krater, 375-350 BCE. © The Trustees of the British Museum

I particularly like the image directly above, which is (probably) of Electra on a stripped pillow, shown on a bell-krater (a large vase used for the mixing of wine and water). Her head is veiled as it often is on vases, and her right hand is raised ready to push her veil forward, perhaps as a sign of her modesty when confronted with an unknown male. This suggests that she has not yet recognised her brother. Behind her on the right is her sister Chrysothemis (? probably). Her inclusion is an interesting feature as Chrysothemis appears on stage only in Sophocles’ drama and she never actually meets Orestes in our surviving source texts. Her presence and the lack of a funerary monument indicate that this bell-krater is not actually modelled on any particular play. Rather it is (possibly) an imaginative depiction of a well-known story.

3) Are there any pitfalls in looking for Electra in vase scenes?
Yes! that is precisely the danger in consulting vase scenes when researching Electra as a tragic heroine. The images of Electra we find on ancient artefacts (which include not only vases, but also gems, reliefs etc.) are usually not directly related to her portrayal in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Ancient artists did not feel the need to remain faithful to the plot of the tragedies in which she appeared, but reimagined her in positions and scenes that they hoped would appeal to the ancient consumers of their wares. That is why Electra’s vengeful feelings are not a prominent feature of her portrayal on vases. After all who would want to buy a vase depicting a daughter who ardently desires her mother’s death? There is a possible exception to this rule, but we are not 100% sure it shows us Electra. This possible depiction of Orestes’ matricide includes a female figure on the right-hand side, but we cannot positively identify it as Electra.

Above, Orestes killing Clytemnestra (?), Attic red-figured stamnos, 480-460 BCE. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

All these question marks also reveal how difficult it is even for experts to positively identify scenes on ancient vases.

4) How have you used these vase scenes in your research?
One must therefore approach vase scenes and other material culture evidence with a certain amount of caution. They do testify to the ways in which Electra was depicted inancient visual culture, but it is a mistake to try and directly link them to her portrayal in Greek tragedy. The best way to handle them is as yet another facet of Electra’s long reception history. These images also signal to us which aspects of the tragic heroine were considered too transgressive for depiction in ancient art. Electra’s dark passion for revenge, so prominent particularly in Euripides and Sophocles’ tragedies, is entirely absent from our surviving images of her in ancient art. Electra can be a witness to her brother’s act of matricide (if that is the correct identification of the scene on the Attic stamnos, above), but she cannot be an active participant. In any case this image is in effect a visualisation of the behind-the-scenes spaces of Greek tragedy. Violence usually took place off stage and was vividly reported by a messenger on stage. The closest Electra comes to taking direct action in the surviving dramas is in Euripides’ Electra where she tells the audience that her hand was on Orestes’ sword when he killed their mother (lines 1224-25).

Above, relief depicting the meeting of Orestes and Electra at the tomb of Agamemnon. Greek, 5th century BCE, Louvre, Paris, France, Nationality/copyright status: Greek/out of copyright.

5) As the title of your book reminds us, Electra has remained an important figure in art and culture after antiquity. How similar are the ‘modern’ Electras to ‘ancient’ Electras?
This trend in the reception of Electra in the visual arts continued in the post-classical era, too. You could call it the whitewashing of Electra’s darker side. In the visual culture of the 18 and 19th centuries Electra becomes the mourner par excellence of Greek tragedy. As in classical antiquity her meeting with her brother at the tomb of their father also continued to be depicted as it emphasises the heroine’s devotion to the patrilineal side of her family. In Britain, John Flaxman, Lord Frederic Leighton and Sir William Blake Richmond created powerful and enduring images of Electra captured in the act of mourning.

Above, Flaxman’s Electra mourning (1795) and Electra and Orestes recognition scene (1795) © British Library Board.
Above, Lord Frederic Leighton’s Electra at the tomb of Agamemnon (exhibited in 1869), Ferens Art Gallery.
Above, William Blake Richmond, Electra at the tomb of Agamemnon (1874), Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada.

In the 20th century, Electra begun to regain some of her darker aspects. As well as a mourner she once more became the heroine who passionately demanded vengeance, even at the cost of matricide. She also starred on the silver screen, for example in Michael Cacoyannis’ film Electra (1962).
Above, Electra at tomb of Agamemnon from Electra (1962). Photo courtesy of the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation.

In the 20th century, Electra also raised her powerful voice against oppression everywhere. In Miklós Jancsó’s movie Szerelmem, Elektra (Electra, My Love, 1974) the heroine becomes a symbol for revolution, dies and is repeatedly reborn. And these are far from Electra’s only incarnations in modern media.

6) Is she more often a mourner or a matricide?
Electra’s reception is characterised by her dual function as both mourner and matricidal daughter. The two are inseparable in Greek tragedy, but receive different degrees of prominence in different stages of her rich afterlife. Sometimes, for example in eighteenth-century British visual culture, her function as mourner subsumes her vengeful feelings. But that was chiefly because during this period women were viewed as creatures of emotion. Ancient women were often depicted as models of correct female behaviour, so it was not appropriate to portray a daughter who passionately desires the death of her mother. Instead we have the dutiful daughter who mourns her father and is a loyal and devoted sister. In later centuries artists gradually laid claim again to the full spectrum of Electra’s character including her darker aspects. In the performing arts in particular Electra’s passionate cries were heard once again thanks to our modern fascination with psychoanalytical theories. Freud and Jung made the dark side of Electra fashionable again.

7) What were you researching in Brazil?
As it happens I was gathering material about a Brazilian incarnation of Electra. I keep saying that I won’t work on Electra anymore, but then I discover yet another exciting reception of my favourite tragic heroine and I get pulled back in. And this is a particularly dark version of the tragic heroine. There is murder, suicide, incest and much more in Nelson Rodrigues’ Lady of the Drowned (1947). This is a play in which Electra has turned to the dark side before the curtain even opens. But I won’t say any more here as this is a drama that showcases surprising revelations and dark secrets exposed!

8) Who’s your favourite ancient Greek?
Electra, without a doubt will always come first with me, but I am also fascinated by other transgressive tragic heroines such as Antigone, Clytemnestra, Hecuba and Medea. Greek tragedy is a genre famous for its ‘bad’ women. But then again they are so much more interesting than ‘obedient’ women such as Alcestis who chooses to die in her husband’s place in Euripides’ eponymous play (438 BCE). The transgressive women of Greek tragedy also enjoyed much more interesting afterlives and have tended to attract more attention by later artists. Who after all can take their eyes off Medea as she vacillates on stage between her anger and her maternal feelings? Or fail to be both fascinated and repulsed by Hecuba’s bloody act of vengeance in Euripides’ drama that bears her name (c. 424 BCE)? And who could refuse to be drawn in when Electra’s passionate cries are heard in theatre, opera and cinema? It is perhaps a symptom of our turbulent and troubled world that these days we seem to be more drawn to anti-heroes and heroines, flawed, conflicted characters that face terrible dilemmas. And Greek tragedy is full of this type of dramatic personae, which goes a long way towards explaining its current appeal.

Many thanks to Anastasia for sharing these insights. You can find out more about this subject in her book, Electra, Ancient and Modern . You might also enjoy hearing Anastasia talk further about Electra in a short Classics Confidential video:

You can also hear Anastasia chatting with me about the modern use of ancient Greek tragedy as an anti-war spectacle, the subject of her chapter in War as Spectacle: