Who on earth was this Philopappos guy anyway? Who dared to desecrate the hill of the Muses with his grave? Who dared build this monstrosity of a mausoleum right in front of the Acropolis?
Draped with the authority of its 19-century-long history, the grave of Philopappos is regarded today with the respect awarded to antiquities. Yet, at its time it must have caused much controversy, although ancient sources offer scant evidence about it. Ancient travelers like Pausanias barely deign to mention it, which in itself speaks volumes.
Little is known about Philopappos himself, the man whose name is perpetuated by the monument. Born around 70 C.E. to the royal family of Commagene (an area straddling the border between present-day Syria and Turkey) the young prince bore the name Gaius Julius Antiochus, a testament to the Roman and Greek influences that shaped his life. Philopappos is an appellation he chose for himself much later, and means “fond of grandfather”, i.e. Antiochus IV. The latter, was to be the last king of Commagene; when Philopappos was but two, the king and the entire royal family were evicted from their homeland by the Romans who had decided to appropriate the small kingdom. Remarkably, the Romans treated the royal family with great respect, settling them in Rome and ensuring them an income that allowed them to live like the royalty they still considered themselves to be, despite having lost land and crown.
Some years later, enjoying the status of upper-class Roman citizen, Philopappos moved to Athens, where he would spend most of his life. He managed to become accepted by the city’s cultured elite and it was probably his generosity which led to his becoming an Athenian citizen, a privilege rarely awarded to non-natives. He served his adoptive city well, assuming various civic posts and undertaking enormous expenses.
Upon his death he was buried on top of the hill of the Muses, which now bears his name. We do not know who chose the burial site and designed the highly symbolic monument; most likely himself, although it could well be his only sister, Balbilla, who survived him. Whichever the case, the monument is a fusion of Greek, Roman and Middle-Eastern elements, meant to glorify the dead for eternity.
The most striking thing about the monument is its location; not only is it so blatantly visible, but burial on hilltops was unknown in ancient Greece. However, the graves of Philopappos’s ancestors were always on mountaintops, where the deceased kings were venerated as gods, so the choice of the spot must have had the dual aim of dominating the city’s skyline as well as projecting Philopappos’s illusions of royalty. It is no coincidence that the inscription on top proudly proclaims “King Antiochus Philopappus, [son] of king Epiphanes [son] of Antiochus [IV].
The form of the structure is entirely foreign to the Greek tradition, but this is not immediately obvious, as the eye is deceived by the Greek elements of the decoration. The monument is made of white Pentelic marble, the same that was used for the Parthenon. There are two friezes, the lowest bearing a relief of Philopappos on a chariot, with several people in Roman garb attending on both sides. The relief serves to inform and remind viewers of a real event in Philopappos’s life, his becoming a Roman consul in the year 109 C.E., something he must have been intensely proud of. Above this, a second frieze bears three imposing statues; inscriptions identify the central (and larger) figure as Philopappos himself, shown seated on a throne. On his right is his grandfather, Antiochus IV, the last king of Commagene, and on his left (now destroyed) sat Seleucus I, Nikator, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, from whom the kings of Commagene claimed descent. The Persian side of the family is conspicuously absent.
The monument is of course nothing short of a public statement, an advertisement if you wish, meant to perpetuate in eternity the glorious deeds, character and royal credentials of Philopappos. The stir and controversy the grave’s erection must have caused now gone, the monument still stands, a fixture of the Athenian landscape and a testament to the personality of a man now forgotten, except for his nickname. Sic transit gloria mundi…