What the president saw

Yesterday, the President of the USA, Mr. Barack Obama, visited the New Acropolis Museum, escorted by the Museum’s director.

The media published a lot of pictures from the visit, one of which shows the president squatting to look closely at one exhibit that the director is pointing out.


What is the President looking at and why is he smiling?

He’s in front of a marble 6th-century-BCE statue, dedicated to the goddess Athena by a man probably named Rhombos. The statue shows a man carrying a calf on his shoulders, hence its popular name “Calf-bearer.”

It is one of the early works of Athenian sculpture, dating between 570 and 560 BCE, and it is has a significant place in the history of Greek art.


The sculpture

The statue has the typical frontal pose of the archaic style, with the left foot slightly forward, as if walking. However the rest of the statue is not that conventional. The man is shown with arms crossed, holding the legs of the calf which he carries on his shoulders. The sculptor managed to blend the forms of man and animal into a harmonious whole, first by the natural way in which the animal rests on the man’s shoulders and secondly by the way their heads tilt slightly towards each other.

The Greek ideal of beauty

The man’s body is depicted in the conventional way that was the rule for archaic art. Through it we may discern what was the ideal of male beauty for ancient Greeks: strong and broad shoulders, well-defined abs, a narrow waist and strong legs, especially the thighs. This is the picture of an Athenian of noble blood, honoring the goddess by a double gift: the calf, which he probably brought himself for sacrifice and the statue, which will remind people of his gift forever.  

The donor

Undoubtedly, dedicating a statue was far from cheap. By means of this gift, the donor shows off his wealth and social status. It is quite possible, that Rhombos, son of Palos, as the inscription identifies him, was one of the richest Athenians and probably one of the first to dedicate a marble statue to the sanctuary. The dedication could well have a link to the first celebration of the Panathenea (the grand festival of Ancient Athens in honor of Athena), in 566 BCE.

The inscription

Yet, as we can see in the picture, it’s not the statue that made the president smile, but the inscription, which he squatted to look at more closely.

The base bears an inscription (written retrograde, meaning from right to left) which reads: [Rh]ombos dedicated of Pal[os], meaning Rhombos, son of Palos, dedicated (this statue).


Similarities and differences

The mirror writing may strike us as odd, but one needs to remember that this was written in an era when the alphabet was still new and far from standardized and there were several local variations of it. (The version that was carried to southern Italy by Greek colonists would later evolve into the Latin alphabet.) Nor was the direction of writing standardized, but we find inscriptions from left to right, from right to left and sometimes changing direction from line to line, much like the plow turns when reaching the end of a field.

Looking closely, like Mr. Obama, one will notice that many of the letters, notably the A, B, E, K and S are quite similar to today’s letters (only in reverse) and easily recognizable even after 26-odd centuries later.

A connection, centuries apart

Perhaps this realization, that the letters, despite being reversed, are easily recognizable and read even by a non expert, is what made the President smile.

The alphabet is undoubtedly one of the greatest contributions of the Greek civilization to mankind and is –obviously– still able to link a 6th-century BCE citizen with a 21st century one.

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