Athena Promachos

Athena Promachos

Athena Promacos or Athena Prómacos (Greek: Ἀθηνᾶ Πρόμαχος; Romaniz.: Athena Prómachos) was a colossal bronze statue representing the goddess Athena, created by Phidias in the mid 5th century BCE and installed on the Acropolis of Athens in Ancient Greece.

In ancient times it was often called the Bronze Athena, to distinguish it from another statue of similar size created by the same artist and also present at the Acropolis, the Athena Partenos, clad in gold and ivory and nicknamed the Golden Athena. It apparently never had an official name.

Promacos was much admired in her time and generated folklore, but was lost in date and form ignored. Of it today only literary records and reproductions on coins and other sources remain, which are of poor quality and whose fidelity to the original is very uncertain, there being, in fact, discordant testimonies about its form, style and general appearance.

The work seems to have generated prolific iconography, but since its true appearance is unknown, it is difficult to study, and evidence suggests that its image has merged with other iconographic traditions concerning Athena, complicating its identification.

The name Athena Promachos

The word Promacos, meaning "one who fights in the vanguard," but translated also as "warrior," "champion," or "defender," is documented as early as Homeric times and soon became widespread as a designation of the hoplites who fought at the front of the troops, and also as an epithet of Athena, being through her invoked in military activities and receiving veneration of her own.

Denoting the work of Phidias it only appears in one ancient source, but has been adopted by modern criticism.

History and appearance of Athena Promachos

Dedicated to Athena, the virgin goddess of war, manual arts and wisdom, and patroness of the city, its best known description is in Pausanias' Description of Greece:

"Besides all those I have already listed, there are two other Athenian offerings dedicated with the spoils taken in war; one is a bronze statue of Athena from the spoils of the Persians who attacked at Marathon, which is the work of Phidias. People say that the battle of the Lapitae against the Centaurs that is depicted on the shield and all the other reliefs were engraved by the sculptor Mís, and that these and other decorations were designed for Mís by Parrásio, son of Evenor. The tip of the spear and the crested helmet of this Athena can be seen by sailors from Cape Sunion."

A record by a commentator on Demosthenes in Contra Androcius (Latin: Contra Androtion) also refers to it as a votive offering dedicated for the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon, and this tradition took hold among the Romans. However, today its dating is considered uncertain.

For many years, following Pausanias and Roman tradition, critics thought it had been built between shortly after the battle, which occurred in 490 BC, and before c. 450 BC, when Pericles' program of rebuilding the city of Athens, devastated by the Persians in the Median Wars, begins.

Reinforcing this theory is an accounting record continued over a decade between c. 465-450 BCE. concerning purchases of bronze sculpture materials for a work of great proportions that cost the fortune of approximately 85 talents and took nearly ten years to complete, which in the respected opinion of William Bell Dinsmoor and Jerome Pollitt seems to point solely to Promacos, but unfortunately these records neither describe nor name the work for which the materials were intended.

On the other hand, some recent studies accept that it would have been created at about the same time as the Athena Partenos, whose dating is more certain: 446-438 B.C.

Installed in the open at the entrance of the Acropolis, it was probably around 10 meters high, outside the pedestal, and was seen from a great distance. With it the name of Phidias became prominent. Little is known about its appearance, as the work was lost and only images on coins and very imperfect and uneven miniaturized copies remain of it, but they give a general idea.

Roman coins of the 2nd and 3rd centuries minted in Athens, showing it among buildings on the Acropolis, consistent with Pausanias' description, are the most reliable source for reconstructing the image. They show her partially standing, holding in her right hand an image of Nice, the goddess of Victory, with the point of a spear protruding from her left shoulder.

Other Hellenistic and Roman coins show her complete, in a similar attitude, but it is not certain that they represented Promacos, and may also be images of the Athena Partenos, who some think was very similar to her. Ingres' fragmentary Minerva, now in the Louvre Museum, is a large (2.6 m) Roman copy of a classical Athena shown as a possible copy of Promacos.

However, her iconography is variable, other sources show a huge owl figure at her feet, or an owl on a trunk, under her right hand, sometimes she has associated a shield, a column or a serpent, and several have been the modern proposals of reconstruction, with quite divergent results.

Her representations are also mixed with a parallel and older tradition of the depiction of Athena in her warrior quality, and marked on coins, vases, statuary and other media, which forms the typological family that came to be called by critics the Promacos.

The specific nickname Promacos, in fact, refers to one of her main attributes, the art of war, as well as to victory in general, being invariably shown in this capacity on Panathenaic amphorae offered as prizes to the winners of athletic games.

This tradition showed Athena in active motion, in the midst of battle, accompanied by other figures or even alone, having one leg in front of the other as if advancing, her right arm raised brandishing her spear, and her left arm holding the raised shield.

The type became particularly popular after it was introduced into the decoration of Panathenaic amphorae, but it is difficult to know whether it influenced Phydias in the composition of the attitude of his work.

What it seems is that after the statue became notorious, whatever its true stance, its tradition merges with the other, and also partly with that of the Athena Partenos, inextricably. This dynamic and aggressive model became influential again between the nineteenth and the twentieth century among scholars trying to reconstruct the specifics of the Fidian Athena Promacos.

It is further complicated by the fact that there are numerous statues of Athena in antiquity on the Acropolis, several with large dimensions, and their separate identification in ancient sources is extremely confusing.

Olga Palagia, summarizing recent studies, believes that she was a version quite similar to Partenos, broadly corresponding to the Roman coins cited at the beginning, standing simply without appearing to move, with a crested helmet covering her head, having Nice in her right hand and the spear resting on her left shoulder, whose hand rests on a shield that touches the ground and rests against her legs.

His style is equally uncertain. The most reliable sources, the Roman coins, are poorly detailed and only allow a glimpse of its general posture. Even if it was built in the second half of the century, when the classical style, of which Phidias is one of the founders, already predominated, the connections of the Promachian typology with very ancient values revered by the Athenians may have led the artist to endow it with archaic lines.

In Panathenaic amphorae and votive offerings found on the Acropolis a clearly archaizing Promacos appears over centuries after that canon had become obsolete in other contexts, but its links to the style of Phidias' statue are also unclear.

Its location is attested by archaeological evidence on the Acropolis, there still being traces of the foundations of its pedestal to the west of the archaic temple of Athena and approximately on the axis of the pathway leading from the monumental staircase (the propileum) and into the citadel.

Its base measured about 5.4 x 5.5 meters on a side, with a height of about 4 meters, and was carved from Paros marble and partly excavated in the bedrock. Also visible is the hole where the wooden pole that acted as a backbone for the statue had been nailed. Fragments of marble blocks scattered in various places in Athens have been tentatively and controversially identified as parts of the pedestal.

Athena Promachos Whereabouts

Of his fate little is known and much is assumed. In the fifth century of the Christian era a dedication confirms its presence on the Acropolis saying that a statue by Hercules, Praetorian prefect of Illyria between 408 and 410, had been erected next to the Athena Promacos, but in 435 Theodosius II (r. 408-450) ordered his magistrates to destroy all pagan temples and shrines in the empire.

Various sources report that the order was not applied homogeneously, a fact that may acceptably have made the statue survive, but in the following century official pressures for the Christianization of refractory Athens became intense, and a monumental statue of a pagan goddess could hardly remain in such a conspicuous place, when the Parthenon itself by now functioned as a Christian church.

Thus, if they had not destroyed it by now, it must have soon been taken elsewhere.

It is traditionally believed that the Constantinople elite, since it became the Christian capital of the Byzantine Empire, endeavored to "capture" famous pagan statues and take them to decorate palaces and public places, making the city a veritable museum of antiquity,

in order to assert the power of the new faith as well as to establish a relation of continuity with the glorious Roman imperial past and the sophisticated Greek culture, of whom they considered themselves the heirs.

Three sources between the 9th and 13th centuries - Aretas of Caesarea, Cedreno and Nicetas Coniates - say that a large bronze statue of Athena was there at this period, but the identification, while plausible, is not guaranteed.

Nicetas reported that the said statue was destroyed by popular vandalism in 1203, and gave a description, which however does not agree much with Pausanias or the most reliable iconography:

"It stood on a column in the Forum of Constantine; it was standing, and was 30 feet (about 10 meters) high; its figure and costume were of bronze; its garment fell to its feet, and had many folds; it had a girdle firmly tied to its waist; it wore the aegis and gorgonion; its long neck was bare; its helmet had a crest; its hair was pinned back; its left hand held the folds of its dress; its right hand extended toward the south; its head bowed slightly in the same direction." 

Athena Promachos Interpretation

The uncertainty about its form and attitude, about the circumstances of its creation, plus the contradictions and gaps in the ancient sources do not allow to go very far in unraveling its exact meaning beyond the supposed destination as an ex-voto, leaving much to speculation, but it is very likely that, like all the monuments of the Acropolis,

and in view of Athena's rich civilizing and protective symbolism and her intimate connection with the city, being its tutelary goddess and adoptive mother of its first mythical king, the Athena Promacos was loaded with moral, religious and political associations that identified Athenian society and affirmed its special value among all Greeks and especially against the barbarians.

Although she was not a cult image, she was probably also considered to be endowed with mystical virtues, and such associations are present in ramifications of her semi-legendary history.

One tradition says that during the invasion of Athens by the Visigoths in 395, Alaric (r. 395-410) saw a huge figure of the goddess dressed as her statue prowling around the city walls, armed and ready for battle.

The consecration of the Parthenon to the Virgin Mary when it was converted into a Christian church, a symbolic theme that has been much explored by scholars, instead of breaking with the past, continued, conveniently disguised, the ancient Athenian tradition of having a victorious "goddess" as the city's fierce protector who, despite being a virgin, is a mother - Athena was the adoptive mother of Erictonius.

In Constantinople, the hypothetical presence of Athena Promacos in the city acquired a new note when related to medieval accounts that speak of dreams and apparitions of the Virgin Mary looking military during sieges of the city, encouraging the inhabitants to resistance.

During the siege of the Avars in 626, it is said that she even sank ships and engaged in hand-to-hand combat mixed in with the soldiers, ordering them to dye the sea red with the blood of their enemies. In the hymn composed in thanksgiving for the victory, the Virgin's role as general and "goddess of the city" is explicit, and in the 12th century prayers still called her the invincible general, just as Athena in her attribute of Promacos was invincible in battle.

A whole Marian iconography and literature of a warrior character was created in the Byzantine Empire that is believed to be directly inspired by the image and function of this representation of the goddess.


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