Tropaion is a web-log / electronic journal and Carnival for the ancient Greek Religion and history. The main goal of the web-log is to present original peer-reviewed and well referred posts on theoretical and practical aspects of the ancient Greek religion, to add to a broader circulation of Humanities and Classics in the Internet as well as to rise awareness for the Hellenic Polytheism today and to explore its relation with its ancient past.

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The last day of the revealed Gods and Goddesses in London has long been past and I had for a long time the desire to write a brief post for my thoughts and impression of the art exhibition entitled The Return of the Gods: Neoclassical Sculpture in Britain at Tate Britain. It was a bright and warm day in London – and excellent occasion for visiting galleries and museums – and indeed the Tate Britain and its hosted exhibition was a perfect choice.

Steven Deuchar, the Director of Tate Britain, in his opening letter for the exhibitions’ Catalogue, points that there was a ‘problem’ of the displayed environment, as many scholars feared that the sculptures may be feeling as out of concept. The sculptures, indeed, have been created to be seen in refined interior setting, just purely specialized for the need of their patrons who commissioned them. I have to admit that the Tate Britain did a marvellous job to generate an exhibition’s environment that could provide that distinguished aesthetics needed for all the objects. The dark interior of the gallery will give only the appropriate soft luminosity to the object which was separated with a fair distance from the others, so to be able to draw its shape independently.

In such an affecting environment the Gods and Goddesses, heroes and historical figures brought clearly forward the admiration of the British for the antiquity’s artistic marvels. In 1750s the Neoclassical sculpture and the admiration that caused to the British aristocracy generate a mass importation of original and non-original objects into England. It was shame for the members of aristocracy not to be included in the group of British Grand Tourists (sic) and have their mansions decorated with the finest pieces of Greco-Roman antiquity. Lord Elgin was one of Grand Tourists who extracted and brought a grand part of the Parthenon Frieze, as well as parts of the pentiments and metope. It was not long after that numerous artists show their dissatisfaction of that action, as even at that time considered mutilation of a grander artistic marvel, the Parthenon.

All, of course, started in Rome, where excavations reviled a plethora of artefacts and statues from the antiquity. In Rome for many years sculptures, such as Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, ‘restored’ antiquities. There were numerous times that the Italians will recreate an antiquity object with a small portion of the actual ancient fragment. One example was the Belvedere Torso believed to be a fragment of the colossal Hercules in Vatican. As a result was the creation of a new movement of sculpture practices.

In the exhibition you will have a glance of how the aristocratic English society saw and understand antiquity, and is obvious that from them we have today the based conceptions for the Greco-Roman world. Scholars and Lords, daughters and wives, and even slaves have been portrayed as Roman Emperors or as philosophers, nymphs and goddesses, as well as heroes. All the objects are unpainted – far from the antiquity’s reality – and use the natural colour of the marble. It is, also, clear that our conception of beau idéal has much more to do with this period Neoclassical sculptures than the actual Greco-Roman artistic values.
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Few years ago, I wrote a brief essay on what was the Graecus ritus in the concept of the Roman religious practice (you can find it here). Today I would like to touch the matter of a more general perspective, the concept of polytheism or the gods and goddesses in Greece and Rome. For quite few educators of Roman history, Roman religion is similar with the ancient Greek and more specifically the Roman gods and goddesses a copy of the Greek. As I underlined on the matter of Graecus ritus and ritu Romano the two religions are different with very few common aspects of their liturgical processes. There is, therefore, evidence that Romans had also a different structure of their gods and goddesses when compared with the Greeks. Thus, Roman and Greeks had a dissimilar perspective of polytheism.

Polytheism in antiquity, and especially in Greece, had less to do with the assumption that there are many gods. In fact there is a more structural and hierarchical concept in the Greek polytheism which during the Hellenistic times became canonical. That is to say the Olympian Gods, with, regardless of a number of variations, Their internal hierarchical structure, and specialized functionalities as well as of a standardization of Their interaction with each other and with the world. This can be compared with a map constructed by the Homeric epics, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Homeric Hymns as well as by Hesiod (see Gladignow, 1998). On the contrary, Roman polytheism was very different from the Greek. Roman deities such as Mars, Venus and Jupiter have a more non-hierarchical structure and it seems to have been placed on the same level. Roman stories and mythology is grandly pointing out of new divinities that have been introduced throughout time rather than to elucidate the structure, relations and functionality of the older gods and goddesses. Their personalities varied and were identified as complex and unstable.

The Roman polytheism is in reality a mirror of the Roman society, its ruling aristocracy, the civil wars, the conquered foreign lands and richness of its trade and the fearful military power (see Jörg Rüpke 2001). The Romans have a complex pantheon with thousand minor deities, divinized ancestors and foreign gods and goddesses that is not visible in Greece, not even during the Late Antiquity era. There are the Romans who possessed the vision of daemones, a large group of spirits coexisting with the humans – a concept which was very much used by the first Christian communities.

  • Jörg Rüpke, (2001), Die Religion der Römer (Verlag CH Beck: Munich)
  • Gladignow, B. (1998). 'Polytheismus' Handbuch religionswissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe, 4, 321-330
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