Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 16, 2017
Dimitrios Pandermalis, ed. Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus Exh. cat. New York: Onassis Foundation, 2016. 159 pp.; 164 color ills.; 9 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (9780990614227)
Exhibition schedule: Onassis Cultural Center, New York, March 24–June 18, 2016
Statue of Aphrodite. Installation view. Photograph by Joseph Coscia, Jr.

From first glance, it was clear that the exhibition Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus was more than an impressive collection of ancient sculpture. It was a show with a clear didactic objective: to illuminate the accomplishments of the archaeologists and conservators who had worked for forty-five years to systematically unearth and preserve the rugged ancient city of Dion. The exhibition illustrated the potential of scientific and systematic excavations, with every object identified with a findspot and interpreted within an ancient context. Considering this, it was not surprising that it was archaeologist Dimitrios Pandermalis, director of the University of Thessaloniki’s excavations at Dion since 1973 and director of the Acropolis Museum, Athens, who curated the exhibition. Pandermalis, with the support of the Onassis Foundation (USA), the Dion Excavations, and in collaboration with the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, chose a small but captivating group of artifacts, including many new finds and objects never seen outside of Dion. As a group, they vividly illuminated the public and private nature of the ancient city, as well as the ceremonial and quotidian life of its inhabitants.

Today, Dion is one of the lesser-known cities of the ancient Greek world; however, it flourished as a civic community and sacred religious site throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The first mention of ancient Dion is in the fifth century BCE (Thucydides 4.78), a date that corresponds with some of the site’s earliest archaeological evidence. In the late fifth century, the reorganization of Dion’s festival of Zeus and the Muses by the Macedonian King Archelaus (Diodoros 17.16) increased the city’s prestige, spurred new building, and fostered a direct relationship with the royal court at Pella. Both Philip II and Alexander the Great were known to have frequented Dion. It was at its Sanctuary of Zeus Olympios that Alexander erected his famous triumphal monument over the Persians, the so-called Granikos Monument. Produced by the king’s favored sculptor, Lysippus, the monument depicted twenty-five equestrian statues of Alexander’s companions who had fallen in battle along the Granikos River in 334 BCE.

In 148 BCE, after the Roman general L. Caecilius Metellus defeated the last ruler of the Antigonid dynasty and made Macedonia a province, the Granikos Monument was transferred to Rome, where it was set up as a newly conceived Roman victory monument over the Macedonians. This marks a significant beginning for Roman intervention at Dion, a process that would be well underway by the time Octavian designated Dion a colony in 32 BCE. As was typical in the east, Greek and Roman culture coexisted at Dion. While this can be seen throughout the site, it is perhaps most noteworthy at the Roman Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos (Almighty Zeus), which replaced the old Sanctuary of Zeus Olympios (destroyed in 219 BCE) and integrated the Latin cult of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. In the Roman period, Dion was remarkably prosperous, but attacks by the Ostrogoths and environmental disasters in the late and post-antique period led to its rapid decline and abandonment.

In 1806, Dion was rediscovered by British traveler William Martin Leake, who identified the city’s overgrown theater, stadium, and fortifications. Although professional archaeologists visited Dion in the following decades, it was not until Macedonia gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 that scholars became actively interested in the site. Formal excavations commenced in 1928 by the University of Thessaloniki under George Soteriades focused on unearthing the great sanctuary of Zeus Olympios, a feat that would not be accomplished until 2000. In the intervening years, archaeological campaigns uncovered five Macedonian tombs, the city walls with defensive towers, temples dedicated to Demeter and Kore, the city’s Hellenistic theater and stadium, public baths, an impressive sanctuary of Isis, and the richly appointed so-called Villa of Dionysus. In 2002, after flooding necessitated the rerouting of the river Baphyras, the Roman sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos was located.

While small, Gods and Mortals at Olympus clearly displayed Dion’s important and complex socio-cultural history. Organized by context, the objects included a wide variety of inscriptions, statues and reliefs, mosaics, and small finds. An impressive collection of inscribed stelae illustrated the prominent position of Dion and the Sanctuary of Zeus Olympios in the Hellenistic world. Of special interest was an inscription documenting an alliance between the Macedonian King Perseus (r. 179–168 BCE) and the Boeotian confederacy, which was formalized in 172 BCE. The Roman historian Livy recorded this alliance in his Ab urbe condita (42.12.6) and indicated that the treaty’s text had been engraved on three stone stelae, one in Delphi, one in Thebes (the seat of the Boeotian Confederacy), and a third in an unnamed—but “famous”—place, now known to be Dion.

Equally impressive were the large number of sculptures and reliefs on display. These included a statue of Zeus Hypsistos modeled after Phidias’s famous cult statue from Olympia, as well as marble statues of Isis and her son Harpocrates, an archaizing Artemis Eileithyia, a high-quality Heracles of the so-called Boston type, and the head of a “Berlin” Nike. An Aphrodite Hypolympidia was particularly notable since it was exhibited with its inscribed base. This depiction of the goddess, with her characteristic hairstyle piled in an elaborate topknot, was widespread in the Hellenistic period. However, the rare preservation of an original base, in this case fashioned when the Hellenistic statue was moved in the second century CE, offers exceptional insight into the statue’s ancient context and patronage and also indicates that, at Dion, Aphrodite was worshiped as a local goddess of the foothills of Mount Olympus.

A centerpiece of the exhibition was a high-quality polychrome mosaic depicting the Ephiphany of Dionysus, which originally decorated part of the triclinium (dining room) floor in the Villa of Dionysus. Roman in date, the composition probably recreated a lost Hellenistic painting. The mosaic was excavated in 1987, restored in 2015, and was seen here for the first time outside Dion. The careful conservation of the mosaic was documented in a video on display in the exhibition, which emphasized the original context of the mosaic, a significant inclusion since mosaics are conventionally—and problematically—displayed like paintings on gallery walls. Across from the mosaic were four statues of philosophers. Products of a Neo-Attic workshop from the second century CE, these statues, likely modeled on fourth century BCE statues of Epicurean philosophers, were reused at Dion in the third century CE villa by its Roman owner in order to emphasize his social status, wealth, and appreciation of Greek learning. The statues indicate that the integration of Greek and Roman cultural values continued at Dion throughout the Imperial Period.

While the large-scale artifacts illustrated the impressive public nature of Dion, small finds were used to illuminate private life in the ancient city. Funerary stelae were accompanied by a collection of well-preserved “ghost coins,” imitations used as tokens to pay the ferryman, Charon, for the trip to Hades. A carnelian stone seal decorated with an incised lion, stylistically dated to the late fifteenth century BCE (Late Helladic II), was probably a funerary object from a Mycenaean cemetery at Mount Olympus. The discovery of the seal in the excavations of the Temple of Demeter suggests that it had been removed from its original context in antiquity and reused as a precious votive to the goddess. Although small, the artifact illustrates not only the long history of occupation at Mount Olympus, but also how generations of inhabitants understood and valued their past. Within Gods and Mortals at Olympus, it was the fascinating small finds—an iron key, a compass, a cosmetic palette and mirror, a pair of beautifully preserved glass alabastra (perfume bottles), a bronze oil lamp, a metal speculum—that truly brought ancient Dion to life.

The well-chosen artifacts from Gods and Mortals at Olympus were augmented by the exhibition’s design. The show was organized by findspot, thus allowing visitors to progress logically through the site. Small screens scattered throughout the exhibition featured videos of Dion, the current state of its ruins, and scenes of its excavation, again emphasizing the archaeological context of the adjacent artifacts (these videos were so engaging that they warranted much larger screens). Marble statues stood out against the gallery’s dark walls, which were painted in colors reminiscent of the natural world at Dion. This lush natural environment was further emphasized in audio recordings of birds and rushing water, recorded at Dion and evocatively replayed throughout the gallery. The exhibition concluded with a short video that integrated images of archaeology and conservation with scenes of the spectacular natural beauty of Dion.

A high-quality catalogue supplemented the exhibition. Edited by Pandermalis, the volume includes contributions from an impressive group of scholars including, among others, Richard Martin (Stanford University), Semeli Pingiatoglou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), Fritz Graf (Ohio State University), Sophia Kremydi (National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens), and Angelos Chaniotis (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton). The articles—broad in scope and chronological range—offer further dimension to the artifacts featured in the exhibition, while allowing readers to explore the history of Dion in greater depth. Topics covered include the archaeology of the site, its mythology and the cults of Demeter and Zeus Olympios, Dion’s coinage, its Roman period, and the natural environment. An abundance of color images accompany the articles and catalogue entries, illustrating the exhibition’s objects, plans and site views of Dion, the history of excavation, and the topography of the region.

Although it was on display concurrently with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s monumental Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World (April 18–July 17, 2016), the comparatively small Gods and Mortals at Olympus did not disappoint. It delighted viewers with a carefully curated collection of interesting, high-quality, and beautiful objects that clearly illustrated the broad scope and fascinating history of Dion. Perhaps more significant—and certainly more unusual—was the exhibition’s focus on archaeological research, which both educated visitors on the critical importance of scientific excavation and facilitated a comprehensive and contextualized understanding of the ancient city of Dion.

Anne Hrychuk Kontokosta
Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow, Department of Art History, New York University