Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 10, 2021
Kristen Seaman Rhetoric and Innovation in Hellenistic Art New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 206 pp.; 8 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $99.99 (9781108490917)

“Why did some notable examples of Hellenistic Art look so different from previous Greek art? And why did some key elements of Hellenistic art and literature appear so similar?” (xi). Kristin Seaman’s work is built and developed around these essential questions of differences across time and similarities between media.

By recognizing the central role of rhetorical education in Greek society, the author emphasizes the close association between innovative visual production and textual culture in the Hellenistic courts. Within this context, the practice of progymnasmata held a distinctive position. The composition and delivery of orations appears to have been incorporated into the educational process since the beginning of the Hellenistic period. Indeed, rhetoric permeated the culture at every level, to the point that its themes, methods, and thought processes became central factors in the development of other media and forms of expression.

The introductory chapter, “Rhetoric, Innovation, and the Courts,” provides a broad framework for the material and argument of the overall text. In her analysis of both ancient and modern sources (ranging from Pliny the Elder to Winckelmann and Droysen), Seaman emphasizes the challenge of defining Hellenistic art while accounting for the complexity of the emergence, aims, and articulation of its visual language. She addresses “the main creative forces behind the rhetorically informed art of the Hellenistic age” (14): rhetorical education (a set of intellectual competences); the artists (those who actually created artworks incorporating rhetorical elements); and the courts (the locations where rhetoric and visual arts, as well as patrons of those intellectuals and artists, met).

In the following three chapters, Seaman discusses the influence of rhetorical education in several examples of visual art produced within the Hellenistic courts: the Telephos Frieze of the Great Altar at Pergamon, the Archelaos Relief from Bovillae, and the mosaic known as Unswept Room, attributed to Sosos. Here, Seaman engages with the ways in which new concepts of narrative (diegema), characterization (prosopopoiia), and description (ekphrasis), were instrumental in conveying important messages about a ruler’s position in court, especially at Pergamon and Alexandria.

The Telephos Frieze, discussed in chapter 2, provides Seaman with “the perfect starting point for a discussion about Hellenistic narrative and its relationship with rhetorical education” (32). Before engaging with the rhetorical dimensions of the frieze, the author provides a survey of earlier literature, as well as of the work’s architectural and historical context. In presenting the frieze, she suggests a rearrangement of panels 44­–46, where the sanctuaries of Pan and Dionysos Mystes on Mount Parthenion in Arcadia are perhaps represented. According to Seaman, this unique example of visual storytelling can hardly be described as a simple victory monument; rather, the viewer ought to engage with the rhetorical concepts behind its composition. As an exercise in narration (diegema), the frieze follows the life of Telephos, creating a connection between the mythological hero and the historical figure of Eumenes II. This relationship invites the viewer to compare the two individuals, representing the past and present of Pergamon. A desire to broadcast a distinctively Greek identity emerges in the frieze at several levels, including elements of natural landscape used to evoke the region of Arcadia, particularly the city of Tegea. From this perspective, the story of Telephos might be read as a “colonizing narrative,” one drafted to suggest historical ties between Tegea and Pergamon (62). The relief not only provides the ruling dynasty of Pergamon with an illustrious background, but also reframes the current king, Eumenes II, within the sphere of myth (66).

Chapter 3’s focus on personification in the Archelaos Relief raises many points worthy of discussion. After detailing how the relief was discovered, Seaman engages with its likely origins in the Ptolemaic court; the personifications of Chronos (Time) and Oikoumene (Space) seem to include portraits of Ptolemy IV Philopator and Arsinoe III, the rulers of late-third-century-BCE Egypt. The pair’s documented interest in literature aligns with the relief’s subject: Homer and the Muses. Seaman reads the placing of a crown on Homer’s head as an allusion to these rulers’ involvement in the expansion and promotion of the library of Alexandria, the main institution of literary learning in the Greek-speaking world. Seaman considers the relief to be a Roman copy of an Alexandrian original, belonging to the genre of so-called “topographical art” (which also includes, for example, the Nile mosaic at Praeneste), closely associated with the Ptolemaic court. In keeping with her goal of emphasizing Hellenistic artists’ engagement with the rhetorical technique of characterization (prosopopoiia), Seaman focuses on personifications in the lower register. While certain aspects of her reading may appear less than intuitive (the network of references to Hesiod’s Theogony), or even redundant (the idea of a transfer of authority from Zeus to the king), Seaman’s general interpretation of the relief as a kind of enkomion—a speech of praise in the progymnasmata tradition, relying on a clear conceptual taxonomy—is nuanced and persuasive, acknowledging both the factual references and the metaphorical dimensions of the work.

The rhetorical strategy of description (ekphrasis) lies at the core of the Unswept Room mosaic, discussed in chapter 4. Pliny the Elder mentions the work of a mosaicist named Sosos from Pergamon, the author of an asarotos oikos (unswept room) depicting “the remains of a dinner party” (Plin. Nat. 36.184: purgamenta cenae). Based on Pliny’s information, the corpus of Roman mosaics that concentrate on the image of a floor covered with leftover food may derive from a lost original created in Pergamon. According to Seaman, Sosos’s mosaic must have been placed in one of Eumenes II’s dining spaces (andrones), perhaps Room I in Palace V on the acropolis of Pergamon. Dwelling on a specific moment in time, the mosaic re-creates and describes the aftermath of a symposium, detailing each item of food, its consumption, and the eventual process of decay. As a dining-related entertainment, the Unswept Room mosaic plays with the concepts of mimesis (real-life imitation) and phantasia (imagination), blurring the lines between any actual refuse on the floor (or its possibility) and the “sophisticated, eye-dazzling creation of Sosos’s own mind” (130).

In her conclusion, Seaman returns to the ways in which Hellenistic rulers and the members of their court (including artists) engaged in intellectual practices that redefined Greek identity and its visual imagery. The questions of difference and similarity raised in the introduction find consistent explanation in the pervasive role of rhetorical education, a process that “taught students how to be Greek” (132), albeit in forms that differed from the past significantly influenced the production of literature and art.

Although the author’s emphasis on the progymnasmata practice, together with the downplaying of other cultural and social factors, may at times seem a rather forceful approach to the material (one may wonder how it would apply to a broader range of case studies), Seaman’s book presents a fresh, stimulating, and captivating reading. The breadth of her argument—one that bridges the boundaries of literary and historical studies, archaeology, art history, and, to a certain degree, cultural anthropology—provides what appears to be one of the richest, most articulate, and immersive surveys of Hellenistic imagery. The book is beautifully illustrated, with many black-and-white figures and color plates that assist the reader in following Seaman’s arguments and descriptions. Nonetheless, such a challenging interpretation requires a public that is conversant with an array of literary, visual, and historical sources, as well as broader discussions around Hellenistic concepts of royalty and “Greekness.” With a view to making the book accessible to a broader audience—e.g., graduate students or scholars of other periods of Graeco-Roman antiquity—the publisher may have considered placing the footnotes at the end of each page or chapter, allowing for more efficient consultation. These quibbles aside, Seaman’s contribution is a welcome, thought-provoking addition to the bibliography on intersections between text and image in Hellenistic culture and thought.

Lucrezia Mastropietro
Italian Archaeological School at Athens