Being human – or slightly beyond? – Vera Sichelschmidt


This paper investigates to what extent Ionian elites in the 6th century BC included heroic traits in their self-image and used idealizing aspects to convey perfect conformity with paragon social roles. As it will show, in the first decades aristocratic representation operated both with considerable references to the concept of heroes and idealizing visual elements. In the course of the century, these were gradually reduced to correspond more authentically to human nature.

The phenomenon shall be explored mainly on a material basis – that is statues in human shape as the most prestigious form of visual representation in the Archaic period. Among the many aspects about the Ionian statue habit that could be adduced to bring forth the argumentation, only two points will be focused on in the following: The first one will be the size, the second one the style of the monuments set up in Ionian sanctuaries in the 6th century BC. The changes in both these features have already been observed by several scholars, but have not yet been explained convincingly. It would certainly be too short-sighted to reduce them to shifts in aesthetic preferences. We should rather ask how far man could push the delicate boundaries between human being and being a hero in Archaic Ionia, and to what measure this bearing in elite representation was appreciated.

The size

Both the images of males and females gradually decreased in size. Around 580 BC, the first colossal kuroi were set up, reaching up to 6m in height. Other statue types were not rendered in such exceptional dimensions, but also the korai and the seated figures from Didyma were over life-size until 560 BC. As time passed, however, the size of statues reduced to life-sized around the mid-century and, eventually, to under life-sized heights. The male draped figure from Myus, dating to c. 540 BC, reached no more than 1.60m in height. The reclining figures from the same find spot might rather be called statuettes in the face of their length of only c. 0.60m.

How is this shift to be explained within the scope of the concept of man and his relation to heroes? Especially in the early 6th century BC, the categories of the ‘human being’ and the ‘hero’ were not quite as static as one might think. The dedicants of statuary monuments could have themselves represented in a mode that was, literally, larger than human nature. Already in early Greek lyric poetry, the Homeric heroic protagonists stood out through their special height. The thought remained alive down to the Roman Imperial period, when large bones of died-out animals were understood as the physical remains of heroes. Nevertheless, the notion that the colossal figures depicted either aetiological or ancestral heroes should be reconsidered. I will argue that the colossal size of statues is not visually synonymous with heroic identity. Instead, it indicates a strong comparison to heroic characteristics and abilities. The physical size of a human figure therefore shows to be a separate visual code that puts an additional emphasis on the image contents. It indicates an augmentation of all the traits belonging to the paragon of the aristocratic male image which have amply been defined with the term kalok’agathia. Accordingly, the life-sized and under life-sized figures sculpted slightly later in the century displayed visual praise by means of the same visual codes, but it worked within the boundaries of human potential. It seems that in the late 6th century, it was no longer accepted to boost self-representation to a measure that put the dedicant in close relation to the spheres of heroes.

The style

Style is a vital indication to measure the extent in which statues were supposed to suggest aliveness. This measure, in turn, corresponds to the question of agency: Was a statue meant to represent an elevating ideal of a social paradigm or rather to suggest that the viewer was not looking at a marble statue but a living being?

It is true that in the first decades of the 6th century BC, the folds of garments are mostly ruler-straight or follow soft curves. It is not by chance that the Cheramyes korai, crafted around 580 BC, were compared to columns in their overall appearance. Yet towards the late century, the garment folds are rendered in vivid, wavy lines. Also, new gestures are integrated in the image: From the mid-6th century on, the right foot stepped forward and the korai grasped their chiton skirts as a sign of grace. The figures began to suggest movement and vividness.

The essential difference between the more rigid and the animated styles lies in the scale to which the viewer could relate to what he saw. This observation touches the long-lasting, delicate archaeological dispute about the definition of ideal and realism as two opposed modes in imagery. In this frame, the question will necessarily be reduced to a very simple formular. Conceivably, an image concept based on geometric units and ornaments will appear less natural to the human eye. It firstly substracts out all imperfections, and it secondly seems immobile. In contrast, vivid motion in garments, slightly irregular locks of hair and compartmentalized facial features related far more closely to what we can observe in everyday life. We can therefore observe a shift from elevating ideals down to a more variable, close-to-nature depiction of the human body in the progress of the statue habit in the 6th century BC.: Statuary monuments adhered more and more closely to the natural appearance of the human being, allowing more flexible variances and therefore increasing the impression of individualization in the images.

The perspective

What should be make of these observations about size and style, and how do they related to each other? In the early 6th century BC, the borders of being human were commonly stretched into ideal spheres, sometimes playing with the permeable separation line between human and heroic identities. By the end of the century, statues were rather expected to give the impression of a human being with his ability to move and interact. The content-related direction is the same when we look both at heroic and idealizing aspects in the early Greek statue habit in a grand scale. What we can observe on the statues is the result of a gradual change in the mental history of Archaic elites in Ionia. Elements that previously aimed to superelevate the dedicant and the depicted now needed to be reduced in order to adhere to the new social conventions and stick to the human scope.