Books and Backgrounds: Greek Myths in Roman Art and Culture Zahra Newby.

By Jean Marie Carey

Books and Backgrounds: Greek Myths in Roman Art and Culture

Zahra Newby. Greek Myths in Roman Art and CultureImagery, Values and Identity in Italy, 50 BC-AD 250. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 

Zahra Newby’s wonderful book Greek Myths in Roman Art and Culture: Imagery, Values and Identity in Italy, 50 BC-AD 250, which came out in hardcover in 2016, has just become available in a variety of digital formats from conventional e-reader files for Kindle and iBooks to an aspect ratio designed specifically for phones and pocket tablets. This is an excellent development because, in addition to being an archaeological page-turner (I read it in one sitting), Newby’s book is arranged thoughtfully with concentrated color and black and white images and in-line footnotes, contributing to its status as superb reference resource.

Though the concept of Roman copies is well-established enough to have undergone many revisions and updates from the time of Winckelmann through the present, the historiography of such well-known works as the Laocoön and various Apollonian identities has been little studied in recent years. Newby focuses on the social and religious functions of mythology in Mediterranean culture. The discussion of the debated iconography of the famous frescoes from Pompeii is particularly interesting.

Clothing and posture identify the figure above as Hermanubis, a Greco-Egyptian deity who combines the essences of the Greek god Hermes with the Egyptian Anubis. The syncretism of Hermes and Anubis arises from the function of both deities to guide souls to the Underworld. Distinctive in the clothing of Hermanubis is a garment that wraps around the waist with a roll of cloth, with one end falling over the left shoulder. In his left hand he may have held a palm branch, while in his right the caduceus of Hermes. On his head he wears the modius, a cone-like headdress. Key elements in the portraiture of Alexander the Great are also present on this statuette, in particular the thick, almost shoulder-length leonine hair, and the soft, idealized youthfulness. Alexander’s physical traits were often used in the Hellenistic and Roman periods for representations of the gods.

There are similar mythological “crossovers” in the fresco wall painting from what is now eastern Turkey: Seven bands of masonry representing seven crenelated walls top a cornice decorated with running vine motif, rosettes, leaves, bunches of grapes in openings of vine, a humped recumbent bull, a nude male figure wearing polos and crown of leaves flanked by two small human putti-like figures standing beneath a rosette, a figure of haloed Tyche wearing polos; a lion mask; and three winged Victories holding wreath as acroteria. The abstract and non-material quality of the composition suggests mysticism whose sources lie in Greek, Roman, Iranian, and Egyptian mythology. The seven known planets or the seven metals may be symbolized in the seven colored walls. The figure of Tyche with cornucopia and rudder signified abundance and fate in the Hellenistic world. The combination of figures on the doors suggest a possible connection with life-giving symbolism of the primeval bull, the giant human Gayomart, the baby twins Mashua and Mashyoi and the goddess Spandarmat of Iranian mythology. The lion masks suggest the god Zurvan.

The Apollo of Anzio is a Roman interpretation of Greek male figure. The date of the model can be inferred from the willowy proportions of the figure and its nonchalant contrapposto stance, the weight on one leg that pushes the hip far out. This type of Apollo showed the god holding a kithara (lyre) in his right hand and the plectrum for playing it in his left. Like many Roman copies, this one probably decorated a private home or a public building such as a theater or library. The original sculpture would have been in bronze. That metal’s tensile strength would not have required the support at the left leg needed by the marble. In this version, the strut has been disguised by draping a chlamys (cloak) over it. At the base, a serpent, Python, emerges. Python had been sent to kill Apollo, his twin sister Artemis (Diana in Roman mythology), and their mother Leto by Hera (Juno).


Bronze Hellenistic or Roman Hermanubis Sculpture. 1st-2ndCentury. Creation Site: Alexandria. Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Nr. 1999.011.004.

Fresco Wall Painting (detail), 245-256. Anatolia. From the Acropolis, now at the National Museum of Damascus, Nr. 3Ta.027a.

Thasian marble Roman Apollo of Anzio, 1st-2nd Century. Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Nr. 1985.016.

Polydorus Laocoön Group, 50 BCE / Roman copy from 1stCentury. Museo Pio-Clementino (Vatican City).

Pompeii, House of Mars an Venus, wall painting detail, 1stCentury. Image from University of California.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Officers & Contacts