Category: Archaeological sites

Portraits and statues of philosophers

The sculptured portraits of philosophers in the 4thc.BC are essentially standardized representations of "the role of the philosopher" with a small margin for personal characteristics, and integrated into the wider intellectual type of classical art. Unlike with the works ofthe 3rdcentury. BC, where the type of philosopher was gradually enriched with psychographic elementsand a tendency for realistic representation of persons.

The sculptured portraits of philosophers in the 4thc.BC are essentially standardized representations of"the role of the philosopher" with a small margin for personal characteristics, and integrated into the wider intellectual type ofclassical art. Unlike with the works of the 3rd century. BC, where the type of philosopher was gradually enriched with psychographic elements and a tendency for realistic representation of persons. The portraits were full-bodied statues, but few original works survive, thus inevitably our study is based on theim age of Roman copies,which often took the form of a bust.

One of the most famous portraits of philosophers of antiquityis that of Socrates.There are twomain types of portraits of Socrates that survive in Roman copies. One ("Type A") represents the philosopher almost bald, with sparsetufts of hair on the side of the head and above the ears and compact triangular beard. This typeis usually dated to the early, or mid 4thc. BC and often is attributed to Silanion, who also made a portrait of Plato.The other type ("Type B") resembles the basic structure of the previous one, buthasa much richer, deeply carved crown and wrinkled fore head which gives a sense of passion in the face.This latter typeis attributed to Lysippos.

The portraitof Plato also survives inseveral versions of Roman copies while the original seems to bedated in the middle of the4thc. BC. Diogenes Laertius informs us that the Persian Mithridates, erected a statue of Plato in the Academy with the inscription: Mithridates the Persian, son Orontobates dedicated to the Muses,this image of Plato, who was made by Silanion(3.25 and 3.28) The image we have today for the work of Silanion is perhaps best reflected in the Romancopy of Emperor Tiberius’ era, which is exposed in Munich Glyptothek.The portrait has a characteristic broad forehead, eyes close to one another and aserious and thoughtful expression.The philosopher is represented in mature age, but no told. His hair is cropped, the tufts are arranged symmetrically above andaround the forehead,and the beard is rather too longforamanof his age. The portrait of Plato lacks many of the stereo typical elements of 3rd c. BC portraits of philosophers, and this work seems to illustratethe image of aparticular person,which is a sample of a more personal and analytical approach in the creation of portraits.

According to somes cholars Lysippus is the creator of the portrait of Aristotle. The image of the original work is reflected in a plethora of copies and types, from whichthe marble head that is exposed at the Museum of Art History in Viennais the finest and most well-preserved one. In this unique work is illustrated the contemplative concentration and inner tension of the person depicted.

The portrait of Epicurus is another example of the artistry of the Hellenistic period. Thebony, wrinkled face of the philosopher seems to reflect the temperament of the man, and perhaps also the content of his teaching that suggested a kind of monastic life, which would result in less pain and ultimately happiness. Several copies of the body ofEpicurus which are saved separately from the head, provideus the over all picture for the work. The philosopher is depicted seated and wrapped inhimation, which is crimped over his shoulders and covered his legs with heavy strips. The right hand seems to have been bent to his jaw. The left hand is positioned horizontally from one to the other side of the thigh, close to the trunk, and coveringa large part of the himation, which stretches from the shoulder to the wrist like a shield. The result of this synthesis is to enclose the body and focus all its energies in ward,so that the viewer can understand that the most important aspect of this man was his inner world. 

Significant similarity with the head of Epicurus can be observed intheportraitofErmarchos,the successor of Epicurus, andanotherportrait, whichhas been identifiedby some scholars with Stoic Cleanthes and a variation of it as well, a portrait of his close friend  and colleague Mitrodoros. Although the faces of Mitrodoros and Ermarchos have individual characteristics, however they displaya structural resemblance to the head of Epicurus in the arrangement of the hair and the relative elongation of the face. 

The 3rdc.BC portraits of the Stoics Zeno and Chrysippos display similarities between each other as well, primarily in the depiction of an image of rigor and intensity. Regarding the body type the head of Zeno belongs to we don’t know anything;About hrysippus however, there are many ancient sources converging on the information that there was a seated statue of Chrysippos in Kerameikos, Athens, which was depicting the philosopher with one hand out stretched as counting with his fingers. A similar act seems to be depicted in a life-size head less statue in the Louvre, and Chrysippus’ copies of the head have been convincingly paired with this statue. Pliny (NH 34.88)refers to a statue measuring with his fingers [digitiscomputans],as a work of the sculptor Eubulides. The statue of Chrysippus, unlike Epicurus, is characterized by a more extrovert expression, while wonderfully captured is the image of the sovereignty of the spirit over the body that becomes physically weaker.

Finally, another well-known portrait of the mid 3d c. BC is the bronze head of "Antikythera Philosopher" exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum.It was recovered in 1901-02 from a ship wreck of the 1st century. BC, and except for the head there were also found the feet with sandals, the hands and parts of thehimation. Realism is the predominant aspect in this work. Very characteristic of this tendency aret he disheveled hair, the lushbeard, the deep wrinkles of the forehead, the lipsslightly open, while the in set eyes give to the face a piercing gaze. Traditionally this work is considered to depict acynic philosopher, possibly Bion the Borysthenite, who had settled in Athens;it hasalso been proposed the identification of this statue withthe Athenian Cynic Antisthenes.

Author: Konstantinos Lazaridis
  • Pollitt, J.J. Art in the Hellenistic Age. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Buschor, E. Das Hellenistische Bildnis. München, 1984.
  • R.R.R., Smith, Hellenistic Sculpture. Λονδίνο, 1991.
  • Boardman, J. Greek Sculpture. The Late Classical Period. Thames & Hudson, 1995.
  • Zanker, P, The Mask of Socrates. The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity. Μπέρκλεϋ Οξφόρδη, 1996.


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