An Ajax or a Socrates?
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An Ajax or a Socrates?

A bust of Themistocles from the Roman empire, presumably based on a much earlier original. C/o Jona Lendering under a CC0 1.0 Universal license (original post:

My estimable colleague Jona Lendering recently expressed dismay that historians of the Macedonian Kingdom of Bactria tried to read kings’ personalities in their portraits on coins (here).  Since no literature from Hellenistic Bactria survives, and very few sources from India or the Mediterranean mention it, scholars have been more than usually tempted to apply any methodology which might help, however uncertain it may be.  Some of my recent readings reminded me that physiognomy has not always been considered beyond the pale by ancient historians.

Themistocles was a famous Athenian politician at the beginning of the fifth century BCE who ended his career in exile.  Studying him is frustrating, since the sources are many but late and often hostile.  He was clearly a fascinating character, but many things about his life will always remain uncertain.  In the early 20th century, a labelled bust of Themistocles was found at Ostia.  Art historians judged that it might be a Roman copy of a portrait made during Themistocles’ life.  A photo of this bust and a short life are available here.  This was a very exciting find, and a number of historians at the time became quite enthusiastic.

A.R. Burn was a professor at the University of Glasgow most famous for his book on Xerxes’ invasion of Greece.  Page 281 of the 1962 edition of his book Persia and the Greeks contains this passage:

As often, to meet the man thus ‘face to face’ is a surprise.  One might have imagined him, the radical, the brilliant innovator, as ‘lean and hungry,’ a Cassius, hyperthyroid.  He is no such thing.  Broad-faced, thick-necked, the portrait seems to be that of a stocky man; at least, with such proportions, if he had also been tall he would have been an Ajax, and one would have expected that detail to emerge in the tradition.  The beard and hair, which is inclined to be wavy, neither curly nor silky, are cropped short.  The mouth is wide and prominent, the lower lip full, sensuous and sensitive; the upper lip is covered by a full, heavy, drooping moustache, the only item of hair, one might imagine, which the owner fancied as an adornment.  The mouth and the wide-open eyes, deep-set under a rather heavy and fleshy brow, gives the face an expression of eagerness and animation, quite capable of being sardonic (look at the ends of that moustache!) but sympathetic rather than formidable; a face with something Socratic about it, ready to speak, no less ready to learn.

In 1977, Peter Green also indulged in some physiognomical speculations in The Greco-Persian Wars.  Green is an unconventional and quixotic historian, but well-trained and the author of many influential books.  Page 24 of The Greco-Persian Wars (1996 edition) contains this passage:

That big round head, simple planes recalling the early cubic conception, poised squarely above a thick, muscular, boxer’s neck; the firm yet sensuous mouth, showing a faint ironic smile beneath these dropping moustaches; wiry crisp hair lying close against the skull- all tell an identical story.  What we have here is the portrait of a born leader: as Gisela Richter wrote, “a farseeing, fearless, but headstrong man, a savior in times of stress, but perhaps difficult in times of peace.”  There is, surely, nothing conventional or stylized about that broad forehead and bulldog brow; they have an ineluctably Churchillian quality.

One gets the impression that there was a small library of physiognomical speculations about Themistocles in the decades after his portrait reappeared, although I lack the time to explore it.  One might respond with indignation that one cannot read a man’s character from his face, but such indignation would be in vain.  Burn and Green wrote decades ago in a very different intellectual environment.  Instead, I will savour the wonder that two people trained in my art can have such different ideas about epistemology than my own, and the dread at what future generations will find quaint about my own methods.

Edit 2022-03-29: Tekeli-Li! In a book published in 2004, Cornell University classics professor Bary Strauss includes his own physiognomic speculations about Themistocles

It was a face of a monk or a mercenary. It is preserved in an ancient portrait bust, whose inscription attributes this far from classical countenance to Themistocles. We do not know whether it is an accurate likeness, but if it is an invented portrait, it is inspired. The bust conveys irresistable force, as if of a powerful and intelligent man who needed only his will to wrestle an enemy into submission.

Salamis: The Greatest Battle of the Ancient World, 480 BC. Hutchinson: London, p. 14

Converted to block editor. Added local copy of the image and updated link broken when converted to a content management system.

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1 thought on “An Ajax or a Socrates?

  1. The Battle for the Future of the Study of the Ancient World is Bigger than Classics – Book and Sword says:

    […] the ancient world feel under attack, I think some of them turned a blind idea to colleagues who said things in public which have not been defensible for 50 years. I think some of them felt that if an exciting book on Xerxes’ invasion of Greece or Athenian […]

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