The Great Hall is Ablaze with Bronze
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Categories: Ancient

The Great Hall is Ablaze with Bronze

A corroded bronze helmet with cheek flaps and a narrow nasal
A “Chalcidian” helmet in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. From Nymphaion necropolis, tomb 16, acquired by the Hermitage in 1876. Attributed to the early fifth century BCE.

When we look at ancient bronze in museums, we usually see dark, corroded surfaces. Modern sculptors and costumers often deliberately imitate this look, leaving surfaces rough or coating the metal in green or brown coatings. Early Greek poets are explicit about how they preferred bronze to look:

The great hall is ablaze
with bronze; ranks of bright helmets
cover the ceiling and spill
white horsehair crests, ornamentation
for masculine heads. Glistening
metal greaves
, legs’ ramparts
against the arrow’s force,
hang on the wall on unseen pegs.
Fresh linen corslets
and hollow shields clutter the floor;
here are blades from Chalcis;
here, belts in abundance and tunics.
From the moment we took on this job,
these are things we could not forget

Alcaeus of Mytilene, fragment 140 Voigt, as quoted in book 14 of the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus. Most scholars estimate that Alcaeus lived somewhere within 50 years on either side of 600 BCE; Athenaeus lived 800 years later.

Translation by David Mulroy, Early Greek Lyric Poetry (Ann Arbour, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1992). I quote his translation because he lets his readers see how each of the broken fragments of Alcaeus’ work was preserved. A verse quoted to ornament a work on a different topic is different from a paraphrase is different from a scrap of papyrus pulled from a dump. In this case, Athenaeus thought that the poem showed that Alcaeus was more proud of manliness than poetry, and used his poems to urge men to be brave.

M.L. West has another prose translation in Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics); if readers know of any good translations into verse, please suggest them in the comments!

Assorted bronze fragments in the Archaeologisches Museum, Schloss Eggenburg, Graz. Photo by author, September 2015.

Edit 2021-09-27: Converted to block editor, and added an image which had been lost in the transfer to the new site

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