Classical Corner: Phidias and Pericles: Hold My Wine

From the January/February 2019 Biblical Archaeology Review


The Pericles Cup is on display at the Epigraphical Museum in Athens. Photo: Diane Harris Cline.

People tend to get possessive with their things. These feelings are human, so it should come as no surprise that ancient people felt possessive about their stuff, too. One way we protect our things is to label them. Ancient Greeks were no different when it came to such practices, including two famous fifth-century B.C.E. Athenians: the artist Phidias and the politician Pericles, who exhibited the same tendency of ownership.

In 1958, German archaeologists excavating near the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, Greece, discovered a small ceramic cup with ribbed walls covered in black, inside and out. Inscribed on the base were the simple words, “I belong to Phidias.” We know this man—Phidias was a famous sculptor who is best known for creating the larger-than-life-size statue of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens and for the two-story-tall gold-and-ivory cult statue of Zeus at Olympia, which was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

It is unusual to find something so directly tied to a historical individual, but there is little doubt that this cup must have belonged to Phidias. When he scratched his name into the ceramic surface with something like a dental tool, what was on Phidias’s mind?

Tracing the enigmatic, mystical genesis of the Greek Olympiad, The Olympic Games: How They All Began takes you on a journey to ancient Greece with some of the finest scholars of the ancient world. Ranging from the original religious significance of the games to the brutal athletic competitions, this free eBook paints a picture of the ancient sports world and its devoted fans.

In the mid-fifth century B.C.E., Phidias supervised many artisans and craftsmen working with him to construct the statue of Zeus. Considering such a long construction period, we can imagine that a favorite cup could go missing. Since here we have his name, very neatly written with a sharp tool long after the cup was manufactured, we may well be reading letters that Phidias wrote himself, fed up after losing one too many cups. To picture the great artist Phidias, sipping from this artifact, drinking water and wine (they didn’t have coffee or tea yet) as he worked at Olympia, is a romantic and yet probably realistic image.

In contrast, our second cup demonstrates another tendency that we have in common with people who lived long ago, namely our desire to keep a souvenir to celebrate moments that we want to remember. Later, when we look at the object, it brings back a flood of memories, which help us hold on to that time just a little longer.

In the summer of 2014, an apartment complex in a suburb of Athens was being torn down. Archaeologists were allowed to do some excavation before a new structure was built in its place. They found an unremarkable grave, with just a few offerings in it. But one item turned out to be more precious than gold, both to us and probably to its original owner. It is a delicate cup, originally standing about 3 inches high, which was found broken into 12 pieces. Like Phidias’s cup, it was colored black, inside and out, with two handles and thin walls.

When the archaeologists pieced the fragments back together, they were astonished to see six names scratched onto the side of the cup, which they could clearly read, but only when they turned it so the bottom was facing up. Whoever had written the names had first turned the cup upside down, as if it had just been washed and left to dry. Then he inscribed the names and drew a box around them. From top to bottom, the names read: “Aristides, Diodotos, Daesimos, Arriphron, Pericles, Eukritos.” On the base is one more name, Drapetis, which means that there are seven names in all.

Of the seven names, the one that jumps out at us is Pericles, for that was the name of one of the most famous Athenians ever to live. He was an annually elected general whose soaring oratory inspired and influenced the Athenians until his death in 429 B.C.E., captured most dramatically in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. He is the one who came up with the idea of the building program on the Acropolis in Athens, which included the Parthenon and Phidias’s statue of Athena. Is this really his name on the cup, along with six friends or companions?

From his family tree, we know that Pericles had an older brother and a grandfather both named Arriphron, which otherwise is a very rare name. On this cup, Pericles and Arriphron are listed one above the other, like brothers should be. Angelos Matthaiou, whose expertise is in ancient Greek writing, said there is a 99 percent chance that this is our Pericles. The cup dates roughly to 480–465 B.C.E., when Pericles would have been a young man in his 20s.

Tracing the enigmatic, mystical genesis of the Greek Olympiad, The Olympic Games: How They All Began takes you on a journey to ancient Greece with some of the finest scholars of the ancient world. Ranging from the original religious significance of the games to the brutal athletic competitions, this free eBook paints a picture of the ancient sports world and its devoted fans.

What are we to make of all these individuals named? It may be that they had gotten together for a symposium, a kind of gathering where men would recline on couches, drink wine and eat snacks, and have rich conversations. By lamp light, memorable evenings helped develop friendships, create social networks, and facilitate the spread of news and innovations. Ancient Greek men (of a higher economic class) all over the Mediterranean would attend such events several times a week; some would be unforgettable evenings, stimulating in every way. It was a part of Greek culture for centuries.

It is not hard to imagine that these seven men attended such a party and that one of them, perhaps Drapetis, took a cup as a souvenir when the evening came to an end. Maybe after the party one of them scratched their names onto the cup as a memento. The men’s names inside the box seem to have been written by just one man, but the name on the bottom, Drapetis, by another. Within a decade, Pericles became influential, but the others remained relatively obscure. Perhaps Drapetis held on to the cup as a treasured possession, to remember the night when he was in the great man’s presence. When Drapetis died, he was buried with this most precious memento from the best night of his life—the “Pericles Cup,” as it is now called. That is one possible scenario, but we will never know for sure.

“Classical Corner: Phidias and Pericles: Hold My Wine” by Diane Harris Cline originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

diane-harris-clineDiane Harris Cline is Associate Professor of History at The George Washington University and author of National Geographic’s The Greeks: An Illustrated History (2016).


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Greeks Go to Washington

Face to Face with Ancient Greek Warriors

What Does the Aegean World Have to Do with the Biblical World?

The Oracle of Delphi—Was She Really Stoned?

Amphipolis Excavation: Discoveries in Alexander the Great-Era Tomb Dazzle the World

The Origins of Democracy


Posted in Daily Life and Practice, Inscriptions.

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  • BAS says

    If this is Bible History Daily, are the contributors Christian? Not that they have to be, just wanted clarification why we would post articles B.C.E., like communists revisionists instead of staying with the historically accurate B.C.?

  • Dave says

    Nice read 🙂

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