Bill Long 11/20/04
A Glimpse into Ancient Sculpture and More
While studying the OED and the famous, but usually ignored Century Dictionary and Encyclopedia (now online), I ran across a word appearing in the latter but absent in the former that has a rich series of associations connected with it. It is apoxymenos, a word that is sometimes capitalized and sometimes appears in lower case. It is derived form the Greek verb apoxyuein, meaning "to scrape off." An apoxymenos, plural apoxymenoi, is a statue of an athlete scraping off oil and dust with a strigil (i.e., a curved, usually bronze, scraper) after an athletic competition. It was carved by the Hellenistic sculptor Lysippos (us) around 330 B.C., but it only survives in a bronze Roman copy. Through the apoxymenos, we are privileged to enter the world of Greek sculpture, imperial sexual predilections and scholarly work habits.
Lysippus was the court sculptor to Philip and Alexander (the Great) of Macedon. Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century A.D., attributes 1500 statues to him. The apoxymenos in question is 82" tall and bears three distinct features of Hellenistic sculpture. First, the proportion of the head to the rest of the body is 1:8, rather than 1:7 in most Attic sculpture. Second, the limbs are more lithe and long than in Attic exemplars. Finally, the arms are not coplanar. That is, the athlete's right arm is fully extended, while the left arm is bent across the chest while he is scraping his forearm with the strigil. This portrait introduces what some scholars refer to a "complex planar development" of Hellenistic sculpture. And, it is not as if Lysippus was the only one to carve an apoxymenos. As recently as 1999 the head and torso of an apoxymenos was discoverd in about 40 feet of water off the Dalmation coast and is currently being restored.
Imperial Sexual Interests
But Lysippus' work has an interesting history. It was highly prized not simply in the Hellenistic world but was treasured also in Rome. Pliny the Elder tells us the story of how the Emperor Tiberius fell in love with it.
"It was dedicated by Marcus Agrippa in front of his Baths. Tiberius also much admired this statue....and removed the Apoxymenos to his bedroom, substituting a copy. But the people of Rome were so indignant about this that they staged a protest in the theater, shouting, 'Bring back the Apoxymenos!" And so despite his passion for it, Tiberius was obliged to replace the original statue." Pliny, Natural History 34.62.
What are we to make of this story? No doubt the Emperor Tiberius admired the statue, but to have the naked original of a sweaty athlete kept in his bedroom for his private viewing pleasure is probably indicative of more than just aesthetic interest. Men at work on the athletic field not only inspire or anger, but also arouse. Pliny thus gives us a tantalizing and titillating window into the practices of a Roman Emperor.
Pliny's Work Ethic
Mention of Pliny the Elder (died in the eruption of Vesuvius) leads us to think about his massive, and underappreciated Natural History, an unprecedented survey of the geological and cultural realities of the first century C.E. world. Already the author of three works by the time of his 36th birthday, Pliny retired from public affairs during Nero's reign and continued his scholarly endeavors. A series of procuratorships in the 70s enabled him to visit vast sections of the Roman Empire, from where he derived his knowledge of natural history. His working method was legendary. According to his adopted nephew, he would, after finishing his work for the day (when he had imperial responsibilities), go home and immediately devote himself to work. "After something to eat (his meals during the day were light and simple in the old-fashioned way), in summer when he was not too busy he would often lie in the sun, and a book was read aloud while he made notes and extracts. He made extracts of everything he read, and always said that there was no book so bad that some good could not be got out of it." Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.5.8-12.
Pliny goes on:
"The only time he took from his work was for his bath, and by bath I mean his actual immersion, for while he was being rubbed down and dried he had a book read to him or dictated notes. When traveling he felt from from other responsibilities to give every minute to work; he kept a secretary at his side with book and notebook; and in winter he saw that his hands were protected by long sleevees, so that even bitter weather should not rob him of a working hour. For the same reason, too, he used to be carried about Rome in a chair. I can remember how he scolded me for walking. According to him I need not have wasted those hours, for he thought any time wasted was not devoted to work. It was this application which enabled him to finish all these volumes [of the Natural History]."
Long live Pliny!
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long