The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Charlie Pemberton
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
The frieze from the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai.
When did you first come across this frieze?
In my first year of undergraduate studies. It was Week 5 of Lent Term, the bleakest week of the bleakest term. In the hope of evading my university’s notorious “Week 5 blues”, I decided to visit a school friend who lived in London for the weekend. While excited to leave my campus behind for a couple of days, I could not shake off the pressure of a looming deadline: my art and archaeology supervisor had set us an essay due the following week on the political and religious significance of sculpture on Archaic and Classical Greek temples. To mitigate this sense of guilt, I arranged to meet my friend at the British Museum, where we planned to take a quick look at some of the art relevant to my essay before dashing off to have drinks and dinner. We did the usual round of the Parthenon Gallery (Room 18), a room I had visited before and found uncomfortably austere and sterile. We were en route to the exit when I noticed a narrow staircase tucked behind a wall directly opposite the Nereid monument (Room 17). I marvelled momentarily at the monument’s magnitude before chasing my curiosity up the stairs. Once at the top, my heart stopped. The source of my astonishment was a frieze covering all four walls of the darkened, box-like room I had just entered (Room 16): the Bassai sculptures.
Can you tell me a bit about the temple and its context?
The Temple of Apollo Epikourios still stands at Bassai, located in the southwestern confines of rural Arcadia. Work on the temple began in 429 BC, but it was not completed until 400 BC; the 421 BC sack of Phigaleia, the city governing the temple, is suspected to have interrupted its construction. According to Pausanias, Apollo’s epithet Epikourios (‘The Helper’) was given to the god for his role in curing Athenians and Arcadians alike from the 430 BC plague. Pausanias’ second-century AD aetiology does not, however, hold up against the fifth-century BC account of the historian Thucydides, who states that the plague of Athens never reached the Peloponnese. Votive offerings of arms and shields found in the surrounding area have led scholars to believe that the site was connected to the epikouroi, Greek mercenary soldiers who would have pilgrimaged to Bassai to seek refuge with their god. The frieze itself depicts a Centauromachy and Amazonomachy, two mythological battles that also feature on the southern and western metopes of the Parthenon.
What is it about this frieze that appeals to you most?
The small size and fairly obscure location of Room 16 make for an intimate viewing experience. This intimacy is perhaps intentionally curated: while the Parthenon frieze was situated in the upper part of the naos, designed to lead viewers around the outside of the temple between its two sets of columns, the reliefs at Bassai adorned the temple’s interior. The frieze’s almost claustrophobic proximity to visitors of Room 16 is exacerbated by the chaotic overlapping of its figures, a far cry from the neat one-on-one combat of the Parthenon metopes or the orderly procession of its frieze.
On the Parthenon at least, the fight between the Greeks and the “other” (half-men, half-horses and “manly” women) is usually interpreted as an allegory of Athens’ triumph over Persia. But what struck me about so many of the scenes on the Bassai frieze was how the gestures and facial expressions of figures on the losing side appeared to generate a profound sense of pathos. Reaching Room 16, you are immediately arrested by an image of a Lapith crushing the back of a fallen centaur, as another centaur grabs the Lapith’s arm and shield as if trying to save his fellow soldier. Another segment portrays a Greek on the brink of killing an Amazon (often identified as Achilles and Penthesilea because of their iconographical similarity to a depiction of the pair on an amphora by Exekias). I was drawn to the doleful, pleading eyes of the Amazon as she stretched her arm up to her attacker in supplication, her comrade rushing forward with her windswept cape to come to her aid. My textbooks had led me to expect images of Greek victory, but what I encountered that day were empathy for the enemy and exposure to the universal brutality of warfare. I left the British Museum feeling exactly how I had felt after first reading the Iliad: that I had experienced the physical and emotional extremes of humanity.
Suffice to say, my essay ended up straying a little far from the question, but my supervisor—now my PhD supervisor—could sense that I had discovered something infinitely more precious: a spark. Room 16 has since become one of my safe spaces and happy places, a source of inspiration for my studies and a sanctuary for when times get tough. A visit to the British Museum is at the top of my post-pandemic activity list (alongside drinks and dinner with friends, of course!).
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I watch a criminal amount of Netflix. Everybody should watch The Queen’s Gambit. It seduced me into learning how to play chess over the Christmas vacation (the protagonist made it look so easy….).
Charlie Pemberton is a first-year PhD student at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, where she also completed her BA and MPhil degrees. Her current research involves looking at how ancient literary sources expose and explore the narratological, sensorial and emotional potential of Graeco-Roman sculpture and painting. She is the current co-organiser of her Faculty’s Visual Culture Reading Group and Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar. As a former choral scholar, she has recorded several CDs, sung on live BBC radio broadcasts, and toured around the world—a particular highlight was getting to perform Dido’s Lament by Purcell in an open-air theatre in a village on the Pelion peninsula! When she is not studying or singing, she enjoys spending time with her friends and long walks in the countryside (preferably with dogs).
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.