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Splendors of the Dead

Gold "mask of Agamemnon" from Mycenae, sixteenth century BC
National Archaeological Museum, Athens/Leemage/Getty Images
Gold “mask of Agamemnon” from Mycenae, sixteenth century BC; a nineteenth-century replica by Émile Gilliéron is included in the Field Museum exhibition “The Greeks”

Twenty-one Greek museums and four North American museums have cooperated to collect over five hundred artifacts from Ancient Greece in an extraordinary exhibition called “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great.” The show went first to Canada (Montreal, then Ottawa), where it had 280,000 visitors. It is now on view at the Field Museum in Chicago, in a series of superbly lit rooms, and will continue to Washington, D.C., in May. The Greek museums were able to make good choices of a variety of important items to lend to the exhibition, including many works that had never been outside Greece. Richard Lariviere, the president of the Field Museum, told me he was glad to see the Greeks coordinate their effort without a need for him to negotiate with twenty-one different institutions.

After a few fertility-goddess figurines from the Cyclades, the show begins with a bang from Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations of sixteenth-century BC Mycenae, and it ends with a bang in the fourth-century tomb of Alexander’s father Philip II of Macedon at Vergina. The finds revealed a spectacular prosperity in both periods—not only in the profusion of gold artifacts but in the training of large numbers of craftsmen executing intricate designs. An elaborately sculptural vessel for sacrificial libations from Mycenae is as full of interactive curves as a Frank Gehry building, but it is carved from one solid block of alabaster.

Lekythos funerary vase (detail) depicting Achilles dragging Hector's body by chariot, Delos, sixth century BCE
Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs
Lekythos funerary vase (detail) depicting Achilles dragging Hektor’s body by chariot, Delos, sixth century BC

From the twelve centuries between the Mycenae and the Vergina findings, we are treated to well-selected vases, jewels, and statues. There are two kouroi from Boeotia—life-size nude statues of stylized young men, imitated from Egypt and teaching Greek sculptors how to carve large figures. There is also a kore—life-size young woman stylishly dressed. The vases include a black-figure lekythos that shows Achilles dragging the body of Hektor around the walls of Troy, and a red-figure kylix from Athens that shows Herakles defeating Antaeus by holding him away from his restorative earth.

Much of this material, most telling the finds from Mycenae and Vergina, reminds us that we learn a great deal about Greek art by being grave robbers. The immensely privileged eased themselves into the afterlife with much of the booty that had cushioned their time on earth. It seems they aimed at taking along enough symbols of power and wealth to get whatever passes for honor in the underworld. Greek and Roman rulers and victors wore wreaths more often than crowns; so we find gold imitations of the rich foliation of crowns made from different tree branches. Phillip II was buried in an underground miniature temple wearing an oak leaf wreath made with stunning realism by his little army of goldsmiths. That wreath is not in the show (they must keep some things for tourists at the stunning archaeological museum at Vergina, which my wife and I visited not long after it was opened to the public). But this show has the gold myrtle wreath worn by his queen Meda, who was buried with Philip. It has scores of minutely accurate branches, buds, and blossoms, in a miracle of craftsmanship—enough to teach us why so many Renaissance artists began as members of the goldsmith guilds.

Queen Meda’s gold myrtle wreath crown, Aigai, antechamber of the Tomb of Philip II, 336 BCE
Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs
Queen Meda’s gold myrtle wreath crown, Aigai, antechamber of the Tomb of Philip II, 336 BC

Queen Meda removed her treasures from all sight of the living, and her prizes stayed hidden until 1977, when Manolis Andronikos and his team discovered the underground building where they were buried. This was a spectacular achievement, in the archeological tradition that began two centuries earlier, when Heinrich Schliemann unearthed the great Mycenaean tomb sites and found a gold death mask he took to be Agamemnon’s (from the Iliad). The world press made this discovery famous, though Schliemann later found a more artistic mask and transferred to it the honor of being Agamemnon’s (both guesses were off by centuries from the period presented by Homer).

That first mask has jumbled features that are pressed down, as if melting into the flat disk. It is an angry-looking image. Gilbert Chesterton said that the hero of his 1907 novel The Man Who Was Thursday was frightened as a child by an image of the mask, and he later sees a face resembling it swell out to fill the cosmos. The current show marks the first time this mask has left Greece, and it is not hard to share Schliemann’s thrill at what seemed a way of digging down into the very drama of the Iliad. The second mask, which Schliemann promoted as the “real” Agamemnon, is in the exhibition, but in a fine nineteenth-century replica—it has delicate chasing for details of eyebrow, mustache, and beard.

Gold knee band, Mycenae, second half of the sixteenth century BCE
Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs
Gold knee band, Mycenae, second half of the sixteenth century BC

The other treasures from Mycenae show the same combination of disciplined craft and immense privilege. A certain grave contained not one gold ornament in the form of an octopus but fifty-three of them (perhaps for use on garments or draperies?). The classical scholar Gregory Hays, in a recent article in The New York Review, reminds us how false was the old Edith Hamilton view of Greeks as models of all greatness. Later and better scholarship has pointed out the inequities and evils in Greek cities—built on slavery, on the oppression of women, on selective glorification of pederasty that could denigrate adult homosexuality (exactly reversing our own moral precepts). Hays is clearly right, but this show reveals how hard it is to write history “from the bottom up” when poor Greeks could mostly not read and certainly not write (an expensive undertaking, in its materials, reproduction, and dissemination). There are no slaves here to tell us how they were buried, no women here but those who, like Philip’s Meda, wore signs of their husbands’ power. The privileged, taking up residence in their lavishly prepared last homes, thought they would be privileged forever, and they were partly right.

The promotion of this show stresses that things like democracy and philosophy make us one with the Greeks—and we get a few symbols of those things (bronze tokens used to vote in Athenian trials, a Roman copy of a marble head of Plato). But what makes the Greeks we encounter here most like us is the great social and financial inequality in both cultures. The equivalent of much that is seen here are the multiple homes, yachts, and private jets of our Donald Trumps. The great difference is that their Trumps had better taste.

Bronze and gold helmets, Archontiko, after 530 BCE
Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs
Bronze and gold funerary masks and helmets, Archontiko, after 530 BC

The easy-to-carry catalog of “The Greeks” has helpful maps, time lines, and photographs of the works on view, but it is short on information. Dimensions are not given. The statue of Alexander the Great as the god Pan, used to promote the show, could from the catalog picture be anything from a miniature to life-size. Seen in the Field Museum, inside its vitrine, it seems not much more than a foot high. Other information is missing. Under the image of the second “mask of Agamemnon” there is no notice that it is a replica, not the original. Of a Mycenaean war helmet, made from serried ranks of boar tusks, we are not told that its leather basis had to be recreated. But the catalog is helpfully organized around the plan of the show itself, which keeps us aware of period and place as we go through it.

One hopes the exhibition will raise some money for a financially straitened country and that it will encourage more tourism to it. It would be wonderful if the Greeks’ rich forebears should help the poor Greeks of our day—which is a different riff on history “from the top down.”


“The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” is on view at the Field Museum in Chicago through April 10, and will continue to the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., in May.