Professor Paul Cartledge (Clare College, Cambridge) reflects on the Motya charioteer
On the island of Mozia (ancient Motya) in 1979 a quite remarkable discovery was made in regular excavations: a lifesize (1.81m as preserved) marble (?Parian) sculpture of a male figure, dressed - or rather sheathed - in a transparently revealing see-through long khiton. Presumably he had originally been painted, but no trace of paint survives; the original placement of one arm is not certain, the other was placed on the body in such a way as to accentuate both the transparency of the garment and the fleshiness of the flesh beneath - indeed, the allure of the whole pose and attitude is as much feminine as masculine. Yet the head reveals traces of an attachment which could - only one possibility - have been a helmet. Such are the quality and date - ‘severe’ style of the 470s, probably - of the work that within a decade of its discovery it had prompted a major conference dedicated to it (published in Rome in 1988). Such are its strikingly individual characteristics that scholars are still, thirty years on, massively at odds over its contested interpretation - and the loan of the figure currently to the BM and its location there in the Duveen, i.e. Parthenon-marbles, Gallery have only fanned the flames.
Broadly, there are two schools of thought, the ‘Punic’ and the ‘Greek’, as I shall call them for convenience - and in this, like many who know far more about these things than I do, I am indebted to a powerful article by Malcolm Bell in the Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome for 1995. Either the statue was made (by a Greek sculptor or workshop) for (and of?) a Phoenician-origin ruler or leading aristocrat of Motya or it was made elsewhere, in the Greek world and as a purely Greek commission, and then removed forcibly to Motya as loot, perhaps by Carthaginians, some time before 397 BC (the presumptive date at which the contextual deposit was sealed).
It would be a help, of course, if we knew for sure what - or rather what sort of a male figure - the statue depicted. If ‘Punic’, suggestions have ranged across god, hero, priest, official and private individual. If the ‘Greek’ hypothesis is adopted, then there are two major contestants for the prize: either he is a charioteer (the majority view),
or - a powerfully argued minority view, which deserves all the respect due to the scholarship of Professor Olga Palagia of Athens University - he is a seer (mantis).
Rather than rehearse in detail all the possible arguments for and against either the Punic or the Greek hypothesis, I should like to suggest an alternative, hybrid view, which leans more to the ‘Punic’ than the ‘Greek’ but tries to do justice to both. On Occam’s razor principles, let’s first assume it was made for where it was found, more or less. That enables one at once to free oneself from having to bow to the normal social and stylistic constraints that would apply to a Greek work commissioned at that period by a Greek individual or body for a conventional Greek context and intended to perform a conventional Greek social, political or/and artistic function. Let us then further accept the most powerful single argument in favour of the ‘charioteer’ hypothesis, namely the nature and positioning on the body of the belt. (Palagia’s ‘seer’ hypothesis does go some way to accounting for the apparent transvestism of the handling of the drapery and the flesh beneath, but it does not adequately account for his belt; on the other hand, the long khiton does certainly when taken with the belt look like a xystis, the characteristic charioteer’s garb, but, had it been adorning an image of Dionysus, say, it would not have looked wildly odd or out of place.) We thus have, ex hypothesi, a commission by a non-Greek Motyan of a Greek, charioteer-like lifesize marble statue, which seems - for a purely Greek work - excessively feminine in its allure. How to explain the apparent mismatch? In two (or three?) words, cross-cultural misunderstanding.
Comparison with the Charioteer artwork of roughly the same epoch is both inevitable - and illuminating. It’s no accident as they say that the triumphal dedication at Delphi, the navel of the world, is in bronze - for that was the medium of choice by then for the very finest life-size representational Greek artworks. But our charioteer is in marble, which - especially in its finest Parian form - had the advantage that it alone allowed the achievement of the virtuoso ‘wet-look’. That the commission was for a non-Greek context, moreover, allowed further artistic experiment, in the shape of the extraordinary handling of the sub-vestimental flesh, including by the way the rather prominent, ballet-dancer-like treatment of the genitals.
How to explain the misunderstanding? What the possibly in some sense philhellenic Motyan commissioner of this statue had perhaps failed to appreciate above all was that in Greek sports the charioteer was not himself the main man - or woman: that was the victorious owner of the horses and chariot, for whom the charioteer worked typically as a low-status hired professional. Rather as Plutarch said of Pheidias - one would not actually wish to be Pheidias, however much one admired his divine handiwork - so one might say that, if one was an elite Greek, one certainly would not wish to spend a vast amount of one’s money so as to be commemorated publicly as a charioteer.
I rest my case: the Motya Auriga is indeed (meant to be) a charioteer, and he is indeed a Greek work of art (of the highest art indeed), but he is a ‘barbarian’ not a Greek charioteer, designed to glorify a local Motyan aristocrat, but one who got a little lost in the translation of original Greek art and representation to his native island-city.