Funerary stele, ca. Third century, B.C., from Thera, Greece.
Photo: Hellenic Ministry of Culture & Sports—Archaelogical Receipts Fund

If the past is a different country because they do things differently there, the emotions of the past might be a passport in. The first word of Western literature names an emotion: wrath. The Iliad is indeed a story of emotions twisted up to tautness and their fatal unspooling. The reasons for Achilles’ implacable wrath are distant, but the fact that we too can be peeved, vexed, angry, furious, incensed, and possibly even wrathful gives us a way into the bronze age. Or something even more foreign: the heart of another person. Achilles is only disarmed by the poignancy of someone else’s emotion: Priam, abasing himself at the feet of his son’s killer, saying, “Think of your father.”

The classicist Angelos Chaniotis, formerly at All Souls College, Oxford and now at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, has previously edited the two-volume Unveiling Emotions: Sources and Methods for the Study of Emotions in the Greek World. In “A World of Emotion: Ancient Greece, 700 BC–200 AD,” on view at the Onassis Cultural Center, he and a small team have selected a wide-ranging group of objects designed both to display emotions and elicit them. And they do: one woman visiting on the day I was there was so taken with a statue of a confident little boy beaming at his pet goose that she couldn’t stop herself from exclaiming “Look at the expression!”

On steles and pots of all sizes and shapes, the physical language of these ancient emotions is often easy to read: mourners cast down their heads, family members reach tenderly for an embrace, revellers tumble out of a symposium—the bemused face of the young man discovering there’s no wine left in his cup is instantly familiar. Some emotions are recognizably staged. There’s a stunning metal dramatic mask (given as a temple offering), eyes round, mouth stretched, eyebrows furrowed in perturbed alarm. Other emotions are expressed through stylized gestures that seem familiar through observant modern reinterpreters such as François Delsarte and Isadora Duncan. Two subtle white-ground elongated flasks, for example, show women in poses of mourning, rending their hair or raising their arms in supplication or moving with stately gravity.

Some emotions are retrievable—or seem to be—because of literary familiarity. One amphora, with what I take to be wry sexual comedy, shows Menelaus at the end of the war literally dropping his sword in his renewed lust for Helen, the lower half of whose body is fleeing from him, but whose head and arms turn back alluringly. Exekias, the restrained painter of a black-figure pot of spare beauty, has chosen the psychologically acute moment when the solitary and dejected Ajax has stripped himself of his panoply; now naked, he crouches under a weeping tree to plant his sword in the ground so he can throw himself upon it.

Outward similarities between their time and ours can sometimes trip us into misreading—smiles, for instance. Archaic smiles—the gently upturned lips showing no trace of teeth—are often now described as enigmatic. In conversation, Chaniotis bluntly dismissed all thoughts of enigma: the smile signifies the person is not dead. Indeed, the bodies of the dead on the battlefield and in prothesis scenes in which the dead are ceremonially exposed are stiff, linear, and unsmiling.

Many objects in this show demonstrate emotional intensity in ways that would be unretrievable to us without the sorts of outside knowledge wall texts provide, such as the potsherd ballots with which angry Athenians voted to ostracize Themistocles or the plaque with two large ears sticking out under bunches of grapes that a woman named Ankis gratefully dedicated to Dionysus after he heard her prayers. Other objects require literal translation. The quiet voices of people otherwise unknown to history call out to us from the images and epigrams on their funeral steles. The most unusual is a stele for a beloved pig from Dalmatia, run over by a cart on its way to the Dionysia. The stele paid for by his sad master shows first an alertly cheerful pig in front of the cart-mules, then the collapsed pig under the cartwheels. The visually least remarkable stele—a tall rectangle of marble half-covered in artlessly carved
letters—is the most affecting. It commemorates the death in childbirth of a young woman in Thessaly named Zoe—with one of life’s little ironies, her name means “life.” The text plays with the names of both Zoe and her grief-stricken father, named after a river in Thessaly, whose tears flow like the river after whom he is named. Life without their daughter, the epitaph concludes, is not the inspirited zoe but bios, mere mechanical life.

Steles cry for attention, but a few objects on display were never meant to be seen at all. Tiny lead figurines and playing-card-sized tablets buried deep in the earth contain dark secret hatred. One such tablet uses its small space to curse 111 Athenian citizens, 96 of whom have been identified: “I bind, I bury deep, and I make to disappear from humanity.” The curser’s name, however, does not survive.

Every now and then the emotions behind an object are unrecoverable, for me, at any rate. Conceptually, I understand the function of apotropaic objects to ward off the evil eye, but I doubt I’ll ever feel my heart swelled by the emotion that is meant to be engendered by an animated penis with wings and tiny legs.

Some objects charm through their simplicity—a shared drinking cup crudely marked philias (friendship) or a chubby three-inch chous (a toy jug given as a present to three-year-olds) decorated with equally chubby boys and a girl running after their dog. Others choreograph sequences of competing emotions with Busby Berkeleyesque aplomb. One giant krater—almost four feet tall—shows the totality of Medea’s shocking revenge on Jason, his new wife Glauke, and her family. Our eyes are initially caught by the gleaming white mini-temple where Glauke, wearing Medea’s wedding gift of a poisoned crown, falls from her throne. Her father cries for help to her mother, her desperate brother struggles to wrest the crown from her head. Below them, Medea keeps Glauke’s suffering in her sights as she prepares to kill one of her sons (the other waits with unnerving calm behind her). On the lower right of the vase, powerless to prevent these unfolding calamities, Jason can only gesture in despair as a chariot driven by a daimon named frenzy barrels through the scene. The potter has helpfully labeled the whole operatic cast of characters. It’s all jolly good fun, but I prefer the artist of a much smaller bowl-shaped pot; he catches Medea—eyes cast modestly down, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth—just as she is about to hand her gifts to Glauke.

Emotions cannot be evaded or forever unexpressed. Even the Spartans made religious sacrifices: to Phobos (Fear). But some of the most haunting emotions are those we can’t quite name. The fragment of one funerary stele shows a handsome young actor in profile holding up a female tragic mask. What is he thinking as he contemplates his other self? As foreigners in the past, we could do worse for a tour guide than the antic human heart.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 9, on page 44
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