Greco-Roman Visual Representations of Prometheus

face of a prisoner

In ancient Greek literature, Prometheus figured in a variety of stories. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Prometheus gives men the gift of fire. In the fifth-century Athenian tragedy Prometheus Bound, Prometheus gives humanity a wide variety of skills and crafts in addition to fire. Despite a wide range of joyful possibilities, Greco-Roman visual representations of Prometheus predominately show Prometheus suffering punishment. The impact of Prometheus’s suffering on visual representations points to the communicative force of the fifth-century Athenian tragedy Prometheus Bound.

Some Promethean iconography has subtle narrative significance. An Apulian wine jug (oinochoe) from about 340-330 BCE shows a shackled Prometheus standing with arms outstretched.^ Prometheus’s hand nearest the eagle is clenched, while his hand nearest Heracles is unclenched. That iconography suggests movement from being bound in suffering to being released by Heracles. That apparently was the story arc of the Promethean tragic trilogy performed in fifth-century Athens.

At least one iconography of Prometheus suffering seems to have moved from sculpture to painting. Some sculptures depict Prometheus standing with one thigh raised. That posture provides a place to anchor the eagle that tears into Prometheus’s chest.^ ^ This sculptural-technical solution was influential enough to be carried over to Evanthes’s painting of Prometheus enchained.

Little is known about Evanthes as a painter. Evanthes’s painting of Prometheus with an eagle sitting on his raised thigh was in the temple of Jupiter (Zeus) in Pelusium. The painting is described in Achilles Tatius, The Loves of Clitopho and Leucippe, Bk. 3.8. Achilles Tatius is thought to have lived in the second century CE. Hence that date provides an upper bound for the date of the painting. Nothing else is currently known about Evanthes the painter. Yet Achilles Tatius’s naming of Evanthes suggests that Evanthes was widely known in Achilles Tatius’s time.

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