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HOME : Classical Antiquities : Archive : Roman Relief Altar Panel Depicting Socrates
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Roman Relief Altar Panel Depicting Socrates - PF.0298
Origin: Mediterranean
Circa: 100 AD to 300 AD
Dimensions: 24" (61.0cm) high
Catalogue: V1
Collection: Classical
Medium: Marble
Condition: Very Fine


Location: United States
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Description
Western philosophy suffers no shortage of luminaries; intellectual titans—both ancient and modern—from Plato and Aristotle to Rousseau and Marx have left an indelible stamp on their respective eras, ushering profound consequences for the history of man. Philosophers have inspired revolutions, deposed kings, given us freedom and, on occasion, taken it away. Yet at the basis of this remarkable history—this astounding evolution of thought— lies a remote and enigmatic figure known to us as Socrates. For centuries, philosophers have strove to delineate the historical Socrates from the literary Socrates, described variably in the ancient texts and spurring a philosophical quandary called the Socratic problem. Everything we know about Socrates is second hand. He lived in Athens between 469 and 399 B.C, amidst an intellectually dynamic period before and during the Peloponnesian War. He wrote nothing himself and yet, as a testament to his genius, Socrates is perhaps the most influential figure in Western philosophy. He was the father of ethics and political philosophy; the inspiration for the Scientific method; the tutor of Plato; and the patriarch of what became the Greek philosophical school.

Socrates devoted his life to examining people’s lives in pursuit of moral virtue, believing that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” He embraced poverty, but by no means disdained pleasure. Simple and ebullient, Socrates rejected didactic education and insisted he was not a teacher. He chastised Athen’s established clerisy for failing to recognize moral absolutes and teach ethical behavior. He was an iconoclast and irreverent of the gods, attracting political enemies that precipitated his demise in 399 B.C., when a jury convicted Socrates of corrupting Athen’s youth. Socrates’ punishment was death by poison, which he solemnly accepted to show his followers that the duty of a virtuous man was to obey the laws of the state. However, Socrates’ death had a profound impact on his pupils, especially Plato who riled by the unjust mob, edified a new moral philosophy repudiating democracy. As a martyr, Socrates achieved an almost mythical status, evoking lasting reverence typically reserved for religious prophets. For a man who simply knew that he knew nothing, Socrates might be surprised by the paeans left in his name by devotees such as Lord Byron, who called Socrates, “the earth’s perfection of all mental beauty and personification of all virtue.”

Looking upon this Roman altar panel, one gets a very clear sense of Bryon’s words. At twenty- four inches high, the panel emanates tremendous presence and distinction, befitting the sagacious martyr who chose death rather than to forego his virtues. Crafted in masterful high-relief, the ancient sculptor has breathed the dexterity of life into this visage of Socrates, lending his figure an air of immediacy that startles the senses. We imagine Socrates emerging from some impenetrable marble plane, greeting us in the present to engage us in that inquisitive method ascribed to his name. The figure is framed in an elegant, rectangular composition conforming to the Classical enthusiasm for order, symmetry, and grace. The philosopher patriarch stands in the nude—serene and stoic, his left hand supports a tall staff and his right bears a conspicuous shell emblematic of his persona. A sinuous cloak hangs effortlessly over his left shoulder and descends the length of his torso, terminating between his legs. His body, angled ever so slightly in the classic contrappasto, exudes the signet qualities of ubiquitous Roman icons: toned musculature, proportional limbs, and the pure, mellifluous flesh of youth everlasting. The discoloration exacted by centuries toll, adds a life-like complexion to the blushing philosopher, who once gleamed with the alabaster finish of Roman marble. Socrates’ unforgettable mug is recreated here with the iconic balding scalp and distinctive scholarly beard. Ever the iconoclast, Socrates’s distinctive face was utterly anathema to Greek standards of beauty, immortalized in the beautifully proportioned depictions of the gods. With his wide-set bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, fleshy lips, and portly body, Socrates was reminiscent more of a satyr than a man. Yet in ancient times as in now, wisdom is rarely synonymous with beauty.

As with so many ancient artifacts, this splendid relief leaves many questions unanswered. Torn from its temporal environment, we can only speculate with untenable confidence the object’s origin, function, and age. Questions of personality—who was the artist, who was the owner—questions of tremendous importance in the field of modern art history, are in the ancient world, entirely beyond our reach. Yet it is precisely this mystery, this yearning for truth— however intangible—that makes ancient history so compelling. It is an elusive field that demands quiescent patience and a soaring imagination— what could be more apropos for an artifact that honors the most enigmatic of philosophers. - (PF.0298)

 

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