Challenging antiquity’s stereotypes

How much do we know about the ancient Greek city-states Athens and Sparta, other than the stereotypes of Athens as the founder of democracy and the militarily-governed Sparta? An exhibition organized by the Onassis Cultural Center (the New York-based affiliate of the Onassis Foundation), which will open in New York on December 6, aims at looking beyond and challenging the preconceived notions about the two cities as well as putting their respective development into its broader historical context. «Athens-Sparta: From the 8th to the 5th Centuries BC,» which will be showing at the Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue until May 12, 2007, is organized in collaboration with the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. It will feature 289 exhibits, ranging from sculptures to pottery, inscriptions, coins and more, some of which have never traveled outside Greece. The Acropolis Museum, the archaeological museums of Sparta, Rhodes and Olympia and the Kerameikos Museum are only some of the institutes (other than the National) that have volunteered items from their permanent collections for inclusion in the forthcoming exhibition. «The exhibition compares the development of the two cities, how they began and how they evolved,» said Antonis Papadimitriou, the president of the Onassis Foundation, at yesterday’s press conference. «It was a period of great historical and political significance and many people draw parallels between these two cities and current events.» «With their different forms of government and artistic expression, both Athens and Sparta played a decisive role from the geometric to the Roman eras,» added the president of the National Archaeological Museum, Nikos Kaltsas. «Greek history would be different if either of the two had not existed; they shaped what we call classical Greek civilization.» Among other things, the exhibition will demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, Sparta can boast more than military achievements, especially in the Archaic period, although subsequent events turned Athens into a leading artistic force. «This will be the first time that so many Laconian works will go on display alongside Attic artifacts of the same period,» said Kaltsas. (Laconia and Attica are the greater areas in which Sparta and Athens lie respectively.) He explained that because the subject is so vast, the display will not follow the evolution of the two cities in detail but will, nonetheless, give a satisfactory account. The exhibition has three sections. The first one examines the two cities’ formation and follows their cultural development from the Late Geometric to the end of the Archaic period (8th to the early 5th century BC). The other two sections focus on the artistic evolution during the 5th century and the changing relationship between Athens and Sparta, as it was tainted by the two great events at the time: the Persian Wars, in which the Greek cities joined forces against the Persians and then the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC), the destructive war between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies, which was the culmination of a gradual process of polarization of the Greek world into two camps. «The exhibition ends with the end of the Peloponnesian War. Athens (which lost to Sparta) came out exhausted but remained an intellectual center and Sparta still featured prominently in various disputes, but in essence the war signaled the beginning of the dissolution of the city-state and paved the way for King Philip of Macedon,» said Kaltsas. The exhibition will be enriched by a variety of parallel activities, namely an international conference, a program of lectures in New York and a series of dramatic readings of Thucydides’ «History of the Peloponnesian War» and Aeschylus’ tragedy «The Persians.» A rich 300-page catalog will also complement the exhibition, with contributions by distinguished scholars, such as professors Donald Kagan and Paul Cartledge, as well as acclaimed Greek historians and archaeologists. «The parallel events are very important. Catalogs from past exhibitions have always been very successful and have been requested by universities and libraries. The readings have also proved a success and various universities have asked us to send them this program in the past,» explained Papadimitriou. Highlights among the exhibits include the late 5th century marble statue of a Spartan warrior titled «Leonidas,» arrowheads and spearheads from the legendary battle of Thermopylae, a 5th century marble statue of an Athenian kore (young woman), Archaic bronze figurines of warriors from Sparta and much more. «This will be our 15th exhibition in New York since 2000,» said Papadimitriou. «We are interested in targeting the wider American audiences, the average American, not Greeks of the diaspora. We want our exhibitions to be Greek-related, but do not want to repeat ourselves.» Last season’s exhibition of post-Byzantine Greek art, titled «From Byzantium to Modern Greece: Greek Art under Difficult Circumstances, 1453-1830,» had very good attendance, despite its rather specialized focus, and Papadimitriou said the foundation is hoping for even greater interest this time round. «Athens-Sparta» will be on display at the Onassis Cultural Center, Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Ave, New York, to May 12.

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