The Bassae Reliefs

By Rob Packer

Centaurs and Lapiths on the Bassae Friezes

It also seemed a geeky London fantasy to use the city’s free museums to fulfil those whims that ambush you at 4pm in the office or 3pm on a Saturday in Oxford Street: an uncontrollable itch to see—I don’t know—a Gandhara Buddha (British Museum) or an El Greco painting (National Gallery). In this fantasy, you then leave immediately desire satisfied, although more likely is you stick around, flitting from the Indus to Korea to Mesopotamia to the Hebrides.

I think I’ve only ever done this two or three times and, since I left London, I only have Wikipedia. My most recent trip to the British Museum, though, had purpose and schedule: to see the Bassae reliefs.

Getting to see the sculptures—seemingly barely known to anyone but Classicists—requires planning as they’re only guaranteed to be open weekdays at 10am (email in advance). Once in the tiny, custom-made room where the reliefs are kept, you see the fantastically detailed mass of movement and battle, making you wonder if their existence is a half-secret to avoid the controversy of the (less well preserved) Parthenon marbles.

The comparison with the Parthenon isn’t accidental: both temples were designed by the same man, Iktinos, according to Pausanias, a sort of 2nd-century AD Lonely Planet writer whose travelogue combined fact with hearsay. Centuries later, both were rescued/borrowed/pillaged by European aristocrats during the Napoleonic Wars: the Parthenon sculptures by Elgin; the Bassae friezes by a multinational group of Grand Tourists, who’d read their Pausanias.

But while the Parthenon is all about pomp and Athens’ predominance over other Greek cities, the Bassae reliefs are both more intimate (the room helps) and more enigmatic. The Parthenon was the religious centrepiece of Greece’s leading city; these friezes are from a Temple of Apollo at Bassae in Arcadia, a remote area of the Peloponnese, near Megalopolis—a village of 5000 with a bombastic name. Did the same architect really work in Greece’s metropolis and the back of beyond? And looking at the friezes at eye level today in the museum, it’s almost impossible to imagine them in situ at 7m up on a wall, probably dusty and in the dark. Did anyone even have the eyesight to see them all the way up there?

What’s amazing about the friezes is how easy the two myths are to read: they’re so complete. In one Heracles leads the Greeks to fight the Amazons (with much hair pulling); on the other the Lapiths, a Greek tribe, defend their women from the Centaurs, who have been invited to a wedding but have had a little too much to drink (the Centaurs fight dirty!).

But it’s the detail that wins the day: pulling hair, fighting dirty, these are things we’ve seen in film or real life. It’s incredible is how direct it feels after nearly 2500 years.

Heracles fights Hippolyta to steal her girdle as part of his Twelve Labours.

Greek pulls Amazon's hair.

Greeks and Amazons.

Centaurs fight dirty!

Lapith vs. Centaur

A Lapith pulls a Centaur off one of the female wedding guests.

A Centaur tries to drag away a women with a baby.

More Centaurs and Lapiths.

More hair pulling.

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