British Museum blog

‘the most tantalising sculpture in the entire world’….

Judith Swaddling, curator, British Museum

The Motya charioteer

That’s what Andrew Graham-Dixon, television presenter, thinks of the Motya Charioteer. To me, not only is it an incredibly beautiful sculpture, but an extremely rare example of a Greek victor’s statue, representing the winner of a chariot race that took place almost 2,500 years ago.

The Motya Charioteer. Photo: Maurizio de Francisci and Salvo Piano, courtesy of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.

The Motya Charioteer. Photo: Maurizio de Francisci
and Salvo Piano, courtesy of the Regione Siciliana,
Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.

For the past couple of months the charioteer has been on display in the Parthenon gallery at the British Museum. As part of the ‘Winning at the ancient Games’ trail, this statue with unquestionable attitude is one of 12 objects telling us about different aspects of victory in ancient sport. The sculpture has gained a vast number of fans and has even moved visitors to tears by its beauty.

I can’t help but contemplate what we’ve lost in the way of original Greek sculpture over the centuries. What survives is only a tiny fraction of the thousands of statues that stood in the sanctuaries of the gods and in public spaces. So we’re all the more lucky to have the charioteer here on loan from his usual home in Sicily, as the spectacular highlight of our trail. Did many other statues exist that were as exquisite as this one, I wonder?

Victors in the games of ancient Greece were allowed to set up statues of themselves where they won the contest. Sometimes, because a win in one of the major games, then as now, was such good propaganda, his town or city would set up a similar statue in his honour back home. Nowadays we set up gold-painted post-boxes in their home towns instead!

The Charioteer was found in excavations in Sicily in 1979. It was more than likely a monument honouring the achievement of a local ruler in Sicily. The grassland of Sicily and southern Italy was first-class for horse-breeding, and the Greek rulers of cities there, in what was known as ‘Greater Greece’, won lots of equestrian victories in the major games, especially at Olympia and Delphi, back in Greece itself. Their coins boast the theme – a kind of parallel for our postage stamps with the 2012 winners.

In an ancient chariot race, with reputedly up to 40 chariots in a contest, there’s no doubt that charioteers put their lives at risk. Some say the charioteer looks like a poser, but look more closely at that hand on the left hip. It doesn’t just rest there decorously – it’s really supporting his weight and digging into the flesh, pulling the fine cloth of the long tunic into incredibly realistic folds.

The back of the sculpture

The back of the sculpture, on display at the British Museum

The thrust-out hip is unquestionably provocative, but isn’t that how you’d stand with an exhausted body, yet proud and triumphant enough still to push out the chest and hold the head erect? The virtually transparent cloth clings to his body with the sweat and effort of the race. The veins on his upper arms still stand out with the blood coursing through.

True, there have been a large number of alternative interpretations of the figure, but the main reason for identifying it as a charioteer is the long tunic, the xystis, and the broad belt on to which the reins would have been fastened – on the statue, this would have been via fixings in the two holes in the belt at the front. This prevented the reins from being pulled out of the hands, but also dangerously prevented the charioteer from being thrown free in a crash. Most disasters happened at the turning posts at either end of the oblong track.

But there are so many other intriguing questions about the Charioteer.

Why was the statue found on a tiny island at the western tip of Sicily, – Motya, in ancient times a Phoenician stronghold? We know that it was from here that the Phoenicians, towards the end of the 5th century BC, raided a number of the Greek cities in Sicily, looting many sculptures and taking them back to their homeland – Carthage, in north Africa. If this was one of the looted statues, why was it taken to Motya instead? It was actually found built into fortifications which the Phoenicians must have rapidly constructed when Dionysios I, the Greek ruler of Syracuse, invaded in retaliation and sacked Motya not many years later in 397 BC. In ancient times it wasn’t unusual to utilise statues or any other stonework at hand to hastily build up a barricade in times of siege.

Winning athletes in the ancient games became super-heroes, were given massive home-coming parades, and public honours such as free meals and theatre tickets for life. Some were even thought to have healing powers. They became celebrities, and could command prize money for appearances at festivals. Maybe our winner here would find a lot in common with our 2012 sporting heroes!

The statue is normally displayed at the Museo Giuseppe Whitaker on Motya and is on loan at the British Museum until 19 September courtesy of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana, with thanks to the Italian Cultural Institute in London.

Winning at the ancient Games is on display in various galleries until 9 September 2012

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