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Apollo of Piraeus
Archer or Charioteer?

Apollo of Pireaus, statueA small fragment attached to the right hand of Apollo of Piraeus poses the question…

by Theresa Mitsopoulou

This year (2014) Apollo of Piraeus, a statue buried in darkness and non-existence for two thousand years, will have completed 70 years of presence on the surface of the Earth… 70 years of a miraculous resurrection!

It was found in Piraeus in 1959 at a rescue excavation, 1.5 meters under the surface near Saint Trinity Church, where there is a small park today.  Besides Apollo, a treasure of other statues and objects was found (Athena, large and small Diana, a mask, and a shield – all made of bronze; a marble statue of Artemis, and two Hermaic stelae).

It is certain that the statue is Apollo because, in addition to the fact that there were Artemis statues with it (perhaps from a common temple of the twin gods), the statue has Apollo’s classic hairstyle as it is known from other renditions in sculpture and painting.

The statues had probably been stolen from a temple during Roman times to be sent out of the country, but by good fortune were never loaded on a ship, and the earth of Piraeus embraced them tenderly.  After restoration Apollo was exhibited in the Athens Archaeological Museum and, in 1982, was moved to the Piraeus Museum by request of local Piraeus authorities.

In fact the statue was isolated in Piraeus.  However the problem of where statues should be exhibited is an issue of more general importance. Possibilities are: in the place they were found; where they were made; in the sanctuaries they were dedicated to;  or, finally, in the Athens Archaeological Museum.  There they can be admired by thousands of Greeks and foreigners, while local museums can exhibit replicas.

 Winged Chariots

Apollo’s chariot was pulled by swans, and Apollo flew towards the north on it in autumn, and returned in spring.  People celebrated his departure and arrival with melancholy or joyful songs, accordingly.  Other gods and heroes had winged chariots as well, such as Helios - the Sun, Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, Artemis, Demeter, and Triptolemos.

The chariot (difros) was “invented in the East,” and its precious load was the charioteer, and sometimes a companion (a warrior or athlete).  It had two wheels attached to a shaft, a platform, and a barrier that was usually covered with leather and reached as high as the knees of the charioteer.  The rudder (steering column) in the middle of the shaft projected up to the waist of the charioteer, and there the horses’ yoke and the reins were fastened.  A list found in a weapons storeroom at Knossos cited 1000 sets of wheels and 340 chariots.

Riders usually got onto the chariot with their left foot, and grasped the upper part of the barrier to make their ascent easier.  They usually stood upright.  (There were a few exceptions to this.)  The chariot was pulled by either two or four horses, and was called a biga or quadriga accordingly.  Sometimes, however, the chariot was pulled by one horse, or three.

The quadriga appeared in the 7th century B.C., and was used in chariot races, which were considered essential during Panhellenic festivities.  Later on quadrigas would decorate the pediments of temples.

There were few owners of chariots: only officials and the rich could buy and keep horses.

Apollo was worshipped for his many qualities, proven by his epithets:  Epicourios (ready to help),  Katharsios (ready to purge evil),  Savior (saving from evil),  Alexicacos (protector from harm and evil),  Kourotrofos (feeder of children),  Mousigetis (conducting the Muses),  Moiragetis (leader of human destiny),  Loxias (his oracle was interpretable in two ways),  Ecativolos (able to throw arrows 100 meters, and reach his target).   

Hephaestus presented Apollo with his arrow when the latter was an adolescent, and so he managed to kill the famous archer Eurutus, who had dared to take part in a competition against the god.  Then he killed Python in Delphi;  Niobe’s sons to punish her for her arrogance;  the giant Tityos who tried to seduce his mother;  and the Cyclops, because Zeus had killed Apollo’s son Aesculapius with thunderbolts the Cyclops had forged for him.

There are numerous effigies where Apollo is holding his arch (bow).  He always holds it with his left arm, which is out-stretched when he is aiming at a target.  Otherwise his arm is bent at the elbow.

                                             Arch or Horse Reins?

The three eminent archaeologists who studied the statue of Piraeus, the late Contoleon, Carouzos, as well as the honorary Inspector of Antiquities Mr. G. Dontas, at first found it natural to assume that Apollo was holding an arch, since something cylindrical was projecting from his closed left hand.  They interpreted this as the fragment of an arch.

Mr. Dontas presented his views at the International Conference of Archaic and Classical Sculpture, which was organized by the German Archaeological Institute in April, 1985.

These views were transmitted to the newspaper “Kathimerini” by Mrs. A. Calogeropoulou, as was usual, in October of the same year.  The claim was that “the god Apollo holds an arch, the typical weapon of punishment, in his left hand, while in his right he holds a phial, Man’s basic ritual vessel.  The way Apollo holds these symbols is of critical importance.  He does not look at the arch: he turns his face, and bends slightly towards the phial.”  

In the annals published in 1987, two lines refer to the hands of the statue.  The arch and the phial are presumed.  What has mainly led to the idea of the phial is that, apart from other representations, a vase in Amsterdam shows Apollo with these symbols in his temple at Delphi.

However, his expression, the look in his eyes, his posture, his projected arms,  all reminded me of the clay charioteers  found in the grave of the first “emperor” of China, Qin-Shi-Huang-Ti (220 – 206 B.C.), in 1974.  Could such an unlikely relationship exist?

In the photo of Apollo, there were other observable elements besides the cylindrical fragment in his closed left hand: a flat piece attached to the palm of his open right hand.  Observing it in the museum, this seemed to be nothing other than a fragment of reins, and this belied the interpretation of a “phial.”  The fragment was 4 cm long and 2 cm wide, and had trimming along the side.  In addition, it was broken on both ends, signifying that originally it must have continued in length both inwards and outwards.  The fragment was near the thumb, so that space could have been left for three more parallel pieces.  

My strong intuition that he was a charioteer was verified by this.  But if Apollo had actually been a charioteer, how would the cylindrical fragment in the closed left hand (which had been interpreted as an arch) be explained?

It could be a charioteer holding an arch, as happens to be the case in the Apulian krater of Baltimore.  But if so the arch should incline toward the body, not away, even in the improbable instance of an oblique, M -shaped arch.

Most likely the fragment was part of a whip, though charioteers tended to hold the whip in their right hand.  A superficial search, however, yielded that many charioteers in relief or painted on vessels also held the whip in their left.

In addition to the whip, which sloped outwards from the lower part of the closed hand, a second, vertical, cylindrical fragment (its thickness undermining interpretation as an arrow) is barely visible, broken at the ends.  This fragment has yet to be noticed or commented upon.  The statue is on a pedestal and, because of its height and insufficient lighting in the glass case,  the inner part of the hand cannot be seen clearly.  There are also no photographs showing both the upper and lower parts of the hand.          

At this point, if Apollo is a charioteer, a comparison with the other famous Charioteer of Delphi would be useful.  

If similar, then Apollo of Piraeus would not have been a statue for worship; it would have been dedicated to one of the god’s temples, and perhaps records have survived with information about a dedicated four-horse chariot of the god Apollo.

Chronologically the two differ by only a few years, with Apollo being the more ancient.  

A French archaeologist noted that the Charioteer of Delphi was made in an Attica workshop, and his height (1.80 m) is just 10 cm less than Apollo’s.

The Delphi Charioteer was discovered by French archaeologists in 1896 in three pieces: the head and body to the waist, the rest of the body with the legs and, separately, the right arm, holding the reins.  (The left hand was missing.)  Later the pedestal with its inscription was found quite a few meters away, hurriedly taken by smugglers of antiquities who had hidden it carelessly, in order to transport it elsewhere.

Like the Charioteer of Delphi, Apollo wears the woolen band that champions of Panhellenic games wore, in exactly the same place on his head.  Moreover, two small holes must have helped to keep a wreath steady – Apollo of the Panathenaia Procession has ten similar holes.  (When he was newly-born, the god Apollo had been given a wreath by Zeus, when he also gave him the lyre.)

However Apollo is naked, whereas the Charioteer of Delphi is clothed, and this is the greatest difference, as the prevailing view is that after the geometric period (700 B.C.) there were no longer naked charioteers – only horsemen.  The clothed charioteers were now professionals: they were often foreigners or slaves, and it had become established that they should wear long, white, sleeved tunics.

The owners themselves did not ride their chariots and, in any case, would not have been wearing the tunic of professionals. Yet Gods and heroes were frequently still depicted almost naked.  They often wore a chlamys, open in front and fastened at the neck, or that may have slipped just round their waist.  If Apollo had had such a chlamys, an expert has claimed, it would have been made separately of thin plates of gold, and attached to the bronze with gold and silver.

On the Melian amphora in the Archaeological Museum, and on the white lekythos in the Metropolitan Museum, Apollo is fully dressed as a charioteer, and this is also true of one of the Dioskours, who is pictured clothed in an ample tunic (xystis).  There is another representation which, although it could be interpreted thus, is probably not the god Dionysos as a clothed charioteer.

But apart from the few exceptions above, a large number of half-naked charioteers, gods and heroes, are represented on vases and amphora in Apulia (in northwestern Italy) which date from the 4th century B.C.  There is also a half-naked Zeus in a battle scene between giants (Hermitage Museum), a Pluto in the British Museum, and a Hippolytus, naked to the waist, riding his fatal chariot.  Half-naked as well are:  the god Helios, in Munich;  Laius galloping on his speedy horses, in West Berlin;  Apollo, in Baltimore;  and finally Dionysos, almost naked in a mosaic of the 3rd century B.C., in Paphos.  Apollo is also naked on an Etruscan sealstone, and on a vase dating 400 B.C..  In the Vatican Museum he rides half-naked to meet his unlucky friend, Jacinthus.

We know that the Charioteer of Delphi held all the reins in his right hand, as he was found with three (the fourth must have been lost), and he is so pictured in earlier guidebooks (whereas in more recent editions he only has two reins).  The third rein was taken to be restored and has not been replaced in his hand, but in a glass case nearby.

The left hand of Apollo, which held a whip, seems also to have been grasping the rudder of the chariot.  The artist had put the enormous statue on a chariot, and tried to secure it.  However its weight, disproportionate to its size, had not helped to stabilize it, particularly on top of a chariot, and outdoors.  Apollo was not weighed before it was put into the showcase, but a curator at the Archaeological Museum believes it only weighs about 100 kilos.  In vase painting it was easy to depict reins in both hands.  It was quite a bit more difficult to try to stabilize a large statue without using its own anatomy for support.

It seems both Apollo and the Charioteer held reins in their right hands, and leant on their chariots with their left.  Thus we can explain how the Charioteer lost his left arm.  When the smugglers of antiquities tried to separate the statue from the chariot, the joint of the arm under the sleeve broke first, and the rest of the hand remained on the chariot.

The second vertical fragment in Apollo’s hand came from the rudder of the chariot.  In this instance, when smugglers attempted to detach the statue, the arm did not come off since it was not attached  at any place on the statue – it was all one single piece.  Instead the rudder broke.  With its left hand on the rudder, which is in the middle, the statue must have stood on the right side of the Chariot, and perhaps on its left (as was the case with the Charioteer of Delphi) there was another figure – maybe a Nike.

This view was already presumed by a French archaeologist (who merely said that Apollo may not have been on the chariot alone).  Another Frenchman observed that the boss under the left foot of the Charioteer of Delphi had been made to fit into a metal hollow, in order to secure the statue onto the platform of a chariot.  Evidence of similar bosses were found under Apollo’s feet, except that these had broken off.

A charioteer held the reins in one hand when he arrived at the finish; on victory coins we have seen that during a race charioteers kept their hand closed on the reins, but at the finish opened it to let go, as jockeys do today.  It is divine providence that Apollo’s identity remained in its open right palm, just a few centimeters of a rein, which was enough to characterize it as a charioteer.   

The statue has the intensely thoughtful expression of a charioteer: it was too easy to lose control of horses – the responsibility was huge!  The charioteer had to watch that the chariot would not overturn, and through enormous skill had to arrive first at the finish.  

Apollo of Piraeus does not appear merely to be holding onto something; it has a certain power, it is ready for action.  From up high in a chariot, it looks downward, at horses.  There were not evident reins in its hand, as with the Charioteer of Delphi.  Nor were there a long tunic, inscriptions, or signs of horses and a chariot.

It was the expression that betrayed Apollo of Piraeus as a charioteer, because of the existence of other charioteers in distant China.  The coincidence in common patterns and technique is unquestionable.

Today  Apollo is exhibited at almost the right height (taking into account not only the chariot, but the stone pedestal) in the Piraeus Museum.  It would be better placed in the hall adjacent to where it now resides though, because of that hall’s longer perspective.  Presently one sees and arrives at the statue all at once, whereas it seems to have been made to be viewed from a distance, as its life-size horses stood in front of it.

 Apollo of Piraeus as a Charioteer


 Apollo of Piraeus: The most ancient life-sized bronze statue.  Originally it must have shone like gold. 

b. Small fragment of a rein, preserved by happy coincidence in the right hand of Apollo, constitutes the statue’s identity card: Charioteer.  In its left hand, the fragment of a whip.




Drawings depicting  Apollo as Charioteer. To its left there was possibly another figure, perhaps Nike. (Drawings by painter Lilly Kristensen)

The Charioteer of Delphi: Naked and Robed Charioteers

The Delphi Charioteer  with two reins in his hand  (the third was removed for restoration).  Photo, 1987

The Delphi Charioteer was found in 1896 in three sections: the head and torso to the waist, the rest of the body, and the right arm with three reins held in the hand (from the article written by Francois Chamoux, Professor at Nancy, 1955).  Chamoux considers it possible that there was another figure standing next to the charioteer.

Reconstruction of the Delphi Charioteer’s chariot, by Roland Hampe (Munich, 1941).

However he was probably standing more to the right, and on his left there was another figure, probably Nike.  Most likely he was also holding a whip in his left hand, together with the rudder of the chariot.

According to myth, Kekrops had introduced the four-horse chariot, and “his image was set among the stars as the constellation Auriga.”

The hand of the Delphi Charioteer, half-open to release the reins.

The sole of the foot of Apollo of Piraeus. The bosses have broken off.

The soles of the feet of the Delphi Charioteer with bosses to be fixed
onto the metal surface of the chariot.


Bronze naked charioteer from Olympia. His chariot is made out of tree branches. 8th c B.C., Olympia Museum. The belief is well-established that after the geometric period (later than 800 B.C.)  there were no more naked charioteers.  But no one seems to have stated that god and hero charioteers (with a few exceptions) continued to appear naked  throughout the archaic and classical periods, with only a short cloak around their shoulders or waist.  Only professional charioteers wore a long (usually) chiton – in most cases white – with long or short sleeves.


The horseman Rampin (his head is part of the Rampin collection in the Louvre)   81 cm,  Marble,  550 B.C.The earliest marble statue known of such a large horseman.  Acropolis Museum. He is naked, as an archaic kouros and as a geometric charioteer.  Gods and heroes continue to be naked as charioteers after the geometric period (800 B.C.)

The “jockey boy” of Artemision, 2nd c. B.C.  He is wearing a short chiton with no  sleeves.  In his left hand, the fragment of a rein; in his right, the fragment of a whip. Athens Archaeological Museum.

Black-figured vase in the British Museum with charioteer wearing the professional sleeveless uniform.



(left) One of the 7,000 clay figures of the Army of Qin-Shi-Huang-Ti  found in his grave  (foot-soldiers, archers, etc.).  Museum of Xian. The posture and expression of certain charioteers made me think of the statue of Apollo, and that it was very likely not an archer, but a charioteer.  I began to look for evidence, and the first thing that drew my attention was a small, flat and narrow bronze piece attached to the statue’s palm, that could be the fragment of a whip.

Charioteers holding the whip in the left hand

Country chariot driven by two mules.  Black-figured vase,  London British Museum. The driver has all four reins in his right hand, and holds the whip in his left.

Wedding procession on a Corinthian krater (about 600 B.C.) Rome Vatican Museum. The whip is held in the left hand.


The wedding of Cadmos.  Black-figured vase (about 500 B.C.) in the Louvre. Cadmos is holding the whip in his left hand.

The Champion’s Band

The umpire puts a band around the head of a champion, who is wearing similar bands around the arm and thigh.  Red-figured vase,  Munich Antikensammlungen.

At the Siao Lin Tower, even today, wrestlers receive similar bands for the forehead.

The Charioteer of Delphi.  He is wearing the champion’s band.

“Macao returns to China in the year 2000.”  During the celebrations, the Dragon Dance dancer / heroes wore red ribbons, not only around their forehead, but also around the arm, like the Olympia champions.  Millions of people (Chinese, American, European; University professors, scholars) saw this picture, but it seems only Theresa Mitsopoulou has connected it to the lone Greek vase in Munich.

Apollo of Piraeus. A band around his head, and little holes to affix a wreath.

The red Chinese and Greek band on the forehead could be explained as a coincidence but the ribbon around the arm has certainly been copied from an original pattern. Original man used to decorate his head, neck, face, cheeks, breast, arms, waist, thight and ankles with real snakes. He was given the snake as a price and guardian because snakes at the rats that caused the plague. A big snake used to reside inside the acropolis and the priests used to feed it. In India the Hindus feed the naga and in certain parts of Greece a snake in the house is reguarded as a protector and will not be killed. In a unique stone relief in an Indian temple, a king is crowned by Siva with a snake and a statue of Aphrodite with a snake around her thigh.

Relief from Gangaikondakolapuram, India. Temple Brihandiswara. 11th c. King Kola is crowned by Siva

The statue of the Goddess Athena inside the Parthenon. On her Aefia are vipers and the head of Medusa. On her left is a big viper. Her bracelet is an imitation of a snake. Most jewelry and belts of today have snake symbolism. Her belt is made of snakes and there are snakes wrapped around her upper arm.

Terracotta statue of Aphrodite with a snake around her left arm and a snake on her left thigh from the 2nd century BC. Turkey Canakkule Museum.


The stripes on the upper sleeves of modern jackets and sweaters are the memory of the snake symbolism. Everything has an explanation and we copy the same symbols of the past without realizing their meanings anymore.

Modern jackets, sweaters and t-shirts with the fabric finish of the neck and the stripes on the upper sleeve, like those on the arms of the Goddess Athena, symbolize the snake and is a protection against evil.


Apollo and other gods and heroes as naked charioteers

Apollo as naked charioteer.  His chariot is driven by snakes.  Red-figured vase in Munich.  Gods and heroes depicted as charioteers did not wear the professional “xystis,” but instead were almost naked with a short cloak on their back.

Apollo as naked charioteer.  His chariot is driven by swans.

Apollo – charioteer, naked with only a chlamys around his shoulders.  Apulian krater (350 B.C.),  Baltimore.  Apollo was often depicted as an Archer holding a bow, and usually had a phial (a shallow vessel for libations) in his right hand.

Apollo as naked charioteer.  His chariot is driven by ducks.  Etruscan ring seal (3rd c.  B.C.),  Berlin.

Zeus as naked charioteer.  Gigantomachia.  Apulian krater (350 B.C.),  Petrograd  Hermitage Museum.

Dionysus as naked charioteer.  His chariot is driven by panthers.  Mosaic (3rd c. B.C.) Cyprus.

Pluto abducts Persephone.  Apulian krater  (350 B.C.),  London British Museum.

Poseidon and Amphitrite,  detail,  Roman mosaic,  Louvre Museum,  Paris.

Poseidon as naked charioteer.  His chariot is driven by seahorses.  His chlamys is in the air above him.  Mosaic (around 300 A.D.) found in a house in Tunisia.


Laius abducting Chrysippus.  Red-figured vase in Berlin.


The figure beside the charioteer was a warrior or athlete, or simply a passenger. Base found in the Themistokleian wall of the Acropolis,  Athens Archaeological Museum.  A winged Nike waited for the winner of the race, holding a wreath….

The victorious moment (all four reins in one hand).


Huge gold earring, probably from a statue from Euboea,  4th c. B.C., Boston Museum of Fine Arts


A coin from Syracuse,  British Museum


Gold coin of Phillip II of Macedonia,  Athens Nomismatic Museum. The charioteer holds all the reins in one hand before victoriously finishing the race.


Apollo / Helios,  from a Roman floor mosaic.  All four reins in one hand (the left).

Red-figured oinochoe from Apulia,  46 cm,  around 315 B.C.,  Mannheim Reiss Museum.  The Nike has all four reins in her right hand.

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