Apollo of Piraeus
Archer or Charioteer?
A 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.
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
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.
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
At this point, if Apollo is a charioteer,
a comparison with the other famous Charioteer of Delphi would be
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
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
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
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
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