Return to Greek Courtesans


"But it was Apelles of Cos who surpassed all the painters that preceded him and all who were to come after him....He singly contributed almost more to painting than all the other artists put together....His art was unrivalled for graceful charm, although other very graet painters were his contemporaries."

Pliny, Natural History (XXXV.79)

Pliny relates several anecdotes about Apelles (late fourth century BC), who would place his pictures in view of the public and, standing out of sight, listen to what was said. Once, when a shoemaker faulted Apelles for drawing a sandal with one loop too few, he rectified it. But, when the shoemaker then found fault with the subject's leg, Apelles looked out from behind the picture and rebuked him, saying that a shoemaker should not go beyond his sandal (Ne supra crepidam sutor judicaret).

He also painted Alexander the Great, who permitted no other artist to do so and even presented his mistress to him when Apelles fell in love with her after being asked to paint her in the nude. Pliny remarks that some thought she (rather than Phrynę) was the model for his picture of "Aphrodite Anadyomene," which was dedicated to the sanctuary of Asclepius. Augustus later had it shipped to Rome and dedicated in a temple to Caesar.

So lifelike were his paintings that, once in a competition to paint a horse, Apelles felt that his rivals might be judged to be better. He asked that horses be brought to the contest and be shown the pictures that had been painted. Only when they saw his picture of a horse did they neigh in recognition.

"It was, however, from about the period of the reign of Philip down to that of the successors of Alexander that painting flourished more especially, although the different artists are distinguished for different excellences. Protogenes, for example, was renowned for accuracy...and Apelles for genius and grace, in the latter of which qualities he took especial pride."

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria (XII.10.6)

It was Apelles, says Pliny (XXXV.88, 81), who established the reputation of Protogenes when he made it known that he, himself, was buying his work with the intention of selling it as his own. Only then was the artist appreciated by his countrymen. Once, he visited Protogenes, only to find that he was not at home. On a large panel in the man's studio, he painted a single fine colored line. When the artist returned and saw what had been done, he knew his visitor to have been Apelles. He then drew an even finer line in another color exactly over the first one. When Apelles came again, he drew a third line, this time so exquisitely fine that no other could be drawn. Conceding defeat, Protogenes determined that the panel should remain as it was, to be admired for its artistic virtuosity. Pliny saw it displayed in the palace of Augustus on the Palatine, a seemingly empty panel except for the almost invisible lines, where it was more esteemed than any of the masterpieces there. It was destroyed by fire in AD 4.

The most famous picture by Protogenes was a portrait of Ialysus, the legendary son of Helios and eponymous founder of that town in Rhodes. Plutarch (Demetrius, XXII.7) relates that the painting took seven years to complete and that, when Apelles first saw it, was struck dumb with wonder, although he did admit it lacked the grace of his own work (and that Protogenes did not know when to stop working on his pictures; Fronto says that he took eleven years to finish the Ialysus). Confiscated by Demetrius Poliorcetes ("Taker of Cities") in his siege of Rhodes in 305-304 BC, an embassy was sent to plead that it not be destroyed. Demetrius (the son of Antigonus I, who was determined to punish the town for its support of his rival Ptolemy I) declared that he would rather burn a picture of his own father than something which had taken so long to create. In fact, Demetrius was said to have spared Rhodes, itself, rather than risk harming the picture (Pliny, VII.38). In Aulus Gellius (XV.31), however, Demetrius does threaten the picture, only to be dissuaded by envoys who argue that, if he captured the city, the picture would be his, and, if not, what shame would befall him for waging war on the artist.

A dog appeared in the Ialysus, and Pliny (XXXV.102) conveys the story that Protogenes was so exasperated in trying to depict the foam on its mouth, repeatedly repainting the scene and then wiping it clean, that he threw his sponge at the picture in frustration. It struck the dog’s mouth, achieving by accident what the artist could not do by design. Curiously, Protogenes was said to have used four coats of paint to protect it from wear or damage. When the upper coat had worn off, the one below would take its place. The Ialysus, which had been placed in the Temple of Peace, was lost in the fire of AD 64.

Protogenes also was famous for his Satyr Reposing, on which, says Pliny, he continued to work, even though Rhodes was besieged, Demetrius having placed guards to protect him and visiting the artist, himself. The satyr, holding a double flute, was presented next to a pillar, on which was perched a partridge. So life-like was the portrayal of the bird that spectators completely ignored the subject of the painting. Even more amazed were the partridge breeders, who brought their own birds and placed them in front of the picture, where they would call to the painted bird, attracting a mob of onlookers. Infuriated at the misdirected attention, Protogenes removed the offending bird (Strabo, XIV.2.5).

Concluding a peace with Demetrius, Plutarch relates that the Rhodians asked for some of the siege engines, which eventually were used to construct the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the world.

"His [Apelles] Aphrodite emerging from the Sea was dedicatd by his late lamented Majesty Augustus in the Shrine of his father Caesar; it is known as the Anadyomene."

Pliny, Natural History (XXXV.91)

The so-called "Ludovisi Throne," named after the seventeenth-century cardinal who owned it, is comprised of three panels sculpted in relief, the center one, which is illustrated above, showing Aphrodite rising from the sea, the diaphanous folds of her wet chiton clinging to her body. She is helped by the Horai (the hours), who stand barefoot on the stony shore of Cyprus (cf. the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite VI).


The left-hand panel of the triptych depicts a hetarai, her hair gathered in the sakkos, a mark of that class, and playing a double flute. Dated to 465-455 BC, this is one of the very first representations of the monumental female nude before the fully three-dimensional sculpture of Praxiteles. As she represents the profane aspect of the goddess, so the right-hand panel portrays a young bride putting incense on a brazier, personifying the sacred and chaste.

Discovered in 1887, the triptych originally was thought to be a seat of a colossal statue of the goddess. More likely, it probably decorated a sacred pit in the floor of the naos of the temple that served as a repository for votive offerings. It also was used in the celebration of ritual mysteries, in which an effigy of the goddess was made to appear to arise from the pit.

The triptych may have come from the temple of Aphrodite at Marasŕ near Locri in Magna Graecia (southern Italy) and then to Rome when the colony was sacked in 205 BC and 200 BC to have been reused in the temple of Venus Erycina on the Capitoline Hill.

The panels, which date from 470-460 BC, are in the National Roman Museum (Palazzo Altemps).

References: Pliny: Natural History (1938-) translated by H. Rackham (Loeb Classical Library); The Geography of Strabo (1929) translated by Horace L. Jones (Loeb Classical Library); Quintilian: Training of an Orator (1920) translated by H. E. Butler (Loeb Classical Library); Aulus Gellius: Attic Nights (1927) translated by John C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library).

Return to Top of Page