How do you write about the Greek gods? What can you say about these divine powers that can appear sometimes as implacable forces of nature, and sometimes as vindictive, selfish children? It turns out that these questions have been asked since the very beginning of European literature.
In this highly readable book, Barbara Graziosi explores how writers and artists have depicted and discussed the Greek gods from the earliest surviving works of European literature to the Renaissance and beyond. Those unfamiliar with the nearly two-and-a-half millennia she covers need have no fear of getting lost.
Graziosi is perhaps best in the first of the book’s six parts, ‘Archaic Greece’, in which the poets Homer and Hesiod take centre stage. She demonstrates how they were able to establish those images of the gods that endured forever afterwards. Here we also meet a recurring theme: the debate about the nature of the gods that took place between philosophers and poets and artists. First up, in the former camp, is Xenophanes, whose writings in the sixth century BC questioned the idea that the gods should be depicted as anthropomorphic. Following these early debates, sculptors and playwrights inherited the mantle of the poets, while men such as Euhemerus and Plato acted as challengers, telling alternative stories about the nature and origins of the gods.
There are times in later sections of the book when the gods almost slip out of view, as Graziosi gives an overview of Athenian democracy and the career of Alexander the Great. Yet they re-emerge,often in strange new places: it was in this period that increased interest in Babylonian astrology led to the identification of the Greek gods with the planets. Southern Italy, meanwhile, was Greek before it became Roman, and in the Republican period Romans were familiar with the Greek gods as subjects for art and for philosophy, with Cicero carrying on the sceptical intellectual tradition. But the Greek gods also had an appeal for the men who brought an end to the Republic to create the Roman empire: Augustus and Julius Caesar. Meanwhile, the poets Vergil and Ovid also retold the stories for a new audience.
The gods were effectively put on trial by Christian apologists and condemned as demons. But they did not fade away: they continued, only lightly disguised, to have a place into the Renaissance. Pope Paul II featured Greek gods in his 15th-century pageants; the church commissioned in Rimini by Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta in the same century was rich with sculpture of the Olympians in classical (un)dress.
Ironically, the Renaissance was to be the last hurrah for the Greek gods. Reduced to allegories and fantasies in the Enlightenment and represented as exiled spirits by the Romantics, they are now most often found in children’s stories. But books such as Graziosi’s remind us of all that they have been.
Hugh Bowden is the author of Alexander the Great: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2014)