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Athenian Political Art from the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE: Images of Political Personifications 

Amy C. Smith, edition of January 18 2003

page 22 of 26

· Phyle/Phylai (Tribe/s) ·


Plot on a Map

Discussion: A way of representing a subsection of Attika, the region around Athens, or of the people of Attika, is the representation of the Phylai into which the population of Attika had been divided in 508/7. The Phylai are not labelled on any extant Attic images but are thought to be represented in the context of victories celebrating tribal contests. Arthur Milchhöfer first suggested Phyle as an identification of the wingless woman opposite a winged Nike, decorating bulls’ horns with ribbons, in celebration of a dithyrambic victory on a stamnos in Munich attributed to the Hector Painter [1]. He suggested the same identification for two similar figures decorating bull’s horns, on a contemporary amphora in London [2]. Beazley has proposed Phyle for the identification of a woman with an olive wreath, running to a bull in celebration of a victory in a torch race, another tribal event, on a much later vase, a calyx krater [3]. The women shown on these three vases are iconographically as well as functionally similar, and may represent the same figure. The representation of two such figures on [2] adds further support to the idea that Phylai are represented, because Phyle is a figure who would lend herself to multiplication, as there were ten tribes in Classical Athens. The use of personifications of Phylai on these victory illustrations would also be a good way of emphasizing the importance of the Phylai in the organization of events, and thereby advertising the special political organization of Attika, of which the Athenians were proud. Although the same effect could be gained from representation of the tribal heroes, who are amply illustrated throughout Classical Athenian art, the generic Phylai might have better suited the needs of artists who prepared the vases in anticipation of the event, when the actual victorious Phyle would not have been known.

Plot on a Map

Scholars have also proposed the presence of Phylai in Attic sculpture. Angeliki Kosmopoulou has recently argued that the otherwise unidentified women on the “Atarbos Base,” in the Akropolis Museum [4], may represent Phylai (Kosmopoulou 1998). The inscription on this statue base records that the choregos Atarbos erected this monument to celebrate his musical victories. The male figures represented are pyrrhic dancers and (as Kosmopoulou has suggested) participants in the dithyramb—both events which were contested by representatives of the different phylai. The inclusion of personifications of Phylai in this context is thus appropriate, although speculative: there are no sure comparanda for Phylai in the arts of Athens. The female figures on the “Atarbos Base” are indeed shown to be larger than the male (mortal) participants, so that they should be either personifications or goddesses. In the case of the relief illustrating Eutaxia, however, Demos and Eutaxia honor the victorious phyle/ai, represented by individual mortals (shown on small scale).

Possible examples:

  1. Munich J 386: a standing female figure, perhaps Phyle, holding a white fillet, on a stamnos attributed to the Hector Painter, ca. 440-430, showing a Dithyrambic victory.
  2. London E 284: two female figures, possibly Phylai, adorning bulls at a dithyrambic victory, on an amphora by the Nausicaa Painter (Polygnotos III), ca. 430-420.
  3. Mannheim Cg 123: a running female figure, perhaps Phyle, celebrating a torch race on a calyx krater near the Painter of Athens 12255, ca. 400-390.
  4. Athens, AM 1338: two standing female figures, possibly Phylai, on “The Atarbos Base,” a relief decorated statue base (IG II2 3025) (shown here).

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page 22 of 26