Charioteer of Delphi

 Years ago in the Delphi Archaeological Museum, I was standing on the steps looking down at an eastern European tour group surrounding and looking up at the Charioteer, when it occurred to me that the statue was more real than the tourists.  Ars longa, vita brevis.



 The piece was commissioned to commemorate a victory in the chariot race at the Pythian Game. As today, the winner of a horse race entered the victory circle to receive accolades.  The victorious Charioteer, with complete emotional restraint, stands in the winner's circle as he faces the cheering crowd.  His self-discipline is an indication of what was expected of a sports' hero in classical Greece.  This ability to restrain emotions during the most challenging moments defined the early classical era of Greek art and thought.  Every time I see a professional football player wildly gyrating after crossing the football goal line, I cringe and think of  Charioteer restraint. As one football coach remarked to his players, "If you cross the goal line, act like you have been there before."

For me the Charioteer and the terrifying Bronzi di Riace are the most amazing of the precious few bronze statues surviving from ancient Greece,* Most of what has come down to us are Roman marble copies of Greek originals.  The Charioteer was discovered in 1896 near the temple of Apollo in Delphi.  The statue was originally erected in 474 BC and was part of a larger group of statuary which included a chariot, horses and grooms. Only fragments of the horses were  found (see below).

When discovered, the statue was in three pieces - head and upper torso, lower torso, and right arm.  The left arm was probably detached and lost before the statue was buried.  There are two guesses as to how the statue came to be buried: there was an earthquake which knocked over the statue and the citizens of Delphi elected to bury it, or when the sanctuary was closed by Christian rule, the locals buried the statue to protect it from looters.

Although an inscription on the limestone base of the statue indicates the work was commissioned by one Polyzalus, ruler of Gela, a Greek colony in Sicily; the statue was probably cast in Athens, for at that time Sicily was rich in grain, but not so in artists.

chariot neck charioteer feet
There were other fragments indicting a chariot and at least two horses. There may have been as many as six horses.   Although the feet of the boy were not visible to the Greek  viewers, notice the detail achieved  by the artist.

As to the other four horses, the provenance of the famous Horses of St Mark offer a tantalizing clue.  We do know the horses, shown below, along with the quadriga (chariot)
 were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. In 1204 the Doge of Venice had the horses brought  to Venice - part of the loot sacked from Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. The horses were installed on the basilica in about 1254. They were taken to Paris by Napoleon in 1797, but returned to Venice in 1815. Since the 1990s they have been kept in St Mark's Museum. The horses now on the facade of the cathedral are bronze replicas. We know that that Constantine ordered the Tripod  to be moved from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and set in middle of the Hippodrome. So why not the horses also? Who could resist such tempting treasure? A reasonable assumption, but the Charioteer was cast in bronze and the St Mark's horses were cast in copper. Although called bronze, analysis shows that as they are almost all copper.  Given current knowledge of ancient technology, this method of manufacture suggests a Roman rather than a Greek origin.  However, a chariot, horses and tripod are missing from Delphi and a chariot, horses, and tripod show up in Constantinople! That the St Mark's horses and the Charioteer's are the same is such a delightful theory, I can not give it up. I did read that somebody measured the hoof prints on the stone foundation holding the Charioteer at Delphi and found a favorable similarity to the horses' hooves now in Venice.

st mark horses


The Bronzi di Riace were mentioned above, and as they fit the topic of classical bronze sculpture, here is a bit about them.  In 1972 a scuba diver from Rome found the bronzes at the site of a possible ship wreck - possibly a ship bringing loot from conquered Greece back to Rome. After a long restoration the warriors, dubbed A and B, were displayed in Florence and Rome in 1982. They are now on permanent display at the museum in Reggio Calabria.


restoration reggio
                The restoration Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Reggio Calabria

The statues' eyes are inlaid with bone and glass, the teeth are silver, and lips and nipples are in copper.  Originally they held spears and shields.  Warrior B once wore a helmet pushed up atop his head, and A wore a wreath over his head.  The Warriors are from the transitional period from archaic Greek sculpture to the early Classic style, incorporating the contrapposto technique - their weight is on the back legs and so more realistic than Archaic stance of the Charioteer.  Their turned heads and asymmetrical layout of the arms also give life to the sculptures. Where they were made and where they were originally installed remains a mystery; although speculation abounds, some speculation probably includes space aliens.

bronzi bronzi face bronzi butt


When we saw the Warriors in the 90's they were poorly displayed. The light was dim and poor quality curtains served as their background.  After a recent reorganization they are now displayed in the museum basement in anti-seismic supports. The classical buns are now well illuminated.


There is a rumor that other bronzes were found in the same location and are being held for ransom by the mafia.  Also, the famous Delphi Tripod, in which the Pythia sat while making prophecy, disappeared in the looting of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade.

* The magnificent bronze Zeus is so well know, I see no need to comment on it.

zeus dephi museum
Zeus, National Archeological Museum, Athens, 5th century BC    Delphi Archeological Museum