Penelope, paragon of the faithful wife

Copy of the early Roman Empire after a Greek original around 470/460 BCCa. 470–460 BC

Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Berlin, Germany

A woman rests her head mournfully in her right hand, now lost. A mantle and a close-fitting cap cover her head and hair. An orderly row of tresses hangs down below the cap, each lock curling symmetrically toward the middle. At the right side of the face, the mantle gathers in three curving folds over the missing right hand; this fine Roman copy even preserves the base of each individual knuckle. The asymmetrical face and slightly upturned mouth, as well as the rough carving of the hair on the right side, signal that the head was meant to be seen from the left. Certain details like the cap-like hairstyle and almond-shaped eyes evoke the “Severe Style” of sculpture from the early Classical period. A metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, illustrating a scene of Herakles fighting the Stymphalian birds, includes a head of Athena that closely resembles the Penelope head. The metope allows the Greek model for the Berlin Penelope to be dated between 470 and 460 BC.
The position of the Berlin head is repeated in three very similar statue types and four so-called “Melian reliefs” that show Odysseus disguised as a beggar before Peneleope. These examples and other iconographic parallels led the figural type to be named after Odysseus’ virtuous wife, who for twenty years waited patiently for her husband’s return and thus came to represent the paradigm of the loyal wife. The Roman copy in Berlin may have been a grave statue, judging from another grieving Penelope statue found in the burial precinct of Claudia Semne on the Via Appia in Rome.
Life-size statues of the grieving Penelope are preserved in four torsos and three heads. All of them come from Rome, with the exception of a Greek original from ca. 440 BC found in the palace of Darius III in Persepolis (Iran). It is unusual for a statue type to survive in both Roman copies and a Greek original – and in this case has sparked a heated debate about the Greek prototype. Since the Greek original from Persepolis lay hidden in a rubble heap until its dicovery in 1945 – having been a casualty of the great fire set by Alexander the Great in Darius’ palace in 331 BC – it could not have been seen by Roman copyists. Therefore at least one further version must have been known in Greece. I. Kader, taking into account the complete set of preserved Penelope statues, suggests that no fewer than three versions of the type existed in the early fifth century BC. The older types (1 and 2) went on to serve as the models for the Roman copies. The Berlin head is a fragment of Type 1.


  • Title: Penelope, paragon of the faithful wife
  • Creator: Copy of the early Roman Empire after a Greek original around 470/460 BC
  • Date Created: Ca. 470–460 BC
  • Location: Unknown
  • Physical Dimensions: h26,5 cm
  • Type: Statue
  • Medium: Marble
  • Object acquired: Acquired from the collection of Heinrich Dressel (Rome) in 1879
  • Inv.-No.: Sk 603
  • ISIL-No.: DE-MUS-814319
  • External link: Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Copyrights: Text: © Verlag Philipp von Zabern / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Maisch. || Photo: © b p k - || Photo Agency / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Johannes Laurentius
  • Collection: Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz

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