Faces – Heroes, Gods, and Rulers

When we visit the Collection of Classical Antiquities in the Altes Museum we look into the face of the past and encounter gods, heroes and rulers. We know their histories and personalities from unique artworks that have been handed down.

Zeus, thunderbearer (-470/-460) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


The religion of the ancient Greeks had many gods. Every god or goddess had a specific sphere of influence. The twelve major divinities in Greek mythology lived on Mount Olympus, Greece’s highest mountain. In the ancient tales the gods took on human form and just like humans they were subject to emotions and passions and had weaknesses such as jealousy, strife and vanity.


Zeus is the highest Olympian god in Greek mythology. This statuette of Zeus shows him undressed in vigorous forward movement. As a sign of his divine will he has his arm raised and is hurling a lightning bolt, an attribute he carries in many depictions. The concentrated movement demonstrates the power and dignity of the god.

Only 13 cm tall, the bronze statuette is worked with extraordinary skill. The straight nose, large eyes and thin lips give the face a serious and resolute expression. It is framed by a beard and a dense crown of hair over his forehead. The artist used a graver to depict the hair in the finest detail with the same attention to detail being given to the finger and toe joints as well as the pubic hair above his male member.

A “Melian” relief: Drunk Dionysos (Ca. 480 BC) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Dionysos is the god of wine and fertility. He is renowned for his merry feasts. On this relief he is on his way home from one of these feasts. The gods shows clear signs of the consequences of such immoderate wine consumption: He is astride a mule with his kantharos in his right hand and his thyrsus in his left hand. In his drunken stupor he has laid his bearded head on his left shoulder.

Without his companion to support his arms, Dionysos would not be able to stay on the animal.

Relief panels like this were probably small sacrificial gifts in shrines, hung up on strings or with nails or simply propped against the wall. Examples have also been found as grave goods.

The “Heyl Aphrodite,” an exquisite beauty (-200/-100) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


This ceramic figure shows Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Even the other gods are powerless against the passion sent by her. The depiction displays a rare sensuality.

Aphrodite’s robe has slid down to just above her right breast and the sheer fabric shows more than it hides.

Her hair is tied back behind her head and is crowned with a diadem, and the goddess is wearing splendid earrings.

The elegant turn of the head is taken to indicate that Aphrodite is looking down at a second person, who is now missing. This may have been the small god of love, Eros, who is normally depicted as a boy.

Theseus slays the Minotaur (Second half of the second century BC) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Ancient heroes used their superhuman powers to fight against monstrous beings. Their adventures were told over and over. Their deeds are set down in the epics and myth cycles of the Classical authors and recorded in every other art form as well. The heroes of legendary ancient times are frequently the offspring of a union between gods and mortals. They protected people in times of need and were often closer to the people than the gods of Olympus.


Theseus was one of the best-loved heroes of greek mythology and an example of courage and bravery. In his youth he had to perform many deeds and prove himself in battles with monsters. He went into a labyrinth to kill the Minotaur, half bull and half man, to free his city from the terrible tribute of sacrificing the seven young women and men the Minotaur demanded from the Athenians each year. This episode is one of the heroic tales most often depicted in fine art.

The bronze group in Berlin shows the combatants at a crucial moment – Theseus has leapt at the Minotaur from behind and forced it to the ground. The hero is pushing his left thigh with all his might against his opponent’s right flank.

The Minotaur has already stumbled forward, with its left knee almost on the ground and its right foot already touching the ground.

Theseus has a firm grip on the Minotaur’s horn with his left hand and with his right hand on its shoulder. The Minotaur scarcely has the strength to defend itself and tries to tear away Theseus’s arm.

Theseus is about to gain the victory in this wrestling match; in the next moment he will snap the monster’s neck.

Achilles bandaging Patroklos (-500) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Achilles and Patroclus

The struggle of the Greeks for the city of Troy is one of the best known epic cycles. This bowl shows an episode from the ten-year Trojan War, in which Achilles became famous for his bravery. The hero Achilles is tending his friend Patroclus, who has been wounded by an arrow in his left arm. Patroclus is turning his head away, grimacing in pain, while his friend binds his wound. Achilles is dressed in helmet and armour.

Patroclus, on the other hand, is defenceless, and is wearing just a cap. His sitting position on his shield, with his genitals exposed, symbolises his vulnerability in his most sensitive part, the place where he will indeed subsequently be fatally hit. The scene anticipates the death of Patroclus, and indeed also the end of Achilles, who ignores the warnings of a seer and goes into battle to avenge the death of his friend.

Odysseus kills Penelope’s suitors (Ca. 440 BC) by Attributed to the Penelope PainterAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


The wanderings of Odysseus begin on the journey home from the Trojan War. The hero spends ten years trying to find his way back to his home in Ithaca, a time in which he has many legendary adventures. His wife Penelope waits patiently for the return of her husband, but during his absence she is courted by many other men. This drinking vessel shows a dramatic scene in which Odysseus, who has finally returned home, takes up the battle against his wife’s suitors. He bends his bow...

Odysseus kills Penelope’s suitors (Ca. 440 BC) by Attributed to the Penelope PainterAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

...and, as the story continues on the other side of the ceramic drinking vessel, kills the terrified suitors as they make haste to try to escape the hero’s arrows.

Portrait of Pericles (-430) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


In Antiquity portraits were often made to honour great rulers. These statues or busts were displayed in public places. Just like portraits on coins, however, they could also be used for the self-representation of the mighty.


Pericles was a statesman who led Athens for about twenty years, and under his leadership the city enjoyed its political and cultural Golden Age. This portrait of him with the raised Corinthian helmet shows Pericles as a strategist and as military commander of the army and navy. The People’s Assembly of Athens re-elected him to this office repeatedly for more than 15 years. Pericles was famous as an outstanding speaker and so was mostly able to convince the People’s Assembly of his political plans.

This portrait shows Pericles as an ideal statesman. The smooth, even facial features exude calm and prudence, in line with the great self-control attested to by his biography. This Roman copy might be based on a bronze statue which was erected on the Athenian Acropolis after the death of Pericles. A great honour at that time.

The Green Caesar (-100) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


This larger-than-life portrait bust shows a clearly older man with deep furrows, a retreating hairline and sunken cheeks. His face is narrow and angular with a high forehead, prominent cheekbones and a strongly projecting chin. The long, straight nose and narrow lips make him look almost emaciated. The man depicted here is Julius Caesar, as can be confirmed from coins bearing his image which were minted in the final months of the life of this Roman general and statesman.

This bust of Caesar seems to us today to be an actual portrait, but its facial forms may actually be typified to express the moral values and character expected of a statesman. The signs of aging emphasise the authority of the subject, with the narrow-lipped, closed mouth and critical look indicating seriousness and severity.

Energy and strength are suggested by the turn of the head. The thin, ascetic appearance indicates the sobriety and frugality of the successful general.

Cleopatra the beauty (-40/-30) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


No queen of Egypt became as famous as the last one, Cleopatra VII. She ascended to the throne at the age of seventeen and tried to save what had for thousands of years been the leading power in the eastern Mediterranean from the burgeoning Roman Empire.

After the victory of the Roman fleet in the sea battle at Actium Cleopatra spared herself with a lethal snakebite from the humiliation of being paraded in triumph as a prisoner through the streets of Rome.

After the death of the last queen from the Ptolemaic dynasty, Egypt became the Roman province of Aegyptus and the era of the Hellenistic empires which were the legacy of Alexander the Great came to an end.

This bust made from translucent marble depicts Cleopatra as a young woman. Her hair is tied in a knot at the nape of her neck and small locks tumble over her forehead. The straight, severely-cut nose with raised sides, the confident sweep of the mouth and the firm chin all characterise Cleopatra not just as a beautiful woman but also as a strong-willed and powerful person.

Credits: Story

Texts based on:

Die Antikensammlung. Altes Museum, Neues Museum, Pergamonmuseum. Auswahl der ausgestellten Werke
Hrsg. von Agnes Schwarzmaier, Andreas Scholl und Martin Maischberger, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2016 (übersetzte und überarbeitete Fassung der 4. Auflage 2012).

Concept/Editing: Lisa Janke
Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Altes Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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