The Charioteer of Delphi (474 BC)

By: The Scribe on Friday, September 28, 2007

The Charioteer of Delphi is one of the most famous statues that survives from ancient Greece, and is an incredible testament to the ancient Greeks’ artistic abilities.The ‘Charioteer of Delphi’ is one of the most famous surviving statues from ancient Greece, and is considered by many to be one of the best and finest examples of ancient bronze statues. Found in the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi during the late 1800s, the Charioteer is a rare example of an almost complete statue, dating to almost 2,500 years ago.

Also referred to as ‘Heniokhos’, the rein-holder, the statue was erected in Delphi to commemorate the victory of a specific chariot team at Delphi’s Pythian Games. The Pythian Games were held once every four years in honor of Delphi’s patron god, Pythean Apollo, and it is suspected that the Charioteer was part of a much larger statuary group that probably included several groomsmen, a chariot, and up to six horses. Although some fragments of the horses were found in the same vicinity as the Charioteer, there isn’t enough evidence to conclusively say how many animals were included in the group.

According to an inscription on the base of the statue, the piece was commissioned by Polyzalus, the tyrant of a Greek colony in Sicily called Gela. He dedicated it to Apollo as tribute for the god’s help during the chariot race, which had allowed him to win. Literally, the inscription reads: “Polyzalos dedicated me…make him prosper, honored Apollo.” Unfortunately, the name of the sculptor is unknown, but most scholars believe that the style of the statue suggests it was cast in Athens.

The Charioteer himself is mostly complete, with only his left arm missing – even his inlaid glass eyes and copper detailing on the eyelashes and lips still survive! The headband around the top of the statue was made of silver, though any precious stones that may have adorned it have long since disappeared.

It is extremely rare to find ancient statues where the inlaid glass eyes and copper detailing survive for 2500 years! This is one reason why the Charioteer of Delphi is considered an incredible piece of ancient sculpture.

The soft curls on the head of the statue indicate that the Charioteer was meant to represent a young man, tall and nimble, which was typical of ancient chariot racers – and modern jockeys, for that matter (Ed.’s note: Sometimes we make mistakes! Michael Escher quite accurately pointed out that modern jockeys are certainly nimble, but definitely not tall! Thanks for pointing that out Michael!). The cloak the statue wears is a xystis, which was the traditional clothing for a chariot driver: the base of the garment rests just above the ankles, and the waist is secured with a belt placed high up on the torso. Two straps cross his upper back, which prevented the garment from catching wind and ‘ballooning’ in the midst of a race.

In terms of style, the Charioteer of Delphi is considered to be an example of ‘Early Classical’ or ‘Severe’ style, and while his pose is more naturalistic than the preceding Archaic period of Greek art, his stance is still quite rigid when compared to some later works.

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