Artemision Zeus or Poseidon

This bronze god sank to the bottom of the sea where he sat for millennia, but who is he and what can he tell us?


Artemision Zeus or Poseidon, c. 460 B.C.E., bronze, 2.09 m high, Early Classical (Severe Style), recovered from a shipwreck off Cape Artemision, Greece in 1928 (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and we’re looking at a great bronze sculpture of a striding god.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] You didn’t even have to tell me it was a god. He’s so powerful. He looks so in control. We look at him and we know that this is a god who controls the fates of human beings.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] We’re pretty sure he’s either Poseidon or Zeus.

Dr. Harris: [0:29] Now, Poseidon’s the god of the sea.

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] His brother, Zeus, is the god who rules all of the Olympian gods from Mount Olympus. The way that we would be able to determine which it was is dependent on what he was holding.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] If he was holding a trident, he would be Poseidon, and if he was holding a thunderbolt, he would be Zeus. Sadly, his attribute is lost.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] Most art historians tend to think it’s Zeus. A thunderbolt was short and it would not have obscured the face the way that a trident would have, which was much longer. In addition, if you look at the gap in his hand it’s a wide grasp, much wider than it would be if it was the narrow handle of a trident.

Dr. Harris: [1:10] A thunderbolt was Zeus’ weapon of choice, he’s referred to as the hurler of thunderbolts. This is bronze. It’s important to talk about what this would have looked like in 460 B.C.E. when it was created. It would have gleamed and shined in the light.

Dr. Zucker: [1:27] It’s so rare that we have an original Greek bronze, and the only reason we have this one is that it was recovered from an ancient shipwreck. What happens is the bronze doesn’t rust unless there is air and water that alternate. Underwater it gets encrusted with lots of barnacles and sea creatures, but it actually can be quite well preserved, as is the case here.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] That gleaming, shining, radiant effect goes with the idea of this being Zeus.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] Especially since we think that the eyebrows, perhaps the beard, and certainly the thunderbolt would have been inlaid with silver. You would have had that gleaming, warm color of the bronze against those brilliant flashes of silver.

Dr. Harris: [2:07] His eyes would have been inlaid with glass, so you have this amazing figure not only gleaming but also striding toward us, depending on where we stand.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] Look at the way he occupies space. We don’t want to stand in front of him, we would be the victim of that thunderbolt. His focus is extraordinary. We have that incredible extension that is more than six feet of one hand to the other, and he’s steadying himself but also aiming with that hand before him.

Dr. Harris: [2:34] He’s shifting, as you would need to do in order to hurl something like a thunderbolt. Although it’s hard to imagine hurling a thunderbolt.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] That’s right, he’s pushing off with his right leg. And his left leg, the toes are up as if that foot is readying itself to bear the weight of the body as he steps forward.

Dr. Harris: [2:50] Now if you think back just a hundred years to the Archaic period, Greek sculptors were making sculptures out of marble. They were very contained. That is, the limbs were close to the body. We see during this early Classical period…

Dr. Zucker: [3:06] Sometimes known as the Severe Style.

[0:00] …Dr. Harris: [3:08] an interest in figures that are more open, where you have limbs that are apart, figures that move into the space of the viewer. This is possible because of the use of bronze.

Dr. Zucker: [3:18] We don’t need the struts. We don’t need the bridges that are required in a marble sculpture. Here, the tensile strength of the bronze is great enough so that those arms can be out and give that extraordinary vitality to this figure and invite us to walk around it.

Dr. Harris: [3:33] There are really three distinct views of this sculpture. The front and the back make the figure look very flat, very schematic, very silhouetted. We see the full body. We see both legs, the torso…

Dr. Zucker: [3:44] It’s almost like a drawing.

Dr. Harris: [3:45] …the arms stretched out.

Dr. Zucker: [3:47] The arms, especially the left arm, are a little longer than they would be naturally.

Dr. Harris: [3:51] When we move to the side, that sense of flatness changes. We get a figure that seems to occupy space in all directions.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] We see the depth of the torso. We can see a little bit of a twist in the hips and the upper body. We see this figure breaking out from that kouros tradition dramatically.

Dr. Harris: [4:09] What seems like a silhouette actually exists in depth.

Dr. Zucker: [4:13] Look, for instance, at the angle of the hole in the right hand. We can see that the thunderbolt or the trident was not held parallel with the hand but would’ve swung around because it’s at a little bit of an angle.

Dr. Harris: [4:26] The remarkable thing to me is that he looks powerful. He looks superhuman but still human in his nudity.

Dr. Zucker: [4:33] The Greeks understanding the male human body as this receptacle for all of its ideals. Plato talked about the idea that the gods were the perfect manifestation and that we were an inferior reflection of that perfection. Here we see the Greeks setting up this idealized human male body. We are just a reflection of that.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Artemision Zeus or Poseidon," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed May 21, 2024,