Charioteer of Delphi

Take part in the celebration of an athlete’s victory—this life-size bronze is a hinge between the Archaic and Classical.

Charioteer of Delphi, c. 478–474 B.C.E., bronze (lost wax cast) with silver, glass, and copper inlay, 1.8 m high (Delphi Archaeological Museum)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] One of the most exceptional objects to have survived from antiquity in Delphi is the “Charioteer.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] This figure was part of a very significant, expensive monument that included a team of horses and a groom. Chariot races were common at athletic competitions. There were athletic competitions that we all know about at Olympia, the Olympics, but there were also athletic competitions here at the Sanctuary at Delphi.

Dr. Steven: [0:33] People would commemorate particular victories. This particular sculpture was commissioned by a king or a tyrant from Sicily.

Dr. Beth: [0:42] There were Greek city-states, or polises, in Sicily that competed in these games.

Dr. Steven: [0:48] You can imagine that when you would create elaborate bronze sculpture like this that was commemorating a particular victory, you were really showing off. This was a kind of trophy and a very public one.

Dr. Beth: [0:57] Delphi was a place that all of the city-states came to compete and to honor and make dedications to the god Apollo.

Dr. Steven: [1:05] It’s showing off not only because of what it represents, but because of what it’s made out of. This is bronze, which was a very expensive material. It’s largely copper with a little bit of tin. This was cast, it’s hollow.

[1:15] In fact, where the arm is missing and on the opposite side, you can actually see how thin the bronze is. It still has glass-paste eyes. It would have been inlaid with silver. There’s tremendous workmanship here.

Dr. Beth: [1:28] The silver went around his headband, and you can see very finely cut pieces of bronze that were used for his eyelashes. He seems remarkably lifelike. What’s interesting about this sculpture is that here we are in what we call the early Classical period, sometimes referred to as the Severe Style. We have the beginnings of naturalism.

[1:49] What’s interesting to me about this sculpture is that in some ways he’s very lifelike, the way he turns his head. At the same time, we’re used to seeing contrapposto, but his body is very columnar. There’s not a lot of sense of movement in his torso.

Dr. Steven: [2:04] The moment that’s being represented is not the moment of winning the race, it’s not that active moment. Instead, this is the moment of quiet victory afterwards.

Dr. Beth: [2:12] Not only that, the legs would not have been visible since they were in the chariot.

Dr. Steven: [2:16] That might explain why it’s attenuated, that is, why the figure’s legs seem to be a bit too long. That’s accentuated because the drape is belted very high above the waist.

Dr. Beth: [2:26] Look at those folds, they really remind us of the fluting of a Greek column. Look at the way the drapery billows out above the belt. He’s not strictly frontal. We might think about a kouros figure, a male nude figure during the Archaic period.

[2:41] Here, he’s not frontal. He turns a little bit to the right. He lifts his arm out. We see the beginnings of an interest in a more open pose that will become much more popular in the Classical period. In other words, not a figure with his arms firmly attached to his body.

Dr. Steven: [2:58] The legs are parallel, but they lack the stiffness of the earlier Archaic kouros. Look at the delicacy, for instance, with which the feet are represented. These are no longer symbols that are being incised into stone. This is clearly the product of the careful study of the anatomy of the human body. This is based on direct observation.

Dr. Beth: [3:17] I almost feel like I’m at the games. This is the moment when the winners are being celebrated and this great athlete is there to be admired by the crowd.

[3:25] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Charioteer of Delphi," in Smarthistory, December 13, 2015, accessed May 24, 2024,