Heroes of Bronze: The Memory (Review)
By Owain Williams
For those who do not know, Heroes of Bronze: The Memory is a short film by Martin Kleckner using the 3D computer graphics software Blender that depicts the career of Nikephoros, an Athenian, at the time of the Battle of Marathon. The film brings the early fifth century BC to life in vivid detail. This blog will take a look at the scenes and details that stood out to me, discussing what is right, what is wrong, and what could have been done differently.
The first thing that stood out to me was the interior of Nikephoros’ home, specifically the wall decoration that depicts several heavily armed Greek infantry in a black-figure style. There are plenty of references to homes being decorated in the literary record, although they usually emphasize the appearance of military wares hanging on the walls, such as Alkaios fr. 140 (West). A vase from the Musée de Louvre (E629), dating to the beginning of the sixth century BC, depicts helmets hanging on the walls behind several symposiasts alongside lyres. By the fourth century, according to Plato (Republic 548a – b) and Aristotle (Politics 1269b22–5), Spartan homes had a reputation for being richly adorned, although they do not elaborate on the decorations. Clearly, homes, especially those of the elite, were well-decorated.
A black-figure pinax from the Altes Museum, Berlin.
The decoration we see in Nikephoros’ home resembles the many examples of pinakes, painted wall panels, from the late Archaic period. These tend to be, just as Nikephoros’ home is decorated, black-figure style (although, see the Pitsa Panels for a colour version). However, the extant pinakes are all much smaller than the decoration in the film, which is more likely a fresco. It would have been nice to see a full-colour fresco similar to that of the Tomb of the Diver, from the Greek colony of Paestum, Italy. However, this is a personal preference rather than any fault on the part of Kleckner.
One of the Pitsa Panels from near Sikyon.
The next scene that really stood out to me was the homecoming of Nikephoros. Nikephoros' wife, Penelope, stands awaiting her husband before the entrance to their home holding a baby Alkaios. This immediately stood out to me as, according to mostly fourth-century sources, admittedly, it was the Athenian elite ideal for women to be separated from public life. Indeed, the orator Lykourgos tells us that Athenian women, upon receiving news of an Athenian defeat in war, “could be seen crouching at the doors in terror inquiring for the safety of their husbands, fathers or brothers, offering a spectacle degrading to themselves and to the city” (Against Leokrates, 40). Lykourgos’ tone makes it clear that this behaviour was not acceptable.
If this were the only evidence for attitudes towards women appearing outdoors in Athenian sources, it could be argued that the behaviour considered shameful was asking after one’s relatives. However, Lysias, another orator, tells us that those girls and women ashamed to even see their own kinsmen led “well-ordered” lives (Speeches 3.6). Euripides, the fifth-century playwright, wrote “it is shameful for a woman to be standing with young men” (Elektra 343-4). Given that these testimonies were meant to be performed before large numbers of Athenian citizens from different strata of society, then it was likely a common ideal.
However, an ideal is not always matched. If anything, an ideal is an ideal precisely because it is difficult to both attain and maintain. Therefore, we should be hesitant to claim that all Athenian women lived by this forced social separation. Indeed, Aristotle tells us that poorer Athenian women went to work (Politics 1300a), and Aristophanes tells us that women gathered around wells (Lysistrata 327-31) to collect water and even worked in the market (Lysistrata 457-8). As Cohen says, there were “relatively few families which could dispense with the essential economic activities of the woman – activities which necessarily involve going out of the house” (1989: 9). Thus, while not all women behaved according to this ideal of separation, it was certainly an elite ideal. Of course, one could argue that, as the scene is clearly taking place in the countryside, far from the city of Athens, that Nikephoros would be more than happy for his wife to appear out of the house. Yet, it seems that Penelope is appearing before men not of the household. The men also welcoming Nikephoros home appear to include both slaves and a free man (standing to the right and left of the frame, respectively). Given that it appears women were responsible for running the oikos (see Xenophon’s Economics 7.30), appearing before a slave would not have been a cause for concern. Appearing before a man not belonging to the oikos, though, would likely have been a great cause for concern. Given that even appearing outdoors was enough for it to be gossiped that women were having an adulterous affair (Aristophanes, Assemblywomen 520), it is hard to imagine Nikephoros being so relaxed. Of course, the film is set substantially earlier than when our sources are describing, so there is some wriggle room concerning the applicability of the sources’ testimonies.
A black-figure amphora from the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicting women gathering at a water fountain.
Immediately after Nikephoros’ homecoming, we see him playing with baby Alkaios. This is a very minor moment in the film, but such open tenderness between a father and his child was very nice to see in a visual representation of ancient Greece. It is easy to think that, being surrounded by death much more than modern people, the ancient Greeks did not form close attachments to their children, especially when one considers how much higher child mortality likely was. From our sources, however, it does appear that parents held their children very dear. For example, both Achilles (Il. 9.488-91) and Astyanax (Il. 12.500-4) were fed in their father’s or a relative’s laps as babes, and Hektor openly plays with his son (Il. 6.404, 474). Moreover, man’s chance to return home from war is envisaged as having his children at his knees once again (Il. 5.406-9). Of course, these examples are Homeric, but Euripides, while not quite so tender as Homer, does also mention this universal love (Herakles 633-6). A minor detail, but a nice inclusion.
The Battle of Plataia.
The last point of contention, for me, is the depiction of the Battle of Plataia. While we only get brief glimpses of the Athenians’ enemies at this battle, it appears that they are meant to be Persians. Artistic depictions of Plataia always seem to focus on the Greek contingents fighting against the Persians or other non-Greek elements of the Persian army. It would be a neat narrative if the battle was simply the Greeks standing together to defend their land against a foreign invader, but history is rarely so neat. According to Herodotos, the closest account we have of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, the Persian army included a great number of Greeks, as it did throughout much of its history, most notoriously the Thebans. According to Herodotos, across from the Athenians, Plataians, and Megarians stood the Boiotians, Lokrians, Malians, Thessalians, and some Phokians (9.31). Indeed, the Boiotians are noted as having fought particularly hard (9.67). On his website, Klecker does claim that this was an “intentional error”, why, though, I am not sure.
There is so much more one could discuss from this short film. It is truly packed with detail. Given that big-budget Hollywood films with dozens, if not hundreds of people working on them make much more obvious mistakes, Martin Kleckner should be commended for doing such a good job with his short film. There really is very little explicitly wrong with this film from a historicity perspective – a true achievement for a one-person team!
You can see the short film here.