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Athenian Political Art from the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE: Images of Political Personifications 

Amy C. Smith, edition of January 18 2003

page 17 of 26

· Nemesis (Retribution) ·


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Athenaeus (Athen.).
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Discussion: Nemesis was known as a goddess by the seventh century: after she was raped by her father Zeus, Nemesis gave birth to Helen, according to a fragment of the Kypria (Kypria fr. 7 [=Athen. 8.334b]). In this tale she transforms herself into many types of creatures to escape from this incestuous incident, because of her feelings of nemesis ( νέμεσις), righteous indignation, as well as aidos ( αἰδός), shame. Despite her shape changing, which is only mentioned in the Kypria, this Nemesis is indeed a personification, as her basic form is that of a woman whose character is, in part, represented by her name. As Alan Shapiro has noted, the aitiological aspect of this story suggests that she was here personified for the first time (Shapiro 1993, 173). By the third quarter of the sixth century, Nemesis was worshipped and personified, seemingly in a different form, in a sculpture by Boupalos at Smyrna (Paus. 1.33.7 and 9.35.6).

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Attica (in text as “Attic”).

Personified Nemesis does not appear in Attic art or literature until the fifth century (when she appears only twice, in the 430s and 420s), although she was worshipped with Themis (Laws) in the Attic deme of Rhamnous, probably from the sixth century. Margaret Miles maintains that funds were allocated for the building of a temple to Nemesis at Rhamnous in the 470s, following the Persian Wars, but that the extant Classical temple was not built until the 420s (Miles 1989). This roughly matches the chronology of the cult statue of Nemesis [1], according to Pausanias, who explains that Pheidias made this Nemesis out of the block of Parian marble brought to Marathon by the presumptious Persians, who had planned to use it in construction of their anticipated victory monument. A likely explanation for the delay of both projects to approximately sixty years after the Battle of Marathon is the post-Persian War cessation of temple building on account of the “Oath of Plataia.” The creation of the statue and temple seems to have coincided with, and may have been instigated by, the resurgence of Athenian nemesis against enemies past and present at the outset of the Peloponnesian War. By the fifth century nemesis had come to mean (divine) retribution warranted by righteous indignation, such as the punishment that the Persians received at the hands of the Greeks at Marathon.

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Ethiopia (in text as “Ethiopians”).

The cult statue of Nemesis, which is plausibly attributed to Agorakritos [1], is now well known through Giorgos Despines’ reconstruction of the original fragments, as well as Roman copies. Nemesis’ attributes are identified and partially explained by Pausanias. The deer on her headdress and the apple branch that she holds in her lowered left hand point to her origin as a chthonic or nature divinity. The Nikai (Victories) that also decorate her crown are relevant to her aspect as an avenging goddess, as they indicate the righteous victory that she will exact. The phiale (a ritual vessel), which she holds in her outstretched left hand points to her righteousness, which is perhaps relevant to her connection with Themis, the personification of Law. And the Ethiopians that are said to have been illustrated on this phiale point to her broad-reaching power, as the Greeks regarded them as the people from the ends of the earth.

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Nemesis role as Helen’s mother was not entirely forgotten by Attic artists in visual media who, like the writers, seem to have used the tale of Helen, and of the entire Trojan myth, as a moralizing parable. As the Trojan myth was a paradigm of victory over the Persians, in the context of the story of Helen Nemesis is the avenger of political as well as personal indignation. The cult statue base of Nemesis at Rhamnous [2], which has now been reconstructed by Basilis Petrakos, illustrated some part of this myth of Helen, and thereby incorporates this allusively political identity of Nemesis into her cult at Rhamnous. The figures that decorate the front and two sides of the base have been variously identified, but there is no reason to doubt Pausanias testimony that the central scene illustrates Leda bringing Helen to Nemesis, either at Helen’s marriage to Menelaos or after the Trojan War. A related story is shown on the Heimarmene Painter’s name vase, a pointed amphoriskos in Berlin [3]. Here Nemesis is joined by several other personifications—Peitho, Heimarmene (Destiny), probably Themis, and perhaps Eukleia. Peitho consoles and persuades Helen, who is seated in Aphrodite’s lap, moments before her abduction by Paris, who is being simultaneously persuaded by Himeros (Longing) on the opposite side of the vase. The role of Nemesis here is emphatically allegorical, as Alan Shapiro has explained (Shapiro 1993, 194-95 and Shapiro 1986, 11-14). She stands at the far left with a figure whose label is badly preserved, perhaps Eukleia, pointing an accusing finger at Helen, Paris, and their persuaders. She simultaneously points to Helen’s Destiny, embodied in the figure of Heimarmene, whose unique appearance in Attic visual arts is on this vase.


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Pausanias (Paus.).
Pliny (Plin. HN).
Zeno (Zen.).
Pausanias (Paus.).
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  1. Cult statue of Nemesis of Rhamnous: a standing female figure, holding a phiale and an apple branch, by Agorakritos of Paros (or perhaps Pheidias) ca. 430-420 (Paus. 1.33.7-8; Plin. HN 46.17; Zen. 5.83) (lost but known through copies such as that in Naples, shown here).
  2. Statue Base of Nemesis of Rhamnous: Nemesis and others (at Helen’s marriage, or the return of Helen) on a relief-decorated base, by Agorakritos of Paros (or perhaps Pheidias) of the cult statue of Nemesis, ca. 430-420 (Paus. 1.33.7-8).
  3. Berlin 30036: a standing female figure, labelled ΝΕΜΕΣΙΣ, on the name vase (a pointed amphoriskos) of the Heimarmene Painter, ca. 430-420, with representations of Peitho, Heimarmene, Tyche or Eukleia, and perhaps Themis.

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