Last Chance to See: The Motya Charioteer at the British Museum

| 18 September 2012
A photo of a tall Greek stone statue sculpture rising above the floor of a grand museum
© Maurizio De Francisci / Salvo Plano
The British Museum has extended the loan of a magnificent statue, the Motya Charioteer (circa 460-450 BC), in a display opposite the Parthenon sculptures described as a "once-in-a-lifetime" chance to see a classical Greek marble sculpture. Here’s the Museum’s description of it...

This beautiful piece represents the winner of a chariot race that took place almost 2,500 years ago. It is likely to be a statue set up to commemorate a win at one of the major Games by a victor from a Greek city in Sicily, either commissioned by himself as a matter of pride or by his homeland as a mark of honour.

A photo of a tall white marble sculpture of a Greek chariot racer against a black backdrop
© Maurizio De Francisci / Salvo Plano
Victors in the games of ancient Greece were allowed to set up statues of themselves where they won the contest. Sometimes, because a win in one of the major games, then as now, was such good propaganda, his town or city would set up a similar statue in his honour back home.

The Charioteer was found in excavations in Sicily in 1979. The grassland of Sicily and southern Italy was perfect for horse-breeding, and the Greek rulers of cities there, in what was known as Greater Greece, won lots of equestrian victories in the major games, especially at Olympia and Delphi, back in Greece itself.

In an ancient chariot race, with reputedly up to 40 chariots in a contest, there’s no doubt that charioteers put their lives at risk.

We can imagine that the sculpture shows one of the winning charioteers at the conclusion of the race, his body exhausted, yet proud and triumphant with a pushed out chest and erect head.

His hand digs into the flesh of a thrust-out hip, pulling the fine cloth of a long tunic into incredibly realistic folds. The virtually transparent cloth clings to his body with the sweat and effort of the race. The veins on his upper arms still stand out with the blood coursing through.

There have been other alternative interpretations of the figure, but the main reason for identifying it as a charioteer is the long tunic, the xystis, and the broad belt on to which the reins would have been fastened – on the statue, this would have been via fixings in the two holes in the belt at the front.

A photo of a large white marble sculpture of a chariot racer on a crimson museum plinth
© Maurizio De Francisci / Salvo Plano
This prevented the reins from being pulled out of the hands, but also dangerously prevented the charioteer from being thrown free in a crash. Most disasters happened at the turning posts at either end of the oblong track.

The statue was found on a tiny island at the western tip of Sicily, – Motya, which in ancient times was a Phoenician stronghold.

We know that it was from here that the Phoenicians, towards the end of the 5th century BC, raided a number of the Greek cities in Sicily, looting many sculptures and taking them back to their homeland – Carthage, in North Africa.

If this was one of the looted statues, why was it taken to Motya instead? It was actually found built into fortifications which the Phoenicians must have rapidly constructed when Dionysios I, the Greek ruler of Syracuse, invaded in retaliation and sacked Motya not many years later in 397 BC.

In ancient times it wasn’t unusual to utilise statues or any other stonework at hand to hastily build up a barricade in times of siege.

Winning athletes in the ancient games became superheroes, were given massive home-coming parades, and public honours such as free meals and theatre tickets for life.

Some were even thought to have healing powers. They became celebrities, and could command prize money for appearances at festivals. The winner here would find a lot in common with our 2012 sporting heroes.

  • The statue is normally displayed at the Museo Giuseppe Whitaker on Motya and is on loan at the British Museum until September 19 2012  courtesy of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana, with thanks to the Italian Cultural Institute in London.
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