The History of the Riace Bronzes

Who were the Bronzes? Who made them?  What do they represent? This question has no immediate answer, because we have lost our understanding of iconography. 
The Riace Bronzes exhibited in the hall of the National Archeological Museum of Reggio Calabria (MArRC)

Who were the Bronzes? Who made them?  What do they represent?

Our modernist approach to Greek and Roman imagery is one of the main problems we face when studying learning about the ancient world. A question like ‘Who were the Bronzes?’ has no immediate answer, because we have partially lost our understanding of ancient iconography. 

The Bronzes Iconography

The Bronzes are shown in their ‘heroic nudity’. In the Greek world, only deities and heroes – including contemporary heroes, such as the winners of Panhellenic games – were depicted naked, while ordinary mortals had to be portrayed in their clothes or armour. 

Hence, based on the above assumption, the two Bronzes are most likely to depict two heroes. According to the iconographic conventions of the time, their status as warriors had to be portrayed with helmets, shields, and spears. Both statues from Riace portray hoplites, wielding typical mid-5th century BC weapons.

The cap on the head of Bronze B, called kyne in Greek, designates him as a king or a tyrant, a founder of a city or new settlement, or a strategist. This is an important cue restricting the scope of scholar investigations into identifying the portrayed character.

The Riace Bronze called B exhibited at the Reggio Calabria Museum. According to some scholars it could be the statue of Etèocle.

The Bronzes Likely to be Part of a Sculptural Group

Historians of Greek art have identified several similarities with the ‘Fratricides’, a sculptural group well known in antiquity made by Pythagoras of Reggio, a bronzesmith following a severe Peloponnesian style, and the author of numerous sculptures of winners of Panhellenic Games, as well as of some celebrated statues of deities and heroes. By comparing the various ‘Fratricides’ groups, all of them found in Rome or its surroundings, two peculiar features can be observed: the mother of Eteocles and Polynices takes centre stage. She is portrayed while trying to stop the fight between her two sons. One of the two brothers has an aggressive expression on its face, captured by all artists. Its iconography is matched only by Bronze A, which shows his teeth as a sign of aggression. This allows us to identify the statues from Riace as Eteocles (B) and Polynices (A), caught while their mother is attempting to prevent their violent death, as narrated by Stesichorus. On the basis of this comparison, the Riace Bronzes could be assumed to belong to the ‘Fratricides’, the celebrated sculptural group by Pythagoras of Reggio. 

Who are These Fratricides? 

They are Eteocles (Bronze B) and Polynices (Bronze A), sons of Oedipus. After their father abdicated, they fought against each other in order to ascend to the throne of Thebes. Under an initial agreement between them, they were to share the kingdom, ruling one year each. However, Eteocles broke the agreement, banishing his brother to permanent exile. 

Polynices, betrayed by his brother, went to Argos, where he married Argia, daughter of Adrastus, the king of the polis. His father-in-law supported him in conquering back Thebes. This is where the story of the Seven against Thebes begins. Intense and acrimonious struggles would follow, until the next generation  – that of the Epigonians – when the right to the throne of Thebes was granted to Polynices’ progeny.