Visual Propaganda during the Hellenistic Period

Written by Faidon Moudopoulos. Edited by Isabel Fleming.

Media, defined as the means of mass communication, is a wide and ambiguous term. I would like to shorten this term and focus on propaganda. Propaganda is the organized dissemination of information that can support or foment a political, religious, economical, or other status quo. People nowadays witness it in terms of mass media.

As an archaeologist, my concern is about the past, when the advanced technology of mass media as we know it today didn’t exist. Power and visual propaganda are two words closely related and their history goes back in time, before the creation of modern media.

This article aims to reveal the use of media as a means of propaganda in the Hellenistic period. It is an attempt to find the relation between a society of the past and ours. In terms of mass media, we should forget all that we know as, during the Hellenistic period, technology was less advanced in this area. In the archaeological record, we have two means of visual propaganda. The first is the statues of rulers and the second is the money people used in their everyday life. I will try to prove that these means were to legitimize and promote the existing power to the consciousness of the masses.

Bust of Seleucus I

After the death of Alexander the Great there was a clash between his generals in order to gain the power over the vast expanse of his empire. Five generals struggled for over twenty years (323 – 301 B.C) in order to prevail in terms of power and sovereignty over land. Many battles were fought; former friends and comrades were slain in this quest for power. Around 304 B.C, the first kingdoms were formed. Ptolemy claimed Egypt, while Seleucus’s rule expanded from Mesopotamia to the borders of India. The state of affairs in Asia Minor remained unsettled until the rise of the dynasty of Pergamum around 280 B.C.

The first generation of leaders in the Hellenistic period needed to establish their power in their newly formed kingdoms. The problems they had to face were enormous. They were Greeks but their land belonged to people influenced by civilizations that had existed before them. Alexander had been able to control these lands in peace, so the new leaders needed to be seen as his descendants. To maintain the cohesion of their kingdoms, they needed to make themselves known and legitimized to the masses. To achieve this, they erected statues of themselves across their kingdom, in order to get recognized by the people. The same idea is applied to coinage, where they used to have their faces illustrated on one side. But a few problems emerged concerning their depiction.

All the first leaders were warriors, grown old by the battles they fought on the side of Alexander. As they were elderly their natural characteristics would not help them to maintain power, as people might think that an old leader wouldn’t be able to protect them from danger, nor lead them to a glorious future. As a result, sculptors were ordered to create statues with idealized characteristics, which would appeal to the populace. For example, Seleucus needed to have both an active and military profile, because he was fighting to maintain his lands against rebellions and external threats. His idealized portrait is depicted as vigilant and ready to protect his subjects. In reality though, he was incapable of doing so because of his age.

Coins were the other means of Hellenistic propaganda. Symbols, known to the audience, were depicted on small coins in order to relate the ruler with divine powers. The most accurate example is a coin from the period of Ptolemy the Third. On face ‘A’ he is depicted with three divine symbols. On his back we notice Poseidon’s trident, which is a symbol for the domination of his dynasty in maritime trade routes. On the head he wears a crown that is identified as the crown of Helios, the sun, while around his neck he possess the aegis of the goddess Athena, symbol of protection against enemies of the empire. The side ‘B’ of the coin has on it the cornucopia, a symbol of abundance. It is obvious that this coin was an effective means to create an image of a great and powerful ruler, able to protect his kingdom and help it thrive in future.

At the end of the Hellenistic period the power of the Romans had arisen. Mithridates VI of Pontus was one of the last leaders who opposed to the Romans at their attempt to conquer the Hellenistic world. He was young and spirited; his skills as a warrior were widely known. His portrait is highly idealistic and the profile of a charismatic leader is created by the smooth finishing of the marble. The frowning forehead gives the idea of alertness. On his head he wears the lionskin of Hercules, a symbol of great strength and power.

It is clear that throughout the Hellenistic period, styles and needs changed and evolved. But in such a destabilized world of disputes and intrigues, one of the ways to keep people aware of their prestigious leader was through the art of propaganda. These examples of media were adopted from the Romans and they became the principal means of their propaganda as well.