All societies possess power, and their gods claim power in different forms. This causes groups of people from the ancient cultures of the Near East to modern nation states to express their understanding of power in art work. Two works of art reveal a perspective on power in the ancient world. The first appears on a palette of slate from Egypt, the Palette of King Narmer from Hierakonpolis, ca. 3150-3125 BCE. The second appears at the Art Institute of Chicago, in a Roman marble carving entitle, Sarcophagus Panel Depicting the Abduction of Persephone, dating from AD 190/200. Both works are anonymous, but through a comparison of their similarities and differences, we will discover that the Egyptians and Romans held alternative views of the nature of divine power.
The Egyptian palette shows a king on one side and a variety of images related to agriculture and civilization building on the other. The king occupies most of the first side, as he stands with royal headdress and wields a large club, raised over his head. At his feet sits a slave or enemy. The king has placed a small pike on the head of his enemy, so the picture suggests that he is about to strike the man, who looks quite helpless. Below them are two smaller men that look like the cowering victim, yet they gaze up at the king in what we must believe to be fear. They are not armed and hold their hands up in danger.
What is the view of power in this Egyptian work? First, power resides with the king, who stands over his enemies and crushes them. Second, power inspires fear in his enemies, who lie below the king and appear either in terror or paralyzed by their fear. Third, the images at the top right and left of the palette further communicate the power of the king. There are two bull’s heads. The bull was primarily a sign of strength and power in the ancient Near East. Thus, these images emphasize the power of the king, who rules unchallenged and unquestionably dominates his enemies.
The Roman marble carving is much more complex than the Egyptian palette. It includes intricate human shapes such as muscles and hair, as well as quite vivid facial expressions. However, in addition to these surface differences between the two pieces of work, we also see distinctions in their representations of power. The Roman carving depicts a scene inspired by beliefs in Roman gods. Hades, god of the underworld, has abducted Persephone, and in response, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and mother to Persephone, searches for her. Between them stand three goddesses that appear alarmed and frantic at the kidnapping of Persephone.
What can we conclude about power in this art work? First, Hades appears to have the most direct power, as he has stolen Persephone and appears successful. Second, his actions inspire alarm, as Demeter searches and the other goddesses scramble in panic. Thus far the Roman art appears similar to the Egyptian art in terms of power. However, the theme changes when we consider other elements of the Roman work.
The goddess Demeter was in control of the harvest. She oversaw crop fertility and blessed or denied agricultural blessing to the Roman people. As the museum caption notes, the disappearance of Persephone caused Demeter to abandon her harvest responsibilities and thus resulted in a famine in the land. In other words, the art work depicts not only the robbery of a child but the mother’s search and its consequences. The work explains the famine event by way of a story about the gods.
What is most important is the nature of the gods in the Roman work as compared to the nature of the king in the Egyptian work. The goddess Demeter is in a sense defeated. She cannot attend to her harvest responsibilities and so far has failed to rescue her daughter. We see no sign of weakness or failure in the Egyptian palette. As a matter of fact, the backside of the tablet shows abundance cultural life in addition to the king’s militaristic victory. All aspects of the culture are accounted for. Yet in the Roman marble, Demeter is subject to weakness and failure. The goddess also appear frenzied and frightened rather than composed and in control. Therefore, the depictions of power in Roman and Egyptian art, at least the two examples here examined, display contrasting views of power.
We have seen that the marble carving from second century Rome and the slate palette from ancient Egypt display similar characters and emotions. Both show those who held status as powerful gods for the people, whether in king or slight myth. Also, fear appears in both works. Yet the nature of power differs, as the characters show strength and weakness in different ways or not at all. This contrast prompts us to look beyond stylistic differences and similarities and into the themes and beliefs of the people. Power constitutes one category, but many others would be fruitful. How might ideas of fertility, work and progress, relationships, classes in society, and the afterlife inform our study of these works? What does this then tell us about the people and their times? Such are only a few of the questions that might be pursued.