Adding an Ancient Face to a Famous Name

Image of the Week: Learn about this bust of Memnon, protégé of the Athenian philosopher Herodes Atticus.

Greek; Thyreatis (Peloponnesus), second century, marble. H: 27.3 cm. Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Antikensammlung, SK 1503.

(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

This marvelous bust is one of the very few documents of an actual black person from Greek and Roman antiquity. Memnon was a pupil and protégé of the well-known Athenian entrepreneur and philosopher Herodes Atticus. It was found more than a century ago in one of several villas owned by Herodes, and it adds a face to the name of the person recorded by Philostratus in his Lives of the Sophists, an account of the famous philosophers of the second century.

The exact circumstances of Memnon’s entry into this celebrated milieu are unknown, but there is no doubt about the esteem in which he was held. He was given the sobriquet “Memnon” in reference to the Ethiopian ally of the Trojans in Homer’s Iliad. Philostratus and other sources record the extreme grief manifested by Herodes upon the early death of Memnon.

An interesting aspect of this head’s modern reception was its initial characterization as that of a savage hunter, constantly aware of his natural environment but incapable of abstract thought. Once the association with Herodes’ Memnon was made, however, the ideal of the noble savage was replaced by the perception of a great character of introspection, even melancholy.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.