Telamones, Atlantes, and Atlases: men who lifted up buildings in the classical world?

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In the year 479 BCE, Greeks coming together from the states of Athens, Sparta, and Corinth defeated the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea.

This was their last encounter on land which put an end to the second attempt by Persians to seize control of Greek territory.

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Greek Victory over the Persian Empire

The Greeks wanted to commemorate their victory by setting an unforgettable example for later generations.

Putting the spoils of war to good use, they constructed the Persian Porch.

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In Vitruvius’s own words:

… there they set effigies of the prisoners arrayed in barbarian costume and holding up the roof, their pride punished by this deserved affront, that enemies might tremble for fear … and that their own people … encouraged … might be ready to defend their independence. 

Book four, ‘The ten books on architecture’ by Marcus Vitruvius.

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Telamon or Atlas were the names given to the male versions of a Caryatid, after which they were modelled. (Read about Caryatids in this post.)  

They were usually represented by a gigantic muscular figure supporting a building with his shoulders and head.

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Such figures were quite dynamic and exhibited the strain they were subjected to by bending forward.

Their muscles were all tensed up and faces contorted due to the apparent heaviness of the weight.  

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Image Credit Wikimedia Commons

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The Eternal Burden of Atlas

In Greek myth, Atlas along with his brother joined the Titans fighting Olympians in the war known as Titanomachy.

When Titans ultimately lost the war, Zeus decided to punish Atlas, by forcing him to lift the sky high above the earth.

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He then became known as Atlas Telamon meaning the one who is able to withstand a heavy burden.

In ancient art, he can often be seen as carrying planetary bodies.

Telamon was the name by which such a support became more well known in the Roman architectural vocabulary.

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View of an Atlas Telamon among the ruins of the Temple of Zeus in Agrigento

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At the Temple of Olympian Zeus

One of the oldest examples of Atlas Telamon pillars has been found in the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Agrigento, Sicily, dating back to the 5th century BCE.

The temple had Doric columns at the front, backed by Atlases measuring more than 24 feet high.

The male nudes stood tall with their arms bent backwards, taking up the weight on their hands and elbows.

Telamones from the Interior of the Cella of the Temple of Zeus at Agrigento

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Baths of Pompeii

Another early instance of Telamones, on a much smaller scale, occurs in the Baths of Pompeii.

These were figures made in terracotta with a meagre 2-foot height.

An Atlas from the Pompeiian Baths, Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Dwarf Atlas Telamones standing along the walls of the Roman Baths in Pompeii

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P.S. Take a moment to see the Classical Scroll architecture prints. You definitely won’t regret it!    

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