Exhibit of the month

View all past exhibits of the month


African dancer, entertainer


National Archaeological Museum

Bronze Collection, inv. no. X16787

Provenance: Ambelokipoi area, Athens[1]

Dimensions: height 25cm, diameter of base 9.7cm.

(stands on an ancient disc-shaped base, which is not the original)

Date: Probably 200-150 BC

Display location: Room 38, showcase 51


The bronze statuette, almost intact but strongly oxidized, represents a mature man in a momentary dynamic movement. The man twists his torso to the right, while slightly bending his head. Together with the torso he moves his arms crossways, and with his thin limbs he gives rhythm to his movement and controls the balance of his body. Half-naked, with a pleated loincloth tied in a knot on the left buttock, the man dances[2] while playing with a small ball in the fingers of his right hand. A second ball would have balanced on his bare head, where only a trace of it survives, and with the synchronized movements of his hands he would have tossed the balls up in the air like a juggler[3]. Two garlands[4] braided with ribbons inlaid with silver, one on the neck, another on the head, complete his distinctive features.

The facial features and tall lean limbs identify the man as an African or Ethiopian, as the ancient Greeks used to name[5] and depict in art[6] the ethnic tribes of Africa. His gaze is penetrating, perhaps due to the silver inlaid inside the eye sockets, while his heavy worn face betrays the weariness of old age in contrast to the body that still seems to retain some of its vitality. Dancing figures or jugglers of various types and ages, skilled entertainers[7] in public spaces and private banquets in general, belong to the variety of themes of Hellenistic art, which expresses by way of realistic images the cosmopolitan world of an era during which citizens of multilingual nationalities with diverse customs are intermingled. The African entertainer also belongs to this everyday world of the newly established huge cities of the East and Egypt. His appearance does not conform to divine or heroic standards of art, but represents a figure who has lived a full experienced life, and earns a living from a humble and ephemeral art. The theme, style and artistic quality of the work point to its being a creation of an Alexandrian workshop[8] dated to the first half of the 2nd c. BC.[9] Perhaps it was there that a skilled coppersmith, an enviable “psychographer” of his time, gave life and emotion to the bronze statuette.


[1] It was found inside a pit 2 m. deep during excavation works carried out by the Athens Water Company near the Panathinaikos football stadium in 1964, together with other bronze statuettes of various sizes, miniature copies or reworkings of well-known Classical and, chiefly, Hellenistic works. For the interesting circumstances of discovery of the statuettes, see Ph. Stavropoulos, Ανασκαφικαί εργασίαι και τυχαία ευρήματα εντός της περιμετρικής ζώνης της πόλεως των Αθηνών, ΑΔ 20, 1965, Χρονικά Β΄1, 103-107.

[2] According to one interpretation, the man performs a characteristic dance pose referred to as a “finger clap”, if the fingers of the right hand (middle and thumb) are indeed joined.

[3] The suggestion that the man juggles a small ball like a professional spectacle entertainer is analyzed in the thorough publication of this work by Semni Karouzou.

[4] According to Athenaeus (Deipnosofists 15.674 c-e, 678f) and Plutarch (Sympotic Problems 3.1.3, 647e-f), hypothymides are the characteristic flower wreaths worn by the participants in banquets (symposiasts, musicians, dancers, entertainers and servants). Braided ribbons held the flowers together and their scent gave a special fragrance to the atmosphere, but it also removed the vapors of intoxication. Moreover, the wreaths at the banquets indicated their connection with the divine element and gave them a sacred character. This custom, already known in Attic 5th and 4th c. BC vase painting, spread from the East through the Ionian land to other Greek regions. Terracotta figurines of dancers from Taranto (Magna Graecia) and Myrina (Asia Minor) wear wreaths similar to those of our bronze statuette.

[5] In the Iliad there is a reference to the blameless (“amymones”) Ethiopians (1.423) who live in the Ocean, dine together with Zeus and the other gods in banquets and “offer great sacrifices to the immortals” (23.205-207). According to Herodotus (II. 22 and 29 and elsewhere in the book), black people belonging to the non-Libyan tribes below the great desert are conventionally called Ethiopians. Herodotus, apparently influenced by Homer, argues that there are two different tribes of Ethiopians, differing in language and hair (VII. 70), while in his account of the campaign of Cambyses and the conquest of Egypt, he also mentions the campaign of the Persian emperor against “the long-lived Ethiopians living in Libya, near the southern sea” (III.17), who “are said to be the tallest and most beautiful of all people” (III. 20).

[6] Strict artistic conventions are used to convey the racial characteristics of “foreigners” in ancient Greek art, like those of black Africans or Ethiopians, depictions of whom have survived to the present day. The main identifying feature of Ethiopians in antiquity was the dark color of their skin, as well as their facial features and hair. It should here be noted that Classical art focused on the extreme differences between Greeks and barbarians – that is, all non-Greeks. However, the Hellenistic world brought the Greeks into much closer contact with many different cultures.

[7] It is noteworthy that the bronze statue X16787 finds no exact stylistic or morphological parallel. The Hellenistic examples closest to it are a terracotta figurine from Boeotia (Altes Museum-Antikensammlung, Berlin) depicting a young African wearing a wreath around his neck and juggling balls; another bronze figurine of an African (Arndt Collection, Munich Glyptothek) dancing in a similar pose and wearing a similar wreath in his hair, and a clay figurine from Memphis (Benaki Museum, inv. no. 12224) wearing such a wreath around his neck.

[8] Well-known during this period are the artistic workshops of the bustling city of Alexandria in Egypt, which are distinguished not only for their large-scale monumental creations but also for the meticulous rendering of small works in copper, marble and other stones, stucco and, mainly, terracotta.

[9] However, one has to take in account the view of Krystalli-Votsi that the statue, which assimilated Hellenistic tradition, may have been cast in contemporary Attic workshops, although this does not seem compatible with the meticulous rendering of details, such as the silver inlays in the wreaths and eye sockets, as well as the attention to the realistic rendering of anatomical and facial features. Therefore, this work differs from the other statues from Ampelokipoi which must have been made in important Attic workshops which flourished during Imperial times, especially from the 1st c. BC to the 1st and 2nd c. AD.


Sapfo Athanasopoulou



Karouzou, S., Χάλκινο αγαλμάτιο σφαιροπαίκτου, θαυματοποιού, ΑΕ 1975, 1-18.

Krystalli-Votsi, P., Τα Χαλκά των Αμπελοκήπων, Athens 2014, 95-101.

Tiverios, Μ.Α., Συμπόσιο και συμποσιακό τελετουργικό στην αρχαία Αθήνα, Thessaloniki 2020, 59-64

Beardsley, G. H., The Negro in Greek and Roman Civilization: A Study of the Ethiopian Type, Baltimore 1929

Coleman, J. E. and C. A. Walz, eds. Greeks and Barbarians: Essays on the Interactions between Greeks and Non-Greeks in Antiquity and the Consequences for Eurocentrism. Bethesda, Maryland 1997.

Lacy, C., The Greek View of Barbarians in the Hellenistic Age, as Derived from Representative Literary and Artistic Evidence from the Hellenistic Period. Ph.D. diss., University of Colorado 1976, 163–300.

Snowden, F. M., Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience, Cambridge, Mass. 1971.

Newsletter sign-up