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Helena of Egypt

Ancient Greek mythology, religion and art

Helena (Ἑλένη), daughter of Timonos of Egypt (Τίμωνος τοῦ Αἰγυπτίου), is said to have been a painter who painted a depiction of the Battle of Issos (333 BC) between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. She may have lived in the 4th century BC.

She is known only from a brief passage in one ancient work, the New History (Καινή Ιστορία, Kaine Historia; Latin, Nova Historia), in six books, perhaps in the form of an epic poem, by Ptolemy Hephaistion (Πτολεμαίος τοῦ Ἡφαιστίωνος), who is thought to be the Ptolemy of Alexandria (also known as Ptolemaios Chennos, Πτολεμαῖος Χέννος), described in the Suda as a grammarian and author who lived during the reigns of Roman emperors Trajan (98-117 AD) and Hadrian (117-138 AD) [1].

All his works are now lost, but the New History was summarized in the Bibliotheka (Βιβλιοθήκη) by Photios I (Φώτιος Α΄, circa 810/820 - 893 AD), a patriarch of Constantinople [2]. The summary lists several anecdotes, most quite trivial and many incredible, concerning mythical and historical characters. It is thought that Ptolemy may have invented many of the events and characters he wrote about. Photios described the New History as:

"... intended for scholarship in six books, a work really useful for those who undertake to attempt erudition in history. It can, in fact, give the method to know in a short time connected elements, whereas a long life would be consumed in the effort of locating them in the books through which they are scattered. It abounds in extraordinary and badly imagined information, and the peak of absurdity is that he attempts, for certain trivial fables, to explain the reasons for their appearance." [3]

Helena the painter is included in an anecdotal list (καταλόγος) of famous women named Helena, also including Helen of Troy, which contains several fabulous tales. The reference to her consists of only three or four sentences (depending on how a translator chooses to punctuate it). Ptolemy may have written more about her that Photios decided to omit as surplus to the requirements of his brief summary. We are not told when or where she is supposed to have lived or worked, only that she was the daughter (θυγάτηρ) of Timonos of Egypt and painted the Battle of Issos (333 BC) when "she was at the summit of her talent" [4], and that during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD) the picture was exhibited in the Temple of Peace (Templum Pacis, also known as the Forum of Vespasian, Forum Vespasiani) in Rome.

Photios' extract does not state, as has been claimed, that her father Timonos, who is otherwise unknown, was a painter or her teacher. [5]

"Καὶ ἡ ζωγράφος Ἑλένη τοῦ καταλόγου ἐστὶ τούτου, Τίμωνος τοῦ Αἰγυπτίου θυγάτηρ, ἥτις τὴν ἐν Ἰσσῷ μάχην, ἐν ἐκείνοις ἀκμάζουσα τοῖς χρόνοις, ἔγραψε· καὶ ἐν τῷ τῆς Εἰρήνης τεμένει ἐπὶ Οὐεσπασιανοῦ ἀνέκειτο ἡ γραφή."

"And Helen the female painter also belongs to the list. She was the daughter of Timon the Egyptian. She painted the Battle of Issos at the time when she was at the height of her powers. The picture was displayed in the Temple of Peace under Vespasian." [see note 3]


Detail of the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii at My Favourite Planet

Detail of the "Alexander Mosaic" from
Pompeii, depicting Alexander the Great
fighting the Persian King Darius III at
either the Battle of Issos, 333 BC, or
the Battle of Gaugamela, 331 BC.
Thought to be based on a lost painting.

National Archaeological Museum,
Naples. Inv. No. 10020.

See further information about this mosaic
on the Alexander the Great page
of the MFP People section.

According to other translations, she "painted the Battle of Issus about the time of its occurrence" [6], which strengthens arguments that she lived in the 4th century BC and was a contemporary of Alexander the Great.

This is one of three paintings some modern scholars think may have been the model for the "Alexander Mosaic" (125-120 BC) found at Pompeii. The other two contenders are works attributed by Pliny the Elder to Philoxenos of Eretria and Aristeides of Thebes. However, since none of these paintings have survived, and information concerning their contents and compositions is negligible, theories remain purely conjectural.

The large floor mosaic shows a battle scene in which Alexander charges on horseback towards the chariot of the fear-stricken Darius III, who appears to be retreating in panic. According to ancient accounts, at both the Battle of Issos (or Issus) in 333 BC and the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC Alexander came close to the Persian king who fled the field, which led to the retreat of the Persian army. Despite various theories, it is not known which battle the mosaic depicts.

Pliny the Elder did not specify which battles with Persians were painted by Philoxenos or Aristeides, which may indicate that by his time this information was no longer available. That Ptolemy Hephaistion is said by Photios to have written that Helena painted the Battle of Issos is no proof of a connection to the mosaic. The battles of Alexander were evidently popular subjects in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and there may well have been other pictures of this type about which we know nothing. [7]

Helena is not mentioned by Pliny the Elder, and she does not appear in his short list of female painters:

"There have been some female painters also. Timarete, the daughter of Micon, painted a Diana at Ephesus, one of the very oldest panel paintings known.

Irene, daughter and pupil of the artist Cratinus, painted a figure of a girl, now at Eleusis, a Calypso, an Aged Man, the juggler Theodorus, and Alcisthenes the dancer.

Aristarete, daughter and pupil of Nearchus, painted an Aesculapius [Asklepios].

Iaia of Cyzicus, who always remained single, painted at Rome, in the youth of M. Varro, both with the brush, and with the graver, upon ivory, her subjects being female portraits mostly. At Naples, there is a large picture by her, the portrait of an Old Woman; as also a portrait of herself, taken by the aid of a mirror. There was no painter superior to her for expedition; while at the same time her artistic skill was such, that her works sold at much higher prices than those of the most celebrated portrait painters of her day, Sopolis namely, and Dionysius, with whose pictures our galleries are filled.

One Olympias painted also, but nothing is known relative to her, except that she had Autobulus for a pupil."

Pliny the Elder, Natural history, Book 35, chapter 40. At Perseus Digital Library.

As with other ancient authors, Pliny's testimony on many subjects has been continually questioned by scholars, not the least his attribution of ancient Greek works to particular artists. Much of his information is considered to be second or third hand and questionable on a number of grounds.

In the case of Ptolemy Hephaistion we do not even have his own words, just the summary by Photios, who is thought to have written Bibliotheka in a short time. Photios made it clear that he considered the content of Ptolemy's New History to be full of "extraordinary and badly imagined information", absurdities and "trivial fables" (fabulous stories), and that "the majority of his stories ... are free of things impossible to believe". He describes Ptolemy himself as "a somewhat credulous spirit, inclined to boastfulness", who had critics even in his own time. "He attacks some of his detractors whom he accuses of having approached the subject in an unhealthy way", and, "In treating each of these subjects, he pretends that his detractors have committed errors when they learned them and passed them on". [note 3] Photios may have summarized the work in a way which substantiated his opinion; he was, after all, a Christian prelate reviewing the work of a pagan author on pagan subjects seven centuries after it was written.

If the New History was an epic poem rather than a prose treatise, it may be understandable that Ptolemy used the poetic conceit of freely mixing mythographical and historiographical references and allusions throughout the work. However, many of the items of information are not corroborated by other sources, and we do not know how much he took from other authors or invented himself. This treatment of the data, at least as presented by Photios, makes much of the supposedly historical information questionable. In this case, it seems reasonable to question his account of Helena and her Battle of Issos, and ask whether either ever existed.

There is no doubt that throughout history female artists have received little attention from authors and critics, and that many have had to struggle in order practise their art or gain any kind of reputation for their work. However, when considering the possibility that the "Alexander Mosaic" may be a copy of Helena's Battle of Issos, it seems a more than a little biased in the other direction to claim that "the attribution is disputed because of Helena's gender". There is simply no evidence that the mosaic is a reproduction of a painting, known or unknown, by any artist, even Helena, Philoxenos or Aristeides.

See also:

A discussion of the relationship between ancient Greek paintings and mosaics and their authorship on the Dioskourides of Samos page.

A discussion of reports by ancient authors on the works of artists on the Aetion of Amphipolis page.
of Egypt
Notes, references and links

1. Ptolemaios Chennos in the Suda

The Suda (Σοῦδα) is a Byzantine encyclopedia written in Greek in the 10th - 11th centuries AD (probably around 970 AD). Although the information in the Suda is largely culled from the works of ancient authors, many now lost, its reliability is often considered questionable (see for example, Panyassis of Halicarnassus).

"Ptolemaios of Alexandria. Grammarian. The son of Hephaestion. He lived under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian; he was called Chennus. [He wrote] On astonishing stories; Sphinx (a historical drama); Anthomerus (a poem in 24 rhapsodies); and certain other works."

Πτολεμαῖος, pi, 3037, in Greek with an English translation at Suda On Line.

As ever, there has been speculation and debate about the interpretation of even this short text, including over whether Ptolemaios may have been the father or teacher of Hephaistion rather than his son (ὁ τοῦ Ἡφαιστίωνος in the Suda, Πτολεμαίου τοῦ Ἡφαιστίωνος in Photios).

Even the meaning of Ptolemy's surname or nickname Chennos (Χέννος) is uncertain. It is usually translated as Quail, although it has been suggested that it may have been Xenos (Χένος), Stranger or Foreigner. The epiphet Quail may perhaps have been due to one of his typically peculiar stories mentioned by Photios:

"He says that the person in the first book of Herodotus' Histories who was killed by Adrastus, son of Gordias, was called Agathon and that he was killed in the course of a quarrel about a quail."

Photius of Constantinople, The Bibliotheca, Codex 190, Ptolemy Chennus, New History. At The Tertullian Project by Roger Pearse. [see note 3]

It is thought that his epic poem Περὶ παραδόξου ἱστορίας (On paradoxical/incredible/astonishing histories) may be the New History epitomized by Photios.

See: Ptolemaeus. 13. Of Alexandria, surnamed Chennus, in William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. At Perseus Digital Library.

Another entry in the Suda names a Hephaistion of Alexandria as a grammarian, but it is not clear if he had any connection with Chennos:

"Hephaistion of Alexandria. Grammarian. He wrote a Handbook on metres and various works on metre; On Confusions in Poems; Solutions to Difficulties in Comedy; Solutions in Tragedy; and very many other works. Also the scansions of metres."

Ἡφαιστίων, eta, 659, in Greek with an English translation at Suda On Line.

2. Photios

Photios I (Φώτιος, circa 810/820 - 893 AD), also known as Photios of Constantinople, and by the Eastern Orthodox Church as Saint Photios the Great (Άγιος Φώτιος, or Φώτιος Α΄ ο Μέγας), was the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople 858-867 and 877-886. His Bibliotheka (Βιβλιοθήκη, Library), also known as Myriobiblos (Μυριόβιβλος, Ten thousand books), is a collection of reviews, summaries and extracts of 279 ancient books, around half of which are now lost. Each of the books is usually referred to by a codex number. Ptolemy Hephaistion's New History has the codex number 190.

3. Photios on Ptolemy Hephaistion's New History

The most complete English translation of Bibliotheka has been published online by Roger Pearse, from J. H. Freese's translation (codices 1-165), and his own rendering of René Henry's French translation (codices 166 onwards), with amendations from N. G. Wilson's translation (see the list of texts and translations in note 4):

See: Photius of Constantinople, The Bibliotheca, Codex 190, Ptolemy Chennus, New History. At The Tertullian Project by Roger Pearse.

I have revised Henry's punctuation in the quote concerning Helena to avoid the confusing colons and semi-colons beloved by some translators of ancient works.

4. Texts and translations of Ptolemaios Chennos in Bibliotheka

"... elle peignit la bataille d'Issus au sommet de son talent".

Bibliothèque de Photius, Codex 190 Ptolémée Chennus, Nouvelle Histoire. Greek text and French translation at by Philippe Remacle et al.

The source of the French translation is not cited, but appears to be that by René Henry.

René Henry (1910-1978), Photius: Bibliothèque. Parallel Greek and French text. Published in 8 volumes by Société d'Édition les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1959-1991.

See also:

Photios, Bibliotheca. PDF document at The original text in Greek without commentary or notes. The passage concerning Helena the painter is on page 161.

This document was originally available at the website of the University of the Aegean, Mytilene, but appears to be no longer online there. The codices are not numbered or titled, and the entire text is presented as one continuous paragraph, making it difficult to read or search for particular passages.

The Latin translation of Bibliotheka by the Jesuit scholar André Schott (Latin, Andreas Schottus, 1552-1629) of Antwerp:

Andreae Schotti Antuerpiani, Photii, Bibliotheca. Augsburg, 1606. At the Internet Archive.

The reference to Helena the painter, Codex CXC, section 248, on page 185:

"Helena quoque in hunc censum refertur illa pingendi perita, Timonis Aegyptij filia, quae fuis temporibus gestum Issicum bellum penicillo pinxit, et in Pacis templo à Vespasiano imperatore collocata pictura est."

The Greek text, edited by the Berlin-born philologist August Emmanuel Bekker (1785-1871):

Immanuel Bekker, Photii, Bibliotheca. Georg Reimer, Berlin, 1824. Codex 190 on pages 146-153. The reference to Helena the painter on page 149, right column, lines 29-33.

Some of the Greek text is included in Rudolf Hercher's article on Chennos, although he does not discuss Helena the painter:

Rudolf Hercher (1821-1878), Über die Glaubwürdigkeit der neuen Geschichte des Ptolemaeus Chennus (On the credibility of the New History of Ptolemaeus Chennus). Jahrbücher für classische Philologie, erster Supplementband, pages 269-293. B. G. Teubner, Leipzig, 1855-1856. At the Internet Archive.

John Henry Freese (1852-1930) planned a 6-volume English translation of the Bibliotheka. However, only the first volume, containing codices 1-165, was ever published. One wonders how far he reached with the task of translation, and whether his manuscripts are stored somewhere.

J. H. Freese, The Library of Photius, Volume I. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), London, and The Macmillan Company, New York, 1920. At the Internet Archive.

Nigel Guy Wilson has more recently produced English translations of selected codices, but unfortunately not including Ptolemy Hephaistion.

N. G. Wilson, Photius: The Bibliotheca. Duckworth, London, 1994.
First published in Italian as Fozio: Biblioteca. Italian translation by Claudio Bevegni. Biblioteca Adelphi, Milan, 1992.

5. Parents of ancient artists

The names of Greek artists mentioned in ancient inscriptions and books often appear with those of their fathers, for example "Cephisodotus, the son of Praxiteles" (Pliny the Elder, Natural history, Book 36, chapter 4). It is considered by many modern scholars that such mentions of the parent or child of an artist (usually the father or son; brothers are also sometimes mentioned) inferred that they too were artists. In some cases this has led to the construction of entire genealogies for families of artists, often purely conjectural (see, for example, Skopas). As with other professions, there appears to have been a tradition of children following the trade of their artist fathers (priesthoods and other offices such as that of heralds were also often hereditary). On the other hand, it was quite usual in inscriptions that people were conventionally mentioned as "son of..." or "daughter of...", as we use surnames of family names today, without necessarily implying a connection in their professions.

6. Helena's Battle of Issos

Helena (helena-bio-2), in William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. At Perseus Digital Library.

The dictionary entry does not state the source of the translation. Neither does it claim that the "Alexander Mosaic" is a reproduction of Helena's painting, rather it states:

"It is supposed by some scholars that the well-known mosaic found at Pompeii is a copy of this picture, while others believe it to represent the battle at the Granicus, others that at Arbela. All that can be safely said is, that the mosaic represents one of Alexander's battles, and that in all probability the person in the chariot is Dareius. (Müller, Archäol. d. Kunst, § 163. n. 1, 6.)"

The reference is to: Karl Otfried Müller and Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker, Handbuch der Archaeologie der Kunst, No. 163, 6, pages 172-173. Dritte Auflage, Zweiter Abdruck, Albert Heitz, Munich, 1878. At the Internet Archive. Very academic, terse, and mostly outdated.

See also: Beth Hartley, Novel research: Fiction and authority in Ptolemy Chennus. PhD thesis, University of Exeter, 2014, pages-93-94. PDF document. Hartley includes the Greek text of the passage and her own English translation: "... she painted the Battle of Issus at that very time."

7. Mosaic artists as copyists

Although the tesserae of the "Alexander Mosaic" are described as being of "local stone", it is not known where or by whom the work was made. There appear to have been a number of mosaic artists working around the Greek and Roman world in the 2nd - 1st century BC (see, for example, Dioskourides of Samos), and at least some of them may have been itinerant, travelling to work on commissions to decorate palaces, villas and public buildings in various places.

In order to create such large, finely detailed mosaics, the artists and assistants in their workshops would have required detailed colour sketches from which to work. If the "Alexander Mosaic" is a copy of a painting, the mosaicist or some other artist, perhaps specializing in such work, would presumably have had to see the original in order to make a copy as a painting or sketches. It is also possible that good painted copies of much-admired paintings also existed at other locations, perhaps decorating the houses of the wealthy.

It bothers this author, who is also an artist in several media including mosaic, that ancient mosaicists are seen by some scholars merely as copyists of paintings, admired for their technical skills but denied creative originality. There is also no reason why mosaic makers could not also have been painters and vice versa. Pliny the Elder, the only ancient author to name a mosaic artist, praises the work of Sosos (Natural History, Book 36, chapter 60), Roman imitations of whose "asarotos oikos" (unswept house) still exist, but nowhere does he mention mosaics as copies of paintings. However, as in the case of the Dioskourides works from Pompeii, the existence of a number of mosaics at far-flung locations, depicting the same subject with similar or almost identical compositions, must be evidence of a common original. Whether the originals were mosaics, paintings or even sculptures is perhaps a moot point.
Photos and articles © David John, except where otherwise specified.
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