Martin M. Winkler sees antiquity with a cinema eye.

᾽Εν ἀρχῇ ἦν ἡ εἰκών —at least regarding artistic expression. Prehistoric cave paintings amply attest to this fact. As Aristotle once put it: “the soul never thinks without an image” (De anima 431a16-17; image = phantasma). Simonides of Keos already knew that images can tell stories as effectively as words. Plutarch reports that Simonides called painting silent poetry and poetry painting that speaks (Moralia 346f-347a). For poetry we would today say literature or fiction. Related to Simonides’ saying is Horace’s famous dictum ut pictura poesis (Ars poetica 361). Simonides has never been refuted, but does his view apply to storytelling that goes beyond ancient technical limitations? Let us examine this latter point from a cinematic perspective by means of a few representative Greek and Roman examples. If such a procedure convinces, a much larger case can, a fortiori, be made as well.

A black-figure amphora by the Amasis Painter of satyrs engaged in harvesting grapes and making wine presents a sequence of activities through static moments (Fig. 1).

One side, read from right to left, becomes a motion picture in the term’s literal sense: four satyrs are busy at different stages of one action. A fifth is playing the auloi, representing the musical accompaniment on a soundtrack. A preview of coming attractions with satyrs drinking and making merry appears in the frieze above. A sequel on the other side shows Dionysus, the god of wine, sampling what the satyrs now have to offer. Here, too, one satyr provides a music track. Cinematically trained viewers will appreciate the full measure of the painter’s cleverness. One of the earliest images of suspenseful action, a Minoan fresco of bull jumpers (Fig. 2), evinces an even greater complexity.

We see the initial, central, and concluding phases of a single activity. But are we looking at three jumpers, two females (white) and one male (ochre), or at a female (twice) and a male? Is one jump across the bull’s back depicted in three stages, or do the postures of the athletes’ bodies hint at different ways in which Minoans could accomplish such a feat? There may be no conclusive answers, but a cinephile’s eye might discover much more than a casual viewer’s.

The Roman Alexander mosaic (Fig. 3), based on a Hellenistic painting, shows one moment in a whole action spectacle.

We can practically imagine the entire drama before and after this turning point. Two Roman monuments, the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, display lengthy sequences of campaigns from beginning to end; they are visual battle epics replete with long shots, medium shots, and close-ups. Sound is implied as well. On a smaller scale but no less fascinatingly, we have the Panathenaic Procession on the Parthenon Frieze, the frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries near Pompeii showing the different stages of a religious initiation rite in sequential order, and shorter narratives on Roman sarcophagi. Such series are comparable to the static shots on filmstrips that will assume motion only during projection. Alternatively, two or three appearances of one and the same character in individual Roman wall paintings or a triple Aeneas leaving Troy on one of the Tabulae Iliacae provide us with synoptic views of actions in progress across time and place.

Literary compositions often paint images in words. The earliest examples occur in Homer’s Iliad. Most famously, the description of Achilles’ shield in Book 18 contains a number of static pictures that are so intricate as to tell mini-narratives from beginning to end. They are verbal motion pictures. Consequently, in the second century A.D. Lucian could call Homer the best of painters (Imagines 8). The same applies to the complex description of a coverlet in Catullus 64, which contains a virtually—and virtuosic—filmic version of Theseus abandoning Ariadne. And Ovid’s Metamorphoses is famous for its strong visual qualities. So an observation made in 1946 by French film scholar André Bazin, spiritual father of New Wave cinema, is apropos here: “The cinema is an idealistic phenomenon. The concept men had of it existed, so to speak, fully armed in their minds, as if in some platonic heaven.” Bazin illustrated his point with a mythical reference: “the myth of Icarus had to wait for the internal combustion engine….But it had dwelt in the soul of every man since he first thought about birds.” [1] From our modern perspective we realize that classical literature is inherently cinematic. So we can expand Aristotle’s point by saying: the soul never reads without a moving image. Simonides is still right.

No less an authority than Sergei Eisenstein reaffirmed such a perspective. He was one of the greatest and most influential of filmmakers and a prolific writer on the theory and aesthetics of his medium. Eisenstein saw the cinema as the culmination of a continuous history of artistic expression that began with the ancients and encompassed visual means of creativity (painting, sculpture, architecture) and verbal ones (epics, novels). In a long essay on filmmakers’ ancestors, as he called them, Eisenstein traced the history of cinematic storytelling back to antiquity:

Let Dickens and the whole constellation of ancestors, who go as far back as Shakespeare or the Greeks, serve as superfluous reminders that Griffith and our cinema alike cannot claim originality for themselves, but have a vast cultural heritage….Let this heritage serve as a reproach to these thoughtless people with their excessive arrogance towards literature, which has contributed so much to this apparently unprecedented art, and most important, to the art of viewing. [2]

Eisenstein even credited Homer with introducing the idea of filmic montage, the fundamental concept in cinema. In an essay on Lessing’s Laocoon, in which Homer plays a prominent part, Eisenstein intended “to demonstrate the similarity between the methods of montage and this ancient, seminal epic [the Iliad] that dates from the very infancy of mankind.” The “‘montage sequence’” in Homer, he wrote,

has its own breaks, its compositional juxtapositions or the rhythm of the montage series in aiming at the image we wish to attribute to an event and by which we want to represent that event….we [take] the starting point of cinema aesthetics to be the psychological phenomenon of creating an image, as being the conscious human content of this primary cell of ‘the technical marvel’ of cinematography. [3]

Augustan poet Manilius pointed out that all storytelling begins with Homer (Astronomica 2.8-11). Wolfgang Petersen, director of Troy (2004; director’s cut, 2007), has added a modern analogy: “If there is something like a tree of storytelling, on which each book, each film, is a tiny leaf, then Homer is its trunk.” [4] Homer was the best of painters to Lucian, the first of filmmakers to Eisenstein, the source of all narrative to Manilius and Petersen. Small wonder that classical antiquity has played a major part throughout the history of cinema almost since its invention.

Greek director Theodore Angelopoulos illustrated in 1995 that Homer is a kind of godfather to film directors. While working on Ulysses’ Gaze, an epic film intended as homage to Homer, the Odyssey, and the art and culture of cinema, Angelopoulos contributed the final episode to Lumière and Co. This anthology film is a tribute to Auguste and Louis Lumière on the centenary of their invention of the cinematograph, a combination of film camera and projector. As did the other directors, Angelopoulos used the brothers’ original camera to film the arrival of Odysseus on the shores of Ithaca. It lasts less than a minute, the length of filmstrip that the cinematograph could originally accommodate.

A bewildered Odysseus (Fig. 4) looks straight into the camera as he asks in an intertitle taken from Homer: “In which foreign country have I arrived?” (Odyssey 13.200). The answer is clear: Odysseus has discovered the cinema, a medium that is by nature Homeric. The quasi-Cyclopean eye of the camera is the best proof of this pleasing fact. We see an example at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), whose subject is the production of a film of the Odyssey.

Almost menacingly, the camera is staring down on us viewers (Fig. 5). At that time, well before the advent of home video, cinemagoers had to sit in a dark and cavernous hall looking up on the screen, so the analogy worked better then than it does now. But it still holds true. And it points us to an astonishing ancient parallel, the earliest prefiguration of a cinema theater. In the Cave Allegory in Book 7 of Plato’s Republic, moving shadow images are projected onto a wall before viewers “riveted to their seats,” as we might say today about watching a black-and-white thriller. There even were sounds. Evidently, Bazin was right about the cinema as an idealistic phenomenon, if not one descending from the Platonic heavens but ascending from the Platonic cave.

Like Aristotle, Simonides, and Lucian, Eisenstein was right, too. He should therefore have the last word: “It seems that all the arts, across the centuries, have tended toward the cinema. Conversely, the cinema aids us in understanding their methods.” [5]


[1] André Bazin, “The Myth of Total Cinema,” in Bazin, What Is Cinema? New ed., ed. and tr. Hugh Gray, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 17-22; quotations at 17 and 22, slightly corrected.

[2] Eisenstein, “Dickens, Griffith and Ourselves,” in Eisenstein, Selected Works, vol. 3: Writings: 1934-47, ed. Richard Taylor; tr. William Powell (1988; rpt. London and New York: Tauris, 2010), 193-238; quotation at 222. Griffith is American film pioneer D. W. Griffith, generally credited with discovering the grammar and syntax of film language.

[3] Eisenstein, “Laocoön,” in Eisenstein, Selected Works, vol. 2: Towards a Theory of Montage (1991; rpt. London and New York: Tauris, 2010), 109-202; quotations at 157 and 162.

[4] Translated from Tobias Kniebe, “Homer ist, wenn man trotzdem lacht: ‘Troja’-Regisseur Wolfgang Petersen über die mythischen Wurzeln des Erzählens und den Achilles in uns allen” (interview), Süddeutsche Zeitung (May 11, 2004); interview-homer-ist-wenn-man-trotzdem-lacht-1.429599 (no longer freely accessible).

[5] Translated from François Albera, “Introduction,” in S. M. Eisenstein, Cinématisme: peinture et cinéma: Textes inédits, tr. Anne Zouboff (Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1980), 7-12; quotation at 7. Cinematism is Eisenstein’s coinage.

Martin M. Winkler is University Professor and Professor of Classics at George Mason University in Virginia. His most recent books are Classical Literature on Screen: Affinities of Imagination (2017; softcover, 2020) and Ovid on Screen: A Montage of Attractions (2020), both from Cambridge University Press. After dealing with antiquity and cinema for many years, he now sees the world mostly in the grandeur of CinemaScope and in gorgeous life-like color by DeLuxe.

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