Gigantomachy across two forms of Art: Architecture and Literature

Get your history heads on: we’re diving into Greek and Roman mythology!

Pergamon Altar. Aphrodite and Eros. / Tarker / Bridgeman Images

Gigantomachy is most typically defined as the battle that took place between the titans (or giants) and the gods, and appears multiple times throughout classical Roman and Greek art, architecture and literature.

Reconstructed Altar on the Acropolis of Pergamon (engraving), American School, (19th century) (after) / Private Collection / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

One of the most famous depictions of gigantomachy appears on the frieze of the Permagon Altar, the altar of a temple possibly built in dedication to Zeus and Athena upon the order of Eumenes II, though it is unclear exactly who it is in honour of.

Pergamon Altar. Zeus against Porphyrion (right). / Tarker / Bridgeman Images

Although the composition may appear to be quite complex and at times disordered, there is actually a sense of structure within the composition relating back to ancient texts that dictate which god fights which giant. Zeus (or Jupiter, depending on whether you view the gods from a Roman or Greek standpoint), is always depicted fighting Porphyrion – who is the king of the giants according to the Greek poet Pindar.

Pergamon Altar. Leto and Apollo fighting against Tityos and Ephialtes. / Tarker / Bridgeman Images

Enceladus, whom tears up trees to use as spears according to the Latin poet Horace, is traditionally paired with Athena and Tityos is typically paired with Artemis and Apollo, the children of Leto. This depiction of gigantomachy serves a most typical function: to hail and honour the gods to whom the temple is dedicated. However, this isn’t the same across all accounts of the battle.

Horace (engraving), Thevet, Andre (1504-92) (after) / Private Collection / Look and Learn / Elgar Collection / Bridgeman Images

For example, the poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known simply as Horace, writes of the Gigantomachy in his book Odes III, poem IV. His depiction of the battle follows the same rules as the others, with specific gods tied to specific titans, but instead of being directly dedicated to a single divine figure, his subtly alludes to and flatters the real world Emperor Augustus, to whom he had fallen out of favour with due to his decision to fight against him alongside Mark Antony at the battle of Actium.

Augustus Prima Porta. Vatican Museums. / Tarker / Bridgeman Images

The fact that Horace survived after going against Augustus is unusual and quite miraculous as very, very few people actually did and it is still unknown actually why he did survive. Through this subtle flattery of Augustus, comparing him to (and effectively turning him into) a god, Horace may have gained favour.

Mark Antony (engraving), English School, (19th century) / Private Collection / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

There is still a belief that there is an underlying hint at his previous allegiance to Antony, as seen through the family dynamics between the giants and the gods somewhat mirrored in the relationship between Antony and Augustus themselves (Antony was briefly married to Augustus’ sister, making them step-brothers and the giants were supposedly related to the gods though Gaia, their mother and a sibling of the gods). But the analysis of the intricacies opens up a whole world of additional stories.

The gigantomachy is, overall, subject to a vast number of interpretations and different uses in the portrayal of power and depiction of devotion within both Greek and Roman art, literature and architecture, not singularly limited to one specific idea and representation.

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