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The Gate of Silenus
None of the other gates of Thasos —and few others in the Aegean world—give such a rich sense of the significance of an entrance through the walls of a city as the *Gate of Silenus. Its lintel is missing, as well as a couple of metres of wall and crenellation above; but the massive masonry, in parts so delicately finished, the paved street, the proximity of the housing blocks and, above all, the unforgettable *relief image of Silenus himself, create a unique ensemble. The image which was carved around 500 bc occupies the full height of a single block of marble standing 2.50m high; it must therefore qualify to be one of the largest relief figures in Greek art. Silenus, like a larger-than-life, naked cowboy, sporting a long pony tail of hair and wearing nothing but leather boots, heads into the town, in a state of high sexual excitement, with his left hand open and a drinking vessel in his right hand. In front of him is a carved and pedimented niche for offerings. Wine was an important economic staple of the island and Silenus’s association with wine must partially explain his prominence both here and on the city’s coin age: but a full explanation can only be arrived at by an understanding of Silenus’s wider significance. He was a frequenter of the crowded town-centre, not of the Olympian heights of the acropolis where Apollo and Athena were honoured.
For the Western mind, formed by 2,000 years of thinking along an axis of largely Christian values and morality, Silenus is a figure hard to grasp and to understand. For a Hindu it is perhaps easier since there are rich similarities to such figures and creations in Indian literature and belief. Grotesque and yet immortal, bestial and yet divine, crude, mischievous and yet renowned for wisdom—even the words we use to describe Silenus in English, prejudge and dis tort our understanding from the outset. Silenus was not to the ancients an embarrassment. The Thasians would hardly have dedicated this largest of all relief sculptures to him on one of their city gates, if he were. Nor would they have chosen him for the image on their earliest coinage.
Plato in the Symposium (215b) makes Alcibiades liken Socrates’s appearance and wisdom to the ‘silen’ Marsyas. Silenus—his habits, his friends and every thing he stood for—was not to be shunned but to be included in the great panoply of invisible forces. For this reason in the Thasos relief, though naked, preposterously erect and waving a drinking cup in his right hand, he heads with determination for the centre of town: he is a source not of fear or embarrassment but of laughter, creative prosperity and release.
Comic theatre makes us momentarily suspend moral judgement; we have to do the same with Silenus. We have no problem with the idea that there might be a hidden wisdom in the foolery of a clown or a comic, and this is the spirit in which to approach the figure of Silenus. It is true that nobody would suggest that there is anything divine about comic actors; but there is about laughter, and the vision that comedy gives us of the world. Silenus is more though than a divine embodiment of slapstick. He was the teacher of the infant Dionysos. He embodied transformation—the transformation of a person and the suspension of care which follows on drinking wine (itself a transformation of fruit) and on hearing reed and pipe music (itself a transformation of a plant). All those things that he stands for—sex, drink, laughter and music—transform: they take us out of ourselves, and bring us closer to others at a different level. For this reason, his enduring insight, which he revealed to King Midas (and with which many great comedians would concur), was that it was best for mankind never to have been born—but that since he had been and nothing could change it, he should try to step outside of life as soon and as much as was possible. Herodotus (Histories VIII. 138) tells of the place in Macedonia where, supposedly, Silenus was once surprised and trapped by Midas: it was a garden ‘where roses grow wild—wonderful blooms with sixty petals apiece, and sweeter smelling than any others in the world.
’ The unusual characteristic of the area of habitation just inside the Gate of Silenus is that its buildings have had to be raised on more than one occasion to avoid flooding caused by a continuous rise in the water-table during Antiquity: this is true of the threshold of the gate, too. The form of the streets and the layout of the buildings are nonetheless well defined here. This was a more popular area of shops, workshops and small houses, than the quarter by the Gate of Hermes. The protruding stones on the right-hand side of the street running in from the gate probably mark the limits within which each shop-own er could display wares in the public space. Note also the particularly fine finishing of the stonework on the outer (south) corner of the projecting tower.
Thasos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.