Acantha & Callimachus: Invention of Corinthian Order

Corinthian Capitals - Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens
Corinthian Capitals - Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens

With the article Acantha and Callimachus: The Invention of the Corinthian Order, the first of the two parts of the tribute to the timeless motif and its creator begins.

Where in this first part will dominate the figure of this great artist, Callimachus, in combination with myths, prejudices and historical events, while the second part will be entirely dedicated to the creation, ie the artistic and other adventures of the Acantha motif .

And while we assume that the lack of interest in reading for such topics is a fact, the whole editorial team of "Kalligergia" feels the need to declare that it continues its untimely journey on the web, promising the few remaining brave and courageous readers, and other such failures in the future.

What's up Back ?

By the dragging of censor the awe-inspiring Apocalypse shall come

Acanthus mollis (Bear's Breeches)

The lost bronze sculpture of the Callimachus Venus Genetrix, as rendered in a marble copy.

Venus Genetrix, Roman Copy of Classical Statue by Callimachus
Venus Genetrix, Roman Copy of Classical Statue by Callimachus
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The Genesiac Myth of Acantha

In the Ancient Greek Pantheon, it was more than usual – and therefore we could say that it was almost an institution – for the Gods and Goddesses to fall in love with other gods, godesses, deities, but also common mortals, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.

It was almost impossible for a supreme god, the god of Light and protector of the Arts, Apollo, to abstain from this divine practice – … that it was almost an institution.

Apollo and Acantha

When one speaks of a love affair in general, one mostly means or implies the mutual attraction of two people and the situations they experience, precisely because of this attraction.

But, especially in relation to our subject, to refer to an erotic adventure, may of course be valid from the side of the god Apollo, however from the point of view of the beautiful nymph, there can be no other reason than a bad encounter, for the history of its unjust punishment.

Because the god Apollo may have fallen in love with her and wanted to express his love for the nymph, but the nymph rejected both him and his divine love.

But the god – who did not understand anything, although god – continued to "besiege" her, obviously not in the most decent way, forcing at some point the beautiful nymph, who was obviously in defense, to scratch his divine face nonetheless.

After this act of the beautiful nymph, the rejected and scratched God of the highest hierarchy – full of rage and resentment – imposed the harshest punishment on the lower hierarchy deity who dared to resist him: he transformed her at least to the end of the world into the plant Acantha.

A Myth Without Myth

Although nowhere in the classical sources is such a myth mentioned, its extraordinary dissemination and representation lead us to its indiscriminate adoption – and also, because our respect for the mythologists of every age is unlimited, in their attempt to explain the unexplained.

And for the attitude and conduct of the god Apollo, we are not surprised by his resentment and revenge: in another myth, this time very well documented, the master of the Lyre Apollo slaughtered alive and cut the Phrygian origin and master player on the double-piped double reed instrument known as the Aulos, the Satyr Marsyas, who dared to invite him to to a contest of music – whom he eventually lost.

It seems that in this way, the Ancient Greek world clearly stated that how he thought of repaying forever, the cultural loans from the East that it had without interest received.

Acantha and Callimachus: The Invention of the Corinthian Order

The Creator & the Invention of the Corinthian Capital

Since after maximum clarity we presented the ontological relevance, continuity, and origin of the plant of Acantha from the homonymous beautiful nymph, it remains only with the same clarity (?) to attribute to a historical person this time, that is to Callimachus, through exploitation of Acantha, the artistic invention of the Corinthian Capital – and consequently of the Corinthian order, the Corinthian architectural style.

Another important historical figure comes to our aid, the ancient Roman writer, architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (about 1st century BCE).

Vitruvius, therefore, in his famous work De architectura (book IV) mentions explicitly and categorically that the creator of the Corinthian capital is the sculptor and architect Callimachus (Early second half of the 5th century BCE – end of the first half of the 4th century BCE).

And we have no reason to question him.

The Vitruvian View on Invention of the Corinthian Capital

The Latin Text

Here is the text, where Vitruvius in fluent Latin makes known to his ancient and modern readers, how Callimachus inspired the Corinthian Capital:

  1. Eius autem capituli prima inventio sic memoratur esse facta. Virgo civis Corinthia iammatura nuptiis inplicata morbo decessit. Post sepulturam eius, quibus ea virgo viva poculis delectabatur, nutrix collecta et conposita in calatho pertulit ad monumentum et in summo conlocavit et, uti ea permanerent diutius subdiu, tegula texit. Is calathus fortuito supra acanthi radicem fuerit conlocatus. Interim ponderre pressa radix acanthi media folia et cauliculos  circum vernum tempus profudit, cuius cauliculi secundum calathi latera crescentes et ab angulis tegulae ponderis necessitate expressi flexuras in extremas partes volutarum facere sunt coacti.
  2. Tunc Callimachus qui propter elegantiam e subtilitatem artis marmoreae ab Atheniensibus catatechnos fuerat nominatus, praeteriens hoc monumentum animadvertit eum calathum et circa foliorum nascentem teneritatem, delectatusque genere et formae novitate ad id exemplar columnas apud Corinthios fecit symmetriasque constituit; ex eo in operis perfectionibus Corinthii generis distribuit rationes.

The Translation

In fluent English, the above translates as hereinafter:

  1. Now the first invention of that capital is related to have happened thus. A girl, a native of Corinth, already of age to be married, was attacked by disease and died. After her funeral, the goblets which delighted her when living, were put together in a basket by her nurse, carried to the monument, and placed on the top. That they might remain longer, exposed as they were to the weather, she covered the basket with a tile. As it happened the basket was placed upon the root of an acanthus. Meanwhile about spring time, the root of the acanthus, being pressed down in the middle by the weight, put forth leaves and shoots. The shoots grew up the sides of the basket, and, being pressed down at the angles by the force of the weight of the tile, were compelled to form the curves of volutes at the extreme parts.
  2. then Callimachus, who for the elegance and refinement of his marble carving was nick-named catatechnos by the Athenians, was passing the monument, perceived the basket and the young leaves growing up. Pleased with the style and novelty of the grouping, he made columns for the Corinthians on this model and fixed the proportions; thence he distributed the details of the Corinthian order throughout the work.

The Artistic Invention of the Corinthian Capital

Vitruvius writes that Callimachus noticed the basket with the leaves and the pottery, and fascinated by the complex, he began to make such columns for the Corinthians.

We, for our part, said above that we will not question the slightest thing from Vitruvius’ narrative.

But what does Callimachus "noticed" mean? And yet, why what he noticed in Callimachus’ gaze was drastically transformed in his mind into an artistic object? And why in a capital, when the 9/10 of the column is missing?

In other words, here it seems that the look he "noticed" was not just any look. Rather it was a trained look, with a mind ready to grab inspiration.

A look sufficiently educated, suitable to discern that element which would take his art further, obviously answering a persistent artistic question, which occupied that mind.

And the clarity of Callimachus’ vision shows that he embodies hard and painstaking search work, around the issue of improving the aesthetics of the columns, while it is more than obvious that it reflects more general concerns and discussions on specific issues of art.

Some Conclusions from Vitruvius' Narrative

However, some conclusions emerge from Vitruvius’ narrative. Let’s look at them one by one.

Hard Cold Winter

The year in which the sad event of the daughter’s burial took place had another one sad face: it had no rain or the winter temperatures were extremely low, or there was a combination of both.

This conclusion is drawn from the fact that Acanthus mollis (Bear’s Breeches) – for which there is a general consensus that this plant species is represented in the Corinthian capital – becomes deciduous in years when there is a great lack of soil moisture or low winter temperatures.

This explains the fact that the daughter’s feeder left the basket above the rhizome of the plant, since its aboveground part did not exist.

The Introduction and Cultivation of the Acanthus mollis (Bear's Breeches)

Of the approximately four native species of the genus Acanthus in Greece, only in a few cool areas in the north of the country does Acanthus mollis grow naturally.

And since Corinth has nothing to do with the north, the effortless conclusion that emerges is that the cemetery plant was either intentionally planted, or had escaped cultivation from more or less neighboring gardens.

But this means that the plant was cultivated in Corinth for its ornamental, medicinal and symbolic properties, having been imported from somewhere.

It is almost certain that the plant was imported from one of the Sicilian colonies of Corinth, since in Sicily Acanthus mollis one grows on its own – much like the colonies.

However, the mere fact of the introduction of the plant also shows that in Ancient Corinth the gardening practice had found a certain field of development.

Creator's Name and the New Order

Callimachus, as the inventor of the Corinthian capital, should at the same time be considered the rapporteur of the new architectural rhythm, the Corinthian order.

Because even if during his lifetime he was not able to create such a rhythmic architecture, he certainly had the intellectual and artistic competence to be able to perceive the extrapolate of his invention – as we will try to show a little below.

On the other hand, in connection with the identification of his name with this order, Callimachus becomes one of the few architects of antiquity who achieves such a thing, and therefore continues the path of his Egyptian (and) colleague Imhotep, the first historically renowned architect, who somewhere in the 27th century BCE, created the oldest pyramid, that of Saqqara, the so-called Step Pyramid of Djoser, and of course the corresponding order.

As for the importance of the invention and the birth of the new rhythm, it could be said here that Callimachus was a pioneer.

A radical, who overcame the aesthetics and other entanglements of his time, at least for a few centuries, leaving in the later Roman world the development of the Corinthian style.

It goes without saying, however, that the Ancient World of the Classical Age in which Callimachus acted was not stagnant. It was the city-state world, the world of Polis, that revolved around an agile market of free and slaves – a place for the exchange of ideas and goods.

Callimachus had the opportunity to dare.

And the market the power to approve or disapprove.

Acantha and Callimachus: The Invention of the Corinthian Order

The Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion in Athens Acropolis, Greece
The Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion in Athens Acropolis, Greece

Who is Callimachus?

So who is this Callimachus, whose artistic invention of the Corinthian Capital, and consequently of the Corinthian order, the market of his time finally disapproved of?

Ancient sources mention him as a sculptor, painter and architect. He is also said to be a student of Polykleitos, as well as a collaborator of Pheidias, Ictinus, Callicrates, Mnesikles during the reconstruction works of the Athenian Acropolis.

But more details about this complexity personality we will try to give directly below.

Origin & Studies

Exactly when Callimachus lived is not known, but it is estimated that he was born at the beginning of the second half of the 5th century BCE (or a little earlier), and died towards the end of the first half of the 4th century BCE (or a little earlier).

It is also not clear where he was born, since some scholars mention Athens and others Corinth. For us, the most probable place of birth of Callimachus seems to be Corinth – but we have no historical evidence to support this position.

Callimachus was probably a student of the greatest artist and theorist of the 5th century BCE, of the Peloponnesian sculptor Polykleitos, whose aesthetic principles it is generally accepted that he followed.

A Wedge About Polykleitos

Polykleitos is one of the greatest sculptors of all time. Some ancient sources (Pliny the Elder and Marcus Tullius Cicero) state that he originates from Sicyon (Sicyonius), while others (Plato and Pausanias) from the Argos, hence Argive.

Modern scholars reject the first, considering that Pliny the Elder confused this Polyclitus with a minor of the same name as the sculptor from Sikyon.

Polykleitos was probably born in Argos, while it is certain that he took his early training there under the tutelage of Ageladas of the most important sculptor and was a classmate of the other huge sculpture of all time, Pheidias.

It is also known that he worked in Argos, while at some point he took over the management of Argos Sculpture School.

The Contribution of Polykleitos to Art

Polykleitos created mainly bronze statues of unparalleled aesthetics, none of which survive. From copies of the Roman era on marble, two are recognized as of course his own creations, the famous Doryphoros (Spear bearer) and the amazing Diadumenos (Youth Tying a Headband).

For the art of Polykleitos, a special tribute is definitely needed. For the purposes of this article, however, it may be sufficient to refer to his theoretical contribution to make it more comprehensible that Acantha’s motif and its creation by Callimachus were not the result of a moment of emotion – even "inspiration" – but a solution to living and existing art issues of his time.

Polykleitos wrote the work O Canon (The Rule – Ο Κανών, O Kanon), which unfortunately disappeared, and which few but crucial references of other authors (eg by the great Greek physician Galenus, Pergamon, 129 – Rome, 199) on his lost work, illuminate several aspects of the theoretical of his proposal.

For History, the only authentic quote that has survived to this day is what says that "the beautiful emerges slowly from many numbers".

On the other hand, and for the brevity of narration, we quote immediately below only two major spots of its aesthetic-theoretical approach:

  • Beauty (ancient kαllos) does not consist in the elements, but in the harmonious proportions of the parties with each other and with the whole
  • The artistically ideal and model human body is represented plastically or painted with the method of 8 heads, ie the whole body is divided into 8 heads

Acantha and Callimachus: The Invention of the Corinthian Order

The Classical Statue Doryphoros or Canon of Polykleitos
The Classical Statue Doryphoros or Canon of Polykleitos

Works of Callimachus

Not a single original was saved from the works attributed to Callimachus. And of the copies, only one, the bronze Venus Genetrix (Aphrodite the Mother) of 420 – 410 BC, which was transported to the marble in Roman times and is now in the Louvre Museum, is said to be the most likely his creature.

Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother, Aphrodite the Mother)

The Aphrodite Mother represents the goddess in a calm Cross-posture or Contrapposto.

What is Contraposto? Contraposto is another innovation – invention of Greek sculptures of the 5th century BCE. The figure that is represented, rests most on one leg while the other seems ready to move. The parts that make up the form are  well-placed and in balance.

The oldest specimen of Contraposto so far is the Kritios Boy, although it is probably not the work of Kritios and the co-signer of the works of the sculptor Nesiotes.

So this modern attitude for its time was chosen by Callimachus for his Aphrodite.

The goddess holds in her left hand the golden apple that Paris gave her as a prize, said "For the most beautiful" during the beauty contest between her, Hera and Athena – a crisis which he, as is well known, then paid rather expensively.

With her right hand the goddess tries to hold the free end of her   himation, while her whole anatomy, from her bare left breast to her genitals covered by the chiton and the contour of her body are clearly visible.

Modern scholars attribute the marble copy to Arcesilaus, a Greek sculptor of the 1st century BCE (who was active with great success in Rome), who represents the goddess – the mother of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.


The Erechtheion is located on the north side of the rock of the Acropolis of Athens. It is an ornate temple, architecturally peculiar, which, although located in the "shadow" of the Parthenon, emits a special shine.

Of course, part of this brilliance is due to the porch of the Karyatides, in that architectural part, where instead of columns, six statues of Kore support the roof, the entablature of the temple extension, with the basket located above their head.

Such an architectural arrangement was not uncommon for buildings that followed the Ionic order. However, even here the Contraposto, the grace of the attitude, but also the general plastic performance of the Kore statues, make them exquisite parts of an admirable whole.

For the sculpture of the Karyatides, some scholars claim that it is the work of Callimachus, while others claim that it is the work of the sculptor Alcamenes – who was a student of Pheidias.

Asbestos Lychnis

Callimachus connected his name with the Erechtheion in another way, without a doubt this time: he was the inventor and creator of the famous Asbestos Lychnis.

The Asbestos Lychnis burned for a whole year, without being fed, in front of the xoanon, that is, the wooden statue of Athena Polias, one of the Gods/Goddess to whose worship the temple was dedicated.

It had a wick made of Carpasian linen fibers (a type of asbestos from Cyprus) which remained unburned, and the smoke from the Lychnis escaped through the trunk of a palm tree made of copper, that hung above – another original creation of Callimachus.

From the Asbestos Lychnis, today there is nothing left but its recording.

The Grave Stele of Hegeso

The Grave Stele of Hegeso is one of the masterpieces of sculptural art of burial monuments of the classical era.

It was found almost intact in Kerameikos (Athens), it is inscribed (ΗΓΗΣΩ ΠΡΟΞΕΝΟ – Hegeso, daughter of Proxenios), it dates between 410 and 400 BCE, and is attributed to Callimachus.

It has an anaglyph depiction of the seated Hegeso together with an upright maidservant, who holds the jewelry box of the dead girl, from where Hegeso has just taken out a jewel.

What is shocking in the representation is the melancholy of the daughter and the sadness of her maid. And in the face of Hegeso, and especially in her surprisingly expressive mouth, the bitter awareness of the futility of the scene is still formed, because none of what is happening is going to happen again – death is the jewel, the skull he holds in his hands Hamlet, and the only answer here: not to be.

Acantha and Callimachus: The Invention of the Corinthian Order

Grave Stele of Hegeso by Callimachus
Grave Stele of Hegeso by Callimachus

The Resonate of Callimachus

The Height of the ...Depth

In the various editions of Vitruvius’ original text, where the author refers to the Corinthian Capital, the sculptor Callimachus is characterized by the Athenians as either catatechnos or catatexitechnos.

From the translation of the relevant verse, as given above, we actually learn that the Athenians called Callimachus "(…) who for the elegance and refinement of his marble carving was nick-named catatechnos".

Now here arises the following problem: either catatechnos or catatexitechnos, he could not work the marble with elegance and refinement, because neither of the above two words can be interpreted.

On the contrary, both of them mainly mean the bad artist, the exhaustively thorough, and in the best of versions, they mean the one who always finds shortcomings in his works.

Fortunately for everyone, and for the resolution of this issue we have immediately below Pausanias (2nd century CE), who gives another dimension to the artistic height of Callimachus.

The Artistic Height of Callimachus

Pausanias therefore mentions that Callimachus "(…) although not of the first rank of artists, was yet of unparalleled cleverness, so that he was the first to drill holes through stones".


That is, Callimachus was of unparalleled cleverness because he was the first to drill holes in the stones? So what; What was a Stonecutter or Black Hole researcher?

But if he first dug holes in the stones, it was to study the effects they would have on the light and shade of the hairs, or to give intensity to their light and shade, while he did the same for the foliage and other details of his plastic creations.

Otherwise, what was he unparalleled cleverness about?

In the development of quantum mechanics or to the decipher of the human genome (DNA)? In other words, does Pausanias realize what he is writing or is writing without understanding what he is writing – that it is pure nonsense?

And all this referring to an artist who participated in the reconstruction of the Acropolis, his name was associated with the Erechtheion and its beautiful Karyatides – apart from the invention of the Corinthian Capital.

If Callimachus was intelligent, he was in the field of his art, plastic and Architecture, and therefore can only belong to the great artists of classical Greek Antiquity.

For us, Callimachus’ weak point was public relations and an awkward manager of the intelligent βᾰ́ναυσος of the time.

Acantha and Callimachus: The Invention of the Corinthian Order

Callimachus - Elaborate Caryatid Hairstyle, at the Acropolis Museum of Athens
Elaborate Caryatid Hairstyle, at the Acropolis Museum of Athens

First Appearance of Acantha & the Corinthian Capital

According to the current excavation and archeological data, the first appearance of the Corinthian Capital and the leaves of Acantha in architectural members, is noted in the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia, which dates between 420 to 400 BCE.

This is an excellent example of a Doric, peripteros temple, probably a creation of Ictinus, which perfectly combines Arcadian traditional, archaic features, with newer, contemporary of the time of construction.

Inside the temple and in front of the adyton, there was a documented column on which the Corinthian Capital was carried, fragments of which are now in the National Archaeological Museum (Athens).

In fact, according to some researchers, at least two other half-columns on either side of it, were of Corinthian style.

The central Corinthian Column represented the god Apollo, following the aniconic representation of the deity, according to archaic traditions of the Arcadians.

Acantha and Callimachus: The Invention of the Corinthian Order


The References of the artistic article Acantha and Callimachus: The Invention of the Corinthian Order, are presented alongside by Spyros Giasafakis and Evi Stergiou with the Seikilos Epitaph, the first fully surviving Ancient Greek song of the 1st-2nd C.E. century, which is dedicated to Euterpe (muse, mistress, wife, daughter?) and praises life – otherwise what Epitaph would it be?

With Pomp and Circumstance

Spyros Giasafakis with Evi Stergiou and Rey Yusuf at Union Chapel in London (07-01-2017)

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