Head of Basel

Zeus the Liberator

The “Head of Basel”, preserved in the archaeological museum of Reggio Calabria with the famous “Head of the Philosopher”, was part of a ferry’s freight which used to operate in the Strait of Messina, and it was boarded as metallic scrap. The studies on the load of the shipwreck confirmed the dating of the wreckage: between the end of the fifth and the fourth century BC, with a terminus ante quem of the 375 BC.

The brazen head is really similar to the short-haired head of Zeus Eleutherios, which appears on a series of bronze coins from Syracuse, dated to the half of the fourth century BC. The coincidences between the statue and the coinage are impressive, but there is a difference: the presence of the stephanos, that is the laurel crown. As a matter of fact, nowadays the Head of Basel has no laurel wreath, but it is possible to notice a notch on the hair, which was used to support this element.

Zeus Eleutherios on a coin from Syracuse, IV sec. BC
Magna Grecia 3D Testa di Basilea Zeus Eleutherios dettaglio alloro
Reconstruction of Zeus Elutherios with laurel crown.

Hypothetically, it seems plausible to propose the identification of the character that is depicted on the Head of Basel as the Zeus Eleutherios. On the basis of a comparison with coins, we consider the Bronze of Porticello a copy in reduced scale of the colossal statue in Syracuse that depicts the Zeus fulminante, which dates back to the 465 BC, the year of the fall of the tyranny of the Dinomenidi; as a matter of fact the monument is seen as a symbol of freedom. 

There is another evidence of the symbolic meaning of the statue: the silver tetradrachm with Zeus Keraunios, emitted by the Danklaioi. This type of coin shows the god in the act of casting a liberating thunderbolt. The analogy with the Zeus from Syracuse is increased by the presence of an altar, which refers to a cult.

Magna Grecia 3D Testa di Basilea Zeus Eleutherios lato destro
Magna Grecia 3D Testa di Basilea Zeus Eleutherios front

The statue, of which there remains only the head, has been integrated with the body by us, in order to show the god in the act of casting the thunderbolt against the giant Typhon, freeing the world from the tyranny of these invading monsters. The symbolic value of this myth was valued after the expulsion of Persians from Greece in 478 BC with the cult of Zeus the Liberator, restarted in Syracuse after the fall of the Dinomenidi, and reused by Timoleon in 344 BC, against the tyrant Dionysius II in Syracuse, and finally in 339 BC after the battle of Crimiso, where the Carthaginians invaders were defeated. 

Our hypothesis is that the artifact from Porticello of Villa San Giovanni is the copy of Zeus the Liberator, built in Rhegion after the end of the Anassilaidi in 481 BC, and destroyed in 387/6 BC by Dionysius I, when he managed to conquer the polis of the Strait after twenty years of resistance. 

Back of the coin with the lightning bolt of Zeus the Liberator
Bronzi di Riace
Detail of the reconstructed lightning bolt
Magna Grecia 3D Testa di Basilea Zeus Eleutherios lato sinistro
Magna Grecia 3D Testa di Basilea Zeus Eleutherios primo piano

English translation by Corinna Castrizio.