The Gigantomachy


The Battle between the gods and giants was a popular subject in artistic representation from the archaic through the Hellenistic periods. After the Persian Wars (490-79 bce) its iconography was assimilated to the hostility between the Persians and the Greeks, with the Greeks figuring as the gods, and the Persians as giants.

There are several traditional elements in representations of this motif:
Poseidon's use of a piece of the island Cos as a weapon, which later becomes the island Nisyros, to defeat the giant Polybotes;
Herakles's participation in the battle, in accordance with the prophecy that the gods' defeat of the giants would not be accomplished without the participation of a mortal;
Zeus's defeat, using his thunderbolt, of the king of the giants, Porphyrion.


Here are links to some representations of this motif on vases from the archaic (1), early classical (2), classical (3), and (4) late classical periods:


1. Attic black figure amphora (Munich 1437) of the archaic period (540 bce).

In this scene, a divine warrior in a crested helmet is driven into battle in a four-horse chariot, with a helmeted goddess as charioteer. The warrior places one foot into the chariot and thrusts his lance against an opponent already lying on the ground. Behind the group a helmeted Athena (in the grid-patterned, dotted dress) strides forward holding her shield in front and raising her spear (the red line running across her neck) to attack the fallen giant.

The fallen opponent is more clearly visible in this view, lying on the ground behind the round shield.

In this view, a helmeted Titan in a short chiton wearing red greaves on his shins confronts the chariot; behind him and facing in the opposite direction is a god attacking a giant who is already falling to the ground. He is holding his shield in his right hand, and a rock in his left hand.

In the next scene, Poseidon is spearing an opponent and raising a huge black rock (the island Nisyros) to smash him. To the right of this pair, Athena strides forward against a giant who is fleeing and looking back at her.


2. Attic red figure kantharos (Boston 98.932) of the early classical period (470-460 bce)

Poseidon attacks Polybotes with a trident, supporting on his left arm a mass of rock representing the island Nisyros. The giant attempts to strike back with his sword.

On the other side of the vase, Dionysos attacks a giant armed as a hoplite; Dionysus uses a serpent as his weapon.


3. Attic red-figure cup (Berlin F 2531) of the classical (410-405 bce) period. On this vase, seven of the Olympians are represented, six (Zeus, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Ares, and Hera) on the outside of the cup, as you can see in this overview of the outside, and one (Poseidon) on the inside (tondo) of the cup.
Herakles is not depicted on this vase, and neither are Dionysus, Demeter, Hermes, or Aphrodite.
The names of the gods and of their opponents are inscribed on the cup, as you can see in this
transcription of the outside of side A.

In the center of the inside, Poseidon battles against Polybotes with his trident, but without the use of a rock. Gaia rises from the ground on the left and gazes up at Poseidon.

On the outside (A):
Zeus battles Porphyrion, holding a lightning bolt in his raised right hand, and his sceptre in the left (center)
Athena battles Enkelados with a spear and with her left arm stretches out her aegis with its traditional head of Medusa (right)
Artemis uses two torches to fight against Gaion (left)

On the outside (B):
Apollo attacks Ephialtes with a sword, and holds his bow in his left hand (center)
Hera prepares to stab Phoitos with her spear (right)
Ares stabs Mimon with a spear (left)


4. Attic red figure amphora (Louvre S 1677) of the late classical period (400-390 bce). On this vase, eleven of the twelve Olympians are depicted fighting giants, along with Nike (Victory), Herakles, Persephone, and the Dioskouroi (Castor and Pollux, sons of Zeus by the goddess Leto, who was also the mother of Helen). The only Olympian absent from the vase is Hephaestus.

One: In the top center of this view is Zeus in his chariot riding down upon a giant and an Amazon and aiming a thunderbolt at them; the chariot is driven by Nike (Victory), shown with her wings outspread; detail of Zeus. A giant in the lower register is aiming a torch at Zeus, and the Amazon in the lower register aims a spear at Zeus with her right hand and holds a crescent-shaped shield in her left hand. In the center of the lower register Herakles, wearing a lionskin and helmet aims a bow to the right. Rocks and stones are flying around the bottom register in this view and the others.
Athena (see Eight, below) is spearing an opponent in the lower left section of this view, and the composition is arranged so that Zeus, Herakles, and Athena form a unit in this view.

Two: In the top center of this view is Dionysus driving a panther chariot, holding a torch in his left hand and aiming at a giant beneath him; in the top right is Poseidon on a white horse, aiming his trident at the same giant attacked by Dionysus. In this view you can see that Zeus, Herakles, Dionysus, and Poseidon form a unit attacking the same group of three giants and one Amazon.

Three: In the top register of this view, right of center, is Persephone, aiming an arrow to the left at a giant in the lower register. In the center right overlapping Persephone is Demeter, aiming at a giant below her with her scepter, which she holds upraised in her right hand; she holds a torch in her left hand, and the giant in the lower register wears a panther skin over his left arm. In the bottom center is Hermes grabbing a giant by the hair and aiming his dagger at him. Here and in other sections of the vase figures who belong together, like Persephone and Demeter, face in opposite directions and attack separate opponents.

Four: On the top right of this view is a helmeted Ares, climbing up into his chariot on the right, which is conducted by Aphrodite; they are battling against giants in the lower register, and a small Eros is perched on one of the horses aiming his bow at the opponents. The four horses of Ares's chariot, like the four of Zeus's chariot on the other side of the vase, dominate the top register, as you can see clearly in view Five.

Five: In the center of the lower register, Hera grabs a giant by the hair and aims a dagger at him; the giant wears a panther skin.

Six: In the top center of this view is one of the Dioskouroi on horseback, aiming a spear at the same giant attacked by Ares; the giant holds a shield and looks to the left. In the center of the bottom register is the other of the Dioskouroi, on horseback and aiming a spear at a giant to his right. The Dioskouroi, facing in opposite directions, make up a vertical unit joining the left and right hand parts of the scene.

Seven: In the top just right of center is Apollo with a bow in his hand aiming a torch to the left. In the lower register just right of center is Artemis facing right and brandishing torches against two giants, one with torches, the other with helmet and shield. Like the Dioskouroi, Apollo and Artemis are a vertical unit, although facing in opposite directions.

Eight: In the lower right, just beneath the horses of Zeus' chariot, is Athena, attacking a giant to the left, who kneels on the ground, raising his shield against the goddess in his right hand and grabbing a stone to throw against her in his right.


The motif appears also in several famous sculptures:

(1) the north frieze of the Siphnian treasury at Delphi; high archaic period(530-525 bce)

(2) the east metopes of the Parthenon; high classical period (447-432 bce) Reconstruction of South Metopes III and IV Lapith and Centaur

(3) the west pediment of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi; late classical period (366-326 bce); link here to a reconstruction of this pediment

(4) the great frieze of the Pergamum altar to Zeus; Hellenistic period (197-158 bce)
On this frieze, in contrast to most representations on vases, the Titan gods join the Olympians in battling the giants.
For example: here are links to
Night fighting the giants (north frieze), Klymene, Iapetos and Tithonos fighting giants (east frieze), and a portion of the east side showing Athena (center) and Nike (top right) fighting Gaia (on the lower right) and giants (on the left)