The Nike in the Sanctuary of The Great Gods

Air-view of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods

The Great Gods of Samothrace both made the initiates righteous and saved them from misfortunes and from storms (δοκοῦσι δὲ οἱ μεμυημένοι ταῦτα δίκαιοί τε εἶναι καὶ ἐκ δεινῶν σώζεσθαι καὶ ἐκ χειμώνων 1) , especially at sea: if someone was initiated into the rites of Samothrace, he was saved from storms at sea (τὰς τελετὰς τὰς ἐν Σαμοθρᾴκῃ ἀγομένας, ἃς εἴ τις μυηθείη ἐν τοῖς κατὰ θάλασσαν χειμῶσι διασώζεται 2) . Therefore, the dedication of the Nike descending on the prow of a warship suited their Sanctuary, and we may reasonably assume that the statue refers to a naval victory, as already stated.

The Nike Monument is located in a deep niche that has been cut into the slope of the Western Hill above and south of the Theater and adjacent, to the south-east, to the Stoa; both were already functioning when it was built3. Despite its importance, the Nike Monument4 remains practically unpublished, mainly because of the problems related to its research. One would expect a statue of such value to be housed in a building of comparable splendor, but this was not the case. Indeed, the rectangular structure surrounding it consists of pebbly, calcareous sandstone, which has not been used elsewhere in the Sanctuary, as well as of a plaster covering. The retaining boulder walls that surround the rectangular structure, are clearly later and date to the early 2nd century AD. The excavators of this area in the 19th century, who were looking for sculptures, left us only schematic plans of the relation of the statue to its architectural frame or the retaining walls of the slope. When the remains in this area were first architecturally drawn in 1952, only part of the krepis was preserved to the level of the second step at the back and to the lowest course of the foundation in the front. The blocks supporting the socle for the base of the statue, which were surviving in 1875, had disappeared. Within the structure, the statue was set at an oblique angle against the south back wall, in a three-quarter view to the north-west.

Alec Daykin’s reconstruction of the Nike Monument, © Cindy Allenby

Karl Lehmann, who made the first systematic excavation of the precinct in 1950, considered that the statue originally stood on a fountain, composed of an upper platform supporting the statue and a lower basin of water with great boulders forming rocky shoals. Today the hypothesis of the fountain has been abandoned, but research has not reached a definitive solution to the problem, which is of great importance for how the ancients perceived the statue, that is whether Nike was enclosed in a roofed naïskos-like structure or was simply surrounded by an open enclosure. The huge boulder in the front section of the structure, which played an important role in Lehmann's fountain, lies within the foundations of the krepis of the building and therefore should not be considered as a visible element of the original design. The poor preservation of the remains of the building results from the subsequent use of its material for the construction of the Byzantine building5 over the Neorion, on the middle terrace of the Western Hill, where nothing was found to display a distinctive architectural feature. The lack of any articulated blocks marginally favors a simple enclosure. Also, the iconography of Nike, who as an airborne herald appears in sanctuaries either as an akroterion or part of a monument, favors the idea of an open precinct6. Evidence which supports the placing of the statue within a roofed structure is based on its surface condition showing very little weathering. Also, a layer of roof tiles found at the southwest corner of the precinct, despite the obvious differences between them, indicates the presence of a roof. A third body of evidence consists of fragments of red, blue/black and white plaster in the area, some of which with moldings7; these moldings could be accommodated either as part of a building or the crown of an enclosure wall. The small colored plaster fragments that preserve drafted edges are considered the most significant. Similar colored plaster panels imitating drafted margin masonry come from interiors of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods including the Fieldstone Building8, the Hieron9, the Stoa10, the Neorion11 and the Dining Room A12. It is therefore clear that the evidence we have at our disposal allows two general options for the design of the Nike Monument: an open structure framed on three sides by an enclosure wall, and a fully roofed naïskos-like tetrastyle prostyle structure of Ionian order.

The Nike stands at the highest point of the Sanctuary, with a view on the major cult buildings in the central valley below. The statue’s visibility, especially if it was enclosed within a building, is a matter of a passionate debate, which in recent years has also been assisted by the help of a 3D digital model. The two main components of the Nike Monument, the structure on one hand – the socle, the prow and the statue on the other, follow different directional axes, which combine to create an imposing visual effect, both from the terrace of the Stoa and from the main natural corridor of the Sanctuary, the Central Stream. The north-northwest orientation of the structure approaches the orientation of the block of buildings formed by the Altar Court, Hieron (and Hall of Votive Gifts in the central valley13. The socle, prow and statue, were oriented almost directly due north, bisecting the orchestra of the Theater and presenting an emphatic alignment toward the Central Stream; the latter by the 4th century BC was the main topographical and visual axis of the Sanctuary. Even if we accept the presence of a naïskos frame, it would have significantly obstructed the view of the statue from within the Stoa, but the orientation of the latter would have helped focus attention on the statue from the eastern terrace of the Stoa and especially from its northern half14. However, the spectators crossing the Central Stream in antiquity had views of the monument, either in its closed or open form, following the path leading to the Theater, or when gathering in the triangular space between the Hall of Choral Dancers, Hieron, and Hall of Votive Gifts. If the Nike were placed in an open enclosure, her right arm, which was extending horizontally outward and perhaps was flexed at the elbow with the forearm and hand slightly raised forward, would have been particularly eye-catching from this perspective. From the central valley, the statue was clearly visible in an open enclosure, but it was also fairly legible even when set inside a roofed naïskos.



1 : Samothrace 1, 103: s/n 226a, 16–17 (Scholia [3rd century BC] to Aristophanes Pax 277–78).

2 : Samothrace 1, 107: s/n 229g, 1–3 (Scholia Laurentiana to Apollonius Rhodius Argonautica 1.917–18).

3 : CLINTON et al. 2020, 559.

4 : On the Precinct, see CONZE et al. 1880, 52–53, pl. LX, fig. 1; KERN 1893, 339–343; LEHMANN-HARTLLEBEN 1940, 352; LEHMANN 1973, 182–190; LEHMANN 1998, 102–103; WESCOAT 2015.

5 : McCREDIE 1986-1987, 51· McCredie 1988-1989, 96· LEHMANN 1998, 108, εικ. 49· WESCOAT 2020, 312.

6 : MOUSTAKA et al. 1992, 850-904.

7 : WESCOAT 2020, 312-313.

8 : Samothrace 9, 66-70, 72-81.

9 : Samothrace 3, I, 138-142, 204-212.

10 : McCREDIE 1965, 108-110.

11 : WESCOAT 2005, 163.

12 : McCREDIE 1979, 12-13.

13 : CLINTON et al. 2020, 562.

14 : WESCOAT 2020, 314.