Hurray for copying 1: Myron's Discus-Thrower


The current amount of importance placed on "originality" is a fairly recent phenomenon which I will discuss at some point. Back in the day, by which I mean Roman antiquity, imitation was indeed the sincerest form of flattery. Thank goodness, too. Because the Romans admired the Greek aesthetic, talented artists spent a great deal of time creating hand-made replicas of notable Greek art, particularly sculpture. In some cases, the originals are now lost to time, and the only reason we know what they look like is because of the talented copyists of old.

Perhaps the best-known example is the Diskobolos by Myron. The bronze original was remarkable enough to be discussed by a number of ancient playwrights and historians who saw it first-hand, but what a shame it would be if their descriptions were all we had to go by.

Image: scaled bronze replica of Myron's Discobolos photographed by MatthiasKabel (via Wikimedia Commons)


  1. The people who most say they want originality generally hate it when they encounter it. What they really want is a slightly novel form of the same old stuff they’ve always had.

    Also, people generally seem to fall back on “it’s not original!” as a complaint only when they don’t like something, and can’t come up with anything better to justify their dislike to people who do like it.

    1. Interesting factoid: that laserdisc image is modeled after the Townley Diskobolos, a marble replica that was restored in Italy but “with an alien head set at the wrong angle.” Oopsie. Like the laserdisc, it is now relegated to being a oft-mocked curiosity.

  2. …so 2000 years from now the new species on this planet will know what iPhones looked like based on copies from the People’s Republic!

  3. The high regard for originality and having ‘the original’ probably correlates with the development of technology for reproduction and eventually mass production of a work. On top of which there is serious money in intellectual property, which there was not throughout most of human history.

    So certainly we could use some sanity and rethinking of IP in the face of the digital, networked era we’re in. But the relative value of originality is probably not going away. Just look at the BoingBoing story this week about an artist’s rules for succeeding under the current dynamic (
    Rule no. 1, “Be original. I aim to make art so original that no one will question who made it.”

  4. Am I bad for giving the Romans more points for painstakingly copying Greek masterpieces than I give to the guy who thinks he’s a ragin’ copyright warrior because he posted an album he ripped from a CD onto a file sharing site?

    1. “Am I bad for giving the Romans more points for painstakingly copying Greek masterpieces than I give to the guy who thinks he’s a ragin’ copyright warrior because he posted an album he ripped from a CD onto a file sharing site?”

      What’s the difference? Aside from the tools.

      1. One is an act of creation, one is not. There is a world of a difference between looking at a Van Gogh and painting a replica and slapping it into a photo copy machine. There is neither creativity nor creation in the later.

  5. Thank Zeus that people like Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh and many others were willing to devote their lives to making actual connections with the Muses–willing to be original, daring to experiment, suffering necessary losses, and, sometimes, achieving an amazing work like Mona Lisa or Starry Night. We know who they were because they were not the typical bogus dabblers who have the nuts to call themselves artists. To build on the breakthroughs of other artists is legitimate (that’s the way art evolves) but to carbon-copy another artist’s work or steal it in the name of liberation from the evils of copyright law, is not art–it’s a crime against art, a crime against civilization, a crime against humanity. That’s why good colleges banish students who plagiarize. Dare to be original.

    1. Good colleges banish students who copy without giving credit, because they’re trying to produce original things. Good archives copy as much as they can. The very simple truth is the world needs both.

    2. Robcat and Anon, you lambast the person who steals in the name of being a copyright warrior. But do you think there is room in the conversation for other reasons a person might steal?

      A monetarily bankrupt man might steal to feed himself. An emotionally bankrupt man might steal to feel something of the spirit of another. To liberate himself from alienation.

      Isn’t that part of the reason people steal?

  6. Well because imitation was still a laborious and difficult process back then.
    To carve a copy of something would require most of the skills employed by the original master himself. Technical prowess was involved and a understanding of the craft.
    There was no ctrl + C then ctrl +V.

  7. Back in the olden days, making a good copy took as much or more skill than creating the original did. Now anyone can make 10,000 copies of anything with little money and less skill. Perhaps that has something to do with it.

  8. double_tilly, if you’re not deprived of something it isn’t theft. If I light my candle off of yours, what have you lost?

  9. Really those descriptions are all we have to go by. If you compare the numerous surviving copies of this statue you see that each has significant difference, each reproduction was intentionally altered by the copiest, most likely each trying to improve on the former and give it their own personal touch. These reproductions are not that impressive, or at least not nearly as impressive as the original was to the old scholars. It is kind of like the Alvin Lucier idea of the photocopier effect.

  10. In Praise of Copying, by Marcus Boon. Looks quite excellent. Heavy on theory, I’m guessing. Involves something about Buddhist ideas of interdependence.

    Perhaps discussions of how current copyright policy is based upon mythological notions of individuality and creativity. Who knows.

    I wonder if Andrea James is planning on continuing this series of posts? I hope so.

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