This splendid life-sized figure of Athena (Minerva to the Romans) is a Roman copy of the famous now-lost bronze group of the goddess with the satyr Marsyas by the Greek sculptor Myron of circa 450-440 B.C. According to myth, Athena had invented the aulos (double flute) but when the other deities mocked how her cheeks bulged out when she played, she threw the instrument away, cursing whoever should pick it up. Two ancient literary sources reference the statue group and attribute it to Myron. The first was Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century A.D., who refers to a "... satyr in admiration before Athena and her flute" (Natural Histories, XXXIV, 57). A century later Pausanias saw on the Acropolis in Athens "... a statue of Athena striking Marsyas, the Seilenos, for taking up the flutes that the goddess wished to be cast away for good" (Periegesis 1, 24, 1). A. Stewart (Greek Sculpture, p. 147) has suggested that “the group may have been a dedication by the poet Melanippides for his victorious dithyramb Marsyas, describing the triumph of the new, lyre-sustained dramatic poetry over the old, flute-accompanied kind. Even though the connection cannot be proved it is curious that the only surviving fragment describes the exact moment here displayed, as Athena realizes how blowing the double reeds affect her looks: And Athena, Cast those instruments of music from her holy hand, And said: 'Be gone, wretched things, my beauty’s bane, I give not myself to my own undoing.'"
The subject is known from an Attic red-figured bell-krater of the later 5th century B.C. (see A. Weiss, “Marsyas I,” LIMC, Vol. VI, no. 16) as well as on coins minted in Athens during the reign of Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), so scholars have a sense of the appearance of the original group. Two marble figures of Marsyas are known that likely once belonged to the group. Both show him leaning back, on tiptoe, his head angled down, seemingly admiring the cast away aulos (see Weis, op. cit., no. 11). The Athena is known from several copies, including examples in Liebieghaus, Frankfurt, the Louvre, and the Vatican. Like the version presented here, all show the goddess wearing her peplos with a long over-fold, secured by a belt worn high on the waist and tied in a Herakles knot. She stands with her weight on her right leg with the left turned out and bent at the knee. The Athena and Marsyas group has been recreated by uniting these two types (see V. Brinkmann and M. Hollein, Die Launen des Olymp: der Mythos von Athen, Marsyas und Apoll).