Caryatids, the draped female figures that substitute for columns supporting an entablature, take their name, according to the Roman writer Vitruvius, from the women of Caryae in Laconia, who were enslaved by the Greeks as a punishment for conspiring with the Persians during the invasion of Greece. The earliest examples in Greek art date to the mid 6th century B.C., but by far the most famous are the six maidens from the south porch of the Erechtheion on the Athenian acropolis. This unusual temple was built to replace the old Temple of Athena destroyed by the Persians. It was begun in 421 B.C., with most of the work carried out in the years 409-406 B.C.
The Athenian temple was much admired by philhellenic Romans. Copies of the Erechtheion caryatids, now fragmentary, once decorated the attic of the colonnade of the Forum of Augustus in Rome. Better-preserved examples adorned the west side of the canopus of Hadrian's Villa, executed between 130 and 138 A.D. (see figs. 43-46 in Bieber, Ancient Copies). As Bieber observed (op. cit., p. 30), "it is remarkable that most copies are based on the two central figures of the Erechtheion porch," one with the weight bearing leg to the left, as in the present example, and one with the weight bearing leg to the right. The treatment of the drapery was also appropriated for other sculptural types, such as the marble figure of a Muse, from Mantua (fig. 461 in Bieber, op. cit.), and the marble figure of Demeter, in the Museo Capitolino, Rome (no. 55 in Beschi, "Demeter" in LIMC).