Sunday 30 August 2020

Jacques-Louis David & the Human Tragedy of the Iliad


Jacques-Louis David must long ago have won the distinction of having his paintings on the cover of more Classics books than any other artist: think ‘The Death of Socrates’ (1787), ‘The Intervention of the Sabine Women’ (1799) and ‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’ (completed 1814) alone.

But my favourite is his early 'Funeral of Patroclus' (1778), because it shows what he included, and what he omitted, from the source text in the Iliad book 23 (part of the text is translated below). The painting went missing until 1972, when the National Gallery of Ireland acquired it; everyone was surprised how much David’s concept had changed between the final painting and his preparatory sketch in the Louvre that had never disappeared.


David’s changes focussed the viewer’s attention far more intensely on the human emotional drama—the three spot-lit male cadavers and the faces of the captive women, especially Briseis who will deliver her own lament for Patroclus shortly. He left out all the dead bodies of animals which Homer has Achilles pile on the pyre, but by the time he finalised the painting he had taken the more momentous step of eliminating the gods.

In the sketch he had followed Homer in portraying gods intervening to protect Hector’s corpse, which Achilles had wanted to be devoured by dogs: Aphrodite hovers above the corpse, anointing it, and the chariot of Apollo arrives from the left, drawing a dark cloud to shield the dead flesh from the sun. 

David may have been attracted to the theme by the subject set for the Prix de Rome back in 1769, ‘Achilles, after dragging Hector’s corpse, places it at the foot of the bier where Patroclus’ corpse is lying’. But he did not complete the painting until nine years later, apparently wrestling with its complexity.

The funeral of Patroclus brings out the very worst in Achilles, who breaks every rule of ‘civilised’ warfare in sacrificing those poor Trojan men on Patroclus’ pyre. The Homeric narrator hardly ever passes moral judgement on actions in the poem, but here he makes an exception: Achilles ‘conceived an evil plan in his mind.’ ‘Great-souled’ Achilles, David says with great clarity, has far more victims than persecutors.



Patroclus' loved ones ‘heaped up the wood and made a pyre a hundred feet in both directions, and they put the corpse on the top of the pyre, broken-hearted. In front of the pyre they skinned and dressed many fine sheep and horned cattle of rolling gait. Great-hearted Achilles took the fat from all of them and covered the corpse with it from head to toe, and piled up the flayed bodies around it. And he leaned two-handled jars of honey and oil against the bier.  Swiftly, groaning intensely, he threw on the pyre four horses with arching necks. Patroclus had nine dogs that ate beneath his table, and Achilles cut the throats of two to place on the pyre. And he slaughtered with the bronze twelve valiant sons of the great-hearted Trojans, conceiving an evil plan in his mind. And then he set the pyre alight with the iron might of fire.

κηδεμόνες δὲ παρ᾽ αὖθι μένον καὶ νήεον ὕλην,
ποίησαν δὲ πυρὴν ἑκατόμπεδον ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα,
165ἐν δὲ πυρῇ ὑπάτῃ νεκρὸν θέσαν ἀχνύμενοι κῆρ.
πολλὰ δὲ ἴφια μῆλα καὶ εἰλίποδας ἕλικας βοῦς
πρόσθε πυρῆς ἔδερόν τε καὶ ἄμφεπονἐκ δ᾽ ἄρα πάντων
δημὸν ἑλὼν ἐκάλυψε νέκυν μεγάθυμος Ἀχιλλεὺς
ἐς πόδας ἐκ κεφαλῆςπερὶ δὲ δρατὰ σώματα νήει.
170ἐν δ᾽ ἐτίθει μέλιτος καὶ ἀλείφατος ἀμφιφορῆας
πρὸς λέχεα κλίνωνπίσυρας δ᾽ ἐριαύχενας ἵππους
ἐσσυμένως ἐνέβαλλε πυρῇ μεγάλα στεναχίζων.
ἐννέα τῷ γε ἄνακτι τραπεζῆες κύνες ἦσαν,
καὶ μὲν τῶν ἐνέβαλλε πυρῇ δύο δειροτομήσας,
175δώδεκα δὲ Τρώων μεγαθύμων υἱέας ἐσθλοὺς
χαλκῷ δηϊόωνκακὰ δὲ φρεσὶ μήδετο ἔργα:
ἐν δὲ πυρὸς μένος ἧκε σιδήρεον ὄφρα νέμοιτο.

Tuesday 18 August 2020

Nine-Year-Old Girl Finds Roman Treasure in 1735


I was going to write a blog supporting public pressure for our glorious leaders to rethink their catastrophic policy re A-Level results. Even after the U-turn, I remain enraged that the psychological health of our most precious youngsters transitioning to adulthood has been jeopardised by a five-day ordeal. But something wonderful happened this morning and if you have a few minutes to spare, you might be cheered up by what made me so happy.


Nearly every day I come across someone who should have been discussed in A People’s History of Classics, which I published with Henry Stead earlier this year. But there are not many small children in it and I am devastated that nine-year-old Isabel Cutler, a working-class Geordie whom I discovered this morning, will have to wait for the second edition.


We devote several pages in ch. 7 to all the farm-workers, navvies, gardeners, miners and grave-diggers who discovered most of the Roman-era antiquities in British and Irish collections. But this little girl managed to escape our notice, despite finding one of the most important Romano-British objects in existence while playing on the banks of the Tyne.


The ‘Corbridge Lanx’, a tray for distributing food and drinks at banquets, is a stunning example of late-Roman decorated silver plate, made in Asia Minor or North Africa in the 4th century CE. Apollo stands at the entrance to his shrine on Delos, with Athena, Artemis his sister and his mother Leto seated. Athena is also beautifully depicted; the other female may be Leto’s sister Ortygia. The detail stands out even better in the 1736 engraving.


A local court record for May 1735 states that  “Isabel Cutter, daughter of Thomas Cutter of Corbridge, blacksmith, aged nine years… did on or about the tenth day of February last past find an ancient silver piece of plate in a great measure covered with the earth, one end sticking out of the ground, at a certain place within this manor near the north bank of the river Tyne by the water edge.”

Lucky Isabel! Finding treasure is every child’s fantasy. I wonder what she made of those gorgeous pagan goddesses—children of her age usually love Greek myths. And I hope her blacksmith father was nice to her—he sold it to the local goldsmith, making more than £30 for it (now worth about £8,000, which may have felt like a lot of money, but I suspect he was ripped off). The loaded Duke of Northumberland subsequently acquired it and his descendant bestowed it on the British Museum in 1993. If anyone can tell me more about Isabel Cotter—incorrectly said on Wikipedia to be a cobbler’s child—I would be eternally grateful.