August 2, 2011

Late Roman Silk: Smuggling and Espionage in the 6th Century CE

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Dr. Patrick Hunt, Stanford University

Fig. 1 a) Auxerre, Church of St-Eusèbe, Silk Shroud of St. Germain, Fig. 1b) 10th c.; Silk Byzantine Griffin, 10th c. Victoria & Albert Museum, London


Summary of Event

Industrial espionage – especially for luxury goods - has been around for millennia and an event in the mid-6th century CE is an apt illustration if we can adequately reconstruct it from the Late Roman / Early Byzantine historian Procopius. A delegation of eastern orthodox monks under Justinian broke two monopolies in the East – China on silk production and Persia on the silk trade routes to the West – by smuggling silkworms to the West, ensuring new Western silk production. This change made silk more accessible and less prohibitively expensive in the West by installing Constantinople (Byzantium) as a new source for silk, which removed the middlemen in the cost equation.

Understanding the background of the silk trade informs the dramatic change brought about around 552-563 CE. Silk was perhaps the most desirable luxury good in the ancient world after gold, although there have been many times when silk was equal in value to gold or more valuable. While the imperial city of Constantinople was the single largest consumer of silk and other precious goods like spices and gems – including lapis lazuli, emeralds, and especially pearls – it was also the most important entrepôt for all luxury goods flowing to the West from its superb location on the junction between two continents (Europe and Asia) and its position roughly commanding trade in the eastern Mediterranean world.

Control of the silk industry in Late Roman Constantinople and early Byzantium was a state monopoly and its imperial silk workshops to produce fabrics and clothing from imported silk were within the precincts of the Royal Palace at Constantinople. But the early Byzantine world had several problems acquiring silk, much of which in Justinian’s time derived from Persian control of the eastern silk trade under the Sassanian king Chosroes I who ruled from around 531-579 CE. The source of silk prior to this time was distant China, known at this time to Byzantium as Serinda, a word related to sericus, the Roman word for silk. Any attempt at purchasing silk was vastly more expensive due to the many necessary middlemen along the way who added their profit margins to the original cost. Thus, the greater the distance, the greater the cost, and China was at least 4000 miles away either by land or sea (the modern land distance between Constantinople and Xi'an is 4247 miles, 6835 kms). The caravan land routes could cross daunting mountain passes (e.g., Himalayas, Pamirs, Hindu Kush, Elbruz, Caucasus) up to 16,000 feet high or greater and these were notoriously inhospitable or rife with brigands. Great deserts (e.g., Gobi, Dasht-I-Lut, Nefud) with frequent horrific sandstorms and few oases were also en route. The sea shipping routes were no less dangerous, either pirate-ridden or difficult to cross even in good sailing weather (e.g. Indian Ocean, Caspian Sea, Black Sea and outer Persian Gulf). Furthermore, the many different cultures along these routes were not necessarily easy trade partners or even friendly to Byzantine interests. The average length of the journey to theoretically bring silk directly from Wei and Chou China (500-581 CE) of the Six Dynasties period would take around 230 days or nearly two-thirds of a year, and the indirect journey from Persia took months as well at much greater cost.

Fig. 2 Silk Road Map

Justinian had certainly inherited these silk trading problems from his uncle Justin I (450-527 CE), the Late Roman - Early Byzantine emperor who ruled from 518-527 CE, but the appetite for luxury goods and especially silk was not diminishing but rather increasing partially due to its status in Constantinople as well as to the demand for silk in the new Western powers of mainland Europe such as Ostrogoths and Lombards, former barbarian tribes whose new wealth was acquired from Rome’s demise and its loss of territorial hegemony.

Up to the 6th century CE, the Sassanian Persians (c. 224-651 CE) and their kings controlled the intermediate territory of Mesopotamia between Byzantium and the East. Ruling from their capital of Ctesiphon (now in Iraq), the Persians – ruled by King Chosroes I - dominated most of the southern access of Byzantium to the silk trade (Procopius, Wars I.xx.9, 12) as the “Silk Road” via the Persian Gulf and the Tigris-Euphrates watersheds. Even most sea routes had their terminus in the Persian Gulf that the Sassanians controlled. But Justinian seems to have broken some of the impasse by establishing some access over the northern land and sea routes. Byzantium was situated at the western end of the Black Sea through the Bosporus. Thus, along the northern route, Justinian began to use the Lazican kingdom on the Caucasus as his intermediary for silk, and his envoys began asserting control over northern routes - beyond Persian hegemony - by utilizing margins of the Gobi desert (now Mongolia or northern China), the route to the north of the Elbruz Mountains (now separating Iran and Azerbaijan), along the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains (now mainly Armenia and Turkey) and into the Black Sea along its northern side with Crimea and further west. In the south, temporarily using the Ethiopian merchants from the kingdom of Axsum as intermediaries along the eastern coast of Africa, Justinian’s trade temporarily bypassed the Persian Gulf by sailing instead into the Red Sea and around the Persian Gulf. But while the northern route was more successful, the Persians continued dominating much of the silk trade coming through and out of India and the Indian Ocean (Procopius, Wars I.xx.12). It is likely if the Persians caught Byzantine shipping along the coast of Persia in the Indian Ocean, they might confiscate entire boats with their crews in order to protect what they assumed was their part of the silk trade monopoly.

Fig. 3 6th c. Mosaic: Ravenna, St. Vitale, Theodora's Procession ( note silk garments, especially at left by visible sheen)

The actual event of 552-563 CE is not easily reconstructed. Since true raw silk is produced only by the silkworm (Bombyx mori) who consume vast amounts of mulberry leaves, Procopius (Wars. VIII.xvii.1-7) describes how several Byzantine monks, after returning from India, reported to Justinian that the Byzantines could bypass Persia and India by dealing directly with China (Serinda). Then acting on an imperial mission, the monks returned to China – probably by the northern route along the Black Sea, Transcaucasus and Caspian Sea using Tashkent of Turfan to bypass Persia - and smuggled back silkworm eggs or probably very young larvae. These have been long assumed to have been possibly hidden in bamboo canes to Constantinople directly somewhere between 552-563 CE. The young Mulberry plants were also needed and either had already been imported or were part of this embassy, but it also appears the monks had expressed interest in and were given gifts of small mulberry shrubs in earthenware pots with root balls, treasures they would have kept watered even if it meant they themselves were thirsty.

Fig. 4 Silkworms

Since the nascent home-grown silk industry was not fully developed by Justinian, within a few years beginning with Justin II and subsequent emperors, first Berytus (Beirut) is noted as the early Byzantine silk industry center (Procopius, Secret History XXV.14). Later, the Morea district in the Peloponessus of southern Greece became the best or most important place to grow mulberry trees, a Byzantine agribusiness still under imperial monopoly, although Broussa (Prusa) in Turkey still has importance as a residual silk industry center originally set up by Byzantine imperial edict and control. Naturally, there is some controversy of date when this event happened. Norwich has it assigned around a decade earlier in Justinian’s reign around 552-53 CE and not toward the end of his reign in 563 CE, others like John Peter Wild (in David Jenkins below) as well also credibly place the event at least five years before 561 CE.


Although some raw silk and sewn cloth were still imported, the now indigenous Byzantine silk trade and its concomitant monopoly in the West gradually became one of Byzantium’s most important trade endeavors and economic resource. Before the home-grown silk industry, only members of the imperial family were allowed to import or wear silk, and only relatives who were mercantile associates were allowed to export what little silk was not directly used. With Byzantine silk now an indigenous production, access to silk became much greater for the entire West

Shown in the old Byzantine Adriatic port city of Ravenna in eastern Italy, several of the famous 6th. CE San Vitale mosaics commemorate Justinian’s reign and the construction of the church under Maximianus. Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora (c. 500-548 CE) and others - including the Paleochristian martyr St. Vitale himself - appear in the apse wearing what must be shimmering silk garments. If these are indeed new home-grown Byzantine products, it could suggest an earlier date for smuggling the silkworms, but this date isn’t as important as the imperial rationale to demonstrate that these portrait figures required silk garments to display them at their best and most powerful as images of imperial propaganda.

After the sixth century, silk became one of the most important diplomatic gifts of Byzantium to the West, utilized as the highest status medium for royal clothing, ceremonial robes and vestments of the highest clergy, burial wraps for both royalty and clergy as well as precious textiles wrapped around the most important religious reliquaries of pilgrimage cathedrals and basilicas. Some of the most important extant examples of Byzantine silk in royal or religious uses were found in shrines, such as St. Madeberte’s in Liège, likely to be early seventh century from the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (c. 610-640 CE); the 7-8th CE silk fragment of the Annunciation in the Vatican Sancta Sanctorum; the famous 8th c. fragment of samite silk with the quadriga emblem found in Charlemagne’s (died c. 814 CE) reliquary of the Aachen treasury (now in the Cluny Museum, Paris); the 11th c. triumphal Byzantine emperor silk wall hanging found in the tomb of Bishop Gunther of Bamberg (died 1065 CE); and the Byzantine silk found in St. Lambert’s shrine, Liège, from 1142 CE These are only a few examples of the silk industry that kept the West looking to Byzantium for its fabled luxuries. Many of the silk textiles called "Byzantine" up to the sixth century -and possibly beyond - have strongly Sassanid traditional motif elements of symmetrically-facing creatures; one is possibly the mythical simurgh (or senmurv in earlier use) surrounded by roundels of pearls. This continuing Sassanid influence (or source) complicates determining what should be rightly called "Byzantine" silk, and the debate is not likely to be easily resolved, although the research and publications of Anna Murthius is perhaps most credible to date on this matter.


This one 6th century event changed the course of history in how several silk monopolies in China and Persia were broken through industrial espionage and smuggling by the Byzantine world to set up a competing silk monopoly in the relative West. Because they were likely to know they were being watched by or sought by different suspicious groups en route, the Byzantine priestly spies were likely to have returned with their smuggled silkworms and potted mulberry shrubs by the northernmost route in order to avoid Sassanian interception, coming back to Constantinople at least two years after their initial setting out form Byzantium. We may never if these priest spies were fully publicly acknowledged and justly and amply rewarded by Justinian and the imperial court for the risks they took, especially if they were austere types who were unlikely themselves to personally wear this most luxurious fabric at a time when silk was gold.

Key Details:

Locale: Constantinople, Early Byzantine Empire (now Istanbul, Turkey, along with modern Turkey and Greece as well as Levant (now Syria and Lebanon); also known as Eastern Roman Empire.
Time: 552-563 CE
Key figures:
₪ Justinian the Great (c. 482-565 CE), emperor of Eastern Roman Empire between 527-565 CE. His full name was Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus.
₪ Justin II (c. 540-578 CE), nephew of Justinian as well as his successor and Eastern emperor between 565-578 CE
₪ Procopius of Caesarea (c. 505-570 CE), historian of 6th c. and biographer of the emperor Justinian. His Secret History (Anecdota) and History of the Wars are vital sources for the sixth century.

Further Reading

When Silk Was Gold: Exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum. New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1992. Text describes the medieval silk trade and silk technology and shows the influence of the West on production as well as exportation.

Jenkins, David, ed. The Cambridge History of Western Textiles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 108, 141.

Muthesius, Anna. Byzantine Silk Weaving: AD 400-AD 1200 . Vienna: Verlag Fassbaender, 1997; also Anna Mathesius. Studies in Silk in Byzantium. London: Pindar Press, 2004.

Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Knopf, 1997. Places Byzantine history and trade in context with imperial policy and changes taking place throughout the Eastern Roman empire.

Procopius. The Secret History. New York: Folio Society, 2000. Procopius’ contemporary 6th c. biography of Justinian provides first-hand accounts of the life of this emperor and his trade and economic policies, including silk industries under imperial monopoly.

Procopius of Caesarea. History of the Wars. H.B. Dewing, tr. London: Heinemann, 1928. Esp. Book VIII.xvii.1-8. Describes how Justinian procured the silk by direct contact with China through monks. The most reliable account of the smuggling of silkworms from China is found here.

Sabatino-Lopez, R. “Silk Industry in the Byzantine Empire.” Speculum 20 (1945) 1-42. Account of the variety of uses to which Byzantine silk from Broussa (Prusa) in Asia Minor and Berytus (Beirut) was produced and used in the medieval West.

Rodley, Lyn. Byzantine Art and Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. In the minor arts, the early Byzantine silk trade is shown as a vital link between East and West; the later Byzantine dominance of silk depended on an indigenous silk industry.

Talbot Rice, Tamara. Everyday Life in Byzantium. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1994 (reprint of 1967). Extensive account of Byzantine silk consumption and trade as well as imperial family monopoly.

Note: This article is partly excerpted by the author from his encyclopedia entry in Great Events in History, vol, 2, Salem Press, 2004

Photo credits: Fig. 1a from Julianna Lees (; Fig1b by courtesy from Victoria and Albert Museum, London, # 764-1893; all others (Figs. 2,3, 4) in public domain; Fig 4 creative commons share alike (Fastily at en.wikipedia).

Copyright © 2011 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University

January 8, 2011

Champagne Physics and More

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Dr. Patrick Hunt, Stanford University

a) Image courtesy iTune/iPhone apps b) Champagne bubble mousse (photo Quinn Dombrowski, 2008, courtesy of Creative Commons share alike 2.0)

Staring at the bubbles in a champagne glass isn’t necessarily a sign of being under the influence. Poets, however inspired, have described champagne bubbles metaphorically as cabuchon gold or pearl gems, as seen in the above image. Nor is the physics of champagne merely a guaranteed interesting table conversation topic. Not to be outdone by poets, physicists have studied the bubbles in champagne and sparkling wine for more than a century and a half, where the behavior of carbon dioxide follows a regular pattern of gases in a liquid. Who hasn’t watched the bubbles rise in golden chains though a flute, increasing in size as they rise to the surface, wondering why the bubbles grow as they ascend? That’s one effect that observing champagne seems to have on both poets and physicists.

uncorked.jpg kladstrup.jpg

One scientist in particular appears to have studied these kind of questions and their history more assiduously than almost anyone else, possibly suggesting not only that he is a connoisseur of champagne but one of its most informed consumers. Gerard Liger-Belair at the Université de Reims in the heart of France’s champagne country is just that highly-regarded bubbles expert, judging by only a selection of his publications below. Many people assume that champagne was “discovered” in the late 17th century and perfected by the Abbey of Hautvillers monk cellar master Dom Pierre Pérignon sometime after 1670, but it was more likely that he merely began to tame the rogue bubbles. The Church wanted to rein in the effervescence in what was called the "Devil's Wine" because so many bottles exploded in their monastic cellars in the region, and Dom Pérignon was tasked to reduce efferevescence. It was mostly a physics problem whose solutions had to be practical. As Liger-Belair relates in his fascinating book Uncorked: The Science of Champagne (Princeton 2004), a famous anecdote is that Dom Pérignon reputedly exclaimed, "Come quickly, brothers, I am drinking stars!" True story or not, another poetic metaphor was born. But at first there were more negatives than positives in the up-and-down story of champagne. No less informative on the fluctuations of champagne, including gutsy wartime survival of heroic champagnistes, is Don and Petie Kladstrup’s excellent book, Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times (Harper, 2006). One Kladstrup factoid reinforcing the danger of exploding bottles was the requisite iron grill face mask worn on early cellar visits.

Robert Boyle (1627-91) (public domain image)

Boyle's Law and Champagne

Stronger bottles - including thicker glass and a deep punt "dimple" in the base - and more reliable ways of keeping the cork secure, eventually a wire cage called a muselet, were two evolving fixes. Comparing the expanded wider-base cork popped from a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine to the straight cylindrical cork of normal wine (where it has to be pulled), this difference shows another solution applied to this higher pressure fermentation product known as champagne. These physics fixes didn't happen overnight but rather over decades and even at least a century between the late 17th to 18th centuries. It must not be a coincidence that these pragmatic improvements happened during the Enlightenment when burgeoning science also came to grips with Boyle's Law on the behavior of gases and Lavoisier's later identification of oxygen. How timely is it that Robert Boyle published his law in 1662, the same year other champagne milestones occurred, discussed below? Boyle's Law essentially states that the relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of a gas is inversely proportional if the temperature is kept at a constant within a closed system. Sounds like either Boyle was studying champagne, or others applied his published experiments to champagne! This is exactly the problem champagnistes were encountering with fluctuating temperature between winter to spring in Champagne's refermentation cycle. So there is a directly proportional relationship between Boyle's Law and champagne!

Memorial to Dom Pérignon at Moët & Chandon, Epernay (photo P. Hunt 2010)

Roman bubbly?

I was in Épernay a few months ago at Moët & Chandon in conversation with the champagne house's communications department representative Stephan Jacquemin. We were musing about the earliest history of sparkling wine, possibly long before Dom Pérignon. [1] Many have suggested the Romans had a natural sparkling wine with inevitable but unpredictable carbonation. If true and Roman vintners ever achieved something close to a tight seal for even a short period, the carbonation pressure must have shattered more than a few clay amphorae. Although much debated and not necessarily desirable or sought after, some evidence for this Roman antecedent is often hinted in the Latin word spumatio and its source verb spumo, [2] speculating that Italian spumante wine derives from a much older Roman tradition. But it is important to remember that sparkling wine would not have necessarily been a contrived effort but instead merely a natural by-product of carbonation from yeast. As Jancis Robinson clearly explains in The Oxford Companion to Wine, “bubbles form because a certain amount of carbon dioxide has been held under pressure dissolved in the wine until the bottle is unstoppered, in which case the wine is transformed from the stable to the meta-stable state.” [3] As mentioned, the natural yeast’s carbonation produced undesirable results for centuries, including bursting bottles, since the cold French winters halted fermentation and warmer spring kick-started refermentation again. It was touch-and-go until stronger bottles were specially made to withstand the internal pressure, as already discussed above. That the Romans were in and around Reims is clear from the chalk mines that now comprise some of Pommery’s and others’ champagne caves converted from chalk pits called crayères around 30 meters (about 100 feet) underground. [4] I visited these a decade ago and noted the abundant intact Roman artifacts on display in the adjacent mines sharing space with champagne.

Widow Clicquot’s Legacy

As tastes changed after the sparkling wine from the region of Champagne was introduced at the Louis XIV's Versailles court by Marquis de Sillery, it was the exiled Marquis Charles de St-Évremond who seems to have presented champagne to London around 1662. Christopher Merret had even read a paper in 1662 before the Royal Society in London about how to make sparkling wine. Since our London-based historian daughter had introduced us to Tilar Mazzeo’s recent book The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It‬ (Harper, 2008), our family duly trooped in pilgrimage through the countryside to Madame Clicquot’s neo-Gothic chateau in Boursault overlooking the Marne, where she retired after almost single-handedly building the supply and demand global champagne market by 1840, making it an elegant commodity by her merchandising genius. Thanks to Veuve (“Widow”) Clicquot (née Barbe Nicole Ponsardin), champagne today is a status beverage whose orderly bubbles confer even more elegance on grand ladies, especially the ambience of an excellent champagne. The international LVMH (Moët Hennessy - Louis Vuitton S. A.) Group is well-represented not only in Épernay but anywhere wealth and celebration meet. Although LVMH has a stable of thoroughbred perfume and fashion houses like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Dior, Givenchy, and even a 20% stake in Hermes, it controls many of the world’s best names in the world of wine and spirits. In addition to Hennessy cognac, the sauternes Chateau d’Yquem is one of its holdings; Dom Pérignon, Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Krug champagnes are others.

Chateau Boursault – Madame Clicquot’s chateau (photo P. Hunt 2010)

As I regularly do in wineries and for vintners in California wine country, I presented a history of ancient wine lecture to the Napa Valley Vintners Association a few years ago at Meadowood, St. Helena, and met makers of several excellent sparkling wines. More than a few of these sparkling producers are offshoots of great French houses transplanted to California. For example, Chandon’s parent is LVMH, Domaine Carneros’ parent is Taittinger and Mumm Napa is owned by the French company Pernod Ricard, which also owns G. H. Mumm & Cie and Perrier-Jouët champagne. Now given the enormous worth of the global champagne industry since Barbe Nicole Ponsardin-Clicquot (in France 322 million bottles of champagne were sold in 2008, with at least $3.5 billion or more in sales [5]), champagne bubbles and their non-French effervescent cousins are entirely worthy of the scientific study they can easily afford.

Bubble Physics

After initial natural fermentation when fruit sugar and yeast mix in the air, champagne requires secondary yeast and sugar in addition to what nature puts in, producing carbon dioxide pressure from the CO2 gas trapped in the liquid. The volume of trapped carbon dioxide begins its release when the wide-based cork is popped from its high-pressure wired tight contact with the champagne bottle’s enlarged rim.

Flutes produce a better aroma of bursting bubbles than wider rim glasses partly because they both increase the distance bubbles rise, also increasing the kinetic energy of the bubbles, and concentrating the surface area; indeed the whole liquid surface of a concentrated champagne flute participates in the bubble-bursting at a greater rate, which enhances the champagne aroma, especially of a great champagne.

CIMG2174.JPG (photo P. Hunt 2011)

As Liger-Belair informs, people often assume the higher quality of a champagne based on a smaller size of individual bubbles. The old adage “the smaller the bubbles, the better the wine” is partly true aesthetically as well as physically. Smaller bubbles “rise more leisurely…and consequently create the wine’s characteristically lingering sort of effervescence and delicate inner glow.” But better, vintage champagne is also usually older, meaning that it has lost some carbon dioxide and presents a lower bubble rate. [6]

The bubbles in champagne and sparkling wine may start out at around 20 micrometers in size from nucleation sites on the glass but can grow to 1 millimeter just before reaching the surface. The bubbles increase in size mostly because of the decrease in surrounding liquid pressure as they approach the surface.

Growing Champagne bubbles (photo courtesy of Gite-Chamery, Champagne, France)

The velocity of migration of champagne bubbles upward in a column is such that only the top of a bubble rises above the surface. Then the liquid around the bubble crown drains downward in a time span of between 10 to 100 milliseconds and the bubble crown is reduced to a thickness of 100 nanometers, too thin to sustain itself and it ruptures. The collapsing liquid rushes inward, collecting itself in such a way as to send a tiny jet upward that breaks into droplets. These droplets traveling several meters per second can also reach a height above the liquid of a few centimeters, which can be felt on the face if the champagne flute is full.

According to Philip Ball from the research of Vandevall et al., the popping sounds of champagne bubbles are in fact like avalanches where each bursting bubble seems to affect the others. There is a mathematical relationship – described as a power law – not only where the duration of a bubble’s “life” is unpredictable but so is the time gap between bubbles bursting. As champagne bubbles burst, they unpredictably compel other bubbles to change shape and possibly pop as well, but it is at a so-far unknowable rate. If you bend down and listen to the champagne fizz or feel it on your face, someone will probably jump to the conclusion you’ve reached your limit unless you can convince people you’re a scientist like Liger-Belair. Such is the nature of the "fizzics" of champagne.

Some say there are up to 50-100 million mesmerizing bubbles in a bottle of champagne, [7] but if you try counting more than a few, you’re probably beyond the state of Russia’s Peter the Great (à la Kladstrup) who nightly took - along with other more warm curves - four bottles of champagne to bed. Perhaps those are the kinds of parabolas Archimedes could have only dreamed to measure in Elysium.


Philip Ball. “The Fizz-ics of Champagne.” Nature Science Update (2001).

Gérard Liger-Belair. “The Science of Bubbly”. Scientific American (December, 2002)

___________________. Uncorked: The Science of Champagne. Princeton University Press, 2004, 3, 8, 59 & ff.

___________________. “The Physics and Chemistry behind the Bubbling Properties of Champagne and Sparkling Wines: A State-of-the-Art Review”. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53.8 (2005) 2788-2802.

Don and Petie Kladstrup. Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times. Harper, 2006.

Tilar Mazzeo. The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It‬. Harper, 2008.

Guillaume Polidori, Philippe Jeandet and Gérard Liger-Belair. “Bubbles and Flow Patterns in Champagne: Random Effervescence.” American Scientist 97.4 (July-August 2009) 294.

Jancis Robinson, ed. The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford University Press, 1994.

N. Vandevalle, J. F. Lentz, S. Dorbolo and F. Brisboi. “Avalanches of Popping Bubbles in Collapsing Films.” Physical Review Letters 86 (2001) 179-182.


[1] Jancis Robinson, ed. The Oxford Companion to Wine, Oxford University Press, 1994, 210.
[2] spumatio –onis, fem.: a “foaming”; spumo, spumare, “to foam” in C. T. Lewis and C. Short. A New Latin Dictionary, 1907, 1747.
[3] Robinson, 912.[4]
[4] The Roman or Gallo-Roman chalk crayères can also be accessed by Veuve Clicquot, Heidsieck, Taittinger and Ruinart champagne maisons.
[5] Report of the Comité Interprofessionnel des Vins de Champagne (CIVC), 2009; Liger-Belair reports 262 million bottles at $3 billion in 2001.
[6] Liger-Belair, 2004, 8 & ff.
[7] others are far less conservative, with fivefold higher estimates of up to 250 million bubbles in a single bottle.

Copyright © 2011

Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University

May 17, 2010

Wine in Antiquity: In Praise of Old Roman Wine

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Bacchus-Grapes.jpg Bacchus%20Vesuvius.jpg
Figs. 1, 2 Bacchus, Pompeian Wall Painting, House of the Centenary lararium

Dr. Patrick Hunt, Stanford University

And I know how to lead off the sprightly dance
of the Lord Dionysus, the dithyramb,
I do it thunderstruck with wine
.” Archilochos, 7th c. BC

Brushing dirt off the old Roman wine amphora handle that had clung to it for 2,000 years was exciting for me as an archaeologist. Buried so long in shallow, rocky soil at the top of an alpine pass around 8,000 feet in elevation, it now saw intermittent sunlight and shadow as racing clouds sifted through the high peaks all around me. I turned the old amphora piece over and placed my fingers through the handle as a natural fit. I’ll never forget pondering how it arrived at such a remote place and hoped its wine was consumed there before it was broken in the rocks. I knew the Gauls loved wine and that this pass was a major trading route between Gauls and Romans where wine was a prized trade commodity.

What would be a dream vintage for an archaeologist? I find the idea of vintage appealing since “ancient” and “vintage” seem to pair well. The very ideas of vintage and select growths are ancient. Modern connoisseurs usually trace Bordeaux wine pedigrees to a few generations before the 1855 Gironde Classification. Bordeaux itself was known to the Romans as Burdigala and was an important municipality even then, with its first commercial vines apparently planted between 40-60 AD.

Turning the sundials back a few millennia we can listen to Roman writers like Varro, 1st c BC, Horace, 1st c. BC, Columella, 1st c. AD, and Pliny the Elder, 1st c. AD. Their praise of select Classical wines like Falernian, Caecuban and Massic sounds amusingly like our modern purple prose enthusing and celebrating premium 20th century vintages. Where we thought A.O.C. (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) was relatively venerable, Pliny devotes many pages of his Historia Naturalis, especially Books 14, 17 & 23, to Roman wine cultivation and regional classifications. That wines had daily importance and easy accessibility in Pompeii is confirmed by the presence of at least 59 different commercial thermopolium vendors selling wine and food at many street corner stalls in Pompeii (Fig. 3). Other local places like Herculaneum even had the prices listed on painted walls in coinage for different qualities of a cup of wine (1 as, 2 asses, etc.). But how were Roman wines qualitatively scaled and evaluated?

Fig. 3 Thermopolium, Pompeii

Take, for example, one of the Roman “first growth” Aminaean vines producing wines that improve greatly with age, according to Pliny. (1) There was a local Aminaean grape varietal grown on Mt. Vesuvius whose wine was sometimes called Pompeiana, coming from the rich volcanic slopes of Vesuvius. (2) This wine grown even on the fateful mountain just above Pompeii was a great source of local income until AD 79 when all the liquid assets went up in smoke like everything else in the vicinity. Prior to the cataclysmic volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, vintners of Pompeiana, like their modern counterparts, could obtain bank loans on the future strength of an upcoming vintage if Roman banking practices are any indication.

The Roman fresco [55 by 40 inches] shown above and below (Figs. 1, 2,4) is from the House of the Centenary, Pompeii, and now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. It is almost a Roman-style late “Impressionist” wall painting, finished not long before Vesuvius made Pompeiana an, alas, extinct treasure. The Roman wine god Bacchus stands at the left in an amusing but perfectly logical designer garb: his body is a racemus (3), a cluster of ruby grapes that are shining and glabrous, translucent with juice and high in brix. While the best Roman wines were mostly white, this must have been a red-skinned grape if the painting is not overly imaginary here. Wreathed with grape leaves and ivy, Bacchus holds his thyrsus wand, symbol of his divine vegetative prowess, in his left hand. From the thyrsus he unfurls his protective ribbon-like banner circling the mountain and its vineyards. The right hand of Bacchus holds a wine jug from which a stream of Pompeiana pours into the throat of a thirsty golden panthera, his animal totem. The panther’s dyspeptic leap for the cascade of wine is understandable given the Romans’ high regard for wine. This pouring of wine down a panther’s throat is an image appearing in several surviving Roman paintings from extant walls, if this and a counterpart painting in the British Museum are representative. It may also be important to note from the original Greek [pan + thera] that the word panther means “all wild”. This wild cat is appropriate as a totem for Bacchus who is the dissolver of inhibitions. Below the main grouping on the Roman painting, a great bearded snake sacred to Bacchus rears up before an altar to the wine god. Birds also flit about the garland festoon at the top of the painting, but our attention is drawn to the mountain itself in one of its few pre-AD 79 images.

This is no cameo appearance because the mountain is center stage, not yet having blown its “cork” in the huge volcanic event that buried Pompeii and neighboring towns under tons of ash in AD 79 as many as 30 feet or more deep. In the Roman painting between the grape cluster of Bacchus (Fig. 2) (who could even be a living advertisement for the wine) and the peaceful-for-the-moment peak, there are multiple rows of trained trellis vineyards. In a vinous excerpt of his country gentleman treatise, (4) the Roman writer Columella describes such trained vines as either “staked” [characatus] or “horsed” [canteriatus] with trellises framing vines much like our own vineyards today (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 Details of Pompeian painting with vineyard on Vesuvius

While Pompeiana may not have been at the top tier of Roman wines, what was the value of one of the more fabled Roman wines? Some were very expensive like those of the year 121 BC, which was the so-called Opimian vintage named after a 2nd c. BC Roman consul, Lucius Opimius. It had the ancient equivalent value of a venerable Petrus, Batard-Montrachet or Romanée-Conti. By Pliny’s time this vintage could easily occasion a valuation of 1000 sesterces a cask and, according to Pliny, it was somewhat bitter but still drinkable after almost 200 years, although said to be reduced to the viscosity of very thin honey. (5) While it had an initial price tag of 100 silver sesterces per amphorae, interest accumulated up to 6 percent per annum - calculate that after a century or so! - nearly the equivalent of $16,000 today for what volume might be in a case, although some doubt the wine could have lasted this long and retain any drinkability. (6) From Campania and thus not too far from Pompeii, Falernian was often the most highly regarded Roman wine. It could continue improving after several decades, which suggests a late harvest grape to some. Varro (7) writes in 37 BC when he was 80 years old that Falernian becomes more valuable the longer it is cellared. While Pompeiana shone best at around 10 years vintage, (8) Falernian would turn amber as it increased in drinkable vintage up to 25 years or more.

The Romans were probably also the first to classify terra or context based not just on soil but local conditions - including facing directional (e.g., southerly toward sun or not), wind, slope and elevation, etc. - for wine production, although the word terra suggests that soil was at least as important as grape type or even more so, anticipating the sagacious French by at least a thousand years with the concept of terroire (and maybe even the textual source of the later idea), as Pliny says of Campania felix, “Happy Campania” (Fig. 5), the province around Naples:

Fig. 5 Campanian vineyard near Luogosano, Avellino

“These instances, if I am not mistaken, show it is the country and the soil, not the grape, that matter...since the same vine has a different value in different locations.” (9)

The wine in western Europe first brought by the Greeks through colonies like Massalia (Marseilles) and exported up the Rhone valley was highly desirable by Celtic tribes in Gaul and the Rhine and Danube plains (both Hallstatt and La Tène cultures) from at least the 6th c. BC, evidenced by wine vessels found throughout archaeological contexts in northern Europe (Austria and Switzerland as well as France). The circa 500 BC grave of a Celtic princess from Vix – now in the local museum at Chatillon-sûr Seine - in central France has yielded an enormous decorated bronze wine krater 1.63 meters (about 5'4" feet) in height - the largest known krater anywhere - as a burial good which was her ticket to celebration in the afterlife, insuring she would be well-received in the halls of the gods with such a divine gift for eternal vintages (Fig. 6). While most likely Rhodian Greek in its make, the huge Vix wine krater was also buried with many Greek and Etruscan wine vessels for immediate use. (10)

Fig. 6 Vix Krater, Chatillon-sûr-Seine Museum, France, 1.63 meters (5'4") high, circa 500 BC

Some scholars have theorized that wine itself was the vehicle for establishing the status of the Celtic warlords and chieftains who could thus convene social events for their vassals around wine consumption and distribution to “civilize” as well as confer noble favor through this luxury good, as shown on Celtic bronze situlae (Fig. 7). (11)

Fig. 7 Benvenuti Situla from Este, with Venetic Celtic Lord drinking, Late 7th c. BC

The Celts probably consumed thousands of tons of wine via this social mechanism between 600-100 BC, and apparently preferred wooden casks to clay amphorae. Well-known to archaeology, the Rhone valley itself and ultimately Burgundy were soon colonized for Roman wine growth, which, according to Jasper Morris, editor of the Journal of Wine Research may even account for the name domaine of La Romanée alongside Roman and Burgundian archaeological sites, so named in 1651 “presumably on account of Roman finds being found nearby”. (12) The wine village of Vosne-Romanée is perhaps the premium viticultural context in the prestigious Côte-d'Or, the heartland of Burgundy, with a lion's share of great monopoles and many Grand Crus and the famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Here some of the world's most esteemed wines - often costing thousands of dollars for a single bottle (13) - are made from the Pinot Noir grape, and local wines have been especially appreciated and renowned since medieval Benedictine and Cluniac times. That this single village's great vintages and millennia-old viticulture harks back to the Romans are logical outcomes of such deep-rooted winemaking tradition since antiquity.

Fig. 8 Village of Vosne-Romanée, context of La Romanée (and likely Roman origins)

Confirming that wine was a well-traveled commodity for over 2,000 years, alpine sites at 8200 ft like the Great-St-Bernard pass between Italy and Switzerland have yielded fragmentary wine vessels, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, where my own archaeological project there has excavated Roman ceramic wine cups and ceramic amphorae from such high and remote ruins. This clearly shows Roman wine traveled far and was appreciated everywhere as one of the hallmarks of civilization. (14)

In the Côte-d'Or of Burgundy, soils are rich in calcaire (French for limestone and related calcium carbonates) and clay and other components. In Campania, geological sources are at times mixed with volcanic ash, soil that the vine roots probed and from which they drew sustenance in the heat of the Italian sun. While finding extant ancient Roman wine names in France may be difficult, the best Roman wines in antiquity from Italy were Falernian and its compatriots, the marvelous Caecuban or Massic which have also long been the toast of Roman poets. In his odes, often written in praise of wine, Horace nostalgically remembers such classics two thousand years ago:

"Aulon, now cherished by fertile Bacchus, envies less the clusters of Falernum" [Carmen II.6]

"A worthier heir will drink your Caecuban now guarded by a hundred keys...glorious wine more choice than that drunk at pontiffs’ feasts" [Carmen II.14]

"Since Corvinus orders a far mellower wine, fetch the Massicum that you guard, fit to be brought out on some auspicious day!" [Carmen III.21]


(1) Pliny, Hist. Nat. 14.4.21-22
(2) ibid. 14.4.35
(3) as in Virgil's Georgic 2.60
(4) Columella, de Re Rustica 5.4.1 & 5.5.16
(5) Pliny, op. cit. 14.6.57
(6) W. Arrowsmith. Petronius’ Satyricon. University of Michigan, 1959, 192, where Arrowsmith suggests Trimalchio’s attempts to impress his guests display more ignorance than gourmandaise because the wine would not have survived well. Taste may not have been the most important criterion if connoisseurship was as important then as now: Christie's Wine Auction in London a decade or so ago (around 1997) had one bottle of 1945 La Tache DRC with an opening bid for £ 1100.00 sterling or around $1780.00.
(7) Varro, de Rerum Rusticarum, Libri III, Bk. I.
(8) Pliny, op. cit. 14.8.70
(9) ibid. 14.8.70.
(10) J. Boardman. Greek Art. Thames and Hudson, 1985 ed., 14, figure 103 on 104
(11) Pliny, Hist. Nat.. 22.2.5; K. Kristiansen. Europe before history. Cambridge, 1998, 328; S. J. Fleming. Vinum: The Story of Roman Wine. Glen Mils, PA: Art Flair, 2001, 3,5, 22,96,101.
(12) Jasper Morris in Jancis Robinson, ed. Oxford Companion to Wine, 1994, 1053.
(13) Bruce Sanderson. "Heaven on Earth", Wine Spectator, May, 2010, 49. In New York, 2007, Sotheby's auctioned a case of Romanée-Conti 1990 for $262,900, each bottle at $22,000.
(14) Patrick Hunt. “Summus Poeninus in the Grand-St-Bernard Pass.” Journal of Roman Archaeology XI (1998) 265-74; Patrick Hunt. “A Roman refuge in the Plan de Barasson: Field reports for 1998-2000” Vallesia: Chronique du découvertes archéologiques dans le canton du Valais LIV (Sion, 1999) 300-08; Patrick Hunt, “Bronze Tabulae Ansatae at Roman Summus Poeninus in the Roman Alps” Acta: From the Parts to the Whole, vol. 2, Proceedings of XIIIth Int’l. Bronze Congress, Harvard University Art Museums, JRA Suppl. 2002.

Image Credits: Figs. 1-4: public domain; Fig. 5: by courtesy of I Trulli and La Molara,; Figs. 6-7: public domain, Wikimedia; Fig. 8: photo courtesy of Deborah Concklin/Fred Concklin, August, 2010, on Treasures of Medieval Burgundy trip (with Dr. Patrick Hunt).

Copyright © 2007 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University

April 3, 2010

Dante’s Monsters in the Inferno: Reimagining Classical to Christian Judgment

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Gustave Dore, Geryon, Inferno, Canto XVII (note Dore added wings and did not depict scorpion's tail as Dante describedl)

Dr. Patrick Hunt, Stanford University


Dante deliberately amalgamated relict Classicism and his own Christian vision. He did not revive Classicism to the letter or even to the spirit thereof as followed in the Renaissance through Petrarch onward, but instead created a unique medieval epic looking both deeply backward and forward in time. This diachronicity is expanded by imbibing Classical material in one direction and moving toward the Last Judgment in the other direction. By altering aspects of antiquity in his own long view of eternity, he fictionalizes myth truths that may at times wear the complicated garb of "falsehoods" (mezogna) (1) or reimagined truths. This is especially fitting in his use of Classical monsters like Geryon, Cerberus, Medusa and others, where he transforms them into allegories of both spiritual and political significance. (2) While others in the medieval world, mostly clerics, invented fictional otherworldly journeys for moral or didactic religious intent, (3) Dante made of his Commedia a cosmic topos of genius where myth and history meet, where he summons real rather than imaginary personages who curse their chosen hells alongside imaginary beasts and creatures of poetic lore. Given the many studies of Dante’s monsters, (4) here only a few selective monsters are discussed.

Dante's repeated use of Classical authors is well known, for example, as Brownlee shows in echoes of Virgil, Statius, Lucan and Ovid, also especially in Canto 20 where his ancient diviners appear as metonymy of their ancient authors. (5) In many places in the Inferno Dante even minimizes biblical references, as Barolini and others have noted, whereas Classical references abound. While many scholars trace Virgilian allusions in Dante, a great debt to Ovid can be overlooked, where Dante not only imbibes figurative language and narrative but also stylistic features. (6) Where understanding Classical Rome meant looking only backward in Dante’s time, even after a more than a millennium, Christian Rome was mostly forward looking in terms of both individual accountability and the Last Judgment, as “Christianity gave Rome its future orientation.” (7) If Western Civilization became this inevitable fusion of Classical and Christian worlds, when Roman Christianity triumphed over Roman paganism even while syncretizing some of its elements, Dante is one of its original architects not so much by choice as by the force of his creative nous. His monsters trebly serve as vehicles of Classical imitatio, medieval Christian symbolism and rhetoric as well as Mediterranean and especially Italian history. Jewell asserts:

“The reasons for the centrality of Italian literature to the topic of the monstrous are many. They run much deeper than Italy’s ties to Classical Greece and Rome where mortals and demigods were recurrently dogged by monsters of mythic and epic memory…the medieval period was characterized by a Christian renegotiation of classical, especially Neoplatonic, thought, and the idea of the monstrous played an important role in this phenomenon.” (8)

Dante’s imitations alone of Virgil run into the hundreds of passages, either stylistic or thematic. (9) His use of monsters found earlier especially in the Aeneid, however, has the added function of Christological trope, among other meanings. For example, Hercules conquered both Geryon on earth and Cerberus at the gates of the Underworld, like Christ who broke down the gates of Hell in his visit after Calvary, winnowing Pre-Christian souls from Purgatory. Thus, Dante’s monsters not only “show” connections to the supernatural in their polyform nature, graphically expressing their hybridity as harbingers of unseen divine power but also, like their Classical prototypes, are outworkings of divine justice.

While in Classical myth monsters (from monstrare, “to show”) arise out of disrupted nature to punish human hubris on earth - note their likely etymological derivation from the Greek declension of hubris to hubridis (10) - Dante’s monsters are divine instruments of punishment in the Inferno, “ministers of divine justice”. (11) In addition to major passages about Cerberus (Canto VI) and Geryon (Canto XVII), Dante also mentions Medusa (Canto IX), the Minotaur (Canto XII) and centaurs like Nessus (Canto XII) and Cacus (Canto XXV), but this discussion will concentrate mostly on the first two major monsters. As mentioned and elaborated in prior literature, (12) Cerberus, Geryon and Nessus and Cacus were all overwhelmed, tamed or killed by Hercules, a Pre-Christian salvific type invested with probable Neoplatonic symbolism, and other salvific heroes who were sons of Jupiter and Neptune in myth, Perseus and Theseus, likewise conquered Medusa and the Minotaur respectively. Such myth congruences of heroes and monsters integrating Classical and Christian traditions are necessary for Dante and are purposefully woven together to make a whole new literary fabric out of separate threads. Tensions that may thus occur therein are harmonized by the historicity of his denizens of hell, many from among his own contemporaries.

Dante’s monsters are both predictable in the sense that they somewhat mirror Virgilian episodes and somewhat unpredictable in the Christian ethos that the poet creates specifically for each. As Jewiss noted:

“The most obvious place to look for monsters in the medieval world is hell, the dark margins of God’s creation, a space retrieved from Classical antiquity and transformed into the Christian repository for evil. Within a Christian framework, sin must be coupled metaphorically with the monstrous, for transgression is that which deforms and makes ugly.” (13)

In this way, monsters fit Dante’s worldview and his theological intents to make Christian allegories of antiquity.

Erinyes (Furies) and Harpies

The Erinyes or Furies (Canto IX) and Harpies (Canto XIII) also serve Dante’s rhetorical purposes as monstrous, but are not necessarily perceived as monsters themselves even in classical antiquity. In the Inferno, instead the Furies add horrific purpose, bloodstained, girdled in bright green hydras about their waist and crowned with vipers at their brows, screaming, howling and baying as they wound themselves. In Canto IX.38-48 Dante imitates the Underworld of Aeneid VI.545 & ff. with its triple steel walled Tartarus and moated red-hot Phlegethon where the Fury, Tisiphone in her “blood-wet” dress guards its towered gate, but in typical triplicity Dante adds her sisters Megaera and Alecto.

Gustave Dore, Harpies and Suicides in the Wood of Suicides

The mournful thicket of the Harpies opening Canto XIII is a puzzling place, one Dante describes in repetitive negative "nons" (not yet reached other side, unmarked by paths, not green leaves, unsmooth bark, no fruit, no beast infests so rough and dense a wood), all reserved for suicides in their ultimate negation of self. Dante’s Harpies (Arpie from Latin Harpeia) nesting in this poisonous wood are described as odio, loathsome, winged and with bird talons for feet, feathered bodies with distended stomachs, yet with human heads, but even these cannot fully articulate human speech in their screeching lamenti. Dante’s pilgrim is horrified to learn the harpies feed on the thorny foliage, causing pain because inhabiting the stumps were disembodied humans whose voices cry out, and he also discovers to his horror this is the wood of suicides.

Harpies (from Greek ‘αρπυια) in mythology were greatly feared, harpy literally meaning “snatcher” (in Greek harpazein means “to snatch”). At times Harpies may also have been thought to be sudden gusts of wind with mournful sounds, and in superstition they were blamed for sudden disappearances. Hesiod was one of the first Greek poets to mention Harpies in Theogony 265 onward, connected to both winds and birds.

Generally female – Virgil says that had the faces of maidens but were obscene in their habits - as filthy and ravenous bird monsters with human heads, in legend they befouled and stole food from wanderers like the Trojans of Aeneas who stopped on the island of Strophades in Aeneid III. 216-58 and were imagined thus in Italy in Aeneid VII.107-20. In some myths and, for example, on sculpted Classical Greek friezes from the so-called Harpy Tomb of Xanthos, c. 470 BCE, where they appear to carry off human souls of the dead. (14) In some myths Harpies may have also stolen souls of sleeping babies as some have interpreted, and in other variants they abducted and tortured souls en route to Tartarus, but since they were insatiably hungry, it was usually food they pilfered after befouling everything else with excrement as they robbed stranded seafarers. Dante has the harpies stripping what little withered foliage exists in the mostly barren, thorny wood of the suicides, which pains the human souls occupying the twisted, bleeding trees, and Dante’s harpy monsters are the “embodiment of fear” in this wood of despair. (15)


While some have seen Medusa as out of place in the Inferno, like its sinners her curse was self-inflicted, her original human beauty became a monstrous curse because of how she misapprehended it, an omen of her hubris. Even Christine de Pizan said it was originally Medusa’s beauty that was arresting, (16) and its transformation from beauty to horrification is suggested by Dante’s description of the Furies even though they are only harbingers of Medusa. After her disfiguring transformation Medusa was always deemed a monster, as the Furies invoke in almost reverse apotropaic intent that Medusa is worse than their own effect because like a basilisk she can silently turn to stone with one fractional gaze of being seen, whereas they can be seen in all their ugliness. Hollander not only calls her a "watchdog of Dis" but also sees her as an allegory personifying "that which turns hard the will of man in sin" in Dante's use of her. (17) Freccero’s reasoned essay on Dante’s Medusa also makes much of the baffling use of allegory in sightedness and antitheses of “covering” and “uncovering” with the poet’s veil (velami) and antitheses of dottrina and Medusa as Dante commands readers to see (mirate) and understand what lesson is beneath the veil of strange verses (sotto ‘l velami de li versi strani): “it is because the pilgrim averted his eyes from the Medusa that there is a truth to be seen beneath the veil”, both an interpretive and moral threat of doom of petrification, which will happen if the pilgrim does not “turn” (conversion) because then he will never “return” above. (18)

Caravaggio's Medusa, c. 1597

Apotropaic devices possessed much of the similar force in their ability to ward off evil, as eyes painted on ships’ prows, and often warding off evil by evil, as in the myth of Athena/Minerva’s wearing of the Gorgoneion (severed Medusa head) on her aegis, or sculpted eyes that could still see while being seen on profile relief in antiquity, or to protect against the fascinum, “evil eye” in ancient Roman superstition, (19) which practice Virgil mentions through the mouth of Menalcas about bewitching herd animals in Eclogue III.103: “Nescio quis teneros oculos mihi fascinat agnum.” But here in Dante’s Inferno, however, the threat of seeing Medusa to the “living” pilgrim is still very much “alive” and powerful in the realm of the dead.

Charybdis and Cacus

While ancient monsters often included Charybdis as the maelstrom in the Straits of Messina where two contrary seas meet, in the Inferno (Canto VII) she is reduced to figurative language alluding monstrous destructive waves that crash together and separate again as describing the hordes of the damned rushing about in their half-circle collisions where chaos rules. Charybdis was an oceanographic phenomenon, the worse of two evils relative to Scylla in the idiom “between a rock and a hard place,” a way for myth to explain nature and the dangers of the sea.

Cacus, on the other hand, was treated by Virgil in Aeneid VIII.195-230 & ff. with considerable detail in a narration by King Evander of Latium, some of which Dante echoes. In myth, thieving Cacus was the son of Vulcan and Medusa – having a few characteristics of both in his fire-breathing, horrific evil character – who lived awhile on the Aventine Hill, where in myth he had “often turned the stones under the Aventine mount into a lake of blood”, sotto ’l sasso di monte Aventino, di sangue fece spesse volte laco, much like Nero of old if Suetonius is credible. (20) Having stolen some of Hercules’s cattle, Cacus thought he could hide his crime by forcing the cattle to walk backward into his cave, thus trying to fool anyone who might track them. Hearing a pilfered heifer lowing from within the mountain as he drove his herd past, Hercules discovered the theft and clubbed the half-human monster in his destroyed cave with a hundred blows, only the first ten of which he lived through. In a sense this heroic overkill may spill over into Dante’s hell where sinners are punished beyond physical death.

Dante’s Cacus is thus apropos in Canto XXV’s Circle of Thieves, Bolgia 7, although here in centaur form. While not necessarily always thieves, centaurs were prone to trying to steal women like Deianira the wife of Hercules and Hippodameia the bride princess of the Lapith king Pirithous in the most famous Centauromachy in myth. Cacus the violent centaur is covered with snakes, also bearing a dragon fire-breathing like the original Cacus of myth, and the following transformation of Florentine shades and serpents has likely allegorical power as well, possibly about degradation of the Imago Dei or bestial antithesis to the divine in nostra effige. (21) Early commentators assumed Dante’s centaurs were condottieri, mercenaries hired out by tyrants, often violent but nonetheless instruments of rule however harsh, (22) and this centaur’s full rage (centauro pien di rabbia) deserves Dante’s contrapasso equivocating the sin in life with the punishment in hell. (23)

Early in Canto XXV, the pursuit of the Florentine Fucci by Cacus, where a centaur form is emblematic of violence, with “the load of serpents for his many thefts” and “the fiery dragon for his sacrilege and blasphemy – for he [Fucci] had stolen from the Church” (24) predispose the passage to an allegory of fugitive justice the myth endorses in Hercules’ destruction of Cacus, as in Aeneid VIII where the kingdom of Latium is also thereby freed. In myth, dual-natured centaurs are instruments of chaos whose bestiality usually undermines their humanity. (25)

In Canto XXV Dante often either uses synonymic or derived words of transmutation (e.g., mutare, mutato, converte and trasmutare) alongside slightly negativized words of amalgamation (e.g. confusi, mischiar), his poetic text – mentioning other Roman poets and works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Lucan’s Pharsalia both of whom he slightly demeans, possibly relative to Virgil - might appear to be steeped in hermetic alchemy in descriptive colors of brown, black and white as well as “livid” earlier, all newly changed by the agency of fire partly seen through smoke: Mentre che ’l fummo l’ uno e l’ altro vela di colore novo (“while the smoke veils the one and then the other with new color”), and with allegorical details somehow evoking what one would see in a metalworker’s forge where metal flows serpent-like when molten, (26) evocative considering the father of Cacus was Vulcan in myth. The Latin name Cacus may derive from the Greek kakos, “evil”, which would be consonant with his place in the Inferno as a creature given over to wickedness and without redeeming qualities, although Augustine would have evil only as an absence of goodness, where “no creature is evil, in spite of the fact that some creatures are worse than others,” (27) and even Dante’s demi-monsters like Cacus are creatures that bear traces of the Imago Dei, however marred.


The Minotaur is a more obvious classical monster with hybrid nature conjoining man and bull, regardless which part wears head or body. At the broken edge of the chasm, here rages the l’ Infamia di Creti, the “Infamy of Crete”. Long ago in myth, instead of sacrificing the bull from the sea to Poseidon as a votive, King Minos of Crete wanted the magnificent bull to stud his cows and the sea god gave him more than he wanted, seeding his wife whose bent mind desired the bull. The captive inventor Daedalus, at the bidding of Queen Pasiphae whose lust for the white bull knew no natural bounds, created a fake cow for her to climb inside for the bull to mount, and the Minotaur was conceived inside the cow, concetta ne la falsa vacca, perhaps also an allusion to the birth shell of Venus, Goddess of Love since concetta can ambiguously suggest both “shell” (Latin concha) as well as the normal “conceived”. Theseus as Duca d’Atene, slew the Minotaur upside but also descended into the Underworld to steal Persephone, and never returned, so when Virgil wonders, “Perhaps you think you see the Duke of Athens”, it is partly because Dante reminds that in Aeneid VI.618 “wretched Theseus sits forever” trapped in Virgil’s Tartarus for his thwarted hubristic crime of abduction.

Gustave Dore, The Two Poets View the Minotaur and Vice Versa

Seeing the poets, the violent Minotaur rages, his mind crazed as he “gnawed himself in rage” (sé stesso morse, si come quei cui l’ira dentro fiacca) the Italian repetitive with alliteratively rich velar consonants (come, quei, cui), and he can only rage not the least because he has a beast-human duality of mind that will never be resolvable. The structure of Canto XII, itself about dualities, “conceals” an image about the human body: “neither the Minotaur nor the centaurs can produce more than half a human body each” (28) ; even Chiron, the noblest of centaurs is still half a beast. The threatening way in which the Minotaur plunges back and forth on the rocks, guardata da quell’ ira bestial, makes the monster’s direction as unpredictable as his mind and body, neither of which can move in unison. Even the Minotaur’s rageful gnawing himself is a form of self-punishment, the accursed pain one nature violently inflicts on the other. Mindless or not, however, typical of the Inferno’s quasi-biblical denizens, rage and gnashing of teeth are eternal (Gospel of Matthew 13:42, 50). (29)


Cerberus was the monstrous triple-headed Hell Dog guarding the Gates of Hell in Canto VI of the Inferno, appropriated by Dante after having guarded the mythical gate of the Classical Underworld from Greek through Roman myth, his task also used by Virgil, allowing the dead to enter but none to escape, as Hesiod first said in Theogony 767-74:

“There, in front, stand the echoing halls of the god of the lower-world, strong Hades, and of awful Persephone. A fearful hound guards the house in front, pitiless, and he has a cruel trick. On those who go in he fawns with his tail and both his ears, but suffers them not to go out back again, but keeps watch and devours whomever he catches going out of the gates of strong Hades and awful Persephone.” (30)

As one of his last punitive labors Juno (Hera) sent Hercules (Heracles) to the Underworld to bring back Cerberus, hoping he would be trapped and never return, but as protectress of heroes Minerva (Athena) came to his aid, showing him how to tame the monster with brains instead of muscling the monster with brawn. In several passages, Virgil locates Cerberus in the Underworld (Aeneid VI. 395-6) for the successful passage of Hercules, where Hercules contravened the normal function of Cerberus by dragging him away from the gate and then has Aeneas face him in following lines (417-18). (31) For Dante, Cerberus was also used as an allegory of uncontrolled gluttony or incontinence of appetite. For the tormented sinners who yielded to gluttony in the Third Circle, implying they were moved more by their stomachs than any beauty, Cerberus rakes them and rips at the embodied spirits with his monstrous claws:

William Blake, Cerberus, c. 1790

“[Cerberus] is the prototype of the gluttons…He has become Appetite and as such he flays and mangles the spirits who reduced their lives to a satisfaction of appetite. With his three heads, he appears to be a manifestation of Lucifer and thus another distortion of the Trinity.” (32)

In Luciferian allegory, Dante directly refers to Cerberus as il gran vermo, “the Great Worm” alluding to many biblical possibilities from Genesis 3 with the serpent in Eden to the great warring dragon of Apocalypse [Revelation] 12:3-4 whose demonic tail drew down a third of the stars in the sky, although in the biblical passage the dragon has seven heads, not three, but the reptilian nature is derogated by Dante, reduced in scorn to being a worm. (33) As in almost every Dante reference, triplicity and Trinitarian allusions abound even in logical but antithetical ways; if God has three persons so must the Devil. The ternary correlation with angels fits that after Lucifer’s expulsion from Heaven, the third of the stars are fallen angels swept down with his prideful fall.

Dante’s Cerberus makes direct imitative reference to Virgil’s description of the Underworld passage of Aeneas, where Dante has Virgil throwing dirt clods into the monster’s gaping, fanged mouths to distract it when it sees the two poets approaching:

“With this action, Virgil imitates the action of the Sibyl who, leading Aeneas through the Underworld, placates Cerberus by casting honeyed cakes into his three throats (Aeneid VI.417-423). By substituting ‘dirt’ for the Virgilian cakes, Dante emphasizes Cerberus’ irrational gluttony.” (34)

Where the Sibyl throws drugged honeycakes in order to subdue it, Dante scornfully reduces the “food” to dirt, not only which the monster finds indistinguishable from other sustenance but also reductively apropos of its underworld locus. Dante describes Cerberus as behaving just like a food-distracted dog, quieting only to bolt its food down, “a hungry cur fighting with only its food,” thus leaving the two poets alone to pass by more safely.

Dante’s description of Cerberus echoes Virgil in other ways in Aeneid VI.417-18: “Huge Cerberus sets these regions echoing with his triple-throated howling, crouching monstrously in a cave opposite” as both Virgil and Dante describe Cerberus as monstrous, triple-throated, noisily howling and Hell’s guardian, Dante’s description of Cerberus, however, is also much more ample than Virgil’s standard version: the Inferno’s Cerberus has red eyes (occhi…vermigli), a greasy black beard (barba untra…atra) and a great belly (ventre largo), signifying its unbridled motivation to eat. For Virgil, Cerberus howls, where for Dante the monster deafeningly barks and thunders. In Canto IX.98-99 the ugly throat of Cerberus is also described as scraped clean due to Hercules having temporarily dragged him away while he resisted his destiny. Most of all for Dante, Cerberus as a monster dispensing divine justice, the cruel claws rake, scar and flay the sinners (graffia li spiriti, scuoia e disquatra), something the classical monster could never do, as it could only devour anyone trying to escape back. Even as an incorporeal shade, the disjunction in devouring a shade is nonetheless still a potent threat.

Cerberus is similar to the animation of soul-devouring in the vignette in Egypt’s Hall of Two Truths, Chapter-Spell 125 A-D of the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), where the fearful triple hybrid Ammit (combining a wigged crocodile head with either a hyena or maned lion torso and a hippopotamus rear as a monster ) forever gobbles the souls of those whose sins made their “hearts” weigh more than the proverbial feather of justice of Ma’at. Thereafter the souls have no future. (35) This relict ancient classical function of triple-headed Cerberus – devouring any who might try to leave Hell - bears great resemblance to triple-hybrid Ammit, which was most likely a distant source for some of the Greek Kerberos (Cerberus) myth tradition. In this case triplicity is not only a Danteesque device but also a potent myth function of the hubris-hubridis formula already mentioned.

Detail, Papyrus of Hunefer, 19th Dynasty, c. 1275 BCE (Note triple hybrid Ammit, Gobbler of Souls under right side of the balance scale)


The most complicated of Dante’s monsters may be Geryon, “…one of the most fantastic of Dante’s monsters, Geryon the emblem of fraud,” (36) whose place here has long been debated because his nature is so enigmatic and Dante’s description and use are not in keeping with the classical three-headed Iberian giant slain by Hercules. (37) In myth Geryon lived on the “red” island of Erytheia in the far west, always tinted by sunset, and Hercules appropriated and drove away his herd of red cattle after killing him. According to Hesiod, Theogony 287-290, Geryon’s mother was Kallirhoe, daughter of Ocean, and he was at first only triple-headed. Many have pointed out how often Greek monsters are connected to Poseidon and Ocean, as Hesiod lists, including those in the Inferno like Geryon, including Medusa and her Gorgon sisters (Theogony 273-5), Harpies (Theogony 264-69) and Cerberus (Theogony 311). The Erinyes were born from the drops of blood of castrated Uranus falling on earth (Theogony 176-77-) and the Minotaur was born of the bull Poseidon sent from the sea (Apollodorus, Bibliotheke III.1.3-4). The connection of Geryon and the other monsters to Poseidon and Ocean can account for them as instruments of chaos, like the uncontrollable sea. Other than as manifestations of chaos, these classical text monsters have less in common with Dante’s highly symbolic schemata of punishment.

Archaic Black-Figure Vase, Heracles and Geryon, c. 540 BCE, Louvre Museum, Paris

But Dante has other uses for Geryon that do not need to mirror every classical myth, however much his conquest by the salvific Hercules foreshadows a heroic figure of Christ who himself descended in his harrowing of Hell after his death. By changing Geryon from a triple-bodied giant with three similar bodies or merely a giant with three heads – forms of the classical image as seen on black-figured Greek vase paintings and Roman mosaics (38) - to a giant hybridizing different creatures in one person, Dante offers a bolder allegory:

Geryon…combines the wise man with the scorpion’s tail. As this passage makes clear, he combines the three natures of man, beast, and serpent delineated in the Liber monstrorum di diversis generibus…The most enigmatic of Dante’s monsters escapes definition as he metamorphoses under the poet’s pen…described as one who swims and flies…Geryon is the ever-changing monster who ushers Dante into the realm of fraud, the sin of deception and false appearances.” (39)

In Canto XVII.10 & ff., Geryon is described as having a just man’s face, outwardly kind, but that is his only human part. His wingless torso is serpentine, with hairy fur from his paws to his armpits, and his back and breast are marked with intricate designs Dante does not divulge; in 27-28 his tail is armed with a venomous stinger like a dreadful scorpion’s. This hybrid form also echoes his Classical triple form, with a benign human head at one end with a scorpion's toxic poisonous tail on the other end, a dangerous mixture for Dante's persona to read: which part best expresses of the beast's truer nature? Because the only way down into the Abyss is on the monster’s back, Dante has to overcome his greatest fears. The fact that face and body do not match is part of the fraud; if fooled by the huge kindly face one might never see the arcing scorpion stinger coming overhead to pierce behind, which is part of what Dante feared so greatly and why Virgil sat behind him for protection in the descent.

Since Dante’s guide is Virgil, perhaps the most appropriate Geryon sources for Dante are Aeneid VI.289 and VIII.202, where as has been pointed out in VI.289 in Aeneas’ underworld descent that Geryon is periphrastically alluded in the words forma tricorporis umbrae (40) as a “triple-bodied shade.” But in using Geryon to different ends than Classical myth, Dante manipulates many different images to create a holistic monster, mostly lacking Classic monstrousness in terms of malevolence and instead rendering a composite being who acts as a vehicle for transporting Dante and Virgil to the abyss. Here Dante “collapse[s] a wildly incompatible range of literal senses into a single level of narrative…Geryon conflates classical myth, Christian doctrine, literary criticism and exegetical terminology as literal meanings of creatures.” (41)

Geryon is also ambiguous in exact medium through which he moves in the Abyss, because Dante describes his locomotion in various figurative ways: “Geryon remains in a disquietingly indeterminate position as he travels through a medium described as air and water.” (42) One of the most interesting recent studies about Dante’s description of Geryon and his flight down into the Abyss comes not from a literary analysis but from a physicist. Dante’s prescience about an aspect of science is not entirely surprising given his powers of description. When Dante carefully describes the gradual downward motion of Geryon spiraling into the Abyss (100-108) while swimming though air, he remarks in the absence of seeing anything that while he knows they must be descending in wheeling round, he has no perception of motion and can only perceive motion by the wind against his face. (43) The physicist Ricci believes the perceptive poet intuitively grasped what Galileo established centuries later as the Galilean invariance principle regarding the imperceptibility of motion without a visual frame of reference and the physicist was not surprised given Dante’s incredible sensory detail and immense powers of description.

Synthesizing Christian apocalyptic lore, Dante’s Geryon is also a figure of the Antichristus mysticus derivable for Dante from the biblical Apocalypse (Revelation) 9:7 about the deep Abyss, where, after the fifth angel sounds his trumpet, a star falls to the earth with a key to unlock the Abyss. Then smoke rose from the Abyss “as from a giant furnace” and where locust-like creatures with thundering wings and human faces came out of the smoke with tails of scorpions and the power of scorpions to sting. (44) Since Dante describes Geryon as a composite creature out of the Abyss, a beast bearing a human face but having a scorpion’s tail, the comparison is apt. Dante’s Geryon thus sums up past, present and future judgment in a fusion of Classical and Christian tradition, taking the long view of time and eternity as might be expected from such a great poet.


Dante’s monsters may be derived from classical sources but are transformed into very different, allegorical creatures, each one at a symbolic junction of the story and with a specific association with both sinners and divinely-assigned tasks to fulfill, a liminal function as boundary markers of infernal sub-territories, each on a different turf.

“Each circle below Limbo is inhabited or guarded by a monster. More precisely, monsters dwell a the edges, at notable thresholds on the pilgrim’s journey. Thus in addition to marking the transition from one level to another, they help to define the entrance to the Gates of Hell and to Hell proper, the gates of the city of Dis and the exit from the eternally dark realm. Most significantly, monsters appear at difficult junctures on the journey, places where the terrain is impossible to traverse without their intervention.” (45)

While Dante’s monsters – Cerberus, Erinyes, Harpies, Medusa, Cacus, Geryon and others - are not creatures of obvious order, nonetheless they order the Inferno in a different way. They mete out punishment appropriate to each circle of hell where, often similar to their sinners in appropriate locations, they too mostly suffer and rage as they painfully maim sinners who are also their bait because Dante has crafted them as the direst personification of fear. Dante’s sinners might have wished that only earthly foreshadowings of accountability and judgment in this life were as effective as their horrific encounters after the fact. In the face of his monsters who link Classical and Christian worlds through the past, present and future, Dante warns, Caveat lector. As he claims he did, Dante the Poet wishes to make us tremble.


Teodolinda Barolini, "Re-Presenting What God Presented: The Arachnean Art of Dante's Terrace of Pride. Dante Studies 105 (1987) 43-62.

Christopher Bennett Becker. “Dante’s Motley Cord: Art and Apocalypse in Inferno XVI.” Modern Language Notes 106.1 Italian issue (1991) 179-83.

Kevin Brownlee. "Dante and the Classical Poets" in Rachel Jacoff, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dante, 2007 ed, 141-60, esp. 141, 148, 150, 152 & ff.

Raymond J. Clark. “The Cerberus-Like Function of the Gorgons in Virgil's Underworld (Aen. 6.273–94).” The Classical Quarterly 53.1 (2003) 308-309.

Ernst Robert Curtius. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. “Dante” (Chapter 17). W.R. Trask, tr. Bollingen Series XXXVI. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990 [1953] 7th pr., 348-79.

Matthew W. Dickie. "Heliodorus and Plutarch on the Evil Eye." Classical Philology 86 (1991) 17-29.

Raymond Faulkner, Carol Andrews, eds. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000.

Christopher Frayling. Strange Landscape: A Journey Through the Middle Ages. London: Penguin Books, 1995, 159.

John Freccero, Foreward, in Robert Pinsky, tr. The Inferno of Dante. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. 11th pr.

John Freccero “On Dante’s Medusa” in Marjorie Garber and Nancy Vickers, eds. The Medusa Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003, Chapter 45, 109-121 [reprinted from Freccero, Medusa: The Letter and the Spirit, 1972].

John Block Friedman. “Antichrist and the Iconography of Dante’s Geryon.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes XXXV (1972) 108-122.

Marjorie Garber and Nancy Vickers, eds. The Medusa Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003, 57.

Aron Gurevich. Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception. J. M. Bak and P. A. Hollingsworth, trs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997 repr., 144.

Robert Hollander. Allegory in Dante's Commedia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, 240, 253.

Patrick Hunt. “Kentauros: Near Eastern and Not-So-Greek-Hybrid” Yale University Graduate Classics Colloquium paper, April, 1999.

Keala Jewell, ed. Monsters in the Italian Literary Imagination. Wayne State University Press, 2001, 12.

Virginia Jewiss. “Monstrous Movements and Metaphors in Dante’s Divine Comedy” in Keala Jewell, ed. Monsters in the Italian Literary Imagination. Wayne State University Press, 2001, 179-184 & ff.

Christopher Kleinhenz. "Notes on Dante's Use of Classical Myths and the Mythological Tradition.” Romance Quarterly 33 (1986) 477-484.

Christopher Kleinhenz. “Infernal Guardians Revisited: ‘Cerbero, il gran vermo.’ (Inferno VI.22) Dante Studies 93 (1975) 185-99.

Richard Lansing. Dante and Classical Antiquity: the Epic Tradition. [Dante: The Critical Complex, vol. 2.] London and New York: Routledge, 2002, 107.

Gèrard Luciani. Les Monstres dans “La Divine Comédie". Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1975.

Mark Musa, ed. Dante’s Inferno. Indiana Critical Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, 59.

Desmond O’Grady. Rome Reshaped: Jubilees 1300-2000. New York: Continuum Books, 1-5, 63-5 on Dante.

Robert Pinsky, ed. The Inferno of Dante, foreward by John Freccero. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. 11th pr.

Paul Priest. “Looking Back from the Vision: Trinitarian Structure and Poetry in the Commedia”. Dante Studies 91 (1973) 113-30.

Leonardo Ricci. “History of Science: Dante’s insight into Galilean invariance (Inferno VI.103-08).” Nature 434 (2005) 717.

John D. Sinclair. Dante: The Divine Comedy: 1. Inferno. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Madison Sowell, ed. Dante and Ovid: Essays in Intertextuality. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, vol 82. Center for International Scholarly Exchange, Columbia University, vol. 2. Binghamton, NY, 1991, 11

Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Jeremy Tambling. “Monstrous Tyranny, Men of Blood: Dante and Inferno XII.” The Modern Language Review 98.4 (2003) 881-97.


(1) Lansing, 107
(2) Gurevich, 144: “Dante’s Other World is allegorized. Though allegory for medieval man was not equivalent to fiction, and it is unlikely that for Dante hell, purgatory and paradise were mere poetic metaphors, nevertheless this impressive picture of otherwordly reality was created precisely by Dante.”
(3) Frayling, 159: “well-known literary genre of ‘otherworldly visits’…[in Dante] the condemned in hell are not plagued by reptiles and fanged beasts of sculpture…they are plagued forever by their worldly sins…Other world…which Dante transformed from the world of folklore to the world of art…”
(4) Gèrard Luciani. Les Monstres dans “La Divine Comédie.” Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1975 (according to Jewiss “the most thorough treatment of the topic”); many others have written extensively on Dante’s monsters, e.g., Christopher Kleinhenz. "Notes on Dante's Use of Classical Myths and the Mythological Tradition.” Romance Quarterly 33 (1986) 477-484. I do not yet have text for what looks to be a promising study: Christopher Livanos. “Dante’s Monsters: Nature and Evil in the Comedy” in C. Kleinhenz, ed. Symposium on Dante Alighieri and the Medieval Cultural Traditions. Dante Studies, forthcoming.
(5) Kevin Brownlee. "Dante and the Classical Poets" in Rachel Jacoff, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dante, 2007 ed, 141-60, esp. 141, 148, 150, 152 & ff.
(6) Madison Sowell, ed. Dante and Ovid: Essays in Intertextuality. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, vol 82. Center for International Scholarly Exchange, Columbia University, vol. 2. Binghamton, NY, 1991, 11. Also see Teodolinda Barolini, "Re-Presenting What God Presented: The Arachnean Art of Dante's Terrace of Pride. Dante Studies 105 (1987) 43-62, and elsewhere.
(7) O’Grady, 1
(8) Jewell, 12
(9) Curtius, 359, “Dante’s hundreds of imitations of the Aeneid…”
(10) Regarding hubris-hybridis, I tried this idea out on John Boardman in early 2007, and he encouraged my reading.
(11) Sinclair, 164
(12) Lansing, 274n43
(13) Jewiss, 181
(14) Archaic style Lykian tomb monument, British Museum. GR 1848-10-20.1 (Sculpture B287). Not all agree they are harpy representations, but rather sirens. One of the figures shown seated on the Lykian tomb relief may have been the dynastic Lykian king Harpagus, hence the possible homophonic association with the mythical harpy (‘αρπυια).
(15) Sinclair, 176.
(16) Garber and Vickers, writing about Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies in The Medusa Reader, 57
(17) Robert Hollander. Allegory in Dante's Commedia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, 240, 253.
(18) John Freccero, ch. in Garber and Vickers, 110-112 & ff
(19) Matthew W. Dickie. "Heliodorus and Plutarch on the Evil Eye." Classical Philology 86 (1991) 17-29.
(20) Suetonius, De Vitae Caesarum: Vita Neronis 28-29, 37; Tacitus, Annales XV 39-40, 44, where Nero’s uncontrollable lusts and violent thievery bathed Rome in blood, robbed Romans of all classes and persecuted Christians to death, including burning them as torches at his orgies by his Domus Aurea lake.
(21) Priest, 21 & ff
(22) Sinclair, 164
(23) note of Nicole Pinsky in Robert Pinsky’s Inferno translation, 340
(24) Sinclair, 317
(25) Patrick Hunt. “Kentauros: Near Eastern and Not-So-Greek-Hybrid” Yale University Graduate Classics Colloquium paper, April, 1999
(26) Classical Hebrew makes this clear where nahash (נחש) is serpent and nehoshet (נהשת) is bronze serpent in the fiery serpent biblical passage of Numbers 21:5-9, although for Dante to have known this is not attestable.
(27) derivable from Augustine, De Natura boni contra Mani 14 in Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, Cambridge University Press, 2001, 44
(28) Tambling, 881.
(29) Matthew 13:42, 50 And [God] shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
(30) Hesiod Theogony 767-74, tr. Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Hesiod's Theogony. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
(31) Raymond J. Clark. “The Cerberus-Like Function of the Gorgons in Virgil's Underworld (Aen. 6.273–94).” The Classical Quarterly, 53.1 (2003) 308-309. Virgil’s placement of Cerberus corresponds with the location of other monsters and snakes in a lost Heracles catabasis, 309n6.
(32) Musa, 59
(33) Christopher Kleinhenz. “Infernal Guardians Revisited: ‘Cerbero, il gran vermo.’ (Inferno VI.22) Dante Studies 93 (1975) 185-99.
(34) Musa, 59
(35) Raymond Faulkner, Carol Andrews, eds. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000, 115-18. From the Papyrus of Ani, see the British Museum sheet EA 10470/3 or from the Papyrus of Hunefer, see the British Museum sheet EA 9901/3, both 19th Dynasty, around 1275 BCE.
(36) Becker, 179
(37) Friedman, 109, esp. in “Dante’s figure of fraud hardly resembles the classical Geryon, a three-headed Spanish king slain by Hercules.”
(38) e.g., Archaic c. 540 BCE. Black-Figure Vase, Musée du Louvre, Paris F3, Beazley 310309; and the magnificent late Roman mosaics in the late 3rd century CE Triclinium at Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina, Sicily, depicting The Labors of Hercules show a bleeding triple-bodied armored giant felled by the hero.
(39) Jewiss, 183
(40) Friedman, 109
(41) Lansing, 107
(42) Jewiss, 183
(43) Ricci, 717: “The poet’s vividly imagined flight unwittingly captures a physical law of motion. In 1632 Galileo described his experience of motion aboard a large ship and exposed in detail the invariance principle…I suggest that more than three centuries earlier, in the Divine Comedy, his fellow countryman Dante Alighieri intuitively grasped what Galileo was later to establish.”
(44) Friedman, 112
(45) Jewiss, 184

Copyright © 2009 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University

October 12, 2009

Oresteia, Justice and the Furies Through Art

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Fig. 1 Orestes at Delphi, Python Painter, Paestan Red-Figure, circa 345 BCE, British Museum, London (1)

In the Oresteia of Aeschylus (c. 525-455 BCE), his "last and greatest work", (2) Greek literature develops the new kind of justice – marked by reason, juried decision and extenuating circumstances – that eventually superseded the chthonic justice of simplistic vengeance pursued by the mythical Furies (Erinyes), in some way paralleling the legendary precedent of Solon’s (c. 638-558 BCE) legal reforms (3) over Draco (c. 640-20 BCE) and his Draconian harsh legal tradition in Athens. According to Plato (Protagoras 342e-343b), Solon is upheld as one of the legendary Seven Sages of Greece. Plutarch in his Life of Solon 1.3 credits him with the famous aphorism, “Justice, even if slow, is sure.”

Among many other ideas Aeschylus seems to examine in his dramatic tragic trilogy (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides), he might be probing what kind of laws and punishments appear to follow different types of homicide. One of the playwright’s questions may also be whether his Greek society rightly prioritized types of homicide: could one homicide trump another in terms of severity? How could one ultimately find justice in punishing violent crime and where will it all end? Are there ever extenuating circumstances in a violent crime? This is one of the first literary inklings of the rational basis of modern law, however tenuous it may appear to us.

Fig. 2. W.-A. Bouguereau. The Remorse of Orestes, 1862. 227 x 278 cm. Chrysler Collection, Norfolk, Virginia

There is at least one triangulation of familial relationships in the Oresteia between father, mother and son, (also implied between father, daughter, mother), as well as another between husband, wife and offspring. This kinship is reduced here in some way to the meme of the nuclear family as the core of society in the polis. Aeschylus also shows that unchecked violence gives birth to further violence, murder begets murder.

First, although the sacrifice of Iphigenia is described in the tragedy (Agamemnon 200-45, 1503-04, 1525-26) - the tragedy is named after him, although ironically it could as easily have been named Clytemnestra since she is by far the more visible protagonist - Agamemnon has allowed their daughter Iphigenia to be sacrificed for his pride (Agamemnon 223-24). This is filicide, slaying of a child by the parent.

Second, following and stemming from the death of Iphigenia, in the first play Agamemnon is then "justifiably" murdered (Agamemnon 1340-45) by his angry wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. This is uxoricide, slaying of a spouse.

Third, their son Orestes - conspiring with his sister Electra - kills his mother Clytemnestra, matricide in Greek society (Libation Bearers 990-95 ff.) because she slew his father. But Aeschylus may suggest this murder may have been seen by some Greeks as mitigated by Apollo's complicity in ordering it (Eumenides 83-84, 594).

Although we do not really see them earlier through the other murders as Aeschylus portrays them, the Erinyes or Furies immediately spring up from the earth after Orestes to hunt him down (Libation Bearers 1048-50). One of them is Tisiphone, specifically the “Avenger of Homicide”, her name literally meaning that very task, like a bloodhound as she tracks the smell of blood (Eumenides 245-47). In the Oresteia, they are Gorgon-like and described as such (Eumenides 47-49).

This is roughly where the Eumenides begins. Even if Apollo has ordered Orestes to punish his mother with death (Eumenides 83-84, 594) – because Clytemnestra has putatively contaminated the family even further in her allotted social role by killing her husband (Agamemnon 1400-01, 1407-14, 1426-30)- nonetheless Orestes is mercilessly hunted by the Furies and flees to Delphi for refuge and purification. Here Apollo informs him the Furies are at least as great as he is; he is a later Olympian, implying they are earlier, more powerful Titans, so he cannot merely call them off (Eumenides 70-73). Instead Apollo tells Orestes to go to Athens for sanctuary. Orestes then obeys Apollo, fleeing to Athens for refuge, with the Furies hot on his trail, where he implores Athena, goddess of wisdom, to intercede on his behalf.

Why do the Furies not visibly pursue Agamemnon or Clytemnestra in the tragic trilogy? Although Cassandra sees their invisible force around the palace in more than mere prolepsis, because her prophecies are cursed in never being believed, Clytemnestra cannot see this warning. Yet why do the Furies appear fully embodied to actively pursue only Orestes? Is it partly possible that Clytemnestra and Orestes are linked by blood, the domain of the Furies, through her womb and her blood in birth, unlike the others? Or is there something far more primal in their vengeance? In their own words put in their collective mouth by Aeschylus, whether he truly agrees or not, Clytemnestra was "not of the same blood as Agamemnon" (therefore less culpable?) but Orestes slew his mother "that nearest bond, a mother's blood" (Eumenides 605-08). This relationship may also render Clytemnestra less culpable for killing Agamemnon in their eyes, not the least because Iphigenia was also thus closer to her mother than her father by the same blood argument. Orestes asks if he is blood kin to his mother, and the Furies seem to answer in the affirmative. How much of this reflects a contemporary or earlier Greek view is difficult to establish, but it certainly has a bearing on the tragic trilogy, one of whose dominant themes is "blood guilt". One can find a likely paronomasic word play in Agamemnon between guilt or "error" (in Aeschylus' Greek ἁμαρτών hamartōn) and "blood" (Greek αἵματος haímatos) barely more than a line apart in Agamemnon 214-15. Whether or not the patriarchalisms of the text are justifiable or what the whole story meant in its own time is a whole separate problem, but one amply discussed in Komar, especially in terms of patriarchal vs. matriarchal tensions in the trilogy and Greek society at large seen through the lens of this and related Classical literature. (4) Solon certainly also reinvigorated the concepts of family rights, (5) which this Aeschylean literature also incorporates.

Finally in the remainder of the Eumenides, taking place at the newly initiated Areopagus ("Mars Hill") court at Athens, Orestes’ trial by a jury of twelve men ensues against the angry demands of the Furies. Apollo comes in the precedent role as advocate, witnessing he has purged his suppliant Orestes of blood (Eumenides 577-79). (6) A hung jury results in equal votes for and against Orestes. Athena herself casts the deciding vote in favor of Orestes (Eumenides 734-44). From this point forward, hung juries should be acquittals to protect the potentially innocent if insufficient compelling evidence is shown. Thereafter after a reasoned speech by the gods, especially Athena, the Erinyes-Furies will be euphemistically known as the “Kindly Ones” (Εὐμενίδες) "retired", but only if they agree, persuaded by her wisdom, to a cave shrine made to them under the Acropolis, which finally appeases them (Eumenides 1043-45). The neutrality of a judge (like Apollo) may be questioned, but lawmakers should be perceived as just. Plutarch also again reminds that the Athenians saw Solon as “neither connected to the injustices of the rich nor the necessities of the poor.” (7) In the end, the logic of extenuating circumstances with its subtleties appreciated by Solon forever changed legal proceedings in juried determinations – the etymology of the word “legacy” is after all derived from law.

In the second work of art above, Figure 2, by W.-A. Bouguereau (circa 1862), The Remorse of Orestes, Orestes flees from the murder of his mother Clytemnestra (his knife is seen in her breast). He is pursued by the foul and ugly Furies, always angry, and whose unkempt hair is writhing with snakes because they represent chthonicity with an implied “earth power” (from chthoniόs, χθονιός, "of things under the earth" (8) ) since the Furies belong to this earlier justice derived in or under the earth where snakes reside. Orestes covers his ears from their terrifying screams that will make anyone mad whom they pursue, their potent immediate effect seen in his eyes. They will range the earth after their prey and generally carry burning torches or snakes, just as the artist Rubens has also earlier depicted the Fury Tisiphone in his Tarquin and Lucretia of 1610. (9) Bouguereau has added another iconographic detail for the Furies: their breasts are often suggested as having purplish dark nipples, heavy and taut as if in passion, because the smell of human blood gives them joy (Eumenides 253). It is a night scene because they are the "Children of Night" (Eumenides 322, 416).

In the first work of art above, Figure 1, attributed to the Python Painter (circa 345 BCE), a Paestan red-figure late Classical vase in Italy, the scene depicts two conflated venues of Oresteia, Delphi and Athens, although mostly Delphi. The fugitive Orestes - holding the murder weapon in his right hand - crouches for sanctuary at the omphalos or navel stone of Apollo at Delphi, which he bloodies with the gore of homicide (Eumenides 43-44). At his left (our right) is Apollo himself holding a laurel branch. To the right of Orestes (our left) is Athena, to whom he looks and will soon flee in the next development of narrative at Athens. Above and between Orestes and Athena is the tripod of Apollo at Delphi. Above and behind Athena, who stands with one foot on her boundary stone of Athens, where Orestes will be safe at least until judgment, is most likely the ghost or shade of his dead mother Clytemnestra (top left), egging on the Furies (Eumenides 114-16). Above the tripod of Apollo is one Fury, with another Fury next to Apollo, at whom the god gazes. Some suggest instead this winged figure on the far lower right is instead a Nike, winged goddess of victory. If it is truly a snake above her head, however, arguable to some, it should be a Fury. It is clear that the duet of framing gods protect Orestes from the Furies, who are always iconographically depicted with snakes to represent their chthonicity in death-avenging associations. The Delphic moment is depicted near the opening of the Eumenides,(80-175 & ff) a climactic episode where it is still indeterminate which justice will prevail, the old avenging justice of the Furies or the new rational justice of Apollo, god of reason, and Athena, goddess of wisdom. The proleptic Athens moment presupposes the impending trial where Orestes will be acquitted on a "hung jury" vote, which rule Athena imposes and then reinforces by casting the final vote herself for Orestes, a triumph of new law over old.


(1) British Museum GR 1917.12-10.1, Python Painter, Paestan Red-Figure (Italian) circa 345 BCE.

(2) H. J. Rose. A Handbook of Greek Literature. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy Carducci (originally Methuen, 1950), 1996, 154.

(3) R. J. Hopper. The Early Greeks. New York: Harper and Row, 1977, 190

(4) Kathleen Komar. Reclaiming Klytemnestra: Revenge or Reconciliation. University of Illinois Press, 2003, esp. 139& ff.

(5) Susan Lape. “Solon and the Institution of the ‘Democratic’ Family Form.” The Classical Journal 98.2 (2003) 117-39, esp. 119.

(6) See Rush Rehm. Greek Tragic Theater. New York, London: Routledge, 1994, 97-104

(7) Plutarch Life of Solon 14.1

(8) This is a complicated word with many "under-earth" associations. H. G. Liddell and R. Scott. Greek –English Lexicon, Oxford, 1996 ed., 1991.

(9) Elizabeth McGrath. Rubens' Subjects From History II. Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Part XIII (1), vol. II London: Harvey Miller, 1997, 226-27; Patrick Hunt. Roman Use of the Rape of Lucretia and Artists’ Mythic Reuse: Where Britten’s Opera Departs and Returns. Copenhagen: Royal Danish Opera Theater, 2008.

Photo Credits: Figure 1, courtesy of British Museum, London; Fig. 2 public domain, both in Wikimedia.

Copyright © 2009 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University

October 4, 2009

Homer's Odyssey in Art: Sirens from Greek Vases to Waterhouse

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Fig. 1 John William Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 201 x 99 cm

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was an influential and highly acclaimed British painter of historic and antiquarian subjects. He was especially attracted to Classical mythology, painting various scenes from Homer, including his Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, 1891, and scenes from the Argonauts (Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896), among others.

The above painting, Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891, is derived from a Greek vase in the British Museum (below), (1) which it both faithfully echoes while radically changing the flatter line of sight of the vase into a deeper perspective where viewers can see into the boat and with Odysseus (Ulysses is his Roman name) tied to the ship's mast in the opposite direction than in the vase scene. The literary narrative of which this is an ekphrasis - a visual rendition of a literary text, like its earlier Greek precedent - is taken from Homer's Odyssey 12.165-217 where Odysseus risks his own and his crew's lives by sailing so close to the Sirens (Seirenes, Σειρηνες). Earlier, the sorceress Circe has told Odysseus exactly how to survive if she cannot talk him out of his adventure, since he is adamant to hear the Sirens and live (12.37-58). He repeats her instructions to his men:

"You must bind me with tight-chafing ropes
so I cannot move a muscle, bound to the spot,
erect at the mast block, lashed by ropes to the mast.
And if I plead, commanding you to set me free,
then lash me faster, rope on pressing rope."

Perhaps the most haunting modern literary retelling of a siren's power is Lampedusa's magical story, Il Professore e la Sirena, the compelling tale of the Siren named Lighea (Ligeia in Greek) who loves a scholar, so unforgettably divine that he finally jumps ship as an old man, a very different twist than imagined here. (3) Even her ancient name recalls a Greek word λιγεια for "clear, shrill sound". Waterhouse depicts a mostly realistic Greek ship with its protective apotropaic pair of eyes guarding the boat stern and the one on the side of the bow (bottom right), paralleling the eye on the ship's side in the original Greek vase painting. Where the Greek vase places Odysseus slightly left of center in the boat image, Waterhouse has placed Odysseus slightly off center to the right. Waterhouse has also made interesting allusions to Greek archaeological artifacts on his ship. In one interesting example, Waterhouse uses Archaic period Greek temple lion head roof rainspouts for the ship's oarholes, where they might also function protectively along with being visually powerfully decorations.

Fig. 2 Archaic temple lion-headed rainspout, Archaeological Museum, Agrigento, Sicily, stone, 6th c. BCE

Close to steep cliffs where danger lurks as Homer describes, "just offshore as far as a man's shout can carry" (Fagles), the Sirens would lure ships into rocks after maddening sailors overboard with their ecstatic songs. Only Odysseus can hear the Sirens because his men's ears are stuffed with beeswax just as Circe commanded. Odysseus strains at his ropes tied to the mast because he intends to survive the experience. This same detail is naturally found on this Greek vase (below) that inspired the painting, showing the influence of Greek literature on Greek art as vehicles of myth narrative, especially the Odyssey (4) where at least one siren swoops low around the sailors while they chatter away to each other, oblivious to the enchantments of the eerie music that would be more than they could handle if their beeswax earplugs were not there. In Waterhouse's vision sailors have added head wraps covering their ears. Also in the modern painting paralleling the Greek vase, one siren hovers directly over a sailor in midship, her face only inches from his. Odysseus proves the strength of his mind and will in that he does not go completely crazy even though his mind is taken to the very edge of sanity and perhaps temporarily beyond by the otherness of the music. The Greek vase also shows Odysseus straining at the ropes, but a detail lacking in Waterhouse's powerful image seems present in the much older vase painting: the Greek image of Odysseus shows his head thrown back, and not looking at a siren or anything in particular. This may be ambiguous but is a realistic portrayal of ecstasy, which same iconographic clue Greek artists often depict in trancelike moments of dance and related divine madness.

In Greek myth, the Sirens were the daughters of the Muse Terpsichore by the river god Akheloos; other myths associate them with Persephone prior to her abduction by Hades. Their usual abode was near the Straits of Messina between mainland Italy and the island of Sicily. (5) The original Homeric idea of a siren was not this "bird woman" but mythological femmes fatales nonetheless lying as monstrous lures on rocky shores. (6)

Fig. 3 Odysseus and the Sirens, Greek Red-Figure Stamnos Vase, c. 480-460 BCE, British Museum (7)

Fig. 4 Greek siren, National Museum, Athens, marble, 4th c. BCE

Although arguable, many mythographers consider the visual source of a Greek siren to derive from the East, notably Egypt, like other iconographic myth creatures, where an early borrowing probably took place in the form of the ba bird. The Egyptian ba bird was a part of funerary motif, representing various ideas still not completely understood, something akin to an animated manifestation of the deceased person, able to fly through tombs and elsewhere to reunite with the mummy whenever necessary, and "often appearing above the head of the deceased". The example from the 13th c. BCE Papyrus of Ani shows one of its more typical forms. The Egyptian ba was identified with mobility of the human personality at death, among other things, but a mostly non-physical manifestation, hence its mobility was emphasized in a winged, birdlike body with a human head. (8) At times the ba appears to be rendering a stylized sparrow hawk (Accipiter nisus) or a small falcon (Falco peregrinus), but is usually so generic as to not refer to any one bird, only its mobility. That the ba has an association with death or funerary ideas is perhaps one tenuous reason why the Greeks identified its image for a siren with danger.

Fig. 5 Ba bird, Papyrus of Ani, XIXth Dynasty, Thebes, circa 1250 BCE. British Museum Papyrus BM 10470

In Waterhouse's version of Odysseus confronted by sirens, a half circle of sirens forms an open mouthed choir with wind-whipped hair around the listening hero, who leans forward for his unparalleled experience of their beguiling "high thrilling song" (Fagles) or "beautiful" voice or song (Murray and Dimock, McCrorie, Lombardo) or as Homer describes their song in καλλιμον (kallimon) (Odyssey 12.192) or elsewhere λιγυρην (from Greek ligura) (Odyssey 12.183) as "sweet, clear-toned, shrill" and thus variously translated above.

While some have criticized Waterhouse's mythological subjects as being "too pretty", Treuherz defends Waterhouse for those who often "overlook the brutality of his female protagonists (Hylas and the Nymphs)". (9) These sirens only look harmless, underscoring the danger of underestimating their deadly effects on men by their voices, not their hybrid looks.

Odysseus faces toward the rear of the boat, and its sails billow with heavy wind that also causes whitecaps on the waves, just as Homer tells it, their oars "churning the whitecaps stroke on stroke" (Fagles). There is an urgency throughout the painting as his men pull hard on their oars, a tautness in this dramatically imagined scene that the Greek vase lacks, only because its intention seems to be showing Odysseus in a moment of madness he will survive, straining in ecstasy at which any other human, less heroic, could only wonder. This is the moment both the Greek painter and Waterhouse chose, a tantalizing image of musical madness that ravished the soul until the body gave in and men threw themselves overboard, often to drown in churning seas. Odysseus is rapt, internally safe from their "honeyed voices" (Fagles) only as long as the external ropes hold him tight:

"So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air
and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer."


(1) Anthony Hobson. J. W. Waterhouse. London: Phaidon, [1989] 2007 repr., 45, 46, 49, Plate 30.

(2) Homer. The Odyssey. Robert Fagles translation. London: Penguin, 1996. Introduction and notes by Bernard Knox, 12.175-180. Also see Homer, Odyssey, tr. Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2000, 182-3; Homer, Odyssey. A. T. Murray and George Dimock, tr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Loeb Classical Library, 1998, repr., 450-53, 461-63.

(3) Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The Siren (Il Professore e la Sirena) and Selected Writings. David Gilmour, ed., Archibald Colquhoun, tr. London: The Harvill Press, 1995, originally written in 1957, 57-94.

(4) Dyffri Williams. Greek Vases. London: British Museum Press, 1999, 2nd ed., 91; Lucilla Burn. Greek Myths. London: British Museum Press, 1990, especially Odysseus, 34-6, 38-40, 43-58; Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC), Bildlexikon der Antiken Mythologie, Forschungsstelle der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, BAND I-VIII, "Odysseus", "Siren"; Beazley Archive, Oxford, #202628, see "Siren".

(5) Richard P. Martin. Myths of the Ancient Greeks. New York: Penguin/New American Library, 2003, 222, 306-7. Illustration by Patrick Hunt, 306; I. Aghion, C. Barbillou, F. Lissarrague. Gods and Heroes of Classical Antiquity. Flammarion Iconographic Guide. Paris: Flammarion, 1996 ed., 272-74.

(6) Seirenes Σειρηνες, see H. J. Rose. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. Routledge, 1990, 6th ed., 245, 252 note 55; Homer, The Odyssey. Edward McCrorie, tr., and Richard Martin, intro and notes. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, 386.

(7) British Museum GR 1843.11-3.31, Vase E440.

(8) Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, eds. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. New York and London: Harry Abrams / British Museum, 1995, 47; Stephen Quirke and Jeffrey Spencer, eds. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press, 5th impr. 1997, 65, 90, 97, 106, 215; Philippe Gremond and Jacques Livet. An Egyptian Bestiary: Animals in the Life and Religion of the Land of the Pharaohs. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001, 132ff., 166-72, 196.

(9) Julian Treuherz. "J. W. Waterhouse (Groningen, London, Montreal Exhibitions)" The Burlington Magazine CLI 1279 (October, 2009), 718-19.

(10) Odyssey 12.208-09 (Fagles tr.)

Photo Credits: Fig. 1, in the public domain; Fig. 2, courtesy of Archaeological Museum, Agrigento, Sicily; Fig. 4, courtesy of National Museum, Athens; Figs. 3 & 5, courtesy of British Museum London.

Copyright © 2009 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University

September 29, 2009

Lucas Cranach the Elder's Adam and Eve of 1526: Text, Iconography and Hermeneutics

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Lucas Cranach the Elder. Adam and Eve, 1526. Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London, oil on panel, 117 x 80.5 cm.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) painted during the early German Reformation in ducal courts at Wittenberg and elsewhere in Saxony. His work was transitional in that it often retained some Northern traits of relict Medievalism while bringing Renaissance realism and humanism to many of his subjects, especially mythological personae and biblical narratives. This pictorial hybridity might not be unusual in a German principality distant from Renaissance Italy, essentially an aesthetic balancing act for Cranach when “the spirit of reform was to be hostile to Renaissance eroticism.” (1) On the other hand, biblical texts made possibly salacious nude subjects like Adam and Eve acceptable.

Cranach’s Adam and Eve (1526) is one of quite a few versions of this biblical story he produced, a conflated visual ekphrasis from the narrative of Genesis 3, also in this case an amalgam of devotional meaning and exquisite artistic invention. (2) In the main, Cranach follows the narrative iconographically. Cranach depicts the Garden of Eden, where the serpent – apparently a spade-headed viper to boot - sinuously hangs from the fruitful Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In typical Hebrew literary fashion, the subtlety of the serpent is manifest in a clever exposition of developing the art of lying. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (Gen. 3:1). Here the Hebrew word for “crafty or cunning” is ערומ ‘arûm, intensified by the superlative מכל mikkol “more than any other”, which Cranach’s friend Martin Luther would have known as calladior from the Latin Vulgate although his 1523 German Bible translation mostly used the Greek Septuagint via Erasmus. (3) Among Cranach's engravings and woodcuts, his other endeavor, he also shows an earlier, more traditionally German rendering for this biblical moment.

Lucas Cranach, Adam and Eve, woodcut, 1509.

Some see in Gen. 3 a crescendo of increasing dissembling and planned deceit, commencing with the lie by exaggeration (its familiar partner being the lie by omission). The serpent disingenuously converses with Eve, initiating as if a talking snake is commonplace, implanting doubt. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). Here the serpent conveniently emphasized not the positive of what God provided but only the negative of what was banned, and grossly stretched at that. In the narrative with Adam and Eve, God only barred one tree from their diet (Gen. 2:17), the one in question and under which Cranach places his version of the story. This certainly caught Eve’s attention. Eve, thus ensnared and showing the result of already beginning to doubt God’s benevolence, partly “corrects” the serpent but adds her own error long before tasting the fruit, going to the other extreme in another lie by exaggeration : “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, but of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said ‘You cannot eat of it, or even touch it, because in that day you will die.’ ” (Gen. 3:2-3). The "not even touching" is her exaggeration. The serpent responds with the lie by negation, “You shall not surely die in that day,” (Gen. 3:4) and adds the possible lie by distortion, “For God knows that in the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened...” (Gen. 3:4a), thus possibly distorting what "eyes opened" (and to what) might mean. The serpent follows this with the final whopper lie by fabrication, “…and you will be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4b), contingent on what being "as gods" means. Ironically, later commentators suggest the Devil may tell a little truth in order to promote a greater lie. On the other hand, there is sufficient interpretive "truth" that the serpent may not be so much lying, but rather proposing some form of godlikeness too easily accessible but only in a limited way; certain kinds of knowledge would be epistemologically limited to deity, and humans would always be a far cry from gods. Experiential knowledge did not transform humans into gods. Of course, the serpent says "be like gods", not "be gods". Evidently this kind of logic was irresistible for Eve in three quick steps now that she had swallowed the theological ad hominem bait. “For she saw the fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eyes and desirable for making one wise. She took of the fruit, ate it, and gave also to her husband, and he ate. And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked…” (Gen. 3:6-7).

This is the moment Cranach illuminates, the climax of Eve having tasted and handing the fruit to Adam. Eve looks so knowing, appearing like the cat that swallowed the bird, and now looks downright crafty herself. Adam, however, isn’t in the know yet, so he scratches his head stupidly with his left hand, the exact opposite of Eve. The painterly complementarity is heightened by their skin tones, with earthy Adam the color of soil as his name implies in Hebrew (אדמ ’adam “man” and אדמה ’adamah “ground”) and Eve the hue of palest marble, as in Egyptian and even Greek art. With her left arm bending down the branch, she passes the fruit with her right hand to puzzled Adam who reaches for it, vacantly not looking exactly at Eve, or perhaps equally at the forbidden fruit, whereas Eve now looks slyly and directly at him.

Other intriguing details suggest traces of Medieval scholasticism - from which some conservative Protestantism had sprung rather than from Renaissance humanism - still somewhat prevalent in Saxony. For example, the Latin Vulgate translates the Hebrew “fruit” פרי perî as fructus (from the Greek Septuagint as καρπος), which many Medieval commentaries and artistic depictions often render as an apple. This is mostly because apple, malum in Latin, is nearly homophonous with Latin malus as “evil” – malum is also a neuter adjective or case ending for “evil”; sometimes the only difference is the length of the u vowel, entrenched when Medieval taxonomy identified the apple as Malus pumila. (4) This near equivalence of interpretation is in accord with the principle of linguistic similitude, in other words, Medieval scholiastic lexical root fallacies could drive hermeneutics. The 12th century French play Mystère d’Adam explicitly refers to the forbidden fruit of Eden as apple. Cranach’s fruit is ambiguous but could certainly be an apple as often suggested, and many examples of the fruit here - especially on the lowest branches - seem too elliptical to be citrus or other fruit. According to Gaster, medieval superstition held that even the sap of an apple tree could cause conception in a previously barren woman. (5) The apple was often symbolic of fertility from at least the Classical world onward. Greek lyrical poetry like Sappho's often makes the connection of apples to love gifts. But here in Eden, too much knowledge was not empowering but ultimately limiting, the tradeoff being fatal with ensuing mortality. It may be biologically necessary in human evolution that when we are finally capable of reproduction we are also at the point when the number of old cells dying begins to catch up with the number of new cells being formed, otherwise known as the aging process.

The animals in Cranach's painting are not mentioned in the biblical text other than as beasts previously named by Adam, but none are found in this passage by name, so other reasons for his including them are merely speculative. Medieval bestiaries derived from the Classical Physiologus often suggested moral lessons associated with certain animals. The majority of animals in Cranach’s foreground around Adam and Eve are artiodactyls or similar mammals, horned beasts like the stag and its mate and a pair of male and female gazelles, in direct symmetry with Adam and Eve. These particular beasts and stags in particular are also often allegorically symbolic of lust, rampant desire and concupiscence in medieval bestiaries. The boar, also present here behind Eve, often corresponds with gluttony or desire for food (“she saw the fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eyes” Gen. 3:6), and the sheep behind Adam can often be emblematic for docility or even stupidity (he is ignorant until tasting the fruit). (6) The idiosyncratic animal moral allegories Cranach may have implied were often shared by his age. The presumptive medieval syllogism would go something like this: eating the forbidden “evil” fruit is sinful and eating it imparts knowledge - especially a revelation that they are naked – therefore it must be imbued carnal knowledge partaken here. If the medieval idea – not at all necessarily biblical from ancient texts - of clerical celibacy impinges herein, carnal knowledge itself may be suspect or even sinful. Therefore this new knowledge was perceived as the sin of carnal knowledge and somehow contemporary viewers and text readers could have been meant to infer that an originally forbidden sexuality may have been involved in the Fall of Adam and Eve from Grace. This peculiar interpretive hang-up was quickly reinforced in Gen. 4:1 in that once banished from Eden, when Adam has sex with his wife Eve and she conceives a son Cain, the text reads literally, “And the man knew his wife Eve and she conceived and bore a son…” The Hebrew verb ידע yada‘ usually translates “knew” for their sexual union. So much for dogmatic literalism.

Another corroborating detail is that usually Adam and Eve cover their nakedness themselves by the textual fig leaves as read in Gen. 3:7b. This is a fascinating biblical parallel because figs are often visually synonymous with testicles in Mediterranean cultural puns, but also uniquely flower internally, akin to female ovulation, (7) as if physical resemblance might determine semantic choices even in the biblical narrative. Cranach’s tree, however, has a fertile grapevine bearing clusters of grapes covering their genitals. The indirect link is that grapes produce inebriating wine, also a biblical allegory of desire in Canticum Canticorum (Song of Songs) 4:10, “your lovemaking is better than wine.” (8)

Cranach has concocted here a conflation of biblical textuality, Renaissance anatomical realism and perhaps some theologically rich, even if Medieval at times, interpretative details in his Adam and Eve, choosing the moment of mutual quandary and resulting horrific consequence before Eden is lost to humanity. If Cranach's religious vision is mostly tied to Reformation conservatism, it should be no surprise given his close relationship with Martin Luther. Here the serpent both uncoils downward and looks down, almost appearing to some commentators like a Medieval illuminated capital letter, albeit apropos in inversion, for the sinister letter S in Latin Serpens and, for them, Satan's name also read therein in eisegesis (since Satan is not read in this early text but only in subsequent biblical texts to which they suggest this text is proleptic). This downward direction of the serpent is for them allusive of his own future where he will henceforth crawl (Gen. 3:14) in the divine curse this painting leads toward, an imagined landscape immediately beyond this visual narrative of a lush Eden that will soon become only a trope for lost innocence.


(1) George Holmes. Renaissance. (Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1996). London: Phoenix / Orion House, 1998, 207.

(2) Caroline Campbell, ed. Temptation in Eden: Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve. London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2007. This is most likely the best explication of the painting and its meanings in the Anglophone world.

(3) Philip Baldi and Pierlugi Cuzzolin. New Perspectives on Historical Latin Syntax. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2009, 211.

(4) Charlton Lewis and Charles Short. A New Latin Dictionary (from Freund’s Latin-German Lexicon), 1907, 1104.

(5) T. H. Gaster. Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament. New York: Harper and Row, 1969, §333, 812. He was primarily pointing to superstition in the medieval Jewish community.

(6) Pliny, Historia Naturalis 8.41 [stag]; Margaret B. Freeman. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: Metropolitan Museum of New York / E. F. Dutton, 1976, 74 [stag]; A. H. Collins. Symbolism of Animals and Birds in English Church Architecture. New York: McBride and Nast, 1913, 8, as an uprooting, devouring beast [boar] and in Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, De Animalibus, XII.i.125 [boar], XII.i.9 [sheep].

(7) Maud Grieve. A Modern Herbal, vol 1. New York: Dover, 1971, 311.

(8) Patrick Hunt. “Sensory Images in Song of Songs.” Beiträge zur Erforschung des Alten Testaments und des Antiken Judentums, Band 28. XIVth IOSOT Congress at Sorbonne-College de France, Paris, 1992. Frankfurt, 1996, 73.

Copyright © 2009 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University

March 18, 2009

Caravaggio's Penitent Magdalen, circa 1596

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Caravaggio, Penitent Magdalen, c. 1596-97, Doria Pamphilij Gallery 122.5 x 98.5 cm

An evolved Baroque Mary Magdalene is curiously seen in Caravaggio’s uniquely sensitive Penitent Magdalen of 1596-97, now in the Doria Pamphilij Gallery in Rome. Caravaggio’s treatment here is both sympathetic and idiosyncratic but visually correct only in regard to iconographic traditions of the Magdalene, This tradition, however, conflates four gospel texts that may have nothing to do with one composite woman nor do they necessarily all refer to the persona of Mary Magdalene, who is often said in modernity to be degraded into a sexual object of male fantasy.

The iconography Caravaggio employed here is both clever and innovative in many respects for its adherence to biblical text. In Caravaggio’s warm-colored tones bespeaking both her passion and Christ’s Passion, the Magdalene’s most typical visual attribute is the unguent vessel containing nard (Greek ναρδος from Hebrew or Aramaic נרד ) with which she is associated in tradition (rather than clearly supported from text) as having washed Christ’s feet with her sensuously long and lustrous reddish hair – and red is the color of sanguinity - after sacrificially pouring out its precious perfume (although here Caravaggio may be painting in advance of that biblical narrative moment). The same perfume nardus in Latin known from Pliny’s Natural History XXI.70 is probably from the Indian or Near Eastern desert plant Nardostachys jatamansi and is also called spikenard, its liquid color being golden red or orange like the Magdalene’s hair and the golden perfume hue seen here in Caravaggio’s painting. Other attributes are conveyed in the Magdalene’s putative life as a courtesan, implied by rich clothes and extravagant jewelry, and her body language of penitence is marked by her humble position, in this case close to the ground on a very low chair. What the Magdalene renounces in Caravaggio’s image is consonant with what has been noted in typical Pauline testimonia of the modest new woman of God - often suggested as a misogynistic text - who is unadorned by anything but grace: “not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls or expensive clothes” as St. Paul writes in I Timothy 2:9.

Many pictorial details encourage closer inspection. The biblical texts state that the perfume vessel which the woman (Mary Magdalene?) used on Christ – often mistranslated from the Koiné Greek New Testament as being of alabaster stone - was a glass alabastron (Greek ’αλαβαστρον), probably sealed in ampule form against desiccating air and oxidation; terribly expensive because vessel and perfume were to be used only once, the glass needing to be broken to release its perfume inside. Caravaggio depicts a glass vessel here, either deliberately or accidentally in closer accordance with the text, but perhaps better to highlight the gold transparence of the nard perfume as symbolic of the Magdalene’s pouring her life out. On her dress is another vessel or receptacle noted by Cinotti as a possible simile of the Magdalene herself and which she fills here in Caravaggio’s schemata. In this instance, the vessel on her dress bears a shell-like form as possibly representative of the Classical notion that shells (extrapolated from Hesiod’s Theogony) were one of the visual attributes of sea-born Venus to whose sacred cult most courtesans belonged either professionally or by practice as those who live for amor sacer. The perfume vessel shown in two distinct forms may be an accommodation of both traditions: the translucent glass form at her feet and also as an opaque white alabaster form on her dress. Vegetal motifs on her clothing may depict the source of the perfume as floral – and flowers are another attribute of Venus - but could in any case merely indicate the fertility which courtesans explicitly evoke. However one views Caravaggio's Magdalene, on the one hand his naturalism gives us opportunity to agree with Bellori that it is mostly a seated woman who could be anybody and on the other hand to disagree because Caravaggio's iconographic subtlety allows us to identify her by her perfume and hair and almost the moment of penitence when she rejects her former life as a voluptuary as the long traditions suggest.


Giovan Petro Bellori. Le Vite de pittori, scultori et achitetti moderni. Rome, 1672 ed., Evelina Borea, Torino, 1976.

S. Benedetti. Caravaggio: The Master Revealed. Dublin, 1995, 212-13. Benedetti explores the importance of Classical statuary to Caravaggio and his probable models of Classical sarcophagi such as the Revenge of Orestes and the Roman Meleager’s Companions Carrying His Body, among at least three other Classical images, either from Del Monte’s Roman Antiquarium or his country estate Vigna di Ripetta or from the nearby Giustiniani Collection accessible to Caravaggio in Rome.

Ann Graham Brock. Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003.

F. T. Camiz. "Music and Painting in Cardinal Del Monte's Household." Metropolitan Museum Journal 23, 1991.

Mia Cinotti. Caravaggio: tutte le opere. Bergamo, 1983.

J. Dillenberger. “The Magdalen: Reflections on the image of the saint and the sinner in Chrsitian Art” in D. Apostolos-Cappadona, ed. Image and Spirit in Sacred and Secular Art. New York, 1990. 28-50.

Bart D. Ehrman. Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, Part III, 179-255, 259 & ff.

John Gash. Caravaggio. London: Jupiter Books, 1980.

Patrick Hunt. Caravaggio. Life and Times Series. London: Haus Publishing, 2004, 42-47, 55-57. Portions of the discussion here are excerpted directly from the author's 2004 book.

Katherine Ludwig Jansen. The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

F. Mormando, ed. Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image. McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 1999.

Lynn F. Orr. Classical Elements in the Paintings of Caravaggio. Ph.D. Dissertation, UCLA, 1982.

Elaine Pagels. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage, 1989, 64-7.

Catherine Puglisi. Caravaggio. London: Phaidon, 1998.

John Spike. Caravaggio. London / New York: Abbeville, 2001.

Jacobus Faber Stapulensis (in French, Jacques Lefèvre Étaples). Two Treatises on St. Mary Magdalene, especially De Maria Magdalena et traduo Christi disceptatio, 1517 (both Paris, 1517 and 1518). Cf F. M. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third ed. Oxford, 1997: 593, 1049.

Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea): Lives of the Saints. William Caxton, tr. (from Latin). Selected and edited by George V. O'Neill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914. Vol. IV, 36-42.

Copyright © 2009 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University

February 2, 2009

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: From Paleoclimates to the Present

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Fig. 1 Albrecht Dürer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498.

Dr. Patrick Hunt, Stanford University

"The Lamb broke the first seal...and I looked and saw a white horse, and seated on him was one carrying a bow, and a wreath was given to him and he went out out conquering in order to conquer...and when he broke the second seal...another horse came out fiery red and to him seated on it was given power to take peace from the earth and internecine strife and he was given a great sword...and when he broke the third seal... I looked and saw a black horse and him seated on it carried a pair of scales in his hand and I heard a voice in the middle of the creatures calling, 'A quart of wheat for a denarius and three quarts of barley for a denarius and do not injure the oil and the wine"...and when he broke the fourth seal... I looked and saw a yellowish-green horse and the name of him seated on it was Death, and Hades followed him, and authority was given to them over a quarter of the earth to kill with sword and famine and plague and by wild beasts of the earth." Apocalypse 6:1-7 (1)

This brief note is a mostly sobering assessment in the form of historical observation about ancient precedents and possible modern parallels for the metaphor of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. As an elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (since 1989), and some of my alpine research has also been sponsored by the National Geographic Society's Expedition Council (2007-2008), the scenario of snowballing cataclysmic ecological phenomena has long occupied my thinking since studying paleoclimatology in graduate school. The cause-effect interrelationships between war, famine and plague and death are hardly lost on the historian. The above enigmatic biblical passage has been subject to so many bizarre and contradictory literary and theological misinterpretations, like so much of religious writ, and its apocalyptic genre does little to discourage a wide range of visionary hermeneutics. At least this musing is on somewhat common ground in the long view of concatenated cyclical or cause-effect related catastrophes.

Dürer's above image is perhaps the most famous of any attempts to visualize this difficult passage and easily also one of the most dramatic with its gaunt and skeletal pair of deathly horse and rider in the foreground with sad people underfoot - even the religious leaders and kings are not spared - as the very pillars of society and foundations of civilization seem to be swallowed up. Naturally, it is unlikely for the biblical author[s] to derive an environmental application - as this brief note extrapolates - from the possibly allegorical literature here with an implied sequencing of drought, famine, pestilence and death or with war inserted at the beginning or somewhere along the downward-spiraling process.

I prefer to interpret the above biblical passage where it refers to the indirect object "them" in the last verse "authority given to them " as a somewhat interlocking operation by sword, famine, plague and so on since so many are affected, possibly each one individually reducing population by a quarter in a snowball effect. Most interpretations equate the third seal and black horse and rider as famine, especially with the scales and selling of food commodities in quarts of grain. The paucity of agricultural food supply referenced is understandable because a Roman denarius was about the equivalent of a daily wage in the late first century Roman world of the biblical text. That a daily wage's earning power would only buy a quart of wheat - the more valuable grain here - speaks to the meager supply of food and therefore an extended figure for famine.

Few realize the interconnections of how the legendary “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” might also function as a collective metaphor for the ravages of humankind and the environment in history, often found together in war, famine, disease and death. In figurative language here, however, the four horsemen can manifest such cause-effect relationships that one can easily lead even galloping into the other.

As mentioned, historians attempt to understand the cause-effect interrelationships between war, famine and plague and death. In fact, it is fairly easy to recognize a terrible sequence too often familiar in war-ravaged states. The sequence may or may not replicate the exact sequence in the literary text above. Historically, war generally upsets the agricultural stability such that famine often results from the chaos of marauding, the privations of siege, or the policy of scorched earth. Famine follows, as does plague and death. Plague, however, is the least recognized, the last diagnostically-validated link described in antiquity because of ignorance of microbial activity other than contagion deduced from proximity.

By no means the only quotable text, Polybius describes, for example, in his History III.30.1-4 the narrative of Hannibal's Battle of Saguntum, with just such a sequence of war, famine and death, although any related plague is invisible and not mentioned. As a prelude to the Second Punic War, the people of Saguntum are besieged in their fortress city. Food runs out until, if in credible detail, a diminishing and dying population even resorts near the end to familial cannibalism. Finally the broken walls of the long-weakened city fall to the force of Hannibal's army and even a hardened army is horrified by what they see of the mountain of burning carcasses, which may be the only way to reduce an invisible contagion although Polybius does not record this. (2)

But there is also another observable sequence that deserves mention, one that may or may not be deducible from the above text in Apocalypse 6 but is equally recognizable and may become far more so in the 21st century as increasing feuds over water rights and possibly exponential change in global climates seem imminent, where drought, famine and malnutrition are already visible links in a chain of consequences. (3)

Extended drought - or rain at the wrong times or other disruptions of climatic patterns - can ultimately bring down a civilization, as was likely in ancient history and never too far from present reality even in a world where globalization provides food overnight from seven (or more) thousand miles away. Coupled with rising population, the resulting decreasing per capita grain production is even a looming current problem:

"Confirm[ing] the serious nature of the global food supply...the per capita availability of world cereal grains, which make up 80-90% of the world's food supply, has been declining for the past 17 years (2002)." (4)

Fig. 2 USDA 2007: Stocks-Use Ratios Indicators: note lowered supply even with 2007 factored

It is well attested that both global demand for and global food costs rose sharply in 2007-2008, gravely affecting the poorer, developing countries of the world. (5) While I am not be the first to present this ancient and possibly contemporary sequence suggested by the above literary text - many have also alluded to this metaphor in climate change projections and carbon sequestration models (6) - and a reasonable study of paleoclimatology based on palynology, the carbon record, evaporitic basins, oxygen isotopic studies and other data, I hope to summarize it briefly in accessible terms. Pointing out how humans have at times influenced this chain of events, others have posited parts of the sequence as links of the anthropogenic chain, however generalized but no less real. (7)

Here is a hypothetical situation that must have actually also happened in history, possibly at the interstices of what we often term the end of the Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean world when mass migrations and general chaos suggest a possible scenario like below. (8) In antiquity, it was recommended that a portion of every seed harvest be reserved for the next year's planting seed. Purely for example, if on any given small to medium-sized farm, a normal crop yield was 100 bushels, it was practical to save 10% or 10 bushels of grain for planting. Given the same expected amount of mouths to feed, if conditions are good, expectations would be at least that 10 bushels of grain seed would yield another 100 bushels the following year, guaranteeing some form of stability provided that rainfall or climatic circumstances did not change radically. But if drought or freakish bad weather occurred, dramatically lowering the crop yield to 70 bushels, and if the same ratio of seed grain was put aside for planting the next year and the population remained the same, this resulted in only 70% of the comestible grain for the same number of mouths to feed. Naturally, agriculture did not produce the only food sources of antiquity, but grazing or fed livestock would also suffer accordingly from drought and famine. What results is understood by the principle of diminishing returns.

Presumably, if this drought were limited to only a local disaster, the opportunity might exist to purchase someone else's surplus. But if this became a regional disaster of widely-suffered drought or crop-afflicted change, the consequences were far more dire and more difficult to mitigate depending on the volume of total farmland affected. If it were a severe drought and water was scarce over an extended several years, the resulting problems could be catastrophic across a society. If the 10% of the crop yield of 70 bushels was reserved for seed for the following year, having eaten the diminished 70%, and if the drought gained severity so that there was again a lower harvest of only 50 bushels of grain from the 7 bushels of planted seed grain, this means that the same number of mouths to feed were now having to live on 50% of the yield even before the seed grain was yet again to be reserved, and it is more likely the reserve of 5 bushels would have been eaten too because people and farm animals would now be in trouble (a forget-the-future-we-must-survive-the-present radical philosophy). In the second year of such a drought, there would already have been some incipient malnutrition, a lowering of immune systems and resistance to disease, but now it would become especially hard for the weak, particularly the aged and infants. By the third year of extended drought, famine could easily lead to plague and pestilence and beyond to widespread death. If the social structure was also undermined by such a deepening crisis where laws or a ruler could no longer provide parameters of stable behavior for a people, the stability of the state or dynasty was greatly threatened and civil war may ensue. In any case, applying the basic scenario where drought led to famine, which led to disease and this either led to war (or in some cases followed it) and to death, it is not hard to imagine the havoc.

Fig. 3 Harvested grain - a diminishing, more costly commodity?

The above hypothetical scenario is derived from a generic grain. Agronomy in antiquity was unlikely to know, except by empirical experience, that some grains are more or less sensitive to drought and to salinization, especially salinity that might result from cultivation in an evaporitic basin. Barley (8.0) and Rye (11.4), for example, have relatively high treshhold salinity levels known as EC values, whereas rice (3.0) and corn (1.7) are relatively sensitive in EC values. (9) There is also an obvious linear decrease in crop yield as salinity increases.

If everyone in a radius of a thousand miles is so afflicted today, we compensate by importing more foodstuff from abroad or across a continent. In antiquity, there was often no other recourse than to leave the territory in a mass migration after a social catastrophe following such an environmental disaster. Some deduce this very scenario for the Aegean with the migrations of the Sea Peoples in the 12th c. BCE southeast to Egypt and to Palestine. (10) The climatic swath of the Sahel on the continent of Africa today, however rich in mineral resources, is suffering in exactly these terms on the increasingly-desertified margins of the Sahara. (11) Every observer can easily note that the once-permanent snowpacks on Mt. Kilimanjaro are greatly reduced even in the last few decades. Alpine glaciers in Europe are projected to be reduced by 25% by the year 2025, and in 2008 there was a recorded higher temperature gain of 1.1 º Celsius (compared to previous years) and a reduction of at least an overall 1.5 meters on some of the highest glaciers around Col d'Ambin in the Cottian Alps relative to 2007 alone where this researcher also works on reconstructing paleoclimatic environments and where the National Geographic Society has been sponsoring my research in 2007-2008. (12) Although not the first in the modern world, for the first time ever in extended drought the State of South Australia has had to import necessary water because its own sources have dried up, purchasing 261 gigalitres. (13) One hardly has to wonder what could happen if the vast Himalayan and related montane snowpack that supplies water for half the world's population from such rivers as the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, etc., begin to melt as projected by even conservative hydrologists. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse may indeed already be in the saddle.

In conclusion, while this brief note is not in any way intended as a Doomsday scenario, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse seem to have ridden together through the ancient world and can easily ride again, with or without a prophetic trumpet to announce them. "Amber waves of grain" may be more at risk than we think.


(1) Revelation, vol. 38, Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1975, 96 & ff. Commentary by J. Massyngberde Ford, excerpted by the author of this brief article. As a possible precedent, in the Hebrew scriptures, another set of four horses - now in chariots - with similar colors appears in Zechariah 6:1-7 although without such negative connotations or direct associations with these dire horses in the New Testament passage.

(2) Thomas Madden. Empires of Trust. New York: Penguin, 2008, esp. 98-108. An excellent study of the circumstances of the siege.

(3) C. Rosenzweig and D. Hillel. Climate Change and the Global Harvest. Oxford University Press, 1998; Brian Dawson and Matt Spannagle. The Complete Guide to Climate Change. London: Routledge, 2009, 215-216

(4) David Pimentel. "Malnutrition, Infectious Diseases and Global Environmental Change" in Ian Douglas, ed. Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change: Causes and Consequences of Global Environmental Change. John Wiley & Son, 2002, 441.

(5) Martin Wolf, "Food crisis is a chance to reform global agriculture." April 30, 2008. Financial Times Economists Forum, 2008:

(6) Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, "Climate change and health: preparing for unprecedented challenges." 12/10/07,; also see Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, "IMPACTS: On the Threshold of Abrupt Climate Changes", Paul Preuss, 9/17/08,

(7) J. V. Thirgood. Man and the Mediterranean Forest: A History of Resource Depletion. London: Academic Press, 1981; R. Meiggs. Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982; A. W. Crosby. Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986; Jared Diamond. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2004. Diamond has his critics, to be sure, and this author will be neutral on this matter, but Diamond does present an ample group of case studies and a bibliography of specialists' research supporting some anthropogenic change.

(8) M. Williams. "Dark Ages and Dark Areas: Global deforestation in the Deep Past." Journal of Historical Geography 26 (2000) 28-46; A. J. McMichael. Planetary Overload: Global Environmental Change and the Health of the Human Species. Cambridge University Press, 1993; R. R. Colwell. "Global Climate Change and Infectious Disease." Science 274 (1996) 2025-2031.

(9) R. A. Fischer and R. Maurer. "Drought resistance in spring wheat cultivars. I. Grain yield responses." Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 29.5 (1978) 897 - 912. Drought experiments were conducted in northwest Mexico on a wide range of cereal cultivars, mostly durum wheats; T. Ameda and S. Schubert. "Mechanisms of drought resistance in grain legumes: I. Osmotic adjustment." SINET: Ethiopian Journal of Science 26.1 (2003) 37-46. Drought experiments in Germany in 1994-95 on diverse grain legumes to determine osmotica and alternative mechanisms; Donald Sparks. Environmental Soil Chemistry. London: Academic Press, 1995, 231, Table 10.2. Note that in Sparks citations these are relative salinity tolerances and that "absolute tolerances vary, depending on climate, soil conditions and cultural practices." EC (salinity threshold) is expressed as ECe (dS m-1).

(10) Trude and Moshe Dothan. Peoples of the Sea. New York: Scribner's, 1992, 87-96 & ff., esp. 87; Joseph Maran. "The Spreading of Objects and Ideas in the Late Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean: Two Case Examples from the Argolid of the 13th and 12th centuries BC," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 336 (Nov. 2004) 11-30; Ayelet Gilboa. "Sea Peoples and Phoenicians along the Southern Phoenician Coast - A Reconciliation: A Representation of Sikila (SKL) Material Culture." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 337 (Feb. 2005) 47-78; S. Wachsmann. "The Ships of the Sea Peoples." International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 11.4 (2007) 297-304.

(11) "Micronutrient Malnutrition: Half the World's Population Affected" WHO: The World Health Report 1996, World Health Organization 13 Nov. 1996 (78) 1-4.; also see Lester Brown, "World Grain Stocks Fall to 57 Days of Consumption: Grain Prices Starting to Rise" 2006, (source of USDA figure).

(12) Luca Mercalli, President, Italian Meteorological Institute, Busseoleno, pers. comm., September, 2008; Patrick Hunt. Alpine Archaeology, New York: Ariel Books, 2007, chs. 1-3; Patrick Hunt. Field Report to Expeditions Council, National Geographic Society, 2008 (Hannibal Expedition); Mateo Gutierrez. Climatic Geomorphology. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005, on soils and humans in climatic change, 349, 601.

(13) "Climate Watch: Australia" Geographical Magazine. Royal Geographical Society, London, February, 2009, 10.

Photo and image credit:
Fig. 1; Fig. 2 USDA Economic Research Service 2007;; Fig. 3 Purdue University CES.

copyright © February 2009 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University

October 13, 2008

Riza-i ‘Abbasi and The Poetry of Safavid Persian Painting

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Woman With a Veil, album folio attributed to Riza-i 'Abbasi, circa 1590-95. Isfahan. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, H x W (image): 34.2 x 21.5 cm (13 7/16 x 8 7/16 in)

"The rose garden which today is full of flowers,
when tomorrow you would pluck a flower
it may not have one for you."
Firdawsi (10th-11th c.)

“From the bounty of the rose,
the nightingale learned speech, for if not,
there had not been in his throat
all this sweet speech and singing."
Hafez (14th c. ) (1)

The haunting images of both Firdawsi and Hafez on roses and nightingale song remind us about the retrieval of beauty through memory. This is a perfect distillation of sensory richness found alike in the best poetry of the world, shared with Sappho and the Hebrew Song of Songs, where striking visual kinesis is mingled with music and fragrance and where so many impressions (sight, sound, smell, movement) conjoin in lyrical mastery as a sensory cluster. (2) Since visual imagery is important in verbal poetry, how much poetic ambience can be found in visual painting?

Lyricism is clearly found not only in poetic word but also in visual poetic image. Persian painting in the Safavid period of Persia under Shah ‘Abbas (1587-1629) rose to its zenith in the art of painters such as Sadiqi Beg (1533-c. 1610) and especially Riza-i ‘Abbasi (1565-1635) at Isfahan. (3) For reference and study, the magisterial, gemlike books of Sheila Canby are the best sources on Persian painting for the Anglophone world. (4) Along with rich textiles and grand architecture, Persian paintings are one of the primary expressions of Safavid greatness even in microcosm (5), influencing Mughal art in India while newly examining ideas imbibed from European drawing and perspective. (6)

The Safavid master, Riza-i ‘Abbasi, was trained by his artist father, the court painter Ali Asghar, and much stylistic innovation and later influence is attributed to the son Riza, who was able around 1603 to append ‘Abbasi as a title “of ‘Abbas” to his name from his service to the court of Shah ‘Abbas although he left the shah’s service to paint on his own before returning to court and its kitabkhaneh workshop of poets, painters and other artists. (7) Similar in rebellious temperament to the sublime but realistic chiaroscuro Italian painter Caravaggio – who also preferred the company of rowdies and courtesans (8) - the lyricism of Riza can be seen in album folio paintings such as Woman with a Veil, circa 1590-95, one of his earlier attributed works now in the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian, where descriptions of the work examined here even include the idea of "visual poetry."

Perhaps the viewer’s first impression is made from the distinct arching bow of the woman’s body as Riza bends her body strongly to the left with a movement that shows great kinesis on a large scale. Similar contours are often typical for his early courtly personages.(9) Perhaps this woman's gracefully-bowed body even alludes to her standing against wind or a strong breeze, accentuated by the tilt of her head in the opposite direction to the right. Descriptive details abound on the small scale as well. Using opaque watercolor, gold and ink, such bright primary pastel colors – one of his earlier hallmarks (10) – as red, yellow and blue are deliberately chosen and separated for maximum effect in the woman’s garments, shown from ankles upward above her black shoes and decorated gold undertrousers. A lavender shawl veil covers her from head to hip, open in the front. The concerted movement of her clothes with her body – even the many folds of the fairly tightly wrapped shawl veil and her blue-sleeved arm - implies both the mobility and clinging manner of light silk. Although pinned at the upper neck hem, her dark red blouse undergarment is narrowly open at her hinted breast. A gold forehead bangle and bright red and blue spangled headscarf are just visible under the shawl head veil, expressing different layers of emphasis relative to the bright pastel color garments. For lighter effect as counterpoint, her modest dainty necklace jewelry is answered by her heavier gold cloth belt sash tied at her waist, and gold buttons and gold cloth rosettes embroidered on her blue coat all simultaneously express Riza’s love of detail as well as visual economy, especially with only her bent left thumb seen under the held veil.

In subdued and subtle contrast to the woman, the natural light-brown paper background of an almost golden hue is balanced with calligraphic ink style in the lighter fronded and flowering plants in the rocks on either side of the woman, carefully placed in the empty spaces of the paper background at lower left and middle right. Above her, dramatic yet faint calligraphic swirls in the sky may represent moving air and cumulus clouds.

Similar finesse and balance of larger context with intricate detail are seen in many Persian paintings from the Safavid court. Almost certainly known to Riza-i 'Abbasi was an older artist who preceded him in leadership of the kitabkhaneh when it was in Qazvin, Sadiqi Beg (1533-c. 1610). One of Sadiqi's attributed paintings 'Balqis and the Hoopoe' now in the British Museum and contemporary with Riza's work here also shows a marvelous detail. Balqis, legendary Queen of Sheba, is reclining and wearing a beautiful garment Canby observantly identifies as a "remarkable waqwaq design" because it bears calligraphic animal and human heads interspersed with embroidered floral patterns. (11) Such detail is truly mesmerizing and shows these Safavid artists were attentive in such paintings to many aspects of the crafts in their culture.

Continuing Riza’s customary boldness tempered with subtlety in the above painting at hand, Woman with a Veil, perhaps the consummate artist in Riza now brings the viewer to the likely crux of the painting. The woman’s mostly properly hidden left hand holds her veil open in a protective shell between her hand and covered forehead. Like a candle kept out of the breeze, her pear-shaped right hand gently holds and shields between thumb and second finger the stem of a fragile spray of white flowers and her slightly-smiling oval face bends down to the flowers as if to both see its tiny blossoms and smell its scent, a meditative moment of acute sensory appreciation and the philosophic realization that attends this sensuality. The wind – ambiguous in direction but swirling on either side and behind - would tear away its petals and disperse the flowers’ fragrance. With her almond eyes focusing directly on the flower stem she seems to realize bent in the wind herself that she is just like that flower, fragile and ephemeral. A well of sympathy brings the viewer to a mutual poignant universal: the tragedy of Beauty is its brevity. (12)


(1) Firdawsi: "King Nishavir's Address to the Grandees of Persia" and "Ode of Hafez". E. S. Holden, tr. Flowers from Persian Gardens. Cambridge, MA: University Press, 1901, 54, 131; also see Rumi on the rose, Mehdi Khansari, M. Reza Moghtader, Minouch Yavari. The Persian Garden: Echoes of Paradise. Washington, DC: Mage Publishing, 2004, 171.

(2) Patrick Hunt. Poetry in the Song of Songs: A Literary Analysis. New York: Peter Lang, 2008, ch. 2, pp. 55-56 and ch. 4, pp. 83-101.

(3) Sir Lawrence Gowing, ed. A Biographical Dictionary of Artists. Abingdon: Andromeda Oxford, 2002 repr., 581-82.

(4) for example, Sheila R. Canby. The Rebellious Reformer: The Drawings and Paintings of Riza-yi-Abbasi of Isfahan. London: Azimuth Editions, 1996; Sheila R. Canby. Safavid Art and Architecture. London: British Museum Press, 2002. Also see (7) and (10) below.

(5) Barbara Brend. Islamic Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991, 148 & ff, 164 & ff.

(6) Anjan Chakraverty. Indian Miniature Painting. New Delhi & Roli & Janssen BV, Netherlands, 2005, 34, 48.

(7) Sheila R. Canby. Persian Painting. London: British Museum, 1993, 94, 98.

(8) Patrick Hunt. Caravaggio. London: Haus, 2004, chs. 4-5 & 7-8, pp. 29-67, 92-107

(9) Canby, 1993, 99.

(10) Sheila R. Canby. The Golden Age of Persian Art 1501-1722. London: British Museum, 2002 ed., 107.

(11) ibid. Canby, 2002, 106. Also see Glossary, 187 for waqwaq. Sadiqi Beg's painting is 9.9 by 19.2 cm, British Museum OA 1948.12-11.08. In Canby's book, this illustration is Plate 93, also page 106.

(12) Patrick Hunt. Laws of Nature (Aphorisms), 2000. See

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian ( Lent by the Art and History Collection; Courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: LTS1995.2.80 (permisssion granted by Betsy Kohut, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution).

copyright © 2008 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University