Classical Texts Library >> Philostratus the Elder, Imagines >> Book 1.1-15


Philostratus the Elder, Imagines

PHILOSTRATUS THE ELDER was a Greek writer who flourished in the C3rd A.D. He was the author of a work entitled the Imagines (or Images), a collection of short essays describing mostly myth-themed paintings in poetic detail. His grandson Philostratus the Younger produced a similar work with the same title.

Elder Philostratus, Younger Philostratus, Callistratus. Translated by Fairbanks, Arthur. Loeb Classical Library Volume 256. London: William Heinemann, 1931.

The most recent edition of this volume is available new from Amazon.com (click on image right for details). In addition to the work of the Elder Philostratus the book also contains translations of the Imagines of the Younger Philostratus, the Descriptions of Callistratus, source Greek texts and Fairbanks' introduction and footnotes.




0. Book 1
1. Scamander
2. Comus
3. Fables
4. Menoeceus
5. Dwarfs
6. Cupids
7. Memnon
8. Amymone
9. A Marsh
10. Amphion
11. Phaethon
12. Bosphorus
13. Bosphorus
14. Semele
15. Ariadne


16. Pasiphae
17. Hippodameia
18. Bacchantes
19. The Tyrrhenian Pirates
20. Satyrs
21. Olympus
22. Midas
23. Narcissus
24. Hyacinthus
25. Andrians
26. Birth of Hermes
27. Amphiaraüs
28. Hunters
29. Perseus
30. Pelops
31. Xenia


1. Singers
2. Education of Achilles
3. Female Centaurs
4. Hippolytus
5. Rhodogoune
6. Arichion
7. Antiolochus
8. Meles
9. Pantheia
10. Cassandra
11. Pan
12. Pindar
13. The Gyraean Rocks
14. Thessaly
15. Glaucus Pontius
16. Palaemon


17. Islands
18. Cyclops
19. Phorbas
20. Atlas
21. Antaeus
22. Heracles among Pygmies
23. The Madness of Heracles
24. Theiodamas
25. The Burial of Abderus
26. Xenia
27. The Birth of Athena
28. Looms
29. Antigone
30. Evadne
31. Themistocles
32. Palaestra
33. Dodona
34. Horae

Whosoever scorns painting is unjust to truth; and he is also unjust to all the wisdom that has been bestowed upon poets – for poets and painters make equal contribution to our knowledge of the deeds and the looks of heroes – and he withholds his praise from symmetry of proportion, whereby art partakes of reason. For one who wishes a clever theory, the invention of painting belongs to the gods – witness on earth all the designs with which the Seasons paint the meadows, and the manifestations we see in the heavens – but for one who is merely seeking the origin of art, imitation is an invention most ancient and most akin to nature; and wise men invented it, calling it now painting, now plastic art.

There are many forms of plastic art – plastic art proper, or modeling, and imitation in bronze, and the work of those who carve Lygdian1 or Parian marble, and ivory carving, and, by Zeus, the art of gem-cutting is also plastic art – while painting is imitation by the use of colours; and not only does it employ colour, but this second form of art cleverly accomplishes more with this one means than the other form with its many means. For it both reproduces light and shade and also permits the observer to recognize the look, now of the man who is mad, now of the man who is sorrowing or rejoicing. The varying nature of bright eyes the plastic artist does not bring out at all in his work; but the “grey eye,” the “blue eye,” and “black eye” are known to painting; and it knows chestnut and red and yellow hair, and the colour of garments and of armour, chambers too and houses and groves and mountains and springs and the air that envelops them all.

Now the story of the men who have won mastery in the science of painting, and of the states and kings that have been passionately devoted to it, has been told by other writers, notably Aristodemus of Caria, whom I visited for four years in order to study painting; and he painted in the technique of Eumelus, but with much more charm. The present discussion, however, is not to deal with painters nor yet with their lives; rather we propose to describe examples of paintings in the form of addresses which we have composed for the young, that by this means they may learn to interpret paintings and to appreciate what is esteemed in them.

The occasion of these discourses of min was as follows: It was the time of the public games at Naples, a city in Italy settled by men of the Greek race and people of culture, and therefore Greek in their enthusiasm for discussion. And as I did not wish to deliver my addresses in public, the young men kept coming to the house of my host and importuning me. I was lodging outside the walls in a suburb facing the sea, where there was a portico built on four, I think, or possibly five terraces, open to the west wind and looking out on the Tyrrhenian sea. It was resplendent with all the marbles favoured by luxury, but it was particularly splendid by reason of the panel-paintings set in the walls, paintings which I though had been collected with real judgment, for they exhibited the skill of very many painters. The idea had already occurred to me that I ought to speak in praise of the paintings, when the son of my host, quite a young boy, only ten years old but already an ardent listener and eager to learn, kept watching me as I went from one to another and asking me to interpret them. So in order that he might not think me ill-bred, “Very well,” I said, “we will make them the subject of a discourse as soon as the young men come.” And when they came, I said, “Let me put the boy in front and address to him my effort at interpretation; but do you follow, not only agreeing but also asking questions if anything I say is not clear.”

1. “Lygdian stone” : an unusually fine white marble used both for sculpture and for gems. Pliny, N.H. 36. 13; Diod. Sic. ii. p. 135.


Have you noticed, my boy, that the painting here is based on Homer, or have you failed to do so because you are lost in wonder as to how in the world the fire could live in the midst of water? Well then, let us try to get at he meaning of it. Turn your eyes away from the painting itself so as to look only at the events on which it is based. Surely you are familiar with the passage in the Iliad where Homer makes Achilles rise up to avenge Patroclus, and the gods are moved to make battle with each other. Now of this battle of the gods the painting ignores all the rest, but it tells how Hephaestus fell upon Scamander with might and main. Now look again at the painting; it is all from Homer.2 Here is the lofty citadel, and here the battlements of Ilium; here is the great plain, large enough for marshalling the forces of Asia against he forces of Europe; here fire rolls mightily like a flood over the plain and mightily it creeps along the banks of the River so that no trees are left there. The fire which envelops Hephaestus flows out on the surface of the water and the River is suffering and in person begs Hephaestus for mercy. But the River is not painted with long hair, for the hair has been burnt off; nor is Hephaestus painted as lame, for he is running; and the flames of the fire are not ruddy nor yet of the usual appearance, but they shine like gold and sunbeams. In this Homer is no longer followed.

2. Not only is the story from the Iliad, but words and bits of descriptions are taken from Homer; cf. troiês hiera krêdemna, Iliad 16.100; phloga pollen, 21. 333; en pediô pur daieto, 21. 343; su de Xanthoioi par’ ochthas dendrea kai, 21. 337f.


The spirit Comus3 (Revelry), to whom men owe their revelling, is stationed at the doors of a chamber – golden doors, I think they are; but to make them out is a slow matter, for the time is supposed to be at night. Yet night is not represented as a person, but rather it is suggested by what is going on; and the splendid entrance indicates a very wealthy pair just married who are lying on a couch. And Comus has come, a youth to join the youths, delicate and yet full grown, flushed with wine and, though erect, he is asleep under the influence of drink. As he sleeps the face falls forward on the breast so that the throat is not visible, and he holds his left hand up to his ear.4 The hand itself, which has apparently grasped the ear, is relaxed and limp, as is usual at the beginning of slumber, when sleep gently invites us and the mind passes over into forgetfulness of its thoughts; and for the same reason the torch seems to be falling from his right hand as sleep relaxes it. And for fear lest the flames of the torch come too near his leg, Comus bends his lower left leg over towards the right and holds the torch out on his left side, keeping his right hand at a distance by means of the projecting knee in order that he may avoid the breath of the torch.

While painters ought usually to represent the faces of those who are in the bloom of youth, and without these the paintings are dull and meaningless, this Comus has little need of a face at all, since his head is bent forward and the face is in shadow. The moral, I think, is that persons of his age should not go revelling, except with heads veiled. The rest of the body is sharply defined, for the torch shines on every part of it and brings it into the light. The crown of roses should be praised, not much for its truth of representation – since it is no difficult achievement, for instance with yellow and dark blue pigments, to imitate the semblance of flowers – but one must praise the tender and delicate quality of the crown. I praise, too, the dewy look of the roses, and assert that they are painted fragrance and all.

And what else is there of the revel? Well, what but the revellers? Do you not hear the castanets and the flute’s shrill note and the disorderly singing? The torches give a faint light, enough for the revellers to see what is close in front of them, but not enough for us to see them. Peals of laughter rise, and women rush along with men, wearing men’s sandals and garments girt in strange fashion; for the revel permits women to masquerade as men, and men to "put on women’s garb" 5 and to ape the walk of women. Their crowns are no longer fresh but, crushed down on the head on account of the wild running of the dancers, they have lost their joyous look; for the free spirit of the flowers deprecates the touch of the hand as causing them to wither before their time. The painting also represents in a way the din which the revel most requires; the right hand with bent fingers strikes the hollowed palm of the left hand, in order that the hands beaten like cymbals may resound in unison.

3. Cf. Milton’s Comus, 46f, where Comus is described as the son of Bacchus and Circe.
4. i.e. resting his head upon his hand.
5. Eur. Bacch. 836, 852, phêlun eidunai stolen.


The Fables are gathering about Aesop, being fond of him because he devotes himself to them. For while Homer also cared for fable, and Hesiod, and Archilochus too in his verses to Lycambes, Aesop has treated all sides of human life in his fables, and has made his animals speak in order to point a moral.6 For he checks greed and rebukes insolence and deceit, and in all this some animal is his mouthpiece – a lion or a fox or a horse, by Zeus, and not even the tortoise is dumb – that through them children may learn the business of life. So the Fables, honoured because of Aesop, gather at the doors of the wise man to bind fillets about his head and to crown him with a victor’s crown of wild olive. And Aesop, methinks, is weaving some fable; at any rate his smile and his eyes fixed on the ground indicate this. The painter knows that for the composition of fables relaxation of the spirit is needed. And the painting is clever in representing the persons of the Fables. For it combines animals with men to make a chorus about Aesop, composed of the actors in his fables; and the fox is painted as leader of the chorus, wince Aesop uses him as a slave in developing most of his themes, as comedy uses Davus.

6. logou, literally “for the sake of thought or reason,” plays on the logou used just before in the primary sense of “speech”; it might be translated “so as to express thought.”


This is the siege of Thebes, for the wall has seven gates; and the army is the army of Polyneices, the son of Oedipus, for the companies are seven in number. Amphiaraüs approaches them with face despondent and fully aware of the fate in store for them; and while the other captains are afraid – that is why they are lifting their hands to Zeus in prayer – Capaneus7 gazes on the walls, resolving in his mind how the battlements may be taken with scaling ladders. As yet, however, there is no shooting from the battlements, since the Thebans apparently hesitate to begin the combat.

The clever artifice of the painter is delightful. Encompassing the walls with armed men, he depicts them so that some are seen in full figure, others with the legs hidden, others from the waist up, then only the busts of some, heads only, helmets only, and finally just spear-points. This, my boy, is perspective8; sine the problem is to deceive the eyes as they travel back along with the proper receding planes of the picture.

Nor are the Thebans without their prophet, for Teiresias is uttering an oracle pertaining to Menoeceus the son of Creon, how that by his death at the dragon’s hole9 the city should thenceforth be free. And he is dying, his father being all unaware of his fate, an object of pity indeed because of his youth, but really fortunate because of his bravery. For look at the painter’s work! He paints a youth not pale, nor the child of luxury, but courageous and breathing of the palaestra, as it were the choicest o the “honey-coloured” youth whom the son of Ariston10 praises; and he equips him with a chest deeply tanned, strong sides and a well-proportioned hip and thigh; there is strength both in the promise of his shoulders and in his supple neck; he was long hair also, but not the long hair of luxury. There he stands at the dragon’s hole, drawing out the sword which has already been thrust into his side. Let us catch the blood, my boy, holding under it a fold of our garments; for it is flowing out, and the soul is already about to take its leave, and in a moment you will hear its gibbering cry. For souls also have their love for beautiful bodies and therefore are loath to part from them. As his blood runs slowly out, he sinks to his knees and welcomes death with eye beautiful and sweet and as it were inviting sleep.

7. Cf. Eur. Phoen. 180-182. “And where is Capaneus – he who hurls at Thebes insult of threats? There: he counts up and down the wall-stones, gauging our towers’ scaling height.” Trans. Way, L.C.L.
8. Literally “the principle of proportion.”
9. Cf. Il. 22. 93, hôs de drakôn epi cheiê, and Eur. Phoen. 931f.: “In that den where the earth-born dragon lay watching the streams of Dirce, must he yield, slaughtered, a blood-oblation to the earth.” Trans., Way L.C.L.
10. Plato, cf. Rep. 474, melichlôrous, but in Plutarch’s quotation of the passage, Mor. 56 C, we find melichroun.

1.5 DWARFS 11

About the Nile the Dwarfs are sporting, children no taller than their name12 implies; and Nile delights in them for many reason, but particularly because they herald his coming in great floods for the Egyptians. At any rate they draw near and come to him seemingly out of the water, infants dainty and smiling, and I think they are not without the gift of speech also. Some sit on his shoulders, some cling to his curling locks, some are asleep on his arms, and some romp on his breast. And he yields them flowers, some form his lap and some from his arms, that they may weave them into crowns and, sacred and fragrant themselves, may have a bed of flowers to sleep upon. And the children climb up one on another with sistra in their hands, instruments the sound of which is familiar to that river. Crocodiles, however, and hippopotami, which some artists associate with the Nile in their paintings, are now lying aloof in its deep eddies so as not to frighten the children. But that the river is the Nile is indicated, my boy, by symbols of agriculture and navigation, and for the following reason: At its flood the Nile makes Egypt open to boats; then, when it has been drunk up by the fields, it gives the people a fertile land to till; and in Ethiopia, where it takes its rise, a divinity is set over it as its steward,13 and he it is who sends forth its water at the right seasons. This divinity has been painted so as to seem heaven-high, and he plants his foot on the sources, his head bent forward like Poseidon.14 Toward him the river is looking, and it prays that its infants may be many.

11. Cf. the allusion to them in Lucian, Rhetorum Preceptor, § 6; a statue of the Nile with dwarfs sporting over it is found in the Vatican.
12. “Cubit-dwarfs.”
13. Cf. Philostratus, Vita Apollon. 6. 26, where the allusion is based on Pindar (Bergk, Frag. 282).
14. Cf. the gem published by Overbeck, Kunstmythologie, Poseidon, Gemmentafel iii. 3: Poseidon bending forward and Nymph.


See, Cupids are gathering apples; and if there are many of them, do not be surprised. For they are the children of the Nymphs and govern all mortal kind, and they are many because of the many things men love; and they say that it is heavenly love which manages the affairs of the gods in heaven. Do you catch aught of the fragrance hovering over the garden, or are your senses dull? But listen carefully; for along with my description of the garden the fragrance of the apples also will come to you.

Here run straight rows of trees with space left free between them to walk in, and tender grass borders the paths, fit to be a couch for one to lie upon. One the ends of the branches apples golden and red and yellow invite the whole swarm of Cupids to harvest them. The Cupids’ quivers are studded with gold, and golden also are the darts in them; but bare of these and untrammelled the whole band flits about, for they have hung their quivers on the apple trees; and in the grass lie their broidered mantles, and countless are the colours thereof. Neither do the Cupids wear crowns on their heads, for their hair suffices. Their wings, dark blue and purple and in some cases golden, all but beat the very air and make harmonious music. Ah, the baskets15 into which they gather the apples! What abundance of sardonyx, of emeralds, adorns them, and the pearls are true pearls; but he workmanship must be attributed to Hephaestus! But the Cupids need no ladders wrought by him to reach the trees, for aloft they fly even to where the apples hang.
Not to speak of the Cupids that are dancing or running about or sleeping, or how they enjoy eating the apples, let us see what is the meaning of these others. For here are four of them, the most beautiful of all, withdrawn from the rest; two of them are throwing an apple back and forth, and the second pair are engaged in archery, one shooting at his companion and the latter shooting back. Nor is there any trace of hostility in their faces; rather they offer their breasts to each other, in order that the missiles may pierce them there, no doubt. It is a beautiful riddle; come, let us see if perchance I can guess the painter’s meaning. This is friendship, my boy, and yearning of one for the other. For the Cupids who play ball with the apple are beginning to fall in love, and so the one kisses the apple before he throws it, and the other holds out his hands to catch it, evidently intending to kiss it in his turn if he catches it and then to throw it back; but the pair of archers are confirming a love that is already present. In a word, the first pair in their play are intent on falling in love, while the second pair are shooting arrows that they may not cease from desire.

As for the Cupids further away, surrounded by many spectators, they have come at each other with spirit and are engaged in a sort of wrestling-match.16 I will describe the wrestling also, since you earnestly desire it. One has caught his opponent by lighting on his back, and seizes his throat to choke him, and grips him with his legs; the other does not yield, but struggles upright and tries to loosen the hand that chokes him by bending back one of the fingers till the other no longer hold or keep their grip. In pain the Cupid whose finger is being bent back bites the ear of the opponent. The Cupids who are spectators are angry with him for this as unfair and contrary to the rules of wrestling, and pelt him with apples.

And let not the hare yonder escape us, but let us join the Cupids in hunting it down. The creature was sitting under the trees and feeding on the apples that fell to the ground but leaving many half-eaten; but the Cupids hunt it from place to place and make it dash headlong, one by clapping his hands, another by screaming, another by waving his cloak; some fly above it with shouts, others on foot press hard after it, and one of these makes a rush in order to hurl himself upon it. The creature changes its course and another Cupid schemes to catch it by the leg, but it slips away from him just as it is caught. So the Cupids, laughing, have thrown themselves on the ground, one on his side, one on his face, others on their backs, all in attitudes of disappointment. But there is no shooting of arrows at the hare, since they are trying to catch it alive as an offering most pleasing to Aphrodite. For you know, I imagine, what is said of the hare, that it possesses the gift of Aphrodite to an unusual degree.17 At any rate it is said of the female that while she suckles the young she has borne, she bears another litter to share the same milk; forthwith she conceives again, nor is there any time at all when she is not carrying young. As for the male, he not only begets offspring in the way natural to males, but also himself bears young, contrary to nature. And perverted lovers have found in the hare a certain power to produce love, attempting to secure the objects of their affection by a compelling magic art.18

But let us leave these matters to men who are wicked and do not deserve to have their love returned, and do you look, please, at Aphrodite. But where is she and in what part of the orchard yonder? Do you see the overarching rock from beneath which springs water of the deepest blue, fresh and good to drink, which is distributed in channels to irrigate the apple trees? Be sure that Aphrodite is there, where the Nymphs, I doubt not, have established a shrine to her, because she has made them mothers of Cupids and therefore blest in their children. The silver mirror, that gilded sandal, the golden brooches, all these have been hung there not without purpose. They proclaim that they belong to Aphrodite, and her name is inscribed on them, and they are said to be gifts of the Nymphs. And the Cupids bring first-fruits of the apples, and gathering around they pray to her that their orchard may prosper.

15. Cf. the wool basket of Helen which was the work of Hephaestus, Od. 4. 125 argyrion talaoon.
16. For Cupids engaged in athletic sports, see the sarcophagus relief in Florence, Baumeister, Denkmäler I, p. 502, fig. 544.
17. This tradition of the fertility of the hare is frequently mentioned by ancient writers; cf. Herod. iii. 108; Arist. de gen. anim. 777a 32, Hist. anim. 542b 31, 574b 30, 585a 5; Plut. Mor. 829E; Aelian, Hist. anim. 13. 12.
18. i.e by making a present of a hare they exercise a sort of constraint upon the beloved.


This is the army of Memnon; their arms have been laid aside, and they are laying out the body of their chief for mourning; he has been struck in the breast, I think, by the ashen spear. For when I find a broad plain and tents and an entrenched camp and a city fenced in with walls, I feel sure that these are Ethiopians and that this city is Troy and that it is Memnon, the son of Eos, who is being mourned. When he came to the defence of Troy, the son of Peleus, they say, slew him, mighty though he was and likely to be no whit inferior to his opponent. Notice to what huge length he lies on the ground, and how long is the crop of curls, which he grew, no doubt, that he might dedicate them to the Nile; for while the mouth of the Nile belongs to Egypt, the sources of it belong to Ethiopia. See his form, how strong it is, even though the light has gone from his eyes; see his downy beard, how it matches his age with that of his youthful slayer. You would not say that Memnon’s skin is really black, for the black of it shows a trace of ruddiness.

As for the deities of the sky, Eos mourning over her son causes the Sun to be downcast and begs Night to come prematurely and check the hostile army, that she may be able to steal away her son, no doubt with the consent of Zeus. And look! Memnon has been stolen away and is at the edge of the painting. Where is he? In what part of the earth? No tomb of Memnon is anywhere to be seen but in Ethiopia he himself has been transformed into a statue of black marble.19 The attitude is that of a seated person, but he figure is that of Memnon yonder, if I mistake not, and the ray of the sun falls on the statue. For the sun, striking the lips of Memnon as a plectrum strikes the lyre, seems to summon a voice from them, and by this speech-producing artifice consoles the Goddess of the Day.

19. According to Pliny (N.H. 6. 182) Memnon was king of the Ethiopians in Africa (not of the Ethiopians in the Far East) at the time of the Trojan war. The western section of Thebes in Egypt was known as Memnoneia, and here on the left bank of the Nile still remain the two colossal seated figures of Memnon erected by Amenhotep III. They are made of a conglomerate limestone and are 20 metres in height above the pedestal. The northern one of the two, which has been broken in several pieces and set up again, is the figure here referred to. The marvellous tone or “voice” presumably was produced (before the figure was broken) by the sudden expansion of the stone from heat, when the rays of the rising sun fell on it.


Poseidon’s journey over the sea I think you have come upon in Homeros, when he sets forth from Aegae20 to join the Achaeans, and the sea is calm, escorting him with its sea horses and its sea-monsters; for in Homer21 they follow Poseidon and fawn upon him as they do here in the painting. There, I imagine, your thought is of dry-land horses – for Homer maintains that they are “bronze-hoofed,” “swiftly-flying,” and “smitten by the lash” – but here it is hippocamps that draw the chariot, creatures with web-footed hoofs, good swimmers, blue-eyed, and, by Zeus, in all respects like dolphins. There in Homer22 Poseidon seems to be angry, and vexed with Zeus for turning back the Greek forces and for directing the contest to their disadvantage; while here he is painted as radiant, of joyous look, and deeply stirred by love. For the sight of Amymone, the daughter of Danaus, as she visits the waters of Inachus, has overmastered the god and he sets out to pursue the girl, who does not yet know that she is loved.23 At any rate the fright of the maiden, her trembling, and the golden pitcher falling from her hands make it evident that Amymone is astounded and at a loss to know with what purpose Poseidon so precipitately leaves the sea; and her natural pallor, is illumined by the gold of the pitcher, as its brightness is reflected in the water. Let us withdraw, my boy, and leave the maiden; for already a wave is arching24 over the nuptials, and, though the water is still bright and pellucid in appearance, Poseidon will presently paint it a purple hue.25

20. Il. 13. 27 ff.
21. Il. 13. 23 f.
22. Cf. Il. 5. 37 and 15. 510.
23. The pursuit of Amymone by Poseidon was frequently depicted on vase paintings, cf. Overbeck, Kunstmythologie, Poseidon, p. 370f.
24. Cf. Od. 11. 213 porphureon d’ ara kuna . . . kurtôthen.
25. Thus enriching the marriage chamber, and concealing the pair.


The earth is wet and bears reeds and rushes, which the fertile marsh causes to grow “unsown and untilled,” 26 and tamarisk and sedge27 are depicted; for these are marsh-plants. The place is encompassed by mountains heaven high, not all of one type; for some that are covered with pine trees suggest a light soil, others luxuriant with cypress trees proclaim that their soil is of clay, and yonder fir trees – what else do they mean than that the mountain is storm-swept and rugged? For firs do not like rich soil nor do they care for warmth; accordingly their place is at a distance from the plains, since they grow more readily in the mountains because of the wind.28 And springs are breaking forth from the mountain sides; as they flow down and mingle their waters below, the plain becomes a marsh; not, however, a disordered marsh or the kind that is befouled with mud; but the course of its waters is directed in the painting just as if nature, wise in all things, directed it, and the stream winds in many a tortuous meander, abounding in parsley and suited for the voyaging of water-fowl. For you see the ducks, I am sure, how they glide along the water-course blowing jets of water from their bills.29 And what of the tribe of geese? Indeed, they too are painted in accordance with their nature, as resting on the water and sailing on it. And those long-legged birds with huge beaks, you doubtless recognize as foreign, the birds delicately coloured each with different plumage. Their attitudes also are various; one stands on a rock resting first one foot and then the other, one dries its feathers, one preens them, another has snatched some prey from the water, and yet another has bent its head to the land so as to feed on something there.

No wonder that the swans are ridden by Cupids; for these gods are mischievous and prone to sport with birds, so let us not pass by without noticing either their riding or the waters in which this scene lies. Here indeed is the most beautiful water of the marsh, issuing direct from a spring, and it forms a swimming-pool of exceeding beauty. In the midst of the pool amaranth flowers are nodding this way and that, sweet clusters that pelt the water with their blossoms. It is among these clusters that the Cupids are riding sacred birds with golden bridles, one giving free rein, another drawing in, another turning, another driving around the goal-post. Just imagine that you hear them urging on their swans, and threatening and jeering at one another – for this is all to be seen in their faces. One is trying to give his neighbour a fall, another has done it, still another is glad enough to have fallen from his bird that he may take a bath in the race-course. One the banks round about stand more musical swans, singing the Orthian strain,30 I think, as befits the contestants. The winged youth you see is an indication that a song is being sung, for he is the wind Zephyrus and he gives the swans the keynote of their song. He is painted as a tender and graceful boy in token of the nature of the south-west wind, and the wings of the swans are unfolded that the breezes may strike them.

Behold, a river also issues from the marsh, a broad rippling stream, and goatherds and shepherds are crossing it on a bridge. If you were to praise the painter for his goats, because he has painted them skipping about and prone to mischief, or for his sheep because their gait is leisurely as if their fleeces were a burden,31 or if we were to dwell on the pipes or on those who play them – the way they blow with puckered lips – we should praise an insignificant feature of the painting and one that has to do solely with imitation; but we should not be praising its cleverness or the sense of fitness it shows, though these, I believe, are the most important elements of art. Wherein, then lies its cleverness? The painter has thrown a bridge of date palms across the river, and there is a very pretty reason for this; for knowing that palms are said to be male and female, and having heard about their marriage, that the male trees take their brides by bending over towards the female trees and embracing them with their branches, he has painted a palm of one sex on one bank and one of the other sex on the other bank. Thereupon the male tree falls in love and bends over and stretches out over the river; and since it is unable to reach the female tree, which is still at a distance, it lies prone and renders menial service by bridging the water, and it is a safe bridge for men to cross on because of the roughness of its bark.

26. Od. 9. 109: ta g’ asparta kai anêrota panta phuontai, of the island of the Cyclopes.
27. Suggested by Il. 21. 350 f.: murikai . . . êde kupeiron.
28. Cf. Il. 11. 256: anemotrephes enchos, “a wind-nurtured spear.”
29. For aulous cf. Od. 22. 18: aulos ana dinas pachus êlthen aimatos.
30. “Orthian strain,” a familiar high-pitched melody.
31. Cf. Hesiod, Op. 234, “Their woolly sheep are burdened with fleeces.”


The clever device of the lyre, it is said, was invented by Hermes, who constructed it of two horns and a crossbar and a tortoise-shell; and he presented it first to Apollo and the Muses, then to Amphion of Thebes.32 And Amphion, inasmuch as the Thebes of his day was not yet a walled city, has directed his music to the stones, and the stones run together when they hear him. This is the subject of the painting.

Look carefully at the lyre first, to see if it is painted faithfully. The horn is the horn “of a leaping goat,” 33 as the poets say, and it is used by the musician for his lyre and by the bowman for his bow. The horns, you observe, are black and jagged and formidable for attack. All the wood required for the lyre is of boxwood, firm and free from knots – there is no ivory anywhere about the lyre, for men did not yet know wither the elephant or the use they were to make of its tusks. The tortoise-shell is black, but its portrayal is accurate and true to nature in that the surface is covered with irregular circles which touch each other and have yellow eyes; and the lower ends of the strings below the bridge lie close to the shell and are attached to knobs, while between the bridge and the crossbar the strings seem to be without support, this arrangement of the strings being apparently best adapted for keeping them stretched taut on the lyre.

And what is Amphion saying?34 Certainly he keeps his mind intent on the harp, and shows his teeth a little, just enough for a singer. No doubt he is singing a hymn to Earth because she, creator and mother of all things, is giving him his walls, which already are rising of their own accord. His hair is lovely and truthfully depicted, falling as it does in disorder on his forehead and mingling with the downy beard beside the ear, and showing a glint of gold; but it is lovelier still where it is held by the headband – the headband “wrought by the Graces, a most lovely ornament,” as the poets of the Secret Verses35 say – and quite in keeping with the lyre. My own opinion is that Hermes gave Amphion both these gifts, both the lyre and the headband, because he was overcome by love for him. And the chlamys he wears, perhaps that also came from Hermes; for its colour does not remain the same but changes and takes on all the hues of the rainbow.36 Amphion is seated on a low mound, beating time with his foot and smiting the strings with his right hand. His left hand is playing, too, with fingers extended straight,37 a conception which I should have thought only plastic art would venture. Well, how about the stones? They all run together toward the singing, they listen, and they become a wall. At one point the wall is finished, at another it is rising, at still another the foundation is just laid. The stones are eager in rivalry, and happy, and devoted slaves of music; and the wall has seven gates, as the strings of the lyre are seven.

32. Cf. Paus. 9. 5. 8.
33. Cf. Il. 4. 105: toxon . . . exalou aigos.
34. The text is faulty. Probably the sense is “What do you say Amphion is doing? What else than keeping his mind intent . . . ?”
35. Plato, Phaedrus 252A quotes a passage on Love from the Secret Verses (Jowett, “apocryphal writings”) of Homer. The subject is discussed by Lobeck, Aglaophamus, 861 f.
36. Does this mean that Hermes descends by the rainbow? Certainly the rainbow (i.e., Iris) is like Hermes, a messenger from the gods to men.
37. i.e. the left hand is raised, after the stroke, and the fingers, pointing toward the spectators, are foreshortened.


Golden are the tears of the daughters of Helius. The story is that they are shed for Phaëthon; for in his passion for driving this son of Helius ventured to mount his father’s chariot, but because he did not keep a firm rein he came to grief and fell into the Eridanus – wise men interpret the story as indicating a superabundance of the fiery element in nature,38 but for poets and painters it is simply a chariot and horses – and at his fall the heavens are confounded. Look! Night is driving Day from the noonday sky, and the sun’s orb as it plunges toward the earth draws in its train the stars.39 The Horae40 abandon their posts at the gates and flee toward the gloom that rises to meet them, while the horses have thrown off their yoke and rush madly on. Despairing, the Earth raises her hands in supplication, as the furious fire draws near her. Now the youth is thrown from the chariot and is falling headlong41 – for his hair is on fire and his breast smouldering with the heat; his fall will end in the river Eridanus and will furnish this stream with a mythical tale. For swans scattered about, breathing sweet notes, will hymn the youth; and flocks of swans rising aloft will sing the story to Caÿster and Ister42; nor will any place fail to hear the strange story. And they will have Zephyrus, nimble god of wayside shrines, to accompany their song, for it is said that Zephyrus has made a compact with the swans to join them in the music of the dirge. This agreement is even now being carried out, for look! The wind is playing on the swans as on musical instruments.

As for the women on the bank, not yet completely transformed into trees, men say that the daughters of Helius on account of their brother’s mishap changed their nature and became trees, and that they shed tears. The painting recognizes the story, for it puts roots at the extremities of their toes, while some, over here, are trees to the waist, and branches have supplanted the arms of others. Behold the hair, it is nothing but poplar leaves! Behold the tears, they are golden! While the welling tide of tears in their eyes gleams in the bright pupils and seems to attract rays of light, and the tears on the cheeks glisten amid the cheek’s ruddy glow, yet the drops tricking down their breasts have already turned into gold. The river also laments, emerging from its eddying stream, and offers it bosom to receive Phaëthon – for the attitude is of one ready to receive – and soon it will harvest the tears of the daughters of Helius43; for the breezes and the chills which it exhales will turn into stone the tear-drops of the poplar trees, and it will catch them as they fall and conduct them through its bright waters to the barbarians by Oceanus.

38. Cf. Lucretius 5. 392 ff.
39. Cf. Il. 8. 485 f.: en d’ epes’ Ôkeanô lampron phaos êelioio, elkon nukta melainan epi zeidôron arouran.
40. Cf. Phil. Imag. ii. 34.
41. The fall of Phaëthon is depicted, e.g. on an Arretine bowl and a Roman sarcophagus, both figured in Roscher, Lexikon d. griech. u. röm. Myth. iii. 2, p. 2195 f.
42. The swans were said to spend the summer on the Cayster river in Lydia and the winter on the Danube (Ister) among the Hyperboreans. Cf. Himerius 79, 17d.
43. Amber was explained by the ancients as the “tears of the daughters of Helius.” The river Eridanus is a mythical stream in the far west near the end of the world, where lived the daughters of Helius. Geographers later connected it with the Po or the Rhone, which lay on the routes by which amber came to the Greeks from the North Sea and the Baltic, where lived “the barbarians by Oceanus.”


[The women on the bank] are shouting, and they seem to urge the horses not to throw their young riders nor yet to spurn the bit, but to catch the game and trample it underfoot; and these, I think, hear and do as they are bidden. And when the youths have finished the hunt and have eaten their meal, a boat carries them across from Europe to Asia, about four stades – for this space intervenes between the countries – and they row themselves across.

See, they throw out a rope, and a house is receiving them, a charming house just showing chambers and halls for men and indications of windows, and it is surrounded by a wall with parapets for defence. The most beautiful feature of it is a semi-circular stoa following the curve of the sea, of yellowish colour by reason of the stone of which it is built. The stone is formed in springs; for a warm stream flowing out below the mountains of Lower Phrygia and entering the quarries submerges some of the rocks and makes the outcroppings of the stone full of water so that it assumes various colours.44 For the stream is foul where it is sluggish and produces a yellowish colour; but where the water is pure a stone of crystal clearness is formed, and it gives to the rock various colours as it is absorbed in the many seams.

The lofty promontory gives a suggestion of the following tale: A boy and girl, both beautiful and under the tutelage of the same teacher, burned with love45 for each other; and since they were not free to embrace each other, they determined to die at this very rock, and leaped into the sea in their first and last embrace. Eros on the rock stretches out his hand toward the sea, the painter’s symbolic suggestion of the tale.

In the house close by a woman lives alone; she has been driven out of the city by the importunity of her suitors; for they meant to carry her off, and pursued her unsparingly with their attentions and tempted her with gifts. But she, I think, by her haughty bearing spurred them on, and coming hither in secret she inhabits this secure house. For see how secure it is: a cliff juts out into the sea, its receding base bathed by the waves, and, projecting overhead, it bears this house out in the sea, a house beneath which the sea seems darker blue as the eyes are turned down towards it, and the land has all the characteristics of a ship except that it is motionless. Even though she has reached this fortified spot her lovers do not give her up, but they come sailing, one in a dark-prowed boat, one in a golden-prowed, others in all sorts of variegated craft, a revel band pursuing her, all beautiful and crowned with garlands. And one plays the flute, another evidently applauds, another seems to be singing; and they throw her crowns and kisses. And they are not rowing any longer, but they check their motion and come to rest at the promontory. The woman gazes at the scene from her house as from a look-out tower and laughs down at the reveling crowd, vaunting herself that she is compelling her lovers not merely to sail but also to swim to her.

As you go on to other parts of the painting, you will meet with flocks, and hear herds of cattle lowing, and the music of the shepherd’s pipes will echo in your ears; and you will meet with hunters and farmers and rivers and pools and springs – for the painting gives the very image of things that are, of things that are taking place, and in some cases of the way in which they take place, not slighting the truth by reason of the number of objects shown, but defining the real nature of each thing just as if the painter were representing some one thing alone – till we come to a shrine. You see the temple yonder, I am sure, the columns that surround it, and the beacon light at the entrance which is hung up to warn from danger the ships that sail out from the Euxine Sea.

44. The marble of Hierapolis is here described; cf. Strabo. p. 629, Vitruvius 8. 3. 10.
45. Cf. Xenophon, Conviv. 4. 23 sumphoitôn eis tauta didaskaleia ekeinô . . . prosekauthê. “This hot flame of his was kindled when they used to go to school together.” Trans. Todd, L.C.L.


“Why do you not go on to another painting? This one of the Bosphorus ahs been studied enough for me.” What do you mean? I have yet to speak of the fishermen, as I promised when I began. Not to dilate on small matters, but only on points worth discussing, let us omit any account of those who fish with a rod or use a basket cunningly or perchance draw up a net or thrust a trident – for you will hear little about such, and they will seem to you mere embellishments of the painting – but let us look at the men who are trying to capture tunny-fish, for these are worth discussing because the hunt is on so large a scale. For tunny-fish come to the outer sea46 from the Euxine, where they are born and where they feed on fish and sediment and vegetable matter which the Ister and Maeotis bring to it, rivers which make the water of the Euxine sweeter and more drinkable than that of any other sea. And they swim like a phalanx of soldiers, eight rows deep and sixteen and twice sixteen, and they drop down in the water, one swimming over another so that the depth of the school equals the width. Now the ways of catching them are countless; sharp iron spears may be used on them or drugs may be sprinkled over them, or a small net is enough for a fisherman who is satisfied with some small portion of the school. But the best means of taking them is this: a look-out is stationed on a high tree, a man quick at counting and keen of vision. For it is his task to fix his eyes on the sea and to look as far as he can; and if perchance he sees the fish approaching, then he must shout as loud as he can to those in the boats and must tell the number of the fish, how many thousands there are; and the boatmen compassing them about with a deep-laid net that can be drawn together make a splendid catch, enough to enrich the captain of the hunt.

Now look at the painting and you will see just this going on. The look-out gazes at the sea and turns his eyes in one direction and another to get the number; and in the bright gleam of the sea the colours of the fish vary, those near the surface seem to be black, those just below are not so black, those lower still begin to elude the sense of sight, then they seem shadowy, and finally they look just like the water; for as the vision penetrates deeper and deeper its power of discerning objects in the water is blunted. The group of fishermen is charming, and they are brown of complexion from exposure to the sun. One binds his oar in its place, another rows with swelling muscle, another cheers his neighbour on, another strikes a man who is not rowing. A shout rises from the fishermen now that the fish are ready in the net. Some they have caught, some they are catching. And at a loss what to do with so many they even open the net and let some of the fish swim away and escape: so proud are they of their catch.

46. i.e. the Mediterranean.


Brontè, stern of face, and Astrapè47 flashing light from her eyes, and raging fire from heaven that has laid hold of a king’s house, suggest the following tale, if it is one you know. A cloud of fire encompassing Thebes breaks into the dwelling of Cadmus as Zeus comes wooing Semele; and Semele apparently is destroyed, but Dionysus is born, by Zeus, so I believe, in the presence of the fire. And the form of Semele is dimly seen as she goes to the heavens, where the Muses will hymn her praises: but Dionysus leaps forth as his mother’s womb is rent apart and he makes the flame look dim, so brilliantly does he shine like a radiant star.48 The flame, dividing, dimly outlines a cave for Dionysus more charming than any in Assyria and Lydia; for sprays of ivy grow luxuriantly about it and clusters of ivy berries and now grape-vines and stalks of thyrsus49 which spring up from the willing earth, so that some grow in the very fire. We must not be surprised if in honour of Dionysus the Fire is crowned by the Earth, for the Earth will take part with the Fire in the Bacchic revel and will make it possible for the revelers to take wine from springs and to draw milk from clods of earth or from a rock as from living breasts.50 Listen to Pan, how he seems to be hymning Dionysus on the crests of Cithaeron, as he dances an Evian51 fling. And Cithaeron in the form of a man laments the woes52 soon to occur on his slopes, and he wears an ivy crown aslant on his head – for he accepts the crown most unwillingly – and Megaera causes a fir to shoot up beside him and brings to light a spring of water, in token, I fancy, of the blood of Actaeon and of Pentheus.53

47. Thunder (Brontè) and Lightning (Astrapè). Cf. Pliny, N.H., 25. 96: pinxit (Apelles) et quae pingi non possunt, tonitrua, fulgura, quae Bronten, Astrapen, Ceraunobolian appellant.
48. On the birth of Dionysus, see Overbeck, Kunstmythologie, Zeus, p. 416 f.
49. The wand carried by the followers of Dionysus, properly a wand wreathed with ivy and with a pine-cone at the top.
50. Cf. Eur. Bacch. 726: “The hills, the wild things all, were thrilled with ecstasy: naught but shook as on they rushed”; and 707 f.: “One grasped her thyrsus staff, and smote the rock, and forth up leapt a fountain’s showery spray, one in earth’s blossom planted her reed-wand, and up therethrough the God a wine-fount sent, and whoso fain would drink white foaming draughts scarred with their finger-tips the breast of earth, and milk gushed forth unstinted.” Trans. Way, L.C.L.
51. Evios is an epithet of Dionysus, derived from the cry Euoi (Evoë) uttered by his worshippers.
52. The rending of Pentheus asunder by his mother Agave and the Bacchantes.
53. According to Eur. Bacch. 1291 f. Pentheus was killed on the same spot as Actaeon.


That Theseus treated Ariadne unjustly – though some say not with unjust intent, but under the compulsion of Dionysus – when he abandoned her while asleep on the island of Dia,54 you must have heard from your nurse; for those women are skilled in telling such tales and they weep over them whenever they will. I do not need to say that it is Theseus you see there on the ship and Dionysus yonder on the land, nor will I assume you to be ignorant and call your attention to the woman on the rocks, lying there in gentle slumber.

Nor yet is it enough to praise the painter for things for which someone else too might be praised; for it is easy for anyone to paint Ariadne as beautiful and Theseus as beautiful; and there are countless characteristics of Dionysus for those who wish to represent him in painting or sculpture, by depicting which even approximately the artist has captured the god. For instance, the ivy clusters forming a crown are the clear mark of Dionysus, even if the workmanship is poor; and a horn just springing from the temples reveals Dionysus, and a leopard, though but just visible, is a symbol of the god; but this Dionysus the painter has characterized by love alone. Flowered garments and thyrsi and fawn-skins have been cast aside as out of place for the moment, and the Bacchantes are not clashing their cymbals now, nor are the Satyrs playing the flute, nay, even Pan checks his wild dance that he may not disturb the maiden’s sleep. Having arrayed himself in fine purple and wreathed his head with roses, Dionysus comes to the side of Ariadne, “drunk with love” as the Teian poet55 says of those who are overmastered by love. As for Theseus, he is indeed in love, but with the smoke rising from Athens,56 and he no longer knows Ariadne, and never knew her,57 and I am sure that he has even forgotten the labyrinth and could not tell on what possible errand he sailed to Crete, so singly is his gaze fixed on what lies ahead of his prow. And look at Ariadne, or rather at her sleep; for her bosom is bare to the waist, and her neck is bent back and her delicate throat, and all her right armpit is visible, but the left hand rests on her mantle that a gust of wind may not expose her. How fair a sight, Dionysus, and how sweet her breath! Whether its fragrance is of apples or of grapes, you can tell after you have kissed her!

54. The ancient name of Naxos, where Theseus stopped with Ariadne on his way back from Crete, where with her aid he had killed the Minotaur.
55. Anacreon, Frag. 21, Edmonds, Lyra Graeca II, L.C.L.
56. Cf. Od. 1. 58: “But Odysseus, in his longing to see were it but the smoke leaping up from his own land, yearns to die.” Trans. Murray, L.C.L.
57. Cf. Theocritus, 2. 45 f.: “O be that mate forgotten even as old Theseus once forgot the fair-tressed damsel in Dia.” Trans. Edmonds, L.C.L.