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Epicurean Art in the Ancient World

This post is to announce a new page devoted to collecting images of art from the ancient world which appear to have Epicurean themes. Please email suggestions for inclusion in this list.  (Note: A number of comments are posted below, and I will expand this list over time.  Rather than make those changes here, however, they will be made on the main Epicurean Art Page.  Please see that page, rather than this blog entry, for the latest version of this material.  In regard to the Pompeiian mosaic, see this page for a much-expanded discussion.

MEDITATE MORTEM:  Meditate on death.**The mosaic to the left is identified by the National Archaelogical Museum of Naples as being found in Pompeii in the “House cum workshop, I, 5, 2, triclinium,” and is estimated as dating from between 30 BC to 14 AD. The museum inscription reads in part: “This emblem was displayed in a triclinium and is one of the most striking for the clarity of its allegorical representation. … The composition is surmounted by a level with a plumb line, the instrument used by masons to get their constructions straight and level. Below are … death (the skull) below which are a butterfly (the soul) and a wheel (fortune). On each side, suspended from the arms of the level and kept in perfect balance … are the symbols of wealth and power on the left (the sceptre and purple) and poverty on the right (the beggar’s scrip and stick). The theme, like the skeletons on the silverware in the treasure of Boscoreale, was intended to remind diners of the fleeting nature of earthly fortunes.”

Among the following passages that this image might have evoked in the minds of those familiar with Lucretius are the following:

  • DRN Book IV line 495 (following Bailey): Again, just as in a building, if the first ruler is awry, and if the square is wrong and out of straight lines, if the level sags a whit in any place, it must be that the whole structure will be made faulty and crooked, all awry, bulging, leaning forwards or backwards, and out of harmony, so that some parts seem already to long to fall, or do fall, all betrayed by the first wrong measurements; even so then your reasoning of things must be awry and false if it springs from false senses.
  • DRN Book II (following Bailey): And so we see that for the body’s nature but a few things are needed, only those such as can take away pain. … Nor do fiery fevers more quickly quit the body, if you toss on … blushing purple, than if you must lie on the poor man’s blanket.
  • Are there specific references in the surviving Epicurean texts to wheels or butterflies?  In regard to the phrase “wheel of nature” and its use in the ancient world, see:  James 3:6 American Standard Version:  ”And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell.” (From Bible History Online:  The phrase “wheel of nature” (trochos tes geneseos) is used here for “the world in progress.” It is not a very natural figure and has given rise to much discussion. The King James Version accents trochos (“course”) instead of trochos (” wheel”). but the language throughout is metaphorical and “course” is not a sufficiently metaphorical word. The translation “birth” for geneseos (so the Revised Version margin). i.e. “a wheel set in motion by birth.” is out of the question. as the argument turns on results wider than any individual’s existence. “Wheel of nature” is certainly right. But a comparison of life to a wheel in some sense or other (chiefly that of “Fortune’s wheel”) is common enough in Greek and Latin writers, and, indeed the exact combination trochos geneseos is found in at least one (Orphic) writer (full references in the commentaries of Mayor and W. Bauer). It would seem, then, that James had heard the phrase, and he used it as a striking figure, with entire indifference to any technical significance it might have. This supposition is preferable to that of an awkward translation from the Aramaic.)

** from Seneca’s Letter XXVI to Lucilius: Think on death. … The meaning is clear – that it is a wonderful thing to learn thoroughly how to die. You may deem it superfluous to learn a text that can be used only once; but that is just the reason why we ought to think on a thing. When we can never prove whether we really know a thing, we must always be learning it. “Think on death.” In saying this, he bids us think on freedom. He who has learned to die has unlearned slavery; he is above any external power, or, at any rate, he is beyond it. What terrors have prisons and bonds and bars for him? His way out is clear. There is only one chain which binds us to life, and that is the love of life. The chain may not be cast off, but it may be rubbed away, so that, when necessity shall demand, nothing may retard or hinder us from being ready to do at once that which at some time we are bound to do.”

BOSCOREALE CUP: Among the descriptions on the internet is the following:

The Boscoreale treasure included this cup which reputedly has Epicurean maxims engraved along with the skeletons.  A Latin inscription on the base of one of the cups gives their weight and the name of their owner, Gavia. Greek inscriptions engraved in dots form captions, and are accompanied by Epicurean maxims such as: “Enjoy life while you can, for tomorrow is uncertain.” Clotho, one of the Fates, looks on as Menander, Euripides, Archilochus, Monimus the Cynic, Demetrius of Phalera, Sophocles, and Moschion provide a caustic and ironic illustration of the fragility and vanity of the human condition. But the main message of the cups’ decoration is that life should be enjoyed to the full: Zeno and Epicurus, the founders of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies in the 4th century BC, confront each other before two mating dogs—a detail of some significance, as it represents the triumph of Epicureanism.

  • Does anyone know more detail about the Epicurus vs. Zeno portrayal?  Or about the other “maxims” engraved on the cup?  Does anyone have the exact text?  It is difficult to determine from the photos on the internet which figures represent Epicurus and Zeno (or the dogs, for that matter).  Perhaps these photos are not even the correct cup (as there appear to be two cups).  One comment seems to indicate that Epicurus is the figure with the pig at his feet, but is that correct, and if so what is the association of a pig with this scene?
  1. stressFREEDOMguide

    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Steve

    Hi Cassius,

    Very good site! :) I’ve enjoyed your points of view. I don’t seem to be able to get enough Epicurus.

    I like the ‘MEDITATE MORTEM’ mosaic. It is INDEED an Epicurean lesson.

    Death is the leveler no matter how rich or poor you are. It’s a warning about vanity.
    It’s very prominent because human beings are notoriously vain creatures. It’s something that causes us a great deal of misery.

    What I found interesting was the butterfly on top of the wheel of fortune.

    What’s that doing there?

    I came to the conclusion that the lesson is, the soul can be on top no matter what fortune brings. Happiness-ataraxia is possible under all circumstances to the philosophically enlightened.

    Interesting! :)


  3. Cassius Amicus
    Cassius Amicus07-01-2010

    Thanks for your comment Steve. I find both the mosaic and the cup very interesting. The details like the butterfly and the wheel on the mosaic, and the pig at the feet of Epicurus on the cup, are particularly of interest. I need to look further for a full depiction of the scene on the cup so that I can post it. Some additional questions I have are:

    Mosaic: Like you said, what does the butterfly mean? What about its position between the skull and the wheel? What does the wheel really represent? Is it possible that the fabric is literally the purple and the poor man’s blanket referenced in Book II of DRN? Was the choice of a carpenter’s level, rather than the more common “balance scale” analogy, used as an explicit reference to the “level” referenced in Book IV of DRN? Was that choice made as a further allusion to the importance the Epicureans placed on his Canon of Truth? What about the objects above the blankets on both sides? What are they? Are we missing some part of the white object on the left? If the person who designed the mosaic was intentionally using Epicurean themes, does any part of the mosaic refer to the “atoms,” the “air,” or any other aspect of Epicurean physics? If Norman DeWitt was right and Paul’s reference to the Prince of the Power of Air was a reference to Epicurus, then we might expect that Epicurus would have been commonly associated with “atoms” even in artwork, and there would be artistic representations of his physics positions as well. Of course the Epicureans would not represent atoms in the same way we do today — but as stacks of pebbles maybe? Anyway, in this mosaic I bet there are other significant allusions to Epicurean themes that are literally right before our eyes, we just fail to recognize them. Do the size and location of the skull in the center indicate that the mosaic is limited to the inevitability of death for both the rich and the poor? Or do the wheel and butterfly indicate that the real focus is on the “cycle of life” which is the same for rich and poor? Is the skull portrayed as smiling rather than ghastly?

    Cup: This is much harder to speculate on without access to the full scene. The comment I quoted above references the “triumph of Epicureanism” but I don’t have enough information to take the position that the overall meaning of the cup favors Epicurus over Zeno or the others. Perhaps it just shows each of the philosophers with something representative of their views. Known the full list of inscriptions would be helpful to assess that to see if they are all Epicurean themes. And why would there be a pig at the foot of Epicurus? I would think there must be some symbolic meaning of a pig, positive or negative. Pigs aren’t generally viewed as positive, but on the other hand I gather they are very intelligent, and I wonder if this could be as simple as joke to portray pigs as happy with Epicurus since his views would save them from being used as sacrifices to the gods? And I read that there are mating dogs in the scene, but I don’t see them myself in the photos I have found.

    I will try to expand this page over time with more information on other works of art, and better photos of these, as I can find them. I don’t want to stray too far into artworks that are not explicitly Epicurean, but I bet there are others from Pompeii, Herculaneum, or other parts of the ancient world that should be added here.

  4. Steve

    Hi Cassius,

    So many questions! :) I can give you my thoughts here:

    The butterfly, according to the description provided represents the soul. The wheel is the famous ‘wheel of fortune’. A person is on top only for a while, but is always struggling to maintain that position. As the wheel spins, Fortune can be forcing him up or down or force him to the bottom of life:

    The way I see it, the butterfly is always on top of the wheel in the mosaic. The philosophically enlightened person can always experience the best in life no matter what circumstances Fortune throws at us. The philosopher can position his soul at the top with his skill.

    I think the position of the butterfly underneath the skull is a statement that death eventually conquers all. The skull is the largest object and the center of the mosaic and dominates the work.

    I don’t think the purple of the rich man’s robe, or the ragged cloak of the poor man have anything to do with DRN. These were common themes back in ancient times.
    The mosaic is really a simple, yet profound message placed in an ancient dining room, or triclinium:
    (Check out some of the pictures of tricliniums at the wikipedia site).

    The choice of a carpenter’s level is also a very common theme. Death the great leveler of wealth and class. There is nothing the Epicurean diners would have found in the mosaic that would be esoteric or complicated. It would all have been as plain as day to them.

    The objects above the staffs are the rich man’s scarf, (as part of his ruler’s purple robe), and the poor man’s bag. Probably the scarf is there to balance the bag artistically in the work. The mosaic is all very symmetrical and is actually quite beautiful IMO.

    The rich man wraps himself in these garments, with his scepter, while the poor begger lives on the streets, wrapped in his cloak with his staff; and has everything he owns in that bag.

    The poor man’s kit is actually the stuff that Cynic Philosophers used to be famous for. All they’d own is a cloak, bag, and staff. They were famous for their poverty. :)

    I could be missing something, but I don’t see anything that has to do with atoms. Really the mosaic is a lession on the good life, placed in a dining room. That’s all.

    In answer to your question above, the size and location of the skull in the work point to the inevitability of death for all. And the urgency for getting the most out of life now. Carpe diem! :)

    What interests me about the skull is that it’s a caricature. It’s clearly smiling, has big ears, (?), an animal-like muzzel, and even has eyes in it’s sockets if you look closely enough.

    It’s making fun of death. The Epicurean theme that death is nothing and nothing to be afraid of? I would say so.

    As for the cup. I don’t really get a good picture of it and I’ve looked all over the internet. I do have some ideas though.

    Again the theme is the inevitability of death and the importance of Carpe Diem.
    ‘Enjoy life while you can’, is the inscription with all the corpselike famous men on the cup.

    I’m thinking that the standoff between Epicurus and Zeno actually DOES show the triumph of Epicureanism over Stoicism. Here’s how:

    The pig is the symbol of Epicurus. Not something with a positive connotation now, but I’ve encountered this before. Horace, the famous Roman-Epicurean poet mentions this in one of his letters:

    >>Amid hopes and cares, amid fears and passions, believe that every day that has dawned is your last. Gratefully will arrive to you another hour unhoped for. As for me, when you want a laugh, you will see me in fine state, fat and flourishing, a hog from Epicurus’s herd.<<

    The dog was the symbol of the Cynics. (Cynic literally means 'dog'). The progenitors of the Stoic movement and greatly admired by them. I believe the cup maker used the dog to represent the Stoics.

    Anyway, you can see the humor on the cup. Epicurus is there with his pig, and Zeno is there with his dog getting screwed. :))

    All this is stuff we would have recognized right away if we were in ancient Pompeii, but being from outside of the culture, it takes a little work to interpret.

    Carpe Diem!


  5. Cassius Amicus
    Cassius Amicus07-01-2010

    Thanks for all the commentary, Steve. I’ll probably have to come back and expand this with more comments later, but I already have a few:
    - The butterfly: You note that it represents the soul. Do you have a reference for why that would be so? I am wondering if the representation is not more specific (or maybe I should say more detailed) than that.
    - The wheel: This is one I’m definitely not sure of. Clearly lots of people think of the wheel of fortune as in your Wikipedia cite, but if this is explicitly Epicurean I would think that an Epicurean artist would specifically avoid representation of both Fortune and Fate, since the wise man governs his affairs by reason in a way that generally overcomes both fortune and fate.
    - Death conquering all. Again I think this is very interesting. Maybe my question here would be with the implications of the word “conquering.” Certainly we all meet death, but we don’t consider death as “conquering” life, but part of Nature, right? Clearly a lot of Epicurean thought, and DRN itself, is devoted toward encouraging people to think about death for purposes of making the best use of our lives. But we have to be very careful that it not look like we are giving death more than it is due — the real centerpiece of life is Nature, right?
    - Robes, cloaks, and levels as common themes. Not purely Epicurean by any means, but when all grouped together in this setting it does seem to track the points made in DRN, right?
    - The kit and Cynic philosophers. I would think that sounds right. I need to do more reading on Cynics (to the extent I have time to waste on them :-)
    - The smile on the skull. I definitely see that the same way, but sometimes I wonder if it’s just an inaccurate portrayal. I often think it looks monkeyish, so maybe that’s right along the lines of what you are saying. And that would definitely play into making fun of death.
    - The pig. That ‘s a great reference from Horace. My knowledge of him is extremely poor. I suppose it would have made a good joke to compare Epicureans with hogs, which like to eat (most anything) so that would be great fun without being disrespectful to Epicurus.
    - The dogs – Excellent points on the dogs and Zeno and the Cynics. I will have to really work to get some good photos of the full cup (or cups, as I gather there are two). Sounds like lots of interesting observations could be derived from the details of each philosopher’s portrayal.

    General Comments: I find all this fascinating. I have to agree with the Epicurean point that it’s hard (impossible) to live life properly without constantly being aware of the ultimate parameter – the limited lifespan we all face. I will have to devote some more thought especially to the wheel. I note the Wikipedia article’s main references are to the medieval period, which sounds reasonable. As devoted as the Epicureans seem to have been to Epicurus it seems unlikely that they would include a concept like Fate or Fortune which he explicitly denounced as irrelevant or nonexistent. I’ll have to keep on the lookout in DRN or other works for references that might tie a rotating wheel to the cycle of Nature or something similar, since neither Fate nor Fortune would have been welcome concepts as I understand the Letter to Menoeceus :-)

    Thanks again for your comments.

  6. Steve

    Hi Cassius,

    You know, you learn something new everyday. :) You sent me out to do some research here, and I have results.

    The butterfly in the mosaic DOES represent the soul. Believe it or not, the word for ‘butterfly’ in ancient Greek is ‘psyche’. The same name they used for the soul:

    >>There are many links with butterflies in mythology from all over the world, many of which, in particular Greek mythology, link butterflies to the human soul. The Ancient Greeks also considered butterflies as the souls of those who had passed away.

    In ancient Greek the word for butterfly is “Psyche”, which translated means “soul”. This was also the name for Eros’ human lover and when the two figures are depicted they are often surrounded by butterflies. <>The importance of the school’s principles lies not only in their intrinsic value as an ethical system, but also in the fact that they form the link between Socrates and the Stoics, between the essentially Greek philosophy of the 4th century BC and a system of thought which has exercised a profound and far-reaching influence on medieval and modern ethics. From the time of Socrates in unbroken succession up to the reign of Hadrian, the school was represented by men of strong individuality. The leading earlier Cynics were Antisthenes, Diogenes of Sinope, Crates of Thebes, and Zeno; in the later Roman period, the chief names are Demetrius (the friend of Seneca), Oenomaus and Demonax. All these men adhered steadfastly to the principles laid down by Antisthenes.<<

    I've read that Stoics were popularly called: 'Cynics without cloaks'. :)

    I see what you're saying about the 'Wheel'. Why the heck is it there if Epicurus said that fate is irrevelent? I think it's there, as I've mentioned before, to show the philosophically enlighted person is above fate. As illustrated by the butterfly. Life might throw you ups and downs, but with philosophy you can always be on top. Always feel happy no matter what life brings.


  7. Steve

    I don’t know if there is a limit to the number of characters in the comment section. I seem to have lost part of my post.

    I put in a reference to the ‘Wheel of fortune’ being ancient which didn’t post:

    Also, here is the link discussing the Cynic-Stoic connection which didn’t post:

    I’ll see if it works this time. :)

  8. Cassius Amicus
    Cassius Amicus07-04-2010

    Thanks again for your comments Steve. Seems we share an enthusiasm for this subject and I appreciate having someone to talk to about it. Can you help me find photos of the Bosoreale cups??? My current research targets are those elusive cups, and the mosaic on the ground somewhere in France that has the section on Metrodorus. In fact, I plan to expand the “Epicurean Art” page into a “Significant Epicurean Sites” page so I can plan an agenda for when I someday get to visit Italy. :-)

    Let me focus on the wheel: If we presume that the artist was a consistent Epicurean (and that’s a big “if”, I know) then the wheel would not likely represent Fate for the reasons I cited. I tend to think that our expectation that the wheel represents Fate is an example of how our minds are colored by thinking of things in either “Christian” or “pagan” terms, since the Epicurean view is so unfamiliar today (the problem DeWitt mentions frequently). It seems to me that Book I of DRN and other references clearly talk about the cyclical aspect of Nature, and that would make it rational to portray Nature as a wheel. And since Nature is the fountainhead of everything Epicurean, it would be expected that it would occupy an important place in any Epicurean artwork.

    Check page 391 of the same work on Pompeii, It’s Life and Art, for an example of someone who sees Fate in another part of the mosaic: “On the right and on the left are the spoils that short lived man leaves behind him – here a wanderer’s staff, a wallet, and a beggar’s tattered robe; there a sceptre with a mantle of royal purple. Over all is a level with the plumb line hanging straight symbolic of Fate that sooner or later equalizes the lots of all mankind.”

    I’ll be the first to admit that it’s impossible to know what was going on in the mind of the artist, but I don’t think an Epicurean would consider the wheel, and certainly not the level, to represent Fate, since he wouldn’t believe that Fate exists. But the truth of what was in the artist’s mind is impossible to know, so I’ll always try to be clear in my musings that my efforts are directed at understanding Epicureanism, not supplanting those who have studied a lot more archaeology than I have! :-)

    Let me close this comment with this thought: Just like Lucretius said, many people, especially those influenced by religion and Stoicism, tend to find Epicureanism “bitter”, and they interpret skulls and similar reminders of death in the most ghastly possible light. My working hypothesis is that once one gets past the “bitterness” of realizing that one isn’t going to live forever, then the allusions to death take on a much lighter feel, making it possible to being able to enjoy living around a “smiling skull” for instance. Likewise the skeleton cups might well not have been seen as macabre, but humorous.

    One of the most challenging aspects of attempting to reconstruct Epicurean thought is to view it outside our preconceived notions of what we expect to see. No time here to muse further on the Canon of Truth, but isn’t this a good example of how we have to start with what we know clearly to be true, and then work from there without letting our preconceived notions lead us astray before we have a clear view!

  9. Steve

    Hi Cassius,

    Yeah. It’s great to talk to another Epicurean enthusiast. :) Amazing. Mr. E’s stuff is still being talked about 2.5K years after his death.

    Hokey dokey. I did do some web surfing this morning trying to find the elusive cup.

    Here is a pic of the other side of the cup showing the actors:

    Here is a REAL GOOD picture of Mr. E and Zeno:

    Epicurus is seen in the picture, with his hand on the cake, (yum), and with his pig. The pig seems to want a bite. :) Zeno is seen condeming the scene to the left with his hand out. Darn if I see the copulating dogs mentioned, but I don’t have the cup available here for inspection.

    Reasonable people can disagree. I’m almost certain the wheel does represent the famous ‘Wheel of Fortune’. Epicurus certainly DID believe in Fortune, chance and fate:

    Vatican saying 47

    >>I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well.<>Chance seldom interferes with the wise man; his greatest and highest interests have been, are, and will be, directed by reason throughout his whole life.<>Some men spend their whole life furnishing for themselves the things proper to life without realizing that at our birth each of us was poured a mortal brew to drink.<> My working hypothesis is that once one gets past the “bitterness” of realizing that one isn’t going to live forever, then the allusions to death take on a much lighter feel, making it possible to being able to enjoy living around a “smiling skull” for instance. Likewise the skeleton cups might well not have been seen as macabre, but humorous. <>One of the most challenging aspects of attempting to reconstruct Epicurean thought is to view it outside our preconceived notions of what we expect to see. No time here to muse further on the Canon of Truth, but isn’t this a good example of how we have to start with what we know clearly to be true, and then work from there without letting our preconceived notions lead us astray before we have a clear view<<

    You bet! :) The ancient world happened in a similar, but not the same cultural context we are familar with. It takes a little work to untangle it.


  10. Cassius Amicus
    Cassius Amicus07-05-2010

    Thanks again Steve.

    Those are helpful photos but there seems to be a lot of detail that is very hard to make out from these jpgs. I’ll have to keep looking for clear photos of the full scene — plus I gather there are two cups (?)

    As to “chance,” to be very precise, I would agree that Epicurus acknowledged that chance exists, as evidenced by the section you quoted plus other references. So we can establish clearly that Chance or Fortune does “exist” — it is just not an overwhelming force, and I wonder if Epicurus believed that it existed at all outside the influence of living things. Indeed he made clear that the wise man will work to reduce the effects of chance as much as possible, for which proposition I would again cite the same fragment you quoted, plus the others cited in my post on “Events” vs. “Accidents.”

    As to Fate, however, I don’t see references that support that Epicurus considered “Fate” to exist to any degree at all. “Fate” seems to be a much more definite and nefarious concept, and whether described as “Fate” or “Necessity” Epicurus seems to have clearly denounced it. That is the reason I would not think an Epicurean artist would portray it as a wheel in this mosaic. However you are very correct — reasonable people can differ and it’s impossible now to get inside the mind of the artist, or even to be sure that he was an Epicurean at all.

    Check out my latest post on “Events” vs. “Accidents” and please post your thoughts.

  11. Steve

    Hallo again,
    I have to watch it here. There seems to be a limit to the characters or lines in the blog. And I’m getting cut off. It’s why some of my posts are mangled. :(
    The skeleton cup is one of a whole HORDE of valubles hidden during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvious. Here are some pics of the rest:

    Of course we all are ‘fated’ to die as mortals. And certainly Epicurus recognized that.

    In his letter to Menoeceus, he mentions fate as well:

    >>Such a man is better off than all, because he knows that the greater power of decision lies within oneself. He understands that while some things are indeed caused by fate, other things happen by chance or by choice. He sees that fate is irreproachable and chance unreliable, but choices deserve either praise or blame because what is decided by choice is not subject to any external power. <<