The Dying Gaul

Let’s see if I can produce ARCHAEO-Crush posts on a monthly basis in 2018.  The ancient work of art I am presenting in January is a spectacular marble sculpture in the collections of the Musei Capitolini.

THE DYING GAUL

Type: artefact (sculpture)
Civilisation: Ancient Rome
Date: 1st or 2nd century C.E.

ARCHAEO-Crush: The statue of the Dying Gaul (or more precisely, the Dying Galatian) is an ancient marble masterpiece at the Musei Capitolini. Discovered in Rome, the statue was found in the gardens of the Villa Ludovisi (possibly during excavations for the foundations between 1621 and 1623), when the villa was built on the site of the landscaped gardens of the Roman historian Sallust, who acquired the land after the death of its previous owner, Julius Caesar.  When discovered, the man in the sculpture was identified as a wounded or dying gladiator because a bleeding wound can clearly be seen on his chest. The position of the body and the beautifully rendered expression on the face indicate that the man has collapsed in agony, clearly dying. However, other attributes do not entirely support its identification as a gladiator: on the base, we can see a sword, shield and trumpet (a horn). Actually, it is because of this trumpet that the German historian Johann Winckelmann suggested that the man be identified as a Greek herald and not a gladiator. A closer look at the sculpture reveals that the dying man has bushy hair, sports a moustache and although naked, wears a torque around his neck. While Greek warriors can be represented in ‘heroic nudity’, the torque is a distinctive piece of jewellery worn not by Greeks but by Celts and Gaulish warriors. Ancient literary sources–such as Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War  and others by historians Diodorus Siculus and Livy–record that Celts went into battle completely naked, wearing nothing but their weapons. Describing a Gaulish army, Polybius states that brave warriors are nude and wear only a torque.  So the dying man depicted is neither a gladiator, nor a Greek herald; he is a Galatian, a Gaul living in Asia Minor following a Celtic migration around 279 B.C. (Galatia is located in Anatolia, today’s Turkey.)
So what does this representation of a dying Gaul mean in terms of Roman statuary of the 1st or 2nd century AD? Well, the statue is a Roman marble copy of an earlier Greek bronze statue. This now lost Greek bronze dated to the 3rd century BC and celebrated the victory of the King of Pergamon over Celtic people in Galatia. It appears that this statue and other bronzes part of a commemorative sculptural group were brought to Rome, possibly by Nero, because they reminded the Romans of their own victories over the Celts and Gauls. However, the statue is more than just the triumph of civilisation over barbarianism (the fundamental idea presented by the sculpture), it also symbolises courage in defeat, self-possession and bravery when looking at death in the eye, and the nobility of a foreign people.

Bucket list status: It’s not until 2014 that I truly learned the importance of this sculpture. The first time I saw it a few years prior, I thought the sculpture represented Vercingetorix (erroneously but at least I was thinking of a Gaul!); however, I hadn’t paid much attention to the sculpture’s interpretation as well as its provenance (read on). It took centuries for the new identification of the sculpture to be fully accepted.

Additional information: The sculpture appears in the inventory of the Ludovisi Palazzo Grande in 1623 and Pope Clement XII later acquires it for the Capitoline collections. In 1797, under the Treaty of Tolentino, the sculpture is confiscated by Napoleon’s troops and exhibited at the Louvre until 1816, when it is reinstituted to Italy. A few years ago, the statue was on display at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. for an exhibition and you can find more information here.  The sculpture is renowned for its realistic rendering, especially of the emotion in the face of the fallen warrior, and it inspired numerous reproductions in various media since its discovery–many of them are called the Dying Gladiator. Its inventory number in the Capitoline collections is MC0747.

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5 thoughts on “The Dying Gaul

  1. Pingback: The Dying Gaul | Ritaroberts's Blog

  2. Pingback: Ludovisi Gaul | An Archaeologist's Diary

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