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Aeneid XII.383-440 as Inspiration for Ancient Art: The Roman Surgeon

Aeneid XII.383-440 as Inspiration for Ancient Art: The Roman Surgeon

Posted by Patrick Hunt


This famous Pompeian wall painting quoting the Aeneid is one of the highlights of the Museo Nazionale in Naples. From the Casa de Sirico, first century BCE, it has been noted as a "singular case of literary illustration", (1) no doubt because it appears to closely follow Virgil's text. But while it is not exactly ekphrasis (verbal description of a work of art), it proves the practice flowed in both directions. Another even earlier and more famous example of paintings derived from ancient literature - in this case Homer - are the Hellenistic Odyssey (Books X-XII) series in the Vatican,(2) about which practice at the end of the first century BCE Vitruvius writes that "ancient" artists painted "pictures of Odysseus wandering through countrysides".(3) As a painting style favored by Augustus in Rome where it originates, (4) what painting subject could be more evocative of equal Augustan patronage than the Aeneid? The primary questions briefly addressed here are how closely does this painting follow its literary source and how does it deviate? Also, why might this scene in Aeneid XII.383-440 of a wounded Aeneas about to be healed be chosen as a subject? 
On of the best descriptions and analyses of this Aeneid literary text is by Noonan, who examines it as mythography. (5)

Here are some of the bridges - a few obvious; others subtle - between Virgilian text and painted image. Pictorial allusions include the close sequence of events briefly described below. First, in both media the wounded Aeneas (vulnus XII.389) leaning on his spear (stabat ...fremens ingentem nixus in hastam XII.398). Second, in both media he is attended by the hands of the old physician Iapyx, here balding and with graying beard (Iapyx...manu medica XII.391-402). Third, in both media the hero is resolute in the presence of his weeping son Iulus and his soldiers (maerentis Iuli concursu, lacrimis immobilis XII.399-400). Fourth, in both media Venus herself arrives, bringing with her the healing Cretan herb dittany (Venus...dictamnum...carpit ab Ida...detulit XII.411-417), although in the slightly deteriorated painting it is difficult to see what she holds in her left hand. But it can only be Venus here, not the least of which iconographic clues are her bare-breastedness and her pearl diadem symbolic of her marine birth. (6) On the subtler side, the surgeon Iapyx kneels with his outer garments wrapped around his thighs and not impeding his exploratory surgery, like a good doctor "in Paeonian fashion" following bedside medical precedent (Paeonium in morem XII.401).

Elaborating on the subtler side, Paeon is an old god of medicine, and Iapyx was a son of Iasus and a favorite of Apollo who was his patron and source for his gift of medicine.(7) Iapyx chose "healing arts" rather than Apollo's arrows, ironically possibly alluded here by antithesis since Aeneas was wounded by a random arrow (sagitta XII.319) or ambiguously a spear (see below), almost like Achilles except not shot by anyone known and not a mortal wound, although if Venus does not come soon to her son's aid, the Latins and Turnus may triumph against Aeneas and the Trojans. Virgil, in typical fashion, interconnects his thematic use of arrow wounding from a divine Apollo (smitten by Love's arrows for a mortal Iapyx) to Iapyx himself (out of filial love) rejecting far-shooting archer god Apollo's arrows for healing human (in this case Aeneas) arrow wounds where divine maternal love of Venus for Aeneas provides the ultimate healing. The medicinal blood-congealing herb dictamnum is also named after Mt. Dicte (also Diktys among other variants), the alternate Cretan locus along with Mt. Ida of Jupiter's birth. Cretan dittany (Origanum dictamnus), accurately described by Virgil as having purple flowers, was extolled by doctors from Hippocrates to Dioscorides and beyond for healing wounds and was also called artemidion in Greece in respect to the goddess whose arrows caused the very wounds her plant would also heal if she so chose.(8) Here dittany is also symbolic of Jupiter's hand in the destiny of Aeneas both in overall as well as small incremental details as Virgil alludes here. More on Paeon follows shortly.


Some of the consonance - again a few obvious and others subtler - between Virgilian text and almost contemporary Pompeian image include specific medical tools. One artistic convention used includes a surgeon's tool in the hand of Iapyx, variously argued as a forceps (in forcipe) or scalpel (scalpellum) - known surgical tools that both regularly show up in archaeological examples of Roman surgeon's kits. (9) Since the word "forceps" is even mentioned in the text (forcipe XII.404), this would be the most logical tool for reasons given below. Modern medical mention of the painting quotes Virgil's text in its use of forceps where others interpret this painting shows a scalpellum although the best commentaries almost always interpret a forceps here.(10) Rolfe Humphries translates this section of the work of Iapyx to "cut around it [the iron arrow shaft head embedded in the wound]", to "probe" for the iron (ferrum) spearpoint or arrowhead (spicula XII.403).(11). It is most likely the medical tool is iron based given the white hue of the tool used in the painting. This modern translation may be expanded because the text is ambiguous about the weapon used against Aeneas. A scalpel might assist in probing for the embedded iron projectile but forceps would be better at extracting the weapon head. Thus, the Pompeian painting here is a fairly clear ekphrasis as the painting matches the text best if forceps are depicted. This author has chosen the type of medical tool painted here as forceps because: a) textual consonance; b) in the way the tool is held at the rear end; c) the circular joint in the middle; and d) because in the best close-up versions of the painting image, the two distinct colors - flesh and olive - of Aeneas' leg and Iapyx's shirt sleeve can be seen through the open forceps handle grips.


A few additional textual points are perhaps interesting but not necessarily important for elucidating the painting. Divine conflict and resolution is one of Virgil's underlying plot impellers.(12) The random weapon projectile injuring Aeneas may symbolize Juno's simultaneously hidden but revealed enmity, shielded by the narrator for the sake of indemnifying silence and similar to the oak-clasped weapon later withheld from Aeneas until the very end, but here balanced by Jupiter's equally-invisible presence in the symbolic dittany. On the other hand, in keeping with the tradition of dittany (or artemidion), has Aeneas somehow offended Diana (Artemis) whose arrow it might have been that wounded him or is it "merely" a Jupiter allusion? Also, although Virgil uses a variant of it earlier inAeneid VII.769, Paeonium is an obscure word, possibly here also a trope for Apollo Medicus,(13) but the name Paeon is much older and originally Greek. In the Odyssey (IV.232), Homer calls doctors Paionoi, as the sons of Paion. Paeon was thus an older Olympian god of medicine than even the initially mortal but later divine Asklepios-Aesculapius himself. (14) That Virgil makes Iapyx aged is a subtle allusion to this Homeric tradition. Appropriate here, Edelstein differentiates that when physicians were under divine tutelage, they were sons of Paeon; when healing crafts were merely under "human exertion", they were sons of Asklepios (Aesculapius).(15) This subtlety is borne out by Venus' appearance with dittany and Iapyx's declaration that it was a divine healing (XII.425 & ff).

In conclusion, this well-known Roman painting is directly inspired by the Aeneid and is a fairly faithful quotation thereof, demonstrating the popularity of Virgil not long after his own lifetime, probably within half a century. Its overall fidelity to the poetic text also suggests how much Virgil's literary reputation had accrued within little more than a generation, "at the height of popularity". (16) Perhaps the most difficult question to answer is why this particular Aeneid vignette was chosen for a painting subject, because it is apparently the only surviving example in Roman art. Was it the choice of the artist or a Vedius family member (possibly a doctor with humility)? Does it somehow glorify human medicine as a semidivine art or more the divine hand behind all healing, which Iapyx certainly acknowledges in the Aeneid as a mouthpiece of Virgil himself.


(1) Eleanor Winsor Leach, Classical Studies, Indiana University (Bloomington). "Money, Social Class and Decorative Taste in Flavian Pompeii." Symposium Celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the St. Louis Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America. St Louis: Washington University, April 24-25, 1997, 6.

(2) George M. A. Hanfmann. Roman Art. New York: Norton, 1975, 268.

(3) Vitruvius De Architectura VII : 5,2.

(4) Joan Liversidge. "Wall Painting and Stucco" in Martin Henig, ed. A Handbook of Roman Art. London: Phaidon, 1995 repr, 101.

(5) J. D. Noonan. "The Iapyx Episode of Aeneid 12 and Medical Tales in Myth and Mythography." Phoenix 51.3/4 (1997) 374-92. Classical Association of Canada. From Aeneid12.391-429, Iapyx as war surgeon heals the hero with the plant dittany that Venus provides.

(6) I. Aghion, C. Barbillou and F. Lissarrague. Gods and Heroes of Classical Antiquity. Flammarion Iconographic Guides. Paris: Flammarion, 1996, cf. "Aeneas", 19-21.

(7) Cyril Bailey. Religion in Virgil. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935, 170.

(8) Hellmut Baumann. The Greek Plant World in Myth, Art and Literature. tr. W. T. & E. R. Stearn. Portland: Timber Press, 1993 (Die griechische Pflanzenwelt in Mythos, Kunst und Literatur, München: Hirmer Verlag, 1993), 119-20. Baumann notes the Dioscorides passage is in the Greek Herbal 3.37.

(9) Ralph Jackson. "Roman doctors and their instruments: recent research into ancient practice". Journal of Roman Archaeology 3 (1990) 5-27; also Ralph Jackson. "The Domus 'del Chirurgo' at Rimini". Journal of Roman Archaeology  16 (2003) 312-21, esp. Fig. 1.1-3 & Fig. 3. 4 scalpels, 316-17 but forceps are most likely here.

(10) "(Aeneid XII.383-440), Aeneas is wounded in the thigh by an arrow shaft hurled from the enemy camp. After the wounded Aeneas is helped back to camp, the surgeon Iapyx attempts to remove the arrow with forceps." cf. (

(11) Rolfe Humphries. The Aeneid of Virgil, edited with notes by Brian Wilkie. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1987, 306.

(12) Viktor Poschl. The Art of Vergil. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962, esp. 16 & ff in the dramatic tension between Jupiter and Juno as opposing forces in the Aeneid.

(13) Paeon is a title and epithet of Apollo in Greek, cf. BCH (Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique) I.94; Liddell & Scott, Greek Lexikon 1996 ed, 1286; also the physician of the gods in Iliad V.401, 899, also in Pindar’s Pythian Ode 4.270.

(14) Lesley and Roy Adkins. Dictionary of Roman Religion. New York: Facts on File, 1996, 14. Iapis is also another variant of Iapyx.

(15) E. J. and Ludwig Edelstein. Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies. Volume II: Interpretations. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 edition, 56-57.

(16) Amedeo Maiuri. Roman Painting. New York: Skira, 1953, 109. Maiuri notes Aeneid's popularity even gives rise to art burlesques by comedian-painters, e.g., Aeneas' flight with Anchises and Ascanius in comic bear travesties.

Stanford University


Dr. Patrick Hunt © 2005

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