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Students of Western art history generally appreciate the art of Greece and Rome as the pinnacle of achievement in the ancient world. The art of earlier civilizations was heavily stylized or idealized. The Romans tended to strip that idealization away, creating works that mirrored the subjects they represented. No one would describe the overweight portraits of the Flavian emperors or the frightening grimace of Caracalla as flattering.
Last Thursday, the National Gallery of Art put on display The Dying Gaul, a first century CE marble sculpture of a soldier, stabbed through the chest, seated on his shield, too weak to stand, broken bow and sword by his side. Unearthed at Rome’s Villa Ludovisi between 1621 and 1623, like many Roman marbles, it is a copy of a lost Greek bronze made centuries before. Both cultures shared a common enemy in the Gauls.
Mark Twain briefly mentioned the work (as The Dying Gladiator) in his book The Innocents Abroad, comparing the pleasure of seeing this work to the pleasure of seeing the Laocöon. It’s an odd comparison. Though both deal, in some part, with death, The Dying Gaul deals with the very real depiction of the death of a soldier in war, whereas the Laocöon illustrates the mythical death by sea serpents of a priest and his sons for warning the Trojans against accepting a Greek horse. Laocöon is high drama, three people, and tangle of limbs and snakes—-it cries out. The Dying Gaul is alone, quiet, contemplative, gasping, yielding. In mood and action, the two could not be further apart.
What little we know about the Gauls is from the Roman account of history. And though the Romans viewed the Gauls as barbarians—-as did the Greeks before the Romans—-at least they honored them enough to memorialize them, transcribing the Greek bronze into Roman marble. While it’s assumed The Dying Gaul symbolizes the power of civility over barbarism, centuries later we can look at it with some sense of warning. The barbarians eventually sacked Rome. That’s the power of this sculpture. As we look, filled with the pathos of watching this figure struggle with death, we can’t help but hope that he summons the strength to stand, even if it means our demise.
The Dying Gaul is on view at the National Gallery of Art through March 16, 2014.