Sunday, April 19, 2020

Death of a Hero: Meleager in Ancient Roman Art

 Meleager's body born away on a Roman sarcophagus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Meleager was a Calydonian prince as the son of Althaea and the vintner, King Oeneus, although in some versions of the myth, the god Ares. Like a number of mythological heroes, Meleager was fated to die young by the Moirai (the Fates) who predicted he would only live until a piece of wood, burning in the family hearth, was consumed by fire. Overhearing them, his mother, Althaea, immediately doused the hearth and hid wood.
When Meleager grew to manhood, his father, King Oeneus, ordered Meleager to gather up heroes from all over Greece to hunt the Calydonian Boar that had been terrorizing the area and rooting up the vinyards needed for the production of his father's wines. The boar was actually sent as a punishment by Artemis after King Oenus neglected to honor Artemis at a festival he held to honor other gods. In addition to the heroes his father named, Meleager also asked Atalanta, a fierce hunter who had been abandoned as an infant and raised by a bear, to participate as well.
Atalanta had taken an oath of virginity to the goddess Artemis but Meleager lusted after her even though he was already married. The other heroes, however, were angry that Meleager had invited a woman to join them. During the course of the hunt, two centaurs, Hyleus and Rhaecus tried to rape Atalanta and they were killed. They were the first to die in the bloodbath that would follow the death of the boar. Atalanta wounded the boar then Meleager dispatched it with his spear. But, Meleager awarded Atalanta the hide since she had drawn the first drop of blood.
Meleager's uncles, the brothers of his mother Althaea, became enraged and attempted to wrest the hide from Atalanta. Meleager jumped to her defense and ended up killing his uncles. When Meleager's mother heard how Meleager had killed her brothers, she snatched up the log she had hidden away all those years ago and cast it upon the fire and Meleager died, as prophesied by the Fates.
In art, the story of the Calydonian boar hunt first appeared on Greek pottery in the 6th century BCE. It remained popular into Roman times and the death of the hero is depicted on several extant marble sarcophagi and sculptures of the second century CE as well an intricately fashioned silver plate of the late 4th century CE found with the much contested Seuso Treasure originally claimed to have been found in Lebanon but in 2008 claimed to be Hungarian by archaeologists pointing to an inscription on the "Hunting Plate", that reads "Pelso", the Roman name for Lake Balaton.
I am always a bit unsettled by the dichotomous nature of Greek heroes. Meleager's story is peppered with the usual mythological aspects of noble lineage and dire prophesy but the tale of one of his main accomplishments, the Calydonian Boar Hunt, is, in the most popular version, really the story of an man overcome with lust for a woman he could not possess and his misdirected passion was so great he slew members of his own family. His defense of Atalanta appears to be very self-serving and not an intervention to protect a "weak" woman. Some versions of the myth even portray him as the actual father of Parthenopeus, Atalanta's son supposedly by Hippomenes, who won the famous footrace and was awarded Atalanta's hand in marriage. (Pathenopeus went on to become one of the famous "Seven Against Thebes.")
Like Achilles, Meleager's death was famous and perhaps that aspect alone warranted his depiction on Roman sarcophagi. Perhaps the deceased was a skilled hunter and that was the attribute being celebrated. But, some background information may shed a slightly different light on the hero's actions, though. Meleager's mother, Althea, was married to Oeneus to help settle a blood feud that had probably gone on for generations. While his uncles came to help with the boar, there still would have been a lot of tension between the Calydonians and Althaea's brothers. In an alternate version of the myth, the quarrel over the prize led to a new war between Curetes and Calydon. This put Meleager in a terrible position, as he had relatives on both sides. Without his leadership, Calydon was on the verge of losing. His wife, Cleopatra, appealed to Meleager to save the city. However, while leading Calydon, he killed his uncles. As a result, his mother cursed him and possibly burned the ill-fated stick of the Fates, condemning him to death by the Erinyes as revenge for his killing of blood relatives. The second version of Meleager's death would at least retain a modicum of its heroic nature. But which version was embraced by Romans decorating their sarcophagi is not known. Of course the distasteful aspects of marital infidelity and lust woven into the popular version of the myth would not necessarily have been viewed adversely by Roman males, whose extramarital philandering was usually tolerated, although their women (including Julius Caesar's) needed to be above suspicion for the preservation of family lineage.

Death of Meleager on a Roman sacophagus photographed at The Louvre, 
The Calydonian Boar hunt on a sarcophagus at The Capitoline Museum, courtesy of Wikimedia contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen
 A sculpture of Meleager and one of his hunting hounds, Roman copy of Greek Skopas original 340-330 BCE at the Antikensammlung in Berlin 

The "Hunting Plate" of the Seuso Treasure courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Elekes Andor.
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