Sunday, August 16, 2020

Marsyas - Example of Hubris or Free Speech?

Although many of us are familiar with the story of Marsyas, a musically gifted satyr who found an aulos (a type of flute) discarded by Athena and challenged Apollo to a musical contest and lost, being flayed for his hubris, the Romans viewed Marsyas quite differently.  Among the Romans, Marsyas was cast as the inventor of augury and a proponent of free speech and "speaking truth to power". The earliest known representation of Marsyas at Rome stood for at least 300 years in the Roman Forum near or in the comitium, the space for political activity. Depicted as a silen carrying a wineskin on his left shoulder and raising his right arm, The statue was regarded as an indicium libertatis, a symbol of liberty, and was associated with demonstrations of the plebs, or common people. It often served as a sort of kiosk upon which invective verse was posted. 

Marsyas was sometimes considered a king and contemporary of Faunus, portrayed by Vergil as a native Italian ruler at the time of Aeneas.  The plebeian gens of the Marcii claimed that they were descended from Marsyas. In 213 BCE, two years after suffering one of the worst military defeats in its history at the Battle of Cannae, Rome was in the grip of a reactionary fear that led to excessive religiosity. The senate, alarmed that its authority was being undermined by "prophets and sacrificers" in the forum, began a program of suppression. Among the literature confiscated was an "authentic" prophecy calling for the institution of games in the Greek manner for Apollo, which the senate and elected officials would control. The prophecy was attributed to Gnaeus Marcius, reputed to be a descendant of Marsyas. The games were duly carried out, but the Romans failed to bring the continuing wars with the Carthaginians to a victorious conclusion until they heeded a second prophecy and imported the worship of the Phrygian Great Mother, whose song Marsyas was said to have composed that would protect them from invaders. 

The Romans considered the power relations between Marsyas and Apollo reflected the continuing Struggle of the Orders between the elite and the common people, expressed in political terms by optimates and populares. 

However, during the Principate, Marsyas became a subversive symbol in opposition to Augustus, whose propaganda systematically associated him with the silens’ torturer Apollo. Augustus's daughter Julia held nocturnal assemblies at the statue, and crowned it to defy her father.

Apollo and Marsyas ceiling fresco in the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Marsyas the satyr who was flayed alive by Apollo for challenging him to a music contest Roman imperial period copy of 2nd century BCE Greek original that I photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

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