This painting, by the Italian artist Stefano Pozzi (c. 1699-1768), was inspired by a tale from ancient history. In the forefront of the scene, the four main figures of the painting can be linked to historical figures. On the right, cloaked in red and wearing a crown, is King Seleucus I Nicator (r. 305-281 BCE). Standing beside him, the crowned woman wearing blue and white, is Queen Stratonice—she was a member of the Antigonid Dynasty and married Seleucus in 298 BCE. By that time, Seleucus had been previously married, and he already had children. This brings us to the man the bed. He is Antiochus, a son of King Seleucus and also the stepson of Sratonice. In the scene featured above, Antiochus suffers from a sickness that left him bedridden. For this reason, a physician named Erasistratus was summoned, and he is represented in the painting by the figure located on the left side of the canvas, seen leaning down to check Antiochus’ pulse.
Fortunately for Antiochus, the physician quickly discovered the cause of the prince’s illness. As the story goes, it was a classic case of lovesickness, and the woman for whom Antiochus was pining after would cause a scandal in the Seleucid court. In the scene above, Erasistratus is seen in the act of proving his hypothesis, and his discovery would lead to both a divorce and a marriage. The ancient Greek-Roman biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120), narrated the tale of what allegedly occurred in that room:
“[Erasistratus] perceived quite easily that he was in love, and wishing to discover who was the object of his passion (a matter not so easy to decide), he would spend day after day in the young man’s chamber, and if any of the beauties of the court came in, male or female, he would study the countenance of Antiochus, and watch those parts and movements of his person which nature has made to sympathize most with the inclinations of the soul. Accordingly, when any one else came in, Antiochus showed no change; but whenever Stratonicé came to see him, as she often did, either alone, or with Seleucus, lo, those tell-tale signs of which Sappho sings were all there in him, — stammering speech, fiery flushes, darkened vision, sudden sweats, irregular palpitations of the heart, and finally, as his soul was taken by storm, helplessness, stupor, and pallor” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Demetrius, chapter 38).
Such is the scene that is occurring in the painting above. After this awkward incident, King Seleucus divorced himself from Stratonice in 294 BCE, and let her become the wife of Antiochus. Whether or not this is how their relationship truly began, the historical figures of Antiochus and Stratonice indeed married and had at least five children together. Antiochus (known in full as Antiochus I Soter), would go on to succeed his father as king of the Seleucid Empire, ruling from 281 to 261 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Plutarch’s Life of Alexander in The Age of Alexander: Ten Greek Lives by Plutarch, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff. London: Penguin Classics, 1973, 2011.