This painting, by the Italian artist Pompeo Batoni (c. 1708-1787), was inspired by a tale from ancient history, and many of the characters in the scene can be identified through the written works of old historians. Lying sick in bed is young Antiochus (eventually Antiochus I Soter, ruler of the Seleucid Empire from 281 to 261 BCE). As the young prince is ill, a physician by the name of Erasistratus can be seen watching over the young man and checking his pulse. Across the bedside, the blue-cloaked man with the crown on his head is a representation of Seleucus I Nicator (r. 305-281 BCE), the worried father of Antiochus. Also in attendance is Queen Stratonice, depicted as the crowned woman dressed in red and white. She was newly married to Seleucus and had no relation at that time to Antiochus. Yet, that would all soon change, for the physician on the scene ultimately made a startling diagnosis and prescription for Antiochus’ condition.
As the story goes, the physician quickly discovered the cause of the prince’s illness once the onlooking crowd gathered in the room. In the opinion of the healer, Antiochus’ illness was a classic case of lovesickness, and the woman for whom the prince was pining after would cause a scandal in the Seleucid court. Pompeo Batoni depicts the physician, Erasistratus, 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.
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.