This painting, by the Italian artist Pompeo Batoni (c. 1708-1787), was an early practice attempt (or “study”) that was made while the artist endeavored to re-create the legend of Antiochus and Stratonice from the history of the Seleucid Empire. In regard to Batoni’s painting, the Antiochus featured in this tale is represented on canvas by the shirtless man seen lying in bed, covered by an orange-shaded sheet. As can be surmised by his bedridden state, Antiochus was an ill man during the time of the legend being re-produced in paint, and therefore he had an attending physician—named Erasistratus—who is seen sitting at the left side of the canvas. In the center of the painting, standing over the sick young man, is Antiochus’ regal father, King Seleucus I Nicator (r. 305-281 BCE), cloaked in blue and wearing a crown. Beside the king is Seleucus’ wife, Queen Stratonice, dressed in shades of red, white and gold. With that, the main characters of the legend in question have been introduced, and we can carry on with an account of the story that inspired the painting.
Antiochus’ mysterious illness, and the physician Erasistratus’ investigation into the ailment’s causes and cures, are central elements to the story that is being re-created in the painting above. As the story goes, the physician quickly developed a hypothesis after he began observing the sickly prince’s reaction to guests that came to visit. 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.