48: Apollo Sauroktonos the Lizard Slayer

Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host, Lucas Livingston. Back in episode 26 we had a close look at the Aphrodite of Knidos, a particularly famous 4th century BC statue by one of the most renowned sculptors of the late-Classical Greek world, Praxiteles. In this episode, number 48, we’re going look at another famous work by Praxiteles, the Apollo Sauroktonos, a.k.a. the Lizard Slayer.

As with the Aphrodite and so many other documented works of art from antiquity, the original Apollo Sauroktonos by Praxiteles doesn’t actually survive. Or does it!? When the Cleveland Museum of Art announced its acquisition of a life-sized bronze Apollo Sauroktonos in 2004, it stirred up a lot of debate as to whether or not this could actually be the original work by Praxiteles from about 350 BC. [1] Could be. Could be a later copy … replica … homage … whatever your preference. On account of the original’s particular fame, though, what we have for certainty are a few mostly Roman replicas. This includes a marble sculpture in the Vatican and a bronze figurine in the Villa Albani in Rome. Another particularly well-known Roman copy is in the Louvre Museum … um, Paris, France, if you didn’t know. It probably dates to the 2nd century of the Common Era. It’s a life-sized marble measuring about one and a half meters high or about 4′ 11″.

Here we see a nude image of the god Apollo represented as a fit teenage boy leaning against a tree trunk with a lizard scaling up its side. Apollo is standing upright with his weight shifted to his right leg. His left knee is bent with his left foot perched slightly behind the other. His right arm is stretched out before him, while the left arm is held high braced against the tree. His head tilts downward and to his left, his gaze firmly entranced by the lizard. His youthful wild hair is contained (seemingly with some difficulty) by a band around his head, perhaps suggesting the laurel wreath Apollo is accustomed to wear. The dynamic twist of his mass tilts the horizontal axes of his waist and shoulders, forming the classic contraposto. The overall graceful composition of his form further exaggerates the contraposto, creating a sinuous S-curve in the vertical axis. [2]

Thanks to ancient authors, we don’t have to guess as to what’s going on here. In Book 34 of his Natural History published around AD 77-79, Pliny the Elder tells us that “Although Praxiteles was more successful, and therefore more famous for his marble sculptures … he made the youthful Apollo, known as the ‘Sauroctonos,’ because he is lying in ambush with an arrow for a lizard crawling towards him.” [3] An arrow likely made out of bronze is customarily said to have once resided in Apollo’s proper right hand pointing dangerously toward the lizard. In his left hand up above, many scholars like to imagine a slender bronze wire dangling its way down to form a leash cinched around the poor lizard’s neck. [4] Much like bronze sculpture itself, those bronze fixtures from antiquity are pretty scarce, as someone down the line invariably thought it would be a bright idea to scavenge and repurpose the bronze for weaponry or what not.

The humorous albeit a little sadistic subject to this sculpture is conventionally thought to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the mythological battle over the sanctuary of Delphi between Apollo and the giant snake-like dragon Python. [5] Variously described as a gigantic serpent or monstrous dragon, the fabulous beast Python was said to be the guardian of the oracle at the sanctuary of the earth goddess Gaia at the location of what was later to be known as Delphi. Our good friend, the Augustan-age writer, Ovid informs us in his Metamorphoses that Gaia bore the giant serpentine dragon, who kept its lair on the face of Mount Parnassus. When Apollo engaged Python in battle, it took volleys of arrows by the thousands from his glittering bow to bring down the monster, who laid dying with its poisonous blood pouring from black wounds. In memory of this, the famous artistic and athletic contests, the Pythian games, were said to have been founded by Apollo. [6] We have to insert a footnote here. Ovid credits the foundation of the Pythian games with the defeat of Python, but if you remember back to episode 19 on the ancient Olympics, other authors say the games were founded in memory of the nymph Daphne. Ovid reserves the Daphne legend, however, for why Apollo started using a crown of laurel instead of a crown of oak. Now back to the program. With the overthrow of Python, the oracle transferred from Gaia to Apollo and the name of the site changed from Pytho to Delphi, which has something to do with dolphins, but that’s not relevant here.

Some modern scholars are fond of interpreting this mythological transfer of power as a tell-tale signature of the conquest of the invading Hellenic Greek tribes over some pre-Hellenic culture. Ah yes, the ever-popular theory of the “Dorian invasion.” The ancient shamanistic cults devoted to snakes, rocks, and the primordial race of Titans gives way to the civilized rule of the Olympian deities. It makes for a fun interpretation.

And if it sounds like we’re smelling the vapors here, well, that’s another theory. The oracle of Delphi seated upon her tripod throne was called the Pythia, a vestige of Python and Delphi’s former name of Pytho. In popular culture since antiquity, it’s been said that the Pythia delivered her divine oracular messages in the form of ecstatic babbling after getting high on natural gas emissions coming from a sacred crack in the ground. Holy chasmic prophesies, Batman!

The Apollo Sauroktonos is a great example of late-Classical sculpture and aesthetics. Praxiteles has entirely abandoned the blockiness of early kouroi figures, like the archaic Metropolitan kouros we explored in episode 16. He’s even transcended the early-Classical artist’s yearning for the idealized masculine physique to give us here a more calmed-down expression of realistic humanity.

Furthermore, the grandeur of tales and legends conceived in monumental works of the earlier centuries continues to be explored by Praxiteles and his contemporaries, but in less direct ways as metaphors. Divine beings and mythical beasts are reduced to the mortal world of children and backyard animals.

Think back to episode 6 on the Classical lekythos. Remember the vase showing Ajax burying his sword in preparation for his own suicide? There we had a similar allusion to a violent epic narrative through, all things considered, a pretty peaceful-looking scene. Here the epic victory of the god Apollo vanquishing the giant dragon Python has been reduced to a parody of a mischievous child teasing a poor, defenseless, frightened lizard. Whether you’re familiar with the background narrative or not, regardless, it sure makes a great lawn ornament.

Thanks for tuning in. As always, I encourage you to check out ancientartpodcast.org, where, for this episode especially, you’ll find lots of great links and references in the footnotes of the transcript, including more details on the background of the Cleveland Apollo Sauroktonos and a few ancient accounts in translation of the battle between Apollo and Python, like Ovid and the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo. I welcome your questions and comments at info@ancientartpodcast.org or on the website at http://feedback.ancientartpodcast.org. If you dig the podcast, please consider rating it on iTunes, YouTube, or Vimeo. You can also connect with the podcast at http://facebook.com/ancientartpodcast and get in touch on Twitter @lucaslivingston. Thanks again and we’ll see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2012 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org


[1] News Release: Cleveland Museum of Art Acquires Rare Monumental Ancient Bronze Sculpture of Apollo Sauroktonos.To put further fuel on the fire, the history of ownership for the Cleveland’s Sauroktonos is a bit nebulous:

  1. Art Knowledge News: The Louvre Declines Apollo Statue from Cleveland Museum of Art
  2. Stanford Archaeology Center: Cultural Heritage Resource: Cleveland Apollo Sauroktonos

[2] It’s important to point out that both hands and the head of the lizard in the Louvre’s example are modern restorations. Similarly, lots has been restored in the Vatican’s copy, including the left side of the face, the right eye, the right forearm, both legs from the knees down, part of the tree trunk, the upper part of the lizard, and the pedestal. See G. M. A. Richter’s The Sculpture and Sculptuors of the Greeks, 1950, p 262, note 48. Those restorations aren’t just slapped on willy-nilly, however. Restorers carefully examine other copies and textual evidence to try to put together a faithful recreation of the original work. Even minuscule images struck on coins can provide a wealth of information.

[3] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 34.19
Latin: “Praxiteles quoque, qui marmore felicior, ideo et clarior fuit, fecit tamen et ex aere pulcherrima opera. … Fecit et puberem Apollinem subrepenti lacertae comminus sagitta insidiantem, quem Sauroctonon vocant.”
Click here for another English translation

[4] Jody Maxmin, “A Note on Praxiteles’ ‘Sauroktonos,'” Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Apr., 1973), pp. 36-37
Jean Sorabella, “Eros and the Lizard: Children, Animals, and Roman Funerary Sculpture,” Hesperia Supplements, Vol. 41, Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy (2007), pp. 353-370 (see specifically p 364)

[5] The Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo has a decent account of the conflict between Apollo and Python (δράκαιναν, “she-dragon,” “dragoness”). Selections regarding Python from the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo (Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White):

(ll. 300-304) But near by was a sweet flowing spring, and there with his strong bow the lord, the son of Zeus, killed the bloated, great she-dragon, a fierce monster wont to do great mischief to men upon earth, to men themselves and to their thin- shanked sheep; for she was a very bloody plague.

(ll. 354-362) Whosoever met the dragoness, the day of doom would sweep him away, until the lord Apollo, who deals death from afar, shot a strong arrow at her. Then she, rent with bitter pangs, lay drawing great gasps for breath and rolling about that place. An awful noise swelled up unspeakable as she writhed continually this way and that amid the wood: and so she left her life, breathing it forth in blood. Then Phoebus Apollo boasted over her:
(ll. 363-369) ‘Now rot here upon the soil that feeds man! You at least shall live no more to be a fell bane to men who eat the fruit of the all-nourishing earth, and who will bring hither perfect hecatombs. Against cruel death neither Typhoeus shall avail you nor ill-famed Chimera, but here shall the Earth and shining Hyperion make you rot.’
(ll. 370-374) Thus said Phoebus, exulting over her: and darkness covered her eyes. And the holy strength of Helios made her rot away there; wherefore the place is now called Pytho, and men call the lord Apollo by another name, Pythian; because on that spot the power of piercing Helios made the monster rot away.
Greek text
English text

Gaius Julius Hyginus (c. 64 BC – AD 17), Fabulae 140 is also another great but late source for the legend of Python:

“Python, offspring of Terra, was a huge dragon who, before the time of Apollo, used to give oracular responses on Mount Parnassus. Death was fated to come to him from the offspring of Latona. At that time Jove lay with Latona, daughter of Polus. When Juno found this out, she decreed (?) that Latona should give birth at a place where the sun did not shine. When Python knew that Latona was pregnant by Jove, he followed her to kill her. But by order of Jove the wind Aquilo carried Latona away, and bore her to Neptune. He protected her, but in order not to make voice Juno’s decree, he took her to the island Ortygia, and covered the island with waves. When Python did not find her, he returned to Parnassus. But Neptune brought the island of Ortygia up to a higher position; it was later called the island of Delos. There Latona, clinging to an olive tree, bore Apollo and Diana, to whom Vulcan gave arrows as gifts. Four days after they were born, Apollo exacted vengeance for his mother. For he went to Parnassus and slew Python with his arrows. (Because of this deed he is called Pythian.) He put Python’s bones in a cauldron, deposited them in his temple, and instituted funeral games for him which are called Pythian.” http://www.theoi.com/Text/HyginusFabulae3.html

[6] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries, Indiana University Press, 1.430-451:

“When moisture unites with heat, life is conceived; all things come from this union. … So when earth [Gaia], after that flood, still muddy, took the heat, felt the warm fire of sunlight, she conceived, brought forth, after their fashion, all the creatures, some old, some strange and monstrous. One, for instance, she bore unwanted, a gigantic serpent [serpens], Python by name, whom the new people dreaded, a huge bulk on the mountain-side. Apollo, god of the glittering bow, took a long time to bring him down, with arrow after arrow he had never used before except in hunting deer and the skipping goats. Out of the quiver sped arrows by the thousand, till the monster, dying, poured poisonous blood on those black wounds. In memory of this, the sacred games, called Pythian, were established, and Apollo ordained for all young winners in the races, on foot or chariot, for victorious fighters, the crown of oak. That was before the laurel, that was before Apollo wreathed his forehead with garlands from that tree, or any other.”

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