Dying Gaul Is a World Masterpiece About Death

The Dying Gaul (Il Galata morente), Roman copy after a sculpture situated in the Pergamon Acropolis
The Dying Gaul (Il Galata morente), Roman copy after a sculpture situated in the Pergamon Acropolis. Photo: DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/Getty Images

Dying Gaul is a world masterpiece. A once-in-a-lifetime loan from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, the 2,000-year-old sculpture is part of the Met’s luminescent exhibition of more than 250 incredible objects of Hellenistic art, “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World.” It is a slightly larger than life-sized marble sculpture of a partially naked man on the ground — apparently felled here, supporting himself with one arm, the other resting weakly on an outstretched leg. The hand on the ground is atop a broken sword; his head is bent downward to the point where we can’t really see his face at all. He is bleeding from a large chest wound, dying.

You knew this sculpture before you saw it. The pose is almost as well known in the mind as that of another sculpture from the ancient world — also on hand, no less — of a boy removing a thorn from his foot. But there’s a piercing difference. We engage with the boy with sweetness, this softness, youth, incipient-innocence-on-the-verge experience. Dying Gaul speaks to us in a tenor of tremulous enmeshed cosmic pathos.

Dying Gaul was part of a large sculptural grouping of an epic monument to commemorate decisive Hellenistic victories over the invading Gauls from nearby Galatia, in what is modern-day Turkey. The work was made between 100 and 200 B.C.E. and is a Roman copy of a lost bronze Greek original made about a century before by the great Hellenistic sculptor Epigonos (yes, artists had names then, too). The lost (probably melted down) bronze original was unceremoniously taken from Turkey by the Emperor Nero to Rome where it was used to decorate his gigantic gold, jewel-encrusted Golden House. Copy or not, time and distance collapse when you stand before it — a mysterious abyss opens between us and the sculpture, and recognition rushes in. We are seeing layers of beauty, strength, inwardness, isolation, vulnerability, and the sensuous antecedents of Michelangelo’s beautiful David — all the way to the even-older wisdom of Homer.

Nobody grasped death the way Homer did — the way a human being turns into a corpse, or a thing, as Homer wrote, “dearer to the vultures” than to loved ones, and “dropping to the world of night.” Homer gives us death replacing life both in an instant and millimeter by millimeter, and in his poetry we glean spears piercing armor, rending fabric, entering flesh, penetrating viscera, severing veins, piercing bone, marrow giving way, swords going all the way through bodies into the earth below. Homer does this with no romanticizing distance, redemption, thunderbolts, whooshes of resurrection, or even florid poetry. Nothing, just unalterable descriptive direct detailed death.

Which brings us back to Dying Gaul. Almost all art historians and scholars see in this sculpture the last heroic act of a noble solider gallantly rising to try to fight again, defying fate, staving off death, elevated by this last heroic effort. I don’t see this at all. In fact, I think that this is what I’d call the Roman interpretation of this sculpture. Roman aesthetics revel in melodrama, theatrics, power, exaggerated form, outward emotion, even Mannerism. Bodies are often deformed, poses are flashy, faces sometimes wildly expressive, narratives pronounced. Which makes sense for an empire like the Roman one, with over  two million soldiers, a Roman population estimated at more than a million with half the inhabitants slaves. While its forms might have emulated Greek art the power projected was meant to be Egyptian — all-powerful, unassailable, Imperial. The Romans had beaten back everyone, Egyptians, Asians, North Africa, Iberia, France, England, and even defanged the Greeks even after Alexander the Great took over the known world three centuries before. That’s absolute power.

But while Dying Gaul is a Roman copy, its real meaning is buried deeper and is deeply Greek. Unlike Rome, Greek art was involved with gravitas, grander, philosophical form, restrained sensuousness. Theatrics were for the theater. In Dying Gaul I see a soul submitting to the physical and profound mysteries at hand — someone in the act of becoming a thing, “not there,” recognizing this, lost, enveloped by death. This takes away hope, leaving only the eternal moment. This is not the grand drama of a man rising mightily to inner crescendos against death; it’s pathos, pain, sadness without sunlight, someone cut off from everything. Nothing heroic is happening here, no last burst of vengeance or Roman self-sacrifice, nothing amasses here against death. Instead, in encountering the sculpture, we are wrapped in death. Absence telescopes into something withdrawn, not available to us. Epigonos has his figure look down, obscuring his features from us, making him less a person, more abstract. With no drama, no clues, it exists almost in the same other world as its subject. That’s miraculous, like a thunderbolt.  And is what connects to Greece again.

The first time I think I more fully gathered what dying means — and why the Greeks had it right — was when I first saw Bob Dylan and Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In the movie a remorseless gun-for-hire (James Coburn), a local sheriff, and his deputized wife come looking for Billy the Kid. The scene is nowhere, a little shack. A skirmish erupts, guns are fired. It’s a minor scene. But in the middle of this exchange the sheriff, played by Slim Pickens, starts, falls back a little, looks down, and sees he’s been shot in the stomach. As the action goes on around him he’s already entering another world — Homer’s world. He holds his wound and walks away and drops to his knees near a riverbank. His wife then looks up, sees he’s not here, looks around and is horrified by the sight of her husband on his knees looking into the distance. She runs to him, drops to her knees about 20 feet from him and just weeps, rocking back and forth knowing what this is. He looks over at her. She looks at him in agony. Then he looks away and inward again. Like the Dying Gaul. I was 22 and lost my religion right there. But I gained something else, something bigger and still in me: surrender, supplication, freedom from fabricated ideas, and access to a something more intense, a bigger inwardness and all of our collective, inner Dying Gaul.

Dying Gaul Is a World Masterpiece About Death