The Ludovisi Gaul (also called “The Galatian Suicide”), situated in the center of a grand, largely empty salon in the Palazzo Altemps, is confrontational and dynamic. While the plunging sword and the fallen woman confront you first, the Gaul’s flung-back head compels you to circle the statue’s entirety. Regardless of context, witnessing a suicide in action is difficult precisely because of its inherent tension between action and passivity; it is the active decision to move into a state of utter inaction. The artist has rendered this tension explicitly by portraying both states: The limp form of the deceased woman embodies the passivity that comes with death and the strong movement of the soldier impresses the forcefulness of life. The Gaul’s fierce expression suggests that this man is no coward. How can we make sense of this clearly tragic scene?
To do so, it is important to separate modern attitudes toward suicide with those of antiquity, when suicide was very common in battle and politics. The humiliation of enslavement, murder, or execution was considered a far worse fate.
With this in mind, you might think that this sculpture was made by one of the defeated party; a commemoration of bravery in the face of inevitable defeat. But we know this was not the case. This sculpture is a Roman marble copy of a 3rd-century BCE bronze sculpture by an Epigonus of Pergamon. Pliny the Elder tells us in Naturalis Historia that Epigonus created this, along with the famous Dying Gaul sculpture, to commemorate the defeat of the Galatians by Attalus I in 223 BCE.1 This copy was found in the grounds of the Ludovisi villa in the early 17th century, and has been greatly admired as a work rendering perfect, Hellenistic proportions of the body. Interestingly, the figure is given these ideal anatomical features despite the fact that he is a barbarian. His mustache, clumped hair, and thrown-back cape are all that mark him as foreign. In the moment presented, this idealized barbarian is taking his life (and perhaps the life of the woman) before it can be taken or enslaved by his opponent. His suicide forms a preventative measure against an unbearable loss of dignity.
So, this statue was not a matter of the defeated Gauls portraying their fallen comrade with dignity and beauty. It was the victors that decided to portray their conquered enemies this way – with ideal proportions, great physical power, and commendable strength of will. These passages from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico may help us to understand the perspective of the victor with regards to his opponent.
Primo concursu ab dextro cornu, ubi septima legio constiterat, hostes pelluntur atque in fugam coniciuntur; ab sinistro, quem locum duodecima legio tenebat, cum primi ordines hostium transfixi telis concidessent, tamen acerrime reliqui resistebant, nec dabat suspicionem fugae quisquam.”2
Before analyzing these excerpts, we should note Caesar’s purpose in writing the Commentarii in the way that he did. Having conquered Gaul, a major addition to Rome’s expanding territory, Caesar had the opportunity to further glorify his legacy by publishing a seemingly straightforward account of what had happened. And so, Caesar wrote the Commentarii using simple language and referring to himself in the third person. These linguistic decisions proved to be highly tactical: the widely distributed text was made easily accessible to the ordinary Roman plebeian. By extolling Caesar’s military success in a seemingly humble manner, the Commentarii were essentially propaganda, used to enhance Caesar’s political power in the republic.
Understanding the Commentarii this way, we can return to the passages quoted above. In the former, Caesar describes the Gauls in the midst of battle as some of their ranks fall due to Roman arrows (“cum primi ordines hostium transfixi telis concidessent”). Others, however, continue to fight courageously: “tamen acerrime reliqui resistebant, nec dabat suspicionem fugae quisquam.” Similarly, the second passage emphasizes the Gauls’ bravery, but this time Caesar does so while grouping them with the Romans. “In conspectu omnium” the battle was fought, compelling each side to aim for “virtutem.” Virtus being an essentially Roman ideal, that Caesar speaks of the Gauls in connection with it is of great significance. Caesar wanted his audience to think highly of the Gauls. The greater the opponent, the more glorious the victory.