22 July 2010

Another Welcome

Welcome to H. Niyazi from Three Pipe Problem, the three pipes being art, history, and mysteries.

21 July 2010

The Death of Socrates in Art

In my last post I talked about hemlock, but I’d forgotten that Gary Corby of A Dead Man Fell From the Sky also covered hemlock quite recently. We’ll continue by looking at some artistic depictions of Socrates’s death.

Charles Alphonse Dufresnoy’s Death of Socrates was painted in 1650. It is now in Florence, some sites say in the Galleria degli Uffizi, others say in the Galleria Palatina. Neither shows the picture on its website. (Picture from Larousse used by permission)

Jean Francois Pierre Peyron painted two pictures of the Death of Socrates in the 1780s. The above version is in Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst, while Peyron’s other picture on this theme is in Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum. (public domain picture from wikicommons)

Working at the same time as Peyron, David painted this picture of the Death of Socrates which is now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. (image from Metropolitan Museum, used by permission)

18 July 2010


The episode of House shown the other night was Knight Fall. The patient, Sir William, was a re-enactor who became ill during a mock-mediaeval joust. One of the possibilities put forward as the cause of his illness was hemlock poisoning. I was surprised by this as his sufferings were completely different to the image of hemlock poisoning I was familiar with from Plato’s description of the death of Socrates. (The pictures are by H. Zell and Fabelfroh and come from wikipedia, used under a GNU Free Documentation Licence)

And when Socrates saw him, he said: “Well, my good man, you know about these things; what must I do?” “Nothing,” he replied, “except drink the poison and walk about till your legs feel heavy; then lie down, and the poison will take effect of itself.”

At the same time he held out the cup to Socrates. He took it, and very gently, Echecrates, without trembling or changing color or expression, but looking up at the man with wide open eyes, as was his custom, said: “What do you say about pouring a libation to some deity from this cup? May I, or not?” “Socrates,” said he, “we prepare only as much as we think is enough.” “I understand,” said Socrates; “but I may and must pray to the gods that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so I offer this prayer, and may it be granted.” With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it.


He walked about and, when he said his legs were heavy, lay down on his back, for such was the advice of the attendant. The man who had administered the poison laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said “No”; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said—and these were his last words—“Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” “That,” said Crito, “shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.” To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man.
(Plato  Phaedo, translated by Harold North Fowler )

(Although Plato doesn’t actually mention hemlock, just calling it φάρμακον (drug, poison, medicine), we do know from elsewhere that hemlock was used to administer the death penalty in Athens.)

House’s patient, on the other hand, suffered from a seizure, bleeding eyes, vomiting, a rash, heart and kidney problems. It was long drawn out and painful (but not, thanks to modern medicine, fatal), not like Plato's description of Socrates’s gentle death at all.

The difference between Plato’s account and more modern accounts of hemlock poisoning have led to charges that Plato falsified his description to give Socrates a more fitting, philosophical death. It turns out, however, that there are two different, related, plants called hemlock: poison hemlock (conium maculatum) and water hemlock (cicuta virosa), plus a non-poisonous tree called hemlock because the crushed leaves smell similar to poison hemlock. The description of Socrates’s death fits poison hemlock, as discussed in Enid Bloch’s article: Hemlock Poisoning and the Death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell the Truth?

Most modern descriptions of hemlock poisoning, on the other hand, are based on water hemlock, a small amount of which House’s patient had eaten, which in the final solution exacerbated problems he’d laid up for himself by abusing steroids. Polite Dissent discusses the medical aspects of this episode of House.

08 July 2010

Belated Welcomes

A belated welcome to new followers:

Amalia T. of Good to Begin Well, Better to End Well, who writes on mythology and history

Mufti G M of Lout de Chevalier, who writes in Indonesian about the oil industry, and has a great soundtrack

William Wolfe

Nachtigalle of Playground Canvas, who writes in German



Just Another Sarah

Georgia Memon

04 July 2010

Persephone: the 18th and 19th centuries

Having looked at Persephone in the 16th and 17th centuries, we now turn to 18th and 19th centuries.

Our first picture, Psyche Obtaining the Elixir of Beauty from Proserpine is by Charles Joseph Natoire and dates from around 1735. It is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In 1866 Swinburne wrote a poem called The Garden of Proserpine, an extract from which, accompanied by animations, appears in the above video.

In 1874 Dante Gabriel Rosetti painted the above picture of Persephone with a pomegranate, now in London's Tate Gallery.

Lord Frederic Leighton chose an unusual moment form the legend to paint in his 1891 "The Return of Persephone", now in Leeds Art Gallery. (all images in this post are in the public domain and come from wikicommons)