By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB
This article is one in a series analyzing the close link between art and the classical world and the ways in which visual art can be a tool for teaching young people about classical antiquity. This is certainly what happened to me with the painting above, “Leonidas at Thermopylae” by Jacques-Louis David . When I first saw this painting as a teenager, I decided to read Herodotus and learn more about Leonidas and his 300 Spartans. This launched me on a lifelong journey of discovery of the classical world.
About the Artist
Jacques-Louis David was born into a wealthy family in Paris on 30 August 1748. Although his family hoped he would become an architect, he instead pursued a career as a painter. Some of his most famous works have classical subjects, including “Leonidas at Thermopylae”, “The Oath of the Horatii”, and “Cupid and Psyche”. He is much admired among art lovers and classics enthusiasts alike.
David also produced a number of paintings with a political theme, such as “Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass” and “The Death of Marat”. He was a staunch supporter of the French Revolution and was even friends with a number of Revolutionary leaders.
Leonidas at Thermopylae
David started painting this amazing work (now housed at the Louvre) in 1800, but he didn’t finally finish it for another 15 years. The painting represents the heroic resistance of the 300 Spartans, led by Leonidas, against the Xerxes’ Persian army. David has also included certain anecdotes about the Battle of Thermopylae within the painting that only observers familiar with the original classical sources are likely to notice. In the center we see the Spartan king Leonidas. Sitting next to the king is his brother-in-law, Agis, awaiting his commander’s orders. At the top left, a soldier is writing a message on a rock with the pommel of his sword, the well-known epitaph:
ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
I hope more teachers will share great classically-themed art with their students. In my experience it is one of the very best and most effective ways to kindle their curiosity about ancient Greece and Rome.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.