Medea: Oh what an evil to men is passionate love!
Creon: That would depend on the luck that goes along with it.Euripides, Medea, 330-331
The House of Jason, officially IX.5.18, admittedly does not look like much to the modern visitor of Pompeii. Its walls are bare and crumbling. Only traces of plaster and pigment remain. Unbeknownst to those who stumble upon it, the house was richly decorated by 79 CE, and upon its excavation it held some prize examples of Roman frescoes. Currently housed in Naples’s Museo Nazionale Archeologico, the frescoes invite further study. This page is concerned specifically with those frescoes from oecus ‘e,’ which depict Phaedra, Medea, and Helen, all complicated, often ‘bad’ women from Greek myth. The frescoes of Phaedra, Medea, and Helen in the House of Jason at Pompeii provide an instance of three dangerous women juxtaposed in one room. As the scenes draw upon the mythic tradition, the inherent ambiguity of their source material allows them to be subject to varying interpretations. Considering these interpretations could shed more light on not only the social consciousness for these women, but also on their placement in a Pompeian home. This page seeks to couple the literary depictions of these women in plays by Euripides and in Ovid’s Heroides with the frescoes in the House of Jason in order to investigate the relationships Romans may have had with the art in their homes.
In order to seek to explain the inclusion and juxtaposition of these three women, their individual stories in the literary canon must first be understood. Phaedra, Medea, and Helen were all commonly-referenced mythical women, meaning that their stories were revised and amended throughout Greek and Roman history. Christopher Wood focused his philological lens on the works of Euripides, Ovid, and Seneca as a means to understand why these particular women were selected and how they were portrayed.1 However, a closer examination of the timelines suggests pitfalls to this approach. These frescoes were in the Third Style, which came into fashion between 30-20 BCE.2 Strocka confines third style artwork at Pompeii from c. 20 BCE to 40/50 CE.3 It should be noted that the latest corroborated date for the third style is 42 CE, from Pompeii’s palaestra, and “[t]here is no evidence to indicate that the Third Style was in use after the 40s of the first century [CE].”4 While more detailed studies of these pieces have refused to offer a possible date, it seems reasonable to place them between 20 BCE and 40 CE. The dating of these pieces becomes an issue when one wishes to discuss the literary developments that influenced their creation and viewing. Euripides’s tragedies Medea, Hippolytus, and Helen are all obvious candidates for influence, as they were first performed in 431, 428, and 412 BCE, respectively. Ovid’s Heroides, which features all three women, is another plausible source, as it was first published in 15 BCE, just after the Third Style rose to prominence and within the possible timeline of creation. However, the dating of Seneca’s Phaedra, Troades, and Medea is much more ambiguous. Disputed dates place his Phaedra during 41-49 CE and his Medea and Troades at 54 CE.5 As a result, it is still incredibly likely that the frescoes predate Seneca’s set of tragedies that feature the three depicted mythical women. Thus, I argue that to base the intention of the painter off of Seneca’s works, as Wood implies, is far too tenuous; rather, Seneca’s Phaedra, Medea, and Troades should be considered for the later viewer’s interpretation. When dealing with a work of art about whose history we know little, it is imperative to distinguish between intention and interpretation, though neither can truly be ascertained, to reconstruct a plausible historical narrative. For the purpose of brevity, this paper will focus on the portrayals of these women in the tragedies of Euripides and Ovid’s Heroides.
Medea in Literature
Medea is easily one of the most notorious characters in classical literature. Throughout Greek and Roman sources, different authors cultivated varying levels of hatred or sympathy for her.6 In Euripides’s Medea, her nurse makes her out to be a sympathetic character and dutiful wife, remarking “She gave/Pleasure to the people of her land in exile,/And she herself helped Jason in every way.”7 Medea is still a complicated character, one who does express rage and knowledge of the implications of her actions. She is intelligent and calculating, and as she curses Jason and her own luck, she declares “Let the whole house crash”.8 Medea is dangerous primarily because she knows how to weaponize gender roles. Because she accentuates her role as loving mother, Creon lets her stay an extra day in Corinth, and in doing so unwittingly allows her time for her revenge. However, Euripides’s play also gives Medea a sympathetic chorus, which greatly impacts how the audience perceives her.9 While Jason seems to blame Medea (and partially Aphrodite) for the mess they are in, and even while he goes on a fairly misogynistic tirade, the chorus still sides with Medea, stressing that she is more in the right. Throughout the play her dual roles of mother and wronged wife come into conflict, culminating with her murdering her children but also mourning for them. In the Heroides, Ovid presents Medea as a slightly sympathetic yet wholly guilty individual. While the reader understands that she was wronged by Jason, that alone does not do enough to excuse her guilt. Medea differs from Helen and Phaedra in that she asserts that her wrongs have been brought about not by the gods, but by a mortal man: Jason. Instead of singling out Aphrodite, as Helen and Phaedra do, Medea places the blame squarely on Jason, with only minimal mentions of fate.10 Overall, Roman sources treated Medea more disparagingly than Greek sources, which seems to be part of a larger trend of male fear for powerful female figures.11
Helen in Literature
Helen was universally known for her role in the Epic Cycle, but her literary representations span far beyond Homer. In fact, Euripides’s Helen presents a kind of alternative narrative in which Helen was never actually at Troy with Paris, but instead was part of a larger trick played by the gods. In his version, Hera retaliates against Paris for losing the contest for the golden apple, and so creates an image of Helen to give him.12 It is this image that the Trojan War is fought over, while Helen herself was whisked away to Egypt by Hermes, where she waits for Menelaus. Euripides presents Helen in the same vein as Penelope: a dutiful wife waiting for her husband’s return:
Men died for me in thousands by Skamander,
and I, the passive sufferer in it all,
became anathema, for it seemed to the world
that I had betrayed my husband and that he
had pushed Greece into a disastrous war.
Then why do I go on living? For this reason:
I have it on the authority of Hermes
that once my husband learns the truth— that never
did I go to Troy, never was I unfaithful—
I shall live with him again in famous Sparta.Euripides, Helen, 58-66
Helen even wards off a suitor, the new king of Egypt, Theoklymenos.13 Despite Helen’s innocence, she is overcome with guilt from the knowledge that people have fought and died because of her. Euripides presents her as wretched, but blameless, a pawn of the gods. Ovid, however, leaves the possibility of Helen’s actions up to the reader. Helen comes off as a modest, devoted wife, even though she admits her attraction to Paris and seems to be open to the idea of a short relationship with him.14 She also shows a keen sense of what war could follow if she were to follow Paris to Troy.15 Although Ovid leaves the events of her abduction up to the future in this poem, it is difficult to see this Helen voluntarily leave with Paris.
Phaedra in Literature
Lastly, Phaedra’s character varies the most between Euripides and the Heroides. In Euripides’s Hippolytus, Phaedra is depicted as struggling with desire caused by Aphrodite, which eases the blame from her.16 Aphrodite is front and center, as she is the character who gives the soliloquy which opens the play. Through putting her in this position, Euripides stresses her role in the story, of which she herself takes responsibility. Similar to the way in which Helen lamented being a prop for the gods, Aphrodite explains that she will use Phaedra for the sole purpose of punishing Hippolytus.17 Since the infatuation she feels for her stepson, Hippolytus, is incestuous and deemed culturally wrong, Phaedra makes sure not to act on it. In fact, Phaedra thinks of her children and family even as she is being consumed by her desire. She decides to kill herself, so that her children will not have to bear her shame, and she will not have to dishonor herself and her family by confronting her husband, Theseus.18 Phaedra fully assumes the role of Aphrodite’s agent, and in planning her suicide she announces: “I shall delight the Goddess who destroys me”.19 Though the note she leaves behind implicating Hippolytus may seem a strange addition, it appears that she believed that she needed to explain her death to Theseus, and accusing Hippolytus of rape would lead to his downfall, which she correctly believes is Aphrodite’s plan. Unlike Euripides’s account, in which Phaedra struggles against her divine-sent emotions, Ovid presents a Phaedra who is more to blame for Hippolytus’s eventual death. Both Phaedra and Hippolytus have their actions dictated for them by gods. For Phaedra, this is Aphrodite, who has afflicted her with passion, and for Hippolytus, this is Artemis, to whom he has pledged himself.20 However, unlike Euripides’s Phaedra, Ovid’s Phaedra is actively pursuing Hippolytus. In this epistolary poem, Phaedra knows that the gods control her emotions. Yet she argues that since her feelings are divinely caused, she should not rebel against them.21 As with Medea and Helen, the literature depicting Phaedra is rife with ambiguity and fluctuations of representation.
Analysis of the Frescoes
Moving forward with this idea of ambiguity in the mythic tradition, we may begin an analysis of the frescoes themselves. The House of Jason itself appears to be a fairly modest home, without an atrium or tablinum as characteristic of wealthier houses.22 For a map of the House of Jason, see Bergmann 1996. The three frescoes of Medea, Helen, and Phaedra are located in a back room accessed through an antechamber. Bergmann notes that such a placement would have marked the room as “inner and intimate.”23 The room, identified as an oecus, seems to be a cubiculum, with possibilities for “solitary repose, intimate meetings, eating, and sleeping”.24 However, such domestic terms often carry less weight than desired,25 and the functional purposes of the room are not truly known. While the majority of Bergmann’s analysis lies in the way a viewer would perceive the frescoes as they moved through the house, I find this approach to be short-sighted. If this house is to be taken as a domus, not a villa (due to its ostensibly non-elite status), this would have had to have been a functioning, daily household. Its presence in a back room again leaves me disconcerted: this likely could have been a recessed private space, so how often should we consider visitors to view it? Thus, I propose that while interpretations of these frescoes should certainly account for their demonstrative status as elements of cultivating and projecting social status in Pompeii, we must in addition examine its mundane usage, which almost certainly was not one of visitors strolling into this tucked-away room.
Researchers far more equipped than I have paid close attention to the formal elements of the frescoes; I do not feel the need to dispute or elaborate on their claims.26 Instead, I wish to discuss the ways in which these frescoes could have been purposefully used to stimulate discussion and contemplation. Elite Romans in particular engaged in ekphrasis, the interpretation of paintings. Often with little regard for factual accuracy, the focus lay with developing rhetoric.27 While this practice is most closely tied to elite Romans, Swetnam-Burland adds that evidence at Pompeii (dealing with Ovid’s Phaedra in the Heroides, in fact!) suggests that these activities were not solely reserved for the upper class.28 Moreover, that evidence suggests that Ovid’s Heroides was known by at least some of the population at Pompeii.29 Still, Clarke argues that every Roman viewer would have been limited in their knowledge of mythological scenes, regardless of their education level. Therefore, to interpret art solely through the lens of literature is inherently flawed.30 Keeping this in mind, examining the frescoes while referring to Euripides’s plays and Ovid’s Heroides can perhaps provide insight into how Pompeians would have engaged with these scenes on their walls.
The frescoes do not actively defame the women or paint them as straightforward victims. Nor do they seem to adhere to one retelling: that may be too limiting. Instead, Helen’s fresco clearly does not come from Euripides’s Helen, since it depicts a time before Helen has even left Sparta, making it clear that as much as his tragedies seem to have impacted the tone conveyed by these frescoes, they do not have singular command over the depictions. However, anyone familiar with the plays or poems about these women can recognize the scenes displayed, and viewers with a sharp memory could even assign pieces of dialogue to the scene, as was done on another fresco of Phaedra.31 The frescoes allow the recalling of monologues from the tragedies.32 The fact that these scenes could be understood solely from their theatrical contexts could in part contribute to their accessibility; anyone, regardless of literacy, could have been familiar with the references. Here we must also remember that Pompeii was something of a cultural center, the home to two theaters; its citizens may have been more familiar with plays than the average Roman. For instance, the viewer of the Medea fresco could step into the role of the chorus:
O think of the blow at your children
And think of the blood that you shed.
O, over and over I beg you,
By your knees I beg you do not
Be the murderess of your babes!Euripides, Medea, 851-855
Or would the viewer remark on the theme of tragic love (which gives the House of Jason its other modern name, the House of the Tragic Loves), and recall the rumination in Euripides’s Medea, used at the beginning of this post? As Bergmann notes, the frescoes deny the viewer any catharsis, instead prolonging the promise of the action that will destroy a household.33 The more a viewer looks, the more they may see. Could it be the eidolon of Helen that is portrayed in the fresco, instead of the ‘real’ Helen? Is the visual rhyme between Medea, Phaedra, and Paris, who are all seated, that they are indeed the ones to blame for their actions? While these possibilities are simply conjecture, they may be just the kind of debate that Romans engaged in while looking at these frescoes, either as a member of the household who saw them everyday or as an occasional visitor. The frescoes provide ample food for thought, allowing for ongoing debate. However long they remained on the walls, whether 49 or 109 years, their owners never seem to have tired of them.
Lastly, the connections to the theater that this fresco group exerts cannot be left unexamined. As Bergmann notes, women would have had increased distance between the events taking place on the theater floor. However, frescoes made the events immediate to the viewer in the home,34 which may have functioned to give women an intimate view of the mythical scenes which they were denied in the public theaters. This connection with the theatrical may also be seen in the simple architectural background, which could arguably be seen to mimic that of the traditional Greek theater. In addition, Pomeroy maintains that Euripides wrote about these powerful, controversial women in an attempt not to further the traditional narrative with its misogynistic leanings, but rather as a means to examine the past judgements of these characters.35 I would argue that the frescoes in the House of Jason are similar elements of discussion.
Further study would be necessary to round out our understanding of these frescoes. What kinds of people interacted in this house, as documented by the archaeological record? Comparative studies of frescoes from the region that also depict Phaedra, Medea, and Helen—as there are already a good amount documented—could provide insights into assessing the conformity of narratives. Surely the juxtaposition of these three dangerous, ‘bad’ women will inspire further exploration, just as the frescoes could have two millennia ago on the walls of Pompeii.
- Wood, 2017, 50-68
- Bergmann 1996, 200.
- Strocka, 2007, 311
- Strocka, 2007, 314-315
- Marshall, 2014
- Wood, 2017, 51-52
- Euripides, Medea, 11-13
- Euripides, Medea, 114
- Wood, 2017, 53
- Ovid, Medea to Jason, 1990, 107
- Wood, 2017, 55
- Euripides, Helen, 34-39
- Euripides, Helen, 70-75
- Ovid, Helen to Paris, 1990, 166
- Ovid, Helen to Paris, 1990, 175
- Wood, 2017, 63
- Euripides, Hippolytus, 21-50
- Euripides, Hippolytus, 717-722
- Euripides, Hippolytus, 726
- Ovid, Phaedra to Hippolytus, 1990, 29
- Ovid, Phaedra to Hippolytus, 1990, 30
- Bergmann, 1996, 200
- Bergmann, 1996, 202
- Bergmann, 1996, 207
- see Leach, 1997
- see especially Bergmann, 1996
- Clarke, 2003, 10-12
- Swetnam-Burland, 2015, 219
- Swetnam-Burland, 2015, 230
- Clarke, 2003, 12
- Swetnam-Burland, 2015
- Bergmann, 1996, 212
- Bergmann, 1996, 212
- Bergmann, 1996, 212
- Pomeroy, 1975, 108
Fresco of Phaedra: Naples National Archaeological Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Fresco of Medea: Naples National Archaeological Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Fresco of Helen: Jastrow, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Bergmann, B. (1996). The pregnant moment: Tragic wives in the Roman interior. In N. B. Kampen (Ed.), Sexuality in ancient art: Near East, Egypt, Greece, and Italy (pp. 199–218). Cambridge University Press. https://www.academia.edu/17510573/The_Pregnant_Moment_Tragic_Wives_in_the_Roman_Interior.
Clarke, J. R. (2003). Introduction. In Art in the lives of ordinary Romans: Visual representation and non-elite viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315 (pp.1-13). University of California Press.
Euripides. (1955). Hippolytus (D. Grene, Trans.). In D. Grene & R. Lattimore (Eds.), The Complete Greek Tragedies: Euripides I (pp. 165–230). Washington Square Press.
Euripides. (1955). Medea (R. Warner, Trans.). In D. Grene & R. Lattimore (Eds.), The Complete Greek Tragedies: Euripides I (pp. 59-117). Washington Square Press.
Euripides. (1981). Helen (Greek Tragedy in New Translations) (H. Golder, Ed.; C. Leach & J. Michie, Trans.). Oxford University Press USA – OSO. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com.
Leach, E. W. (1997). Oecus on Ibycus: Investigating the vocabulary of the Roman house’. In R. Jones and S. Bon (Eds.), Space and sequence in ancient Pompeii (pp. 50-71). Oxbow Books, Oxford.
Marshall, C.W. (2014). The works of Seneca the Younger and their dates. In G. Damschen and A. Heil (Eds.), Brill’s companion to Seneca: Philosopher and dramatist (pp. 33-44). Brill.
Ovid. (1990). IV: Phaedra to Hippolytus. In H. Isbell (Trans.), Heroides (Reprinted 2004 ed., pp. 28–38). Penguin.
Ovid. (1990). XII: Medea to Jason. In H. Isbell (Trans.), Heroides (Reprinted 2004 ed., pp. 103–115). Penguin.
Ovid. (1990). XVII: Helen to Paris. In H. Isbell (Trans.), Heroides (Reprinted 2004 ed., pp.166–178). Penguin.
Pomeroy, S. B. (1975). Images of women in the literature of classical Athens. In Goddesses, whores, wives, and slaves: Women in classical antiquity (Third Printing ed., pp. 93–119). Schocken Books.
Strocka, V. M. (2007). Domestic decoration: Painting and the “four styles.” In J. J. Dobbins & P. W. Foss (Eds.), The world of Pompeii (pp. 302–322). Routledge.
Swetnam-Burland, M. (2015). Encountering Ovid’s Phaedra in House V.2.10–11, Pompeii. American Journal of Archaeology, 119(2), 217-232. doi:10.3764/aja.119.2.0217
Wood, C. (2017). Dionysus Unbound: Reimagining Space in the House of Jason at Pompeii (pp.50-68). [Master’s thesis, The University of Texas at Austin]. Texas ScholarWorks, https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/47443.