The Death of Milon of Croton: An Ancient Warning Transmitted through Postclassical Art

Liane Houghtalin

University of Mary Washington

According to Pausanias (6.14.8; also see Strabo 6.1.12), Milon of Croton, six times an Olympic victor in wrestling, met his death when, as a test of his strength, he placed his hands into a split tree.  The wedges holding the split wood open fell out, and Milon was held fast by the tree until a pack of wolves attacked and killed him.  This ancient tale of the death of Milon, however unlikely, offered an important, cautionary message:  beware of the arrogance of trusting entirely to the strength of the body, for wise decisions of the mind are at least as important (cp. Diodorus Siculus 9.14.1).

Representations of the horrific death of Milon of Croton abound from the Renaissance onward.  One of the most influential of these works was a marble statue (1671-1682) by Pierre Puget, now in the Louvre.  Later artists often turned to Puget's statue for study and inspiration, and their work based on Puget is widely accessible in the United States.  Not only is a bronze reduction (late 17th/early 18th century) of the piece on display in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, but a sketch (ca. 1890) of Puget's statue by Paul C├ęzanne is also currently (until September 2006) part of the traveling exhibition, The Essence of Line:  French Drawings from Ingres to Degas.

Puget's statue shows Milon, with one hand trapped in the tree, struggling to free himself while a lion attacks him. This paper explores Puget's statue as a vehicle of transmission for the cautionary tale from antiquity, including the statue's references to the biographical tradition for Milon of Croton; reasons for its deviations from Pausanias; and the sculptor's methods for underscoring the ancient warning about arrogant pride.


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