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Statue of Marsyas

"Then I go off to sleep, untroubled with the thought that I must rise early on the morrow and pass before Marsyas, who says he cannot stand the face of Novius Junior."

Horace, Satires (I.6.120)

The statue of Marsyas came to symbolize a city's libertas and was associated, as well, with the notion of abundance and fruitfulness (ubertas). As depicted on the plutei, the figure was nude, with his right hand raised to signify the freedom of the state (as fitting a devotee of Bacchus, Liber, the god of liberty) and his left grasping a full wine skin around his neck. Augustus was scandalized that his daughter Julia sold her favors at the Marsyas during her nocturnal revels (Seneca, On Benefits, VI.32) and deplored the fact that she once had placed a wreath of flowers on the statue (Pliny, XXI.9). The statue seems, then, to have been a rendezvous of courtesans, as well as meeting place for lawyers (Martial, Epigrams, II.64). It even may have been considered sacred, as someone who stole its chaplet was put in chains (Pliny, XXI.8).

Marsyas also is the satyr who retrieved the flute discarded by Athena, who threw away her newly invented instrument when she saw how it puffed out her cheeks when playing it (Apollodorus, The Library, I.4.2). Imprudently, he challenged Apollo, himself, to a musical contest, with the Muses to judge the outcome. Apollo played the lyre (cithara), Marsyas the flute (aulos), with the winner to do whatever he wanted to the loser. Predictably, the contest was decided in favor of the god, but only after he either sang to the accompaniment of the lyre or played with it turned upside down (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, III.58.2ff; Hyginus, Fables, CLXV; Ovid, Metamorphoses, VI). For his hubris, Marsyas was hung from a tree and skinned alive. From his blood came the source of the river in Phrygia named after him (Strabo, XIII.8.15, Xenophon, Anabasis, II.1.). The flute was said to have been carried into the river Meander and then into the Asopus, where it (or they, as a double flute also is mentioned) washed ashore and was dedicated to Apollo (Herodotus, VII.26.1; Pausanias, II.7.9).

Associated by Pausanias with Silenus, who actually calls him by that name, the Marsyas of the Forum is better understood to be that figure rather than the flayed satyr of myth.


The statue of Marsyas is in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. The remark by Horace relates to the usurer Novius, whose table was nearby and the sight of whom must have been equally disagreeable to those in his debt. Or perhaps the satyr winces at the man's unsavory occupation.

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