The Farnese Bull

A closer look at one of the statue groups from the Collezione Farnese, originally perhaps by Apollonius of Tralles.

Josho Brouwers

One of the finest collections of ancient objects in the world can undoubtedly be found in the Archaeological Museum in Naples. One of these is a large marble group that you can find in its collection of ancient statues:

It’s referred to as the “Farnese Bull”, one of many objects that once belonged to the collection started by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who later become Pope Paul III (1543–1549). The collection was originally located in Rome before moving to Naples.

This marble group, one of the largest marble statues recovered from Antiquity, is a Roman copy of a Greek original, perhaps made for the Baths of Caracalla, where it was found. Romans loved Greek sculpture, but there were only a limited number of originals to go around, resulting in a productive industry of copyists. Greek originals were often made in bronze that at some point were often melted down, so the Roman copies, made from marble, are important sources of information regarding ancient Greek sculpture.

The “Farnese Bull” is attributed by Pliny the Elder to Apollonius of Tralles, a Greek sculptor of the second century BC, an important period in the history of Hellenistic sculpture. He worked on it with his brother Tauriscus on the island of Rhodes.

The group represents Zethus and Amphion tying Dirce to the horns of a wild bull. The Bibliotheca by Pseudo-Apollodorus tells us the basic outline of the story, while other writers add further details. Antiope was the daughter of Nycteus, a prince of the Boeotian town of Hyria. Zeus fell in love with Antiope and seduced her in the form of a satyr. When Nycteus found out that she was pregnant, he threatened her.

Antiope fled to Sicyon and found a safe haven with King Epopeus. Ashamed, Nycteus killed himself, but not before convincing his brother and king, Lycus, to avenge him. Lycus had by then also been appointed regent of Thebes. He besieged Sicyon, killed Epopeus, and captured Antiope. On the way back to Thebes, Antiope gave birth to twin sons, which were left exposed. However, shepherds found the children and raised them as Amphion and Zethus.

Antiope lived as a slave in Lycus’ court and suffered in particular at the hand of Lycus’ evil wife, Dirce. When Antiope discovered her sons were still alive, she slipped away and begged them to avenge her. They captured Dirce as she was away from the city and tied her to a bull to be torn apart. They also killed Lycus and seized the throne of Thebes.

As this is a story from Greek mythology, there is no happy ending. It turned out that Dirce was devoted to Dionysus, the god of revels, and the latter was so angry about her death that he punished Antiope by turning her insane. Likewise, Zethus and Amphion would not rule Thebes for long and their line was ultimately cut short.