Death of Sarpedon


Primary Category: Visual Arts / Sculpture

Genre: Red-figure vase

Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra
  • Date of entry: Jul-12-2000
  • Last revised: Apr-20-2014


This early Greek painting depicts an episode from Homer's Iliad where Sarpedon, a hero of the Trojan War, is killed by the spear of Patroklos, an enemy warrior. Zeus watches as his son "dies raging" (Iliad, transl. Richmond Lattimore, book 16, line 491). Two winged figures who represent Sleep and Death gently lift the still-bleeding Sarpedon off the battlefield. Standing stoically behind Sleep and Death, are Laodamas and Hippolochos, two Trojan warriors who were killed in battle prior to Sarpedon.

Euphronios, one of the first to work in the red-figure method, uses his simple but skillful technique to draw the hero's body at the moment it succumbs to death. Especially vivid are the three open wounds on Sarpedon's body from which blood spills to the ground. Sarpedon's eyes are closed, his limp hands drag along the ground. Zeus, powerless to prevent his son's suffering and death, sends the god Hermes to attend to his son's burial. Hermes, in turn, summons the caretakers Sleep and Death to transport Sarpedon to his grave.


Euphronios's depiction of Sarpedon's death is an early portrait of the barbarity of war and the needless death that is its legacy. Euphronios's painting of Sarpedon's naked body, using very fine brushstrokes, delivers a visceral portrayal of a violent and sudden death. The carefully drawn figures poetically convey the finality of death and the sadness that is left behind.

This image can also be interpreted as a representation of euthanasia and its presence in early Greek society. According to Homer's Iliad, Zeus directs Hermes to call both Sleep and Death to the scene of battle where Sarpedon, having been wounded, "clawed with his hands at the bloody dust" (Iliad, transl. Richmond Lattimore, Book 16, line 486). Interestingly, Zeus asks for Sleep's assistance at the same time as he calls upon Thanatos, the god of Death. Contrast with Kollwitz's personification, Death Giving Comfort, and with Blake's The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve (both annotated in this database).


This vase painting was done 515-510 BC. It was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1972 but in 2006 the museum reached an agreement with the Italian government, which believes the vase had been looted from Italian soil. The vase was returned to Rome in January, 2008 and now resides in the National Etruscan Museum of the Villa Giulia in Rome.

Primary Source

Nigel Spivey. Greek Art (London: Phaidon Press Limited)1997