Wall painting of Ulysses and the Sirens

Roman, mid-1st century AD
From Pompeii, Italy

The interior walls of wealthy Roman houses were often covered with painted decoration. This painted panel shows the moment when Ulysses (Greek: Odysseus) and his crew have to steer their ship past the coastline where the sirens lived. The sirens were creatures, half-woman and half-bird, who used their skills in music and singing to draw ships and their crews onto the rocks. The sailors who survived the shipwreck would be devoured. The painting shows one siren playing the twin pipes, another the lyre, and the third presumably singing. When Ulysses passed the sirens' lair he ordered his crew to fill their ears with wax, while he himself, curious to hear their enchanting song, was lashed to the mast. In some versions of the myth the sirens, unable to tempt Ulysses and his crew, threw themselves into the sea and drowned. The ship, a war galley, is shown in considerable detail, though other elements such as the rocks and the rather surreal skeletons are shown in a more abstract fashion.

Fashions in wall-painting changed over time, and examples of at least four major styles of painting, spanning nearly three centuries, have been found. This panel formed part of a wall of a villa at Pompeii, which was painted in the so-called third style, where central panels showing landscapes, still life such as fruit and fish, or mythological scenes, were framed by elongated frames of columns, candelabra and floral motifs.

Evidently cut from the wall some time in the nineteenth century, this panel has lost its original archaeological context. However, given the often appalling state of preservation of others which remained at the site, at the mercy of tourists, vandals and the elements, this may be a blessing in disguise. Some damage, in the form of graffiti along the bottom of the surround, had already been inflicted on this panel by the time it was removed from the wall.

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More information


L. Burn, The British Museum book of Gre (London, The British Museum Press, 1991)

R.P. Hinks, Catalogue of the Greek, Etrusc (London, British Museum, 1933)

S. Walker, Roman art (London, 1991)


Height: 34.000 cm
Width: 33.500 cm

Museum number

GR 1867.5-8.1354 (Paintings 27)


Blacas Collection


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