The Wisdom to Know it’s not Solomon …

One of my pet hates is when people try to give every portrait out there a “name” – and I’m highly skeptical of the identities given to most Juli0-Claudian portraits, for example “Drusus” or “Germanicus” … unless the images bears a clear ancient label, it’s purely speculation who’s represented. Don’t get me wrong, academia is largely based on speculation and discussion, and this is how scholarship moves forward, but that doesn’t mean we’re as certain as we like to make out.

The same can be said when it comes to iconography – some scenes are obvious, but others are not.

In an article in BAR by Theodore Feder (written in 2008), there were  some “new” claims made about this fresco found in the House of the Physician in Pompeii (VIII 5,24; now Naples Museum).


Feder has “re-interpreted” it as representing Socrates and Aristotle watching Solomon adjudicating between two women claiming the same baby – a scene known as the Judgement of Solomon in later art, and one of the prime examples of the Wisdom of Solomon (1 Kings 3:16–28). Socrates and Aristotle were two Classical Greek philosophers, Solomon was an Israelite Bronze Age king, and the fresco is in a Roman town. For me that makes the inclusion of a figure such as Solomon very unlikely, unless the owner of the house was Jewish – and nothing else excavated there would suggest that the owner was, as Feder himself admits.

Feder goes on to claim that “The presence of the two ancient philosophers … reveals the great respect that Greek philosophy could have accorded to Hebrew wisdom in the ancient world” … please note the use of the word “could” because, oh, aliens “could” have built the pyramids and then migrated to Atlantis. And pigs “could” fly if they had wings.


Did I mention that his Aristotle, Socrates and Solomon are all pygmies?  It’s mean to be a humorous scene on a podium decorated with fresco scenes of pygmies. In another panel they battle crocodiles and hippopotami, whilst in a third they process along the banks of a river (images here).

The crocodiles and pygmies, along with a large river, make it clear that the scenes depicted are set in Egypt. These sorts of scenes that poke fun at Egypt began as anti-Cleopatra propaganda in the 30s BC, and continued after she and Antony had been defeated at the Battle of Actium (31 BC).

I wish I could have found a better picture, but you’ll have to take my word for it that in Feder’s panel there does seem to be a man with authority and a baby. It sounds like the Judgement of Solomon, but it’s not. There are two soldiers who look as if they’re about to hack something to death, possibly a baby, possibly a side of lamb:


But there is only one “mother” pleading with “Solomon” not two …


… and I know I may be on slightly tenuous ground here, since the scene has been identified as the Judgement of Solomon since the 19th century, but … the figure looks like a man to me, so is more likely to be a “father” pleading for his child’s life.

It’s impossible to be certain what the scene represented, but since it involved Egypt and a Judgement, a better suggestions is an Egyptian Pharaoh famous for his wisdom – Bocchoris.

Bocchoris, known as Bakenranef, was a pharaoh who reigned very briefly for five or six years around 720 BC. In terms of Egyptian history he is almost irrelevant – an upstart against the Nubians who briefly controlled the western Delta as the sole ruler of the 24th Dynasty – and only recorded once, as far as I am aware, in the Egyptian archaeological record (an inscription recording an Apis Bull, image):


Pharaoh Bocchoris may have been a non-entity in Egypt, but, probably because of contact with traders from Greece, he became famed for his wisdom and known as one of the great law-givers of Egypt. More ancient sources mention him than Solomon and Jesus Christ combined.

What’s interesting is that this contact with the Greeks and Phoenicians is recorded in the archaeological record. The first Greek colony was set up by Euboeans at Pithecusae (Ischia), and in the cemetery there has yielded a high number of Egyptian items from the 8th century BC. Grave 325, an inhumation of a 3 year old girl and a 10 year old boy, included a scarab of Bocchoris (image):


We can deduce from ancient literary sources that this colony was founded by the Euboeans around 775 BC, and the dateable Egyptian finds help to confirm this chronology, as well as the chronology of early Greek vase painting – for example the two Early ProtoCorinthian aryballoi found in the grave.

Slightly more problematic are two situlae bearing the name of Bocchoris found at Tarquinia and Motya. The first was found in the late 19th century in a tomb, which became known as the Tomb of Bocchoris at Tarquinia and was used as one of the fixed points around which to build a chronology of Etruscan tomb painting:


The faience vessel found at Motya, a Punic colony, is almost identical. These vessels were originally thought to be of Egyptian manufacture, but an increasing number of scholars see them as having been made in Phoenicia, and opinion remains divided.

Fresco scenes in the Black Triclinium of the Roman villa under the Farnesina in Rome, and now in the Terme, have been convincingly argued to have represented Bocchoris (see Ling), so he seems the most likely candidate for the Pompeian scene – but it could equally well be a scene from a lost play set in Egypt.


  1. Thank you for a very educational post.

  2. "But there is only one “mother” pleading with “Solomon” not two …"
    Although I agree with your general conclusion that this fresco does not show Solomon at all, it must be remarked that only one mother pleaded with Solomon for the life of the child. They both claimed the child but after the king threathened to kill it, only one pleaded with him, the other one standing back satisfied because 'the other would not get it either'. In the the frecso, she could be holding the 'baby/leg of lamb'.


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