Is Man, by Nature, a Violent Being? (A Philosophical Look at Cy Twombly’s 50 Days of Iliam)

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Is man, by nature, a violent being? Is he genetically coded towards violence and aggression? Is his drive towards aggression stronger than his facilities for reason? These ontological* questions have been debated since the first philosophers began discussing the metaphysics** of the world around them. Cy Twombly offers us his opinion in his multi-paneled work 50 Days of Iliam. 

Homer’s Epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are arguably the oldest pieces of written literature in Western culture. Bronze and Iron Age civilizations like the Akkadians, Egyptians, Hittites, and Babylonians to the east of present-day Greece all have older recorded texts, but its Homer’s Epics, at the dawn of Classical Antiquity, that brings us closer to the Western culture and civilization we live in today. 

Homer composed, not wrote, these poems that were transmitted orally for centuries but not written down intact until much later. Timelines are difficult in ancient history, but historians believe the Trojan War, which Twombly uses as his focal point and baseline in this piece, to have occurred in the 11th-12th centuries BCE. Homer, if indeed he existed as a single author, which is often disputed, is believed to have lived sometime between the 8th-12th centuries BCE. The first written account of these epic poems, however, dates back to the 8th century BCE. Despite the vast timeline and disputable authorship, these epics provide a deep pool of information about the gods of Classical Greece and how their stories helped shape the evolution of Western culture.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the ten panels that comprise 50 Days of Iliam. While one’s first impulse may be to look at it literally, as a complete and accurate retelling of the Trojan War, I think that does the work injustice and misses the point Twombly was attempting to make when creating this opus in Rome after the end of the Vietnam War. 

Twombly offers us clues to look deeper, more philosophically and analytically, into what his intentions here are. The most obvious visual clues are the absence of key elements in Homer’s tale: Where is Zeus? Where is Helen? Where is the Gift-Horse? When one thinks of the Trojan War, these are common and recurrent names and images people associate with it, but none are on these canvases. 

Now look at the title: Twombly misspelled Ilium, the Greek word for Troy, as ‘Iliam’. He worked on this piece for years and was far too intellectual a man to have made such a mistake. This misspelling is intentional. Why change out the letter ‘U’ for an ‘A’? The answer is in the artwork. These aren’t A’s: these are atomic warheads. Every character, including the Achaeans, which is the Greek word for themselves, whose name begins with or contains an A is represented with an atomic warhead. Classical Greece did not have nuclear technology, so it becomes apparent that this work is a metaphor, a statement, for war and man’s proclivity for violence beginning with Western culture’s first recorded piece of literature – about a war – to its present day – a post-Vietnam War world.

Heroes of the Achaeans (Panel 2)
Heroes of the Achaeans (Panel 2)

The first panel, Achilles Shield, hangs outside the gallery. Why? Cy Twombly was present and aided in the installation of this work. It is no accident that this one panel sits apart from the others. Look at it: Achilles Shield. A swirling pool of cosmic energy. A ‘Big Bang.’ A catalyst that puts the rest of the work in motion. 

Twombly is using this piece to suggest that perhaps man is, indeed, genetically coded towards violence. That it is in our inherent natures. Beginning with the Trojan War, the first recorded war in Western culture up to the present day, the world has fought. The world has battled. The world has bled.

Shield of Achilles (Panel 1)
Shield of Achilles (Panel 1)
Stephen Hawking's Concept of the Big Bang
Stephen Hawking’s Concept of the Big Bang

When you enter the room, your senses are overloaded with chaos and color. Take it in. Let it wash over you. This is the history of Western culture: it is aggressive, messy, male-driven, and sadly, repetitive. The panels are dominated with the names of men. Phallic images drive the eye forward. Colors seem scribbled, accidental, childlike. Twombly is responding to his overall thesis here with bold and intentional canvases. It is men, not women, who have traditionally driven war. But women have always been present, as the powerful Hera and Athena are here, and indeed even complicit, in its ravages. There have been points in time and cultures throughout history that have regarded it a rite of passage for a boy to pick up a weapon, fight, and earn his manhood. When someone looks at this piece and says, “My child could do this,” they are correct. Children fight. Children are aggressive. Children have been taught to commit egregious acts of violence throughout history. All too often with the pride and admiration of the society in which they were reared.

Achaeans in Battle (Panel 4)
Achaeans in Battle (Panel 4)

When someone looks at this piece and sees the chaos of color, the scribbling, the lack of apparent cohesion, again Twombly is showing us the true nature of war and of man’s proclivity towards violence: it, too, is messy and irrational. There is nothing “beautiful” or sane about it. Reds dominate the angry, aggressive, war-furious Achaeans, the doomed Trojans are in blue. Twombly titled his fifth panel, The Fire That Consumes All Before It. This is based on a quote from the Alexander Pope translation of the Iliad: “They pour along like a fire that sweeps the whole earth before it.” The artist paraphrases these words and uses them as a point of reference for this panel. Wars move forward until one side cedes to the other. 

The Fire That Consumes All Before It (Panel 5)
The Fire That Consumes All Before It (Panel 5)

Wars demand a victor, but there is no Zeus to be found anywhere here guiding the action as he does in the Iliad. Why is it one prays to his god(s) when going to battle, but, in reality, no omniscient presence is going intervene let alone take one side over another. Wars may be fought in the name of a god, but they do not affect their outcomes: Zeus is nowhere to be found here. All we are left with are the victors, the defeated, and the dead.

Shades of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector (Panel 6)
Shades of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector (Panel 6)

So where does reason play into this? Is man so irredeemable that this cycle of war and death can never be broken? On his seventh panel, The House of Priam, he addresses human reason. Cassandra, a relatively minor character in the Iliad has an entire panel devoted to her. Why would Twombly treat her with such attention when far more important characters have been ignored completely? 

In Greek mythology Cassandra, the daughter of Priam, the ruler of Troy, was gifted with foresight by the god Apollo in exchange for sexual favor. After she accepted this gift of foretelling the future, she refused to give herself to the god who, in anger, cursed her gift so that no one would ever believe her prophecies. In the Iliad she foretold that Paris, her brother, would bring about a war that would destroy their city; she foretold that Troy would fall by a clever machination of the Greeks, the Trojan Horse, in which they would hide. Both events came to pass as her words fell on deaf ears which resulted in the deaths of her family and the fall of her city. 

In this panel, Twombly writes and erases, rewrites and again erases, her name numerous times, over and over again, to illustrate how many times throughout history the voice of reason has been heard but ignored concerning war and the nature of man. Rational thought is ignored. A victor is declared. The defeated are left to bury their dead. History is written as time marches on and, perhaps, a statue is erected in commemoration and remembrance of what happened. Nothing changes. Nothing is learned.

House of Priam (Panel 7)
House of Priam (Panel 7)

In 1982, less than five years after Twombly finished and first showed this masterful work, the Vietnam War Memorial was completed in Washington D.C. and was both hailed and criticized as the first “modern” memorial dedicated to a war and its fallen. Its detractors railed against the fact that there was no “statue” in its more traditional sense to represent its fallen soldiers. But others were awed and taken aback at the sight of the black granite panels with their endless lines of the names of the men and women lost to this war stretching down the Capital Mall. Like the Cassandra panel, the voice of reason gave pause to those who would glorify a war as anything other than the violence it was and put its focus instead on the dead: America’s “House of Priam.”

Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. U.S. National Park Service
Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. U.S. National Park Service
Vietnam Veteran's Memorial
Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. U.S. National Park Service

When a war is fought and won is it really over? The Greeks destroyed Troy. The House of Priam was eradicated. There would be no more of that name to carry on. All that is left are the memories of what happened, which get to be told and chronicled by the victors. The defeated are the lost souls, the fading ghosts of men, women, and children, the “shades of eternal night.” And for what purpose did these men, women, and children die? For vengeance? For honor? For Helen? The fact that Twombly does not include Helen in his compositions suggests that wars are generally fought without reason. The fact that Zeus is nowhere to be found on his canvases suggests that wars are waged with no higher purpose in mind. Wars aren’t deemed by god(s); they are the folly of man. Twombly reasserts his suggestion that perhaps man truly is a violent being, aggressive by nature, deaf to reason, and doomed to commit atrocities against one another eternally.

Shades of Eternal Night (Panel 9)
Shades of Eternal Night (Panel 9)

The room is set up somewhat circularly indicating that another war will rise up and take the place of this one. War has never and does not end. Once Troy fell, the Greeks would battle the Persians, engage in the Peloponnesian War, support the campaigns of Alexander the Great, only to see themselves overtaken by the Romans … and all of this happening before the common era. This is the legacy of Western Culture in Twombly’s view. This is our present.

– Richard Di Via


*Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality. Ontology deals with questions about what things exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped according to similarities and differences.  

** Metaphysics is the earliest branch of philosophy. It concerns existence and the nature of things that exist. It is man’s questioning of the world around him and concerns the nature of, and relations among, the things that exist.




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One comment

  1. Loved your analysis, Richard. It really helps me understand the piece better, you might find the two books by Madeline Miller interesting. She has a different take on Achilles and Odysseus ,


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