Abstract: A Hero’s Choice: The Historical Context for the Cocks and Hens Relief from Xanthos
The Cocks and Hens relief on display at the British Museum has long defied interpretation. Set up on the acropolis of Xanthos in Lykia (SW Turkey) ca. 470 BCE, the limestone frieze presents five to six pairs of roosters engaged in cockfighting while hens look on. It is associated with other friezes of contemporary date and similar style discovered on the Xanthian acropolis that graced three or four monumental tombs erected during the reign of King Kuprlli of Xanthos (ca. 480-440 BCE). These reliefs depict scenes that are standard in Lykian funerary art: men in procession, feasting, sphinxes, etc. However, the cockfighting scene, while clearly part of the same corpus, is unique in the Lykian funerary genre. In their publication of the Cocks and Hens relief (RA 1976) Pierre Coupel and Henri Metzger explain the presence of cocks and hens as a reference to funerary rites, since it is known that at least in the Roman period, roosters were sacrificed at Lykian tombs. This paper presents an alternate explanation, arguing that the birds are an allusion to the nobility inherent in the fighting cock as metaphor for the strength and courage of the Xanthian people. Specifically, the paper argues that the image of the fighting cock, known to fight to the death rather than be defeated by its opponent, is an evocation of events of ca. 546 BC, when the Persians invaded Xanthos prompting the entire populace to kill themselves rather than be taken prisoner.
Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic (for lay reader):
P. Coupel and H. Metzger, “La frise des “Cocks et Poules de l’acropole de Xanthos: essai de restitution et d’interprétation,” Revue archéologique (1976) 247-264
A.G. Keen, Dynastic Lycia: A Political History of the Lycians and their Relations with Foreign Powers c. 545-362 B.C. (Brill, Leiden, 1998)