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Sleeping Eros

Roman art, copy after hellenistic original

This work is one of numerous Roman copies, datable to the second century CE, after Hellenistic originals. It portrays a small sleeping Eros, his head resting on his left hand, while the right holds a small club. The chest and right arm of the plump little figure are slightly turned to the left.

The club, an attribute of Heracles, suggests that the sculpture is a funerary allegory for a child, a type also known from other works. Representations of the young Eros/Heracles, a hero who became a god after death, were in fact frequent in funerary sculpture for children, evoking the happy life in the hereafter.

Object details

II secolo d.C.
white marble
53 x 25 cm

Borghese Collection, cited for the first time by Nibby in 1832 (p. 87). Inventario fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 48, no. 100. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 19th century: Reassembled from fragments, with plaster fill.


On Love Asleep

Thou sleepest, thou who bringest sleepless care on mortals;

thou sleepest, O child of the baneful daughter of the foam,

not armed with thy fiery torch

(Statyllius Flaccus, Planudea, ep. 211)

This sculpture portrays a young boy, with childlike features and a plump body, sleeping on a rock in a pose of total abandon. The chest and right arm turn slightly to the left, while the left arm, resting on one of the boy’s wings, is folded under his head. His right hand gently holds a club lying beneath his left leg. His face has chubby cheeks, lightly sketched out eyes and slightly parted lips. The figure’s hair, parted on the side, is divided into locks, and thick curls frame his face, coming down over his right ear. The work is one of numerous Roman copies, datable to the second century CE, of a Hellenistic archetype representing the sleeping Eros. In 1961, Margarete Bieber argued that the Greek original was a bronze statue now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Bieber 1961, p. 145, figs. 616–618). Magdalene Söldner makes the same argument in an important article on the iconographic model published in 1986, painstakingly analysing the numerous surviving copies and dividing them into types based on style and structure (Söldner 1986).

Maxime Collignon notes that the motif of sleeping Eros with the attributes of Heracles was common for the decoration of children’s tombs, in which the defunct child is identified with the figure of Eros/Heracles, thereby becoming a funerary allegory: on the one hand, eternal sleep; on the other, a hope for a happy life after death, like the hero, who was made a god by Zeus when he died (Collignon 1911, pp. 342–345).

Among the numerous known copies, the Borghese seems closest, especially in term of the gentle turn of the torso, to the sleeping Eros at the Capitoline Museum in Palazzo dei Conservatori (Lawrence 1927, pp. 23, 114, pl. 41b; Giglioli 1953-1955, pp. 924–925, fig. 683) and the one at the Uffizi, portrayed with poppies and a bee (inv. 1914 no. 392). Depictions of sleeping Eros linked to Heracles can be found, with slight differences, in the Museo Archeologico, Turin (Collignon 1911, p. 344, note 2), the British Museum, London (Collignon 1911, p. 344, fig. 218) and the Museo Arqueológico, Madrid (García y Bellido 1949, p. 112, no. 111, pl. 87). In the first, the young Eros is wrapped in a lion skin, while in the latter two the figure is lying next to a club and has a lizard at his feet.

Giulia Ciccarello

  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, p. 87.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 917, n. 22.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p.42.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, n. I, p. 14 n. 23 (Ercole fanciullo in riposo)
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), n. I, p. 17 n. 26 (Ercole fanciullo in riposo)
  • G. Giusti, The Borghese Gallery and the Villa Umberto I in Rome, Roma 1904, p. 42.
  • V. E. Bianchi, Guida per le Gallerie e i Musei di Roma, 1910, p. 57.
  • M. Collignon, Les statues funéraires dans l’art grec, Paris 1911, pp. 342-345.
  • A. W. Lawrence, Later greek sculpture and its influence on east and west, New York 1927.
  • A. García y Bellido, Esculturas romanas de España y Portugal, Madrid 1949.
  • G. Q. Giglioli, Arte Greca, Milano 1953-1955, pp. 924-925, fig. 683.
  • M. Bieber, The sculpture of the Hellenistic Age, New York 1961, p. 145, figg. 616-618.
  • P. Moreno, Museo e Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p. 22.
  • M. Söldner, Untersuchungen zu liegenden Eroten in der hellenistischen und römischen Kunst, in Europäische Hochschulschriften, Reihe 38, Archäologie, Band 10, New York 1986.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008682, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020