Democracy and Popular Media
Classical Receptions in Nineteenth, Twentieth,
and Twenty-First Century Political Cartoons—Statesmen,
Mythological Figures, and Celebrated Artworks
Alexandre G. Mitchell
There is much debate, even outside of the ‘classics world’, on who reads
classics, whether it is only of interest to the elites of this world, or whether it
is useful to non-specialists. There is, however, a huge and uncharted territory
that has been overlooked by most classicists: the world of editorial cartoons.
They are very accessible, challenging, and mass-produced, in numerous lan-
guages and throughout the world. Indeed, what should we make of the many
thousands of editorial cartoons in popular and prominent newspapers, and
propaganda leaﬂets, from the nineteenth century to this day, that make
classical references, which use (and abuse) Greek and Roman visual myths,
events, or statesmen, to mock current affairs? Printed newspapers and online
papers have grown exponentially in recent years, and their readership has
Each part of this chapter, ‘Fiddling Nero’,‘Herakles’Labours’, and ‘the Laocoon’will be
further expanded in three separate research papers, currently in preparation. These papers are
part of a long-term project on the classical reception of political cartoons, with a large and
growing database of thousands of items, most Greek and Roman myths, famous statesmen, and
art, including cartoons from most European countries, the USA and Canada, and a number of
other countries. The author would like to extend his thanks to all the cartoonists who granted
free use of their cartoons and the newspapers who considered the academic use of the illustra-
tions in their requested prices. A number of illustrations were not included in this chapter
because of the exorbitant licensing fees requested by some newspapers, including our very own
increased not only in numbers but also in popularity, encompassing readers
from all social horizons. Newspapers thrive in democracies.
Studying the reception of the classical world in contemporary political
cartoons may seem at ﬁrst sight like opening an imaginary tin of Quality
Street chocolates, and seizing with relish sweet jokes and classical references
of all shapes, sizes, and colours, but in reality it is more like opening
Pandora’s box. In this I am not only referring to the harsh content of
editorial cartoons, but rather more to the intellectual nightmare of a classi-
cist having to bring together such different ﬁelds as the reception of classical
art, myth, and politics, with concepts of democracy, freedom of expression,
struggles with authority, and ‘unclassiﬁable’humour; not to mention the
ﬁeld of popular culture and newspapers,
with its own spectra of class-
related or politically slanted publications, each with its own readership,
and so on. The bibliography in each of these ﬁelds is gigantic, with each
having its own ongoing theoretical and methodological debates—so refer-
ences will have to be kept to a minimum if the essential, that is, what we can
learn from classical reception in contemporary political cartoons, is not to
Classical reception is an emerging ﬁeld but with signiﬁcant methodological
problems. Here, the main reception questions that will be addressed are: ‘how
do cartoonists use classical references?’;‘why the need for a classical reference
when mocking a modern reality?’; and ‘who understands classical references?’
In wondering, in my turn, ‘what is a classic?’,
I am only interested in how it
applies to popular culture, and what ‘classic’, as a notion of authority rather
than just tradition, means or meant to editorial cartoonists and to their no
doubt enormous readership.
To complicate matters, editorial cartoons as a medium (and not a genre)
pose numerous methodological problems in their own right, which I will
brieﬂy develop in this section.
See Goodwin 2001: 147: ‘Surprisingly, the world of cartoons has found less a target than a
niche in higher education. While no university has yet offered a degree in “humor studies,”
cartoons have invaded academic discourse under the rubric of “popular culture”.’See also
Smoodin 1992; Norris 1989; Gordon 1998; Varnedoe and Gopnik 1990.
‘Qu’est-ce qu’un classique?’,Le Constitutionnel, 21 October 1850, Lundis, vol. 3.
On comics as medium and not genre: see Chute 2008: 268: ‘Art Spiegelman’sMaus: A
Survivor’s Tale (1986) deﬁnitively proved to the critical establishment that “comics”is a medium,
not a genre—and one that can be subtle, sophisticated, and complex.’
I will not discuss general works on comics in this chapter, but one should be aware that there
is an ongoing debate on terminology when discussing comics and editorial cartoons. See, for
example, the discussion on ‘graphic narrative’in Chute and DeKoven 2006: 767: ‘a range of types
of narrative work in comics’and in contrast Will Eisner (1996, 2004), the artist and theorist who
uses the term ‘graphic narrative’as ‘a generic description of any narration that employs image to
transmit an idea’. See also Varnum and Gibbons 2002.
320 Alexandre G. Mitchell
The focus of this chapter is on editorial cartoons (or political caricatures) of
the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-ﬁrst centuries,
and not ‘caricatures’
found in earlier centuries. Only what Hamilakis (2000: 57) aptly describes as
‘single-frame cartoons’, published in mass-produced newspapers will be dis-
cussed (that is, comic strips are not examined). To be understood by most
readers, cartoonists rely on a complex multilayered system of stereotypes,
traditional imagery, textual references, and current affairs. One could say
that cartoonists tend to tap into their readership’s visual unconscious collect-
ive, oscillating constantly between tradition and innovation.
Political caricature is known for its veiled and venomous criticism of
authority. Yet, even though it shares a long and bitter history with govern-
mental censorship (especially in times where large proportions of the popula-
tion were illiterate: this meant that they could be inﬂuenced by mass-produced
cartoons), it has often also been used, and sometimes with the cartoonists’full
consent, as a formidable tool of war propaganda.
In contrast to most of these views, LeRoy (1970: 39) writes: ‘A picture is
worth 10 thousand words ...But it’s not worth many words if it isn’t under-
stood ...it’s like no other pictorial form and therefore assumptions about
pictures-in-general cannot be made about this peculiar art form. It cannot be
equated with a photograph. It’s unlike the comic strip which tells a story via
several panels. It is a pictorial puzzle often using words as well as line drawings
and caricatures.’It is true that editorial cartoons are like no other medium, and
that it is not always sufﬁcient just to share the same cultural background for
two readers to understand a cartoon in the same way. Other aspects compli-
cate matters: ‘A man’s ability to perceive details, his ethnic background,
environment, psychological set, knowledge of current events and history,
ability to see allegories, and so on, play a role in interpreting editorial cartoons’
(LeRoy 1970: 40).
They are called by the French le dessin de presse or la charge, after the Italian caricare, used
for the ﬁrst time in the Preface of a book by Annibal Carraci in 1646. The word caricature
appears much later in French, occurring for the ﬁrst time in the Memoirs of the Duc d’Argenson
in 1740. The word ‘cartoon’comes from the French carton for ‘card’and ‘paper’.‘The word
“cartoon”indicated a sketch for a work of art done on paper and then transferred. Yet when the
printing press developed, “cartoon”came to mean any sketch that could be mass-produced’
(Chute and de Koven 2006: 779, n. 2).
G. Doizy 2008: ‘Quel avenir pour le dessin de presse’(<http://www.eiris.eu>): ‘The cartoon-
ist uses codes which must be understood by the reader, and thus he sets his work within a
tradition, borrowing his stereotypes from a common culture. Yet, he is also commenting on a
reality in constant evolution and is nourished by it. Caricature functions just like a sponge’
See Demm 1993: 186: ‘A propaganda war, waged also in the area of political caricature, can
only be won if its message penetrates the unconscious. In this regard, German cartoonists were
certainly as successful as their Allied counterparts, at least as far as the home front was
Democracy and Popular Media 321
Finally, political cartoons are not necessarily humorous. Their main intent
is to ‘charge’, to attack, to be polemical, and often to oppose a political
The status of cartoonists themselves has changed radically since
the early twentieth century. It has progressed gradually but surely from the
status of artist and engraver to that of journalist, with an interest in wrestling
with current affairs, with a brush rather than a pen.
There is very little past scholarship on classical reception in cartoons,
political or otherwise.
Hamilakis (2000) writes on classical reception within
(modern) Greek newspapers and ﬁnds that cartoonists have the same need as
elsewhere to admire ancient Greece. However, because of their special rela-
tionship (as Greeks) with ancient Greece, this need is somewhat ‘supersized’
(my expression). Thus, while some of Hamilakis’ﬁndings may apply else-
where in Europe and cartoonists from other countries may also refer to the
primacy or authority of ancient Greece in their cartoons, they will not
necessarily consider their own modern culture as lower versus ancient Greece’s
supposedly higher culture.
It is unlikely that one would ﬁnd anywhere else in
today’s Europe a cartoon such as the one in Figure 23.1,
showing a juxtapos-
ition of Corinthian columns and dustbins. The image is clever and visually
pleasing. The cartoon refers to a strike of rubbish collectors in Athens in 1996
and is quickly understood by the Greek reader. But it is also a good example of
what seems to be a typically Greek view of low versus high culture.
Doubtless, this would be understood differently in other parts of Europe,
especially since the nineteenth century and the Romantic movement, which
felt miffed by what it considered to be a stilted and snobbish use of classicism
by the elite of the art world.
All Europeans are the heirs of Greece (and
See Tillier 2005: 16.
Delporte 1992: 29: ‘le dessin politique s’impose dans la presse française de l’entre-deux-
guerres. Et le dessinateur n’est plus désormais ni un artiste, ni un bohème montmartrois: le voici
journaliste à part entière, avec carte de presse, syndicat et belle notoriété.’
See Hamilakis 2000; Kunze 1998; De Martino 2008; Salles 2006; Leonard 1975; Kovacs and
See Viala 1992, an excellent essay on the polysemy of the word classic, its numerous
notions, and connotations throughout history and the issue of values.
After Hamilakis 2000: ﬁgure 1.
Already in nineteenth-century France, Honoré Daumier mocked the classical myths in his
famous Album d’Histoire ancienne, published by the Charivari in 1842. Among the dozens of
parodied myths, a great favourite of mine remains Poet Arion saved by a dolphin. According to
Herodotus (1: 23–4), the poet was thrown overboard into the sea and was saved by a dolphin,
which carried him all the way to Cape Tenarus. But Daumier’s Arion is not a new Orpheus
bossing around the animal kingdom: he is just the caricature of a scribbler holding a lyre, with a
huge belly, and sporting tiny round-rimmed glasses on the tip of his nose. The accompanying
text reads: ‘This tenor, saved by a huge music-loving ﬁsh/Owes his life to his lovely voice/Many
an opera singer threatened in a similar way/wouldn’t move the heart of an anchovy’. This extract
based on a burlesque piece composed by Berlioz, is typical of the comic pieces that Daumier
often used as inspiration for his cartoons.
322 Alexandre G. Mitchell
Rome), a multilayered relationship that goes back at least two millennia, and
not just the Greeks. In fact, each European country retains a different rela-
tionship with the ‘classical world’because of its educational, artistic, religious,
ideological, political, and historical divergence. However, for the sake of this
overview of classical reception in editorial cartoons, we will consider Europe’s
experience of antiquity in its newspapers holistically.
The intention here is to highlight those cartoons that use the ancient world
to poke fun at contemporary subjects and not the reverse.
Often editorial cartoons have an uncanny ability to promote political views
through satirical means, and some have much greater impact than the news-
paper articles alone. The impact of a cartoon on a reader, in contrast to a
written article, is visual as well as (possibly) verbal: it leaves a stronger
impression with the use of clever and powerful symbols (as well as metaphors)
to communicate its political message. A few other notions may help to
contextualize political cartoons: the cheapness of the medium (newspaper),
Figure 23.1 Cartoon by Kyr
Source: Kyr, Eleftherotypia, 12 May 1996.
See Goldstein 1998: 107, n.1 for a general bibliography on the history of European cartoons
For a study of visual humour in ancient artefacts, see Mitchell 2009.
Democracy and Popular Media 323
its relative accessibility, its popular readership, and the participation of the
public. From the 1830s onwards, newspapers were produced in increasing
numbers and were read daily by millions of people throughout the world.
In this chapter I discuss a selection of cartoons from North American and
European newspapers, focusing on three main themes: classical Greek and
Roman statesmen, limiting myself to the ﬁgure of ‘ﬁddling’Nero; classical
myths, which I will illustrate by reference tothe labours of Herakles, even though
many other classical myths are shown in editorial cartoons, such as Sisyphus,
Prometheus, Odysseus, Orestes, Europa, and so on; and, ﬁnally, celebrated
classical sculpture, which I will illustrate with the Laocoon group, although
there are many other artworks reproduced in editorial cartoons to choose
from, such as the Venus of Milo, Herakles Farnese,theDiscobolos, and so on.
2. CLASSICAL STATESMEN: FIDDLING NERO
A number of ancient statesmen, such as Julius Caesar or Caligula, have been
used in editorial cartoons to mock contemporary statesmen, but Nero
remains, by far, a much-loved favourite. Speciﬁcally, the image of Nero singing
from a rampart while Rome was burning is an enduring and dominant image.
Cartoonists have used this powerful illustration the world over to criticize and
censure various character ﬂaws of their contemporary statesmen, for their
tyranny, their ‘egotistical madness’, which leads them to burn their own
country for the sake of gaining a little more personal power.
There is a popular expression in English, which is ‘Nero ﬁddled while Rome
burned’. Even though ﬁddles did not exist prior to the eleventh century ad,we
ﬁnd Nero playing the ﬁddle in countless cartoons in English-speaking news-
papers since the 1920s. Also, the signiﬁcant impact of Peter Ustinov’sﬂam-
boyant and unforgettable impersonation of Nero in Quo Vadis (1951) can be
somewhat measured by the recrudescence of cartoons worldwide from that
date onwards showing politicians as mad Nero playing the lyre or ﬁddling
while their city burns.
Many political cartoons show Nero playing music while Rome burns. So,
‘ﬁddling or non-ﬁddling’? Prior to the 1920s I personally have not (yet) found
any examples of Nero playing the ﬁddle. From the 1920s onwards, I have
found numerous cases of Nero playing the ﬁddle in the UK and the USA
media, but in non-English speaking newspapers, and other media, Nero is
I have over 200 ‘Nero’entries in my cartoon database, and the list is growing daily.
See Gyles 1947 on the origins of this problem and the conﬂation between the image of Nero
acting frivolously on the one hand (i.e. ﬁddling: from ﬁndincula>ﬁthele>1589 ﬁddle) and playing
music while Rome burned on the other.
324 Alexandre G. Mitchell
shown singing or playing the lyre, and never playing the ﬁddle. Nero is
identiﬁable either by objects, such as a lyre or a ﬁddle, his attire, such as a
laurel crown, sandals, and/or a toga, or he is simply labelled as Nero.
Our ﬁrst Nero cartoon (Figure 23.2),
shows a joyful Abraham Lincoln,
wearing a toga over his striped trousers, a pair of sandals, and an ivy crown. He
is labelled the ‘Yankee Nero’and is shown playing wooden percussion instru-
ments while the Union (labelled) is burning. He seems indifferent to the plight
of the Union. In this 1864 cartoon, published one year before the end of the
American Civil War (1861–5), he is being mocked not by Confederates but by
his own faction, the Union, through the eyes and pencil of the illustrator Matt
Morgan. The degree of licit mockery is a measure of the degree of freedom
exercised by Lincoln’s contemporaries and even his partisans. The ﬁgure is
Figure 23.2 ‘The Yankee Nero’
Source:Comic News, 27 December 1864: 277.
See also Davis 1971 [after Bunker 1996: 80].
Democracy and Popular Media 325
neither carrying nor playing a ﬁddle or lyre, but rather percussion instru-
ments, resembling ﬂat and long castanets. Could it be that in 1864 Matt
Morgan did not know of the tradition of a ﬁddling Nero?
One of the earliest editorial cartoons dating from 1920, which shows Nero
ﬁddling (with a violin), is entitled ‘A place among the immortals’drawn by
David Low (Figure 23.3). It is poking fun at David Lloyd George, the British
prime minister, just after the Coalition Irish Policy, which turned out to be a
disastrous political move leading to dreadful and dire events in Ireland. He is
shown visiting the waxworks of an ‘Historical Chamber of Horrors’, a tiny old
white haired and moustached man, scratching his chin as he focuses on a
placard that reads ‘This space reserved for the perpetrator of the Coalition
Irish Policy’, placed between ‘Bloodstained Bill’and a grossly overweight wax
image of a ﬁddling Nero. David Lloyd George is visiting the gallery and
looking at his own designated spot.
Figure 23.3 Cartoon by David Low
Source: David Low, The Star, 3 November 1920.
326 Alexandre G. Mitchell
From this time onward, one ﬁnds numerous cartoons in North American
and British newspapers of statesmen characterized as Nero ﬁddling while their
city or country burns.
We have here (Figure 23.4), a magniﬁcent personiﬁcation of the US
Congress as Nero. It is not a speciﬁc person, but an institutional body, ﬁddling
Figure 23.4 ‘Fiddler’
Source: Herblock, Washington Post, 25 July 1967. A 1967 Herblock Cartoon,
The Herb Block Foundation.
Democracy and Popular Media 327
while Rome/USA is burning. One reads within the ﬁre the names of important
American cities: ‘Detroit, Newark, Plainﬁeld, Cincinnati, Boston, Minneapolis,
Buffalo, Nashville’. This is 1967, a time in the US when a minority are leading
the good life, whereas most of the inner-city inhabitants, mostly African
Americans, are suffering under terrible living conditions. Their poverty and
ill-treatment provoked the inner-city residents’anger and led to the infamous
1967 race riots.
Rather than offering an appropriate and conciliatory re-
sponse, such as ‘Urban Aid Programs’or ‘Gun Control Legislation’, which are
written on the hose pipe that could quench the ﬁres, Congress/Nero is
treading all over them with his sandals. What did Congress actually offer in
the end? ‘The anti-agitator bill’(labelled on Nero’sﬁddle), which was a bill
that made it a federal crime to cross state lines in order to incite a riot! This is a
beautifully designed cartoon that shows an inward-looking Nero, with closed
eyes, ﬁddling away, with some exquisite details, such as the top of the ﬁre
hydrant that looks exactly like the actual Congress building in Washington.
There is a large group of editorial cartoons mocking George W. Bush
through the guise of Nero ﬁddling as Rome burns. One of these cartoons
(Figure 23.5) shows him dressed as a military commander (imperator), strad-
dling the USA over the words ‘Global Warming’while ﬁddling to the score
‘Denial, composed by George Bush Senior’, placed on a lectern.
Often a simple, monochrome line drawing can project a more powerful
message than its more colourful and elaborate sibling, such as the one shown
in Figure 23.6. It is a very clever cartoon insofar as it is mocking both Nero and
Bush. A bald ﬁgure, crowned with laurels and holding a violin in his right
hand, is talking to another ﬁgure dressed in military gear. He says ‘Invade
Mesopotamia? I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid!’Mesopotamia stands for
Iraq, crazy for Nero, and stupid, an epithet that has often been used to describe
George W. Bush.
To be effective, an editorial cartoon or political caricature
must be simple and direct. It is a draftsman’s trait, a set of rapid strokes that hit
their target, a politician’s most vulnerable spot, sometimes his pride, but
always Achilles’heel, with the speed of an arrow. It is an art of subversion
See Fine 1989 on the Detroit Riots of 1967.
Among many other images of ﬁddling Bush, there is a particularly interesting one of Bush
in a full toga, and crowned with ivy leaves. He is half immersed in water, while people are
drowning in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the southern states. Interestingly, there is
no ﬁre, but only a slowly drowning Nero, and a stadium partly submerged by the waters. His
laurels, toga, and violin are sufﬁcient reminders of Nero and his lunacy, that we do not need any
actual ‘ﬁre’. In fact, his ‘ﬁddling’, is really nothing more than sitting idly by while people are
drowning. Another cartoon shows a caricature of Bush junior as a Roman emperor giving the
thumb down sign as was traditionally done at the circus games when one gladiator succeeded in
putting another to death. It reads ‘Our Nero, Can America survive Bush?’We can also read the
beginning of the Declaration of Independence, ‘We the Pe[ople]’, probably about to be torn to
shreds. It is an elegant pun on the name Nero and the word Hero.
328 Alexandre G. Mitchell
that leans on its model as much as it viliﬁes it, attacking a public ﬁgure, his or
her image and his or her politics.
There are a number of representations of Gordon Brown, the former British
Prime minister as Nero. An excellent cartoon, by Chris Riddell,
Figure 23.5 Cartoon by Steve Greenberg
Source: Steve Greenberg, County Star, 1 June 2005. Courtesy of the artist.
Figure 23.6 Cartoon by Rex May
Source: Rex May, Rex May Gag Cartoons, 8 March 2007. Permission granted by CSL Cartoonstock.
Cartoon by Chris Riddell, The Guardian (The Observer), 22 March 2009.
Democracy and Popular Media 329
unkind albeit successful example of the genre. The artistic treatment of the
politician is arresting: he is sitting on a couch, surrounded by a small colonnade,
with a morose look of utter dejection on his face, and playing the violin. Dark
black smoke is rising from the city of London (the London landscape is easily
recognizable: for instance the so-called ‘gherkin’can be seen in the background).
One understands better his facial expression after reading some of the music
score titles scattered at his feet: ‘Re-election Blues’,‘Unemployment Ragtime’,
‘G20 Waltz’, and so on. Finally, he was not re-elected, the Labour party lost the
election, unemployment reached terrible proportions, and his participation in
the G20 was ultimately unsuccessful. One can wonder how effective this cartoon
actually is. There are too many disparate elements in the image, and the
cartoonist has gone too far away from the usual image of Nero. Indeed, the
point of using Nero is to show him ﬁddling, that is, happily singing, unaware of
what is actually going on. The depressed Nero/Gordon Brown playing the Re-
election Blues is far too involved.
A particularly accomplished cartoon by a German cartoonist (Figure 23.7)
shows Ahmanidejad, the Iranian leader, as Nero, crowned with ivy, singing
‘Oh Democracy, Oh Elections, Oh Guardians’(‘Oh Demokratie, Oh Wahl,
Figure 23.7 Cartoon by Goetz Wiedenroth
Source: Goetz Wiedenroth, 17 June 2009. Courtesy of the artist.
330 Alexandre G. Mitchell
Oh Wächterrat’) while the whole of Iran is burning, on the horizon. There is
also a scroll that reads ‘Hymn of my election victories: 2013, 2017, 2021’
(‘Hymne auf meine wahlsiege 2013, 2017, und 2021’). His megalomania
stands clear and erect in those few words. The lyre he is holding is actually
the word Allah in its calligraphic form of a tulip, which is the emblem found
on the Iranian Republic ﬂag. He is holding it like a lyre. The cartoonist has
added an extra twist to the cartoon in making a verbal pun in the labelling of
the Iranian leader as Nero: he has entitled the cartoon ‘Nero Tehranicus’,
which is a play on words between the capital of Iran, Teheran, and tyrant or
tyranicus, in Latin.
Our last Neronian cartoon (Figure 23.8)
is also one of the most recent
ones. It shows Bart de Wever, the leader of the N.V.A. (Nieuw-Vlaamse
Alliantie), a far-right, separatist Flemish party in Belgium. The cartoon was
published on 6 June 2010 by Sondron, in Avenir, exactly one week before the
general elections in Belgium, after the coalition government and its prime
minister (Yves Leterme) had fallen earlier on over Flemish-Wallonian issues.
The Flemish leader is caricatured as Nero, singing merrily away, in a toga, and
playing the lyre. Just as for the cartoon of Gordon Brown and London, here in
the background, emblematic elements of Brussels and Belgium are shown
Figure 23.8 Cartoon by Jacques Sondron
Source: Jacques Sondron, L’Avenir, 6 June 2010. Courtesy of the artist.
Democracy and Popular Media 331
burning, such as the famous Atomium, the crown jewel of the 1958 Universal
Exhibition. The cartoon was published just before B. de Wever’s landslide
victory at the general elections, and shows what the Wallonian and French-
speaking Brussels inhabitants fear this politician might do to their country as a
3. CLASSICAL MYTH: THE LABOURS OF HERAKLES
The second theme I will focus on among the many classical myths that
appear in editorial cartoons (Europa, Zeus, Athena, Sisyphus, the Trojan
horse, and so on) is that of the famous labours of Herakles. Yet, before
discussing these, we should look at an interesting cartoon referring to the
snakes sent by Hera to kill baby Herakles in his crib. She wished to punish
her husband, Zeus, the lord of the gods, for sleeping with other women
(Pindar, Nemean Odes 1.38; Diodorus Siculus 4.10; Apollodorus 2.4.8) but
could not do so openly. Yet, baby Herakles, with superhuman strength,
succeeds in strangling both snakes, one in each ﬁst. This image is well
known since antiquity. In Figure 23.9, we have a masterfully drawn cartoon
showing Teddy Roosevelt as baby Herakles. He is grabbing the head of
J. P. Morgan and the neck of Rockefeller. In 1906, Roosevelt was trying to
break the monopolies of the big corporations. He was ﬁghting immensely
powerful companies, but with the help of his attorney general, he managed it.
Just like baby Herakles, he was ﬁghting against all odds. J. P. Morgan’s
Northern Securities company, a huge railroad company, and Rockefeller’s
Standard Oil Company were eventually broken up into thirty smaller
Herakles’twelve labours are the main focus of this section. The traditional
order of Hercules’labours according to Apollodorus (Pseudo-Apollodorus,
Library 2.5.1–2.5.12) was:
1. Slay the Nemean Lion.
2. Slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra.
3. Capture the Golden Hind of Artemis.
4. Capture the Erymanthian Boar.
5. Clean the Augean stables in a single day.
6. Slay the Stymphalian Birds.
7. Capture the Cretan Bull.
8. Steal the Mares of Diomedes.
9. Obtain the Girdle of the Amazon Queen.
332 Alexandre G. Mitchell
10. Capture the Cattle of the Monster Geryon.
11. Steal the Apples of the Hesperides.
12. Capture and bring back Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded
the entrance to the Underworld.
We ﬁnd all twelve labours in numerous representations in the ancient world,
throughout the medieval area, the Renaissance, as well as in modern and
Our next cartoon (Figure 23.10), by Honoré Daumier, the most proliﬁc and
famous French cartoonist of the nineteenth century, is a parody of the Farnese
Hercules sculpture in Naples. The cartoon is part of a series called Actualités
(News of the Day) produced for the Parisian newspaper Charivari. This
aggressive series was published just before the newspaper was muzzled by
censorship laws under Napoleon III.
Figure 23.9 Cartoon by Frank Arthur Nankivell
Source: Frank Arthur Nankivell, Puck magazine, 23 May 1906.
Puck was the American equivalent to the British Punch, which modelled itself on the French
Democracy and Popular Media 333
The Farnese Hercules, exhibited in the National Museum in Naples, is
probably one of the most famous sculptures from antiquity and it crystallized
the image of the panhellenic hero in the European imagination. The French
artist may have known it from small reproductions kept in the Louvre or more
likely from a reproduction of a sixteenth-century engraving by Hendrick
Goltzius (Figure 23.11), which shows the famous statue from the back, just
like Daumier’s cartoon.
In this cartoon, Daumier ridicules Louis Désiré Véron (1798–1867), a
medical doctor turned newspaper owner, politician, and entrepreneur (he
branded and sold a medical remedy invented by the chemist Regnault) who
initiated a vast political campaign against rabid dogs in France. Daumier labels
Véron ‘dog exterminator’(canichorum exterminator).
Visually, the parody
Figure 23.10 ‘Un Nouvel Hercule Farnèse’
Source: Honoré Daumier, Actualités,Le Charivari,16–17 August 1852.
See L. Cotinat, ‘Le docteur Véron, cible de Daumier: Pierre Julien, Le docteur Véron et
Daumier, ou le fabricant de pâte [pectorale] en proie à la caricature’,Revue d’histoire de la
pharmacie, 234 (1977): 231.
334 Alexandre G. Mitchell
functions at multiple levels: Hercules’famous club is transformed into a huge
medical enema syringe to remind the viewer that a doctor is the target of the
cartoon. The naked and muscular body of Hercules is transformed into a
middle-aged unﬁt male body wearing a pair of lined trunks. Hercules’lionskin
is now a dog’s skin. Instead of the hero holding apples from the garden of the
Hesperides in his hand, the doctor holds some poison pellets (labelled: ‘boul-
ettes empoisonnees’). And, as in all heroic statues, there is an inscribed base,
which is also ridiculed by the artist: Ludovicus Veronus/Combattivit demago-
gos/et fuit/Canichorum exterminator. The numerous canine corpses lying at
his feet are actually inspired by Christian hagiography, that is, saints extermin-
ating evil monsters.
Figure 23.11 ‘The Farnese Hercules’
Source: Hendrick Goltzius, engraving, 1591.
Democracy and Popular Media 335
The next cartoon, a much more recent one (Figure 23.12), of Herakles faced
with a list of labours is drawn in a very different artistic style. It shows David
Blunkett, British Home Secretary from 2001 to 2004, as Herakles. A bald and
bearded man, wearing a toga and sandals, is telling Blunkett/Herakles: ‘You
must capture the Cretan bull, slay the Nemean lion, and convince Daily Mail
readers that you’re getting tough on crime’. This is a typical Herculean task:
no politician could ever convince Daily Mail readers that he or she was tough
enough on crime. The targets of the joke are the Daily Mail, a populist
conservative newspaper, David Blunkett, and his alleged ‘Police State’.
The Lernaean hydra labour is used in pamphlets from the eighteenth
century in France. But there are at least two occurrences of this labour in
1861 in America. Our cartoon (Figure 23.13), was published in 1861, during
the American Civil War, by a Unionist cartoonist. It shows ‘the Hercules of the
Union slaying the great dragon of the Secession’(states), that is, the Hydra.
It is a very complex drawing that aggregates many different types of infor-
mation. Herakles is General Winﬁeld Scott, the commander of the Union
Figure 23.12 Cartoon by Clive Goddard
Source: Clive Goddard. Courtesy of the artist.
See Riley 2008: 346, n. 25.
336 Alexandre G. Mitchell
forces, wielding a club, tagged with the words ‘Liberty and Union’, about to
strike the hydra. The beast has seven heads, corresponding to the important
southern leaders. The neck of each one of these is labelled with a vice. From
top to bottom: ‘Hatred and Blasphemy’(confederate secretary of state Robert
Toombs), ‘Lying’(vice president Alexander Stephens), ‘Piracy’(president
Jefferson Davis), ‘Perjury’(army commander P. G. T. Beauregard), ‘Treason’
(United States general David E. Twiggs), ‘Extortion’(South Carolina governor
Francis W. Pickens), and ‘Robbery’(James Buchanan’s secretary of war John
B. Floyd). The image, which is complex and exceedingly well-drawn, was
engraved on wood and published as a pamphlet, as well as a letter stamp.
Figure 23.13 ‘The Hercules of the Union, slaying the great dragon of secession’
Source: Currier and Ives, 1861. American Political Prints, 1766–1876, New York.
Democracy and Popular Media 337
Interestingly, the hydra was also used in the 1870s in France by a number of
cartoonists, to mock various government ofﬁcials, such as Mr Thiers ﬁghting
off the hydra of socialism.
The hydra is a blessing for cartoonists, and is still
used by many because it enables artists to represent a number of enemies or
problems as thinking heads and identiﬁable leaders. The other wonderful
aspect of the myth, which some cartoonists take advantage of, is that when
one of the heads was severed another sprouted in its place.
For a recent take on this aspect of the myth by cartoonists see Figure 23.14,
showing Bin Laden as the hydra. In this drawing, the editorial cartoonist
Plantu presents the hydra with a severed head, blood spurting. What he is
saying in this powerful drawing is that little is achieved by chopping off a
terrorist’s head. Terrorist organizations, terrorist cells, have the bad habit of
growing back as soon as they are cut back. The severed head reminds us of the
hydra, and the cartoon could be labelled ‘the hydra of terrorism’.
4. CLASSICAL SCULPTURE: THE LAOCOON
The reception of classical art is a subject in its own right with a huge bibliog-
raphy. In this very short overview, I will only focus on the use of famed
classical art in editorial cartoons, and will only refer to the Laocoon group.
Other famous artworks favoured by cartoonists are the Venus of Milo, Hercu-
les Farnese, Myron’sDiscus Thrower, and a few others. I will discuss one
cartoon of the Venus of Milo. Figure 23.15 shows a large pig sitting on its
backside, and pulling on the famous statue’s chiton, saying ‘You devil! How
can you walk around without hair?’
The title of the cartoon is ‘Zur lex
Heinz’. The cartoon is a clever attack on the infamous Lex Heinz, of 1900,
which was a censorship law, condemning ‘the immorality in the arts’.
‘Mr Thiers terrassant l’hydre du socialisme’, by Cham in the Charivari. See Menuelle 2000.
Sometimes the hydra is used to mock monarchy: for example, Orsonval’s drawing, 16 March
1871, shows the French Republic (the Commune) ﬁghting Thiers and royalists as the hydra of
Monarchy, with the identiﬁable heads of Napoleon III, Henry V, the Count of Chambord, the
Count of Paris, and their lieutenants. See Garrigues 1998: 103, ﬁgure 3.
See, for example, Nicholas Garland’s cartoon published in the Daily Telegraph, 2 March
2001, on foot and mouth disease.
It is unclear in this cartoon whether Plantu is mocking the terrorist organizations,
American self-congratulatory V-sign, or both. On the often voluntary confusion between
octopus and hydra, or the way in which the octopus has substituted itself for the hydra in
editorial cartoons since the early twentieth century, see Christian Moncelet, ‘Les “viles”tenta-
culaires: réquisitions satiriques de la pieuvre’,Ridiculosa No. 10, Les Animaux pour le dire,
Université de Bretagne occidentale/Université de Limoge, 2003: 43–60.
Ferdinand von Reznicek, Simplicissimus 4, no. 49, 1900: 396.
See Prettejohn 2006 for part of the voluminous bibliography on the reception of the Venus
338 Alexandre G. Mitchell
Among the numerous sculptures from antiquity that have become iconic
since Renaissance times and used and abused in editorial cartoons, I have
chosen to discuss the case of the Laocoon.
The sculptural group, now in the Cortile del Belvedere in the Vatican
museum, dates back to the ﬁrst century ad. It was found on 13 or 14 January
1506, in the Domus of Emperor Titus in the Sette Sale on the Esquiline Hill in
Figure 23.14 Cartoon by Plantu
Source:L’Express, 20 December 2001. Courtesy of the artist.
Democracy and Popular Media 339
Rome. It was quickly and correctly identiﬁed as a sculpture of Laocoon and his
sons being punished by Apollo before Troy (Virgil, Aeneid 2. 40–56, 199–231),
a sculpture described by Pliny (Natural History 36. 37–8). Michelangelo was
involved in the reconstitution of the sculpture. The artist Montosorli’s restor-
ation of the Laocoon’s right arm in the extended position in the 1530s (the
Laocoon was found with the right arm missing), endured for 400 years
The sculpture, which was reproduced countless times,
became the iconic, ultimate representation of human agony, a central piece
of Western art. It was described as ‘pathos’, transformed into art, by Winck-
elmann, as ‘Exemplum doloris’, by L. D. Ettlinger, and as ‘a vivid embodiment
of human suffering’and ‘Pathosformed’by Aby Warburg.
In the 1950s, Filippo Magi re-restored the sculptural group (Figure 23.17),
and used a ‘new-old right arm found by Ludwig Pollack in 1906 in the studio
of a contemporary Roman sculptor ...The old Laocoon had been preserved
Figure 23.15 Cartoon by Ferdinand von Reznicek
Source:Simplicissimus 4, no.49, 1900.
This engraving was produced before the restoration of the lost arm (after Brockhaus’
Konversations-Lexikon. Leipzig, Berlin and Vienna: F. A. Brockhaus 1894, vol. 14).
This photograph was taken after the restoration of the lost arm (2000). Photograph
Alexandre G. Mitchell.
340 Alexandre G. Mitchell
as a cast on display in the Cortile del Belvedere, because it was The Laocoon
for Renaissance artists and humanists, for Winckelmann, Lessing, Goethe,
Schopenhauer, Blake and Karl Marx. The new Laocoon, whose restoration was
completed in 1960 differs slightly but signiﬁcantly: Laocoon’s right arm now
bends sharply back toward his head and the elder son, at the viewer’s right, has
been moved farther away from his father.’
Figure 23.16 Laocoon, engraving
Source: Vatican City, Museo Pio Clementino, 1059, 1064, 1067.
Brilliant 2000: 10. There is an immense bibliography on the Laocoon. See Catterson 2005
on the Laocoon as a forgery by Michelangelo. On the reconstruction of the Laocoon group, see
Democracy and Popular Media 341
Our ﬁrst cartoon (Figure 23.18), dates back to the late nineteenth century,
and shows a major Canadian businessman, Sir Hugh Alan, as Laocoon being
killed by Apollo’s snake. The story behind the cartoon is a tale of collusion
between high ﬁnance and politics. Sir Hugh Alan was alleged to have paid a
bribe to the Canadian prime minister MacDonald, helping him win his
election, with the help of the minister of ﬁnance, Sir Francis Hincks (right),
in the hope of obtaining in return a major contract (‘Charter’) for the
Figure 23.17 Laocoon
Source: Vatican City, Museo Pio Clementino, 1059, 1064, 1067. Photograph
Alexandre G. Mitchell.
Howard 1959, 1989; Magi 1960. For a ‘historical objectivity’stance, see Bieber 1942, and for an
open-ended interpretative position, see Brilliant 2000 and the long bibliography in Buranelli,
Liverani, and Nesselrath 2006.
We know that the Laocoon was caricatured already in Titian’s time (Janson 1946: 49,
ﬁg. 1),and is found in editorial cartoons since H. Daumier’s time. See, for example, his complex
Laocoon caricature entitled ‘Imité du Groupe Laocoon’, 6 April 1868, ‘Actualités’, published by
the Charivari, mocking Britannia (Laocoon) strangled by three snakes, the ‘Italian question’
(Garibaldi), ‘Fenianism’, and the ‘Oriental question’(Turkey).
342 Alexandre G. Mitchell
construction of a railroad. One of the really fascinating aspects of the Laocoon
caricatures is the function of the snake. Here one can read words like ‘Bribery’,
‘Charter’,‘Paciﬁc Railway Scandal’,‘Suspicion’, and ‘Investigation’on its coils,
which means that the snake represents a number of problems that have caused
Hugh Alan some public discomfort.
The next cartoon (Figure 23.19), an exquisite drawing by Leo Jordaan
dating to 9 May 1953, shows three major political leaders entangled by the
serpent. The caricatured leaders are readily identiﬁable and labelled: the
French President René Mayer to the left, the US president Dwight Eisenhower
as the Laocoon, and the British prime minister Winston Churchill to the
Figure 23.18 ‘Canada’s Laocoon, or, Virgil on the Political Situation’
Source: John Wilson Bengough, Grip (Canada), 19 June 1873.
Democracy and Popular Media 343
right. Eisenhower was trying to assist the French in the failing Indochina War.
The French were losing one country after another. The US was helping the
French, although in secret, both ﬁnancially and in supplying military mater-
ials. By 1953 the US was paying almost half of the total French war effort.
Churchill looks like he is trying to escape from the entire situation, with his
iconic cigar in mouth, and the V for Victory hand sign. What is interesting is
that they are all wrestling with, and being strangled by, a snake whose head is a
serpent-like caricature of Mao Zedong. To assist the viewer further, Jordaan
labelled the snake’s head with the three letters ‘MAO’. The snake, this time, is
not a ‘personiﬁcation’of a notion or problem, but represents an actual
politician, in this case, Mao Zedong. The Chinese, just as the Americans,
were slyly helping their fellow Asians against the ‘foreign’Western powers.
The ﬁrst country the French lost was Laos. Hence, the very apt verbal pun on
the name ‘Laocoon’in the title of this cartoon: ‘Lao(s)koon’.
The next cartoon (Figure 23.20), by famous cartoonist Victor Weisz, who
signed his drawings ‘Vicky’, mocks Harold Macmillan, the then British prime
minister. The saying was that there was nothing Macmillan could not achieve.
Figure 23.19 ‘Lao(s)koon’
Source: Leo Jordaan, Vrij Nederland, 9 May 1953.
344 Alexandre G. Mitchell
Everything always worked out well. Vicky was increasingly tired of this virtual
personality cult, so he produced the famous ‘Supermac’cartoon showing
Macmillan as Superman. But the cartoon had an opposite effect to the intended
one: it made him more endearing rather than scary or ridiculous. From then on,
Macmillan was called Supermac in the newspapers and very often in public life.
This is a typical example of a situation where one cartoon in one newspaper can
change the public’s view of a politician, and his or her life.
The cartoon is entitled ‘The Prime minister is in Rome to discuss European
Problems’and shows Supermac at the centre as the Laocoon (hence the
inscribed baseline MacLaocoon 1960), dealing with challenges such as ‘Dis-
armament’,‘NATO’, choosing between ‘the 6 and the 7’(European member-
ship), all written on the snake’s coils, which is here a symbol of inextricable
political challenges that tie the politician in knots. On the right stands General
de Gaulle, dealing with issues such as ‘Algeria’, the ‘H Bomb’, and ‘European
relations’; and on the left is the German Chancellor Adenauer, who looks more
dead than alive, with ‘Berlin’and ‘East–West’. We have here three European
politicians interlinked, but mainly tied and torn by political crises.
Figure 23.20 ‘MacLaocoon’
Source: Vicky (Victor Weisz), Evening Standard, 22 November 1960. Permission granted by the Evening
Democracy and Popular Media 345
Possibly one of the most effective political cartoons using the Laocoon is a
1974 caricature of Richard Nixon (Figure 23.21),
with snake/tapes coiling
around his body. There is an attempt to heroize the musculature of his torso,
but his tiny legs and caricatured face make it all the more comical. Who does
not remember the Watergate affair and how Nixon was forced to resign his
presidency before Congress took steps to impeach him, when his obsession of
secretly recording on tape every prominent American citizen and politician
who passed through the Oval Ofﬁce as well as all his own words was made
public. Here the snake that ensnares him is actually tape coming from a huge
tape recording machine that serves as a statue base. It is a simple monochrome
line drawing, but highly effective. The facial caricature of the former US
president is also immediately recognizable. We have here a very powerful
cartoon with a striking reminder of the tape recordings, which were the ﬁnal
nail in Nixon’s political cofﬁn.
A much more recent cartoon (Figure 23.22), published in 2000 in a Dutch
newspaper, shows a caricature of Lionel Jospin, the then French president, as
the Laocoon, and on either side as his ‘sons’, H. Schroeder the German
chancellor and W. Kok the Dutch prime minister. The snake is here
Figure 23.21 Laocoon caricature of Richard Nixon
After <http://www.stilus.nl>, which reproduces this caricature with the date 1974 typed
over the image.
Nixon has been ‘laocoonized’a number of times: for example, a caricature of Nixon as the
Laocoon reproduced in Settis 2003: 286, ﬁgure 12, from an original caricature in the exhibition
catalogue of Das triviale Nachleben der Antike, Basel, Kunsthalle, 1974–5.
346 Alexandre G. Mitchell
represented by a petrol hose coming from a petrol pump. It reads, ‘diesel’, and
the car to the left has ‘EU’written on it. In 2000, France held the sixth monthly
rotating European presidency, and Jospin was grappling with domestic issues
of discontented lorry drivers as well as trying desperately to keep his promises
in terms of European issues of pollution and environment. An interesting
detail to note here is that the Laocoon’s right arm has at last been shown in its
correct posture with the arm bent behind the Laocoon’s head, and not
extended upwards in the air as had always been the case in the past.
Yet, some cartoonists still show the Laocoon with an outstretched arm
in late 2010. For example, a Singaporean interpretation of the Laocoon
(Figure 23.23), shows the bearded Trojan strangled by a snake covered in
dollar signs (not Euros). The cartoon is signed by Heng and is published in
Lianhe Zaobao. Interestingly, the keywords used on the website to ‘tag’the
cartoon are ‘European Union Statue’. We have here the last empty avatar of
the Laocoon’s long and complex visual history.
Figure 23.22 Cartoon by Janssen
Source: Tom Janssen, 'Laokoon', October 2010, Trouw. Courtesy of the artist.
Similarly, a cartoon by Garland published in 2002 in The Guardian shows Tony Blair as the
Laocoon with his arm bent (correctly) behind his head. John Prescott and Gordon Brown are
shown on either side. The snake is represented by a water hose pipe, to remind us of the ﬁre-
ﬁghters strike, which was important at the time as it showed up New Labour’s social policies in a
very unﬂattering light.
Democracy and Popular Media 347
Why the Laocoon? Farrell and Putnam write:
It is worth speculating about just why the Laocoon has shown itself to be so
appropriate for the purposes of parody and caricature. Part of the reason may
reside in the very painfulness of the human suffering that this sculpture brings so
memorably to expression ...another part of the reason, undoubtedly, resides in the
statue’s very celebrity: its unique visual form and its universal dissemination make
it instantly recognizable not only as an illustration of a particular myth but also as
an emblem of antiquity itself—as a symbol of sublime artistic values. (2010: 339)
This argument, as far as human suffering is concerned, is compelling, but we
are discussing images, and just like for the hydra, there are visual reasons for
using the Laocoon far removed from ‘meaning’. It is a great model once
emptied of its meaning and ﬁlled with new characters. Almost any situation
can be mocked or referred to by using the Laocoon group. As it is a (sculp-
tural) group, at least three politicians can be mocked. In addition, the vicious
snake can take on numerous meanings. Some cartoonists have produced
different cartoons of the Laocoon to mock the same politicians over and
over again. What is fascinating in the Laocoon model, is how cartoonists use
the various elements of the group, and especially their take on the snake and
its function in the drawing. It may sometimes be a personiﬁcation of ideas
(bribery), problems, a person, or sometimes transform into the object of a
Figure 23.23 Carton by Heng
Source:Lianhe Zaobao (Singapore), 12 February 2010.
2010 Lianhe Zaobao/The New York Times.
348 Alexandre G. Mitchell
conﬂict. From showing these cartoons to many intelligent and cultured people
(but non-classicists), I would afﬁrm that most readers would not recognize the
Laocoon group, and even fewer would know the myth.
More than forty years were to pass, from the restoration of the Laocoon’s
right arm in the 1960s, before it was ﬁnally translated correctly into the
cartoon representations; and some cartoonists—even today—still perpetuate
the sixteenth-century version. Why has it taken so long for the cartoonists to
get it right? Possibly through laziness or possibly because prior to the use of
the Internet for image searches cartoonists used older cartoons of the Laocoon
to produce their own ‘modern’versions rather than seeking out more ‘recent’,
that is, post-1960s, photographs of it.
In summary, we recognize some cartoons as that of Nero, Herakles, or
the Laocoon through cartoon titles, labelling within the drawing—or in the
case of the Laocoon, on the statue’s base, or on the snake’s coils; in the case
of Nero, in the ﬂames or ﬁre, and Herakles, frequently mentioned on the
club, often humorous labelling is used such as verbal puns (‘Nero Tehranicus’,
‘Lao(s)koon’), or on occasion we can identify the scene from the ﬁgures’
clothing, attire, symbols, or distinctive attitude. Interestingly, the German
caricature of Iran’s leader (Figure 23.7) is only really possible from outside
Iran. As R. Buss (Lambourne 1992: 9) wrote already in 1874: ‘Without civil
and religious liberty joined to an unshackled press, caricature cannot exist;
thus it becomes, by its free exercise, a sure exponent of the degree of freedom
enjoyed in any country.’
Why did the cartoonists need this reference to antiquity? One answer is
possibly that it lends gravitas to the cartoons. It gives them some panache, a
certain élan just as a neoclassical building often proffers more prestige, or
semblance of tradition, of respectability, and credibility than do concrete and
pre-cast functional buildings. Yet, one should not over-emphasize the impact
of the cartoons’classical reception: for example, in the case of the Laocoon, the
reference to antiquity might simply be a ‘coat hanger’for ideas. The Laocoon
may just be a ﬁgure tied up in knots by an uncontrollable situation (the snake).
The reader does not need to know the original story of Laocoon to understand
the meaning of the cartoon. So, who then was or is the intended reader? Even
though one can certainly understand the gist of a cartoon (to a degree) without
necessarily knowing the myth, the cartoonists still make a conscious effort to
bring out the ancient reference. Is this so that there should remain a hope that
the non-classical reader may understand the reference or better still seek it
out? Or is it aimed at that elusive and increasingly rare ‘cultured reader’(for
the want of a better expression) who will savour the extra spice of understand-
ing as yet another layer in the joke? Were the latter true, cartoons with classical
references would have a higher rate of success and impact in highbrow
newspapers rather than others, but the evidence shows that an equal number
of such cartoons are published in all major newspapers.
Democracy and Popular Media 349