Type A amphora, Ajax and Achilles playing dices – Exekias

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I have been waiting to talk about this amphora for a while. This is my absolute favorite Greek artwork and I don’t want to get lost in explanations. I know greek art is not always easy to understand and ceramic usually doesn’t get the same attention as sculpture. But I hope that with some kind of guidance, you will get to like it and get interested in this medium.

This amphora was made by Exekias, who was working between 550 BC and 530 BC. We know that he was a painter as well as a potter and, today, he is considered the great master of black-figure painting. His style was sober and monumental. His incisions were very precise. As a potter, he made big vases (amphorae, dinoi, kraters…) and he probably invented some of those shapes or perfected them.

This type A amphora is probably his masterpiece. Exekias signed it as painter and potter, which was not the case for all of his productions. This black-figure amphora was made around 540 BC. It was discovered in Vulci and is now in the Vatican Museum. The decor is divided into two panels. Their frames are made of palmette friezes and lotus friezes. The handles are decorated with ivy vine leaves.

c0084On side A, the background is bare and two warriors are sitting on stools playing a dice game. The scene becomes epic with the inscription. Exekias gives the names of those warriors: Achilles and Ajax. Their shields are on the side of the composition while their spears rest on their shoulders. Besides their names there are other inscriptions. We can read “four” and “three” which gives us a winner and a looser. A hypothetical interpretation says that this scene depicts a tragic event because the Trojans might be outside killing the Greeks. The composition is monumental and pyramidal, and the highest point is Achilles’ helmet. Their backs are emphasized by their coats. The lines formed by their backs are completed by the spear and shield lines. Their intertwining draws the viewer’s eyes toward the characters. If you look with attention, you’ll notice that the composition is not mechanical at all. Both sides of the composition are similar but there is lots of variations. Exekias depicts two of the best known heros of greek mythology. Achilles wins which shows us he is the first of the heroes while Ajax is second.

                             exekias side B      exekias B side de

After looking clearly at side A we can take a look at side B, which shows another pair of heroes, the Dioskouri. In the center of this panel, there is a horse and behind him a man. We think it is probably Castor, since he was the better horseman of the twins. In front of this group there is Tyndareus (their father),  a servitor holding a stool, a coat, and an aryballos (perfume vase). Those elements evoke the palaestra’s activities. Tyndareus is caressing the horse’s mouth and the animal reacts by putting his ears back. On the left side, Leda (the mother) hands a flower to her son. Next to her, Pollux is depicted naked, as a wrestler, the sport in which he was famous. He is caressing the dog’s snout. The scene is probably the return of the hunt, since the horse’s hair is undone. It is almost a family scene, and only Zeus is missing (the myth says that one of the twins is his son, while the other is Tyndareus’).

This amphora depicts four of the best known greek heros. Their destinies are similar. On one side we have two cousins and on the other two brothers, and they share tragic deaths. Both of the myths are linked since the Diskouri’s sisters, Clytemnestra and Helen, are part of the Trojan War. Side B is a prologue of the other side.

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5 thoughts on “Type A amphora, Ajax and Achilles playing dices – Exekias

  1. Loved reading this fine description of esthetics of this amphora. Would love to learn more about where it was found and under what conditions. Your interpretation of the two main figures sounds good. But is there any possibility they are gambling or perhaps seeking an omen?

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    • This amphora was found in Vulci so it was probably in an Etruscan grave. There was a lot of commerce between Greeks and Etruscans and archaeologists found lots of Greek ceramic in those graves. I am sorry I don’t have more specific details about this vase. As for what they are doing: gambling is possible. Specialists are being careful. They usually use the term “board game” because no one is sure of what game they are playing (probably a dice game). Beazley mentioned the dice game named “palamedeia” because it was in relation with the Trojan war but once again there is no evidence for this hypothesis. As far as I can remember, I don’t think any specialists talked about seeking an omen. Maybe because the two heros are too relaxed and they wouldn’t be looking at a table. If they were seeking an omen, Exekias would have probably painted a priest as well. This painter took time to paint lots of details but nothing here goes in favor of the omen. I hope I answered your questions about this amazing amphora!

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  2. Pingback: Ajax’s suicide – Exekias | It's Artalicious!

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