Exekias, Achilles and Ajax.
Exekias was a master potter and painter. His painting career appears to have been short, from 546-530, but his influence on later potters was exceptional. Though he has signed this amphora as potter, it is generally accepted that he was also the painter.
This image is one of the most arresting of all Greek vase images. This is due to the subject matter, the subtly of the representation and the complexity of Exekias’ thought processes which can be divined by unpicking the many layers of reference.
Achilles and Ajax are playing a board game and the just short of identical mirror imaging of their body language is striking. Achilles, the more prestigious, as performer in battle and as the son of the immortal sea nymph Thetis, is given greater precedence visually by retaining his helmet, wearing a rerebrace on his arm, his hair is smoother, his beard trimmer. In other ways, they seem matched: the elaborate embroidery on their cloaks, the patterning of their armour. Yet there are tell tale signs that Ajax is more tense, his two spears are closely aligned, while Achilles’ are more nonchalantly splayed. Ajax’s body is curved slightly tighter than Achilles’ so though both are intent on their game, he appears the more anxious. ( This is possibly because Achilles is calling out ‘four’ and he is calling ‘three’, so he is losing this particular throw.) His right leg is slightly raised, so his calf is engaged and tense, his eyebrow shows tense concentration, while Achilles’ body is relaxed and equally weighted on the ground as befits his heroic status.
This scene does not appear before this date, (so far as we can tell from the very small, maybe 1% of vases which remain to us from a guestimated total production) and does not seem to have literary antecedents. If true, this suggests to me that Exekias has chosen to imagine this incident for very particular reasons. He has presented these heroic figures in a moment of purely personal engagement, intending the viewer to be strongly moved by the intimacy of the relationship.( It is an example of how refreshingly unpious the Greeks could be in their treatment of heroes and gods). This is supported by mythology which relates that they were cousins brought up together and educated by the centaur Chiron who taught many a Greek hero and god. In addition, in Homer’s Illiad, their stories unfold with dramatic intensity and parallels: when Patroclus, Achilles closest friend, is killed by Hector and stripped of his armour, Ajax recovers the body for burial.The incident brings Achilles back to the fight and he unleashes an unhinged, limitless spate of violence.* When Achilles dies, it is Ajax who carries his body on his shoulders from the battle field. Odysseus covers him while he does this and they both lay clam to Achilles’ armour as a reward. Agamemnon grants the armour to Odysseus and Ajax falls into madness at the double loss and at the blow to his honour. In his madness he mistakes a flock of sheep for Agamemnon and the other Greek leaders and slaughters them. When he comes round he is horrified and falls upon his sword. There is a play of themes to do with loyalty and honour, shame and madness. Is this reflected in Exekias’ imagery?
The shields are interesting and not much discussed. Apart from Ajax’s helmet, they are the only items of armour the heroes have put aside, signifying they remain in a state of alertness even when playing, keeping their identities secure in the eye of the viewer, making the most of the decorative impact. Ajax’s has the more standard motif of a Gorgon’s head, she who could kill with a glance. Achilles has a snake, panther and head of a satyr which references Dionysus. This is curious. It could be that the amphora stored wine and that this is an oblique reference to the custom of using Dionysian imagery on the vessels associated with drinking, but it suggests more strongly to me that there is a link between the madness of Pentheus, and of the Bacchantes, and the madness of Achilles, who in the Iliad fills the waters of the river Acheron with churning dead and the blood of Trojans in revenge for Patroclus’ death. We have here, then a reference to the madness and grief which both these heroes will or have experienced.
The image on the reverse of the amphora is also telling. It shows the Discouroi, Kastor and Pollux, or Polydeuces. These two are half brothers of the same mother, one is mortal, born to Leda and Tyndareus, the other born as result of Leda’s rape by Zeus in the form of a swan. The brothers were as close as twins, reinforcing the closeness of the two heroes, they also share mixed mortal and immortal roots. ( Ajax is mortal and Achilles is of mixed parentage: Thetis the sea nymph, daughter of the sea god Nereus, and Peleus the king of the Myrmidons.) Pollux was as smitten by the death of his brother as Ajax is by the death of Achilles and he asked Zeus if he can share his immortality with his brother. Zeus agrees and they both become stars. Is it fanciful to think Exekias is immortalising his heroes in his art.?
There’s an additional poignancy in this choice of image, as the Dioscouroi left their sister Helen alone with Paris during family gathering and this facilitated the flight/the abduction ( I’m reminded here of Leda and the swan) and triggered the Trojan war.
The Dioscouroi are shown here returning to their parents, Leda and Tyndareus. This is a homecoming which is denied to both the heroes on the other side of the vase whose only connection with home is the elaborately woven cloaks they wear. Pollux is shown already within the doors of home, already wreathed, and being greeted by his dog (shades of Odysseus’ return) while Kastor turns from his horse to receive a flower and wreath from his mother. Tyndareus, (fathers can be less demonstrative), strokes the horse, his gesture mirroring that of his wife(forming a visual embrace) and a slave has brought out the bedding and an aryballos of oil to pamper them after a bath. The imagery delineates elegantly the narrative of a homecoming: the verticals are strong and the horse ( the brothers were patrons of horsemanship,) provides a stabilising horizontal. This is all about stability, grounding, the longing for which is one of the great themes of the Odyssey in which a bath and a comfortable bed is the nearest Odysseus comes to a homecoming for ten years.
Just as the brothers throw light on the heroes, so it works in reverse: the Dioscouroi were Spartans, and it was Sparta which rescued Athens from the rule of tyrants ( Peisistratos’ less able sons), There is some evidence that Exekias’ family may have had property on Salamis, the island sacred to Ajax and where Solon, the ruler who was ousted by Peisistratos was born. Exekias was working during the period when Athens was ruled by the ‘tyrant’ Peisistratos, and one story tells how Peisistratos killed a number of the Greeks by catching them unawares, sleeping after a mid-day meal and playing dice. So there may be a subtle subversion going on here too, an implied forgiveness of Athenian weakness and an anti-tyranny mood which pervaded Athens in the reign of to add to the personal choice of imagery.
However for me, the strongest feeling this vase gives me is the sense of connection, the bonds of honour, heroism, experience, friendship and brotherhood which permeate the imagery and the method of stylisation. Nor does it seem absurd to suggest from the gravitas of the imagery and its execution, that a universality of experience is being expressed. We know so little of the relationship between artist and client, but I like to imagine a father who has lost a son in battle who died protecting his friend or lover, asking for a commemorative pot: “give me something heroic, something from Homer that fits the circumstances” and Exekias has come up with just the right image to convey the sacred status of the dead. Or perhaps a conversation about the realities of war in which they imagine the two heroes engaged in a familiar distraction.
If one needed further proof of the importance of this story to Exekias there is the wonderful image of Ajax patting down the earth around his sword to secure it for when he falls upon it. It’s full of pathos and sad foreboding and the sense of interiority at this fateful moment.
* The phenomemon of extreme violence unleashed in response to the death of a close friend in battle is discussed in ‘The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk who looks at the way the limbic responds to extreme trauma by temporarily eliminating all other functions of intellect, reflection, emotional intelligence which might ameliorate behaviour in civilian life.
The same scene by the Lysippides painter, without the same emotional charge.