Amphora by Exekias, Achilles and Ajax engaged in a game, c.540-530 BC, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.
Dimensions: 13cm x 21cm
The painter is Exekias, and his black-figure painting shows Ajax and Achilles engaged once again in a board game that involves the throwing of dice, and the lettering indicates that the number of the throw made by Achilles is four while the number of the throw made by Ajax is three.
Τhe higher number goes to Achilles. Achilles is the winner, and Ajax is the loser. To say it in Homeric terms, Achilles is best of the Achaeans, and Ajax is only second best.
This theme of dice playing, not attested in the Greek verbal arts, must be very old. In the cognate epic traditions of the Mahābhārata, which is the oldest and largest epic of India (the canonical version contains about 100,000 lines of Sanskrit poetry), the playing of dice is at the core of the overall plot of the whole story. The hero Yudhiṣṭhira gambles away his kingship, all his possessions, and even his own self in a series of catastrophic dice games.
In the visual art of Greek civilization, as exemplified by the vase that I have highlighted from the collection housed in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a comparable epic scene comes to life. This epic version, attested in the visual arts, is nowhere to be found in the attested textual evidence of the corresponding verbal arts. But this version is nevertheless a truly epic scene. With a throw of the dice, Ajax dooms himself to an eternity of angry frustration over losing a chance to become the best of the Achaeans.
Exekias (Ancient Greek: Ἐξηκίας, Exēkías) was an ancient Greek vase-painter and potter who was active in Athens between roughly 545 BC and 530 BC. Exekias worked mainly in the black-figure technique, which involved the painting of scenes using a clay slip that fired to black, with details created through incision. Exekias is regarded by art historians as an artistic visionary whose masterful use of incision and psychologically sensitive compositions mark him as one of the greatest of all Attic vase painters. The Andokides painter and the Lysippides Painter are thought to have been students of Exekias.
In his vase-paintings, Exekias does not only reinterpret the mythological traditions of his time, but at times even sets new fashions.
One of his most famous works is the so-called “Dionysus Cup”, a kylix now in Munich (Antikensammlung 2044). The kylix falls into the “eye-cup” category, and is decorated on the exterior with two pairs of eyes, which may be an original Exekian motif. The interior shows a depiction of the god Dionysos against a background of coral-red slip, which coats the entire picture space. Here, Exekias uses the tondo as a working surface for the main scenario: Dionysus was the god of inspiration, and the painting depicts the his initial journey to Athens by ship. Pirates had seized the ship and were planning, perhaps, to sell Dionysus into slavery. Instead, the god caused vines to grow from the mast, frightening the pirates so much that they jumped overboard and were changed into dolphins, here seen swimming around the ship. Exekias is the first Athenian vase painter to depict Dionysus sailing in the expanse of the interior of a cup.
Another innovative visual adaptation of the mythological past can be seen on the famous Vatican amphora 344, which is regarded as Exekias’ masterpiece. The Vatican amphora depicts Achilles and Ajax playing a board game, with both men identified by their names added in the genitive. Ajax and Achilles sit across from each other, looking down at a block situated between them. The board game they are playing, which might be compared to a backgammon or checkers variant, was played with a die. According to the words written next to the two players, Achilles proclaims he has thrown a four, while Ajax has a three. Although the two of them are pictured playing, they are clearly depicted as being on duty, accompanied by their body armor and holding their spears, suggesting that they might head back into battle at any moment. Apart from the selection of this very intimate, seemingly relaxed scene as a symbol for the Trojan War, this vase-painting also showcases the talent of Exekias as an artist: the figures of both Achilles and Ajax are decorated with fine incised details, showing elaborate textile patterns and almost every hair in place. Interestingly, there is no extant literary source that is known to have circulated in the sixth century BC in Athens regarding a narrative involving Ajax and Achilles playing a board game. Exekias may have drawn his inspiration for this innovative composition from local oral bardic traditions regarding the Trojan War, which may have developed during his lifetime in the cultural context of sixth century Athens. Despite the ambiguity surrounding the origin of this mythological narrative, Exekias’ new depiction of Ajax and Achilles playing a board game was clearly very popular, copied over 150 times in the ensuing fifty years.
The only “kalós” name used on vases attributed to or signed by Exekias as a painter is the Onētorídēs love name. The Onētorídēs love name appears on the Vatican 344 amphora, the London B 210 amphora, the Berlin F 1720 amphora, and the Athenian calyx-krater which has traditionally been attributed to Exekias. The Stēsías love name, Stēsías kalós, (Stesias [is] beautiful), is inscribed on the Louvre F 53 amphora, which Beazley attributed to the Group E phase of Exekias’ artistic career.