Death of Achilles Greek Amphora [Object of the Day #43]

August 15, 2012

Attic Black-Figure Amphora Sides A and B
Attic Black-Figure Amphora Sides A and B

Two stories from the epic cycle of poems devoted to the Trojan War appear on this Attic black-figure amphora.  The Iliad and the Odyssey are the only surviving works from the cycle, but we also know something of the other poems, which carry on the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath.  For example, one of the works, the Aithiopis, told the story of Memnon, the king of the Ethiopians, who came to the aid of the Trojans.  Memnon killed the Greek warrior Antilochos, who died to save his father Nestor, and on side B of the amphora, we see a dead warrior identified by an inscription as Antilochos.  Memnon was later killed by the great Greek hero Achilles, whose own death—he was killed by Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam—was also described in the Aithiopis.  Achilles’s lifeless body appears on the other side of the vase.  A warrior, presumably Ajax, bends down to lift the body and carry it from the field of battle.   Another Greek warrior, identified as Menelaos, wields a large shield and a spear which has pierced the shoulder of a male with African features, named as Amasos.

Although we understand a good deal about the scenes on this amphora, some questions remain.  On side B, a warrior identified by inscription as Euphorbos chases men away from the body of Antilochos.  The only warrior we know of who is called Euphorbos fights on the Trojan not the Greek side; is there also a Greek Euphorbos, otherwise unknown to us?  And on side A, the figure with African features identified as Amasos looks like the men who accompany Memnon, the king of the Ethiopians, on other contemporary vases.  But we know that Achilles killed Memnon, so why is one of his men still on the battlefield if his leader is dead?

This amphora is the work of the great Attic black-figure artist, Exekias, and dates to about 530 BCE.   Exekias is known for the portrayal of quiet but deeply moving scenes, such as here where Ajax bends to hoist the great weight of the dead hero Achilles to carry his body from the battlefield.  A fine draftsman, Exekias has here ennobled his figures, particularly Achilles, with exquisitely detailed armor and clothing.

Although Greek and made in Athens, this amphora was exported to Italy soon after it was made, and it was found at the Etruscan city of Orvieto.  It came to the Museum in 1898, from excavations supported by the Philadelphia department store magnate, John Wanamaker.

Penn Museum Object #MS3442.

See this and other objects like it on Penn Museum’s Online Collection Database.

For another vase by Exekias in the Penn Museum Collection, search Object #s MS4873A and MS4873B