The vase shows Achilles and Ajax playing a game during the Trojan War. Both men still have their shields, spears, and helmets at the ready. The vase is an Attic black figure amphora, made c.540-530BCE by the greatest of the black-figure painters, Exekias, who has signed his name on the vase. The reverse of the vase shows the family of Helen of Troy. Before she was Helen of Troy, she had once been Helen of Sparta. The vase scene shows her parents, Tyndareos and Leda, and her twin brothers, Castor and Polydeuces (aka 'Pollux’ to the Romans) with a horse. Like the gaming scene on the other side, this is an image of famous figures in a moment of leisure.
The vase is housed in the Vatican Museum, Rome (Accession Number: 344, photo Steven Zucker).
Many vase-painters created versions of the gaming scene around this time. More than a hundred examples survive. Some scholars, such as Karl Schefold (1992, 273-4) have argued that the cup below shows the earliest surviving version of the Achilles-Ajax playing scene. They date it to c.550, making it earlier than the famous version by Exekias. Other scholars, notably Susan Woodford (1982) and Mary Moore (1980) consider that date much too early for that cup. They are amongst a large number of scholars who think that Exekias was the first to present the Achilles-Ajax gaming scene on a vase and that all other versions were based on his work. There is no consensus because so many vases of these vases were produced within a very small window of time, making it difficult to put the vases in chronological order on stylistic grounds.
Vatican 343, photo from Schefold 1992.
Athena appears between the players in many of the Achilles-Ajax scenes. The vase below is a hydria by a painter from the influential Leagros Group. Athena was thought to have taken a keen interest in the Greek heroes at Troy and this is reflected in the vase-maker's decision to include her in this scene.
Hydria by a member of the Leagros Group, Metropolitan Museum 56.171.29.
The amphora below, made c.530-520BCE, shows the same scene in two styles - making it what's known as a bilingual vase. It has a black figure scene by the Lysippides Painter on one side (left) and a red-figure scene by the Andokides Painter on the other (right).
This bilingual amphora is housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (01.8037).
While a huge number of vases were decorated with the Achilles-Ajax gaming scene, it also featured on other items. Shield bands found at the sanctuary at Olympia show the familiar design, and a marble frieze found on the Athenian acropolis also seems to show the same episode. It’s been suggested that the acropolis marble may be the original image that inspired the vase-painters (see D.L Thompson, Arch.Class. 28, 1976).
Even with all these different versions, many still consider the Exekias vase to be the most artistically impressive. It is praised for the sophistication of its composition and the excellence of its execution.
Laurie Schneider has demonstrated how careful Exekias was about the composition. The whole gaming scene is divided into three plains by the players’ spears. The middle plain is a triangle pointing downwards. Within it we see Achilles and Ajax’s heads at the top and their hands at the bottom. This effect draws our focus to the players’ faces and also communicates the idea that their heads (that is, their thoughts) are dictating the moves that their hands make.
The images that make up the scene also match the shape of the vase itself. The spears that divide the scene also continue the line created by the top of the vase handles. The lines created by the bottom of the vase handles are continued by the resting shields. The curves of the warriors’ backs match the curves of the vase itself. All of this creates an impression of harmony and fluidity.
Alongside this balance, there is a subtle differentiation between the two players that expresses Achilles’ superiority. Achilles, as the greater warrior, sits more comfortably and confidently than Ajax. In most versions of this scene there is parity between the warriors’ headgear, with both wearing helmets or neither of them. Exekias has Achilles alone wearing a helmet. This gives him a height advantage in the scene, which is another way of expressing his superiority. His seat is fractionally higher than Ajax’s, which adds to this effect. Ajax’s bare head and arms also make him seem a little more vulnerable than Achilles, another sign on his inferiority. As if that wasn’t enough, Achilles is also shown to be winning the game! Although it is hard to see, there are words on the vase which show that Achilles has thrown a four, while Ajax has a three.