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Current time:0:00Total duration:6:43

Exekias, amphora with Ajax and Achilles playing a game

Video transcript

we're in the Etruscan Museum in the Vatican Museums in Rome and we're looking at my favorite pot in the entire world I can see why it's your favorite pot seems to almost glow the thing that makes it so fabulous is we have these two heroes and we have a very simple image but it's giving us so much information the heroes are Achilles on the left and Ajax on the right two of the great Greek heroes featured in Homer's Iliad and ezekias the Potter who signed only two pots as the potter and the painter has identified these two figures by including their names above them but he's also telling us what's happening between the two Achilles on the Left is saying the word for you can see tesara and on the right we see Ajax saying 3 try we know immediately that Achilles is winning the game that they're playing but this is of course a metaphor for the way that this myth will unfold on either side we see their shields Achilles still has his helmet on although Ajax has taken his off so a moment of relaxation between battles there on the battlefield of Troy the kiyose has given us even more information than this not simply the rolls of the dice and in a larger sense their fate look at the way for example that while both figures are hunched over and clearly focused on the game at hand and remember these two men are really close friends so this intimacy here Brotherhood nevertheless Achilles who has the higher role is holding these spears loosely you can see the way the points are actually separated at the bottom you can see through the lines they're not as parallel but look at the figure on the right Ajax whose spears are held in a more parallel way so that we know that he's actually clenching with his fists he's hence I even sent a little bit of that tension and of his brow well that's right if you look at the brow really closely you can see that Achilles has a single incised line to represent his eyebrow but Ajax has a double line and it is a subtle clue that perhaps is a little bit of tension there one other detail that can be easily seen although it's really subtle look at the feed of both figures Achilles again is relaxed his heel is on the ground line but Ajax his heel is picked up ever so slightly so you can see just a little bit of light underneath it which means his calf is engaged those muscles are tense his body is tense he's also a little bit more hunched over his head is a little bit lower than that of his friend Achilles that does seem to mean something wider than just this board game anybody who's looking at this pot in the ancient world would have known the story of Ajax and Achilles that Homer tells as you said in the Iliad Achilles is a great hero in fact as a child his mother dipped him in the River Styx which had the magical quality of making him invincible it's just that she held him by his heel so his heel was not protected and ultimately he would be killed by an arrow that hits him there hence the term that we use often of someone's Achilles heel that is their vulnerable spot nevertheless Achilles will die a great hero Ajax will have a more complicated fate he will outlive Achilles and will carry his great friend off the battlefield but ultimately he'll be in a battle for Achilles armor Achilles had very special armor which had been made by the god Hephaestus god of the forge two people would want that armor and they would both give speeches and convince judges as to who should get the armor but Ajax although he was much closer to Achilles would lose the contest have a bad moment where he slayed a bunch of Greeks and ultimately would kill himself on his own sword humiliation at the end of his life so it's really interesting to think about this as an ancient Greek viewer who knows that whole story and what will unfold for both of these heroes but the story is one thing and the way that ezekias the potter has represented this moment and these two figures with so much nobility with such fine detail in the shape of Oz which is so elegant is something else Ezekiel II was the great master of attic black figure vase painting these are black figures they are silhouettes and if you look closely the decorative forms is mostly incised with a needle and the black surface is like paint but it's not quite paint this is slip where now the Greeks didn't have the technology to get kilns ovens hot enough to vitrify that is to create true glazes the way ceramics do now and so what they would do instead is they would take very fine particles of clay suspend them in water and use those as a kind of paint and depending on the amount of oxygen that they allowed into a kiln it could turn it black or red they would paint the surface with this slip and then they would burnish it that is they would take a very smooth surface imagine the back of a spoon and they would rub it back and forth so you get this surface that is really glossy and it almost looks like glaze when I look closely at the decorative borders on the handles or the decorative border just above the frieze of figures I can see beautiful detail and almost three-dimensional form of the slip is almost raised in areas so it catches the light well the Greeks did often use a syringe to paint the finest lines on to the surface and so one can imagine almost decorating a cake you have a kind of syringe and you have the icing and it leaves a kind of bead that is raised against the surface and in a much finer level that's what we're seeing here so ezekias is a master his pots stand out in so many ways in their shade in the painting in the detail in the drama that he was able to convey well certainly the Etruscans thought that was the case because they must have spent a good deal of money importing this pot from Greece across the Mediterranean all the way to the Italian peninsula where they lived you know so many of the great pots from ancient Greece are actually buried in Etruscan tombs they were imported the Greeks did a tremendous business exporting such pots but ezekias was one of the great masters