In Focus

Black-figure panel amphora with Achilles and Memnon [1965.29.M]

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art_._

In the scene on the obverse of the vase, two armed warriors engage in battle over the fallen body of a third. The combatants wear high-plumed Corinthian helmets, cuirasses over short tunics to cover their torsos, and greaves to protect their lower legs. They engage each other with shields and spears, their swords still in their sheaths held in place by red-painted baldrics. The warrior at right holds a round shield of Boeotian shape decorated with a serpent. The fallen warrior is also in full armor, although lacking weapons, and wears a low-crested helmet. Flanking this trio are two female figures wearing red headbands and mantles over long woolen garments (peploi). There are no inscriptions to identify these characters, but other vases with similar arrangements of figures are inscribed. There the warriors are identified as Achilles and Memnon, who fight over the fallen Antilochus-all of whom are renowned fighters in the Trojan War. The female onlookers must be Thetis and Eos, the divine mothers of the two combatants.

The scene on the reverse side of the vase is similar to that on the obverse with some important exceptions. Here the warrior at left, who now wears a low-crested helmet and holds a round shield with white dot decoration, clearly has the advantage over his opponent, who stumbles to the ground. This fallen figure holds his shield, now with an ivy pattern, to protect himself as he falls. The body of the third warrior is not present, and the female at right runs to depart, looking back over her shoulder.

The duel between Achilles and Memnon occurs not in Homer's Iliad, but in the Aethiops, an epic poem by Homer or Arctinus of Miletus, of which only fragments survive. Part of the Epic Cycle, this poem is the continuation of the Trojan saga following the Iliad. King Memnon of Ethiopia, the son of Eos, goddess of the dawn, joins the Trojan War against the Greeks and takes the life of Antilochus, Nestor's son, in battle. Despite his armor made by Hepaestus, Memnon is then killed by the heroic Achilles, son of the sea nymph Thetis, who takes revenge for Antilochus's death.

Determining which of the combatants is the ill-fated Memnon and which one is Achilles is not always possible without inscriptions, since either opponent can appear on either side of the scene. In the obverse scene on the amphora, the raised arms of the goddess at right may be interpreted as encouragement for the warrior in front of her; the downward glance of the goddess at left may be the ominous pose of a mother about to lose her son. This would place Achilles and Thetis on the right and Memnon and Eos on the left. It is also possible that the female at right is meant to be gesticulating wildly out of desperation at her impending loss, while the one at left is more calm, confident of her son's victory. The artist has painted a red band around the helmet of the warrior at left, but it is unclear whether this signifies the impending victory of the wearer or is simply an expression of decorative fancy on the part of the painter. In the reverse scene, the outcome of the duel and therefore the identification of the combatants seems certain. However, we cannot automatically equate one scene with another even on the same vase. The very fact that the body of Antilochus is entirely missing from this scene casts the identification of all the participants into question. It is probable, though, that the artist still had the Homeric heroes in mind while painting this scene and reduced the number of figures to create a more simplistic composition for the back side of the vase.

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 64.