Achilles and Ajax Playing a Board Game
540-530 BCE.
Terracotta amphora. Height 2 feet
(Musei Vaticani, Rome)

An example of black-figure painting is Achilles and Ajax Playing a Board Game on an amphora signed by Exekias as both potter and painter (at left is written: Exekias epoiesen = "Exekias made [me or it]." At right is also written, less relevantly, Onetorides kalos - "Onetorides is beautiful").

The central image is a narrative scene, with geometric patterns subsumed into border devices. In the panel framed by a lustrous black "glaze," Ajax (Aiantos = "of Ajax [Aias]") and Achilles (Akhileos = "of Akhilleus") are depicted playing a board game during a lull in the Trojan War. In a symmetrical and deceptively tranquil scene, the Homeric heroes bend over a table and call out the scores of the game (which are written before their lips - tesara = 4, for Achilles, tria = 3, for Ajax).

Figures seen as silhouettes against the light ground. Clear contours and precise lines. Details within the forms, especially the patterned cloaks and armour of Achilles, rendered by means of delicate and meticulous incision. The scene is composed to suit or fit the surface and shape of the amphora. The outlines of the figures follow the outlines of the vessel. As the figures bend toward the gaming board, the curve of their backs echoes the curve of the amphora. Exekias also places the spears so that they lead the eye up to the top of the handles, and arranges the shields behind the figures so that they continue the vertical line formed by the lower part of the handles. The two warriors wear elaborately patterned cloaks, arm and thigh armor enlivened with elegant spiral designs, and greaves (shin protectors). The stylized frontal eye persists from Aegean, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian art, but the shoulders are rendered more naturally in side view.

Exekias, the most insightful black-figure artist, transforms the personal rivalry between the two Greek heroes of the Trojan War into a board game. Both Achilles and Ajax are heavily armed; Achilles still wears his helmet, and both hold their spears as if they may suddenly have to use them. No poem known describes such as episode. But the situation is made clear from other later vase paintings of the same subject. Achilles and Ajax are neglecting their duties and irresponsibly play at a board game while the Trojans enter the Greek camp.

Exekias emphasizes their intense concentration by using the combined diagonals of their spears and their gaze to focus on the game board. Exekias integrates form with psychology to convey the impression that Achilles, the younger warrior on the left, will win the game. On the right, Ajax leans farther forward than Achilles so that the level of his head is slightly lower than Achilles', and he has removed his helmet. Achilles' helmet and tall crest indicate his dominance. Also, the board game - a game of chance - can be understood as metaphor for fate. Both Ajax and Achilles die at Troy (Ajax commits suicide).

© Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe