Dr Susan Woodford looks at how the vase-painter made free with the literary text.
Some scenes from the Trojan War on Greek vases present such convincing images that one thinks that one is seeing the very words of Homer himself being realised in the drawings.
Look, for instance, at this picture of four figures. One in the centre, enveloped in his cloak and with his head bent, is clearly sad. The seated figure across from him, relaxed and confident, appears to be an eager and eloquent speaker. Another figure, on the far left, stands silently behind him and at the far right there is an old man. Could one imagine a more convincing depiction of Homer’s ninth book of the Iliad when Odysseus, Ajax and Phoenix come to try to persuade the reluctant Achilles to accept Agamemnon’s offers of restitution and pleas to rejoin the battle?
But wait a minute. Not everything is quite right about this picture. According to Homer Achilles was not silent and withdrawn but was singing and playing the lyre when he caught sight of the ambassadors and cordially greeted them. That’s one problem.
Another problem lies in identifying the visitors. At first glance it seems simple. The seated, eloquent speaker must be Odysseus, the old man at the right Phoenix, and the man behind Odysseus Ajax, but when you read the inscriptions, you discover that this last figure is not labelled Ajax, as expected, but Diomedes.
How can you explain these anomalies?
The sad, silent, withdrawn Achilles has no place in Homer, but he played a striking part in Aeschylus’ tragedy about the embassy to Achilles, Myrmidones. The play is now largely lost, but the impact it made on the audience has been preserved. Achilles, muffled in his rage, sat in silence for such a long time when confronted by the ambassadors (reduced to just Odysseus in Aeschylus’ tragedy) that it turned out to be a memorable coup de théâtre. Aeschylus declared that his tragedies were ‘slices from Homer’s banquet’, but it is clear that he added many tasty dishes of his own invention.
So, the image on the vase in Basel is not strictly an illustration of Homer nor of Aeschylus and proves, if proof were necessary, that vase painters were artists in their own right.
But what about Diomedes? He belongs neither to Homer nor to Aeschylus. It’s anyone’s guess what he is doing in this context. Here is mine: Diomedes was one of the boldest of the Greek warriors. According to Homer he spoke just before the embassy was proposed and just after it returned, and this may have brought him to the artist’s mind. More important, however, may have been Diomedes’ relationship to Odysseus. He often worked in partnership with Odysseus, for instance, in fetching Achilles from Skyros or overcoming the Trojan spy Dolon and even when stealing the Palladion and perhaps this association occurred to the vase painter when he named the man behind Odysseus. Odysseus’ relations with Ajax were, on the whole, not nearly so cordial. In an absent-minded moment, the artist may have let his knowledge of the mythological characters and their relationships outweigh the specific incident he was illustrating, After all, he was drawing imagery from both epic and theatre with no single text dominating his imagination, so it was easy for him to make a mistake when writing a name.
Another vase painting you think you may easily recognise from Homer shows Thetis tenderly embracing her son to whom she has just brought the fatal armour that Hephaistos has made for him. Achilles is still swathed in his grief over the death of Patroclus. Thetis’ Nereid sisters, Achilles’ aunts, stand by sympathetically holding helmet and shield.
Once again, what looks like straightforward illustration of Homer is not quite so straightforward. Homer has Thetis beseeching Hephaistos for the armour all on her own and bringing it to Achilles all by herself. No aunts are present.
The clue may come again from the muffled, withdrawn figure of Achilles and reminds us again of the influential stagecraft of Aeschylus. Another lost play of Aeschylus, Nereides, was about Thetis bringing the new armour to Achilles. It was remembered as spectacular. The chorus was composed of Nereids and their entry was apparently impressively produced.
Combining stories told by Homer with those of Aeschylus must have come naturally to a vase painter steeped in mythology – just as we accept his image so readily. And yet, images that are possible for a poet are not equally available to a painter or producer of tragedies. Homer had no trouble describing Thetis bringing the armour, but he didn’t have to load her up visually with helmet, corselet and grieves as well as the celebrated shield. In a tragedy or a painting, the sea goddess would have looked very odd indeed lumbered with all these bulky pieces of military equipment.
Of course, you know your Homer and of course so did the vase painters, but they also knew a lot more, too.
Susan Woodford used to lecture at the British Museum and teach art history at Birkbeck Extra-Mural. She also wrote An Introduction to Greek Art for A-Level Classical Civilisation students. Her special interest is in how myths are portrayed in art, as discussed in her Images of Myths in Classical Antiquity, which was awarded the Criticos Prize 2003, and The Trojan War in Ancient Art, both available in paperback.