Clash of the Dicers

This animation was created for The Museum Artefact and Cultural Space, a conference co-organised by Sonya at University College Dublin.

It shows Achilles (left) and Ajax during the Trojan War.

about the animation

The vase used in the Clash of the Dicers was made in Athens around 540-530BCE.  It is signed by the famous potter Exekias and is now housed in the Vatican Museum.

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.  Achilles and Ajax were cousins, as their fathers, Peleus and Telamon, were brothers.  They were both tremendous warriors.  In the Iliad, Ajax is often said to be second only to Achilles (Iliad, 2.768; 13.321; 17.279).  According to the mythic tradition, Ajax killed himself after the death of Achilles, when the Greeks awarded Achilles’ arms and armour to Odysseus instead of Ajax.  The fallout of the award of arms is the subject of an ancient tragedy, Sophocles’ Ajax).

There has been speculation that this gaming scene depicts a now-lost episode from ancient epic.  Most scholars have rejected this idea, saying that the scene works on its own without the need for a detailed back-story.  Véronique Dasen has argued that the scene is a metaphor for archaic Greek aristocratic values and training.  This training urged people to compete at everything, always aspiring to be the best.  Board games required skill, but were also subject to chance.  Competing in them developed strategic thinking, but also the emotional resilience to cope with set-backs.  Clash of the Dicers suggests that Ajax needs to keep training; he loses his cool, much as he would do later when Achilles’ arms went to Odysseus.

©  Vatican Museum (344).

Photo Steven Zucker.

The reverse of the vase features Helen’s family.  Helen of Troy, as she became known, 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.

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, right, 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) argue that that date is 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 Museum (343).  Photo from Schefold , 1992

© Metropolitan Museum

(56.171.29) c.510BCE

Athena appears between the players in a high percentage of the Achilles-Ajax scenes.  The vase on the left is a hydria by a painter from the influential Leagros Group.  The version on the right is a narrower lekythos vase.  In both instances, Athena wears her characteristic aegis cloak and her flesh is picked out in white paint - a common way of depicting females on black figure vases.  Athena was thought to have taken a keen interest in the Greek heroes at Troy, and this is reflected in the vase-makers' decision to include her in this scene.

© MFA Boston (95.15)  c.500BCE

© MFA Boston (01.8037)  c.500BCE

This amphora, made between 530-520BCE, shows the same scene in two styles.

This is a bilingual vase, with 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).

It is now housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (01.8037).

The gaming scene was also attempted on white ground lekythoi, such as the one to the right, which was made in the workshop of the Diosphos painter and is now housed in the Louvre.  While the white ground surface creates a clear surface for the painter to work on, the narrowness of the vessel squeezes the scene, which is more effectively shown on wider vessels such as amphora and cups.  The Louvre lekythos has a tree rather than Athena in the centre.  In a further novelty, Achilles and Ajax crouch at the gaming board rather than sitting on seats.  This gives the impression that they could stand up and leave at any moment.

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).

© Louvre

(MNB 911.  ABL 112)  c.500 BCE

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.

©  Vatican Museum (344).

Photo Steven Zucker.

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.

This differentiation between Achilles and Ajax is reflected in the Clash of the Dicers animation.  Ajax’s greater tension is shown through his scrutiny of the board and his rising frustration and anger.  Achilles appears more relaxed throughout and ultimately wins the game.  He gestures to the gods to thank them for his victory - an appropriate act for the son of a goddess.  In a similar vein, vases that include Athena in the gaming scene tend to have her facing towards Achilles to show his primacy and his special relationship with the gods.  Achilles and Ajax are almost equal but, ultimately, it is Achilles who is the greatest of the Greeks.


The music is an excerpt from 'Tin kardia m'tin klidomeni' by Kristi Stassinopoulou. © Lyra.

vase details

Attic, black figure amphora, 540-530BCE, depicting Achilles and Ajax gaming, with the family of Helen with a horse on the reverse.  Signed by Exekias.  Vatican Museum, Rome (Accession Number: 344).

further reading

V. Dasen, ‘Achille et Ajax: quand l’agôn s’allie à l’alea’,

Revue du Mauss, Vol. 46 (2015) 81-98

G. Hedreen, Capturing Troy:  The Narrative Functions of Landscape in Archaic and Early Classical Greek Art (UMP, 2001)

E. Moignard, Master of Attic Black-Figure Painting: The Art and Legacy of Exekias.  (I.B. Tauris, 2015)

M.B. Moore, 'Exekias and Telamonian Ajax,’ in

The American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 84.4, (1980) pp. 417-434

K. Schefold, Gods and Heroes in Late Archaic Greek Art

(CUP, 1992)

L.M. Schneider, 'Compositional and Psychological Use of the Spear in Two Vase Paintings by Exekias: A Note on Style,’ in

The American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 72.4, (1968) pp. 385-386

S. Woodford, 'Ajax and Achilles Playing a Game on an Olpe in Oxford,’ in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 102, (1982) pp. 173-185

S. Woodford, The Trojan War in Ancient Art (Duckworth Press, 1993)

follow-up activities

1)  Ask your students to work in small groups to write (and perhaps perform) some dialogue for the animation.

2)  Create alternative stories and storyboards for Achilles and Ajax’s game.

3)  Have your students been learning about Achilles (or Ajax)? Invite them to pick a moment from his life to depict on a vase.  Then ask them to show the rest of the group their drawings and to explain their choices.

follow-up viewing

A full campaign:  Hoplites! Greek at War

A warrior departs:  Well-Wishers

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