The Greeks liked their wine watered down. Their taste for drama, on the other hand, was fantastically heady.
This “krater,” a bowl for mixing water with wine, is one of the finest things in the superb collection of Greek and Roman art at the Museum of Fine Arts. It was made for use in symposia, those curious drinking parties for Greek men that were part salon, part soiree, part strip club. Its painted decorations would likely have stimulated discussion — at least until other stimulations took over.
But can you really describe images of rape, desperate escape, and merciless bludgeoning as “decorations”?
Mixing bowl (krater) with scenes from the fall of Troy
Depicted on the bowl are events that took place on the night the Greeks sacked Troy. What’s curious about them is that they don’t cast the Greeks in a good light.
That’s especially striking when you consider that Greece, when this bowl was made (around 470-460 BC), was at the height of its much imitated but still unsurpassed civilization. And yet here its artists were, depicting themselves as rampaging barbarians, capable not only of thinking the worst but of doing it.
Imagine pouring wine from a bottle decorated not with pictures of vineyards or stately chateaux but of scenes from Abu Ghraib. Something similar is going on here.
“No tongue,” wrote Virgil, “could describe the carnage of that night and its orgy of death.” Not even Homer was up to the task; the story is told in neither the “Odyssey” nor the “Iliad.”
But it was described in pictures.
The images on this bowl predate Virgil’s written account (in “The Aeneid,” Book 2) by 450 years. They show how Cassandra — daughter of Troy’s King Priam (and eclipsed in earthly beauty only by Helen) — was dragged from the temple of Athena by the Greek warrior Ajax. Seeking sanctuary from the pandemonium unleashed by the Greeks’ treacherous attack, she was praying before a wooden statue of the goddess.
See her now beside it, on her knees, naked, convulsed with anguish, Ajax tugging her violently by the arm. Stripped of all protection — the goddess’s, her father’s — she is about to be raped.
And where is her father?
Pour a little more wine, turn the bowl, and you will see him. White of beard, rich of robe, King Priam sits on his throne, dignity incarnate.
Except that — surely not? — he is being bludgeoned to death by the body of his own grandson, Astyanax. Rigid and lifeless in the hands of the Greek warrior Neoptolemus (son of the dead Achilles), little Astyanax has been reduced to a weapon of war.
It is Priam’s worst, and his final, moment. He has already lost his son Hector at the hands of Achilles; his other son, Polites, was killed moments ago. Those lavish robes, cascading over his throne, will soon be soaked in blood — his own and his grandson’s. A whole kingly line wiped out in the cruelest possible way.
Aeneas, in the bowl’s other main image, is meanwhile making his dramatic escape, bravely carrying his own ailing father on his back. He will lose his wife on the way out. But he will go on to found Rome (at least in Virgil’s account).
They liked their wine, the Greeks. But there was nothing blurry about their vision. They saw, as their art attests, with utmost clarity. And a willingness to see themselves at their worst was part of their lucid vision.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.