This pot, or vase, is formally called the Euphronios krater. It dates from about 515 BC – Euphronios was the painter, Euxitheos the potter – and it presents the death of Sarpedon as narrated in the Iliad.. Sleep and Death are come to take home the body of Sarpedon, the king of the Lykians who had come to fight for Troy, and lay it down in green pastures. It is a powerful scene, dense with allusions and metaphor, with the figure of Sarpedon unique in Greek vase painting.
All the characters are named in writing that goes sometimes from left to right, and sometimes right to left. The potter, Euxitheos, has signed it over behind Sleep to the left -- Euxitheos epoiesen.. Euxitheos made it. And Euphronios signed Euphronios egrap[sen?] – Euphronios painted it.
But when you look at the reverse side of this pot, it is quite a simple scene, conventional, unemotional: young men arming themselves for battle. Two of them have shields with armored animals – a crab and a scorpion. This image reminds me of young Simoeisios at Troy. Look at this simile:
. . . struck him as he first came forward beside the nipple
of the right breast, and the bronze spearhead drove clean through the shoulder.
He dropped then to the ground in the dust, like some black poplar,
which in the land low-lying about a great marsh grows
smooth trimmed yet with branches growing at the uttermost tree-top:
one whom a man, a maker of chariots, fells with the shining
iron, to bend it into a wheel for a fine-wrought chariot,
and the tree lies hardening by the banks of a river. 4.480ff.
In this simile, Simoeisios is transformed into a tree, and like the young man the tree falls, and like the young man it is cut down by iron and is made into a chariot and becomes itself a part of the war maching to continue making missing sons.
And some of the poignancy of this great image of Sarpedon is that because Zeus is his father, his particular fate could have been prevented. Now look at the simile that accompanies Sarpedon's death – it is almost the same image as that used for Simoeiseis:
the shaft struck where the beating heart is closed in the arch of the muscles.
He fell, as when an oak goes down or a white poplar,
or like a towering pine tree which in the mountains the carpenters
have hewn down with their whetted axes to make a ship-timber. 16.481ff
A timber for a ship, like those that brought men to Troy, and dead Sarpedon is tall and lean like a towerig pine. Again there is that suggestion of being returned to the war machine – remember the young men arming on the other side of the krater – well, this krater has LEAGROS KALOS beautiful Leagros written on both sides, over the dead man and over the young men – this krater was at the least intended as a reminder of a memorable young man.
Eleven inscriptions by Euphronios alone have been found dedicated to Leagros – and nearly seventy by other artists. Leagros must have been absolutely stunning. The inscription on one pot is Leagros Kalos kai xi – Leagros is handsome, and how! It is known that his family lived near the Athens Keramikos, and very possibly he modelled on occasion for artists. When Euphronios was considerably older, he made a pot that was dedicated to Glaukon son of Leagros. Like all young Athenians, Leagros went to war, and was respected enough to be elected strategos, general, and in his turn he was killed in war, probably in 467 – acting and reenacting the images on this krater and in Homer.
Sarpedon goes down like a great tree, and that should be a moving image in itself, but neither his father nor we are spared a thing:
. . . he lay there felled in front of his horses and chariots
roaring, and clawed with his hands at the bloody dust . . .
He died raging .
The great classicist, Bernard Knox, was a volunteer in the Spanish Civil war. In the battle of Madrid, a bullet went through his neck & shoulder & ruptured his carotid artery. The medics let him know he was dying. In a published lecture, he told how he felt:
I was consumed with rage furious, violent rage Why me? I was just 21 and had barely begun living my life. Why should I have to die? It was unjust. And, as I felt my whole being sliding into nothingness, I cursed. I cursed God and the world and everyone in it as the darkness fell.
Sarpedon died raging, and Homer is relentless:
. . and Patroklos, stepping heel braced to chest, dragged
the spear out of his body, and the midriff came away with it
so that he drew out with the spearhead the life of Sarpedon.
The battle continues for some time before
Apollo ...When the Metropolitan acquired this pot, I travelled to New York from Washington to see it. In the two and a half years I taught in New York, I made at least 18 visits to take my students, and when it was about to be repatriated, I travelled to New York from Seattle to see it for the last time. So I was amazed and profoundly moved to encouter it in Athens, in the new Acropolis Museum, in an exhibit called Nostoi (Returns). All the other Homeric nostoi are of the living and they are in the Odyssey. Sarpedon's is the only nostos of a dead man.
lifting brilliant Sarpedon out from under the weapons
carried him far away, and washed him in a running river,
and anointed him . . .
then gave him into the charge
of Sleep and Death who are twin brothers, and these two
laid him down within the rich countryside of broad Lykia.