Plate with scenes from the childhood of Achilles
Thessaloniki (?), mid-4th century
Silver, diameter 53 cm
Römermuseum in Augst, Switzerland
The elaborate relief decoration of the almost perfectly preserved octagonal plate was first hammered out in repoussé; details were then added by tracing and chasing. In the corners are eight heads in pairs; Thetis and Achilles alternate with Diomedes and Odysseus. The circular relief band contains ten scenes separated by spirally fluted columns; an eleventh scene serves as a tondo.
The narrative begins at the bottom and "reads" counterclockwise. Scene 1: the birth of Achilles: Thetis reclines on a couch; the nurse addresses her with lively gestures, while Achilles sits precociously on the floor, calling for his bath. A fluted basin is at the right. Scene 2: holding her son by his heels, Thetis dips him into a river in the presence of a pair of river nymphs, who personify the Styx and the Kokytos. At the right the nurse stands ready with a bowl and towel. Scene 3: Thetis presents Achilles to the centaur Cheiron to be educated ; at the left is the nurse with a basket, containing Achilles' belongings. Scene 4: dinner in the cave; Achilles sits above the remains of a boar and lion. Cheiron holds a leopard. Scene 5: hunting a boar and leopard; Achilles is about to throw the javelin. Scene 6: in the presence of the nurse, Achilles studies the alphabet; on the wax tablets are inscribed A, B, Γ, Δ, E. Scene 7: Achilles practices with the discus. The lyre, propped against a column, shows that he is also studying music. Scene 8: leavetaking; Thetis and the nurse have come for Achilles, who reluctantly says goodbye. Scene 9: Thetis takes Achilles, disguised as a girl, to the island of Skyros, to be brought up among the daughters of King Lykomedes, far from the dangers of warfare. Achilles (or Pyrrha, as he will be called) greets the king. Scene 10: the king's daughters are spinning; Achilles plays the lyre as one daughter, Deidamia, listens intently. A woman enters at the left. Scene 11 (tondo): Achilles is tricked into revealing his identity. Diomedes and Odysseus have come to take him to Troy; the trumpeter sounds the call to arms, while Achilles impetuously seizes the weapons set out for him. Deidamia clutches him for they have become lovers. Achilles stands in the vortex of opposing tensions; this scene, symbolizing the moment of choice, was a frequent subject in ancient art.
The narrative has numerous parallels in other works, including a late Roman chariot with bronze reliefs. Several of the narratives take the story up to the Trojan War and Achilles' death. Weitzmann has shown that this rich picture cycle must be derived from the illustrations of a lost literary work on the life of Achilles.
The silver plate surpasses the other members of this picture recension in the fullness of detail and the coherence of its narrative. Scenes 1 through 10 are in the brisk style of papyrus illustration; the tondo scene may have a similar source but was also influenced by elaborate versions of the subject in major painting and on sarcophagi. The narrative of the plate is easily followed: although the figures are heavy and their faces inexpressive, they speak a lively language of gesture, which facilitates our recognition of characters and story. Incised on the bottom of the plate is the name of the maker, Pausylypos of Thessaloniki, demonstrably a master silversmith.
The plate belongs to a silver hoard discovered in 1961-1962 at Augst, Switzerland. This hoard, buried after 351, was initially associated with the departure of Julian the Apostate for the East in 361. In this case the plate may have belonged to the emperor, who venerated Achilles as a model of heroic virtue. However, recent studies of the coins from the hoard have suggested that it was buried slightly earlier, during the revolt in 350 of the ill-fated Magnentius.