Plate with Achilles and Briseis 

4th century

Silver, D. 70 cm

 

This very large plate, or missorium, has a low foot. The surface is filled by a mythological scene surrounded by a border of pomegranates. There is a long tear between border and central scene from the upper left to lower right. This has been repaired by rivets from the back. Extensive damage at the raised knee of the nude figure at the lower right has also been repaired in modern times. There are traces of gilding on the stool at the center and on the hair and helmets of the figures at the right. Two modern coats-of-arms are engraved on the back of the plate.

The mythological representation contains references to at least three critical events in the participation of Achilles in the Trojan War. In the center the beardless man, his garment fallen from his chest, must be Achilles. He is seated frontally but turns to the right to a bearded man in a short chiton. On the left is the most easily identifiable group: Patroclus leads Briseis from Achilles' tent (Homer Iliad 1. 326-356). Chabouillet's  interpretation of the scene as the reconciliation of Agamemnon and Achilles (Iliad 19. 184-337) has been rejected convincingly by Levi and Carandini. Yet in the Iliad Agamemnon's heralds do not speak to Achilles. It is there- fore impossible that the bearded man with whom Achilles speaks is a herald ; his manner of dress and his bearing are hardly humble. The heralds are, in fact, certainly the helmeted figures farther to the right. A scene commonly conflated with the departure of Briseis is the arrival of the embassy of Phoenix (Iliad 9. 162-657). Thus, on this plate, Achilles is addressing Odysseus, who spoke for the embassy. The table on the extreme right, with a vase and other objects, must refer to the banquet held on this occasion. The other figures around Achilles should be Phoenix and Ajax and the Myrmidons, Achilles' companions. The strange nude man seated at the lower right remains unexplained by this conflation. Around his waist is slung a sword. A similar nude figure on a silver vase of early imperial date found at Bernay in France and now in the Bibliotheque Nationale is connected with the death of Patroclus. The scattered weapons at the bottom probably refer to the general theme of battle, yet a silver plate at the State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (Plate with the Judgment of Arms) of a later period depicts Athena presiding over the distribution of Achilles' arms after his death. On the left of this plate is a large nude Ajax, who can be compared with the seated figures of this plate and the Bernay vase. On the right is Odysseus in a pose comparable to the figure identified as Odysseus on this plate. In the lower segment are a helmet, cuirass, and boots, the armor of Achilles. These may simply have been multiplied and varied on the plate here. Thus, this plate contains references to the three events in the participation of Achilles in the Trojan War: the leading away of Briseis, the embassy of Phoenix, and the death of Patroclus. A possible reference to a fourth event, the death of Achilles, may be seen in the armor.

The plate is difficult to date with precision but resembles in ornament and style other silver plates of the fourth century. Its place of manufacture is unknown, but it was found in the Rhone near Avignon in 1656. It was long known as the Shield of Scipio, because the scene was thought to depict that famous Roman. Among the largest known of its kind, the plate indicates the size and luxury of antique silverwork commissioned by pagans and Christians alike.

 

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016