Representations of Memnon in Archaic Greek Pottery
By Maggie Yuan
Ancient Greek literary sources paint a complex picture of race and ethnicity, in which no consensus surrounding the parameters of identity exists. In particular, these sources differ in the way they portray Aethiopians; while some describe them as a “savage” people, others like Herodotus create an aura of mysticism around them (3.20-3.22). Material artifacts, such as pottery, only complicate this narrative further. Memnon, the mythological Aethiopian king at the time of the Trojan War, is found on many vases of the Archaic period. One might expect him to be portrayed in opposition to the Greeks on pottery, with contrasting physical features and clothing, but that is not necessarily the case. In fact, he seems to be depicted like many other Greek heroes such as Achilles. In most of these scenes, little evidence points to his Aethiopian ancestry, although this would have been common knowledge to the Greeks. There are a few scenes in pottery where Memnon commonly appears. For example, one scene depicts Memnon’s body being carried off by his mother Eos back to Aethiopia. Another depicts his psychostasia, symbolizing Memnon’s inherent goodness and piety. By looking at these two common scenes, it becomes clear that Memnon is neither Ethiopian nor Greek, but perhaps in a category of his own.
A common scene depicted on Archaic pottery is the duel between Achilles and Memnon described in the lost work Aethiopis, which takes place after the events of the Iliad. In these scenes, Achilles and Memnon face each other fully armed with weapons drawn. Typically, such scenes are identifiable without names because two women stand on either side of Achilles and Memnon—often their mothers Thetis and Eos, respectively. In addition, the scenes often show the body of a fallen soldier underneath Achilles’ and Memnon’s feet; this is typically thought to be Antilochus, the son of Nestor whom Memnon killed.
On the Attic red-figure krater (Figure 1), identifying each figure is simple, as the figures are labeled. The dead soldier lying at the bottom of the pottery is identified here as ‘Melanippos.’ To the right stands Memnon, holding a sword and a shield with a Gorgon head on it. Predictably, he is supported by his mother Eos on his right, who wears a crown and long, draped robes. His stance indicates he has just been stabbed by Achilles, as he is falling backwards into his mother’s arms (Boston MFA description). On the left is Achilles, wearing similar-looking armor and using the same weapons as Memnon. Behind him stands Athena, cloaked in her aegis; she is replacing Thetis in this scene. Memnon and Achilles are dressed nearly identically, aside from different designs on their breastplates. However, nothing on Memnon’s breastplate signifies his foreignness or his Aethiopian identity.
On the Attic black-figure amphora (Figure 2), a similar scene is displayed, albeit with no labels. Because the male figures are once again nearly identical, there is not much evidence to determine which figure is Achilles and which is Memnon. However, differences in their clothing may serve to highlight their different ethnicities. The figure on the left wears a long cloak and visible breastplate. On the other hand, the figure on the right wears an elaborately designed piece of clothing, lacking both a breastplate and cloak. In addition, the figure on the right holds a shield decorated with a snake, lion, and Gorgon head. Put together with Figure 1, one can assume that Achilles stands on the left and Memnon on the right. However, the hair arrangements of the two men, a typical marker of foreignness, are identical. The addition of the bird in this scene may represent Memnon’s soul, as the duel ends in his death. If not for the two women standing behind the men, the figures could just as easily represent two random Greek soldiers.
According to one scholar, the symmetry in the dueling scenes indicates a “balance inherent in the myth” (Burgess 38). Often, the duel between Memnon and Achilles is compared to the duel between Hector and Achilles; in each duel, the soldiers are considered evenly matched and only fate decides the victor. As such, depictions of ethnic difference would not necessarily be at the forefront of the artist’s mind. Instead, their goal might be to hide Memnon’s ethnic identity in order to highlight the balance between the two soldiers; any differences in clothing may simply be to identify which is which. However, that does not mean artists did not see ethnic differences. As analysis of the next scene shows, markers of ethnic and racial difference were not uncommon in depictions of Memnon.
In many pieces of pottery, Memnon is depicted with two Aethiopian attendants surrounding him. These attendants often have different facial features and wear different clothing from Memnon. What do these markers of difference mean—can we assume they indicate a difference in ethnicity between Memnon and his attendants?
On an Attic amphora made by Exekias, Memnon stands in the middle, flanked by attendants facing him on either side (Figure 3). Although his face is covered by a helmet, he is set apart from his attendants by the garb they wear. Memnon is fully armed and clothed in a breastplate, short chiton, and leg armor. In addition, his hair is long and set in three curls; he also has a beard. In fact, he more closely resembles Achilles, who is depicted on the other side of the same amphora (Figure 4). Much like in the duel scenes, Memnon and Achilles wear similar armor and have the same hairstyle; they are nearly indistinguishable from each other. Therefore, it is important to take note of their surroundings to identify the men. Achilles is identifiable in his scene because he is slaying an armored woman, the Amazon Penthesilea (Figure 4). On the other hand, Memnon is identified by the two attendants surrounding him. The attendants wear their hair in cropped curls and lack the beard that Memnon has; their noses are also visibly upturned, as opposed to Memnon’s nose, which is covered by his helmet. Even if their physical features are not taken as markers of their ethnic difference, both attendants hold a club in their right hand, which is markedly different from the weapon Memnon has, a spear. Taken together, these differences in both weapons and physical features seem to place Memnon in opposition to his attendants. However, the figures’ relationship is more complicated than simply “opposition.” Because Memnon himself is Aethiopian, there must be a reason why he is displayed in a manner more consistent with Greek culture. An interesting point of note is that Memnon is consistently wearing a helmet, obscuring most of his face. In fact, it is possible that his helmet acts as a cover of sorts, allowing the artist to render him ethnically ambiguous to avoid answering the question of whether he is Greek or Aethiopian.
Interestingly, another amphora attributed to Exekias displays a man similar in appearance to the attendants in Figure 3. On this amphora, the man on the left side, labeled Amasos, is stabbed by Menelaos while attempting to flee from him (Figure 5). In the description from the Penn Museum, Amasos is identifiable through his “African features” (Penn Museum description). Such terminology raises questions about what sort of features are perceived as “African,” and whether the ancient Greeks would have also seen those features as African. While this question has no definitive answer, one can still observe that Amasos stands out from the other figures on the amphora. Specifically, his lack of clothing stands in direct contrast to the Greek soldiers, who all wear varying levels of armor. In addition, he holds a club, while the Greek soldiers hold spears. These differences may indicate the ‘otherness’ of Amasos since they do not characterize Greek soldiers like Menelaos. By comparing Amasos and the two attendants, one can begin to understand that markers of ethnic difference were not uncommon in Archaic Greek pottery. In addition, the comparison casts doubt on whether the ethnicity of these figures can ever be accurately assigned, or whether all assignments rely on some level of guesswork.
On the terracotta amphora (Figure 6), a similar scene depicts Memnon turned toward the left, surrounded by his attendants. Although it is more difficult to tell what clothes Memnon is wearing in this scene, his helmet and shin guards indicate he is probably wearing armor underneath his shield. His attendants are wearing what are possibly breastplates, though they are evidently not fully dressed in armor like Memnon is. However, what is interesting about this vase is the individual differences between the attendants. While the attendant on the right side is bearded, the one on the left is not. In many cases, hair plays an important role in the identification of ‘otherness,’ but the fact that these attendants differ in hair style suggests hair may not be significant in this case. This marker becomes more confusing when compared to the amphora in Figure 3, where Memnon is differentiated from his attendants through his beard. There could be many reasons for the contrast, from the artist’s choice to the artistic style. More interestingly, in the description from the Metropolitan Museum, the attendants are called “Ethiopian squires,” unlike the descriptions from the Penn and British Museum, which simply represent the attendants as “African.” However, there does not seem to be any evidence indicating these attendants are Aethiopian. In fact, Memnon is not even labeled on the amphora, which would have justified this hypothesis more.
If Memnon is Aethiopian like his attendants are, then why is he portrayed differently? One possible explanation is that Memnon is seen as Achilles’ equal, and therefore must be portrayed like Achilles; this explanation falls into line with Scene 1 (the dueling scenes). In this explanation, the attendants may simply serve to identify the figure of Memnon, as ancient audiences would have known he was not Greek. However, this explanation assumes that an ancient audience would have recognized the attendants as Aethiopian, which imposes modern ideas of racial construction onto the past. As such, there is no fully adequate explanation that answers this question. The only conclusion that can be drawn at this point is that Greek artists recognized racial difference; the trap we must avoid is assuming that such depictions of racial difference provide evidence for a racial hierarchy. In fact, because Memnon was known to be Aethiopian himself, the opposite might in fact be true. As an ancient mythological hero revered for his honor and strength, he would not have been viewed differently from other mythological heroes solely based on his ethnicity. Instead, Memnon’s depictions may have been part of a greater theme of depicting mythological heroes in a specific style. Rather than being drawn to fit his Aethiopian background, he may have been viewed and depicted as part of the class of mythological figures who loom larger than life.
Yet, based on the evidence surrounding depictions of Memnon, it is clear that Greeks in the Archaic period recognized ethnic differences. As such, Memnon’s depiction as culturally Greek may have been a deliberate choice. On the other hand, his depiction may provide insight into what the most important forms of identity were; for Memnon, his identity as an ancient mythological hero seems to take priority over his ethnicity. Though nothing can be answered definitively, more work must be done in order to unbind Memnon’s depictions from current perceptions of race and ethnicity.
Maggie Yuan (College ’25) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and International Relations.
Artist near Exekias. Terracotta neck-amphora (jar). 530 BCE. Metropolitan Museum, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/246725. Accessed 12 Mar. 2023.
Burgess, Jonathan S. “Early Images of Achilles and Memnon?” Quaderni Urbinati Di Cultura Classica, vol. 76, no. 1, 2004, pp. 33–51. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/20546800. Accessed 12 Mar. 2023.
Exekias. amphora. 535 BCE. British Museum, www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1849-0518-10. Accessed 12 Mar. 2023.
—. Amphora. 540-530 BCE. Penn Museum, www.penn.museum/collections/object/259763. Accessed 12 Mar. 2023.
The Tyszkiewicz Painter. Mixing bowl (calyx krater) depicting dueling scenes from the Trojan war. 490-480 B.C.E. MFA Boston, collections.mfa.org/objects/153649. Accessed 12 Mar. 2023.