A.S. Murray - in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London (1889-1891), Second series, vol.XIII, pp.100-103


A. S. MURRAY, Esq., LL.D., F.S.A., exhibited a cast of a fragment from a Tabula Iliaca, on which he read the following notes :

"It was part of the business of a grammarian in the Alexandrian age of Greek learning to construct for the use of his pupils epitomes and tables of contents drawn up from the books that were to be read. An example of this has survived in a MS. at Leyden, known as the school book of Dositheus ; this Dositheus having been a grammarian who lived about A.D. 200. In those days, and for some time thereafter, the most popular books of instruction were the Iliad, and the various other poems which turned on the Trojan war. And it was then that those verses which now stand at the head of each book of the Iliad, to indicate its contents, were composed. Apparently also it was then that the several books of the Iliad were first numbered with letters. Of course, there was much else done in the way of commentary. But for the present I wish only to consider the epitomes ; and in connection with them the interesting question, how far were they accompanied by illustrations. We know of illustrated MSS. such as the famous Virgil, and probably the Virgil is a survivor of a whole series of older MSS.

But we want illustrated epitomes for school use, and for these we must turn to a small series of marble tablets, or rather fragments of tablets, which have been found at various times from the seventeenth century in Rome or its neighbourhood. In nearly all cases these tablets are sculptured with scenes connected with the Trojan war, drawn from the Iliad, Odyssey, Cypria, the Little Iliad by the poet Lesches, and the Aethiopis by Arctinos. The inscriptions which accompany the reliefs leave us in no doubt on these points. It is therefore appropriate to call them Tabulae Iliacae. Altogether there were ten of these fragments known in 1873, when Jahn's Chronikenbilder was published, in which they are collected and edited with great care and thoroughness. Since then M. Rayet has published a finely preserved fragment found by M. Thierry in his excavations at Tivoli, which proves to be part of the Little Iliad. It is inscribed : ΙΛΙΑΣ ΜEΙΚΡΑ ΚΑ[κατὰ Λέσχην Πυρρᾶιον]. Dr. Weber is now fortunate in being able to add one more to the list.

He obtained it in Italy, and we may suppose that like the rest it had been found in the neighbourhood of Rome. The material is giallo antico, as is also the material of several others. From the thinness of these tablets, and the fact that most of them have small holes pierced in them, it would seem as if they had been pinned against the wall ; but this does not apply to them all, because some have designs or inscriptions on both sides. In two of the fragments there occurs the name of a certain Theodoros, who in the one case appears as the artist and in the other as the person who drew up the epitome. Possibly he had been a man of learning, who like Philostratos had been trained in his youth to the practice of art.

In Dr. Weber's fragment the smaller group at the top represents Achilles dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot round the walls of Troy. Underneath Hector is written his name, ΕΚΤΩΡ. In front of Achilles is his name also, [ΑΧ]ΙΛΛΕΥΣ. The scene is, therefore, from book XXIII of the Iliad, which fact ought to be indicated somewhere on the marble by the letter X, equivalent to XXIII. This same group occurs on the large fragment in the Capitoline Museum, but by no means in so good preservation. Dr. Weber's fragment is clear and explicit. We see Automedon leaning over his horses and lashing them to full speed. Achilles turns round to look at an armed man who follows hard with spear in hand. If this armed figure is some leading Trojan who cannot endure to look on while Hector's body is being dragged in the dust, that would account for the speed at which the chariot of Achilles is being driven and for the attitude of Achilles himself. But if we turn to the Iliad, we find no indication of any Trojan having pursued the chariot of Achilles. On the contrary, we are told expressly that the aged Priam would himself have rushed out of the gates of Troy, had his frightened warriors allowed him. Jahn, in discussing this group as he found it on the Capitoline tablet, supposed that the figure pursuing the chariot was one of the Greeks who just before had been looking on while Achilles spoiled the armour of Hector. But the attitude of the figure is too hostile for that. Besides, in such a case the speed of Achilles was quite unnecessary. I can only conjecture that this hostile figure is Aeneas, and that he had been introduced into the group to suit the taste of the Romans who traced their lineage to him, and to show that though there is no warrant for the pursuit of Achilles in the Iliad, yet the Trojans were not the cowards on this occasion that Homer makes them out to be.

Lower down on Dr. Weber's fragment we have a group on a larger scale representing, as far as it goes, Achilles and Athena. But it does not follow that this is a later scene in the Iliad, because it is lower down in the relief. In fact, the scenes on the Capitoline table go in order from bottom to top, and clearly we have the same order here. Achilles is still unarmed. We must go back at one step from book XXIII. of the Iliad to book XIX, 352, where Athena comes and gives Achilles nectar and ambrosia, whereupon he rouses himself and proceeds to put on the new armour which, in the beginning of that book, Thetis and her Nereids had brought him. The curious thing is, that in the Iliad, at this point, Athena does not appear to him as a goddess, but comes in the form of a harpy. This view of her appearance, however, seems to have been discarded in Greek art, for we find a painted Greek vase on which she, in her proper person, stands before Achilles and urges him to arise and gird himself. This Greek vase supplies us with just that modification of the Iliad which we require. Only our group goes a step further, and shows us the effect of Athena's remonstrance, her nectar and ambrosia. Achilles has roused himself and clutches at the shield of Athena.

In the Capitoline fragment at this particular place we see Achilles standing nude, but beginning to put on his armour. At one side of him are the Nereids who have brought his new armour. At the other side is a female figure wearing a helmet and carrying a helmet. She has been explained as Thetis. But Thetis could, under no circumstances, wear a helmet on her head. The figure must clearly be Athena, and the group must include that later stage of book XIX, where Athena appears on the scene, in the form of a harpy as the poem says, but in her own form as art says.

But now comes the question of the shield which she bears on her arm. If it is her own shield, as it clearly seems to be from her manner of holding it, why should Achilles clutch at it when the Nereids have just lately brought him his own new shield ? I should suppose that the artist merely wished to indicate the eagerness of Achilles to be armed when once, under the influence of Athena, he had roused himself. To judge from her attitude, as I have said, the shield is plainly her own. She had had nothing to do with the bringing of the new armour. Besides, on the other tablets, where the new shield of Achilles is represented, it displays an obvious attempt to reproduce the famous scenes sculptured on it by Hephaestos. On the shield here we have for device a bird's-eye view of the walled town of Troy, with the Greek ships in the foreground, Τρώων τε πόλις καὶ νῆες Ἀχαιῶν, just such a view as we find on the Capitoline tablet. Athena, in her character of Polias, the defender, or on occasion the destroyer, of cities, would rightly have such a device on her shield, all the more so when the device pointed specially to the town of Troy.

As a result of these considerations it would seem to follow that where discrepancies exist between our text of the Iliad and ancient illustrations of it, we need not at once suppose that our text is wrong, but rather that artists, in obedience to the laws of their own art, or for other ends, may often have been obliged to introduce modifications of the scenes. It may be otherwise in dealing with archaic Greek representations of Trojan scenes produced in an early age when as yet the text of the Iliad was not finally put together. Under such circumstances there may well be discrepancies between the illustrations and our text. Even in these cases something may be due to the artist, who, for the sake of a better composition, perhaps, might desert the strict letter of the text. It is not necessary, as often happens now, to suppose that he had been acquainted with some other version of the poem, not known to us, which would suit him better in this or that detail. He might do many things that a philologist would not do. But in later works of art, such as these Tabulae Iliacae, the probability is that any divergence which they present from the text of the Homeric poems, as we now have them, was due to artistic motives or to some tradition independent of the poems. In any case Dr. Weber's fragment is an interesting addition to this small series of reliefs, both on account of its subjects and because of the clearness with which they are represented."