Doloneia Relief Slab

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About This Artefact

I.D. no102012

Dimensions: H. 43 cm; L. 49 cm; Th. (slab) 3.2 cm; Max. Th. (including relief) 0.7 cm.

Material: Fine-grain white marble. ‘Pentelic’[1]

Provenance: Mdina-Rabat (‘Notabile’), Malta[2]

Current location: National Museum of Archaeology

Condition: The slab survives in good condition, but both lower corners are broken. Two small horizontal holes have been drilled in the thickness of each side, in one of which traces remain of a metallic dowel. This might indicate that the slab was attached to some architectural feature, possibly to other slabs of the same size to form a frieze. Two other round holes perforate the slab right through, the larger one between the legs of the central figure, the smaller one between the legs of the figure on the right. A curved cut is also noted just above the chipped lower right corner.

Description: Three figures are carved in very low relief on a plain, neutral background: two armed warriors in heroic nudity flanking a shorter young man in a distinctively oriental costume.

The warrior on the left, the more seemingly senior one, is shown in profile to right, with the upper torso and right leg facing out. He is bearded and wears an unusual version of a ‘Corinthian’ helmet without cheek guards, and a very short mantle of animal skin whose ends are joined by a knot on the right shoulder and which covers only half of his chest. In his right hand he brandishes a short sword and with left hand he grabs one of the flaps of the ‘Phrygian’ cap of the oriental figure.

The latter is portrayed in movement to the left but turns his face back to the warrior on the right. Apart from the ‘Phrygian’ cap, he is wearing a typically Asiatic tight fitting costume that covers his whole body, including the arms and legs and, on top of it, a loose-hanging cloak held by clasps on the shoulders.

The younger-looking warrior on the right is clean-shaven and armed with a spear and shield, held together by his left arm, while with his right fist he grasps what looks like a rope coming out from behind the central figure. He wears a slightly different version of a ‘Corinthian’ helmet and a short chlamys that flutters behind him. He is shown almost completely frontal but turns his head in profile towards the prisoner.

The treatment of the faces and bare body parts is somewhat sketchy and dry with some details, such as the eyes and hands, suggesting an unfinished work rather than resulting from wear or mechanical erosion. The drapery shows greater sensitivity and ability of execution even if subjected to a degree of convention and schematism.

The faces seem to be intended to emanate diverse expressions: of irony and even disdain in the warrior of the right, of surprise and anxiety in the prisoner at the centre and one of determination in the warrior on the left. The end result, however, is that this attempt appears forced and unsuccessful. All this suggests a product of a provincial or second-rate workshop, even if a pleasant one in its spontaneity.

Discussion: Soon after it was acquired by the National Museum of Malta, this relief was interpreted as representing the ceremonial execution of an Asiatic prisoner, such as that of Trojan prisoners sacrificed on the tomb of Patroclos.[3] P.C. Sestieri’s interpretation, three years later, brought it, more convincingly, also within the Homeric saga of the Iliad, namely, the capture and slaughter of Dolon (while on a spying mission) by Odysseus and Diomedes in Book 10,[4] even though Dolon in that episode was supposed to be disguised in a wolf’s skin.[5] The scene fits much better with the Dolon ambush episode than with the murder of two other Trojans, namely, Astyanax and Troilos on the basis of circumstantial details. Astyanax, the son of Hector and Andromache was still a child when he was discovered hiding in his father’s tomb and, according to most versions of the legend, thrown from the walls of Troy. Troilus was also a Trojan prince, one of the sons of Hecuba, queen of Troy from her husband king Priam (or Apollo). When still a boy, he was ambushed and killed by Achilles while he was fetching water from a fountain.[6]

The story of the ambush and slaughter of Dolon, sometimes referred to as the Doloneia, is based on a self-contained episode in the tenth book of the Iliad and taken up and incorporated by the tragedian Euripides in his play Rhesus. The episode is essentially a spy story. Briefly, Dolon, the son of a rich Trojan herald, offers to spy on the Greek camp wearing a wolf skin and a leather cap. Meanwhile, on the Greek side, Diomedes and the crafty Odysseus volunteer to conduct a spying expedition to the Trojan lines. They set a trap on Dolon who falls an easy prey and soon breaks down and discloses a number of military secrets to the Greek warriors who, in turn, have no hesitation to dispose of him there and then.

Sestieri seems to be also correct on the derivation of the composition from another figurative work of art rather than directly from the literary tradition from which it differs in a number of details. The same scene is, in fact, represented taking place in the presence of Athena on a Campanian bell-shaped krater attributed to the Dirce painter (c. 380-350 BC) from the Necropoli del Fusco in Syracuse.[7] In it Dolon is completely nude except for his shoes and the characteristic ‘Phrigian’ cap, and is half-kneeling with hands tied behind his back. Of the two Greek heroes, the one on the left holds Dolon by the cap with his left hand and brandishes the sword in his right, very much as in the Malta relief, while the other one attacks the prisoner from behind, even though the two are interchanged.[8] Both Greek warriors are naked except for the chlamys in both scenes. Given all these iconographic features, especially the nudity of the armed warriors, it is difficult to conceive how the scene could in any way be connected with Mithras.[9]

The shape and size of the slab, the roughly chiselled surface of its back which preserves some traces of plaster, as well as its style, suggest that it was used as a household decoration, inserted in a wall, like several similar slabs, admittedly showing different subjects, discovered in Pompeii.[10] Some slabs preserved in the Magazzino of the Vatican Museum, again displaying different scenes, seem to have had a similar function.[11]

The flat, often summary treatment of the figures and the lack of fresh inspiration that is so evident in this marble betray a product of a mediocre Roman marble carving workshop.[12] A relief in the same, but not so summary, style appears on the left short side of an Amazon sarcophagus in the Liebieghaus Museum in Frankfurt, dated to the first half of the 3rd c. AD.[13]

The total absence of the use of the running drill, however, suggests a 1st c. AD date, though a 4th c. AD date has also been posited.

Date: Unsettled: more probably, first century AD (Sestieri, Bulas); much less probably, fourth century AD (Rumpf).

Bibliography: (previous publications of item):

Caruana 1882: 116: ‘a slab representing in high relief some warriors, probably Greek or Roman, found near from Saura Hospital, Rabato, Notabile … in the collection of Mr Sant Fournier’ [?]. Zammit 1934: ‘lately acquired by the Valletta Museum’; ‘execution of an Asiatic prisoner’. Sestieri 1937: ambush and death of Dolon; 1st c. AD. Rumpf 1937: 406, pl. 58, 2: 4th c. AD. Pietrangeli 1942: 7: ‘uccisione di Dolone’. Bulas 1950: 115: death of Astyanax, 1st c. AD. Gallet de Santerre 1956: 229-34, pl. 1. Maschini 1960 : 163: ‘Doloneia. La stessa scena su un sarcofago clazomenico di Berlino’. Brommer 1983: pl. 3a: 3rd-4th c. AD. Touchefeu 1984: 935: ‘death of Dolon unacceptable, death of Astyanax unlikely, death of Troilos a possibility’. Williams 1986: 662 (= Touchefeu’s Astyanax). Bonanno 2005: 6. Sagona 2009: 13-15, fig.3: ‘Mithraic initiation scene’. Sagona 2015: 285-90, fig. 8.5, no 1: ditto.

[1] According to Sestieri 1937: 21; followed by Touchefeu 1984: 935 who probably never saw the slab itself.

[2] According to Zammit 1934: 156. Wrongly assigned to ‘the Roman Villa’ by Touchefeu 1984: 935.

[3] Zammit 1934: 157.

[4] Sestieri 1937: 28-29. On Dolon and the respective Homeric episode see Wagner 1903: cols 1287-88; Meschini 1960) 163-64; Williams 1986: 660-64.

[5] As in the Ilias Ambrosiana (Bianchi Bandinelli 1955: pl. 1, figs 35, 36, 70), and on the red-figure krater by the Dolon Painter in the British Museum illustrated by Stenico 1960: 163-64, and in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae 3,2: 527.

[6] See Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae under the respective lemmata.

[7] Letteratura e arte figurata nella Magna Grecia, Fasano, Arti Grafiche Nunzio Schena, 1966 (2nd ed. 1970): 12, fig. 11; Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae III,1: 662 (with previous bibl.); III, 2 : 528, no 17.

[8] It is possible that a scene represented on a bronze cist (Br. 638) of the British Museum shows the same theme, but the context of the rest of the illustration suggests the sacrifice of Trojan prisoners on the tomb of Patroclos (see Dohrn 1973: 1-34, pls 1-5).

[9] Sagona 2009: 13-15, fig. 3 (see review by A. Klingenberg at; Sagona 2015: 287, 289, fig. 8.5, no 1.

[10] See, for example, Spinazzola 1928: pls. 70-75; Sogliano 1907: 558-61, figs. 8-11; Pailler1971. Some of these rectangular marble slabs, precisely the ones with relief decoration on both sides, were intended as oscilla, like our catalogue no. 100897. The ones carved only on one side were obviously not. Spinazzola (1928: xxv, no 54) thought that some of these reliefs blocked ventilation apertures or small niches in the walls, such as the one found in situ in the House of the Golden Cupids (illustrated also in Pailler 1971: fig. 2); but the general view is that these ‘plaques’ or ‘pinakes’ were intended to be placed on top of small, low columns in the gardens of houses (Pailler 1971: 129, 134).

[11] Kaschnitz -Weinberg 1936-37: 189-92, 195, nos. 417-18, 424, 426, 434, pls. 77-79. No 484 displays the same treatment of both the drapery and the naked parts as in the Malta slab.

[12] Cfr. Sestieri 1937: 43, who assigns it to Greek art (based on the origin of the marble), but from the Roman period, more precisely to the second half of the first century AD (based on the style of the figures).

[13] Eckstein & Beck 1973: no 69.