Ἀλέξανδρος | Ἀθηναῖος | ἔγραφεν

Alexander Athenian painted

Annotation Authors and Editors
Created by Valérie Toillon

Alexandre l'Athénien a peint

Annotation Authors and Editors
Created by Valérie Toillon


  1. This marble stab is perhaps a 1st c. BC-1st c. AD copy of an original dated to ca. 425-400 BC (Robert, 1897, p. 1, 17; Collignon, 1905, p. 48; Reinach, 1921, pp. 180-181; RE (1936) s.v. "Niobe", 677 (Lesky); LIMC VI s.v. Leto 50 = Leto/Latona I = Niobe I = Dioskouroi 214; see text 27 concerning the taste of the Romans for Greek works of art). The marble stab is actually housed in the Naples National Museum 9562. It is signed "Alexandros Athenaios egraphen" ("Alexandros of Athens painted"). The author is perhaps a copyist from the 1st century BC (Peinture Romaine, 2003, pp. 143-144). There are no other known literary sources concerning Alexandros (PAA 117695 = SEG 37 777).
  2. The marble stab was found on May 24th 1746 in a house in Herculaneum (along with 4 other slabs). It is drawn in a kind of red-chalk and some touches of colour are added (Reinach, 1921, pp. 180-181, with the description of the four slabs: a young man fighting a Centaur; a scene from a tragedy, a Dionysian scene, and a quadriga galloping). Reinach also lists two additional slabs, but he does not believe that these are the work of the same painter who worked on the slab being discussed here. See the attached picture – the signature is on the left upper corner of the slab.
  3. The picture is divided into two levels: on the foreground, two girls are kneeling and playing knucklebones. Their names are inscribed above each figure: on the right side is Hileaira ("the Merry one") and on the left is Aglaie ("the Bright one"). In the background, are three women (from left to right): Leto, Niobe, and Phoibe. Phoibe ("the Shining one") is a nickname for the goddess Artemis, daughter of Leto (for example on an inscription from the 2d century AD, Artemis is named "Phoibe" : Bevilacqua, 1980, pp. 216-218 = SEG XXXII (1982), 1068 I.1). “Phoibe” is a very specific epithet for Artemis/Diana, which indicates that the inscriptions may have been added later, sometime during the 1st c. BC/AD (Bevilacqua, 1980, pp. 216-217, esp. n. 2). Therefore, the inscriptions are not believed to have been part of the original painting. It is quite usual to see mythological names that are added (associated) to “everyday life” scenes such as game, dances, hunts or weddings. This was done because it tends to confer a deeper meaning to the scene in question. For example, there is a wedding scene on an epinetron (a contraption that women used to protect their thighs while spinning wool) from the Athens National Museum 1629 that dates back to ca. 425-400 BC where the characters are named after the Nereids. Another possibility is that Phoibe and Hilaeria are the Leukippides (LIMC III s.v. Dioskouroi 214; Robert, 1897, pp. 21-23). Yet another interpretation is that the three girls (Phoibe, Aglaia and Ileara) are Niobe’s daughters (Peinture Romaine, 2003, p. 144.).
  4. The subject of the picture, as A. Reinach suggests, could also be the reconciliation of Leto and Niobe after a quarrel (Reinach, 1921, p.180). According to a fragment from the poetess Sappho (Fr. 142 = Athenaeus, XIII, 571d), Niobe and Leto were very good friends (hetairai). Therefore, one way to read this picture is that Phoibe/Artemis is encouraging Niobe and Leto to reconcile. The composition of the scene can be put in the context of the visual arts of the end of the 5th century BC. For example, Carl Robert finds some stylistic parallels with vase painting, especially with vases painted by Meidias. The subject/image of "the knucklebones players" is popular for this time and there are some other examples of it in vase-painting (see, for example, a lekythos in Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery 48.84, dated ca. 350 BC.), such as Polygnotos' “Nekyia,” "The daughters of Pandareos" (text 107b = Paus, 30.2) or coroplastics (Robert, 1897, pp. 17-24; Picaud, 2004, pp. 49-52). Briefly, knucklebones was a very popular game in Ancient Greece and Rome, especially among young people. It also had an oracular function in the sense that the picture could be interpreted as a scene of "astragalomanteia," divination by the casting of the astragaloi. This is a very old type of divination that was often associated with women and love affairs (Becq de Fouquières, 1869, pp. 325-356; RE, II, 2 (1896) s.v "astragalos"; RE supp. IV (1924) s.v "astragalomanteia"; Hampe, 1951; Amandry, 1984, pp. 376-377 et p. 411; Picaud, 2004, pp. 49-52; Graf, 2005, pp. 60-62). The cast of the knucklebones could be a good or bad omen (Reinach, 1921, p. 180). Finally, the scene could also be a representation of the moment just before the massacre of the Niobides (daughters and sons of Niobe). Briefly, after Niobe boasted that her offspring were more beautiful and numerous the goddess Leto’s (mother of Apollo and Artemis), all her children were murdered in punishment for her disrespect. Therefore, the cast of knucklebones could be the bad omen announcing the death of Niobe's children (Peinture Romaine, 2003, p. 144).
Annotation Authors and Editors
Created by Valérie Toillon


  • marble
  • painting
  • niobe
  • knucklebones


Amandry, P. 1984, "Os et coquilles", in BCH, supp. 9, pp. 347-380 and p. 411;

Baldassarre, I. et al. 2003, La peinture romaine de l’époque hellénistique à l’Antiquité tardive. Paris.

Becq de Fouquières, L. 1869, Les jeux des anciens : leur description, leur origine, leurs rapports avec la religion, l'histoire et les moeurs, Paris;

Bevilacqua, G. 1980, "Una dedica a Diana proveniente da Sezze", Archeologia Classica, 32 , pp. 216-218;

Bruneau, Ph. 1970, "Tombes d'Argos", BCH, 94 (2), pp. 526-527;

Collignon, M. 1905, "Deux lécythes attiques à fond blanc et à peintures polychromes (Musée du Louvre et musée archéologique de Madrid)", Monuments et mémoires de la Fondation Eugène Piot, tome 12, fascicule 1, pp. 29-54;

COOK, R.M. 2013 (c. 1964), Niobe and her children, Cambridge.

GRAF, F. 2005, "Rolling the dice for an answer", Mantikê. Studies in ancient divination, Leiden-Boston, pp. 51-97;

Gusman, P. 1909, "Dessins et monochromes antiques", La revue de l'art ancien et moderne, juillet, pp. 117- 128;

Hampe, R. 1951, Die Stele auf Pharsale im Louvre, Wincklemannsprogramm der Archäologischer Gesellschaft zu Berlin, 107;

Lexicon iconographicum mythologiae classicae (LIMC), Zurich, 1981-2009;

Greek Lyric, volume I : Sappho and Alcaeus, 1982, Edited and translated by A. Campbell, Cambridge;

Picaud, S. 2004, "Les représentations des jeux de la balle et des osselets dans les terres cuites, céramiques et reliefs", Pallas, 65, p. 49-55;

Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (RE) II.2 (1896), s.v "astragalomanteia", "astragalos"; Supplement IV (1924), s.v. "astragalomanteia"; (1936) s.v. "Niobe" (Lesky);

Reinach, A. 1921, Textes grecs et latins relatifs à la peinture ancienne, Paris, p. 180-181;

ROBERT, C. 1897, "Die Knoechelspielerinnen des Alexandros", Hallisches Winckelmannsprogramm (Band 21), pp. 1-24;

Roussel, P. 1984-, Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (SEG), Amsterdam;

TRAIL, J. 1994-, Persons of Ancient Athens, Toronto.

Annotation Authors and Editors
Created by Valérie Toillon