Andrew Davis


A krater: Achilles and Ajax playing backgammon

I forget, precisely, how their bodies are composed,
But I see them with helmets and attenuated limbs,
Powerful shoulders, delicate, feminine hands;
A slender spear propped lightly on each shoulder
Supports an arm, or relaxed, undangerous fist.

They’re waiting for the fighting to begin,
And meanwhile it’s amusing to consider
The progress of a trivial game of chance.
An inattentive hand collects the dice,
And sets the game in motion with a toss.

The numbered knuckles rattle on the board,
And a sequence, a senseless set of pairs
Begins: eleven, four, twelve, cat’s eyes, seven,
Then four again, and suddenly they’ve changed,
They’re leaning over the progress of the dice

Transfixed, almost stupid in their rapt attention:
When fortune speaks—in any form—they listen.

Poetry (monthly magazine published by Poetry Foundation), April 1996, p. 18.

There are many surviving ancient Greek vases depicting a scene of Achilles and Ajax playing a board game. On some vases, in addition to these two players, the goddess Athena is also present. For details and interpretation, see e.g. Lucía Romero Mariscal, ‘Ajax and Achilles playing a board game: Revisited from the literary tradition’, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 61, No. 2 (December 2011), pp. 394–401.

Achilles and Ajax playing dice

Achilles and Ajax playing dice, detail of Attic black-figured amphora signed by Exekias as both potter and painter, 540–530 BC. Gregorian Etruscan Museum (Vatican Museums), Cat. 16757.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, author Sailko.

31 December 2023