The Siege on the Amathus Bowl
Written by
Categories: Ancient

The Siege on the Amathus Bowl

See blog post for description
The Amathus bowl, British Museum catalogue number ANE 123053 © Trustees of the British Museum

In 1875, an old tomb on Cyprus was cleaned out in search of antiquities. One chamber contained a copper cauldron, and in that cauldron were shield fragments, an iron dagger, and about half of a corroded metal bowl 16 cm in diameter. The looters had cast it aside as they broke the sarcophagi open and ransacked the tomb for salable goods. This was a mistake, because the bowl was of wrought and engraved silver and contained a beautiful series of reliefs in concentric bands. Shortly after it was discovered, the bowl was sketched by a careful artist and published in a volume on the archaeology of Cyprus so that it would be available to scientists. Thanks to the generosity of the Gallica project in France, this volume is now available to the world.

The bowl had a complicated and murky history after its discovery, as precious objects in private collections do. Before the British Museum acquired it was held by three different British collectors or dealers, and before them by Luigi Palma de Cesnola, a military adventurer from Sardinia who enlivened his time as US consul in Cyprus with some amateur archaeology. Art historians estimate that the bowl was made around 700 BCE, a time of turmoil in the eastern Mediterranean, as the Assyrian kings marched from victory to victory, and well-armed wanderers from the Aegean drifted towards the Levant. Despite that, it is not prominent in publications on military history, and I discovered it through an aging volume on Phoenician art in a green hardcover which I picked up in Calgary.

Have a look at this clip from the full drawing.

See blog post for description
Georges Colonna Ceccaldi, Monuments Antiques de Chypre, de Syrie et d’Égypte (Didier et Cie: Paris, 11882) Plate VIII c/o Gallica

It is a siege! On the left ravagers cut down date palms while men with centregripped shields scale the walls with ladders. The defenders fight back from their towers and square battlements with bows and spears. On the right archers in kilts and bucket-shaped hats give covering fire while a file of spearmen with crested helmets and round strapped shields approach a ladder which another man has set against the walls.

Although of a similar age and artistic quality to the famous Chigi Vase, this depiction has received much less attention. Since 1989, most students of warfare in the eastern Mediterranean from the eighth to the sixth century BCE have understood their task as explaining how the Greeks invented a new type of warrior and a new type of warfare. A bowl from Cyprus which exuberantly mixes Egyptian and Syrian motifs was not a comfortable tool for that task. This bowl shows hoplites whose ethnicity is difficult to define (they could be Lydians or Carians or some sort of Greeks, and if the bowl were slightly later they might be Phoenicians). They fight alongside troops dressed and armed in several other ways. Rather than fighting other hoplites in the open field (“on the steppe” as a Babylonian would say) in proud isolation from other kinds of soldiers, they are storming a walled city defended by hoplites and archers working together. If these hoplites are from the Aegean, they are likely wandering aristocrats in search of loot and a generous patron. While this kind of warfare is very consistent with Herodotus and early Greek poetry, it is not what many modern researchers see when they look at this period.

Further Reading: J.L. Myres, “The Amathus Bowl: A Long-Lost Masterpiece of Oriental Engraving,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 53, Part 1 (1933) pp. 25-39, Nino Luraghi, “Traders, Pirates, Warriors: The Proto-History of Greek Mercenary Soldiers in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Phoenix Vol. 60 No. 1/2 (2006) pp. 21-47, John R. Hale, “Not Patriots, Not Farmers, not Amateurs: Greek Soldiers of Fortune and the Origins of Hoplite Warfare,” in Donald Kagan and Gregory Viggiano eds., Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece (Princeton Univesity Press: Princeton NJ, 2013), pp. 182-184. I would welcome suggestion of other research which considers the military aspects of this scene in a less Hellenocentric way.

(Edit 2015/05/09: fixed broken link)

Edit 2018-11-22: There is now an article on the city on the bowl which argues that it shows a distinctive casemate construction: Miguel Martín Camino, “El Bol de Amathus: un análisis a propósito de las fortificaciones fenicio púnicas y su difusión en Occidente.” In María Martínez Alcade, José Miguel, García Cano, Juan Blánquez Pérez, and Ángel Iniesta Sanmartín (eds.), MAZARRÓN II: Contexto, viabilidad y perspectivas del barco B-2 de la bahía de Mazarrón: En homenaje a Julio Mas García (UAM Ediciones: Madrid, 2018) pp. 307-340

Edit 2019-04-23: The bowl is briefly discussed in Adam Schwartz, Reinstating the Orthodoxy who is most interested in the possibility that it shows a phalanx.

Edit 2020-05-30: The bowl is briefly discussed in Sandra Blakely, “Images, Merchants, and Mercenaries: Aegeans and Southern Judan in the Eighth Century BCE.” In Zev Farber; Jacob L Wright; Oded Borowski (eds.), Archaeology and history of eighth-century Judah. Ancient Near East monographs, v. 23. (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press) pp. 48-50. She does not have any doubt that it shows Greeks, I agree with Pavel V. that “Aegean-Anatolian hoplites” is safer.

Edit 2023-03-16: the green book was John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas (Thames and Hudson: London, 1964) p. 50

paypal logo
patreon logo

4 thoughts on “The Siege on the Amathus Bowl

  1. Miguel says:

    Estimado Sean, tengo en prensa un artículo sobre esa pieza. Está apunto de ser publicado. En ese trabajo, he intentado dar una interpretación a la fortificación. Cuando esté publicado podría mandarte un pdf aunque el trabajo está en español

  2. Pavel Vaverka says:

    The more I look at the Amathus bowl, then more I’m convinced, that warriors with circular shields are propably Phrygians (possibly Carians, or Lydian soldiers, because there is one mention, that Assyrian king was unhappy, that Lydians were sent to help Egyptians by Gyges. Also guys on bowl look very Egyptian). It could be artistic convention, but shields are quite small for hoplite shields. If You look at Phrygian founds or Tatarli tomb, shields are similar in size. No doubt heavy infantry, but I think hoplite shields were present for Lydia, Lycia, Caria later, than at Greeks, and not in time, when bowl was made. Perhaps Greeks are on this bowl, but then again I have to think, that we don’t see a hoplite shields, but different shield ideal for soldiers traveling on ships… Maybe I’m wrong and artists wasn’t precise in his work. Sean do You have that Spanish article, what kind of fortification it is on the bowl? Or any news about interpretation of this bowl?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Pavel, the person who is writing that article has not sent me a copy yet. Right now there do not seem to be any articles on warfare in Caria/Lydia/Phrygia in the 8th/7th/6th centuries.

  3. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Ok, thanks for answer, Fabrice De Backer wrote me some days ago, that he is preparing article about Carians, Lydians, Medes and a new book about Assyrian enemies. It should be part of my next mail, but I want You to be rested:) And besides You have very long mail from previous weeks. So sorry, for disturbing, I even don’t know how I ended up late night on this article. Let’s blame Socratic catalepsy:)

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.