On the inside of the cup, Exekias beautifully depicts the “dark ivy-plant” that ran up the mast. He skillfully painted the hanging clusters of grapes which drooped down from the top of the sail. And all around the ship are the pirates who have been turned into dolphins.
As noted on the website of the Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, where the Attic kylix is now located, “whoever drank from this vessel had an unusual experience: the god emerged from the sea of red wine, swam on the top of the waves for a brief moment and then travelled with his ship into the open mouth of the person drinking.”Show Found here. This is reminiscent of the fragrant wine with which Dionysus made pour fourth around the pirate’s ship.
A very similar scene is depicted in a Roman mosaic from Tunisia, now at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. Here, some of the pirates are shown undergoing the process of transformation. The mosaic is used as this article’s featured image, displayed at the very top of the page.Show The image is taken from Wikimedia Commons.
It seems probable that the version of the story preserved in the Homeric Hymns was that known to Exekias, or at least one that was rather similar. Although the inspiration behind the cup and the hymn was certainly Dionysus’ divinity, they both are reflective of the anxiety caused by piracy in the ancient world.
In the Odyssey, newcomers to foreign lands are asked whether they were pirates or traders, a representation of how frequently both types of travelers were encountered. The Homeric poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey are rife with stories of pirates, plundering, and kidnapping.Show See, for example, P. de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World (1999), pp. 17-26.
Of course, this was not a problem exclusive to the Greek world. In the first treaty between Rome and Carthage, for instance, we hear about restrictions being placed on piratical behavior for citizens of each city-state. The reputation of the Etruscans for practicing piracy, as well as just about all the other inhabitants of the Tyrrhenian Sea, means that the purchaser of the kylix painted by Exekias in Vulci would have had just an intimate connection to its theme as the Greek who painted it or any possible domestic owner.
The reflection of very real concerns in the divine life of Dionysus is an example of how society-wide anxiety can be represented in literary, and figurative, form. Perhaps in this case it was a collective exasperation at one of the more violent difficulties of ancient life.