The terracotta calyx-krater, from around 515 BCE, depicts a rare but memorable scene from the Trojan War – the rescue of the corpse of Sarpedon (“Euphronios”). It is deemed one of the finest Greek vases and out of the surviving 27 vases by Euphronios, it is the only one that is complete (Euphronios krater). Euphronios, a pioneer of the red-figure technique, uses his skill to create an accurate illustration of the hero’s body at the moment of his death. The image on the reverse side of the krater, as shown below, consists of Athenian youths getting ready to fight.
In the Iliad, Sarpedon – King of Lycia and son of Zeus – was fated to die from Patroclus’ hand. When Sarpedon, fighting for the Trojans, met Patroclus (disguised in Achilles’ armor) in combat, Zeus debated whether he should save him – but Hera advised him against it. The hero was then mortally wounded by Patroclus’ spear. The scene on the krater shows two winged deities who represent Sleep and Death bending over to raise the peaceful but bloody corpse off the battlefield for burial, just as his body succumbs to death (Oakley, 125-126). His eyes are closed, his limp hands drag along the ground and Hermes was sent by Zeus for guidance (Bertman). Two Trojan warriors, Laodamos and Hippolytos – who died before Sarpedon – border the group. It is interesting to note that Sarpedon is naked while the others are clothed. His youthful nude body stretches across almost the entire side of the krater and is certainly the main focus of the image. This emphasizes the notion of capturing the most uncorrupted and perfect moment before death.
By portraying the hero dying in battle, Euphronios creates an aesthetic representation of kalokagathia (the state of being beautiful and good). The retrieval of the dead hero can be considered ‘beautiful death’ because to die in battle means that the hero gains eternal glory and escapes inexorable decay of the body (Marconi, 35). The hero, because he died in battle, evades the rotting of the body by guaranteeing perpetual youth and true beauty (Marconi, 35).
Tyrtaeus, an Archaic Spartan poet, writes about the concept of kalokagathia in relation to death. He states, “For ’tis a foul thing, in sooth, for an elder to fall in the van and lie before the younger, / …his flesh also all naked; yet to a young / man all is seemly enough, so long as he have the noble bloom of lovely youth, / aye a marvel he for men to behold…/ and fair in like manner when he be fallen in the vanguard” (Edmonds). Tyrtaeus believes that there is a certain beauty in seeing a young man falling on the battlefield, whereas it is shameful and disgusting to see an elderly man’s corpse on the field.
The idea of ‘beautiful death’ allows a viewer to look at the corpse of a young hero and admire his size and splendid attractiveness despite all the blood, wounds and filth disfiguring it (Marconi, 35). Dying in battle was regarded as the ultimate way to die for a hero – thus a hero who dies fighting was considered to have passed away in a moral and admirable manner. The aesthetic representation of Sarpedon’s death by Euphronios, therefore, also represents a moral aspect of kalokagathia since he died honorably in battle.