Alexander and Achilles

The Museum’s Liz Cowell provides a glimpse of the blockbuster Alexander the Great: 2000 years of treasures exhibition.

Gorytos (bow case)

Gorytos (bow case)
Photographer:  © The State Hermitage, St Petersburg.

When the editor asked me to choose just one object to write about from the upcoming exhibition Alexander the Great, my eye fell on this exquisite piece which highlights a fascinating civilisation and some superb craftsmanship.


This gold overlay is part of a gorytos (a case for a bow and arrows) of the type used by the Persians and Scythians. They favoured a small, recurved type of bow which was housed within a leather case with a metal plate, such as this, attached outside for decoration. The gorytos was slung over the back when a soldier was on the march or using a weapon other than his bow. When shooting, however, it would be slung at the side of the body to allow the archer to draw the arrows over his shoulder with one hand while holding the bow in the other.

It is thought this work was created by a Greek artist and it shows scenes from the life of Achilles. Alexander revered Achilles and considered himself to be in many respects Achilles reborn. He even slept with a copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow.


The story goes that Achilles’ mother, Thetis, received a prophecy that Troy would not fall unless Achilles died during the war to secure its capture. To protect her son, and Troy, Thetis sent Achilles to hide, disguised as a girl, in the palace of Lycomedes, King of Scyros. Achilles was eventually discovered by the Greek heroes Odysseus, Nestor and Ajax and persuaded to join the Greek forces. At the beginning of Alexander’s invasion of the Persian Empire he stopped at Troy to pay homage at the tomb of Achilles.

The gorytos is more than simply a beautiful, decorated artefact of ancient warfare, for it reveals a precious insight into the character of one of the greatest military leaders the world has ever known. You’ll be able to see this piece along with many others at the exhibition Alexander the Great: 2000 years of treasures, when it opens later this year.


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Brendan Atkins , Publications Coordinator
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