Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.12.12

Brigitte Knittlmeyer, Die Attische Aristokratie und ihre Helden: Untersuchungen zu Darstellungen des trojanischen Sagenkreises im 6. und frühen 5. Jahrhundert v. Chr.   Heidelberg:  Verlag Archaeologie und Geschichte, 1997.  Pp. 147, 24 pls.  ISBN 3-980-4648-0-6.  DM 96 (hb).  ISBN 3-980-4648-1-4.  DM 80 (pb).  

Reviewed by Michael Anderson, Yale University
Word count: 1595 words

In Die Attische Aristokratie und ihre Helden Brigitte Knittlmeyer explores possible correlations between scenes of the Trojan war in Attic vase-painting and historical and social events and conditions in the sixth and early fifth centuries BC. The increase and decline in the popularity of particular mythological scenes and iconographic details at particular times, the author argues, may be attributed in part to the relevance of the images to contemporary issues. As the book's title suggests, K. finds in the paintings varied reflections of predominantly aristocratic values and interests but very little indication of particular concern with the polis or polis ideology. Occasionally K. detects the influence of specific historical events, but the perceived correlations between history and art are usually of a more general nature: the prominence of elaborately wrought armor in the paintings, for example, is seen to accord with an aristocratic fondness for displaying wealth and power. The correlations K. proposes are rarely as provocative as John Boardman's much-debated association of images of Herakles with the tyranny of Peisistratus, and K.'s discussion lacks the breadth and discrimination of Alan Shapiro's work on Athenian cults and François Lissarrague's writing on warriors. The book nevertheless contains thoughtful discussion of several intriguing topics.

Chapter A, on representations of the embassy to Achilles, concludes that the increased popularity of this scene in the first half of the fifth century may be attributed to changes in the political status of aristocrats in the aftermath of Cleisthenes' reforms. As the power of aristocrats to act independently of the polis was curtailed and their political and military activities became increasingly subject to the scrutiny of the people, the relationship between individual and community naturally became a topic of increasing current interest. The painted images of the embassy -- Achilles wrapped in a cloak and withdrawn from his surroundings, confronted by a delegation seeking his return to the battle -- reflects this contemporary issue, asking to what extent an individual may be held accountable for the welfare of the group. K. finds corroborating evidence for this interpretation of the vase paintings in the fragments of Aeschylus' roughly contemporary Myrmidons, which dramatized events from the embassy to the death of Patroclus. While Homer's treatment of Achilles' withdrawal had already approached this topic, in Aeschylus' lost play the idea of individual responsibility for group welfare became particularly audible in the accusations of treachery heard from Achilles' soldiers and in the threats of stoning from the army, a quintissentially communal form of punishment. Although the thematic relationship between the play and the paintings calls for more detailed investigation, and further discussion of the social and political background would also be welcome, K. has nevertheless outlined an enticing correlation between the images and the contemporary political climate.

K.'s next chapter discerns a series of general contemporary aristocratic interests in depictions of the ransoming of Hector, which enjoyed popularity in Attic vase-painting first around 565 and again, with a slightly altered iconography, from around 520 to 480. The regular representation of Achilles feasting, in both the earlier and later group of paintings, closely resembles figures in contemporary anonymous feast scenes and therefore, according to K., characterizes the hero as a member of a wealthy aristocracy. The armor displayed in the paintings likewise indicates Achilles' high social status, as well as his military capabilities and political power. In the later group of paintings aristocratic wealth is reflected also in Priam's numerous gifts of ransom, delivered by a procession of attendants. K. argues in addition that, as none of these paintings represents Priam as a Persian or barbarian, interest in the contemporary expansion of Persian power should not be cited as a reason for the popularity of this scene around the turn of the century. This chapter does not ultimately explain why the images enjoyed popularity precisely when they did, but the correlation observed between the mythological images and anonymous feast scenes remains a fascinating example of the influence of contemporary aristocratic customs on representations of myth.

Chapter C surveys representations of Greek and Trojan warriors -- specifically scenes of the warrior's departure, combat scenes, and images of death -- and evaluates the iconography in relation to war's social significance in Archaic Greece. The prominence of weapons in the paintings of the sixth century, particularly the unusual Boeotian shield and the four-horse chariot, is linked to the aristocratic practice of openly displaying wealth and power. In contrast, public disapproval of extravagant display in the fifth century may have contributed to a general decline in representations of lavishly decorated armor and to the complete disappearance of the Boeotian shield and the chariot after about 500. The unrealistic representation of warriors naked or wearing only greaves and helmet, a feature which grew in popularity at the end of the sixth century and later, perhaps reflects aristocratic interests in athletic training of the body. Concern for the welfare of a community or a polis is not encountered in depictions of the warrior. Battle is typically represented as an individual rather than a communal struggle, and nothing indicates that the death of the warrior is to be understood as a sacrifice for the polis. The only group closely associated with the warrior is his family, particularly his parents, who regularly appear in scenes of departure; and in this feature K. discerns aristocratic concern with lineage. Of particular interest is a shift in the iconography of duels between Greeks and Trojans in the late sixth century: as yet undecided contests between two evenly armed warriors now disappear, and in all later images of combat the identities of victor and vanquished are unambiguous. The first scheme perhaps reflects a predominantly aristocratic conception of battle as agon. No specific historical motivation for the disappearance of this scheme, however, is proposed.

Chapter D interprets images of Achilles' ambush and pursuit of Troilos as ideal representations of the armed hoplite and the noble, ephebic rider. Instances of parallel iconography reveal the relevance of the Troilos scenes to contemporary society. K. observes similarities, for example, between the ambush scene, in which Troilos sits mounted with a second horse to his side, and anonymous scenes showing a mounted youth acting as a kind of squire, keeping beside him the horse of a warrior. K. also suggests that the fountain-houses depicted in ambush scenes around 520 owe their grandeur and prominence to Peisistratus' construction of the Enneakrounos in the Athenian agora. Although other scholars have previously discussed these associations individually, K. provides a worthwhile synopsis of the many contemporary interests visible in the images.

I was not persuaded by the arguments in Chapter E, on images of psychostasia. Here K. conjectures that the representations of the weighing of the fates of Achilles and Memnon, popular from 500 to 470, correspond to contemporary feelings of human weakness against the power of the gods. K. suggests also that the weighing motif conveys some notion of justice and portrays the gods as moral forces. Consideration of the epic treatments of psychostasia, however, might have led the author to a more complex assessment of the images. Homer's weighing of the souls not only demonstrates the power of the divinities, but also suggests a certain lack of power to avert a mortal's death, once determined (cf. 22.167ff.).

Greater attention to relevant poetic sources might enhance several portions of this book. K. is of course correct in warning that the sixth- and fifth-century images are not plain illustrations of literary narratives and often do not correspond precisely to the known poetic versions of the myths. K. points out, for example, that whereas the paintings of Priam's visit to Achilles depict the Achaean hero feasting, in Iliad 24 Achilles is not in the process of eating when Priam enters his camp. Despite its potential significance, however, this discrepancy is no reason to disregard the important thematic correlations that do exist between the images and the poem. Food and fasting are central issues throughout the final quarter of the Iliad, surfacing most dramatically when Achilles instructs Priam to break his fast and share a meal. What effect then does the painter produce by applying the typical iconography of merry feasting to this emotionally tense and thematically complex narrative moment? K. interprets the presence of the heroes' mothers in scenes of farewell and scenes of combat as expressive of some interest in the oikos. But before we can interpret these figures as representatives of the typical Greek family, some further consideration of their traditional poetic roles as immortal mothers of mortal sons is in order. Further attention to style and technique could also enrich K.'s project. In discussing the relative popularity of lightly armed, naked warriors and those depicted with ornately decorated armor, K. might profitably consider the important technical and aesthetic distinctions between black- and red-figure paintings. The earlier, black-figure technique is eminently suited to the depiction of elaborately wrought shields and breastplates (e.g., Exekias), whereas the red-figure technique allows subsequent generations of painters to produce much more subtle and convincing representations of human musculature. Perhaps then some of the shifts observed in the depictions of warriors are less a reflection of public attitudes than an artistic response to a new technique. Of course, it is not possible to follow every possible avenue of inquiry, and it was not, after all, K.'s stated intention to illuminate narrative subtleties or stylistic trends. Perhaps these and other issues will receive fuller treatment in the broader study which K.'s current work appears to anticipate. As it stands, the project has already yielded much suggestive material for historians of Greek art and culture.

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