Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.01

Giuseppe Morelli, Teatro attico e pittura vascolare. Una tragedia di Cheremone nella ceramica italiota. (Spudasmata, 84).   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms, 2001.  Pp. 179; pls. 7.  ISBN 3-487-11494-1.  

Reviewed by J.R. Green, University of Sydney (

They say one should not judge a book by its cover, or, in this case, by its title. The book is essentially about reconstructing Chaeremon's Achilleus Thersitoktonos from all available sources.

The first chapter (pp. 23-46) is devoted to quotation of ancient literary sources concerned with the story of Penthesilea. Many but not all recount her death at the hands of Achilles, his falling in love with her as she lay dying (in some cases with an element of necrophilia), the mockery he suffered from Thersites (for a range of stated reasons), and his punishment of the latter either by thumping him or by spearing him, and in any case by killing him. None of these sources is translated (nor are any quotations anywhere in the book), but they are provided with a careful and sophisticated, not to say densely-packed apparatus.

The second chapter (pp. 47-72) picks up and discusses most of the issues inherent in Chapter 1, with a notable attempt to isolate the paths of the literary traditions, especially through the minefield of the later sources. This is clearly the author's strength, and the reader will remember that he is best known for his work on early Roman Tragedy, including the Achilles of Ennius and the Penthesilea play.

At p. 75 we have the first serious mention of the Apulian red-figure volute-krater in the MFA, Boston, the key piece of archaeological evidence, with a chart of the inscriptions placed over the figures. The following page quotes IG V 2, 118, the well-known and much-discussed inscription found near the theatre at Tegea which gives a brief curriculum vitae of a third-century actor who had, among other things, performed in Chaeremon's Achilles at Dodona. Then, at pp. 77-80, we have quotation of the only lines attributed to the play, two of them, both gnomic, again with good critical notes on the sources which preserve them.

There then follow brief chapters on the literary and epigraphical tradition concerning the play. The latter explores the history of the discussion of the Tegea inscription, pointing out its importance as evidence for the performance of Chaeremon in the middle years of the third century, alongside Euripides.

At p. 93ff. we come to discussion of the Boston krater, the focal point of this study. Morelli's bibliography on the vase is quite thorough, but it is unfortunate that he does not appear to know the catalogue of the South Italian vases in the MFA by Padgett, Comstock, Herrmann and Vermeule (1993) which must now be regarded as fundamental. Apart from their careful description, discussion and bibliography, their publication includes excellent photographs taken after the vase had been cleaned and reassembled (including a colour photograph of a detail of this piece on the cover). His own illustration reproduces the old drawing and at the same time cuts off a little of the bottom of the scene.

Morelli notes that the vase is generally dated about 350-340 BC, but has no discussion of the basis for it. Padgett et al. date the vase about 340 BC, and in terms of its stylistic links, not least with the workshop of the Darius Painter, this seems fair enough, at least in terms of Trendall's chronology (which may be a little high). The relevance is that Chaeremon's floruit is put at ca. 380 BC, though we do not know the date of this play.

M. does not make mention of the scene on the neck of the obverse (Helios in his chariot within a nimbus) or those on the body and neck of the reverse (naiskos scene with heroised young horseman; Eros within floral system) even though they provide a context for the "main" scene. In his description of the main scene and more generally M. relies heavily on the work of Carl Robert, who was the first to posit a link between vase and play. At p. 101, M. begins an extensive discussion of the relationship between the krater and the play. (The chapter is itself entitled "Teatro attico e pittura vascolare".) He asks how many of the named participants were likely to have been in the play, working his way to the fundamental question of how much vase-paintings can be used as evidence for tragedies, and singling out the views of Moret by contrast with those of more traditional, positivist scholars. Of himself he claims (p. 107) "quantunque io non sia dotato di un ingegno filosofico e non possegga una competenza archeologica adeguata..."; he nonetheless expresses the wish for clear rules independent of the interpreter. Don't we all!

He might also have considered the important views of Giuliani, Bilder nach Homer und Nachteil der Lektüre für die Malerei (1998) or the same author's article, built around careful readings of the Rhesus vases, in BICS 41, 1996, 71-86.

M. brings into the discussion by way of parallel three vases (his pls. V-VII) showing a pair of young women seated suppliant on an altar. They have been known for many years. But there are now at least seven such vases known and the theme has received much recent discussion (see Green, Lustrum 37, 1995, 118-119 for some references to that date). His discussion of the principles of selection and representation would have been better informed had he brought them into play. Then he comes to the Munich Medea krater, where again there has been a lot of recent comment even if one would not suggest that all of it has taken the problems much further.

In the following chapters (pp. 135ff. and 153ff.), M. works his way round the other side of the circle, discussing which of the characters shown on the Boston vase belong to the dramatis personae of Chaeremon's tragedy and attempting a reconstruction of the play. He has to do some special pleading, not least for the divinities in the upper register (Pan and Poina; Hermes and a very uninterested Athena who sits on her shield). He accepts some and rejects others; he also rejects Automedon in the lower register.

The case for the scene on the Boston krater representing, illustrating, or deriving in any direct fashion from Chaeremon's play must still be regarded as not proven. There is the danger, acknowledged by M., that we are always tempted to link an unusual scene with a play we know by little more than title. We cannot know on present evidence if Chaeremon's tragedy was the only one on this theme in the fourth century. (There remains the possibility of the Achilles by Aristarchus of Tegea, which M. regards as having been eclipsed by Chaeremon's version.) Indeed the topos on the impossibility of playing the characters of both Agamemnon and Thersites (cf. pp. 81-85) could be taken to suggest otherwise -- even if the author argues that the preserved comments appear in and belong to the Peripatetic tradition. And then we have the problem, not tackled by M., that the inscriptions are in Doric: that alone argues that the scene on the vase is at a certain remove from his putative original. Contrast some of Asteas' grand vases which stand in a similar relationship to theatre. But the "autonomous iconographers" would argue that there is no need for the scene to derive from theatre at all.

The production of the text is of good quality (less so the plates), and I noticed no glaring misprints -- with the exception that on p.90 a line of the quotation from Nachtergael has dropped out. It should read: "N'est-il pas naturel, au contraire, qu'un acteur professionnel choisisse ses rôles en fonction de ses capacités artistiques et physiques?"

Morelli has put together a good and interesting slim volume that will have to be taken on board, especially by those interested in the Penthesilea story, where his analysis of the literary sources is commanding. The study of the relationship between vase-painting and performances of tragedy still has a long way to go -- as the author would surely agree. We continue to need a wide-ranging treatment that would gather together all possible cases, comparing them with scenes that are patently not theatrical in derivation, that would look at how these scenes fit with the other scenes on the vases in question, and that would look at the function of these scenes. What was their purpose? Was it, as Emily Vermeule (and, following her, Keuls and Giuliani) have suggested, a form of consolation rhetoric for the deceased? How would such a supposed purpose have affected the approach of the vase-painter? What, furthermore, was this vase doing in a tomb at Ceglie del Campo in native-dominated Apulia well outside Taranto? Does the presence of paidagogoi of consistent style on some of these vases of apparently tragic derivation help the case at all (see me in Bergmann and Kondoleon, The Art of Ancient Spectacle [Washington, DC, 1999])? How is it that we so often see what is unlikely to have been seen on the Greek stage, whether a decapitated Thersites, his head rolling around below, or Niobe being turned to stone, or Dirce being trampled by the bull, or Europa being tempted by the bull, or Ganymede seduced by (or himself seducing) the swan? Does the distribution among particular pottery workshops and workshop-traditions have anything to tell us? Does pot-shape enter the question? Some are on bell-kraters but most are on volute-kraters. Is it simply that they offered the physical space necessary? or is it something to do with their being thought of as symposion vessels and therefore to do with Dionysos as god of theatre, wine and the afterlife? But what about cases on loutrophoroi? Is there a clear point at which, as with scenes that ultimately derive in some way from Choephoroi, that a theatre-derived scene becomes merely the generic children at a tomb? Does death become them?

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