Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.42

Cristina Servadei, La Figura di Theseus nella Ceramica Attica. Iconografia e Iconologia del Mito nell'Atene Arcaica e Classica.   Bologna:  Ante Quem, Dipartimento di Archeologia dell'Università di Bologna, 2005.  Pp. 286; CD-ROM.  ISBN 88-7849-005-9.  €25.00.  

Reviewed by Amalia Avramidou, Northwestern University (

Cristina Servadei's [C.S.] monograph on Theseus' iconography and iconology in Archaic and Classical Attic vase painting grew out of the author's dissertation and follows a long list of books and articles treating the representations of the Athenian hero.1

The author states that the book aims to a better understanding of the complex role of Athens' national hero by examining the vase-paintings through the prism of contemporary historical and socio-political events that took place in the polis. C.S. provides an extensive list of vases produced in Athens from the 570 to 330 B.C.E., which is used to extract statistical information regarding their chronology, recurrent subjects of decoration, and their popularity among groups of vase painters. According to the author, the lack of systematic cataloguing of Theseus' representations in Attic vase-painting deprives us of a quantitative examination, which is essential for a semantic analysis of his iconography (pp. 11-13) and it is this void that C.S.'s digital database fills.

The book is divided in three main units: the lengthier section of Part I is the introduction, where C.S. presents the criteria used to compile her catalogue and the key to decode the complex charts corresponding to the following subchapters. Part II is the core of her study and treats the illustration of the myths of Theseus in Attic pottery within fourteen chapters, examining step by step the representations of his journey from Troezen to Athens, his youthful deeds,2 the encounter with the Amazons and the Centaurs, as well as scenes with Theseus in amorous pursuits and among deities. Each one of these sections begins with a discussion of the literary sources (where applicable), a general overview of the shapes, techniques and provenance of the vases, and an examination of the painters and potters that favored that particular subject.3 Then follow the data analysis and the conclusions. Part III is basically a summary of Part II, where C.S. discusses all the data combined and then proceeds to the examination of historical and political context of the production.

Ample bibliography, well-compiled indices and fifty plates containing charts and graphs can be found at the end of the book. The CD-ROM that accompanies the monograph includes the above-mentioned charts and indices, and the catalogue of vases with select bibliography for each entry. Unfortunately, one needs a computer while reading the book in order to access basic information about the vases described since often their only reference is the entry number given in C.S.'s digital database (e.g., p. 165 the kylix in the Louvre G 256 is discussed in two paragraphs and compared to a previous vase without any notes or other references except for the entry number 10.00038). Also, within the text the date of a vase examined in detail is occasionally omitted (e.g., the above mentioned kylix) obliging the reader to consult the dense graphs or the CD-ROM. Eighty-four figures are placed within the text, some of better quality than others, but most of rather small scale (e.g., p. 164, fig. 71 and p. 171, fig. 73). When controversial vases are examined, the lack of an image does not allow the reader to the reach his own conclusions easily, (e.g., the bell krater by the Oinomaos Painter pp. 60-1, entry number 03.00010), while in other cases the author's point is not properly supported when a discussion entails details of a vase not clearly discernible in a poor quality figure (e.g., the krater by the Talos Painter, pp. 164-5, fig. 71).

C.S. manages a vast amount of information and presents her case with solid arguments and plurality of opinions, even though it is not always clear with which interpretation she agrees (e.g., p. 66, n. 150). There is little space for in-depth analysis of single vases, although a thorough study of a scene may prove revealing for controversial cases,4 while one would expect additional bibliographical references and further discussion of crucial subjects, such as libation scenes (p. 62). In some instances C.S. repeats the same information presented a few paragraphs above as a form of introduction to smaller sections of the same chapter, which could have been avoided, (e.g., pp. 135, 136, 139; p. 148 n. 332, p. 146).

C.S. states (III.1) that her research is based on iconographical criteria, not commercial or geographical, and admits that the data are not homogeneous. However, her results are still valuable and skillfully used both to contrast each group of vases decorated with the same subject to the global production of Attic vase-painting including Attic vases found in areas other than Etruria, and to correlate the conclusions to specific workshops and shapes of vases. Perhaps one of the omissions in C.S. monograph is the fact that the author merely touches upon the question of the role of Attic vases in Etruria, in contrast to the trend in the field of vase-painting observed in the last decades.5 The author has meticulously gathered data proving that in almost all cases the majority of vases with Theseus' related decoration are found in Etruria and yet she refrains from discussing the issue of why they consist mainly of symposion vessels and why the Etruscans especially found them so appealing.

Perhaps one of the strongest points of the monograph is to be found among the conclusions, where C.S. includes a very useful chart that correlates the subject of vases to the area that the myth took place and to its first illustration on Attic pots. Based on this statistical study C.S. argues against the suggestion of Calame that Theseus was appropriated by the polis and concludes that the polis of Athens did not control systematically the decoration of vases but instead the subjects were regulated by other non-political factors.6 Also, the author maintains that it is wiser to avoid an interpretation of an iconographical scheme as a direct result of a specific historical or sociopolitical event. Similarly, regarding the question of the role of Peisistratos in the promotion of Theseus in literature and vase-painting, C.S. prefers to explain it as an anticipated interest in this heroic figure in general rather than a conscious propaganda tool of the tyrant (p. 205).

Overall, C.S.'s contribution to the study of Theseus' iconography is a welcome addition but not as insightful and groundbreaking as the work of previous scholars. However, the introduction of a digital database and the quantitative analysis of the data offer a different approach to the subject that will help advance the research in the field of Attic vase-painting.


1.   To mention only a few: Brommer, F. 1982, Theseus. Die Taten der griechischen Helden in der antiken Kunst. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft; Calame, C. 1990. Thésée et l'imaginaire athénien. Légende et culte en Grèce antique. Lausanne: Editions Payot; Flashar, M., von den Hoff, R. and B. Kreuzer 2003. Theseus: der Held der Athener. Munich: Biering & Brinkmann; Neils, J. 1987. The Youthful Deeds of Theseus. Rome: Bretschneider; Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 1987, Theseus as Son and Stepson. A Tentative Illustration of Greek Mythological Mentality. London: University of London, Institute of Classical Studies.
2.   An addition to C.S.'s chapter on the visit of Theseus to the bottom of the sea may be a cup by the Codrus Painter from Spina (ARV2 1270.12, Ferrara, Mus. Naz. di Spina T416BVPA [15365]), even though the protagonist is not depicted among the rest of the main characters, Triton and Poseidon.
3.   According to C.S., at least 10% of the catalogued Attic vases decorated with the myths of Theseus that have a known provenance come from Vulci.
4.   For example, regarding a cup by Oltos on pp. 71-2, fig. 25 (ARV2 58.53, 1574, 1622) the author wonders whether the nude youth that runs behind a bull should be identified as Theseus, Herakles or a fusion of motifs, while the inscription that accompanies the scene clearly reads DIOS PAIS, annulling the dilemma.
5.   To name some recent works: Osborne, R. 2001. "Why did Athenian Pots appeal to the Etruscans?" WorldArch 33/2:277-295; Reusser, Ch. 2002. Vasen für Etrurien: Verbreitung und Funktionen Attischer Keramik im Etrurien des 6. und 5. Jhrs v.Chr. Zurich: Akanthus; Osborne, R. 2004. "Images of a Warrior. On a Group of Athenian Vases and their Public." In Greek Vases: Images, Contexts and Controversies. Proceedings of the Conference sponsored by the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean at Columbia University, 23-24 March 2002, edited by C. Marconi, 41-54. Leiden: Brill.
6.   Calame 1990, op. cit. n.1.

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