Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.10.37

Oliver Taplin, Pots and Plays. Interactions between Tragedy and Greek Vase-Painting of the Fourth Century B.C.   Los Angeles:  Getty Publications, 2007.  Pp. x, 310.  ISBN 978-0-89236-807-5.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by J.R. Green, Sydney (
Word count: 4065 words

What a welcome book this is. Oliver Taplin has been a key figure in persuading the present generation of scholars that our preserved texts of drama were composed as scripts for performance rather than just the pieces of literature they were for most of our teachers. The point seems obvious now. His Stagecraft of Aeschylus of 1977 and Greek Tragedy in Action of the following year were already a remarkable step forward, and, aside from all his other work, his Comic Angels of 1993 had enormous impact in the crusade to persuade colleagues that the comic vases made in South Italy in the first seventy years of the fourth century have a great deal to tell us about Athenian Comedy. This book too is written with a wider audience in mind (note the Glossary), although there is at the same time plenty for the specialist to chew on.

The arrangement is straightforward and to some extent echoes the Trendall and Webster volume of 1971 (hereafter IGD) except that here we have only tragedy.1 The core, called Part 2, provides pictures of vases with discussions of the scenes and the relevant preserved texts arranged in chapters by their suggested relationship to author: Aeschylus, Sophocles, surviving Euripides, fragmentary Euripides, otherwise unknown tragedies. Before all that comes a Preface, which is vital reading for an understanding of his approach, and a section called "Setting the Scenes". In the absence of a conclusion, this last is the more important. In explaining what the book is about, he gives a stirring explanation of what he sees as the importance of Tragedy in the ancient world in terms of its themes and their handling, and he attempts to define how we are to know when a tragedy is referred to in an image, whether through costume or other elements such as rocky arches, naiskoi, messenger-figures, or labels in Attic dialect.2

He selects 109 items Vases? of which 41 were treated in the Tragedy section of IGD.3 There is not unnaturally some emphasis on the holdings of the Getty, but he several times makes a point of how much material has come to light in relatively recent years, and it is saddening to think how little of it has excavation context. If it had, it would surely have gone to strengthen his enquiry into why so many of these vases seem to have had relevance in graves outside the city of Taranto. When selections are involved, one invariably wonders why some items were omitted.4 One suspects that the aim towards a wider public brought increased emphasis on pieces that could be associated with the known names at the expense, say, of fourth-century tragedy where there are in fact equally interesting things to be said. There are many instances, however, in which one congratulates him for persisting with out-of-the-way but important pieces.

All this said, the book is not about performance as such in any direct way. It is explicitly not concerned with the question of representations of tragedy on stage. Instead it seeks to isolate images which are best explained and understood through a knowledge of a given tragedy. From there he goes on to explore the meaning and impact of Greek tragedy as evidenced in these reflections of tragic themes, for the most part with pottery produced in Taranto in the late fifth and the first two thirds of the fourth century. Thus it is a valuable essay in cultural history, not least in assessing the spread of Athenian drama outside its point of invention, and then beyond cultures that were strictly-speaking Greek, at least so far as pictures on pots were concerned.

The point at which he has greatest difficulty is in attempting to show that 'Apulians' were familiar with Greek theatre, and in particular tragedy, while at the same time avoiding circular argument. It is not an easy problem and yet central to his thesis. He quite properly points out that 'Apulia' is an anachronistic concept, reinforced by modern administrative divisions. There can be no doubt that Tarentines were extremely fond of theatre. But then treatment of the areas outside Taranto is beset with difficulties. Perhaps for fear of over-complicating the picture, he seems reluctant to engage with Messapia, Peucetia and Daunia as cultural and perhaps ethnic entities. (One may note in passing the irony that the most hellenised of these, Messapia, with its strong ties to Athens, has provided very little evidence of a taste for theatre.) For Peucetia, one has to rely heavily on Ruvo, quite likely a special case (and for the Jatta Collection, not uncomplicated as to provenience), and it leaves one wondering about all the other Peucetians inland in the direction of Metaponto, or up into the Materano where there have been rich tombs of the relevant period but without very much sign of tragedy. Daunia again seems to look inland for its definitive core. Canosa, findspot of many of the key vases in this question, is for the most part an isolated phenomenon even if, evidently, a wealthy and important one that attracted Daunians from the upland regions to its west.

Again, in arguing for theatre-conscious natives, one has to ask: where are the theatres? where is there other evidence of an interest in and familiarity with theatre, such as terracotta figurines? where is there evidence of a sophisticated familiarity with the Greek language, let alone the Attic of the stage (by contrast with the Doric of the colonies)? Taplin could not be expected to investigate all these problems and one regrets the absence of a good, accessible volume that looks at Greeks and natives in the region and makes an honest assessment of what the situation was at what point in what area. One has to reckon that for the moment, at least, there simply is no good independent evidence.5

What is clear is that the distribution of 'tragedy-related' vases is not the same as that for vases with scenes of comedy. But that may in part be a function of chronology: the comic pots give up cease? Come to an end? before the tragic pots, in fact before the taste for the elaborate red-figure vases in Canosa, for example, really begins.

I would nonetheless have liked to see a more explicit differentiation between vases imported from Taranto to Canosa, and those manufactured locally. The migration of Tarentine potters and painters there was a sudden one, and they did not make red-figure survive for very long, hardly more than a generation; but even within that period one sees changes of approach, and, I would argue, some loss of familiarity with the nuances of their Tarentine cultural heritage.

One wonders if there may be any profit in comparing the case of Etruscan cinerary urns of the third century, decorated with representations of scenes from Greek myths. Many of them cover themes central to this book, including the Sacrifice of Iphigeneia, Orestes and Pylades in Tauris, Orestes and Clytemnestra, Telephos on the altar, Orestes and the Erinyes, etc. Here again the difficult questions concern the mechanics of the iconographic transmission and the level of knowledge of Greek tragedy that one might suppose the users of these urns, say in Chiusi, where one also finds scenes of the Death of Aegisthus, actually had.6

Nevertheless Taplin makes a good attempt to set the investigation in context. At pp. 10-11, for example, and again at 33-35, he remarks on the problem of Satyr-Play in Apulia (sc. Taranto), pointing out that beyond the early phase there is little evidence of either satyr-masks or satyr-players in their distinctive tights.7 It is indeed curious. There is no obvious explanation beyond supposing that their disappearance was simply a matter of taste--not evidence for the disappearance of Satyr-Play. Beyond the early phase, the only example I know is the bell-krater of ca 360 BC in the Pushkin State Museum, Moscow, CVA (2) pl. 3, on which a satyr-player rather than a satyr pursues a maenad, thus implying the interchangeability of performer and subject in the communal view. Masks of papposilenoi continue commonly as plastic attachments on pots such as situlae. (Note incidentally that Taplin is reluctant to take the Lucanian calyx-krater in the British Museum with a Cyclops scene as reflecting Euripides.)

Some effort has been put into the book's design, for the most part successfully: it is always difficult to match text and pictures consistently. The illustrations are mostly of good quality and some are outstanding; others are poor, sometimes surprisingly (as in the case of some images from Princeton and Boston), and at times reflecting the limits of digital technology (when images have been taken from secondary sources Taplin has so limited his range of references on individual items that one is hesitant to interfere. I have been so bold only when there is particular reason. At the same time I find it a curious decision to omit CVA references, and, in the circumstances, especially to the volumes of the Malibu CVA by Jentoft-Nilsen and Trendall.

It is a book that deserves careful reading, and one's fear is that some aspects at least may be taken superficially. One should not be misled by the verve and vigour of his written style. At the same time, in making his argument, he can be thoroughly disarming: "I am inclined to tip in favor of the Euripidean connection (but then I would, wouldn't I?)" (p. 158).This is a challenging book so of course one has questions or further points to make. Here are some of mine. They are intended as a positive response and I do not mention much that I applaud:

nos. 1-11 Scenes from Choephoroi and Eumenides: worth noting the treatment covering a number of the same pieces by C. Isler-Kerényi, "Un mito teatrale: la saga di Oreste. Oreste nella ceramica italiota", in: G. Sena Chiesa and E.A. Arslan (eds), Miti greci. Archeologia e pittura dalla Magna Grecia al collezionismo (Milan 2004) 274-281.

no. 6 The Trendall-Webster idea that the Erinys on the right is dancing has the support of the twist given to her drapery, a common convention to convey the notion.

no. 8 On the Erinyes on the Eumenides Painter's bell-krater in the Louvre, Taplin notes that they have 'rather inconspicuous snakes' on their arms - indeed, they are bracelets of the kind so often worn by Tarentine females, whatever their depicted character.

no. 9 The Gnathia krater in the Hermitage with the Eumenides: even in an abbreviated bibliography, it would have been worth mentioning Bulle, Festschrift Loeb 24-25, for the quality of his description and the importance of his comments in the history of the subject.

no. 13 The Lykourgos vase in the British Museum: Taplin notes the absence in the upper register of a prominent Dionysos, as a god vitally interested in the proceedings - but what about the seated figure on the left? Is it really a spear that he holds? Why not a thyrsos of the kind seen on the ground on no. 66? The added white has vanished.

no. 18 Prometheus Lyomenos in Berlin: Taplin claims he is bound hand and foot to the rock, but I cannot see any shackles or bindings at the ankles. One may note that the Erinys on the lower right (who looks like an inattentive student) has her spears pointed down. I was sad that he could not accept the arguments of Keith De Vries in R.M. Rosen and J. Farrell (eds.), Nomodeiktes. Greek Studies in Honor of Martin Ostwald (Ann Arbor 1993) 517-523, suggesting that the fragments from Gordion also show the scene.

no. 22 The Oedipus Tyrannus vase in Syracuse: it is a pity that, on a vase of this importance, there is not also an illustration of the right-hand part of the scene -- such as was shown a while ago for example in the catalogue of the 'Medea to Sappho' exhibition at the National Museum in Athens (1995). The woman turning away at the right is too often ignored. Taplin does not like to think of the children, shown on the vase, as being present on stage at this point, but why not? Certainly in the painting the girl next to Iokasta looks round worriedly at her mother's sudden tension on hearing the messenger's news, and so plays a considerable role in the characterisation of the scene. I find Taplin too reluctant throughout this volume to suppose or admit the presence on stage of non-speaking extras, whether or not there is direct reference to them in the text. (Note G.M. Sifakis, "Children in Greek Tragedy", BICS 26, 1979, 67-80.) But this soon involves the near-impossible topic of implicit stage-directions. See too on the Oedipus at Colonus vase no. 27 and the tragic scene no. 105.

Also on this piece, Taplin notes that the (semi-)columns in the background are used as dividers between the figures. So they are, and they probably reflect a reality of the Syracusan stage and the facade of the stage-building: compare those depicted on Sicilian comic vases of the same period, or for that matter reconstructions of the so-called theatre of Lycurgus in Athens.

no. 24 Possible Antigone in Taranto: Taplin points out that, at line 441 of Sophocles' play, Kreon says to her "You, yes you with your face turned down toward the ground", a famous line, but, first, is it turned down or nodding?--see also A.L. Boegehold, "Antigone Nodding, Unbowed", in: F.B. Titchener and R.F. Moorton (eds.), The Eye Expanded: Life and the Arts in Greco-Roman Antiquity(Berkeley 1999) 19-23. Second, and more importantly here, how can a vase-painter show someone nodding? How does he distinguish the gesture from the standard modesty-topos applied to young women of having their eyes cast down? (The normal answer is a hand-gesture, but that would be impossible here since her hands are held by her guards.) I fear the angle of her head in the vase-painting does not help us decide whether she is Antigone or not.

no. 26 Bell-krater in Syracuse perhaps related to a Philoctetes tragedy: Taplin gives this one a good and interesting run. From left field, one might contrast the Attic red-figure column-krater from Montesarchio, probably by the Orpheus Painter and so within the relevant date-range, now discussed in a full article by Gabriella d'Henry (AIONArchStor 11-12, 2004-2005, 53-61). It has a reclining figure supported by two youths and having his ankle or heel attended to by a small bearded daimon together with a young person, while a woman stands by with a container of ointment. It is hardly a standard depiction, especially given the small winged figure doing the surgery. But d'Henry seems persuasive that this is Philoctetes rather than Talos.

no. 27 Oedipus at Colonus: add (as I have noted elsewhere) that this Oedipus has fine, elaborate and probably clean clothing by contrast with what Sophocles tells us: how is this?

no. 28 Kreousa at the Zoo: it is impossible on present evidence to know what this is, although the vase was well worth inclusion just to raise the question again.

no. 30 Thyestes at Sikyon? The young personification of the City cannot comfortably be described as 'sitting on a pair of columns', but on an architrave supported by a pair of columns. And (in the final sentence) it is not a necklace on the branch to Pelopeia's left, but an example of what are elsewhere called 'sacred chains', so often seen in sanctuaries and, for instance, on no. 58 or no. 82. And what about the stars above?

nos. 33-36 Medea. There has been so much written around and about her recently that one admires Taplin for the delicacy with which he picks his way through. On no. 36, the amphora in Naples attributed to the Darius Painter, I liked his idea of this non-Euripidean version dropping off children from her chariot to delay her pursuers, although the idea is a visual one and it would have needed a lively messenger-speech to get it across--which is not impossible. And, despite what he says in n. 36, one can just make out a little of Lyssa's nimbus.

no. 33 bell-krater in Naples: "An Erinys sits above, as often, with chilling calm." No, unlike the way it seems to us, she is in the pose shown as hostile and edgy by Nicgorski in A.P. Chapin (ed.), Charis. Essays in Honor of Sara A. Immerwahr (Hesperia Suppl. 33, Princeton 2004) 291-303.

no. 39 The Laodameia vase in the British Museum: Taplin thinks of the upper part of the scene as possibly related to Euripides' Hippolytos. Perhaps add a reference to M. Catucci, Taras 16:2, 1996, 47-69, for her detailed discussion and her rather complex argument that it is from Euripides' Protesilaos (as already Trendall and Webster). She compares Alcestis.

no. 40 Calyx-krater with a possible Hippolytos: the young man with a lagobolon. Taplin (with Trendall) is surely right in his identification of the instrument (pace Aellen). More seriously, perhaps, I look for an explanation of the thymiaterion shown prominently between the two women. It normally implies a sanctuary and/or religious ritual (as might the tripods on columns), but I cannot see a viable explanation.

no. 43 Volute-krater by the Iliupersis Painter with Neoptolemos at Delphi: this has now been published in G. Sena Chiesa and F. Slavazzi (eds.), Ceramiche attiche e magnogreche. Collezione Banca Intesa. Catalogo ragionato (Milan 2006) vol. ii, 306-10, no. 110 (M. Dolci).The collection has a useful website, but the unwary should be warned that many of the attributions are in error, as this one is in the catalogue too (given, unaccountably, to the Lycurgus Painter).

no. 52 On the transformation of Iphigeneia, it is perhaps worth referring to F. Frontisi-Ducroux, L'homme-cerf et la femme-araignée. Figures grecques de la métamorphose (Paris 2003).

no. 54 Rhesos in Berlin by the Darius Painter: the figure on the lower right is clearly a river-god (as his horns also show) but the reed he holds is not papyrus (nor should it be up in that part of the world).

no. 55 Adolphseck Painter's bell-krater with Aigeus: it is a stretch to suggest that the youth (Theseus) is wearing a garland because of his victory over the Marathonian Bull. He wears it because he is involved in a ritual act, pouring a libation at an altar, even if it is possible that that in turn was in celebration of his success. Strange that he should have two hats: one can't imagine Euripides was responsible for that! (The problem noted already in IGD.) I am not sure that 'cup' is really a good translation for 'phiale'.

It might have been worth mentioning the volute-krater now in the collection of the Banca Intesa (ex Caputi 377); RVAp i, 193, 2; Miti greci (above under nos. 1-11) 231 no. 234 (colour ill) even if the problems it presents are different: Theseus tackles the Bull while Aigeus looks on and even draws attention to him.

nos. 57-58 Alkmene: see now the article by E. Schmidt, AntK 46, 2003, 56-71, with a fragment from the circle of the Darius Painter, not unlike no. 58 here.

It is a pity that the picture of the Taranto calyx-krater (no. 57) is so fuzzy. I have always supposed that the thunderbolt so close to the pyre means that the storm is already in progress and that Amphitryon is starting back in fear and/or surprise.

no. 68 Melanippe Wise in Atlanta: on p. 195 and in n. 83, Taplin quotes Pollux on Special Masks (IV.141) for the existence of a Hippe/Hippo mask, "Cheiron's daughter Hippe turned into a horse in Euripides". Even if Pollux had it right and it was not merely a supposition from the text, it is very difficult to see a production with her as a stage horse--despite the depiction on the lower left here--and not all that easy to envisage them using a real mare (and certainly not on the crane). If we accept it, the mask may have shown a partial conversion (one thinks of Io, or of the Iphigeneia becoming a deer on no. 53). The participle 'changed' or 'turned into' used by Pollux is a present participle and so it could possibly (but does not certainly) mean 'in the process of being changed'. If we have to have a crane-rider, I find Athena a more tempting candidate, especially given her position on the vase. Taplin is right (n. 81) that I misconstrued the children.

no. 71 Oinomaos at the Stable: it should be noted that Aphrodite is spelled with a final alpha, which in Taplin's (and my) terms would be a counter-indication.

no. 72 Stheneboia in Boston: "there is a subtle hint of unease conveyed by the reassuring hand that Stheneboia lays on his [Proitos'] arm." Bellerophon is being packed off to Lycia. Interpretations of ancient gesture are always fraught (see my note on no. 33). I, perhaps having looked at too many scenes from Comedy, see her depicted as sexy (even over-sexed) by the swish of the skirt, and the so-called bridal gesture, and tend to read her arm movement as restraining, an unspoken 'please don't do this', even 'please don't do this to me'. But that may not be right either. What I really mean is that, despite some useful recent work, the study of gesture and body-language in the various times, places and regional cultures of the Greek world still has some way to go.

no. 82 Rape of Chrysippos in Berlin: Taplin does not investigate what is happening on the lower left of this scene. IGD suggested that the figures are Atreus and Thyestes, the older brothers of Chrysippos; this may or may not convince, and one imagines that Taplin's silence is deliberate.

no. 89 Getty Leda: I find the suggestion that the apple tree here means the Gardens of the Hesperides difficult. Possibly, rather, an implication of a garden of plenty (cf. Eniautos and Eleusis above) and/or the erotic connotation of plucking apples. On the particular treatment of Hypnos here, see Trendall and Jentoft-Nilsen in the CVA. One might add that the dove with sash seems to imply good fortune in love. On Eros and a small deer, see for example Schauenburg, JdI 108, 1993, 221-253. Some will pick on the final paragraph in this item which seems to back away from the idea of Attic dialect as an indicator of theatre.

no. 92 The Darius Vase: apart from several other recent discussions, see the important article by Boardman in B. Adembri (ed.), Aeimnestos: miscellanea di studi per Mauro Cristofani (Prospettiva Suppl. 2, Florence 2005/6) 134-139. He consulted Margot Schmidt in writing it.

no. 94 Medea at Eleusis: see now Moret in G. Labarre (ed.), Les cultes locaux dans les mondes grec et romain. Actes du colloque de Lyon, 7-8 juin 2001 (Lyons 2004) 143-151.

no. 105 The Caltanissetta tragic scene: possibly arising from his reluctance to see more than three actors in any one scene, Taplin supposes that the four figures in this most direct of all depictions are the result of a combination of scenes. It is not difficult to take one of the women as non-speaking, e.g. the one on the far left. Compare, as he does, the case of no. 22.

no. 106 A possible but unlikely Alkmene on fragments in Entella: the torch in the hand of the male: "I can see nothing to prove that it is not a sword". Aside from the unlikelihood of a sacred chain attached to a sword here, I seem to see flames. There are of course no logs around the altar on which the female sits. It would be more economical to suppose that this is a night scene; indeed I am not convinced that it is not a comic scene (where such a night scene and a discovery at an altar would be less surprising and where altars appear over at the right, a point which Taplin finds bothersome). It seems to me even likely that the male is wearing comic costume (I think I see a seam on his sleeves and a red body-tunic as would be standard in Sicilian). The female seems portly, as she would if comic. (In any case this woman has her mouth closed.) And, of course, the action takes place on an explicitly-drawn stage. The reproduction of the photograph in AntK 46, 2003, pl. 14, 2, is better.


1.   Illustrations of Greek Drama (London 1971). On p. 23, in looking at the recent history of scholarship on this subject, Taplin is to a degree critical of their approach as exemplified in their use of the word 'Illustrations' (equating 'illustrate' with 'show'). Nuances of words change, as does the baggage they carry. For Trendall and Webster, as I happen to know from discussion of this very point with each of them, 'Illustrations' was chosen by contrast with 'Representations' (which at the time seemed an obvious word), so that they would not be implying pictures of a stage performance. 'Images' was not yet popular. The title of the present work, of course, carefully avoids any word of this kind.
2.   On the reliability of rock-arches etc. as evidence, see also C. Roscino, "Elementi scenici ed iconografia nella ceramica italiota e siceliota a soggetto tragico: l'arco roccioso", in A. Martina (ed.), Teatro greco postclassico e teatro latino. Teorie e prassi drammatica. Atti del Convegno Internazionale, Roma, 16-18 ottobre 2001 (Rome 2003) 75-100, and the same author's "L'immagine della tragedia: elementi di caratterizzazione teatrale ed iconografia italiota e siceliota", in L. Todisco (ed.), La ceramica figurata a soggetto tragico in Magna Grecia e in Sicilia (Rome 2003) 223-357.
3.   They had 78 South Italian vases in their section on Tragedy but also included a good number of Attic.
4.   I think for example of the 'Daughters of Anios' scenes discussed by Trendall in the Schauenburg Festschrift and more recently by Halm-Tisserant in Ktema 25, 2000, 133-142. Note also her Réalité et imaginaire des supplices en Grèce ancienne (Paris 1998), which has general relevance to issues in this book.
5.   At 165 and Part 1, section H, he objects to Giuliani's quite good idea of professional funeral orators who spoke to the pictures on the pots, though his objection is based mostly in terms of their being literate and relying on literature. I would agree with that reasoning but wonder if one should think rather of famous passages recited by out-of-work or second-grade actors?
6.   Among a number of treatments, see recently D. Steuernagel, Menschenopfer und Mord am Altar. Griechische Mythen in etruskischen Gräbern (Wiesbaden 1998); or A. Maggiani, "'Assassinari all'altare'. Per la storia di due scheme iconografici greci in Etruria", Prospettiva 100, 2000, 9-18.
7.   Carpenter makes something of the same point in his "Images of Satyr Plays in South Italy", in G.W.M. Harrison (ed.), Satyr Drama. Tragedy at Play (Swansea 2005) 219-236. Compare Robinson, "Reception of Comic Theatre amongst the Indigenous South Italians", MeditArch 17, 2004 [2006], 193-212.

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