Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.11.65

Maria Luisa Catoni, Bere vino puro: immagini del simposio. Campi del sapere/Culture.   Milano:  Giangiacomo Feltrinelli editore, 2010.  Pp. xviii, 505.  ISBN 9788807104534.  €39.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Marek Wecowski, University of Warsaw (

Table of Contents

[The reviewer sincerely apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

In 1991, in the pioneering period of modern “sympotic” scholarship, William J. Slater wrote that “[n]o one can now hope to write a comprehensive study of the ancient symposium”.1 Twenty years later, this learned and highly informative book by Maria Luisa Catoni at the same time belies and confirms this contention.

Strictly speaking, the goal of the book is to juxtapose the iconography of archaic vase painting with the sympotic poetry, i.e. to confront systematically the two primary classes of evidence for the symposion, which have often been treated separately. The images and their accompanying inscriptions, it is posited, not only went hand in hand with and inspired various forms of sympotic entertainment, but also invited the symposiasts to express themselves during a symposion in an alternative manner, contrasting with the one sanctioned and prompted by sympotic poetry (cf. e.g. p. xvii). In fact, however, when studying the utterings, songs, loves, high jinks, and values that determine the interactions between the symposiasts, Catoni presents her reader with a true encyclopaedia of sympotic studies, tackling almost every debatable scholarly issue relevant to the history of the symposion and to its iconography. This does not spoil the coherence of the main thematic lines of the book, but it raises, as we shall see, some general questions regarding its conceptual framework.

In chapter one (“Come si fa un simposio”), Catoni sets out the indispensable starting-point of her enquiry in a very thoughtful reconstruction of the material setting and of the actual course of the symposion. She describes its usual circumstances, the diverse classes of its participants, its various entertainments (poetry, toasts, jokes, and other forms of performances), and its principal rules. In all this, referring to literary sources that span several centuries, the author moves between the ideal and the realities of the symposion. Ultimately, she presents her decision to put to the archaic vase painting questions of the kind that literary scholars have long been asking sympotic poetry, regarding conditions, circumstances, and goals of its production and its performance. From the very beginning, Catoni suggests a fundamental difference between the two “halves” of our sympotic material. Whereas those who compose and execute poetry at symposia were members of the sympotic group, those who produced and decorated sympotic ware in her view must have been outsiders. This contention will have far-reaching consequences for the entire argument of the book.

In chapter two (“Vasi e parole”), the author thoroughly interprets all conceivable functions of sympotic vases during a symposion. This is perhaps the most stimulating part of Catoni’s work. Particularly interesting is her brilliant treatment of the different functions of the sympotic inscriptions (both graffiti and dipinti) we encounter on sympotic wares (the author deals, among other things, with the famous “Cup of Nestor” from Pithekoussai, generally recognized nowadays as the oldest unambiguous testimony of the symposion – CEG I 454 = SEG XIV 604). Already in this chapter, however, a general problem with Catoni’s approach seems to emerge. When giving a well-balanced response to the well-known thesis of the primacy of metal vases over clay pottery,2 she devotes much attention to the social standing of the producers of archaic ceramics, but much less to the social profile of the “consumers” of the vases, taking for granted a rather vague notion of the symposion as an “aristocratic banquet” and of archaic Greek aristocracy (see below).

Chapter three (“Immagini controluce”) is still devoted to the “interactions between songs and pictures” (p. 219), but this time in a more specific manner. The author interestingly observes the possible effects of painted pottery on the symposiasts, stressing, among other things, two important factors determining the “consumption” of images. On the one hand, the revellers get more and more intoxicated, which naturally influences their perception of vase painting on different stages of the symposion; on the other, images themselves may assume a “diachronic” dimension, e.g. as the painted tondo of a drinking cup gradually emerges from wine. The author also gives a stimulating interpretation of some sympotic images as reflecting a phenomenon analogous to the “sympotic catenae” of archaic poetry, namely images juxtaposing, on the same vase, two opposing modalities of the aristocratic life-style (e.g. homosexual and heterosexual love in two contrasting figurative scenes). What is a bit less persuasive is Catoni’s focus on the iconographic symbolism of the “right measure” of drinking, i.e. on the theme of sympotic norms and their violations. Here, she sometimes seems to go too far, as if forgetting that ritual breaches of the “right measure” belonged to the very essence of the symposion. For instance, she gives a subtle reading of the images featuring symposiasts drinking from large or inappropriate vases (e.g. oinochoai, or even amphorae), interpreting them as belonging to a normative sympotic discourse. What she does not tell us, if I am not mistaken, is that such scenes may also “allude” to the well- attested sympotic entertainment of “sport drinking” (polyposia or kothonismos). A drinking event featuring this competition was definitely not a “symposion deviating from the norm” (cf. p. 258), but a conceivable sympotic entertainment. As Catoni subtly puts it herself apropos of the function of the images of satyrs and their immoderate behaviour, such images might have induced the symposiasts to explore possible points of contact between humans and satyrs (p. 262).

Chapter four (“Veder voci”), in which the book culminates, is the most speculative and perhaps the least persuasive part of this work. Here, an attempt is made to correlate well-known political and social changes of the late sixth- and early fifth-century Athens with changing ambitions and maybe changing social status of the producers of Athenian vases in the period between ca 510 and ca 490 B.C. The main contention is that the artists conventionally known as the Pioneer Group did not belong to the “sympotic group”, but behaved as if they did, decorating their vases with images and inscriptions, including names depicting their colleagues represented as revellers among the aristocratic members of Athenian high society, that testify to their ambitions and aspirations. And such ambitions could have been made possible only thanks to the profound changes that the Athenian polis underwent in the times of the Pisistratid tyranny and the ensuing reforms. Now, there are serious prosopographical problems involved (are we sure that such names as Smikros must allude to real-life individuals and Athenian artisans?) and too much here is based on a very elaborate interpretation of the anomalous and isolated “signatures” of Euthymides that mention his patronymikon (ARV2 26.1; 26.2 (twice); 28.11 (twice); 28.17). But more important is a general problem that to my mind amounts to the main shortcoming of this otherwise excellent book, namely the fact that some ideas and interpretations underlying and determining Catoni’s analyses are simply taken for granted on the basis of earlier scholarship and not critically scrutinized in sufficient depth.

The fundamental point is that, in a book devoted to the symposion, the author does not try to put forward and to deploy a sufficiently specific definition of the symposion and adopts instead a very vague one 3 that makes it extremely difficult to assess historical changes of this institution over the centuries of its popularity (the author focuses in this book on a particular historical period, but on different occasions deals with earlier history of the symposion, too – cf. e.g. pp. 61-70). A concomitant problem – and a crucial issue when defining the symposion – is the definition of the “sympotic group” itself, namely of the social group (or groups) enjoying the symposion in different historical periods.

Strangely enough, this issue is never straightforwardly addressed in the book. Although Catoni repeatedly discusses the social standing of the producers of the sympotic pottery, she does not reflect on the (changing) nature and social composition of the archaic aristocracy as the “sympotic group”, nor on possible ways in which the so-called kakoi could have advanced to its ranks. As a result, her analyses seem to be based on a somewhat simplistic “great divide” between the aristocrats and lower social circles (the latter featuring banausoi, or artisans from the Athenian Kerameikos). Meanwhile, in recent scholarship, questions have been raised, on the one hand, about the purely and exclusively aristocratic character of archaic symposia.4 On the other hand, some scholars have long emphasized the high rate of vertical social mobility in the archaic period, in particular that resulting in the unstability and fluidity of aristocratic circles.5 The latter approach makes it difficult to treat “aristocracy” as a homogeneous, stable, and well-defined group in opposition to other groups of archaic citizenry, and leads to the conclusion that “aristocratic” claims were open to all those who could afford the “aristocratic lifestyle” in both its material and cultural aspects. And this theory may seriously affect the problem of the “sympotic” aspirations and ambitions of the late archaic Athenian potters and vase-painters. To put it briefly, even without coming from noble Athenian families, some of them, if economically successful and competent in the sympotic lifestyle, might have effectively aspired to the aristocratic status.

The book’s construction is rather complex. The narrative is dense, the thematic lines intertwined, and the main bulk of the text is completed by sometimes very lengthy endnotes, which at times unnecessarily repeat parts of the argument from the main text (cf., e.g., p. 161-162 with p. 397/n. 117). The quality of the plates is generally far from excellent because of the texture of the paper used, which does not facilitate the reading of a work devoted to the iconography of vase painting. But this, I presume, is the cost to be paid for the reasonable price that makes this book available to a larger public. Otherwise, Bere vino puro is a carefully edited book with only rare misprints.

Despite the critical general remarks above, there can be no doubt that this valuable book by Maria Luisa Catoni will become a cherished treasury of information and of stimulating interpretations for every student of the symposion, and also an indispensable tool for students of archaic Greek culture in general.


1.   In Slater ed., Dining in a Classical Context (Ann Arbor, MI, 1991), p. 1.
2.   See already M. Vickers, “Artful Crafts: the Influence of Metalwork on Athenian Painted Pottery”, JHS 105 (1985), 108-128.
3.   Overall, Catoni describes the symposion without defining it precisely. A more detailed discussion of the distinctive features of the symposion is relegated to n. 73 on p. 376, where it occurs only in connection with the problem of the nature of banquets in Homer. The problem of inferring historical unity from sources that span several centuries is only touched upon, in a rather inconclusive manner, when the author discusses different methodological problems of “reading” sympotic iconography (p. 115).
4.   See e.g. D. Yatromanolakis, “Symposia, Noses, Πρόσωπα: A Kylix in the Company of Banqueters on the Ground”, in D. Yatromanolakis ed., An Archaeology of Representations: Ancient Greek Vase-Painting and Contemporary Methodologies. (Athens, 2009), 414-464. To put it briefly, Yatromanolakis argues for the existence of “non- aristocratic” symposia in the archaic period. I am not persuaded by his argument, but it is worth considering, if only to be rejected based on a detailed definition of the symposion and of the “sympotic group”.
5.   See esp. B. Bravo, “Areté e ricchezza nella polis dell’età arcaica secondo le testimonianze dei poeti”, Index 17 (1989), 47-79 and eiusdem, “Una società legata alla terra”, in S. Settis ed., I Greci. Storia cultura arte società, 2: Una storia greca, I: Formazione. (Torino, 1996), 527-560. Catoni seems to be in agreement with this scholarly approach (see briefly on p. 140 of her book), but does not apply it consistently. Symptomatically, she quotes A. Duplouy’s excellent work on the “modes of social recognition [of the archaic élites]” (Le prestige des élites. Recherches sur les modes de reconnaisance sociale en Grèce entre les Xe et Ve siècles avant J.-C.. (Paris, 2006)) only a few times in relation to some secondary issues.

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