Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.53 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.53

Wolfgang Filser, Die Elite Athens auf der attischen Luxuskeramik. Image & context, 16.   Berlin; München; Boston​:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. xi, 790.  ISBN 9783110449730.  $149.99.  

Reviewed by Nathan T. Arrington, Princeton University (

Table of Contents

Nearly 25 years after Michael Vickers and David Gill cast doubt on the value and prestige of Attic pottery,1 it is possible to publish a book on Athenian "Luxuskeramik" that leaves them out of the bibliography. Over the course of nearly 600 pages of text, but especially through the presentation of over 400 images, Wolfgang Filser makes the case that the images on Attic black-figure and red-figure pottery conveyed the qualities, ideals, and desires of the Athenian elite.

In the first chapter, "Die Reichen, der Reichtum und seine Quellen", Filser surveys sources of wealth for Athenians and argues that from the Archaic through the Classical periods land was the most important, secure, and respected path to riches. A propertied class arose in the 7th century and was in place by the time of Solon. In Solonian terms, these elites (a term Filser prefers to “aristocracy”) were the pentakosiomedimnoi and hippeis and comprised 5–10% of the population. Not needing to work for subsistence, they represented a "leisure class." The threat of social risers constantly pressed upon those who yearned for exclusivity vis-à-vis other elites as well as the masses.

In the next chapter, "Thorstein Veblens 'Theory of the Leisure Class'", Filser sets out the theoretical premises of the study. According to him, this concept of a leisure class, developed in regard to nineteenth-century American society, offers a framework for the description and analysis of the ostentatious behavior of Athenian propertied elite, whose thirst for distinction led to conspicuous consumption and waste. Even the liturgy should be understood as a form of ostentatious display rather than a redistribution of wealth and true service to the city. The role of emulation in Veblen's model is critical for Filser: elite emulate one another while the poor emulate those in higher social circles. As a result, non-elite are unable to develop their own terms of distinction, to set themselves apart from the wealthy, or to recognize their majority status. For Filser, this helps explain the widespread appearance of elite imagery on vases not restricted to an elite audience.

"Die Elite im Wandel. 600-400 v. Chr." tracks the ebb and flow of the power of the elite in relation to personalities (e.g., Solon) and events (e.g., the Persian Wars). At no point, Filser argues, even in pre-Solonian times, was there a closed aristocracy. Under Solon, the leisure class became more institutionalized, while the tyranny of the Peisistratids "paralyzed" the leisure class, because of the way in which the tyrants monopolized prestige and aristocratic opportunities. Kleisthenes' reforms, in contrast, created the political offices that allowed the rich a civic pretext to enrich themselves. Athenian expansion during the Persian Wars enriched a small class of Athenians, with land holding systematically extending well beyond Attica, and an abundant supply of foreign luxury goods and slaves gave new dynamics to status emulation. Much of this display ended with Perikles, whom Filser compares to the Peisistratids. The death of Perikles created a power vacuum into which the nouveaux riches moved, with their wealth acquired from industry. With the end of the Peloponnesian War, a general suspicion of leisure culture took hold, with a systematic "Luxuskritik," and widespread adoption of modesty on the part of the elite.

An interesting chapter on depictions of labor follows ("Die andere Nacktheit, die andere Kleidung. Bilder der Arbeit"). Mostly black-figure, these scenes (trading, shoe-making, baking, smithing, and farming) on symposium vessels created a meaningful contrast with the depictions of symposiasts and athletes. The physical nature of the activity and the low status of the laborers was made evident through iconography, style, and composition.

The next three chapters represent the bulk of the book: a detailed survey of representations of symposia, athletics, and horses (“Pferdehaltung”). Each is organized chronologically and subdivided into numerous shorter sections.

The symposium reeked of luxury. Images of drinkers on vases conveyed idealized depictions of an elite atmosphere marked by decadent equipment and clothing, costly servants, and plentiful women. The representations of mythical figures such as Herakles, Achilles, and Greek kings allowed participants to think of themselves in heroic terms, while the presence of exotic and eastern objects, particularly from the late 6th century onward, infused the scenes. Persian and Lydian accoutrements were not curios but signs of close contact with the Persian elite (198-199). Filser emphasizes that the symposium never experienced a democratic movement and never became a widespread activity. So he argues that simple and humble klinai still operated in luxurious settings (234-255); that banquets on the ground were nevertheless decadent (173-209); and that images of workmen like Smikros banqueting were “Traumgebilde” and “Wunschbilder,” jokes to be appreciated in the workshop, their names unimportant for rich revelers (162-168). The depiction of symposia dropped ca. 450 BC, but Filser sees no concomitant change in the representation of the luxury of the event.

Sport, too, was "ein Lebensbereich der Reichen" (282). Filser describes the clothing of trainers, the depiction of expensive prizes, and the presence of servants and musicians to show how athletics was portrayed as an activity of the leisure class. The athlete’s body emerges as a subject of particular painterly interest (310-316, 345-347, 355-372, 381-392). The varied movements of pentathletes lent themselves to an exploration of bodily expression, and scenes of washing and caring for the body conflated athletics and courtship. In the first half of the 5th century, athletics itself took second place (363). Figures adopted statuesque poses and admired one another, with strigils deployed in suggestive ways. In the second half of the 5th century, the hoplitodromos lost prestige due to the introduction of the ephebeia (377), but there was not an overall decrease in the luxury of sport.

Finally, Filser turns to depictions of the horse, "der ultimative Diener der leisure class, denn es ist das teuerste, schönste und nutzloseste Luxusobjekt" (399), first discussing the cavalry class (hippeis) and the cavalry reforms. In black-figure, we find horses individually (horse-head amphoras) and in military scenes, departures, competitions, and wedding processions. Filser shows how the composition of the departures focalized large family groups (430) and how the innovation of frontally depicting horses added dynamism and power to scenes (455-460). In wedding processions, the chariot accompanied a display of familial wealth and underscored how matrimony cemented alliances between elite families and served as an important venue for the acquisition of property (495-501). A more complex power dynamic operated in the stall scenes, where compositions contrasted horses and their riders and owners with stable hands (470-476). In the late 6th century, the number of military scenes dropped and images appeared that Filser discusses under the rubric "beautiful riders" (505-517, 551-556). Hippic games continued, with some innovations, such as the presence of Nike crowning victors (529-536, 557-561), while departures for battle de-emphasized the place of the horse (538-545). It is evident that the cavalry reforms and the ensuing polis involvement in the cavalry and the widening of the ranks of riders damaged the pictorial role of horses as status symbols, and Filser includes discussion of the dokimasia (517-520, 549-551).

The conclusion summarizes some of Filser’s findings and seeks historical explanations for chronological variation in the three themes, with references to graphs that Filser created on the basis of a database of 6507 vases (100-101, pl. IX, with a methodological discussion on 591-594). For example, he links the sudden rise in the number of vases depicting symposia at the end of the 6th century is linked with the end of Peisistratid rule, the return of the elite from exile, and the rise in ostentatious emulation (568-569). The increase in palaestra scenes finds a similar explanation, but unlike the symposia, athletics from 470/60 until 410 remained relatively popular (572). Horse-rearing was fashionable under the tyranny but dropped shortly after 500 because the institutionalization of the cavalry diminished the elite appeal of hippic imagery (576-578).

The strength of this book is the vast collection of images (over 400), which form an indispensable resource. As a visual argument for the existence of a relationship between vase-painting and the elite, the book is absolutely compelling. It is hard to deny the studied refinement and decadence that seeps from the pages. But what conclusions should one draw about Athenian social structure and the role of crafts therein? And are pots really “Luxuskeramik”? Filser acknowledges that the elite images are consumed by a much wider clientele than a narrow number of elite patrons alone. Through the term “Luxuskeramik,” he makes no claim that only the elite used these pots. They dictated the imagery, he maintains, and others emulated their tastes. Yet this is a rather simplistic view of the social dynamics of production and consumption. Filser does not engage in a substantive way with the work of such scholars as Josiah Ober, Leslie Kurke, Ian Morris, or Richard Neer, who have drawn attention to the vexed relationship between individual and community and the contestation within the elite over terms of legitimacy.2 Elite images in this book reflect dominant discourse rather than operate as sites of contestation, misunderstanding, or reconciliation. Consequently, the descriptions of the images verge on the terse and oftentimes miss the possible complexity and openness of an image. For example, an enthralling black-figure kylix attributed to the Amasis Painter which almost surely represents the stables of Poseidon (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1989.281.62), with figures creeping out of the figured metopes, becomes instead an elite multi-generational image wherein some of the metope figures are children (502-503).

The absence of archaeological contexts is perhaps the most striking omission from this book. Apart from a brief discussion in the conclusion on the public dining debris from the Agora (567-568), physical contexts have no place, and such important studies as Kathleen Lynch’s on the Agora deposits or Nicholas Cahill’s on household assemblages at Olynthus are not in the bibliography.3 The Etruscan context of Attic vase-consumption is also absent. There is room for disagreement over the relationship between Etruscan clients and Athenian vase-painters, but most scholars see some Etruscan pull on Tyrrhenian amphorae and products of the Nikosthenes Workshop and the Perizoma Group. Filser discusses the latter at some length (190-193, 332-339) and accepts that some of the figures might represent Etruscans, but nevertheless maintains that they should be used as evidence for Athenian elite taste. This resistance might be defensible for the interpretation of specific images, but not for quantitative analysis. I fear that the Etruscan contexts of Attic pottery render the graphs on pl. IX highly problematic, at least for the ends to which Filser uses them. It is not possible to tally the production of a particular iconographic theme across time and to draw conclusions about the changing attitudes of the Athenian elite, because so many of these vases were made for export. It is one thing to use an Attic vase from an Etruscan context to discuss Attic imagery, and an altogether different matter to draw quantitative conclusions about the Athenian elite on the basis of numbers which must, at least in part, reflect Etruscan demand.

The search for chronological meaning behind quantitative variation subtends the entire book. Sensitivity to chronological change would be a welcome change to structuralist approaches, but the relationship between the history of events and artistic developments should not be forced. Art can have its own autonomy. One unfortunate consequence of the chronological privileging is that interesting discussions of similar material are cut off from each other, so section VI.4.10 deals with “Luxus and Homoerotik” but VI.5.2 is “Die schönen Athleten, die Homoerotik und die Strigilis.”

Here and elsewhere, the book would benefit from more heavy-handed editing. I am not convinced it is necessary to have a 20-page introduction to Veblen’s well-known theory, a 30-some-page survey of the elite that does little more than recapitulate highlights from Davies or a digression about the modern Olympic movement.4 More effort could be devoted, for example, to the short index, where neither “Elite” nor “Luxuskeramik” earns an entry; to engagement with some of the important literature on ceramics and society; and to integrating theoretical observations with reading of images.

Yet this is an important book, and for more reasons than one, it cannot be put down lightly. Filser has an argument to make, and he does so, boldly and clearly. He has presented the evidence in a transparent and generous manner so that others may quibble, disagree, or applaud. Just about every topic related to elite engagement in symposia, athletics, and horsemanship finds a place here. Many scholars will find good reason to dip into this book, and all will learn something valuable about Athenian ceramics. ​


1.   Vickers, M. and D. Gill. 1994. Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2.   E.g. Ober, J. 1989. Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Kurke, L. 1991. The Traffic in Praise: Pindar and the Poetics of Social Economy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Morris, I. 2000. Archaeology as Cultural History: Words and Things in Iron Age Greece. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell; Neer, R.T. 2002. Style and Politics in Athenian Vase-Painting: The Craft of Democracy, ca. 530-460 B.C.E. New York: Cambridge University Press.
3.   Lynch, K.M. 2011. The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens; Cahill, N.D. 2002. Household and City Organization at Olynthus. New Haven: Yale University Press.
4.   Davies, J.K. 1971. Athenian Propertied Families, 600-300 B.C. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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