BMCR 1999.11.15

Panathenäische Preisamphoren: Eine athenische Vasengattung und ihre Funktion vom 6.-4. Jahrhundert v. Chr. Antike Kunst Beiheft 18

, Panathenäische Preisamphoren : Eine athenische Vasengattung und ihre Funktion vom 6.-4. Jahrhundert v. Chr.. 18. Beiheft zur Halbjahresschrift Antike Kunst. Basel: Vereinigung der Freunde Antiker Kunst, 1998. 240 pages, 136 pages of plates : illustrations ; 29 cm.. ISBN 9783909064182

Martin Bentz’s exhaustive and exact catalogue will without question be the starting point and standard for all future work on the amphorae filled with olive oil and given as prizes at the Panathenaic Games (“prize Panathenaics”). Not only is B.’s catalogue four times larger than previous ones it is also more informative, giving height, diameter of foot, belly and mouth, and in seventy-one cases volume, along with inventory number, findspot, iconography of obverse and reverse, attribution and finally a thorough bibliography.1 Moreover, there are very full, meticulously researched discussions of all aspects of production, use and iconography. Finally, most of the complete vases as well as a number of fragmentary ones are illustrated in large format.

Preceding the catalogue are five chapters of analysis and discussion. The introductory chapter describes the scope and history of the inquiry, the various competitions at the Panathenaia and their prizes, the change in prizes from 6th to 4th C. and the total number of Panathenaics awarded during that period, ending with a discussion of the inscriptions on the vases. Like virtually all scholars, B. uses the presence of the inscription “(one) of the prizes from Athens” (with the archon inscription added in the 4th C.) to distinguish prize Panathenaics from others often of the same dimensions and design (“pseudo-Panathenaics”), although he occasionally includes, without acknowledgement, Panathenaics that lack the prize inscription (6.002, 6, 5.025) or the archon inscription (4.004, 55, 154).2

More problematic is his inclusion of all fragments whether or not they include inscription. For example, of the 172 6th C. Panathenaics listed, 131 are fragments and 92 of the 131 lack the prize inscription with the result that potentially half the 6th C. vases listed could be pseudo-Panathenaics. Thus his claim (16-17) that we have 1% of the total Panathenaics produced and that we may use this figure for future calculations (e.g. of workshop production) is too bold: if half the fragments belong to pseudo-Panathenaics then the percentage drops to the earlier estimates he had hoped to replace.3 Still, once B.’s promised study of the 300+ pseudo-Panathenaics is published, comparisons can be made between complete vases of both sorts and perhaps some means devised of assigning fragments to one group or the other.

In the second chapter B. endorses the common view that the archon’s name was placed on the vases to prove that he had fulfilled his task of collecting a certain amount of oil, and so the skewed distribution of the extant names (most in the second year of the Panathenaic sequence, none in the fourth) tells us when the oil was collected.4 He endorses Valavanis’ theory that the three 4th C. Panathenaics with potter’s name instead of archon (4.007, 13, 24) are competition samples since the absence of archon inscription would make them unusable; further, because all three are in the last year of the Panathenaic cycle, it seems to him likely that the samples were displayed and the winner chosen before the archon was known and that is why the archon’s name could not be placed on the vase. The theory is not without difficulties: there are several other Panathenaics without either archon or potter (4.004, 44, 154) and there is at least one and possibly three with both archon and potter (definite 4.006, possible 4.037, 260). Also, it seems odd that the potters’ names occur only early in the 4th C. series (4.006, 7, 260 (= 7), 13, 24, 37), which is when we often find the archon inscription missing (4.004, 7, 13, 15, 16, 24, 52, 55, 154), and that we find precisely the same phenomenon in the earlier series of Panathenaics, where potters’ names appear only early (6.004, 5, 6, 7, 11, 20), at the same time that we often find no prize inscription (6.002, 6, 8) or no Panathenaic columns (6.001, 4, 7, 8, 11, 20, 22, 28, 34, 35, 36, 38).5

In the second part of the chapter B. discusses amphora capacity. He gives volumes for seventy-one amphorae whereas before there were only a dozen or so known. This is to me the most impressive contribution of the whole book and must represent countless hours of careful work (though it is not clear whether B. measured each vase twice, as Malcolm Wallace, the dean of amphora volumetrics, recommends). This means we no longer have to depend simply on height, which, as many have noted, is a poor predictor of volume. It is rather surprising, then, that B. concludes that exterior dimensions are good predictors after all and draws conclusions on the basis of what seems to me a very eccentric treatment of the data.6 He finds that the great majority of Panathenaics group around a midpoint of 36.73 l. (ranging from 32.9 to 41.4) and in three small additional groups (“half-volume” at 19.4, “third-volume” at 12, and a group around 30). With height there is the same picture, the great majority of vases are around 65 cm with the “half-volume” vases in the 50-57 cm range and the “third-volume” about 45 cm (the 30 l. group cannot be found). He concludes that potters used exterior measurements to produce a certain volume and so where the volume is not known it is reasonable to assign the vase to a volume-class on basis of external measurements.7

The midpoint suggests either that a Panathenaic amphora did not hold a standard amphora’s worth of oil (a “metretes”) or that the usual understanding that a metretes was 39.4 l. is wrong. Since we have a number of graffiti on Panathenaics showing their volume was less than a metretes, the former is more likely. Why less? B. (36f) scouts four possibilities (all predicated on the assumption that the oil was originally and always stored in the Panathenaics): (a) the size was random, (b) a metretes is not 39.4, (c) it was a sort of tax, or (d) there was only so much oil to be used for prizes so the vases were made smaller so as to not exceed that amount. Since (a) would mean that the last vase in a prize would be only part full and (b) raises more problems than it solves B. prefers (c), not noticing that this does not work if the archons have handed over their allotment in the amphorae (i.e., the state would be “taxed” as much as the victor).

As for the “half-sized” Panathenaics B. notes that most of them date from 430 to 410 BC and so are probably the result of wartime constraints on the olive crop, while the two third-sized Panathenaics date after the Persian Wars and so can be similarly explained. Yet, if one consults the appendix arranging the “half-sized” vases chronologically, one finds that this group ranges from 510 to 320 BC and that while the outer dimensions are fairly uniform the volumes range from 16.8 to 21.2 l. and that only one of these volumes falls within the 430-410 period while four of the six come after 336 BC. That is, one can reach B.’s conclusion only by ignoring the 4th C. evidence and by looking at height instead of volume. Even more noticeable is the clumping of the 30 l. vases in the 4th C. (four in 367 or 363, one 392?) and the 12 l. vases in 480-70 (both 480-70). Yet B. says he cannot explain the 4th C. Panathenaics, where the groupings are “much more complicated” and the numbers too few to make definitive conclusions. When one looks at the distribution of 4th C. volumes one sees why: what appears a clear group in the main text turns out in the appendix to be part of a much larger, spaced-out grouping that runs from 27 to 42 l. and in which only a small group (4 vases) around 20 l. can be distinguished. What groupings are real then, and is it valid to separate the 4th C. vases?

The third chapter, comprising almost half the text, carefully and fully describes and discusses the meaning and development of Panathenaic iconography. We begin with Athena, whose clothing, aegis, helmet and shield emblem are discussed in detail, without firm conclusion regarding whether she is a cult statue, reflects a cult statue or is an epiphany of the goddess herself. The conclusion regarding shield emblems is firmer: beginning in 510 BC and continuing to the end of the 5th C. each workshop used only one emblem, probably as a distinctive label for the competition (less likely marking the Panathenaic cycle or the individual farmer). For the columns flanking Athena, various interpretations are scouted but in the end B. returns to the old answer, which is hardly an answer, that they are there to support the cocks on them. The figures that replace the cocks in the 4th C. B. wisely does not call statues since only one is such, though several more may derive from statues, and he rejects the idea that they are politically motivated, concluding that they like the archon name simply mark the year change.

Turning to the iconography of the reverse, B. describes in detail each event represented and discusses its representation on other types of vase as well. The small number of beardless competitors represented on 6th-5th C. Panathenaics and the lack of clear differentiation between adult and youth on 4th C. vases lead B. to conclude that not every boy got appropriate vases, but generally a victor did receive the appropriate image since some reverses are labelled as events (though I do not see what that proves) and we have the example of a Panathenaic showing a chariot race inscribed with the name of the chariot winner Nikagoras of Rhodes. Also, B. claims we can use the images for Rückschlüsse on the development of the Games: mule races must have been only temporary (as at Olympia) since they only appear twice; apobates and target-shooting from horseback must be late since they appear late; the anomalous inscribed Panathenaic c.430-20 BC showing a musical event suggests that funds were tight during the war so olive oil was used in place of the usual gold crown. He ends the chapter with an extended demonstration of how iconography does not represent reality (though this apparently does not extend to inscriptions).

The final chapter first discusses the value of the prizes, noting the wide range in value of oil (12-55 dr/metretes in the 4th C.), and seventeen trade marks (mainly capacities in different systems) and then spends the majority of the chapter on the distribution of Panathenaics. Four findspots are described in useful detail (graves, sanctuaries, houses, and public spaces such as agoras, gymnasia and banquet-houses), leading to the conclusion that most grave Panathenaics were bought since none was found with a definite Panathenaic victor (though sometimes with athletes, as we can tell from the strigils and alabastra buried with them at Tarentum); that sanctuary Panathenaics were probably mostly dedicated by victors, but many sanctuary Panathenaics (esp. the pseudo-Panathenaics) were probably there only because the oil was used for sacrificial meals; and that house finds show variety (award or purchase, dedication or practical use) as do public locations (banquet to merchandise).

The second part of the chapter studies geographical distribution and here again the inclusion of fragments without prize or archon inscription may distort the conclusions, as well as the possibility that more than one fragment may be from the same pot, as B. himself notes in reference to the Samian Panathenaics (n.615). Still, the discussion is valuable. Half of the Panathenaics were found in Athens, a tenth in Attica, a quarter in the rest of Greece (not counting colonies). Etrurian Panathenaics are early (said to be a result of their defeat at Cyme in 474 BC); North Greek Panathenaics are late; correspondingly the numbers in South Italy decrease over time while those in Cyrenaica increase. Etruscans bought pseudo-Panathenaics as well as prize Panathenaics (non-Greeks could not compete at the Panathenaia) and their presence stops at the same time as the Panathenaics. Half of the rather meager finds in the Black Sea area (1.5%) are from non-Greek graves, indicating that at least some of the Panathenaics were merchandise. Cyreneans, on the other hand, were very active sportsmen and that explains the large number found there (5%). The large number of Panathenaics found in Attica is not surprising, nor those found in Boeotia, since they date from the time of good Athenian-Theban relations, but the low number from the Peloponnese (3%) does surprise. The main conclusion is that literary sources, trademarks, and findspot all point to the importance of trade and that trade normally involved Panathenaics filled with oil. Most Panathenaics were placed in sanctuaries (40%) and public places (36%); in only a few cases can it be established that the victor himself kept his prize. They were hardly ever simply trophies.

The incomparably full, useful and accurate catalogue described above comprises the second half of the book along with well over a hundred elegant plates and a dozen appendices that rearrange the catalogue by height, date, volume, shield-design, sport and findspot. There is an index of museums but no index of topics, authors, or vases.

Even if I am a bit sceptical of B.’s focus on historical causes and his historical reading of the inscriptions, I am extremely impressed by the level of detail, the range of inquiry and the control of so much scholarship in so many areas. Some of B.’s conclusions may be improved upon but not the solid data of the catalogue, which is a permanent and exceptionally valuable contribution.


1. B. is undoubtedly right to stop his study at the end of the 4th C. since the later Panathenaics are few and poorly preserved, but this does mean a chapter in the history of Panathenaics remains to be written.

2. There are, in addition, a number of 4th C. Panathenaics lacking archon inscription (4.007, 13, 15, 16, 24, 52) that B. admits including (n.74), bringing the total of 4th C. exceptions to 8 of 37 complete Panathenaics (all of which are early in the 4th C.). I have argued ( ZPE 96) that this pattern suggests the inscriptions became canonical only gradually, but B. dismisses this possibility as “unhistorical”.

3. Also it is not clear that each fragment comes from a different vase. Greater distortion may come not from the inclusion of fragments but from incomplete excavation: it seems to me unlikely that Aegina, where, according to Pindar, the Athenian trainer Menander trained so many successful wrestlers, has less than 2% the number of winners or purchasers of Panathenaics that Samos has yet that is the ratio of vases; likewise Thasos has only 5% the vases that Olynthus has.

4. It is not clear why the Archippos Panathenaic is assigned to 321 not 318 BC (which would then be an exception).

5. The canon is not established in the earlier series until 6.049 (canonical: 6.014 (prize inscription on right column), 16, 17, 49, 50, 51 etc.), in the later series until 4.078 (canonical: 4.001, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 25, 26, 27, 31, 50, 51, 53, 54, 63, 78, 79 etc.).

6. To his credit, he gives measurements for diameter of foot, belly and mouth as well as height, but uses only height for exterior measurement in his statistics. His theory means that a “full-sized” vase could hold anywhere from 33 to 41 liters of oil.

7. My main concern in this chapter is the way B. groups the vases by volume and height: a “standard” distribution (“Normalverteilung”) hardly argues for careful control and the putative three other volume classes are based on, respectively, four (rather spread-out) examples, six (rather spread-out) examples and two examples. As he well notes, the relationship in individual vases between volume and height is not clear.