BMCR 2001.01.08

Not The Classical Ideal: Athens and the Construction of the Other in Greek Art

, Not the classical ideal : Athens and the construction of the other in Greek art. Brill's Scholars' list. Leiden/Boston/Cologne: Brill, 2000. xvi, 559 pages : illustrations. ISBN 9004116184 Nlg 169,69/US $95.

In one sense Beth Cohen has no particular need to justify the theme underpinning this collection of essays. Over the last 15 years or so, the study of alterity in Classical Greek culture has been developed almost to the point of orthodoxy.1 It has been evident from the start that the Classical Greeks’ apparent self-definition in opposition to ‘the Other’ involves, and is highly relevant to the explanation of, Greek art. Yet Not the Classical Ideal is the first thoroughgoing attempt to survey, in C.’s words, ‘a broad range of visual imagery in the Classical Greek world from a variety of scholarly perspectives’ (11).

It should be noted from the outset that these essays do little to engage with this theoretical background or challenge the premises involved. To a large extent ‘Otherness’ offers an organizational scheme for the collection rather than the subject of debate. C.’s introduction aims to explain the parameters for investigation rather than setting specific objectives. The central concept is not questioned in any depth, nor is it defended, and in acknowledging recent critiques of binary thought C. suggests (perhaps in an almost defeatist tone): ‘studies that use the category of the Other can still be valuable and illuminating’ and, ‘exploring the construction of the Other, one of many possible ways to read the imagery of Greek art, still has a complex story to tell’ (12). These are not serious objections: it is just that one wonders to what extent the arguments in the book are informed by the crystallization of previous (more self-critical) work into a rigid interpretative scheme.

Nevertheless, this book is a successful enterprise that avoids the usual weaknesses of edited volumes. Few of the authors lose sight of the underlying theme and their orientation towards a fairly simple set of assumptions about Greek thought and representation—as well as the recurrence of particular concerns such as the early growth of Athenian democracy or the impact of orientalism—gives the volume a rare coherence. Moreover, although not all of the essays are intellectually ambitious, they are without exception clear, carefully researched and presented, and thought-provoking. This is one of the most consistently interesting books of its kind. And if some of the fundamental principles of alterity are left unexamined, at least the picture is rendered fuller and more complex by many of the papers, which reveal in detail the variety of ways in which representational norms might be subverted or adapted in Classical Greek art.

Such is the case especially with Robin Osborne’s essay, which opens the book by looking at the readjustment of social-evaluative language—the language of agathoi and kakoi —towards democratic ideology in fifth-century Athens. He goes on to show how art exposes fissures in that ideology. While sculpture and sympotic vases represent the hoplite as the normative image of the Athenian warrior, the poorer light-armed peltast is marginalized and appears—when he does—on a disproportionate number of cheaper pots used by women (alabastra) and youths (‘mugs’). Some peltasts are black on these pots; and after 480 BC they are assimilated to Persians. In glorifying the typical citizen as a hoplite, Athenian imagery continues to react against the reality of the peltast’s life.

There are certain problems with O.’s statistics (derived from Lissarrague). The argument relies on a relatively small—and not necessarily representative—sample of pots and (O. does not point out that) the disproportionate number of alabastra in the repertoire of peltast images is generated by pots attributed to one distinctive group. But in general terms the comments are still compelling. Particularly interesting is the implication that the image of the marginalized peltast is internalized even by those whom it degrades. With its insights into the suppressed heterogeneity of Athenian society, this essay is a gratifyingly unsettling contribution to the study of ‘internal Others’ which occupies much of the book.

The following two papers are iconological surveys. Michael Padgett’s subtle analysis takes as its starting-point the well discussed ‘Otherness’ of satyrs but builds on previous work to reveal their association with donkeys (and mules)—the horse’s Other. The inferiority and marginalization of both, which is applicable also to human stable-hands and other manual workers, is conveyed by mutual association and shared motifs in the repertoire of ceramic iconography. Timothy McNiven looks broadly at the expansive gestures of fear or supplication made by women in vase-paintings, as compared with the conspicuous self-control of men. Assuming that these motifs represent the difference between the male ideal and a female Other, he shows how the same gestures place satyrs, youths such as Orpheus and Ganymede, and old men in the same exceptional category as women (interestingly Amazons, and perhaps more awkwardly Persians, appear to show none of this fear). Finally negative representations of Eurystheus and Aegisthus are connected with anti-tyrannical sentiments in the late Archaic period: the Copenhagan Painter depicts Hipparchos himself making the mythical tyrants’ gesture of supplication as he is stabbed. McNiven in particular takes for granted the prevalence of binary opposites in Greek thought, and that assumption does determine his organization and interpretation of the material. Whatever doubts this might raise about the methodology, the discussion exposes very suggestive parallels and persuasively places them in a socio-political context.

Beth Cohen’s own essay looks at the (anti-)heroes Orpheus, Aktaion and Pentheus as they are represented in Classical vase-painting—intact, ideal youths—before their dismemberment at the hands of frenzied women or beasts (Aktaion’s hounds provoked by Artemis). She stresses not the threatening power of wild females in these similar myths, but the transgression of the victims themselves. Their transgression is apparently underscored by the fact that they are represented—inappropriately—as stereotypical Greek heroes. For instance, the kneeling pose of Pentheus and Aktaion, slaughtered like wild prey, is not a defensive position, but ironically appropriates the classic motif of the heroic hunter killing his victim. C.’s argument is rich and complex, but also problematic because in some cases the visual evidence by itself could be (and has been) used to argue the very opposite.2 The representation of these mythical victims can only ‘invert the significance of the ideal Greek constructions of heroic youth and male nudity’ (131) if one knows, or has decided, from the outset that they are transgressive and that this is what is portrayed. One surprisingly neglected factor that complicates the depiction of such paradigmatic figures—and the whole idea of the transgressive victim’s destruction—is the (presumably) funerary final deployment of most of the objects examined.

François Lissarrague’s chapter pursues the elusive image of the fabulist Aesop (traditionally a deformed, barbarian slave and so perfectly qualified as an Other) through literature and art. His (almost) structuralist conclusion, that ‘Aesop does not exist’ (129) but is essentially a literary genre rather than an individual, may sound like an excuse for lack of evidence, but is perhaps more useful than that as an (albeit rhetorical) characterization of a diverse body of ancient material. The relatively consistent image of Homer might afford a useful contrast.

The next six chapters focus more closely on the construction of social personae and status in Classical Athenian art. Maria Pipili usefully surveys the types of headgear that distinguish lower-class individuals such as rustics and craftsmen in late Archaic or early Classical vase-painting. Hats like the rustic pilos denote the inferior status of figures that are often, but not always, unattractively portrayed. Robert Sutton concentrates on the same period, analyzing depictions of the Base and the Ugly (his capitals) in orgy scenes. These he sees as celebrations of the Self as Other—a flirtation with non-conventional behaviour that responds to the attitudes of ‘members of newly emerging social classes’ (183). Importantly, S. shows that such images are authentically obscene—in Athenian terms—and that shameless sexual displays in public could be regarded as ‘Other’ (typical of foreigners, for instance). The survey of evidence is perceptive, though not without some preconceptions about what must have appeared more or less unacceptable. It also presents a veritable alphabet of non-sexual anti-social behaviour in the context of the komos —including brawling, crepitation, defecation, urination and vomiting—as well as non-ideal and degrading representations of aging prostitutes. The repertoire of such images from later Archaic Athens is interpreted as an ironic celebration of deplorable behaviour, challenging established aristocratic values in the emerging democracy. The Base and the Ugly was eventually discarded in the evolution of an elevated High Classical style (symbolized, it is suggested, by Myron’s statue of Athena, loftily discarding the pipes that the satyr Marsyas will adopt). Sutton’s arguments are compatible with the evidence and highly appealing because of their socio-political dimension.

Jenifer Neils summarizes the iconography of hetairai on Attic red-figure pots before exploring the relationship between hetairai and maenads, sometimes juxtaposed and even assimilated (as in the case of Epiktetos’s famous tondo representing an aulos-player with a skin-clad, castanet-wielding woman). Both types of liberated female reverse ‘the normative role of women in Greek society’ (226) and their respective nocturnal entertainments were easily associated by those who painted wine-vessels. John Oakley’s chapter starts with the uncomfortable paradox that slaves, who were apparently straightforwardly ‘Other’, are often hard positively to identify in Classical iconography. He presents a critical summary of recent reassessments of the ‘mistress and maid’ scenes on Attic pots, which are better labelled as images of ‘two women’ (231), though in some cases slave-girls can be securely identified from context, attire, short hair or stature. Some slaves like the tattooed Thracians are unambigious Others. But the status of women is generally not sharply defined. O.’s examples lead to the conclusion that such images of slaves are themselves ideals—perfect slaves in the harmonious oikos —a perceptive observation that complicates the definition of the Classical ideal, or reveals further subtleties in its expression.

The chapter by Andrew Stewart and Celina Gray—’Confronting the Other’—only confronts the subject of the Other in a very general sense, but it is a fascinating study of a unique late Classical funerary stele and its implications for the portrayal of childbirth, aging and familial relationships in Athens. The stele, from the Sackler Museum, represents a seated woman and an old man clasping hands, flanked by attendant females—broadly speaking a highly conventional dexiosis scene. But scrutiny of composition and the stone show that this relief was reworked in antiquity, and originally depicted an altogether less common ‘death-in-childbirth’ scene, in which the ‘old man’ was another woman clutching the arm of the tragic, collapsing mother. Stewart and Gray highlight the uncomfortable and unusual intimacy of the short-lived ‘death-in-childbirth’ genre, which ‘breaks the rules’ of Attic funerary iconography by representing suffering and the cause of death (and which is toned down even in the original form of the Sackler stele). Surely none of this quite amounts to ‘otherness’; still, the hypothesis that such scenes had their origins in fourth-century mythological painting or even drama is instructive. This discussion finally seeks to identify the old man as the husband, not the father, of the deceased woman, and explains the restrictions placed on the sculptor in the recutting of the stone, as well as his room to manoeuvre for rhetorical effect. In the end little is said about the actual reuse of the stele, but here it is perhaps impossible to move beyond pure speculation, and this is an illuminating essay.

The last chapter to deal with ‘internal others’ is Helene Foley’s detailed, critical study of the comic body and its representation in Attic and South Italian art and literature. The rest of the book is concerned with the more obvious, foreign Others that that come more readily to mind in discussions of Greek binary opposition.

Alan Shapiro looks at Greek perceptions of the Etruscans and successfully aims at a more systematic examination of the Perizoma Group of Attic black-figure pots, the iconography of which implies a conscious awareness of an Etruscan clientele. Keith De Vries focuses on the more familiar, Hellenized non-Greeks of Phrygia and Lydia, illuminating interesting discrepancies between literary and visual representation of the former. Despoina Tsiafakis surveys a variety of depictions of the exotic Thracians on Attic pottery with useful literary comparisons, finally emphasizing the otherness of the Thracian goddess Bendis within Athens.

As a translation of a French article originally published in 1985/6 in a rather different context,3 Claude Bérard’s chapter stands out as a sophisticated alternative perspective on the general subject of the foreign other. His proposition that Athenian images of ‘orientals’ (Persians and similar barbarians) are essentially not racist depends too much on the assumption that racism should be straightforwardly visible to us in Greek iconography (through caricature for example); but the premise is unreliable. To suggest that the exotic equipment of the oriental Other is presented with ‘an ethnographic interest that is in no way denigrating’ (394) seems unduly generous and ignores the juxtaposition with Greek features which evidentally are the ideal norm (the subject of much discussion in this book). Nor does the failure to proclaim outright Greek supremacy in art (or the occasional success of the enemy, or the fact that Amazons sometimes wear hoplite armour) suggest the absence of something like racism. It perhaps only suggests that the ‘racism’ takes a subtle form. However, what these arguments amount to is a contrast with the depiction of African (Ethiopian) mythical figures like Memnon and Andromeda who as heroic characters are decidedly not portrayed like Africans, their foreign origins indicated instead by black attendants and sometimes by Persian dress. The implication is a hierarchy of racism: ‘”Persians” are superior to the Blacks but inferior to the Whites…’ (405). Athenian iconography thus betrays ‘a mild form of cultural racism…profoundly rooted in the mental structures of Athenian society’ (409), but it remains mild because the black population in Greece was small—a remote Other — and ‘in their time and place, the Athenians could afford not to be racist’ (409). In spite of the previous evidence B. finishes by suggesting, not implausibly, that plastic vases in the form of white and black heads have an aesthetic, not a racial motivation. But are they ‘beyond ideologies’ (411)? Surely not.

Margaret Miller’s chapter explores the transformation of the Bousiris myth in vase-painting after the Persian wars, showing how the story shifts from an Egyptian to a Persian setting with the democratic Athenians’ need for reductive self-definition in opposition to the foreign Other. David Castriota provides an appropriate concluding chapter by examining Persian representations of self and Other in images and documents—sources which (not surprisingly) embody a quite different world-view from that of the Greeks.

In sum, this is an expertly edited, high-quality book which will provide an enduring source of inspiration and material to many. Just one final, general comment is due. Not the Classical Ideal is almost entirely devoted specifically to Attic vase-painting. While Cohen attempts to justify that focus with reference to the survival of pots, their rich figural and especially mythological decoration, and the insight that they afford into ‘the taste and outlook of the common people’ (12), it is important to ask how and why ‘the “official” iconography of monumental, public art’ differs. It is, after all, a truism that the mythological battle scenes of monuments like the Parthenon (perhaps no less a part of the ‘common people’s’ world) project the boldest image of the Other in Classical art.


1. For general and methodological discussion see especially P. Cartledge, The Greeks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

2. See the references in Cohen p. 98, n. 2.

3. C. Bérard, ‘L’image de l’Autre et le héros étranger’, in Sciences et Racisme 67 (1985-6), pp. 5-22.