BMCR 2003.09.28

The Athenian Woman: An Iconographic Handbook

Sian Lewis, The Athenian woman : an iconographic handbook. London: Routledge, 2002. 1 online resource (xii, 261 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9781135128258 $27.95 (pb).

On the inside front cover of The Athenian Woman the publisher hails the book as ‘much needed,’ which it is. It is also controversial, and its importance may not be grasped until the initial shock has subsided. Lewis’ primary argument is that most Attic vases were made for an export market, and therefore they are of little use for reconstructing the Athenian ideology of gender. Her approach may be viewed as a kind of deconstruction of A City of Images, which will certainly be a cause of consternation for many. But while this volume may seem nihilistic on first reading, Lewis (hereafter L.) calls for a more nuanced reading of both the objects and the images that better allows for their complexity. In this way, the title is itself a kind of misnomer: it is not a handbook per se, but a cautionary tale about how not to read the iconography. Nor is it in fact primarily about The Athenian Woman, but the ideals and expectations of a largely foreign market.

The five chapters are at the same time thematic and chronological, reflecting, the author asserts, changes in the export market in the archaic and classical periods. Chapter One, ‘Becoming Visible,’ is organized around women’s life-stages, from infancy to old age. She notes that while images of young girls are present on vases made for use in local rituals (notably the Arkteia and Anthesteria), adult women are pictured more frequently on vases for export in order to put a ‘public face on the polis’ (p. 35). The focus on women’s biological and social changes is useful in demonstrating what is not represented on Greek vases: infancy and certain stages of young girlhood, pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, the role of grandmother or widow. Comparison of the imagery on the vases with that in other media, especially terracotta figurines and marble relief sculpture, is particularly instructive. In Chapter Two, ‘Domestic Labour,’ L. contends that since images of women performing domestic tasks are not found on so-called women’s shapes, namely pyxides, lekythoi or lebetes gamikoi, ‘the purpose of domestic imagery cannot be, as has been suggested, to reinforce the stereotypes which guided the lives of Athenian women’ (p. 59). Furthermore, since many of the vases in question (primarily cups, kraters, and pelikai) are found in Etruscan tombs, she offers the radical interpretation that such vases were produced for an export market that understood the imagery either as preparations for funerary rituals or as domestic laborers in the afterlife. Chapter Three, ‘Working Women,’ scrutinizes the evidence for women’s work outside the home, especially sex-work, and concludes that erotic imagery was produced not for an Athenian audience but for an Etruscan clientele, which placed such pots in tombs as ‘charms against the evil eye’ (p. 129). In Chapter Four, ‘The Women’s Room,’ L. correlates changes in shape and decoration in the Classical period with a shift in the market away from foreign export and towards domestic consumption. The new emphasis on scenes of personal adornment and ‘leisure’ mirrors developments in literature of the same period. The final chapter, ‘Women and Men,’ tackles the difficult problems of how to interpret relationships between men and women in the imagery. She argues that many mixed-sex scenes, even scenes of pursuit, can be interpreted in positive terms of women’s empowerment and desirability. The short conclusion reiterates the primary premise that the imagery on the vases is ‘not a deliberate Athenian formulation about the city, but a vision dominated by the interests of the external market…. They constitute a view of the city, certainly, but an outsider’s view in’ (p. 211).

L.’s proclaimed aim is ‘to bring together iconology and archaeology: to bring attention to the archaeological background of the pottery to bear on the interpretation of the imagery'(p. 7). In this she is largely successful, though the reader is left wanting more in support of her conclusions (see below). The real strength of this volume is the many ways in which it problematizes our reading and subjective categorization of the imagery. Especially useful are her discussions of nudity and eroticism, which she rightly argues have been inappropriately interpreted according to modern conceptions of propriety and obscenity. She is likewise to be applauded for her careful attention to the means by which status and social role are marked visually using dress, hairstyle, and other features of personal appearance, and as well as the difficulty of identifying certain social actors such as slaves. Also welcome is her emphasis on the possibility of multiple, even unintended, viewers, especially female viewers. Finally, it is good to be reminded yet again that we cannot view pots as illustrations of either real life or literature.

The overall structure of the volume serves L.’s purposes well; however, the chapter divisions require that some topics be discussed in multiple sections, which inevitably results in inconsistencies. For example, in Chapter 2 she explains the often-reproduced image of a woman sprinkling phalloi (fig. 2.28) as a ‘joke’ of ‘non-ritual horticulture’ (p. 83), whereas in Chapter 3 she notes, ‘many scenes of women with phalloi are religious in nature, such as the pelike with a woman growing phalloi’ (p. 128). The conspicuous absence of a separate section on religion and ritual is perhaps to blame: one cannot help but feel that in her effort to downplay the significance of the pots for an Athenian audience, L. has ignored potentially religious meanings in the imagery.

The question of intended audience is central to L.’s argument, and although she pays careful attention to the provenance of the vases under study, one is left with the impression that the situation is much more complex than is perhaps recoverable. The first three chapters of the book, which deal with Attic imports in Etruria, are less persuasive as a result. The author assumes a general understanding of the export market, citing only two short studies on the mechanisms of trade. But since Etruscan patronage of Attic vases is not well understood, the argument needs to be set out more explicitly. She offers some statistics as to find-spots of various shapes and iconographic themes, but visual aids in the form of graphs or charts would help to win over the skeptical reader. The complexity of the export market is demonstrated by the category of erotic vases. L. notes that many erotic vases are found in Etruscan tombs, where she suggests they served a protective function, as did representations of explicit sexual activities in the tomb paintings. While this parallel may explain the significance of vases deposited in the tombs, it does not account for erotic vases found elsewhere, including fourteen examples from Athens, eight of these from the Acropolis (according to the stated statistics). L.’s insistence on establishing a foreign market for the vases masks such problems. While it is important to consider find-spot in the interpretation of the imagery, provenance alone does not determine the meaning of an image. Finally, the issues surrounding the transmission of themes and images are not adequately addressed. L. argues that while some vases were directly commissioned by Etruscan patrons, others were made by vase-painters with a general, non-Athenian audience in mind. Although some themes may be demonstrated to have been produced specifically for a foreign market, it is unclear how these particular images were selected and why they were rendered the way they were. In the end, Attic vase-painters were themselves products of Athenian culture, and their images of women must therefore, on some level, reflect the Athenian construction of feminine gender.

Chapters Four and Five, which focus on pots made for an Athenian audience after ca. 450 BCE, are more convincing than the previous chapters. L. makes some excellent observations about the limited range of stereotypical themes that appear in later red-figure. One especially appreciates her re-interpretation of such themes as ‘the gynaikonitis’ and ‘personal adornment’ as less specific than is usually assumed. More problematic is her identification of the category of ‘leisure.’ Certainly ‘leisure’ was constructed differently for the Greeks than it is for us, who are reminded of the ideal ‘leisured’ 1950s housewife. L. describes scenes of personal adornment as ‘a completely secluded and self-centered pastime’ (p. 142). But certainly such images had a larger significance concerning the proper kosmos of the married woman, which reflects both the status of the husband and the proper order of the oikos as a whole. Her discussion of ‘pastimes’ is likewise troubling. Whereas men’s pastimes, such as the board-game played by Achilles and Ajax, reflect poetic notions of chance, she denies any such significance for women’s pastimes, except that games ‘suggest a more carefree existence in the afterlife’ (p. 157). Perhaps the best contribution of these final chapters is L.’s insistence on a feminine subject in her reading of interactions between women and men. Here one finds a subtle understanding of female subjectivity that supports a more positive reading of images that were formerly thought to be degrading to women viewers.

This attractively produced volume is well illustrated with both black-and-white photos and line drawings, including many illustrations of lesser-known vases. In only a few cases are images indistinct or at such a small scale that details are not visible. Vases that are not illustrated are well documented in the footnotes for easy reference. The choice not to include plates of vases that are frequently reproduced is a good one, serving to remind us that certain images, especially the more violent ‘erotic’ scenes, are in fact extremely rare in the corpus.

Any criticisms of this book should underscore the importance of its overall aim, to encourage us to think carefully about provenance in our interpretation of the vases and to use caution in our categorization of themes and images. It will no longer be possible to use Attic vases as direct evidence for an Athenian ideology of gender without addressing the concerns of this volume. L. had done a tremendous service by calling attention to this lacuna in the scholarship. Future research must address these issues carefully and with temperance.