BMCR 2005.09.53

Greek Vases: Images, Contexts and Controversies. Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition, 25

, , Greek vases : images, contexts, and controversies : proceedings of the conference sponsored by the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean at Columbia University, 23-24 March 2002. Columbia studies in the classical tradition, v. 25. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 1 online resource (x, 149 pages) : illustrations (some color).. ISBN 9781429427500 €99.00.

This book brings together papers from a conference held at Columbia University in 2002. The title is a bit of a misnomer, since the topic is not Greek vases but Athenian ones: all but one of the contributions deal with Attic ware (the lone exception being Paestan). That’s a lamentable bit of Athenocentrism, to be sure, but one that highlights the wealth of opportunity awaiting students of, say, Chalcidian or East Greek wares. The papers are individually of high quality (allowing for the variations in ambition and scope that one expects of conference proceedings), and they are full of information and ideas. It is, however, a specialist publication, with a tendency toward the hermetic. For the specialist, there is much here that is delicious; for others, it will surely seem rather dry. Among the articles offering the greatest nourishment to classicists and historians of art, I would single out those by Shapiro (ch. 1), Marconi (ch. 3), Osborne (ch. 4), and Kousser (ch. 8).

In Chapter 1, “Leagros the Satyr,” H. Alan Shapiro collects vases that bestow the name Leagros upon unseemly characters, notably satyrs. Such images are odd. Leagros was praised as kalos on numerous vases of the later sixth and early fifth centuries; he was well-off, as he grew up to command Athenian forces at Drabeskos in 465/64. Why has the rich, beautiful boy become an ugly, drunken half-man? Shapiro convincingly suggests that such vases jokingly (or vituperatively) imply that Leagros is a satyr, that is, a debauché (in French, ‘un satyre’ is even today a dirty old man, like the character Trouscaillon in Zazie dans le Métro). Shapiro deftly links this joke to some analogous play with names in Aristophanes. The result is classic Shapiro, combining the acuity to pick out an interesting phenomenon, the command of the material necessary to produce a catalog of all known instances, and the ability to weave the results into the cultural history of late Archaic Athens.

Judith Barringer’s essay, “Skythian Hunters on Attic Vases,” takes its cue from Gloria Pinney’s well-known article of 1983, “Achilles Lord of Scythia.”1 Pinney showed that Attic vase-painters frequently link Achilles to Scythia, usually by showing him with Scythian attendants; no such connection is attested in epic, so the iconography provides evidence for an alternative, possibly non-literary, tradition about that hero. Barringer mounts a similar argument about Atalanta as she appears in black-figure. Noting that Atalanta is also associated with Amazons, Barringer concludes that these associations with the foreign and the exotic attest to the fact that Atalanta “fails to conform with to Greek norms for female conduct” (24).

Chapters 3 and 4, by Clemente Marconi and Robin Osborne, form a pair and present the greatest number of methodological questions and challenges. At issue is the Athenian-ness of Attic vases. In essence, Marconi argues for greater attention to the Italian context in which most known Attic vases are found, while Osborne takes the more traditional position that Athenian vases are to be understood primarily with reference to Athens. This debate has great currency in the study of Athenian pottery. Fewer and fewer new vases of consequence are appearing, and the connection between Attic iconography and Athenian society has been extensively discussed (Shapiro and Lissarrague being, in their different ways, the foremost exemplars of this line of work). In this situation it is urgent that new avenues of research should open up, and so it comes to pass that scholars are turning their attention increasingly to the role and function of Attic wares in Italy and the Black Sea colonies. At its most extreme, as in Sîan Lewis’ The Athenian Woman (New York, Routledge: 2002; reviewed BMCR 2003.09.28), such studies simply excise Athens from the discussion: the iconography of Athenian vases becomes a mere reflex of Etruscan taste. In such cases it seems as though we have returned to the days before Winckelmann and d’Hancarville, when Greek vases in Italy were assigned to the Etruscans. Only after enormous controversy was it possible to establish the Greek provenance of these wares; doing so was one of the great achievements of eighteenth-century archaeology. Two centuries later, the Etruscophile cause burns bright once again, albeit in modified form. While it is true that the Italian and Pontic contexts have been neglected, the challenge is to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable responses to that situation. It is the drama of these two chapters to show us two first-rate scholars hashing the matter out. They’re fun to read.2

Marconi’s essay, “Images for a Warrior. On a Group of Athenian Vases and Their Public,” discusses the finds from a late sixth-century cenotaph near Agrigento. Marconi discerns thematic connections between the black-figure vases in the assemblage: the iconography focuses on epic and, specifically, on Achilles. He juxtaposes this broad pattern to elegant readings of some individual pots. A specially nice example is his association of a vase depicting Ajax and the body of Achilles with the fact that the cenotaph contained a piece of the dead man’s armor. Like Achilles, the dead man was buried far from home; like Achilles, his armor tokens his kleos. The monument and its contents thus form a coherent statement of elite ideology: the warrior is like an epic hero. Marconi takes these epic overtones to rule out an Athenian reading, which he assumes would necessarily take the hoplite as a civic paragon. He concludes that the hoplites on Attic vases are generic, intended to appeal to as broad a clientele as possible.

Marconi’s paper is one the best accounts I know of what might be called, after Appadurai, the social life of Attic pots. But its broader claims are questionable. The premise — that to be Athenian a hoplite cannot be epic — is a straw man. As Marconi himself observes, there are lots of hoplites on Athenian vases but almost no phalanges: the hoplites of Attic vase-painting fight epic-style duels. For Marconi, it follows that the dueling hoplite is not really a hoplite at all (p. 37), but rather a generic cipher. This seems hasty. The dueling hoplite is a hybrid of epic and the everyday, which is not quite the same thing as generic. It suggests, on the contrary, that Athenian iconography was as complex, in its own way, as Athenian society itself. The dueling hoplite negotiates a tricky position between aristocratic and civic ideologies of the warrior, and it does so in a way that can be revealing of the priorities and problems of Athenian social life. The fact that such figures dissolve the contradiction between citizen-soldier and epic hero need not rule out an Athenian reading: it might, on the contrary, be the very point at issue in such a reading. What Marconi takes for contradiction may turn out to be plain old complexity. But even if it were true that an Athenian reading should preclude heroic hoplites, it would not therefore follow that the Italian reading should trump the Athenian one. Why couldn’t we have both: the same image being taken one way at Athens, and another way in Sicily? Marconi is unclear on this point. He argues at length that a reading in Athenian terms is “untenable” (37) and that the images are “generic” (38) — effectively meaningless — at Athens. But then at the end he reverses himself: “[T]he heroic warrior of our vases could be a metaphor for a citizen at Athens, a cliens at Chiusi, or an aristocrat in Sicily” (40). So the Athenian view isn’t untenable, after all.

Lack of clarity about the stakes of an Italian reading has serious effects, nowhere more apparent than in Robin Osborne’s polemical response to Marconi in Chapter Four, “Images of a Warrior. On a Group of Athenian Vases and Their Public.” Osborne takes as his target the extreme view that would declare an Athenian reading of Athenian pottery to be untenable; many of his arguments would be superfluous if directed against the more moderate position that Marconi adopts at the end of his paper. Arguing the merits of a statistical approach, Osborne takes as a case-study the brief vogue for Scythian warriors in the last decades of the sixth century. He shows quite clearly that it is impossible to identify a specific market for these vases. Observing that by far the largest single group comes from Vulci, he remarks:

If the particular desires of any market, other than Athens itself, determined the rise and fall of the Skythian on Athenian pots it would have to be Vulci. But to believe that Vulci determined the iconographic popularity of the Skythian we would have to believe that Vulci exercised a sufficiently discriminating taste to oblige Athenian potters and painters to meet its particular demand, while other places, both in Italy and around the Mediterranean, which also bought pots with Skythians on them, were sufficiently indifferent to iconography to go along with the product demanded by Vulci. (49)

In effect, Osborne shows “the Etruscan market” to be a reductive construct. Everyone bought vases with Scythians, not just people at Vulci; to say that Vulci determined the iconography is to say that nobody else cared about the iconography, or that nobody else could influence the ateliers of the Kerameikos. The only constant in all this is Athens. So it makes the most sense to infer that the iconography was determined at Athens and consumed, however selectively, elsewhere. This position seems eminently reasonable. It does not preclude a “biographical” approach to objects, as in Marconi’s reading of the Agrigento cenotaph. But it does militate strongly against a radically “Etruscophile” position.

In Chapter Five, “Bubbles = Baubles, Bangles and Beads: Added Clay in Athenian Vase Painting and Its Significance,” Beth Cohen surveys relief elements in Attic red-figure. She usefully shows that the relief-blobs used for hair in late Archaic work consists of added clay, not globules of glaze. She goes on to argue that other relief details in vase-painting reflect the use of relief in wall- and panel-painting, but presents no evidence for this assertion. The chapter concludes with a discussion of gilding in late Antique and early Modern painting.

Jenifer Neils devotes Chapter Six, “Hera, Paestum, and the Cleveland Painter,” to a monographic treatment of a red-figure column-krater of the mid-fifth century. It depicts a goddess in a chariot: who could she be? Neils zeros in on a telling iconographic detail: the chariot wheel has eight spokes. Hebe drives a chariot with an eight-spoked wheel in Iliad 5.720-23, and so the vase depicts that goddess setting out to collect her bridegroom, Herakles. It seems, therefore, that at least one vase-painter was working from knowledge of an epic text. This is iconographic decryption at its best. Alongside Hebe stands another goddess, presumably Hera; the vase is said to come from Paestum, where Hera was worshipped. Neils proposes that the krater may have been an offering, even a special commission, and that Hebe was worshipped in the old Paestan Heraion — although she is the first to admit that these suggestions are completely speculative.

In Chapter Seven, “Odysseus and Kirke: Iconography in a Pre-Literate Culture,” Luca Giuliani returns to the question of Homer and the Artists. He offers a typology of scenes of Odysseus and Kirke by way of showing that, in the absence of a written source, artists have great latitude in envisioning narratives. In a pre-literate culture, iconography is variable. Which is true enough, but then again it’s variable in a literate culture as well. The special autonomy of the Greek artist is one of the great canards of historiography: it underpins Gombrich’s work on the Greeks in Art and Illusion and has a genealogy leading back to Winckelmann (that name again). Perhaps the interesting issue is not the relative fidelity of image to source, hence the relative autonomy of the artist but the way in which the image signals that relationship, the specific strategies of legitimation that artists use in particular times and places. Some of these questions, and many others besides, are addressed with reference to these very scenes in Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux’ superb little book, L’homme-cerf et la femme-araignée: Figures grecques de la metamorphose (Paris: Gallimard. 2003).

One of the more ambitious pieces in the volume is Rachel Kousser’s “The World of Aphrodite in the Late Fifth Century B.C.” Focusing on the Eretria Painter’s epinetron in Athens, it takes its cue from the work of Gloria Pinney and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood (neither of whom is mentioned): the object is a study in girls’ transitions. The epinetron is a tool for working wool; its images, read in sequence, narrate the passage from parthenos to nymphe. Kousser observes that the female bust on the front of the epinetron resembles terracotta votives offered by young Athenian girls at the onset of menarche or at marriage: it thus represents the final state of the transition, the maiden transformed into bride. The result is a particularly effective and thoughtful account in the general ambit of the Paris School.

The final chapter, by Erika Simon, is the only one in the volume to treat non-Attic pottery. Entitled “The Paestan Painter Asteas,” it is a masterful overview of the iconographic repertoire of that important craftsman. Simon takes as her guiding thread a calyx-krater in the Fujita collection, on loan to the Antikenmuseum in Basel. The discussion proceeds in an almost Herodotean fashion, with numerous asides and observations. Topics include the importance of Theban iconography in Western Greece following Alexander’s destruction of Thebes in 335 BCE; the role of inscriptions on Asteas’ vases; connections with, and differences from, the painter Python; ways of depicting specific times of day; and connections with tragedy and comedy (including that of Menander). The Fujita vase itself seems to blur the line between theater and daily life: it shows symposiasts in a setting with theatrical overtones. Simon wonders whether this overlay of theater and the everyday might reflect the influence of New Comedy.

The book overall is well-produced, if obscenely expensive (almost a dollar a page). Given the cost, the decision to include color plates of a Carlo Crivelli altarpiece and the Pistoxenos Painter’s white-ground cup in Reggio di Calabria (in an execrable photo, no less) is questionable. Better halftone pictures and a cheaper book. Such carping aside, the book is warmly recommended to specialists in Athenian pottery, hence to self-respecting research libraries. Marconi in particular is to be congratulated for having assembled a stellar cast and for having produced such a handsome and useful volume.


1. Gloria Ferrari Pinney, “Achilles Lord of Scythia.” In Ancient Greek Art and Iconography. Ed. Warren Moon. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. Pp. 127-46.

2. For another example of this profitable line of work see Martin Bentz and Christoph Reusser, eds., Attische Vasen in etruskischem Kontext. Funde aus Häusern und Heiligtümern. CVA Germany Suppl. 2 (Munich, 2004). The forthcoming dissertation of Trinity Jackman promises to touch on similar themes from a more purely archaeological perspective, and will be eagerly anticipated.