BMCR 2007.08.04

Vase Painting, Gender, and Social Identity in Archaic Athens

, Vase painting, gender, and social identity in archaic Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xiv, 316 pages : illustrations ; 27 cm. ISBN 0521853184 $90.00.

Athenian vases invite several different kinds of iconographical study. One kind is the study of subjects — a mythical event, a single individual (divinity, hero, or heroine), or a topic such as athletes, symposion, battle, or hunt. A second category consists of studying recurring motifs that provide a standardized structure for imagery on a vessel, such as the eyes plus nose of an “eye cup.” Stansbury-O’Donnell [S.-O’D.]’s study of spectators on Athenian vases shares characteristics with both types of iconographical investigation; spectators framing a central composition are sometimes themselves identifiable characters in an event, and study of that type of spectator needs to be integrated into any topical investigation. However, the scene format, with spectators grouped on either side of an action, is sufficiently standardized and repeated to align a study of scenes thus formatted with other motifs, like the eye cups, that structure and frame imagery.

An image of a group of figures watching an activity seems fairly straightforward, as if it could represent something that actually happens. As with much of Athenian art that makes sense at first glance, spectators become more incongruous when we look more carefully: if the observers are wearing cloaks and include both men and women and the primary action is either armed men engaged in battle or Herakles fighting the lion, the conjunction makes little sense. As S.-O’D. puts it, “What are [such] figures doing in a picture. . .where they would have no real or imaginary role?” (p.4). This kind of disjunction has been termed Bildbruche by Matthias Steinhart in his recent study of representations of performance in 6th-century images—an abrupt break in the logic, the visual consistency of an image.1

The purpose of S.-O’D.’s book is to figure out conclusively when and why spectator figures appear on 6th-century Athenian vases. The work is also a contribution to the discussion of gender and social identity in Archaic Athens because it looks to see what and how men, youths, and women watch as a way of defining these groups, though it establishes the evidence for such a discussion more than it develops conclusions. The study is also about the way images instruct, and it depends on the notion that ancient Athenians looked closely at the imagery on pottery. It accepts the premise that elements with an aesthetic function, in this case to create a balanced, symmetrical frame for a central image, also create meaning.

Prior explanations for the purpose of spectators on Athenian vases range from suppositions that they are arbitrarily selected space fillers, named mythical participants, or elite Greeks serving as models for those who view the actual vase. Richard Wollheim, writing about later periods of art, states, “the function of the spectator in the picture is that he allows the spectator of the picture a distinctive access to the story or activity”; that is, the depicted spectator shows the viewer of the image how to respond.2 The broad conclusion of the study is that spectators provide guidance to Athenians in the construction of their social identity. Relying on Lacanian and ancient Greek theories of vision, S.-O’D. lays out how the proposition that “you are what you see” operates in this context. That is, what a person observes is important in defining the self, including one’s social identity. Spectators serve to epitomize in visual representations crucial elements of how the “elite citizen” ought to behave and what he/she ought to value by means of the things spectators look at in the images. The spectator thus says to the viewer, “When you, through me the spectator, watch what I am watching, you become who you are; that is, through my seeing these particular rituals, myths, athletic events, battles and whatever else I am looking at, I show you who you are.” S.-O’D. believes that particular spectator-types, that is youth, adult male, or female, communicate with the analogous actual elite Athenian viewer.

One of the distinctive features of the study is the amount of discussion devoted to definitions and the method of creating the set of examples used to carry it out. While it is possible to quarrel with terms chosen and the statistical methodology, it is unequivocally a good thing for future iconographical studies that the author walks the reader through each decision in his process. For the careful exposition of close observation, creation of data set, and establishment of taxonomy, the study is worthwhile.

In Chapter 1, the author carefully sets out how he defines spectators and classifies them according to gender, stance, and gestures. He begins with a basic definition: “a spectator is a figure who observes the action of the nucleus but is not involved in it, or will not immediately be affected by it physically” (p.13). Once this definition is established, it is still not easy to decide which figures are spectators, because figures who are not actors have more than one dimension: in addition to having the identity “one who watches,” the spectator either can have the attributes of a god, a hero, an athlete, a warrior, etc., who has acted or will act in a story being depicted, or can be anonymous.

In Chapter 2 (Defining Spectators) S.-O’D. defines spectators through their perceived relationship to narrative components (as defined by Barthes) and terms he coins himself. (A glossary [235-236)] lists both.) For each spectator type, there are three crucial aspects: 1) its category in relation to the central action or nucleus; 2) its relation to a set of classes discovered and defined by the author (p.23), based on S.-O’D.’s judgment of the potential of the figure to play a role in the central action, i.e., invested, interested, detached, pure; and the final taxonomic category is based on an assessment made by the author: 3) the spectator’s mood, i.e., inert, reactive, mimetic.

S.-O’D. devotes the last half of Chapter 2 to discussing how to achieve a meaningful data set that is representative of what was originally produced. The impossibility of establishing a truly random sample of Greek vases leads to results based on descriptive statistics. Conducting a census of the entire CVA, S.-O’D. built a database of 742 vases depicting only detached and pure spectators as he defined those terms. (The author checked the CVA data by comparing a random sample of the Beazley Archive database and found them to be basically valid.) Most spectators appear on Athenian black-figure vases of the 6th century, widely distributed both geographically and contextually. The cast of spectators is broken down by gender and, for males, by age. Spectators observe just about anything. There are surprises: in the 6th century, youths are the most common spectators on black-figure lekythoi, appearing on almost 87% of lekythoi, while women appear on only 5%; women and men appear with nearly equal frequency on amphoras, and youths exceed both, but only by about 7%.

The mood of the spectator varies by age and gender. The results of looking by gender and mood provide the springboard for discussion in Chapters 5 and 6. First, though, S.-O’D. digresses to address two extremely important preliminaries: what viewing something means in social terms, and what the social context of viewing vases in Archaic Athens was.

In Chapter 3 (Vision and the Construction of Identity) S.-O’D. explains “How spectators and sight affect the construction of individual and social identity in the viewer” (54) . The viewer incorporates what the depicted spectators themselves watch first by identifying with the spectator and then by viewing and internalizing what the spectator sees. The spectator views subjects that are crucial to answering the question, “Who am I?” or “What are the constituent parts of my social role” and “Who are we?”, i.e., what defines the collective social identity of elite Athenians.

This chapter is dense because it reviews theoretical material that is rooted in modern psychoanalysis (Lacan and his critics and interpreters) and in ancient optical theory (expressed by a number of philosophers in the 5th century and later). S.-O’D. presents a fairly lengthy restatement of Lacanian theory (54-60) and concludes: “Art is. . .part of this dynamic of vision, gaze, and identification by simultaneously representing the gaze [the action of the spectator] as well as being an object within it [the action of the viewer]. By adopting traits of an image into the self-image, the individual [viewer] can create a social identity that conforms to the culture and can see himself or herself reflected in the painted image” (60). S.-O’D. also summarizes Greek theories of vision (61-64) as well as Greek understanding of the ethical and emotional effects of seeing (64-67). He concludes that “what one sees enters directly into the soul or consciousness. . .Seeing matters greatly because it shapes actions and character” (67).

After this rehearsal of the ancient and modern theoretical underpinnings of the nature and effect of viewing, S.-O’D. provides a detailed analysis of the viewers of various vessels, both the ancient individual using it and the ancient group watching that individual use it in a variety of settings.3 Theory is given form through 13 diagrams that locate (hypothetically) the viewer, the scene depicted and the grouping in which the user/viewer of the vase inevitably finds him/herself, since “most imagery in ancient Greece was not private, but viewed in some type of public or social context” (68).

In analyzing a black-figure Siana cup in the Louvre (A478), S.-O’D. observes that when the male user of the cup tips it to drink, his face is replaced by the central image on the side opposite, Bellerophon on Pegasus attacking the Chimera. The image of Bellerophon thereby substitutes for the drinker, so ” . . .the drinker returns the gaze of the group as a hero [Bellerophon, who is depicted on the exterior and displayed as the drinker tips the cup to drink from it] and becomes that ideal, even if momentarily, in their eyes” (86).

Chapter 4 (Ritual Performance, Spectators, and Identity) sets out the author’s explanation for what or whom spectators really represent, an explanation made necessary by the fact that the incongruity of human figures massed around a scene of a hero fighting a lion is indisputable. He asserts that the spectators are analogous to elite Athenians who participate as choruses in public rituals, rituals that help to define cultural norms and social roles. For example, S.-O’D. proposes that an image of spectators watching Herakles fight the lion really represents a chorus of elite Athenians who sing a poetic version of the story of the lion-fighter. The central scene, then, is a visual representation of the story their song tells. Based on the idea that spectators on vases are the equivalent to either a performing chorus or the spectators to an actual ritual, S.-O’D. asserts that all spectators on vases are viewing public or private ritual of some sort. S.-O’D. grounds his argument primarily on those images where spectators have very similar postures to one another. He says “. . .visual qualities, especially their symmetry and configuration, mirror the formal patterns created by choral groups” ( 90).

For S.-O’D., spectators on vases instruct in a way analogous to how watching and participation in ritual help to define civic identity, an approach derived from cultural poetics as defined by Greenblatt. A significant chunk of the chapter summarizes the theories of Clifford Geertz and C. Bell regarding the social purpose of ritual. S.-O’D. ultimately concludes that “ritual is not simply a hollow script, but is an embodiment and projection of the social fabric and identity within the city” (102). He concludes that the prompt for the sudden appearance of large numbers of spectator vases about 575 BCE is Peisistratus’ reorganization of the Panathenaia and City Dionysia (109).

Chapters 5 (Men and Youths: Gender and Social Identity) and 6 (Women as Spectators: Gender and Social Identity ) are occupied with what various combinations of male and female spectators and the subjects they observe tell us about the social identity of these groups. Chapter 5 begins with an observation that arm positions of spectators are not all the same and have meaning (128). S.-O’D. develops a taxonomy and drawings of figures adopting these arm positions. For males there are 22 varieties broken down into 6 categories: Inert/inactive; spear-bearing; active; very active; spectators leaning on sticks; spectators sitting. There are 27 varieties of youths, broken down in the same 6 categories. S.-O’D. then interprets the results, each group in relation to the others. For example (p. 152) “the proportion of active spear-bearing youths, 6.1% , is nearly double that for men, suggesting that the active spear-bearing spectator is more important as a model for youth.” He then analyzes the frequency of different spectator-types to particular scene topics in comparison to their over all popularity as established in Chapter 3. There are many surprising patterns in who does or does not watch what. For example, “one-fourth of all youthful seated spectators are found in scenes with Herakles and the Lion” (167). Why does this topic attract such a large number of seated youths?. Spectators to Amazons are predominantly adult males: on 80% of the vases with adult male spectators and Amazons, those adult males bear spears. S.-O’D. concludes that the male bearing a spear is “a particular response that is thought most appropriate” (171) to a scene depicting Amazons. Overall, men predominate in scenes of Herakles, music, and erotica and youths in athletic and processional scenes. S.-O’D. charts the popularity over time of the various types of male spectators and youthful spectators; he assigns social meaning to certain postures, i.e., he sees seated figures or those leaning on sticks as exhibiting higher status than those who do not.

In Chapter 6, S.-O’D. describes how and what female spectators watch in comparison to their male counterparts. He breaks female spectators down into 21 different poses, and finds active and very active types to be the most common. Certain scenes are more likely to have female than male spectators, and S.-O’D. concludes that such narratives are more important to female than male spectators. Scenes with Herakles and Deianaira form an interesting group because female spectators do not emulate the gestures of the heroine. Instead, they demonstrate restraint, as they do when watching the lion-adventure.

S.-O’D. analyzes the nuances in how female spectators react to particular scenes to see what the results suggest “about social attitudes toward women in archaic Athens” (212). For specific subjects, he compares the relative frequency of males (adults and youths) to female, and for each topic he assesses exactly how the female spectators behave. Some scenes are almost twice as likely to have female spectators as male and in a proportion double to what is typical of the sample overall. (20% of vases in the sample show Herakles and the Lion with women as spectators while 9% and nearly 10% respectively of all vases showing male spectators depict men or youths watching Herakles and the Lion.) Men are more often mimetic, showing strong and even agitated gestures, while women are more restrained. The author interprets the greater frequency of female spectators as meaning “this scene was particularly significant for the woman spectator.” Other heroic action scenes get similar analysis.

A reading of ancient literary sources predicts quiet or inert female spectators, but, in fact, the most common female spectator types on these vases are active. Over the period considered, the “typical” female figure goes from inert earlier on to active (227) and from restraint (as in the anakalypsis) to emotion (229). S.-O’D. again interprets this as reflecting a social reality. He postulates that the shift in the appearance of the majority of female spectators indicates a demotion in their social status, as they are depicted as departing from the social ideal of restraint.

The conclusions to the work are very brief, and the author apologizes for the fact that they cannot be based on a true random sample. S.-O’D. returns to his hypothesis that spectators are cognate with choruses; he concludes that just as the chorus is a model for civic behavior and identity, the spectator is as well. Not all of these models are positive: when women react with heightened emotions, they show a lack of self-control. While this attribute may conform to social stereotypes, S.-O’D. does not put forth it as a behavior for which they ought to strive (232).

Looking at the monograph as a whole, a few issues stand out. The author is clear that he had to make many decisions in creating the taxonomy of spectator types and attitudes and in placing examples in the resulting categories. Some readers may take issue with the meaning ascribed to certain postures. For example, in Chapter 6 S.-O’D. uses postures to draw conclusions about the “role of men and youths in Archaic Athens.” “The rise of stick-leaning and seated spectators, especially those seated upright, also suggests a perception of privilege among groups within the city” (186). Conclusions like these are hypotheses, as S.-O’D. acknowledges, and they can seem too simple. Nevertheless, the data tell us that different types of figures observe different topics in different proportions, and the patterns surely have meaning even if it is not the very general meaning S-O’D. ascribes.

A difficulty with most of the discussion of the gaze in Chapter 3 is that the figures on the vessel do not often look frontally at the viewer, whether the viewer is the drinker himself or a fellow symposiast across the room. The Bellerophon cup cited in Chapter 3 is relevant: while a figure like Bellerophon may cover the face of the drinker so that a substitution—a replacement of the elite symposiast with hero—is suggested, the elite symposiast can look back at his peers, face-to-face, across the room in a way that Bellerophon, depicted in profile and in much smaller scale, does not.

For this reviewer, Chapter 4 is the hardest to follow because the analogy between an actual chorus singing a tale is not universally easy to see on all vases with spectators, and the author only sometimes makes a case for spectators adopting the poses of an actual dancing chorus. On the one hand, the author warns against being too literal: “We should not look for a literal representation of a chorus singing, but rather for a signification of a chorus and the theme of its song (110). On the other hand he quite specifically identifies certain poses as choral and at least once identifies a bearded individual as the probable chorus leader. In still other cases, S.-O’D. asserts that the depicted spectators are similar to the Athenian spectators viewing a ritual. Because there are mixed genders and age-grades in many spectator groups, it is impossible to insist that they replicate chorus membership since the latter were commonly segregated according to those criteria. Seated and reclining spectator figures would seem to have no relationship to dancing choruses.

The discussion here stands apart from ongoing scholarly discourse about 6th century images that depict choral performers in costume. It seems odd to me not to ground the argument for spectators-as-chorus in the discussions of the many apparent depictions of actual choruses. For example, Hedreen has written on images of satyr (silen) choruses in 6th-century art, identifying many examples where individuals dressed in satyr costumes dance as a chorus.4 More recently, Steinhart has conducted a study of images of a wide variety of costumed performances, including the pyrriche, padded dancers, and impersonations of deities. As mentioned above, Steinart’s discussion identifies the Bildbruche, or disjunction in iconography, as the tip-off that mimetic performance is depicted. He, like S.-O’D., postulates that in some images an incongruous mythical central scene may be a visualization of the story sung. Chapter 4 makes a provocative set of assertions, but I left it unsettled as to exactly how the author wished me to connect depicted spectators on vases and the 6th-century ritual chorus. Aside from its appearance in this chapter, the argument has only a small role in the remaining discussions in the monograph. There is little integration of the discussion of spectators-as- chorus in Chapters 5 and 6, and this reviewer was left wondering what such integration might yield. Does the character of spectator response to different scenes as identified in the discussion in Chapters 5 and 6 mimic characteristics of actual choral performance? Once again, it is hard to reconcile the spectator-as-chorus theory with spectator-types that include reclining and seated figures.

This study makes important progress in the discussion of the meaning of spectators in images on Athenian vases. The most important contribution of this study is that a broad sample of evidence is used to create a taxonomy, bringing clarity to the evidence. The fact that there are limited, consistent, repeated types of spectators verifies one’s impression, and to have the impression confirmed is important. The study suggests that the artist’s selection of spectators of a scene is not arbitrary or random, confirming once again that repeated elements of decoration do not mean less because they are so frequent. Most important, the results here invite subsequent work and provide a clear basis for it.


1. M. Steinhart, Die Kunst der Nachahmung: Darstellungen mimetischer Vorfeurungen in der griechischen Bildkunst archaischer und klassischer Zeit (2004).

2. R. Wollheim, Painting as an Art (1987) 129.

3. This section of the book is analogous to 70-79 in S.-O’D.’s Pictorial Narrative in Ancient Greek Art (1999).

4. G. Hedreen, Silens in Attic Black-figure Vase-Painting (1992).