BMCR 2007.11.19

Reading Greek Vases

, Reading Greek vases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xvii, 346 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780521825221. $85.00.

As its title indicates, the essential argument of this book is that Greek vases, like the inscriptions sometimes scribbled on them, functioned as texts to be read. Steiner (henceforth S.) posits that the ‘overall message of the unified text of the vase’ (p.39) inhered in a system of pictorial conventions analogous to those of a language. More specifically, she suggests that this conventional system was predicated upon the hermeneutics of repetition and symmetry. If we only learn the specific interpretative values of repeating shapes, formulae and scenes on the different visual fields of an individual ‘vase-text’, modern viewers can ‘decode’ the overarching ‘meanings’ that they originally communicated.

S. readily admits that she is by no means the first to draw attention to the use of repetition on Attic vases, more specifically on Archaic vases produced between 600-480 BC (p.5). She begins with the habitual nod to Sir John Beazley, and proceeds to reference the work of numerous other scholars working in the late twentieth century (most notably Heide Froning).1 But S. maintains that her book offers something new. No previous critic, as S. puts it, ‘has tapped into the theoretical material available to guide a study of repetition, to understand the development and parameters of its exploitation by Athenian vase-painters’ (p.15). If this professed objective does not quite live up to that emblazoned on its dust-jacket — that the book ‘provides an entirely new way to read ancient Athenian vases’ — S. does attempt to relate her ‘readings’ to much larger theoretical frameworks, drawn from the interconnected fields of information theory, social anthropology, semiotics, structural linguistics and narratology.

These interdisciplinary connections are the subject of S.’s first chapter, in which she attributes to repetition on Greek vases an ‘interpretative’ rather than purely ‘aesthetic’ function. Opening with the famous red-figure pelike by Euthymides and Euphronios in Boston, S. shows how the similarities and differences between the two sides of the vase spark a visual exercise in ‘spot the difference’. Although visually mediated, S. argues that this game had, as it were, extra-visual significance. After looking to earlier studies of form and variation in Bronze Age iconography and the uses of the formula in Homeric epic, S. presents the theoretical basis of her own analysis. The book derives from information theory a means of evaluating the efficiency (or ‘entropy’) of different ‘systems’ of communicating ‘messages’.2 For S., ‘redundancy’ (equated with ‘repetition’ on p.11) is an obvious way of eliminating visual ambiguity. Social anthropology and structural linguistics are likewise introduced here, to show that we are dealing with a ‘cultural phenomenon’ embedded in the larger communicative conventions of a given society. Finally S. looks to semiotics and narratology to argue that repetition functions as both part of a unified language for conveying meaning, and a means of logically connecting the different visual fields of a vase. She ends with a set of technical definitions — concerning ‘repetition’, ‘verbatim repetition’, ‘duplication’, ‘reduplication’ and ‘redundancy’ — although these terms have little direct relevance for the thematic discussions that follow.

The second chapter offers a practical ‘primer’ to the theoretical framework laid out in the first. Exekias provides the primary set of case studies: nine examples from his oeuvre, five of them illustrated here, are used in support of S.’s argument that skilled artists used repeated inscriptions and imagery alike to convey chronological, causal or exemplary connections between the different sides of their wares. The chapter concludes by suggesting that Exekias’ direct followers (specifically the Andokides/Lysippides Painters) inherited and developed his various uses of repetition, making them a standard part of their own visual language, and thereby the visual conventions of the late sixth century.

Chapter Three proceeds to tackle the question of repetition on a grander scale. Because both sides of ‘horse head amphoras’, ‘komast-dancer cups’, ‘ Glaux -skyphoi’ and ‘Eye-cups’ are ‘identical or nearly so’ (p.40), S. suggests, ‘repetition is at the core of their identity’ (p.51). These vases are important, it seems, because they point to the popularity of vases that conformed to a set ‘type’. But there is a reverse argument too: ‘the vase with only some repetitive features shared between scenes calls attention to itself precisely because it is not a member of a Type and its repetitions are not known through other examples’ (p. 51).

The fourth and fifth chapters are a more motley pair. S. promises in the introduction that these chapters will ‘deal directly with the title of this monograph, laying out how writing on vases is essential to decoding the semantic value of repetition’ (p.16). In practice, though, the fourth chapter opens with a self-confessed ‘digression’ (p.52) — into how first spectators, and only then inscriptions, function ‘metadiscursively’ as a sort of commentary on the mechanics of interpretation. (‘Metadiscourse’ is a term introduced here for the first time, and S. does not explain its particular resonance for her argument.) The fifth chapter, by contrast, offers a useful survey of the various functions of inscriptions on black- and early red-figure vases, especially the ways in which written messages might be split over different visual fields, leading viewers to search for other associations between them.

Chapters Six through Nine provide the real meat and bones of the book. S. applies to the interpretation of repeated figural scenes the sorts of meanings attributed to the repetition of inscriptions in the fourth and fifth chapters. Each of the individual chapters deals with one of the four potential interpretative effects of repetition: narratological connection (Chapter Six), paradigmatic relation (Chapter Seven), character development (Chapter Eight), and parodic deflation (Chapter Nine). S.’s interest is essentially thematic in nature, although she does discuss her case studies in approximate chronological order. Here, as throughout the book, S. also gives her qualitative analysis a quantitative spin: she brings to her respective thematic analyses a wealth of exempla, the vast majority of them illustrated with good-sized pictures, neatly integrated within the text (157 in total).

Two final chapters round off the book. Chapter Ten introduces six new case studies to show how ‘a single vase can exhibit multiple ways for repetition to create meaning’ (p.212): in effect, it summarises by way of demonstration the arguments of the preceding nine chapters. The eleventh chapter finally turns to a theme much anticipated in those that precede it — namely, the ways in which visual repetition functioned within its original viewing contexts. S. begins by re-evaluating the evidence for the ‘intended use venue’ of the vessels surveyed: although ‘recognizing that Athenian figural pottery may have had diverse use-contexts’, she focuses on the symposium as the principal sphere ‘in which the vases reverberate’ (p.236). Interesting here is S.’s insistence on the elite market of Attic wares, especially at the turn of the sixth and fifth centuries (pp.258-262): while the work of the Pioneers must be understood as part and parcel of a larger climate of political and social upheaval, their products nonetheless appealed to a predominantly elite market. Euphronios, Euthymides, Smikros, Hypsias, Phintias…: these artists all worked within a world of growing intra-elite competition, but the various self-referential games that they played only served to distance the banausic world in which their vases were produced from the elite symposium in which they were consumed.

This is certainly a wide-ranging and varied book. In some ways, it serves as a useful introductory guide not only to the world of Athenian vase painting, but to the Greek world at large. There are parts of the book that read like textbook accompaniments to a core curriculum course on ‘Classical Greek Culture and Civilisation’: the introductions to Homeric epic (pp.8-10), Old Comedy (pp.195-196) and Pindar (pp.248-250), for example, not to mention the analysis of the symposium in the final chapter (apparently intended as a basic introduction to its defining characteristics and function: cf. p.304, n.34). The strongest parts of the book are undoubtedly those that deal with written texts, most notably the fifth chapter — one of the most discursive Anglophone surveys of the range and register of Athenian vase inscriptions, and a useful summary of previous debates. S. is at her most sensitive and insightful here when exploring the various performative functions of inscriptions (which she is surely right to think were frequently intended for reading aloud at the symposium).

The book is less successful, though, in its analysis of figurative imagery. The scare quotes with which S. introduces the notion of the ‘vase-text’ are very quickly abandoned, as S. literalizes the metaphor of ‘reading’. Fundamental to the book’s text-centred semiotics is the logocentric assumption that images are ‘vehicles’ that communicate intended meanings from artist to viewer (‘repetition is essential to avoid transmission errors’, p.39; ‘the point the artist makes creating the links…’, p.54; ‘repetitions invite the viewer to read two or more fields together, reducing the likelihood that the total meaning will be lost’, p.128). Although S. frequently flirts with an alternative rhetoric (whereby repetition on vases should be read as more discursive ‘explorations’ of certain themes), meaning is deemed a singular entity. Nowhere is this clearer than in S.’s reduction of pairs of images to textual captions in inverted commas: ‘”to depart for war is heroic”‘ (p.25); ‘”first these six hoplites battled, and then another six followed suit”‘ (p.122); ‘”the youth is awarded the wreath as a result of having won the race”‘ (p.122); ‘”the Athenian elite male is like Herakles”‘ (p.129); ‘”men fight like Athena” and “she fights with you”‘ (p.134), etc. Unilinear meanings are easiest to convey to undergraduates, and convenient too for scholars who want quickly to illustrate ideas and narratological trends. But the inclination to collapse image into verbal ‘meaning’ nonetheless tends to eclipse the complex mechanics of visual response, and not least the ways in which these were developed in the Athenian symposium.

For all S.’s valiant attempts to reinstate the importance of close formal analysis (criticising T.B.L. Webster, for example, for approaching repetition as something ‘almost purely intellectual and not at all visual’, p.130), this can at times prove a frustratingly avisual book. Take the elasticity of the term ‘repetition’ itself. S. nicely demonstrates that repeated verbs, kalos inscriptions and potter/painter signatures invited viewers to compare and contrast the different sides of a vase. When applied to figural decoration, however, ‘repetition’ becomes a much looser category. S. never quite comes clean about what visual repetition looks like, nor about how ‘repetition’ differs from ‘related comparisons’ (pp.157-170). Sometimes she seems to rely on rather vague similarities to establish a paradigmatic relationship between the two sides of a vase: the repetition of a ‘beard’ and a conventional-looking ‘hairstyle’ on a black-figure column krater by Lydos, for example (p.143), or the rather strained similarity posited between a horse-drawn chariot and a horse-mounted rider on a red-figure kylix by Euphronios (p.104). On other occasions, there appears very little visual symmetry between the two sides whatsoever. How exactly does the youth on a Epiktetos red-figure kylix ‘repeat the syntax’ of Theseus on the other side (p.201)? What are the ‘several significant similarities’ that associate the scenes of Heracles slaying Busiris and three reclining symposiasts on another kylix by the same painter (p.216)? And what is the compositional repetition between the two sides of an infamous red-figure amphora by Euphronios (p.210; cf. pp.183-186 — note how small a section of the vase survives here in any case)? Many will likewise be perplexed at the suggestion that the ‘spectators’ on the two sides of a black-figure kylix by the Amasis Painter formally ‘repeat’ each other — never mind the specific conclusion that these remind viewers that ‘we too would do well to remember the exhortation of Poseidon in battle’ (p.60).3

Some of the most important work on Greek vase paintings in the late twentieth century has stemmed from the assumption that images work as or within an iconographic ‘language’. One thinks primarily of the Francophone crew assembled by Claude Bérard in the early 1980s: Bérard showed how the art of Athenian vase painting (and we might say Classical visual culture at large) negotiated meaning by both alluding to and deviating from a set of visual precedents.4 But S.’s conceptual framework is very different. Each of her various case studies is analysed in isolation, as part of a closed visual system: every duo or trio of images is read in independent terms, without reference to the broader Athenian ‘city of images’. But if Greek vase paintings raised questions about the relation between single visual fields, we might think that they also encouraged viewers to relate these same questions to issues of iconographic allusion at large. What should we make of the possible resemblance between the Amazons of a red-figure krater by Euphronios and the runners of Panathenaic amphorae (fig.10.10), for instance? Is there significance in attributing Theseus with the pose of the tyrannicidal Aristogeiton in a red-figure kylix by Epiktetos (fig.9.3)? How do the ‘repeated’ scenes of Ajax and Achilles playing dice on a bilingual amphora by the Andokides/Lysippides Painters themselves repeat (and alter) the iconography of an earlier Exekian prototype (fig. 2.12, 2.13)?

Because Greek vases ask questions, they arguably refuse the sorts of text-centred readings in which S. indulges. To respond to these images as images is thus to admit that formal correspondence between visual fields does not necessarily make ‘message-delivery’ more ‘effective’ ( contra p.11). ‘Repetition’ might just as well complicate as clarify visual response, rather like the riddlesome and nonsensical inscriptions that frequently accompanied such images (as S. admits on p.92, ‘often… there is a disconnect [ sic ] between the meanings of the words and the imagery’). The urge to classify pots into neat categories — to pigeon-hole a set of repetitions as establishing an ‘antonymic’ rather than ‘synonymic’ relationship, for example — thus arguably tells us more about the classificatory origins of Classical archaeology than it does about modes of response in late Archaic contexts. As Richard Neer has demonstrated, moreover, Archaic vase painters themselves actively explored the ‘conventionality’ of visual expression within the wake of new naturalistic visual styles.5

This is not to detract from the evident merits of S.’s book. Not only does it provide in its fourth, fifth and twelfth chapters an important new synopsis of the various functions of inscriptions, it makes some substantial headway in associating these functions with their original sympotic contexts. In the end, though, I suspect that the book will fall uneasily between different academic camps: it tries to reinstate the ‘viewer’, but recurrently falls back on notions of the ‘author-artist’ (pp.66-67: Beazley’s ghost dies hard); it attempts thematic discussion, but frequently collapses into questions of chronology; it aspires to bring to the discipline ‘theory’ developed from outside its traditional confines, but references very little published after the late 1980s. If the book provides a useful seismograph of the epistemological shifts in the late twentieth century, then, it also testifies to some of the conspicuous challenges that remain.


1. H. Froning, ‘Anfange der kontinuierenden Bilderzahlung in der griechischen Kunst’, JdI 103 (1988): 169-199. Anne Mackay’s important work on the common uses of repetition in both Archaic poetry and black-figure vase painting is arguably underplayed here (and her name misspelled throughout).

2. In fact, S. engages with only one (now rather dated) introductory textbook: J. Campbell (1982) Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language and Life, New York.

3. Some will also take issue with the specific ‘readings’ advanced. It seems rather literal-minded, for example, to suggest that the two scenes of lion-wrestling on a black-figure kylix by the Heidelberg Painter were intended to contrast the Heraclean labour with some sort of aristocratic imitation (the absence of attributed club ‘making it unlikely that the figure depicted [on the exterior] is Heracles’, p.134). And the interpretation of bilingual vases in chapter two as primarily attempts to convey narratological sequence seems rather skewed. In her discussion of a bilingual amphora by the Andokides/Lysippides Painters depicting two ‘repeated’ scenes of a male figure reclining on a couch [2.14, 2.15], to cite a single instance, S. fancifully argues that one side of the vase evokes Heracles’ past, the other his future: but why should we necessarily view either figure as Heracles in the first place?

4. C. Bérard et al. (1984) La cité des images: religion et société en Grèce antique, Paris. In terms of her research on vase inscriptions, Steiner likewise builds upon the Francophone work of François Lissarrague: see especially F. Lissarrague (1985) ‘Paroles d’images. Remarques sur le fonctionnement de l’écriture dans l’imagerie attique’, in A.-M. Christin (ed.), Écritures II, pp. 71-95, Paris; idem (1987) Un flot d’images: une esthétique du banquet grec; idem (1992) ‘ Graphein : écrire et dessiner’, in C. Bron and E. Kassapoglou (eds.), L’image en jeu: de l’antiquité à Paul Klee, pp. 189-203, Paris; idem (1999) ‘Publicity and performance: Kalos inscriptions in Attic vase-painting’, in S. D. Goldhill and R.G. Osborne (eds.), Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy, pp. 359-373, Cambridge.

5. R. Neer (2002) Style and Politics in Athenian Vase Painting, Cambridge.