BMCR 2009.04.43

As Witnessed by Images: The Trojan War Tradition in Greek and Etruscan Art

, As Witnessed by Images: The Trojan War Tradition in Greek and Etruscan Art. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. xiii, 230. ISBN 9780801887758 $50.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Steven Lowenstam died of cancer in 2003 at the age of 57. As Witnessed by Images: The Trojan War Tradition in Greek and Etruscan Art is thus his final contribution to the fields of Classics and Art History. After Dr. Lowenstam’s death, as per his own request, his friend and colleague T.H. Carpenter graciously saw the book through to publication; but the manuscript and bibliography are essentially as they were in 2003 when the author himself stopped working on them.

Near the end of an article in 1993,1 Lowenstam envisioned a comprehensive reconsideration of correspondences and discrepancies between scenes represented both in Homeric poetry and in archaic vase paintings. Given that the ever-expanding Beazley Archive now houses about 1,000,000 vase records, and that a staggering number of these records deal with Trojan War/Homeric material, the fulfillment of this vision involves a monumental task beyond the capabilities of one scholar, or even group of scholars. As Witnessed by Images, a slim volume of 229 pages housing 86 figures of Greek and Etruscan art, only brings us a small step closer to this grand goal. In fact, another book published in 2008, Homer: Der Mythos von Troia in Dichtung und Kunst edited by Joachim Latacz,2 an over 500 page tome with hundreds of figures, clearly comes closer to accomplishing a comprehensive comparison of poetry and art in the Trojan tradition. But Lowenstam’s most important contribution is not one of volume. It is rather the illuminating methodological precedent he sets for comparative analysis of poetry and art of the archaic and classical periods, a precedent that facilitates a long overdue unification of the fields of classical philology and ancient art history.

In his Introduction, Lowenstam makes it clear that As Witnessed by Images does not follow prevailing methodological paradigms, which he groups roughly into two categories. Philologically based paradigm 1 gives primacy to the Homeric poems by focusing on similarities between visual art and presentations of similar scenes in the Iliad and Odyssey as they have come down to us. Clearly this model is at a loss to explain the pervasive and often significant differences between artistic and literary scenes. More often than not its adherents end up accusing the artists of ignorance of their own mythic tradition. Paradigm 2, which might be termed the art historian’s approach, liberates vase painters and sculptors from slavish adherence to the Homeric versions of myth by asserting an independent evolution of visual themes. Artists may have known the Iliad and Odyssey, but in presenting a particular scene largely disregarded that knowledge. A corollary to the second paradigm is what has been called the ‘folktale model’. It assumes that artists, instead of drawing from Homeric, or any other poetic sources, drew from mythological tales they had heard as children. Lowenstam rejects paradigm 2 because, among other things, it fails to explain why painters sometimes wrote snippets of lyric and epic formulae on their works. Both paradigms generally work under the assumption that the artists’ only possible poetic frame of reference was Homer. The many differences between Homer and art, therefore, mean that art operates at a distance from poetry: the artists were either ignorant or simply ignored the details of the oral and/or literary traditions of their time.

Lowenstam’s own approach, paradigm 3, treads a middle ground between the first two paradigms. This is essentially the same middle ground he advocated before in several journal articles.3 Paradigm 3 is different from 1 and 2 in two ways. First, it does not assume that our Iliad and Odyssey were canonical in the 6 th and 5 th cent. BCE; other versions of Trojan myth were both circulating and influential. Second, it asserts an interactive culture between poetic and visual mythmaking, an intertext between poetry and art that does not demean the artists any more than Virgilian intertext with Homer demeans Virgil. One advantage of this approach is that it enables us to acknowledge differences from Homer without feeling compelled to assert that the artists were ignorant of their own mythology. Another is that it accounts adequately for the fact that vase painting in particular was both an art form and business. Hence, in Lowenstam’s own words, “artisans had to keep close tabs on their customers’ knowledge…. Painters could not recast mythic narratives into completely new stories that might not be understood by their viewers.” (6). Paradigm 3 incorporates the best parts of the other 2 paradigms. Each visual reenactment is simultaneously a deeply traditional, but not necessarily Homeric, retelling of a mythic motif with many precedents and multiforms, and an act of autonomous affiliation capable of reflecting the values and tastes of the culture and time of the artists and their clientele.

If paradigms 1 and 2 represent polar extremes, the absolute dominance of Homer on one side and complete freedom from all poetry on the other, Lowenstam does not always take a position in the exact middle of these polarities. At times, he moves closer to a philological paradigm by firmly asserting an alternate literary tradition behind vase paintings at variance with Homer. The Thersites section in Chapter 3 provides a good example of this. Here, he compares two red-figure Apulian vases, a calyx krater, ca. 390 BCE, and a volute krater, ca. 340 BCE. On the first, Thersites appears as a handsome young man in heroic pose with a writing implement in his right hand. A comment by Trendall, desperate to see some trace of Homer’s negative portrayal of Thersites in this scene, sums up previous schools of thought: “his right hand holds what looks like a stylus, as if he were intending to take notes of the proceedings, which might later serve his spiteful purposes.”4 Lowenstam recognizes the desperation of this approach and rightly asserts that the painter is following a different tradition that portrays Thersites in a positive light. The second vase, on which Achilles has killed Thersites, and Diomedes attempts to draw his sword to avenge his cousin’s murder, supports this thesis, as do Proclus, Apollodorus, et al. Thus, the Thersites motif provides an excellent example of relatively late artists following non-Homeric literary sources. In the Exekias section in Chapter 1, on the other hand, Lowenstam moves closer to paradigm 2. Here, he restricts discussion to the black-figure painter’s Vatican masterpiece (ca. 540 BCE). One side of this vase depicts Achilles and Ajax playing a board game. Some have thought that this episode must originate from a lull in battle in a lost narrative. Lowenstam, however, asserts Exekias’ independence. The painter has invented the scene; the idea of Achilles and Ajax playing a board game is not derived from poetic sources. The only connection to poetic tradition is more abstract than that asserted for depictions of Thersites on Apulian pottery; it is the judgment of the relative worth of the two heroes. Inscriptions on the vase reveal that Achilles has scored a 4, Ajax a 3; the point is to compare the two best Achaean warriors with Achilles coming out on top, just as he does in Homer (Iliad 2.768-69). For want of evidence to the contrary, however, the type scene of two warriors at draughts developed independently in the visual tradition.

Moving now to the overall organization of As Witnessed by Images, the book consists of three chapters that accord to geographic and ethnographic developments in painting and sculpture. Chapter 1 focuses on the art of mainland Greece, Chapter 2 the Greek artists of South Italy, and Chapter 3 Etruscan art in Central Italy. I take it to be no accident that each chapter’s sections alternate with some semblance of symmetry between mythical type scene, on the one hand, and individual piece, artist, style period, or artistic venue on the other. This alternation reflects the delicate balance that Lowenstam strikes between mythic tradition and artistic autonomy. Whether alternating between the ransom of Hector theme and Kabiric perspectives in Chapter 1, the funeral of Patroklos and the Dolon Painter in Chapter 2, or Achilles’ immolation of Trojan youths and the Torre San Severo sarcophagus in Chapter 3, he always asserts the individuality of the artist or style period and the persistence of traditional motifs simultaneously.

At the beginning of Chapter 1 Lowenstam seeks to explain what he calls an “astonishing event.” At roughly the same time (mid 7 th century BCE, four separate painters, one Attic, one Peloponnesian and two Etruscan, all depicted the blinding of Polyphemus. Romantic interpretations of this coincidence view it as heralding the birth of Homer’s Odyssey, but Lowenstam finds nothing on these vases suggestive of any particular knowledge of that poem. Instead, he attributes the popularity of the Polyphemus scene at this time to the mindset of a Greek world involved in exploration and colonization. He argues this possibility quite persuasively and notes that, as a rule, visual representations of Odyssean myth precede those of Iliadic myth during periods of exploration and expansion. This conclusion typifies his emphasis on the interface between poetic traditions and contemporary cultures. The next section, Corinthian Perspectives, deals especially with portrayals of Paris and Helen. Perhaps the most interesting analysis here occurs in the discussion of a depiction of the marriage of Paris and Helen in which one horse is named ‘Polupentha’. Lowenstam notes that this “name” is an epic word meaning ‘much grief’ and that the painter may have been etymologizing the name to indicate the grief this wedding would eventually cause. It is refreshing to see someone actually read vase inscriptions philologically, given the tendency among scholars to attribute illiteracy to painters at the drop of a hat, and chalk up as non sequitur any inscription posing any sort of challenge.

In Chapter 2 Lowenstam moves to Magna Graecia, asserting that vase painting there was at the same time deeply traditional and consciously modernizing. We find the same myths repeated from the vases of mainland Greece, but also find innovations, like parasols used to mark social status, hippocamps, etc. Particularly notable is the treatment of the funeral of Patroclus by the Darius Painter (340/330 BCE). While this episode, taken in its entirety, is quite traditional, the central scene of the vase depicts Achilles’ sacrifice of Trojan youths. This slaughter is well known from the Iliad, but we have no other representations of it on ancient pottery. The scene does not straightforwardly celebrate Achilles’ heroism, but focuses on his cruelty and the brutal killing of innocent youths, a theme appropriate to a funerary context, perhaps of a young man killed before his time. In general, Chapter 2 is quite strong in assessing the ways in which the function of vessels, in many cases funerary vessels like the volute krater or loutrophoros, influenced the representations of myth on them.

Lowenstam’s application of paradigm 3 is an especially welcome addition to scholarship on Etruscan visual presentations of Greek myth. Since in this case we are dealing with non-Greeks, scholars have felt at liberty to assume that Etruscan artists copied Greek originals without understanding the myths behind the images. This has been called the banalization of myth, a school of thought advocated in the 20 th century by Camporeale and Schauenburg.5 Lowenstam is not the first to speak against this school, but his analysis of Achilles’ ambush of Troilus as it appears in Etruscan painting demonstrates that the Etruscans both knew this Greek myth in intricate detail, and actively incorporated its elements to fit their own aesthetic sensibilities. In particular, in emphasizing the presence of Apollo Lykeios in the episode they brought to the fore the motif of human sacrifice. This motif is present on the Greek side of the Trojan cycle, but doubly relevant to the Etruscans, who, according to Livy (7.19.2-3), actually sacrificed prisoners. In his analysis of animal imagery included in the arming of Achilles scene on the Monteleone di Spoleto chariot, Lowenstam once again illustrates Etruscan knowledge of the epic tradition. In the end, as Chapter 3 progresses, the idea that Etruscans had faulty knowledge of their Greek models seems less and less plausible.

Overall, As Witnessed by Images is a well-organized, insightful and relevant contribution to its field. The one substantive point of contention I have involves Lowenstam’s dating of our Iliad and Odyssey to the 6 th century BCE. Keep in mind that Latacz, in the edition mentioned above which also purviews Trojan myth in art, sticks to an 8 th century dating of Homer (43-7). In the end, the chronology of Homer is uncertain, and likely to remain a topic of debate. Given this uncertainty, I suppose one is free to date Homer to the 6 th century, but Lowenstam at times appears to rest too much of his methodological paradigm on a late date. In his Introduction, he makes such statements as “chronology constitutes the main issue in discussing the relation of painters and poets” and “it all comes down to relative chronology” (7). Granted, a few pages later he is more cautious, but by then the impression has already been created that some part of his thesis rests on a late date for Homer. Ultimately, there are two questions of chronology at issue: one answers when our Iliad and Odyssey came into existence, the other answers when Homer so thoroughly trounced rival poets that his versions became canonical in art. If we allow ourselves to imagine the Iliad and Odyssey in existence from the 8 th to the 6 th centuries, perhaps even widely disseminated, but still only two epics in a poetic culture teeming with other Trojan War poems, there is no need to question the actual date of Homer based on discrepancies with art. In other words, Homer cannot be canonical in the 5 th century for paradigm 3 to work, but he need not be non-existent. Lowenstam himself does seem to acknowledge this at the end of his Introduction, so this is not a major problem. I would just have recommended that he be a bit less emphatic about the importance of relative chronology, and a bit more unambiguous in stating that his paradigm does not depend on a date for Homer that is later than many will be willing to admit. In the end, it would be unfortunate if the issue of chronology detracted from the contribution As Witnessed by Images makes to the unification of classical philology and ancient art history, which is, after all, its ultimate goal.

Turning to the more mundane matter of publication quality, note that the images in the book are sometimes rather small, and in black and white on regular, rather than photo-quality paper. In many cases they still provide adequate points of reference to Lowenstam’s discussions, but at other times the reader will need to consult more detailed publications to follow his analysis.

Table of Contents: List of Illustrations ix
Foreword, by T. H. Carpenter xiii

Introduction 1 Paradigms and the Role of Poetry 4
Chronology 7
Purposes and Methodology 10

Chapter 1: Greece 13 The Fran├žois Vase 20
Corinthian Perspectives 27
Troilos and Achilleus 35
Exekias 39
Sirens 43
Ransom of Hektor 51
Fifth-century Portraits of Achilleus and Odysseus 63
Kabiric Vases 71
Conclusions 80

Chapter 2: Megale Hellas 84 Trojan Topics 91
The Funeral of Patroklos 93
Thetis’ Touch and an Embassy to Achilleus 98
The Dolon Painter 103
Thersites 110
Lykaon 114
Conclusions 120

Chapter 3: Etruria 124 The Monteleone di Spoleto Chariot 128
The First Pania Pyxis 136
The Ambush of Troilos 139
Fifth-century Mirrors 148
Achilleus’ Immolation of Trojan Youths 157
The Torre San Severo Sarcophagus 165
Aftermath and Conclusions 170

Conclusion 174 Notes 177
Bibliography 207
Index 223


1. Lowenstam, S. 1993. “The Arming of Achilleus on Early Greek Vases.” Classical Antiquity 12.199-218 (page 216).

2. Latacz, J, et al. 2008. Homer: Der Mythos von Troia in Dichtung und Kunst. Basel and Munich.

3. In addition to the article cited in note 1, see: “The Uses of Vase Depictions in Homeric Studies.” TAPhA 122 (1992), 165-98; “The Sources of the Odyssey Landscapes.” Echos du Monde Classique / Classical Views 39 (1995), 193-226; and “Talking Vases: The Relationship between the Homeric Poems and Archaic Representations of Epic Myth.” TAPhA 127 (1997), 21-76.

4. Trendall, A.D. 1967. The Red-figured Vases of Lucania, Campania and Sicily. Oxford (page 41).

5. Camporeale, G. 1965. “Banalizzazioni etrusche di miti greci.” Studi in Onore di Luisa Banti, 111-23; 1968. “Banalizzazioni etrusche di miti greci, II.” Studi Etruschi 36.21-35; 1969. “Banalizzazioni etrusche di miti greci, III.” Studi Etruschi 37.59-76. Schauenburg, K. 1970. “Zu griechischen Mythen in der Etruskischen Kunst.” Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts 85.28-81.