BMCR 2022.06.33

A guide to scenes of daily life on Athenian vases

, A guide to scenes of daily life on Athenian vases. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020. Pp. xxi, 272. ISBN 9780299327231 $34.95.


One of the leading experts of Athenian figured vase painting, John Oakley offers a compendium of material relating to social life in archaic and classical Athens with the aim of making the visual evidence accessible to all.[1] The book is lavishly illustrated: of the 248 images, 33 are superb colour plates. While many of its vases are familiar, less well-known examples appear, making it a valuable resource for the specialist as well as the student. Commentary is minimal and footnotes are avoided; their place is taken by extensive chapter bibliographies, organized into groupings that usually reflect the order of presentation.[2] A succinct glossary and full index complete the work.

The challenging task of ordering a large array of disparate subjects is met by grouping them thematically according to “where they took place” (p.5) and then, in several chapters, breaking them down into discrete subsections. Sometimes themes take precedent over location (e.g. girls’ races in the Brauroneion appear not under ‘Sanctuaries’ but ‘Sport’). As the volume of material available to consider for each subject is highly variable, the ten chapters differ in length and complexity. Occasional scenes of myth are admitted when they provide the best evidence for a daily-life activity like carpentry. The “Introduction” provides a handy and succinct overview of the chronology of Athenian ceramic techniques, the range of shapes, the history of iconographic scholarship and theoretical approaches, and a sensible authorial statement of first principles.

The extensive first chapter, “At home,” presents a wide range of imagery that has to do with household members and activities. This includes elements of the physical structure, notably the door and roof; others appear in the chapter on weddings (Chapter 9). Of domestic activities, Oakley starts with wool-working, the most frequent. An interesting collection of images features games and play and food preparation, followed by housework, women dressing and childcare. “Play and pets” involves material cutting across all ages: children, youths, women, men. The symposium and concomitant activities appear here, too, on the reasonable grounds that they took place in the andron of the house. The chapter concludes with domestic slaves.[3]

Chapter 2, “In the Workshop” addresses the themes of productive and mercantile activity that have long interested social historians. They feature especially in late black-figure and early red-figure imagery; the collocation of the images here is especially useful. The chapter includes familiar subjects like ceramic production and metallurgical activities, and sculpting in bronze or wood, as well as the unusual subjects of wood-working and coin-making. Commercial activities follow: the sale of vessels or their liquid contents, and the purchase of foodstuffs. The unique image of a fowler is followed by two of the few representations of butchers.

A loose collection of daily life activities not easily located in a closely defined space comprises Chapter 3, “Around Town.” They range from the sudden burst of fountain-house imagery of the last third of the sixth century, through training of young girls for dancing or acrobatics at symposia (as evidenced by the presence of men who observe them), dwarfs, and grooms with horses at stables. Here, too, is a rare depiction of an inscribed stele being read, herms (one in a small sanctuary to judge from the proximity of an altar and votive pinax), and possibly a brothel.

One of the most engaging chapters, Chapter 4, “In the Countryside,” collects the wide range of images depicting country life: farming and herding along with beekeeping, fishing, and hunting. Such themes are rare in Athenian vase-painting but within their small number is remarkable diversity.[4] We have ploughing, seeding and harvesting, grains, olive, and grape, whose processing links this chapter with “Housework” in Chapter 1. Transport of agricultural goods to market lurks in the background. An unfortunate omission is mining, whose single exemplar known to me is the black-figured cup tondo in Leiden, that features a clearly under-privileged individual.[5]

In Chapter 5, “Education at School and Elsewhere,” a summary of the evidence for formal schooling for boys as attested in the literary sources is supported by red-figure vessels that clearly show instruction of boys and youths in writing, playing instruments and singing. The occasional instance of explicit or implied instruction of girls in reading and writing, music-making, and dancing at home, not in the literary sources, presents important evidence for social practice. The latter had already been touched upon in the discussion of hetairai in the section on symposia in Chapter 1, but Oakley here presents images that are more readily viewed as set in the oikos rather than the brothel. The chapter closes with a lesson in horseback riding, and punishment of the young.

Chapter 6, “At the Sanctuary,” addresses the activities associated with religion. Altars appear frequently, but as they existed in public and private spaces, their presence does not suffice to identify the sanctuary; other elements like votive tablets or bucrania are required. The ritual stages found in the imagery – procession with sacrificial animal(s), elevation of animal for sacrifice, butchering, offering of the gods’ portion and post-sacrifice divination – largely structure the chapter. Occasionally the icon of the recipient divinity appears, most notably on the “Lenaian vases” with mask of Dionysos and garment on a post.[6] As competitions in honour of the deity played an important role in some religious festivals, scenes of musical and theatrical competitions are included. A torch-race for the Greater Panathenaia ends this chapter. Images of festival athletic competition at the Panathenaia are mostly reserved for Chapter 7, where some other musical competitions are also presented. The boundary between the two chapters is rather fluid.

One of the longest chapters, Chapter 7, “Sport: At the Gymnasium and the Hippodrome,” especially presents competitive sports. Many of the Athenian representations adorn Panathenaic amphorae, inscribed “for the games.” The several types of running events come first, including the girls’ races held at the Brauronian Artemision. Contact sports include boxing, wrestling, and the pankration. Boxing is long-lived in the imagery, so that the range of protective gear can be traced. The various phases of a wrestling match can be identified; the pankration is recognizable from the brutality of the holds. The elements of the pentathlon – long jump, discuss-throwing, javelin-throwing, stade race and wrestling – appear both together and individually. Equestrian events, also important at the Panathenaia, include the four-horse chariot race, the horseback-race, as well as the rare mule-cart race and the apobates event. Of Panathenaic tribal team contests the armed dance and especially the torch race appear in the imagery. As the Greater Panathenaia included musical competitions, scenes of musicians being judged are here. After more general palaestra images, an overview articulates trends in athletic imagery over time. Finally, pederasty is introduced on the grounds that “the palaestra was a common place for men and youths to meet and court” (p.160). Indeed, details of the courting scenes often include athletic items such as a strigil, spear, or discus.[7]

Warfare is discussed in Chapter 8, “The Battleground.” Here, in addition to hoplite warfare, are aspects of cavalry, naval warfare, and the rare depiction of a siege. The discussion includes training, arming and departure libations. To exemplify the hoplite battle line, a Trojan War scene, with Neoptolemos battering Priam with Astyanax, is used.[8] The discussion of battles in the imagery is remarkably succinct, in view of its popularity as a subject, perhaps owing to the frequent uncertainty whether a battle in art is mythological or quotidian. Thracians and Scythians, recognizable by their foreign dress, are introduced as allies. Battle with Persians – the one certainly historical subject matter – is briefly mentioned. The chapter concludes with rare imagery of the aftermath: the erection of trophies, taking of prisoners, and on one fragmentary loutrophoros, casualty lists, alluding to the state funerals of Athens.

In Chapter 9, “At the Wedding” Oakley outlines the stages of the ritual known from literary sources: the agreement between the bride’s father and groom and the three-day long wedding ceremony. The dressing of the bride and the wedding procession are popular subjects. It is not possible to make formal subdivisions according to wedding phase since wedding imagery frequently adopts a synoptic narrative; the details of accoutrements suffice to flag the stages in one continuum. Well-chosen images from wedding vessels, the loutrophoros and the lebes gamikos, present the stages and the participants of the ritual. Oakley concludes with the observation that imagery can attest to folk traditions not known from texts, notably the throwing of sandals after a bridal couple.[9]

Chapter 10, “The End of Life: At the Funeral,” deals with the temporal sequence of the laying out of the dead, mourning at home, conveyance to the cemetery and mourning at the tomb. Oakley identifies and illustrates rare evidence for the placement of the corpse in a coffin, a sixth-century ekphora, and the lowering of the dead into the grave. Offerings to the dead dominate the imagery.[10] A discussion of the disparity between known funerary monuments of the period and the depicted stelai raises the question of the relationship between representation and reality. A fascinating image of a man transcribing an elegiac couplet from a stele onto a tablet concludes the chapter (and the book).

A Guide to Scenes of Daily Life on Athenian Vases will be valuable text to teach from. Throughout the whole, interesting tidbits appear, like the note that experimentation proved that use of the ankyle in javelin-throwing increased the range of throw (p. 144), and the identification of a chytra in use on a hydria in Warsaw (Fig. 9.7). It is an excellent sourcebook, especially in view of the huge trove of images, many rarely seen, and the generous provision of excellent colour plates. The length of the acknowledgments testifies to the thoroughness of Oakley’s research.[11]


[1] The writer deeply regrets the excessive delay of this review, driven by erratic post deliveries and local lockdowns.

[2] This strategy generally works. The bibliographies are rich; despite the declared preference for English-language scholarship, the major scholarship in other languages is certainly cited.

[3] More could have been done here. Oakley rightly observes that female slaves are recognizable by their short-cropped hair. Physiognomy can aid in the identification of male slaves, although admittedly not in a household context: for example, on a kyathos of the Theseus Painter, the distended stomach of the transport amphora-carrying youth probably flags him as a slave (Erlangen I 522; BAPD 330698).

[4] In view of the unfamiliarity of the practice, further detail on or more clear articulation of “lime-twigging” would aid clarity (p. 99-100). Perhaps something has dropped out?

[5] Leiden K94.9.15 (BAPD 768). In the Introduction, p. 6, mining is said to be treated in this chapter but seems not to be.

[6] Cult statues are readily found in mythological imagery; in the Ilioupersis Kassandra may cling to a primitive Athena type (naturally excluded by Oakley as a mythological subject).

[7] Another possible locus for the subject would have been in the context of symposia in Chapter 1, as indeed the slip in the Introduction describing Chapter 7 (p.6) shows.

[8] Naples, Mus. Naz. (Fig. 8.11), a black-figured lekanis lid attributed to the C Painter (BAPD 300496). The choice cleverly avoids use of the Chigi Vase, more frequently used to exemplify the hoplite phalanx (Rome, Villa Giulia 22679), but unfortunately Corinthian rather than Attic.

[9] Athens NM 1388 (Fig. 9.19), a red-figured calyx krater attributed to the Painter of the Athens Wedding (BAPD 220526).

[10] One would like to know why a hydria was the suitable vessel for pouring a libation into a phiale on Karlsruhe B 1528 (Fig. 10.10), white-ground lekythos attributed to the Woman Painter (BAPD 217616).

[11] Minor errors in need of correction can, one hopes, be addressed in reprinting:
33: “a choes” instead of singular “a chous”
52: “greaves” and p. 54 “baldric” are italicized although perfectly respectable English terms
73, 193, 233: “krotala” misspelled as “krotola” (correct on p.105 and index p. 244)
114: the plural “xoana” is given where the contexts require the singular “xoanon”
196: “chytra” misspelled as “chyrta”