Online Review: Book

Reading Greek Vases

David Saunders


By Ann Steiner. Pp. xvii + 346, b&w figs. 158. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2007. $96. ISBN 978-0-521-825221-1 (cloth).

Reading Greek Vases fits neatly with two trends in current studies of ancient art: the interrelationship between images and texts (e.g., Z. Newby and R. Leader-Newby, Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World [Cambridge 2007]), and the application of theoretical approaches to the study of ancient images (e.g., M. Stansbury O'Donnell, Pictorial Narrative in Ancient Greek Art [Cambridge 1999]). Steiner's premise is simple—that a complete understanding of a painted Greek vase requires the scrutiny of every decorated surface—but her purpose is more than just to point out connections and juxtapositions. Rather, using information theory, which stresses the role of repetition in guaranteeing that a message is communicated ("redundancy"), and narratology, whereby vases are "texts" to be read in toto, Steiner analyzes how images and inscriptions serve to direct the viewer to make these connections.

Steiner has explored this subject previously, and her 1997 article, "Illustrious Repetitions: Visual Redundancy in Exekias and His Followers" (in J.H. Oakley, W.D.E. Coulson, and O. Palagia, eds., Athenian Potters and Painters [Oxford 1997] 157–69), is developed here as chapter 2, a "primer" of possible juxtapositions from a selection of Exekias' vases, such as the not-quite-exact repetition in two images of one warrior carrying another (Munich Antikensammlungen 1470) or the two linked Trojan scenes on either side of the amphora in Philadelphia (MS3442). In considering vases attributed to the Lysippides and Andokides Painters, particularly the handful of bilinguals with similar scenes on either side, Steiner endeavors to suggest that these narrative devices could be transmitted from master to pupil. This introductory overview is complemented by the next chapter, which examines three "types"—horsehead amphoras, komast-dancer cups, and glaux-skyphoi—wherein repetition on either side is so commonplace that it does not repay close scrutiny.

In chapter 4, Steiner digresses to explore elements within the images that assist in the interpretive process. Her approach to spectators dovetails well with Stansbury O'Donnell's (Vase-Painting, Gender and Social Identity in Archaic Athens [Cambridge 2006]), but her real contribution is to interpret inscriptions in similar metanarrative terms: as interpretive aids to the images and points of communication with the viewer. In considering whether the vase painter or patron was responsible for kalos inscriptions, Steiner deconstructs the debate and argues that rather than taking the inscriptions as personal expressions, they should be seen as the work of constructed author-artists, "projection[s] of the constructed second self" (66), appropriate to the sympotic setting. So it need not matter whether Euphronios himself felt that Leagros was kalos; he writes it on a vase because it is an expression suitable to the milieu of an Athenian elite symposium. Finally, Steiner considers whether the inscriptions on vases were read aloud. The evidence, as Steiner freely indicates, is inconclusive, but previous studies by other scholars indicate how fruitful it would be if inscriptions were read out loud, and Steiner accords. The subsequent chapter, "Reading Writing," builds on this hypothesis, not only demonstrating that craftsmen prompted viewers to look at the vase as a whole by the placement and content of inscriptions (as on two Little Master cups, London B417 and Berlin F1756, with "Eucheiros made [it]" on A, and "the son of Ergotimos" on B) but also considering similarities of sound, such as "mock" inscriptions that if read aloud would make the reader sound drunk (e.g., Athens, National Museum 1104, with ΕΧΣΕΚΙΑΣΕΠΟΙΕΣΕΝ on A, ΕΝΕΟΙΝΟΙΟΙΕΝ on B). The work of Immerwahr (Attic Script: A Survey [Oxford 1990]) is referenced throughout and is conveniently accessible in the Beazley Archive Pottery Database (BAPD) (, under the Corpus of Attic Vase Inscriptions tab (CAVI).

Steiner's purpose here, as throughout the book, is to explore how repetitions and juxtapositions work, and this requires close study of individual vessels. It is no fault that in discussing inscriptions on Little Master cups (75–83) she does not provide an overview of the "inscription habit" on these vessels, but some acknowledgment is necessary lest we conclude, for example, that inscriptions continuing from sides A to B were standard practice on Little Master lip and band cups. A survey of the nearly 600 illustrated on the BAPD suggests that repetition on both sides—of chaire kai piei or a signature—is prevalent by far.

The next four chapters analyze individual vases in order to explore different roles played by repetition and the effects that it has: narrative (in the telling of stories), paradigm (juxtaposition of figures or themes that relate "mortal" activities with those of heroes), character (different facets, e.g., of Athena or the symposium), and parody (verbal, visual, and the combination of the two). The studies of character and parody in particular suggest productive lines for future research (on parody, see A.G. Mitchell, "Humour in Greek Vase-Painting," RA [2004] 3–32), although occasionally Steiner's interpretations may leave the reader reluctant to accept all her arguments. For example, should the warrior named Anchippos on the amphora Louvre F53 be comparable to the antihero Geryon on the other side simply on account of his matching helmet and shield (150)? It is surely more plausible to see Herakles and the successful accomplishment of his labor as a suitable paradigm for Anchippos. Steiner terms some vases, such as this one, "landmark," but does not argue for a developing sophistication in any of these narrative techniques. Indeed, in the penultimate chapter, "Reading Everything," the six vases examined in detail cluster around the late sixth and early fifth centuries. This chapter should be the first point of call for any interested browser, demonstrating the strengths of Steiner's in toto approach. But in a book titled Reading Greek Vases, we may fairly ask what happens later—are these techniques simply forgotten? Would more painter-specific studies, in the manner of chapter 2, or subject-specific studies, be productive? Douris' cup depicting three scenes from the dispute over Achilles' armor (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum 3695) is studied here by itself (117–19), and it might be fruitful to explore what connections are made on other vases that carry episodes from this story. More broadly, is all of this an Athenian phenomenon?

One vase notable by its absence is the prime example of a vase as "text": the François Vase (Florence, Museo Archeologico Etrusco 4209). It would be stimulating indeed to read Steiner's analysis, and all the more so given its Etruscan findspot. An Athenian sympotic setting is advocated throughout the book, and it is only on page 231 that Steiner acknowledges that a "sympotic context for the use of Athenian vases cannot be taken for granted." The final chapter makes the case in favor. Steiner justly argues that with some exceptions, there is little indication that Athenian vase painters adapted their images for Etruscan consumers, but this does not obviate the need—speculative though it may be—to consider more fully how the vases might be "read" in Etruria (see N. Spivey, "Volcanic Landscape with Figures," GaR 54 [2007] 229–53, for an overview). Steiner's survey of the contextual evidence in Greece concludes that "[t]here is no support for an alternative to the position that these vases were intended for and actually used in an Athenian symposion and, therefore, that in general imagery on vessels had an intended viewer other than an elite Athenian" (236). However, terms such as the "Athenian elite" and, indeed, the "symposion" are open to further specification (see, e.g., K. Junker, "Symposiongeschirr oder Totengefasse? Überlegungen zur Funktion attischer Vasen des 6 und 5 Jahrhunderts v. Chr," AntK 45 [2002] 3–25), and there may be other ways to read an Athenian vase.

Reading Greek Vases is in many ways a companion volume to Neer's Style and Politics in Athenian Vase Painting: The Craft of Democracy, ca. 530–460 B.C.E. (Cambridge 2002). Before closing, Steiner focuses on the "portraits" of potters/painters on some Pioneer vases, which Neer interpreted as a deliberate confounding of class boundaries at a time of social flux. Like others before her, Steiner sees these scenes as parodic: when the vase painters insert themselves into the sympotic realm, for example, as a name in a kottabos toast, their intention is to play the differences between elite and artisan for laughs. Since mockery—not only of one another but also of those of lower status—is an essential aspect of elite self-definition, Steiner suggests that the "constructed author-artists" are to be seen here as colluding with the demands of the aristocratic symposium. Far from blurring the class boundary, as Neer argued, they define it even more sharply. This argument is supported by Steiner's thesis that vase painters had long been providing the means for one-upmanship in symposia, such as the "mock" inscriptions. Yet she regards as "not really relevant" (261) the internal joking among the potters/painters, which, to my mind, remains the most immediate grounds for interpreting this short-lived phenomenon (well expressed by G. Hedreen in his review of Neer's book, BMCR 2003.03.20); it is notable that Euthymides' boast over Euphronios (Munich, Antikensammlungen 2307), whatever its precise intent, is unmentioned.

Reading Greek Vases is a stimulating, sometimes provocative argument for considering vases in their entirety and for the significance of repetition, both pictorial and inscriptional. Its strength—a thorough engagement with Athenian vases in an Athenian sympotic context—may for some be problematic, and the reader should be alert to the fact that Steiner's careful analyses of how repetition works results in a concentration on individual, and sometimes exceptional, examples. As is typical of the Cambridge University Press, the book is well illustrated and finely produced. Clearly intended for graduates and beyond, aspects could also be applied fruitfully in teaching undergraduates.

David Saunders
Department of Antiquities
J. Paul Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, California 90049


Add new comment

Plain text

  • Use [fn]...[/fn] (or <fn>...</fn>) to insert automatically numbered footnotes.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.