THE TRANSFORMATION OF ATHENS: Painted Pottery and the Creation of Classical Greece

Robin Osborne

Princeton (2018) h/b 304p (250 ill.) £41.95 (ISBN 9780691177670)

Over the past century the study of Attic black-figure and red-figure pottery has been led by the concentration on the style of the painting, individual potters and painters, and, when concerned with subject-matter, has favoured the study of mythological stories. Scenes of everyday life have received less attention. O. mentions two books that have dealt with that subject: Webster’s 1972 volume Potter and Patron and the French multi-authored La cité des images: religion et société en Grèce antique (1984). Neither comes near to satisfying our author.

O.’s volume is the outcome of a long period of gestation during which he has investigated the scenes of everyday life in a far more nuanced way than has been attempted before. He concentrates for the most part on the century from 540-440 BC, i.e. late archaic and early classical, and by detailed analysis shows how there is a marked change in imagery and in approach between the two periods. He divides his central chapters by subject—athletics, military, men and women, sacrifice, symposium, satyrs. He shows the ways in which all these categories are presented differently in the two half centuries. Athletics changed from competitive to educational with actual events rare after 480 BC, conversation being preferred. Hoplite images are reduced in the 5th C, the sex scenes become less explicit with courtship rare, and O. comments that they are ‘part of a much wider transformation in how the world is seen’ (p. 147). The extremes of behaviour at the symposium also decline in the early classical decades, ‘there is no “larking about” here’ (p. 174). And when there are the transformations in sacrifice scenes to consider, the evidence showing that they are ‘not simply changing ways of seeing the human world, they involved thinking about the relationship between the human and the supernatural world differently’ (p. 167).

In the later chapters by adding sculpture to his canvas, the new pattern of change in social and in political life can be expanded beyond Athens—‘parallels with the rather less numerous monuments left by Greek sculptors allow us some confidence that Greece as a whole was remodelled’ (p. 257).

There is here a great store of detail and acute observation throughout. The author will have no truck with painters crafting their scenes to suit foreign buyers and the market background; the Etruscans, and others with whom they traded, bought whatever the Athenians produced, and the settings were Athenocentric in all aspects—social, political, religious and aesthetic. 

This is a well-illustrated volume. The black-and-white images are set beside the text, while the coloured images which repeat a selection of the black-and-white are collected together towards the end. We shall no longer look at Attic painted pottery as before. Our eyes are now much more widely open. We are all in Osborne’s debt.

Brian A. Sparkes

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