Wisconsin (2020) h/b 248pp £96.50 (ISBN 9780299327200)
Printed throughout on high quality paper, featuring beautifully produced colour plates (33) and b/w figures (169), this slim volume cannot be said to be lacking in the visual element. It really does what it says on the cover. The ten chapters (I give a few examples under each heading) deal with the home (pets, housework, child care), the workshop, regularly located in the home (potters, shoemakers, butchers), some city scenes (fountains, stables, brothels), the countryside (apiculture, herding, mining), education, sanctuaries (processions, sacrifices, drama), the gymnasium (sports, pederasty), war (armies, trophies, ships), weddings (water for the bride’s bath, the feast, the unveiling) and funerals (prothesis, ekphora, visits to the grave). Each chapter is followed by the relevant bibliography.
This raises a problem: what if the scenes reveal only a small part of the big picture? O. is aware of the problem, and enlarges the reader’s sense of the whole by describing what archaeological finds tell us. For example, under ‘At Home’, it is that record, not the pictorial one, that gives us details of storeys, courtyards, windows, passageways, drains and surrounding streets (etc.). There are only two extant scenes of bee-keeping (the one used shows the bees attacking honey-seekers who are attempting to drive them off). O. informs us that archaeology finds include terracotta hives.
Occasionally O. ranges more widely over the historical field. For example, he points out that non-mythological scenes of hunting (i.e. not featuring heroes) tend to feature when aristocratic power is threatened (e.g. under Peisistratus and Cleisthenes). Here O. is following the lead given by Robin Osborne, who has shown how the painters’ choice of depiction of a standard activity changed on red-figure pots painted between 520-440 BC. Sometimes certain subjects become highly popular e.g. scenes of musical competition after 440 BC, perhaps related to Pericles’ building of the Odeon and the introduction of musical contests in the Panathenaia.
O. also deals with problems. Are these girls being taught to dance at school, or are they hetairai in training? Probably the latter, since their mistress is holding a bag of money and the activity is being watched by a young man. Type-scenes showing groups of women inside a house reading or playing instruments, however, are not Muses or hetairai since in one of them a woman is shown holding a baby.
There are, of course, issues that O. can only touch on, e.g. (to put it simply) do scenes drawn from myth tells us anything about everyday life in Athens? Are all depictions, whatever their subject, unreal, reflecting no elements of ordinary life? Or do they in fact depict real people doing real things? O. rightly finds a happy middle way between these competing conclusions.
Overall, this (as O. claims) ‘first-ever comprehensive, synthetic overview of Athenian daily-life scenes’ can be counted a considerable success. Read in combination with the literary record, it will be an even more valuable resource. O. cannot be held responsible for the price.