Skip to main content Skip to navigation


Greek Vase-Painting and the Symposium

This seminar invites you to examine in more detail the ways in which Greeks of the later archaic period (roughly 540–480 BC) enjoyed themselves, and explored questions about themselves, through interaction with the objects they used at their symposia (drinking parties), and the images represented on these objects. Vases were made in Athens in vast numbers during this period, and were put to a variety of uses. They display a hugely diverse array of images, some of which we will investigate here.

This seminar will allow you to begin to learn how to think as art historians through close reading of ancient artworks, and to think about how to relate a disparate array of evidence to one significant context, the symposium, and one cultural practice fundamental to life in archaic and classical Greece, the use of wine.

You should try to investigate both the significance of the iconography of the pottery and the cultural context behind it.

Four vases for discussion (images provided in (PDF Document) Images Pack ):

  • Eye-cup by Exekias, ca. 540 BC: Munich 2044
  • Belly-amphora by the Berlin Painter, ca. 490 BC: Berlin F 2160
  • Psykter by Douris, ca. 485 BC: British Museum E768
  • Cup by Douris, ca. 485 BC: Berlin 2285

General Questions:

  • What are the main subjects painted on vases for use in the symposium?
  • What is the relation between the subjects of the images and the uses to which the vases were put?
  • What role does myth play on these vessels?
  • To what extent do these vases provide us with factual evidence for what actually happened at symposia?
  • If we think that vase-painters are not actually all that much concerned with providing straightforward factual evidence about the symposium, what are they interested in?
  • What have these vases got to do with ‘performing the self’?

Section I

  • Find out what we know about the symposium as a cultural institution at this time.

Useful bibliography:

Murray, O. ‘Sympotic History’ in O. Murray (ed.) Sympotica: A Symposium on the Symposium (Oxford 1990) 1–13
Bergquist, B.'Sympotic Space: A Functional Aspect of Greek Dining Rooms' in O. Murray (ed.) Sympotica: A symposium on the Symposium (Oxford 1990) 37–65
Murray, O. 'Life Styles: the Aristocracy' in Early Greece (2nd revised edition, London 1993) 201–19
Davidson, J. 'Drinking' in Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (London 1998) 36–69
Lissarrague, F. 'The Greek Experience of Wine' in The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet (Princeton 1990) 3–18
Neer, R. 'The Greek Symposium and the Politics of Adornment' in Style and Politics in Athenian Vase-Painting: The Craft of Democracy, ca. 530–460 B.C.E (Cambridge 2002) 9–26

Section II

Now turn to the vases themselves, and develop expertise on the content and interpretation of the images.

Here are some questions you might like to base your research on:

  • Why is it important to think of the vases as three-dimensional objects?
  • How were these vases used? What, for instance, is a psykter, a krater, or a kantharos?

  • What are satyrs (aka silens) and why do they frequently appear on these pots?

  • What role does the god Dionysus play?

  • To what extent are these vase-paintings self-conscious, and why is this significant?

  • How do these vases engage with the lives of their Greek viewers? What, for instance, do you make of the fact that some of these vases have eyes?

 Read some of the following:

Beard, M. and Robertson, M. 'Adopting an Approach' in T. Rasmussen and N. Spivey (eds.) Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge 1991) 1–35

    Boardman, J. Athenian Black Figure Vases (London 1995)
    —. Athenian Red Figure Vases: The Archaic Period (London 1993)

    Arias, P. E., Hirmer, M., and Shefton, B. B. A History of Greek Vase Painting (London 1962) (larger images)

    Lissarrague, F. Greek Vases: The Athenians and their Images (New York 2001)

      Lissarrague, F. 'Why satyra are good to represent' in J. J. Winkler and F. I. Zeitlin (eds.) Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in its Social Context (Princeton 1990) 228–36
      Bérard, C. and Bron, C. 'Satyric Revels' in C. Bérard et. al. (eds.) A City of Images (Princeton 1989) 130–49
      Lissarrague, F. 'The Sexual Life of Satyrs' in D. M. Halperin et al. (eds.) Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (Princeton 1990) 53–81

      Osborne, R. 'Inter-personal relations on Athenian pots: putting others in their place' in P. Cartledge et al. (eds.) Kosmos: essays in order, conflict, and community in classical Athens (Cambridge 1998) 13–36: excellent on the Berlin Painter vase and Exekias cup.
      Neer, R. ‘The Evolution of Naturalism’ in Style and Politics in Athenian Vase-Painting (Cambridge 2002) 27–86: a broader art-historical and theoretical discussion of the Berlin Painter among others.

      Hedreen, G. M. 'Involved Spectatorship in Archaic Greek Art' Art History 30 (2007) 217–46
      Frontisi-Ducroux, F. ‘In the Mirror of the Mask’ in C. Bérard et. al. (eds.) A City of Images (Princeton 1989) 150–65

      Durand, J.-L. et al. 'Wine: Human and Divine' in C. Bérard et. al. (eds.) A City of Images (Princeton 1989) 121–9

        Lissarrague, F. ‘The Space of the Krater’ and ‘Manipulations’ in The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet (Princeton 1990) 19–46 and 47–67

          Lissarrague, F. 'Publicity and performance: kalos inscriptions in Attic vase-painting' in S. Goldhill and R. Osborne (eds.), Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy (Cambridge 1999) 359–73

          Useful introductory website: