Lecture Indulges Classicists In Pots and Politics
Amphorae, hydriae, krateres. Whatever your preference, there were more than enough Ancient Greek vases to please at this year’s Martin lecture.
The lecture, given by Robin Osborne, professor of ancient history at Cambridge University, was titled, “The Politics of Pictorial Representation in Early Athenian Democracy.” It marked 80 years since the start of the Martin Lectures in 1927. The lectures, which were founded in memory of Oberlin Classics Professor Charles Beebe Martin, have come to include some of the biggest names in classical studies.
In a series of four well-attended lectures last week, Osborne explored the significance of imagery on painted vases.
In the first lecture, “Painted Pottery and its History,” Osborne dismissed the contemporary view that painted pottery was considered art by Athenians. He explained that pots were used more often for everyday use.
“My interest is in relating how iconographic choices on Athenian pottery changed over time,” said Osborne
The changing depictions of Athenian violence — from complex scenes of war to simpler, more symbolic scenes of solitary soldiers arming themselves and parting from their wives or mothers — were documented in Osborne’s second lecture, “The Politics of War.”
Osborne suggested that the scenes of conflict were due to a lack of familiarity with the actualities of war. “By the time they are actually engaged in annual campaigns against the Persians, and fighting and losing men on a large scale, all we get in the way of fighting scenes are those rather symbolic simple-Greek-soldier-fighting-simple-Persian scenes,” Osborne said.
“Once you know that your number is regularly coming up and you know what it is really like to go off to warfare, do you really want to see those scenes on your pots?”
In the third lecture, “Athletes and the Politics of Desire,” Osborne again made note of a substantial difference between types of imagery on pots, specifically addressing the change from ornate depictions of athletes being honored by older men to simple depictions, where honor was bestowed more symbolically by the goddess Nike.
Osborne suggested that the changing depictions had far-reaching effects on their ancient observers, even affecting the way Athenians thought. “We might think that aesthetic preferences play off not just onto what gets represented but perhaps also onto how people view the activities of life, rather than the activities of life reflecting back onto how things get represented,” he said.
In his fourth and final lecture, “Pots and Politics,” Osborne discussed the evolution of the courting scenes on vases, which became less explicit and more symbolic as time progressed.
At this lecture’s conclusion, Osborne summed up the series by arguing that changing views of individuality at the advent of democracy provided a good context to understand the altering imagery.
“Whatever the changing choices [and] scenes depicted on Athenian pottery…it doesn’t simply reflect changing patterns of Athenian behavior in the areas of life depicted,” said Osborne. “What I want to suggest is that we can see the aesthetic change…as a product of a social change from the fascination with the individual to exploration of the typical.”