fig. 1
Italy, Paestum

About eighty kilometres south of Naples, a traveller will come upon the extensive ruins of an ancient Greek town with an impressive fortification wall some 4.8 kilometres long, and three well-preserved temples.1 A readable account of the city is provided by J. G. Pedley, Paestum, Greeks and Romans in Southern Italy, London, 1990. Many aspects of Greek culture in S. Italy and Sicily are treated in G. Pugliese Carratelli (ed.), The Western Greeks (exh. cat.), Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1996. These are the remains of Poseidonia, or, as it is known today, Paestum (its Roman name), one of the most important of the Greek colonial foundations in South Italy. The city was constructed on a limestone ridge close to the Tyrrhenian Sea and controlled a fertile, if marshy, plain extending inland to the Alburnian hills. Excavation suggests that Greeks settled at the site of Poseidonia towards the close of the seventh century BC. It is most likely that they were colonists from the opulent city of Sybaris in South Italy, which may have hoped to develop further trade with the Etruscan cities of Campania and also with those of Etruria proper, following the overland route to Laos (another colony of Sybaris) and along the coast to Poseidonia and Campania.

Because of her commercial position and her fertile territory, Poseidonia prospered during the sixth century BC. From the middle of the century, the city began to mint silver coins featuring the city-god Poseidon, lord of the sea, and Doric temples were constructed; the two most prominent are the so-called Basilica (actually a temple of Hera), c.560–520 BC, and the temple of Athena, c. 500 BC. When her mother-city, Sybaris, was wiped out in 510 BC by neighbouring Croton, Poseidonia probably received some of the survivors. Despite this event and despite the decline in Etruscan power in Campania as a result of the disastrous defeat inflicted by the Greeks in 474 BC, the prosperity of Poseidonia does not seem to have been affected radically; indeed, a second temple in honour of Hera was built about c.460 BC. However, the growing strength of the native Italic peoples presented an increasing threat to all the Greek cities in South Italy, the area called Magna Graecia by the Romans. These Oscan tribes began to spread out during the fifth century BC from their Apennine fastnesses towards the inviting coastal plains and the wealthy Greek cities. The Lucani, an Oscan-speaking people, finally obtained control of Poseidonia at some time around 410 BC.2 For the Lucanian occupation, see M. Frederiksen, Campania, London, 1984, p. 137; and K. Lomas, Rome and the Western Greeks, London, 1993, pp. 33–5. Thus, for most of the fourth century, except for a brief period between 332 and 326 BC when control again passed to the Greeks, the city was predominantly Lucanian. But the Greek name of the city was retained and the population must have been at least partly Greek. Lucanian Poseidonia continued to prosper: fine silver coins were minted, large tombs were built, sometimes decorated with painted scenes (over eighty are known), and an extensive local industry developed in painted vases intended for home, sanctuary and tomb.

Today over two thousand of these Paestan figured vases are known.3 For the basic catalogue and discussion of the painters, see A. D. Trendall, The Red-figured Vases of Paestum, London, 1987 [hereafter abbreviated RFVP]. For a more general account of Paestan, as well as the other local red-figure fabrics see Trendall, Red Figure Vases of South Italy and Sicily, London, 1989. They are all painted with scenes involving mythical or divine figures or those drawn from everyday life using the red-figure technique in which the figures and floral are reserved in the typically orange clay and the background is covered with a thin clay slip that fires black. These vases were not made for export but for local needs and are, with few exceptions, found only at Paestum and at neighbouring sites within a relatively restricted area. The fired clay of Paestan vases is usually quite distinctive: it often has a rich orange colour, though at times this is muted to a light brown, and normally it is full of shiny specks of mica.

Paestan is one of five red-figure fabrics (styles) that developed in Magna Graecia under the inspiration of the similar pottery that had been made in Athens since the later sixth century BC and that was well known to the Greek colonists in South Italy and Sicily. The earliest red-figure potter/painter in this area was probably working at Metapontion (mod. Metaponto) by 450–440 BC, and vases began to be made at Taras (mod. Taranto) not much later.4 The earliest red-figure painter in S. Italy is the Pisticci Painter (see, most recently, M. Denoyelle, ‘Attic or non-Attic?: The case of the Pisticci Painter’, in Athenian Potters and Painters, the Conference Proceedings, eds J. Oakley et al., Oxford, 1997, pp. 395–405). In Sicily such red-figure pottery seems to begin about 410 BC, a fact that has often been connected, whether rightly or wrongly, with the disastrous defeat of the Athenian expeditionary force at Syracuse in 413 BC. One important centre of manufacture developed on the island of Lipari and it was from here, as well as perhaps from Syracuse, that in about 380–360 BC some potter-painters seem to have moved north to Campania (possibly to Capua) and to Poseidonia.5 This hypothesis, originally suggested by Trendall (e.g. RFVP, p. 23), still seems the most likely, although it is not universally accepted. Much remains unclear about the beginnings of Paestan vase-painting, but its principal production took place in the period 360–310 BC and is especially associated with two painters — Asteas and Python. They are the only painters of red-figure vases in South Italy who signed their works, and then only occasionally (there are thirteen signatures of Asteas and two of Python), but their output was prolific.6 Trendall, RFVP, pp. 84–6, lists eleven signed vases for Asteas. A twelfth was recently published by E. Simon, ‘Ein neuer signierter Kelchkrater des Asteas’, Numismatica e Antichità Classiche 31, 2002, pp. 115–27; see also, ‘The Paestan Painter Asteas’, in Greek Vases: Images, Contexts and Controversies, ed. C. Marconi, New York, 2004, pp. 113–22. A thirteenth, representing Europa on the bull, has been acquired by the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, inv. 2003.7.1. Of the publications concerned with Paestan red-figure that have appeared since RFVP was published in 1987, I would particularly mention: M. Cipriani & F. Longo (eds), I Greci in Occidente: Poseidonia e i Lucani, Naples, 1996; K. Schauenburg, Studien zur unteritalischen Vasenmalerei, vol. VI, Kiel, 2003, pp. 37–44, and vols. VII/VIII, Kiel, 2005, pp. 51–61; and V. Smallwood & S. Woodford, Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Great Britain 20, The British Museum 10, London, 2003 — the publication of the fragmentary vases from the collection of Sir William Hamilton retrieved from the wreck of HMS Colossus.

The National Gallery of Victoria has two fine examples of Paestan red-figure vases. The first, Bell krater (Paestan red-figure ware), 360 BC, was published by the late A. D. Trendall, the principal authority on the red-figure vases of Magna Graecia, and is considered to be an early work of the painter Asteas, therefore datable to about 360–350 BC (figs 2 & 3).7 Art Bulletin of Victoria 21, 1981, pp. 20–9; also RFVP, p. 68, no. 24, pl. 21c–d; A. Dunsmore et al., Ancient Civilizations in the International Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, 2004, p. 85 (H. Jackson). On the main side the youthful god Dionysos stands at ease, a wrap over his arms, a bell hanging from a wrist, while he holds a thyrsos (fennel rod with bunch of ivy as a finial) and a bowl. He might almost be a statue, an epiphany of the deity, and his acolyte, the young maenad, offers him a sprig of ivy as she leans nonchalantly against a pillar. But she also holds a comic mask representing an old slave, an object that is not an attribute of the maenad but an indication that, among his many functions, Dionysos presides over the theatre.

The second Paestan vase (figs 1 & 4)8 Formerly London, Sotheby’s, Antiquities, 13 July 1987, no. 292; then Melbourne, G. Geddes, P 3:3. Listed in RFVP, p. 159, no. 275a, pl. 241c; see also Ancient Civilizations, p. 86, reprodn. The vase has been broken and mended with some restoration and repainting. One break runs across the torso and knees of Dionysos, and the left-hand altar is partly restored. Relief line is used for the contour of the torso of Dionysos and the legs of the papposilen. has been attributed by Trendall to Python and is rather later than the vase by Asteas, representing the more developed phase of Paestan red-figure ware in the years about 340–330 BC. Both vases are bell kraters, vessels whose primary function was for mixing wine and water at a symposion but which could be used secondarily as grave-markers or as urns to contain cremated remains.9 J. D. Beazley, The Berlin Painter, Melbourne, 1964, p. 9, conjectured, probably rightly, that the Athenian bell krater was derived from the vat used to hold the must at a vintage. The earliest Athenian examples decorated in red-figure may be dated about 500 BC or a little earlier; see also I. McPhee, ‘Stemless bell-kraters from Ancient Corinth’, Hesperia, no. 66, 1997, pp. 128–31. Both vases have the same basic shape — flaring lip, two round handles that curl upwards, deep bowl contracting to a tall stem, the whole supported by a broad foot — but it will be evident that the bowl of Python’s vase is a little more elongated and there are other minor differences. A similar development is clear in certain elements of the subsidiary decoration. On both vases a floral occupies the space below each handle and in both cases the basic element is a palmette. Asteas attaches to his palmette a spiralling tendril with flaring leaves and small palmettes in the interstices, but Python has separated his enlarged spiral-tendrils completely from the main floral and used the palmette tendrils as frames for the pictures on each side of the vase, a practice that may be said to characterise Paestan bell kraters of the developed style. Both vases also have a horizontal band of wave pattern that forms a ground for the figures and both have a wreath, of laurel probably rather than olive, painted along the outside of the lip, echoing the real garlands that were worn and hung up at symposia.

Athenian red-figure bell kraters of the fifth century BC sometimes have important scenes on both sides so that it is not always certain which side is to be regarded as the obverse and which the reverse. However, by the fourth century BC the two sides are clearly distinguished and the reverse is normally decorated with one or more males draped in himatia (long cloaks). In the case of Paestan red-figure bell kraters of standard size, Python, like Asteas, normally employs two figures, both of whom wear himatia and shoes: in this instance (fig. 4) a boy with long hair who stands at ease in a three-quarter attitude looking at the somewhat older young man before him. The man may be talking to the boy and the gesture of his right hand may be indicative of speaking, although on other vases the figure holds some object with the same arrangement of the hand. On many vases these figures lean against white sticks and hold objects, often sprigs or a skewer of fruit or cakes, but if there were originally any objects in added colour here, they are no longer discernible. The meaning of such scenes is not easy to determine. One cannot assume that there is a single ‘meaning’ for such draped figures, or that they had the same meaning in Athens, in Paestum and in Taras, or that the meaning did not change over time. A writing-case hanging in the background may suggest a connection with schooling, an aryballos (oil bottle) or stele may imply the gymnasium — a stele may also have a funerary connotation. Recently, Michael Turner has suggested that these draped youths are Dionysiac initiates, or, in the case of a scene such as that on the reverse of the NGV bell krater, possibly Dionysos himself with an initiate or potential initiate.10 M. Turner, ‘The Woman in white: Dionysus and the dance of death’, Mediterranean Archaeology, no. 16, 2003, pp. 143–4. However, another possible interpretation is that the scene is erotic: the young beloved (eromenos) and his older lover (erastes). Neither hypothesis is provable.

If we compare Python’s reverse figures (figs 1 & 4) with those of Asteas (figs 2 & 3), we note again the differences between early and developed Paestan. Asteas’ figures have volume and their cloaks wrap in a natural fashion with thin black stripes at the hem. Python’s figures are two-dimensional and the fold lines and dotted stripes on the cloaks are more mannered. Python has decorated the main side of his vase with a Dionysiac scene (fig. 1). A youthful Dionysos is seated, looking to the right. His head, with long hair held in place by a dotted headband, is rendered in profile, but his naked torso appears in three-quarter view. Around his legs is a himation ornamented with dotted-stripe borders and on his feet are sandals or perhaps soft-leather shoes. He casually holds a white thyrsos in his right hand, and a necklace of white beads dangles from his outstretched left hand, at which a small bird (white body with wings in golden diluted slip) seems to peck, as though the god had some food in his open palm.11 The head of the thyrsos may have been painted in purple-red. In front of Dionysos stands an aged satyr, a papposilenos, with white hair and beard and white tufts of hair over his body.12 This type of figure has been interpreted as an actor representing a papposilen (Jackson, Ancient Civilizations, p. 86; M. Turner, Mediterranean Archaeology, no. 16, 2003, p. 144), but this is a mistake for the figure does not wear a mask or phallus. The upper of three horizontal lines at the ankle does not indicate the bottom of a flocked costume, but the upper edge of the down-turned top of the leather shoe, sometimes painted white or red to contrast with the rest of the shoe. He is naked save for a short dappled animal-skin and shoes, both washed with golden-brown diluted slip. He too holds a thyrsos with his left hand, but the object — short, thin and white — that he seems to offer to the god with his right hand is difficult to identify.13 The object in his right hand may be a plectron or the partly preserved reed of a double flute (for a papposilen holding a single flute, see RFVP, p. 158, no. 269, pl. 99c). The papposilen wears a purple-red headband; and a purple-red fillet is attached to the haft. On a higher level, and so to be thought of as in the background, appears a female figure, although only her upper body is visible above a rise in the ground represented pictorially by an undulating line of white dots. Her flesh is painted white, her hair is bound up with a kekryphalos (sash), and she wears a sleeveless chiton (dress) adorned with palmettes over her breasts and a dotted band at the neckline (unless this is really a necklace). Since she looks towards the god and possesses a thyrsos, she must be interpreted as a nymph (maenad), a female companion of the god, or, possibly, Ariadne, the mortal who became Dionysos’ consort. To the left of the nymph an ivy vine hangs down, a plant that may be regarded as a signifier of the realm of the god. Finally, the picture is framed by two low altars, or possibly an altar (left) and a stele, since they are not drawn in precisely the same manner. They may indicate the setting — a sanctuary — or help to define the religious nature of the scene.

Dionysiac scenes with two or occasionally three figures, of which one is normally Dionysos, form a remarkably large proportion of the subject matter depicted on bell kraters by Python and, indeed, by other Paestan vase-painters. The god may be seated or standing, and he may be accompanied by a maenad, a comic actor, a young satyr, a bearded satyr or an old papposilen. The figures hold various objects, but on the NGV vase the bird forms a central focus.14 A papposilen holds out a similar bird towards a seated Dionysos on bell kraters in Dundee (RFVP, p. 157, no. 263, pl. 97e) and Mannheim (RFVP, p. 160, no. 292, pl. 105b). The most common identifiable bird on Paestan red-figure vases is the wryneck (Lynx torquilla), and that may be the intended species of our bird. The wryneck is the magic bird of Aphrodite that binds the object of love and desire,15 For the wryneck, see E. Böhr, ‘A rare bird on Greek vases: the wryneck’, in Athenian Potters and Painters, the Conference Proceedings, ed. J. Oakley et at., 1997, pp. 109–23. but it is possible that at Paestum, at least, the wryneck also had another, eschatological significance. Mystery cults, whether Orphic, Pythagorean or Dionysiac, that promised their adherents a blessed afterlife were popular among the Greeks in South Italy during the fifth and fourth centuries. Since the NGV bell krater was undoubtedly used as an offering in a tomb, and may have been specifically made for that purpose, the subject matter might well have been taken to hint at the desired afterlife of the deceased.

Ian McPhee, Director, Trendall Research Centre, La Trobe Unversity, Melbourne (in 2006).

Notes

1     A readable account of the city is provided by J. G. Pedley, Paestum, Greeks and Romans in Southern Italy, London, 1990. Many aspects of Greek culture in S. Italy and Sicily are treated in G. Pugliese Carratelli (ed.), The Western Greeks (exh. cat.), Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1996.

2     For the Lucanian occupation, see M. Frederiksen, Campania, London, 1984, p. 137; and K. Lomas, Rome and the Western Greeks, London, 1993, pp. 33–5.

3     For the basic catalogue and discussion of the painters, see A. D. Trendall, The Red-figured Vases of Paestum, London, 1987 [hereafter abbreviated RFVP]. For a more general account of Paestan, as well as the other local red-figure fabrics see Trendall, Red Figure Vases of South Italy and Sicily, London, 1989.

4     The earliest red-figure painter in S. Italy is the Pisticci Painter (see, most recently, M. Denoyelle, ‘Attic or non-Attic?: The case of the Pisticci Painter’, in Athenian Potters and Painters, the Conference Proceedings, eds J. Oakley et al., Oxford, 1997, pp. 395–405).

5     This hypothesis, originally suggested by Trendall (e.g. RFVP, p. 23), still seems the most likely, although it is not universally accepted.

6     Trendall, RFVP, pp. 84–6, lists eleven signed vases for Asteas. A twelfth was recently published by E. Simon, ‘Ein neuer signierter Kelchkrater des Asteas’, Numismatica e Antichità Classiche 31, 2002, pp. 115–27; see also, ‘The Paestan Painter Asteas’, in Greek Vases: Images, Contexts and Controversies, ed. C. Marconi, New York, 2004, pp. 113–22. A thirteenth, representing Europa on the bull, has been acquired by the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, inv. 2003.7.1. Of the publications concerned with Paestan red-figure that have appeared since RFVP was published in 1987, I would particularly mention: M. Cipriani & F. Longo (eds), I Greci in Occidente: Poseidonia e i Lucani, Naples, 1996; K. Schauenburg, Studien zur unteritalischen Vasenmalerei, vol. VI, Kiel, 2003, pp. 37–44, and vols. VII/VIII, Kiel, 2005, pp. 51–61; and V. Smallwood & S. Woodford, Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Great Britain 20, The British Museum 10, London, 2003 — the publication of the fragmentary vases from the collection of Sir William Hamilton retrieved from the wreck of HMS Colossus.

7     Art Bulletin of Victoria 21, 1981, pp. 20–9; also RFVP, p. 68, no. 24, pl. 21c–d;
A. Dunsmore et al., Ancient Civilizations in the International Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, 2004, p. 85 (H. Jackson).

8     Formerly London, Sotheby’s, Antiquities, 13 July 1987, no. 292; then Melbourne,
G. Geddes, P 3:3. Listed in RFVP, p. 159, no. 275a, pl. 241c; see also Ancient Civilizations, p. 86, reprodn. The vase has been broken and mended with some restoration and repainting. One break runs across the torso and knees of Dionysos, and the left-hand altar is partly restored. Relief line is used for the contour of the torso of Dionysos and the legs of the papposilen.

9     J. D. Beazley, The Berlin Painter, Melbourne, 1964, p. 9, conjectured, probably rightly, that the Athenian bell krater was derived from the vat used to hold the must at a vintage. The earliest Athenian examples decorated in red-figure may be dated about 500 BC or a little earlier; see also I. McPhee, ‘Stemless bell-kraters from Ancient Corinth’, Hesperia, no. 66, 1997, pp. 128–31.

10     M. Turner, ‘The Woman in white: Dionysus and the dance of death’, Mediterranean Archaeology, no. 16, 2003, pp. 143–4.

11     The head of the thyrsos may have been painted in purple-red.

12     This type of figure has been interpreted as an actor representing a papposilen (Jackson, Ancient Civilizations, p. 86; M. Turner, Mediterranean Archaeology, no. 16, 2003, p. 144), but this is a mistake for the figure does not wear a mask or phallus. The upper of three horizontal lines at the ankle does not indicate the bottom of a flocked costume, but the upper edge of the down-turned top of the leather shoe, sometimes painted white or red to contrast with the rest of the shoe.

13     The object in his right hand may be a plectron or the partly preserved reed of a double flute (for a papposilen holding a single flute, see RFVP, p. 158, no. 269, pl. 99c). The papposilen wears a purple-red headband; and a purple-red fillet is attached to the haft.

14     A papposilen holds out a similar bird towards a seated Dionysos on bell kraters in Dundee (RFVP, p. 157, no. 263, pl. 97e) and Mannheim (RFVP, p. 160, no. 292, pl. 105b).

15     For the wryneck, see E. Böhr, ‘A rare bird on Greek vases: the wryneck’, in Athenian Potters and Painters, the Conference Proceedings, ed. J. Oakley et at., 1997, pp. 109–23.