General Information on Ancient Greek Pottery
The subjects on Greek vases are of vast variety, almost as great as the number of specimens now in the museums of the world. This number was estimated at fifty thousand of vases of all kinds.
These subjects are chiefly of four classes:
Relating to mythology;
Relating to the Heroic Age and traditions of early Greek history;
Relating to known history;
Relating to contemporary manners and customs.
Among the vast number belonging to the first and second classes are not only numerous pictures which are recognized from knowledge of the mythology, poetry, and traditions of the Greeks, but also many which are unexplained by any extant literature. The songs of many ancient poets are lost, while the illustrations of their songs remain on pottery vases.
A study of Greek vases can be made intelligently only as accompanied by a study of Greek history and literature, and an appreciation in some sort of the Greek mind. The chief bond of the various Greek tribes was their common language, not identical, but sufficiently alike in different families to sustain intercourse. The epics of Homer and the Cyclic poets had been recited among the Grecian families before written language was generally known among them, and thus arose a community of traditions relating to the Heroic Age, which was another bond. The Olympiads date from 776 B.C., when Lycnrgus and Iphitus established, or revived, the Olympian games. The various cities of Greece remained independent, but the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" were the common property of all Greeks, and were as familiar in the seventh century before Christ to the uneducated tribes of Greece as the Bible is to modern Christians. It was not till about 530 B.C. that the books of Homer were rescued from confusion, and arranged. Other epics were popular, abounding in roman tie story. All these were handed down from lip to lip and generation to generation long before they were committed to writing. Men boasted of their ability to repeat them from beginning to end. When painting became an art known to the Greeks, they used it to illustrate the stories with which every Greek household was familiar. Hence the thousands of vases now known, and countless thousands more, on which the paintings represent the stories of heroes, demi-gods, and gods, from poems which were the delight of every Greek.
Inscriptions on Greek pottery are numerous, both painted and incised. Oftentimes each figure in a painted subject has the name near or on it. Abbreviated forms of spelling are common in these; letters are omitted; where double letters occur, one only is used. The names of men are sometimes accompanied with adjectives, as "The beautiful Hector," and occasionally inscriptions represent what the person is supposed to be saying. Thus Silenus says, "The wine is sweet;" a man lighting a funeral pyre says, "Farewell;" a boy playing ball says, "Send me the ball." On cups "Hail to you, and drink well!" is a not uncommon legend. The prize vases of the Athenian games were inscribed, "I am a prize from Athens". Names of persons with the epithet "beautiful" are of frequent occurrence, often of boys and females. Thus vases have "Dorotheos the boy is beautiful, the boy is beautiful;" "Stroibos is beautiful;" "The beautiful Nikodemos;" "Oinanthe is beautiful;" and one vase has "Beautiful is Nikolaos; Dorotheos is beautiful: it seems to me one and the other boy is beautiful. Memmon to me is beautiful, dear." The frequency of this style of inscription has led to much discussion of its origin and intent, without satisfactory solution. It has been suggested that they referred to children, and were presents, or that they have allusion to victors in games, or to persons specially popular among a people who loved beauty, and that potters placed them on vases to suit public taste. Inscriptions intentionally illegible are of frequent occurrence, and unexplained.
The largest pottery object made by the Greeks was the pithos. It was common also to the Egyptians and the Romans, and among all nations served the purposes of a cellar for the storage and preservation of all kinds of provisions. It was moulded with clay around a frame. Its gigantic size well fitted it to be, as it often was, the refuge of the poor seeking shelter. This was the tub of Diogenes, who is represented on a Roman lamp, seated in the month of an old broken pithos, receiving the visit of the Macedonian hero.
The most frequent form of vase was the amphora, also an ancient Egyptian and Phenician form. It was of long cylindrical or ovoid body, made in all sizes, from the small drug vase two or three inches high to the large receiver of oil, grain, fruit, wine, or water. Originally the base was pointed, to be pressed into the sand or soil, and thus hold the vase upright; but later, and always in ornamental vases, the pointed base was surrounded with a small foot. The invariable two handles gave the name to the vase. This was a favorite vase for decoration, and, thus finished, was a noble household ornament and adornment on festal occasions.
From the early days of fine pottery, the Greeks admired it, and the art was cultivated by the patronage of the wealthy and refined. Superbly painted amphorae were frequently prizes of victors in the games. Panathenaic amphorae, prizes in the Athenian contests, are among the noblest relics of Grecian art. The amphora, made of coarse unglazed pottery, was the common vehicle for the preservation and transportation of wines, oils, and fruit. Rhodian amphorae went to all parts of the Eastern world. These often had the makers' names stamped on the handles, and sometimes the name of a magistrate, around a stamped device. Thus the symbolic rose of Rhodes frequently appears on amphorae, as on coins of that island.
The krater was a gigantic punch-bowl, from which at feasts the mixed wines were dipped out in the oinochoe, or wine-pitcher, and poured into the various forms of cups held by the guests. The oinochoe, borne by a page, must never be placed on the krater, for that implied that the wine was exhausted and the feast was ended. The most common form of cup was the kylix, varying in shape, but always the same in general character--a broad, shallow cup six to ten inches in diameter, usually with handles. The guests in the symposium are represented on painted vases, twirling the kylikes on their fingers. The rhyton was another form of drinking-cup, in a variety of shapes, sometimes that of a horn, more frequently with its foot extending into the head of a deer or other animal. It could not be set down till emptied. The prochoos was the ordinary jug or pitcher, used, like modern pitchers, for all liquids, and, like them, varying in form. The epichysis was a little perfume or oil pitcher, most frequently made in metal, but often in pottery. The oxybaphon was used to hold vinegar for table use. The kantharos, a cup with a high handle, was the ladle. In short, the form in general suggests the use of the article, and it is a safe rule in antiquarian research, when seeking the probable purpose of an object, to ask, "What would we use it for?" An explorer once, showed an American gentleman a curious object in ancient pottery, and asked him what he supposed it was. The American instantly replied, "When I was a boy in the country, we used just that shaped object in tin to hang on the wall and hold a candle, and I should call it a sconce." The astonished explorer exclaimed, "I have shown it to scores of people. One thought it a chariot box, another a sacrificial vessel--no one knew it; but you are right, for I found it hanging on the wall of a tomb, and here is the pottery lamp which was in it."