Three Theatre-related Attic Red-figure Vase-paintings of the Years of the Peloponnesian War – New Interpretive Approaches


The present paper reexamines three well-known attic theatre-related vase-paintings dating to 430-420 BC. The first one is very fragmentary. It decorated an attic red-figure bell-krater that is kept in Kiev, at the Museum of the  Academy of  Sciences (Fig. 1). We can distinguish two members of a female chorus, an aulos-player and a small boy that, because of his costume, should be related with the chorus rather than with the music player. The scene can be associated with Euripides’ Hiketides (Suppliants), a play that apart from the main chorus, the mothers of the Seven, it also included a subsidiary chorus, the sons of the Seven.

The second vase-painting decorates the well-known chous that once belonged to the Vlastos Collection and is now kept in the National Museum of Athens, inv. nr. BΣ518 (Fig. 4-6). It depicts two officials of the Athenian state that are watching a comedy play. The one can be identified as the eponymous Archon (or Archon Basileus) and the other as one of the paredroi or, most probably, the choregos-winner of the play that is being performed on stage. The presence of the two officials reinforces the view that the depicted scene is associated with an official Athenian festival that takes place in the Dionysiac theatre. This vase-painting also confirms that in the last decades of the 5th century BC the theatre stage had gained some height, while a construction difficult to interpret on the right side of the scene must represent the rear side of a slightly curved wooden parapet. On its front side this parapet would bear the scenery corresponding to the play that was performed on stage (Dr. 1-2). The parapet must have been higher than the actors. It would facilitate the presence of the scenery itself as well as the rapid scene change. By having small wheels (Dr. 1), it could be easily moved and replaced by a similar one with the new scenery. Written sources confirm the use of scenery in Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ plays and refer to a famous scene painter of the time, named Agatharchus. The curved surface of the parapet would also enhance acoustics. The scene on the chous allows us to conclude that for the most part of the 5th c. BC, at least as regards Comedy, there must have been some freedom regarding the actors’ costumes that would not have been much different from everyday clothing.

The first depictions of comic actors with grotesque masks, costumes with padding around the belly and the bottom as well as added artificial phalloi date mainly to the end of the 5th c. BC. Since the aforementioned features rarely appear in earlier attic vase-paintings and only isolated, it can be argued that their use was probably established around 400 BC.

Ancient literature attests that often Satyrs were the main protagonists in comedy performances. Therefore, attic vase-paintings depicting Satyrs in civic dress (Fig. 12) probably refer to plays of the 5th c. BC Ancient Comedy. Such a composition decorates both sides of a kylix attributed to the Codrus Painter in Cambridge, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, inv. nr. GR 2.1977 (Fig. 13-14). It depicts a procession of seven figures dressed in himation and more specifically a youth-student, a paidagogos and five Satyrs (the latter probably members of the chorus), moving to the left towards an eighth figure, a Satyr also clad in himation that seems to be in wonder and contemplation. The whole scene is usually considered to be mythological and is interpreted as the arrival of a young hero-student, accompanied by his paidagogos, to a teacher the role of whom is being played by a Satyr. The Satyrs of the chorus, that must also be teachers, hold various objects that are probably gifts intended for the student in order to allure him and win his preference. He, however, seems to ignore them, having already made his choice.  

It is known that in Athens the subjects of the Ancient Comedy, during the 5th century and mainly after the mid-century, were closely related to politics. They mainly mocked, by exercising harsh criticism, well-known persons, primarily politicians and generals, as well as sophists and aristocrats. Therefore, it is possible that the scene on the kylix by the Codrus Painter illustrates the arrival of young Alcibiades, accompanied by his paidagogos, Zopyrus, to Socrates-teacher, apparently under the influence by a relevant Comedy play. It should be remembered that a similar episode takes place in Aristophanes’ Nepheles (‘Clouds’) [866-888] in which Feidippides along with his father, Strepsiades, is going to Socrates.

We do not know any play of Ancient Comedy referring to the teaching of Alcibiades. Nevertheless, it is known that both Socrates and Alcibiades became targets of Comic Poets of the time. As regards the former we get an idea of his being mocked in Aristophanes’ Nepheles (Clouds). In this play, the mask that was worn by the actor who played the role of the philosopher may have been some kind of portrait. The view that masks in Ancient Comedy represented specific types, meaning different characters and not everyday people, is not valid. As for Alcibiades, he was especially mocked by the poet Eupolis. In none of his works though was Alcibiades’ education mocked. A comedy play of the time, in which Socrates indeed participated and sophists-teachers were members of the chorus, was Ameipsias’ Konnos (it was performed in 423 BC). Socrates may have been a separate member of the chorus (the leader ?) of the sophists-teachers that may have been Satyrs. However, we do not have any information that Alcibiades was included in this play.

The interpretation of the scene by the Codrus Painter as the moment that Alcibiades chooses his teacher is possible. The iconography of the composition impressively agrees with the surviving written tradition that refers to the choice made by Alcibiades to have Socrates as his teacher. Moreover, various iconographic details of the depicted youth correspond with the information for Alcibiades provided by ancient writers, while we cannot ignore the known similarity between Socrates and Satyrs.