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"Primitive Life and the Construction of the Sympotic Past in Athenian Vase Painting"

Three symposiasts banqueting on the ground; a small wine-pourer stands at left.
Symposium. Red figure kylix, ca. 500 BCE. London, British Museum E 64 (1867,0508.1061) (Photo: British Museum/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Kathryn Topper. "Primitive Life and the Construction of the Sympotic Past in Athenian Vase Painting," AJA 113.1 (2009) 3-26

More than 200 vases from Late Archaic and Early Classical Athens show symposia where guests recline not on couches but on the ground. Although scholars have explored the ritual and Dionysiac dimensions of some of these images, the corpus as a whole remains poorly understood. This article connects the images to Athenian discourses about primitive life and shows how the act of reclining on the ground was suited not only to the conservative sphere of ritual but also to representations of the Golden Age, comic utopias, early Athens, and other primitive realms. The identification of the symposium on the ground as an activity associated with the earliest inhabitants of Greece suggests that the vase painters’ contemporaries did not share our understanding of the reclining symposium as a luxurious orientalizing import; consequently, it calls into question the definition of the Late Archaic symposium as part of a countercultural tendency of an aristocratic elite that distinguished itself from common citizens by adopting customs and goods associated with the Near East. Rather, by representing the reclining symposium as an institution practiced in Greece since time immemorial, the vases define it as the common citizen’s birthright.

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