The Transformation of Athens: Painted Pottery and the Creation of Classical Greece
Robin Osborne
Princeton University Press
304pp, 167 black-and-white and 35 colour illustrations
Hardback, £41.95/$49.95

As Edgar Wind wrote in Art and Anarchy (1963), art is an imaginative exercise that engages us as it detaches us. He said that an artwork 'makes us participate in what it presents, and yet presents it as an aesthetic fiction'. Through style, the aesthetic fiction, we participate in content, and this participation, by carrying us 'beyond the actual', can 'deepen our experience by compassion'.

Though style and content cannot be fully separated, changes of style are more easily described than changes in content. The pots painted in Athens in the middle of the 5th century BC differ from those painted in the late 6th century in both style and content. In 1959, Ernest Gombrich described the emergence of the Classical style in this period as the 'Greek Revolution'. He attributed the development of Classical naturalism in Athens to the stimulus of 'story-telling'. Social changes, especially the end of the Persian Wars and the rise of Athenian democracy, required new modes of representation.

In The Transformation of Athens, Robin Osborne, Professor of Ancient History at King's College, Cambridge, writes that this stylistic focus pursues the origins of the aesthetic fiction or what we now call naturalism, but it does not account for changes of content. Yet in the decades between the invention of red-figure technique (circa 520 BC) and the middle of the 5th century, the content of painted pottery changed too. Osborne argues that these changes were not a case of art imitating life and its activities so much as art expressing a changed view of the world.

This may seem like a small difference, but its implications are considerable. If, as Wind wrote, participation in content can deepen our experience by compassion, then the content of red-figure pottery was able to direct the deepening of that experience for contemporary Athenians, and even change their understanding of their physical and social environment. In this view, life imitates art, and The Transformation of Athens will, as Osborne hopes, change the way in which we write Greek history.

He examines subjects divided into five categories: athletics, warfare, sexual relations, relations with the gods, and the symposium (drinking party). In athletics, the gymnasium changes from a site of sexually charged 'individual episodes of athletic endeavor' to 'a place of education'. In war, the singular combat of the hoplite soldier dissolves into images of groups of soldiers, and departures from domestic to military life. Sexual imagery, in particular the decreased emphasis on the orgiastic, also shows a shift from 'questions of achievement' to 'appearance'. Instead of 'acts of courtship and sexual acts', we see the social circumstances in which a sexual relationship might be formed or be desirable. And depictions of the komos, the ritualistic, drunken procession, also shift from individual acts and physical contact to an absence of contact and character.

These changes of subject, Osborne argues, 'correlate most strongly not with changes in those particular activities in life, but with the changes that occur in the representation of all scenes of "everyday life"'. The new way of seeing rejected the conception of the world as a place where distinctive individuals competed for limited goods, and depicted a world inhabited by essentially similar people with essentially similar lives. Instead of being challenged to enter the other world of combat, the viewer was now assured that 'the world out there was the same as the world in which the viewer lived'.

Pottery images were not a 'transcript of the world', but selective representations that played 'an active role in shaping experience'. Ideology, Osborne suggests, powered a 'feedback loop' that shaped perceptions in a society transformed by the trauma of the Persian Wars, and by the rise of democracy and the theatre. By exploring the motives of story-telling in Classical content, The Transformation of Athens requires us to reconsider the origins of Classical style. 
Dominic Green