A noble bastard and a globalizing world

Few Greek vases have spawned as much discussion as one found in Cerveteri and dating to the seventh century BC.

Joshua R. Hall

I have spent fewer hours thinking about things that I lust after than about the so-called Aristonothos Krater. For anyone interested in the globalizing world of the central Mediterranean in the period before Roman domination, this may not be a shock. But for others it may seem very odd.

But there is a good reason why I have devoted so much time to thinking about this vessel. While we have a plethora of written sources for the relationship between Greeks and Etruscans in the early years of Aegean settlement in the waters around Italy, we have few first-hand accounts. That is, inscriptions (with any narrative quality), written sources (there are none for the seventh century BC), or even other vases of this nature.

The majority of Greek pottery that made its way to Italy was decorated with easily (I think?) interpreted mythological scenes, an element of the pan-Mediterranean koiné that had developed by then. But this one piece – probably a product of a Western Greek workshop – is different. Of course, through the circumstances of survival we cannot assume that it was unique, but for us in the modern world it is.

A clash at sea

The Aristotonothos Krater, now in the Capitoline Museums in Rome, depicts on one side of its only register the blinding of Polyphemos by Odysseus and his men. It is one of the earliest depictions of a Homeric scene which is in-line with the poems as we have them.

But on the other is a fight at sea between two ships; or at least a scene immediately before they come to blows. On the viewer’s left is a ship that looks very stereotypical as a “Greek” warship. On the viewer’s right, however, is a much different vessel. It has a high-sitting prow, rather than a ram at water-level, as was typical for warships.

The Aristonothos Krater, currently in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. This side depicts what has been interpreted as a clash between two vessels. Photo: Rabax63.

On the top deck of each vessel are figures shown armed in a manner typical for the period: a large round shield, a spear, and a crested helmet. The depiction would be very much “at home” in almost any eastern Greek workshop or even in Etruria. It is striking how banal the image actually is for the amount of attention the krater has garnered.

But, ever since modern commentary on it has begun, scholars have generally considered it to depict a combat between a Hellenic ship on the left and an Etruscan one on the right. This is partially based in the difference in styles of the vessels, but also because of the historical background of the central Mediterranean. Tyrrhenian pirates were notorious, at least according to the Greek sources which have come down to us. Of course, though, the situation was quite complex, and I have a suspicion that the Hellenes practiced piracy as readily – if not more so – as their Etruscan neighbours.

Nevertheless, this is an attractive proposal. The vase was made in a Western Greek workshop (probably) for consumption by an elite Etruscan, hence why it was found in Etruria. It could have come there through other channels, though, such as actual piracy, or perhaps as ballast or something else, though the latter seems unlikely. Unfortunately, this is the nature of archaeological evidence.

What’s in a name?

The name on the vase is interesting. Where we may expect to find the name of a painter we find inscribed “ARISTONOTHOS”. While this could be the artist’s name, its translation belies another interpretation. It seems to be a compound of “aristos” meaning “noble” (i.e. best, see LSJ 241 s.v. aristos) and “nothos” meaning “bastard” (i.e. born out of wedlock, see LSJ 1178 s.v. nothos).

I cannot help but wonder if the name written on it is meant as a joke to its Etruscan purchaser. “This was produced by one of those noble bastards that attacks your peoples’ ships.” It would be a wonderful circumstance if the painter was a former Hellenic pirate who had hung up his aspis and onions for the life of a vase painter.

The problem with all of these interpretations, however, is an eighth century BC Spartan fibula, currently in the Louvre. It depicts a similar combat between ships of seemingly different configurations. On the viewer’s right on this artifact is a vessel that is slightly different from the one on the Aristonothos krater, but not significantly so. The prow is similarly different from that of the ship on the left, and the discrepancies could be down more to artistic licence or style than anything else.

Drawing of a bronze fibula from Sparta with an engraved scene of two ships about to engage each other. Note the little heads of rowers below deck. Dated to the eighth century BC, probably close to 700 BC. Currently in the Louvre.

As has been pointed out by Carol Dougherty, the scene depicted on the krater may have been known to a Greek viewer before its depiction on this vase found in Cerveteri (see Dougherty 2003). If this was a stock-scene, where does that leave our interpretation of the vase?

Food for thought

Like almost any question regarding the ancient world, there are a plethora of possible answers with regards to how this vase should be interpreted. It could be that it was a vase simply painted to be sold, and there was no real thought put into its decoration.

At the same time, the juxtaposition of the blinding of Polyphemos with a clash between two different ships, most people are moved to see a purposeful correlation. But how do we interpret in light of the very similar depiction on the Spartan fibula?

I think every viewer will have to make up their own mind, but for me the combination of the scenes and the inscription leads to the conclusion that everything on it was purposeful. By the seventh century BC, vases were probably being produced expressly for the Etruscan market, so there is no reason to think that this one was not, or at least that its creator was not aware of this trade.

Thus, the depiction of the ships could be equated to Odysseus and his henchmen blinding the rude host, the evil Cyclops, who would be equated with the Etruscans, as the Greek ship and the Homeric hellions share a direction of motion.

And so in the name, Aristonothos, or the Noble Bastard, we may find an exuberant expression of the artist’s knowledge that his work was going to be sold to someone who could otherwise be his foe.