New evidence shows painted Greek pottery would have been found in Poundland rather than at Plato's dinner table

Greek vases were incredibly cheap at the time, despite taking pride of place in our museums

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Open any handbook on Greek art today, and you will find a picture of ancient Greece in which painted pottery is given pride of place. The world presented to the public is one in which the rich commissioned the greatest artists of the day to decorate their tableware. These artists are thought of as being entertained to dinner by their wealthy patrons, and as even returning such hospitality. In fact, the evidence we have from antiquity strongly suggests that things were different then.

Although the fact that the prices of painted pottery were uniformly low in ancient Greece has been known for some time, the penny failed to drop among scholars because most of them viewed ancient prices in terms of what a labourer might earn. They failed to take account of Plato’s dictum that “in every city there are two cities: the rich and the poor”, and of the ancient reality that elite expenditure was at a considerably higher level. A skilled worker in fifth-century Athens might earn a drachma a day and an unskilled three obols (there were six obols to the drachma), whereas for Demosthenes a few decades later a drachma was a “trifling sum” (and inflation is not an issue here). Elite expenditure was conducted in minae, or units of 100 drachmas. The mina was the denomination employed for luxury and high cost items. For example, a visit to a high-class prostitute might cost one mina, or five or even ten. A less expensive assignation might cost one obol, or less. Gem stones, peacocks, houses, slaves, inheritances, dowries are given in minae (when they do not appear in talents—or units of sixty minae). A talent was approximately equivalent to $10,000 ($16,340), a mina to £180 ($294), a drachma to £1.80 ($2.94), and an obol to 30p (40 cents).

Horses, such as the one being ridden by a huntsman on an Athenian red-figure pelike attributed to Sir John Beazley’s “Achilles Painter” currently on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, were not cheap. The ancient literary and epigraphical sources give the clear impression that being part of the horsey set was–then as now–expensive and that few citizens could afford it. It is clear, too, that prices of horses were expressed in minae or greater denominations. In the fourth century BC 12 minae (or £2,160/$3,529) was what a horse might be insured for on enrolment in the Athenian cavalry.

But what of the pottery vessel on which the horse is depicted? Does its price justify the kind of encomia of the “Achilles Painter” one finds in the handbooks on Greek art, or the recent claim (by D.C. Kurtz) that the work of “the Achilles painter” was “highly regarded... in antiquity”. It does not, for the underside bears a price inscription that reads “four items for 3.5 obols”, which translates at the rate of exchange described above to little more than 25 p, or 40 cents. And this price is typical for Greek vases or “pots” as we should perhaps begin to call them. The role of ceramic in ancient Greece is considerably overrated. It served many useful and practical functions of course (notably in the grave, the source of most complete pots we have), but it did not figure large in the value systems that prevailed in antiquity.

The place occupied by pottery in modern scholars’ heads was filled in antiquity by precious metal; scarcely surprising when we recall that fifth-century Athens probably produced twenty to thirty tons of silver a year from the Laurium silver mines. Most Athenian metal vessels have been melted down (some exquisitely decorated examples have been found in Thracian princely tombs), but an index of how an ancient table might be furnished is supplied by Theophrastus, whose Mistrustful Man is the sort of person who “when anyone approaches him in the hope of borrowing drinking cups would rather not lend them at all, but if it is a relative or close friend, only does so after practically assaying and weighing them, and nearly asking for someone to guarantee replacement costs”. Purity, weight and value relate to the gold and silver vessels which the ancient sources describe on the tables of the rich at Athens, and not to pottery vessels, concerning which they are understandably silent.

The question remains “How could potters afford to make such fine pots in the first place?” We happen to know that for an obol, or little more than the price of a red-figure pelike by the hand of Beazley’s “Achilles Painter”, the craftsman could buy nearly four litres of grain. He could thus survive (but certainly could not afford the life-style of the “playboy artists” dreamt up by some scholars). The reason why Greek pots are so well made is that standards were set in another, nobler, medium. If potters and pot-painters were to do business at all, they had to follow the rapid changes in fashion that occurred in the decoration of silver vessels. We impoverish the past in thinking otherwise.

Michael Vickers is the author (with David Gill) of Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery, to be published by the Clarendon Press on 1 December

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Thou still unravished bride of quietness–price forty cents'

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