A kalos cup from Rhodes

A few years ago, we went to the beautiful island of Rhodes and visited, among other things, its archaeological museum. One of the pots on display there is this beautiful Attic red-figure cup, made ‘in the manner of Epiktetos’:

It depicts an athlete – recognizable by the wreath on his head – using a hoe to flatten the ground of the palaestra (wrestling school). If you look carefully, you’ll see that the maker of the vase included the youth’s name: Hipparchos.

It’s an example of a so-called kalos vase. These vases usually have an inscription like Leagros kalos (‘Leagros is beautiful’) or just simply ho pais kalos (‘the beautiful boy’). Sometimes, as in this case, only the name is shown. Kalos vases were popular between 520 and 470 BC; this particular cup has been dated to between 520 and 500 BC. The scenes often depict just the youths in question, often naked; sometimes they are also shown accompanied by older men, who often fondle them or engage in more sexually explicit acts. Aristocratic Greek men, after all, engaged in pederasty.

Unsurprisingly, kalos inscriptions are nearly always dedicated to boys. Female names are outnumbered roughly twenty to one, though I see no reason why – as John Boardman has suggested in his History of Greek Vases (2001) – these women ‘were probably courtesans’ (p. 149). The idea behind the youths being praised – always boys between 10 and 15 years of age – is that their families wanted to single them out for greatness. Along similar lines, one could imagine that the girls were named as a way for their fathers to indicate that, for example, they were available for marriage.

Hipparchos, like the names of other youths on pots like this, is very clearly an aristocratic name, composed of the Greek words for ‘horse’ and ‘leader’. Kalos inscriptions are always found on pots associated with symposiums, which are a typical aristocratic form of social gathering. As a result, the youths praised in the inscriptions could very literally be regarded as the toast of a particular group of high-ranking men, who had singled out the youth in question for his physical beauty. Many would have believed these youths to have been destined for greatness.

Interestingly, the cup was found in Kamiros on Rhodes, not in Athens. What significance did this cup have so far removed from its original place of manufacture? Alan Johnston, in his contribution to Looking at Greek Vases (1991), edited by Tom Rasmussen and Nigel Spivey, points out that a pot like this was probably made originally for an Athenian client, and ‘then exported second-hand’ (p. 216). It seems quite likely that this cup, one way or another, made its way to Rhodes and was then, perhaps without having ever been used during a symposium, deposited in the grave at Kamiros.

For more on the symposium and a look at Attic vases, check out the latest issue of Ancient History, which deals with Classical Athens.

Update: Prof. Vladimir Stissi of the University of Amsterdam points out that the vase may not necessarily be a kalos vase, and that the youth depicted might not actually be Hipparchos. If one were to engage in speculation, he suggests, it's possible that the cup ridicules the Athenian tyrant Hipparchos, by depicting him as a youth engaged in manual labour, with the added suggestion that he might be a 'toy boy'.

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