Detail of a red figure vase with a symposium scene

Column krater

An object study for senior Ancient History students
Develop skills in analysing archaeological material culture and an understanding of Classical Greek cultural practices and identity using this Athenian red figure column krater featuring a symposium scene.

This is an Athenian red figure krater (wine mixing bowl) attributed to the Naples Painter and manufactured c. 450-425 BC, at the height of what is known as the ‘Classical period’.

An Athenian red figure column krater with symposium scene

Column krater, Attributed to the Naples Painter, Athens, Greece, c. 450-425BC

The column krater features a symposium scene; four male diners are reclining on two couches beside which there are tables and a foot stool. A standing woman is central, as is a youth holding a kylix (drinking cup) having just made his throw at kottabos (a drinking game). A balding dinner guest sings to the accompaniment of his lyre. 

This object can be used as a primary source to understand the role of the symposium in Greek society, the importance of wine and the functional uses of such decorated ceramics. This shape was used to serve wine at the symposium.

Wine consumption in Classical Greece

The krater is one of the most identifiable shapes in the ancient Greek catalogue of vessels. Usually placed prominently in the centre of the room at a symposium, it was a large, open-mouthed bowl used for mixing wine with water. Wine would be poured into it from an amphora (large storage vessel), water added from a hydria (water jug) and mixed, before being ladled into an individual's drinking cup.

Drinking wine was an important aspect of ancient Greek society, though it should be noted that they thought drinking wine undiluted was vulgar. They believed that wine was a gift of the god Dionysos, a god of transference, and as the consumption of alcohol alters the state of mind, they thought it needed to be treated with care. Over time the symposium became an acceptable way for Greek men to consume alcohol in large quantities within the confines of what was considered acceptable and respectable behaviour. 

“For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth krater is not mine any more - it belongs to bad behaviour; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.”
Eubulus, "Semele or Dionysus", Fragment 93

Column krater - NM46.42

Listen as Dr Craig Barker critically examines the context, meaning and significance of this object.

The Symposium

The symposium was a ritualised event in ancient Greece.  From the Greek word συμπίνειν meaning 'to drink together' it was an event held after a banquet, usually after the consumption of food, whereby the host and guests would drink wine for pleasure, reclining on couches, accompanied by conversation, music, dancing and recitation. The format and content of the symposium is well documented, featuring often in Greek literature; including Plato’s Symposium, Xenophon’s Symposium and a number of Socratic dialogues. As well as being a common scene in Greek art, such as on this krater. 

The event itself was usually held in the andron, the men’s quarters of the household, and only males were invited as guests, although as can be seen on this scene women participated in other roles, as servants, performers and as hetairai. Literally meaning companion and most closely conveyed by the word courtesan, hetairai were highly-educated and cultivated women who enjoyed some freedoms and privileges beyond the sphere of many ancient Greek women. The evening was overseen by a symposiarch, a master of ceremonies, who would decide the strength of the wine to be served that evening.

Conceptually the symposium enabled male citizens of respectable families to engage with peers, celebrate boys gaining status of adult malehood and to discuss a wide range of subjects from politics to philosophy. In reality they were often wild and raucous affairs, especially if the wine was flowing freely. In this scene one of the symposiasts is playing a game of kottabos which involved flinging lees (dregs) from a kylix towards a target.

Red and Black

A black figure kylix or drinking cup

Kylix, c. 560-540 BC, Athens, Greece

There is a long tradition of decorative elements on Greek pottery, but red figure was a technique developed in Athens c. 520 BC and remained in use in other Greek centres and colonies until the late third century BC in which figures were red in colour. Previously black figure pottery had been the dominant decorative style; red figure was merely the reverse of the technique. All the ‘red’ appearing on the case was the natural colour of the clay of Athens, but the background and details that appear to be ‘black’ was a slip covering the surface of the vessel that turns the darker colour during the triple-phase process of firing. Scenes of daily life and those depicting mythological stories were commonly painted on vessels made in Athens throughout the fifth century BC.

We do not know the name of the person who made this object, nor the name of the person who painted it, but it has been attributed to an artist dubbed by modern classical archaeologists as ‘the Naples Painter’. Art specialists believe they can recognise the same individual artist’s hand across different objects and the Naples Painter’s hand was first identified on a vessel in a museum in the Italian city.

red figure vase with Symposium scene

More information on this object is available on our Collection Search as well as information on other Athenian objects. For a guide on how to use the collection search see our Search Tips.


Essential Skills and Independent Research

When using objects from museum collections as part of your research it is essential to include the reference information just as you would for a written source. You need to cite the name of the object (or title of an art work), the associated date (or date range), where it comes from, as well as the museum identification number (also known as inventory or registration number) and the name of the collection or museum itself. If an object has a known artist - like a painting by a contemporary artist or as in this case has been attributed to an artist, you will also need to include that information.

For this object the necessary components are:

  • Name: Column krater
  • Artist: Attributed to the Naples Painter
  • Date: c. 450 - 425 BC
  • From: Athens, Greece
  • Museum number: NM46.42
  • Museum: Chau Chak Wing Museum, The University of Sydney.

In a picture caption, in-text reference or footnote you can write this information as:

Column krater, attributed to the Naples Painter, c. 450 - 425 BC, Athens, Greece. NM46.42, Chau Chak Wing Museum, The University of Sydney.

To reference the object and its information from our collection search in your reference list or bibliography you can use the same information but make sure to include the dedicated link to the object:

Many referencing styles also require you to include the date you accessed the information.

  • What is the relationship between form and function in Greek art? Can we see connection between the shape of the vessels and the types of decorative elements painted on them?
  • This object was likely recovered from a tomb near Bari in south Italy. The majority of Athenian vessels were likewise found outside of Athens. What can this tell us about the economic and cultural relationship between Greece and its neighbours and colonies? Would the nuanced depiction of Athenian social life visualised on the krater have made sense to a non-Greek audience?
  • The most famous hetiaria in Classical Athens was a woman named Aspasia. Examining the evidence of her life, discuss the role and influence of the hetairai in Greek society.
  • A musician is visible in the scene. What do archaeologists and historians know about musical instruments and musical notation from the Classical Greek world?
  • Research the game of kottabos. What were the rules and how was it played?
  • Vessels with red and black figured decoration are three-dimensional objects, meant to viewed from all angles by participants at a symposium (the wine drinking vessels would have been placed on a central table). This krater has a typical scene of youths painted on its back panel. What reason do classical archaeologists offer for the consistent use of such scenes?

Featured image (top of the page): Column krater, Attributed to the Naples Painter, Athens, Greece, c. 450-425BC (detail)