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Pots of Silver?

Michael Vickers considers the original value of Greek ceramics, and why it has become inflated in recent centuries.

The way in which we regard Greek and Roman artefacts – especially pottery – today, is different from the way in which they were regarded in antiquity. Until recently, some Greek pottery vessels were ranked among the most precious surviving relics, in the belief that the ancients held them in equally high esteem. The extant pottery undoubtedly provides a precious resource of iconographic material that can greatly enrich our understanding of ancient Greece; but its status in antiquity has been exaggerated.

I used to share the views I am about to criticise, but in thirty years of curating the Greek antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford I have come to revise my position. This change of heart (which others share) has provoked much discussion. My subject currently provides an excellent illustration of the ‘Kuhnian paradigm’ in operation: venerable ‘truths’ being challenged by some, but bitterly defended by others who recognise that vested interests are in danger.

The traditional attitude towards Greek vases is epitomised by the late Sir John Beazley (1885-1970) who, in discussing two pots found in Campania, claimed that they:

Ancient unit and 2002 equivalent

  • 1 talent/60 minae £10,800
  • 1 mina/100 drachmas £180
  • 1 drachma/ 6 obols £1.80
  • 1 obol 30p

We might test these assumptions by applying them to a story told by Plutarch about Socrates:

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