The Paestum vase-painters

In the second half of the fourth century, Paestum became the centre of a lively red figure pottery industry, producing large pots often decorated with elaborate scenes of myth and farce.

Paestum vase painting, seems to owe its birth to immigrants from Sicily. The two greatest Paestum vase painters have actually left us their names, Assteas and Python, both of whom signed some of their pots with their names. Their workshops span the years 350 to 320 BC: they both painted elaborate mythological scenes, which aimed to be grandiose but  often  ended up by being  heavy.


There are some fine examples of their pots in the British Museum.

This is one of the finest,a tall pot  for mixing wine and water. It is signed by the painter Python – you can see his signature just above the frieze in the detailed painting below if you enlarge it.



This shows the story of Alkmene and Amphitryton. Alkmene was a beautiful girl who was raped by Zeus, but when her husband Amphitriton found out, he decided to burn her alive. Here we see her sitting on her pyre waiting to be burnt, with two attendants on either side about to set light to it.  However Alkmeme is appealing to Zeus to save her, and Zeus, in the top left-hand corner is sending a shower of rain – here represented by the white dots,  while two clouds, in the form of young ladies are pouring water down to extinguish the flames. In this they were successful,  and Alkmene was saved.

But why is Alcmene such a well proportioned lady? Surely she would not as such have caught the attention of the King of the Gods – lecherous though he undoubtedly was. I think the vase provides an explanation for this. After the rape, Alkmene became pregnant and produced a son who was Heracles. However according to Ovid and other sources the birth was a difficult one,  and as a result she became somewhat plump. Her husband was somewhat put out by this, and said not only have you been raped but also you have given birth to a son who is not my own and is a bit of a thug, and in addition you have become very fat, and I am therefore going to burn you. Here we see him trying to carry out his threat.

However if you examine the painting closely, I think the painter painted two Alkmenes. The earlier slimline Alkmene is clearly outlined,  with a tight belt around her slim waist, and wearing a see-through dress with her breasts and nipples clearly visible. However following the birth of Heracles she then became fat,  and the painter has also drawn the fatter version,  still with a see-through dress but showing a zigzag fringe and a fine pair of thighs.

However Zeus, who although he was a rapist was nevertheless quite a decent sort of chap, still did the right thing by his former paramour and put out the flames. I would like to think that Alkmene and Amphitriton were then reconciled, and that Amphitriton decided that he liked fat ladies after all and they lived happily ever after.



The Paestum painters also produced many lively pots decorated with scenes from local comic drama, the so-called Phlyas farces.

In about 330 BC, as in Campania,  there was considerable influence from Apulia probably as a result of Apulian immigrants. Some of the new painters such as the Boston Orestes Painter continued the monumentality of Python. Towards the end of the century, lesser artists, like the Painter of Naples 1778 continued the Asstean tradition alongside lingering influence from Campania  and Apulia.


(Details of the Paestum vases can be found in the book  Red Figure Vases of South Italy and Sicily, by A.D.Trendall, published by Thames and Hudson).

On to the Prehistoric rooms


8th February 2013