Hellenistic and Roman Pottery

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Hellenistic and Roman Pottery

Megarian Bowls and Terra Sigillata.

During his brief lifetime, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (356–323 b.c.e.) brought mainland Greece under his control and also conquered Persia and Egypt to form a "Hellenistic" kingdom composed of diverse peoples. Not surprisingly, the pottery from the period after Alexander the Great shows many diverse cultural influences. One type of pottery, however, became enormously popular in the Hellenistic period and, after 30 b.c.e., in Italy. From Italy its popularity spread to Roman Gaul and from there to Germany and Roman Britain. Its precursors were the "Megarian bowls" in Greece, tableware made in molds which seems to have had no particular connection with Megara, a Greek city on the Isthmus of Corinth. No later than the early third century, Athenian potters were producing crockery with relief ornaments which imitated the designs on metal vessels which were too expensive for most people. These so-called "Megarian bowls" were the forerunners of red-gloss terra sigillata, also known as "Samian Ware," though it has no connection with the island of Samos. Terra sigillata means "earthenware decorated with figures," which describes the pottery well, for on the exterior of the dish there are relief designs and figures which are imprinted from the mold. The place where this type of pottery may actually have been invented was the kingdom of Pergamum in Asia Minor, and the date was probably the mid-second century b.c.e. It was perhaps there that the black-ground ware inherited from Athens was modified into bronze or dark red gloss, which was its distinctive color.

The Popularity of Terra Sigillata.

Terra sigillata was pottery that could be easily mass-produced: clay was put in a mold, and the interior of the vessel scooped out using a fast wheel, and then the vessel was fired. With its smooth, red glossy surface, it was serviceable tableware and relatively cheap. Yet it was elegant and artistic, for it copied designs from silverware, and it must have appealed to customers for whom silverware was beyond their means. It brought style to the tables of the common man. As the first half of the first century c.e. wore on, production of terra sigillata in Arretium in Italy declined as potters migrated to Roman Gaul. The Roman army was also a factor in this "hollowing-out" of pottery manufacture in Italy. The legionary soldiers liked the sort of pottery that they knew in Italy or the Romanized provinces where they were recruited, and exports from Italy to the regions along the Rhine and Danube Rivers, and Roman Britain, where the military units were concentrated, were common. The corps of craftsmen attached to the army who knew how to make bricks and roof tiles for military use would also turn their hands to making pottery in the Roman style.

The Decline of Terra Sigillata.

From the end of the first century c.e. the common ware that came into fashion was "Red Slip" pottery, once called "African Red Slip" since the center of production seemed to be in North Africa. It is now clear that not only Roman Africa but also Asia Minor manufactured and exported Red Slip ware all over the Mediterranean. Land transportation may have been exorbitantly expensive, but transportation by sea, though slow, was very cheap. Yet though Red Slip ware displaced terra sigillata as the common table crockery of the Roman Empire, it shared a common origin and it was recognizably Roman. It continued in use until the seventh century c.e.


R. J. Charleston, Roman Pottery (London, England: Faber, 1997).

Kevin T. Greene, "pottery, Roman," in The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford, England; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998): 569–570.

John W. Hayes, Handbook of Mediterranean Roman Pottery (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997).

Catherine Johns, Arretine and Samian Pottery (London, England: British Museum Press, 1971).

Susan I. Rotroff, The Athenian Agora: Results of the Excavations Conducted by the American School of Classical Studies. Vol. XXIX: Hellenistic Pottery; Athenian and Imported Wheel-Made Table Ware and Related Material (Princeton, N.J.: American School of Classical Studies, 1997).