The paper discusses images on attic black- and red-figure banquet vases mainly from the period between 530 to 500 BC. I focus on the ambivalence of some of the depicted objects, which on the one hand represent items of luxury culture, while on the other they stand for tools and clothing which clearly belong to the sphere of physical work and lower classes. The polysemous qualities of some objects seem to reflect the harsh division of Athenian society: While representing on the surface the wasteful life of the elite, allusions to the majority of unpropertied citizens are made. Thus, the images depicting the luxurious life of the few well-off accomplish the difficult task of commenting at the same time on the social reality of those “invisible ones” who produce the wealth needed by the rich to engage in banquets, horse-breeding and athletics. Gradually, vase-painters introduced a discourse about social poles by using the ambiguity of objects in the image. In other words, in these cases the usual sharpness of iconography was deliberately softened by the vase-painters to open up a more complex discourse. But who were they addressing by doing so? And why?

After all, it is out of the question that the life and aspirations of the elite served as main incentives for the images on the pots, which were in the first place meant to entertain the revelers at banquets. One important question is why these ambiguous modes of representation were favored by the vase-painters (i. e. workers) and consequently also by their most important clientele, the non-working Athenian elite. The openness of references – implying the greatest possible social spectrum – created a tension within the imagery system, which was evidently intended by the vase-painters and must have been quite obvious at times when cups and pots bearing certain complementary images were part of the same drinking party. One is tempted to ask if and how this subtle introduction of social reality was understood and welcomed by the well-to-do symposiasts, too.