Book Club


Publishers of award-winning illustrated books on art, history, archaeology, world cultures and more.

Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome

The ancient Greeks and Romans were not shy about sex. Sex scenes starring anonymous mortals or heroes and gods met their eyes at every turn. Phallic imagery and scenes of seduction graced drinking cups, oil-lamps and walls. In Athens sculptures with erect penises served as boundary stones and signposts. In Pompeii people wore penis pendants and their necks, or hung them from doorways. Two thousand years later, this exhibitionism can appear strange or surprising, even embarrassing.

Sex on Show cover low-res smlSex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome will be published by the British Museum Press on 30 September. Drawing on the British Museum’s extensive collection of classical works, award-winning author Caroline Vout examines the abundance of sexual imagery in Greek and Roman culture and the questions that arise from it: are we right to see this material as ‘sexual’? Are the images about sex or love? Were they intended to be stimulating, moralizing, shocking or humorous? Are our responses to them akin to those of the ancients? The answers to these questions provide fascinating insights into ancient attitudes to art, religion, politics, sex, gender and the body. They reveal how the ancients saw themselves and their world, and how subsequent centuries have seen them.

Covering the sixth century BC to the fourth century AD, and embracing Renaissance and post-Renaissance material, Sex on Show uses detailed visual analysis to ask not what but how, why and to what effect. Beautifully written and lavishly illustrated, this book does not simply address theories of sexual practice or social history; it is a visual history – about what it meant and still means to have sex stare us in the face.

To celebrate the publication of Sex on Show, we’ve included an exclusive extract here.

‘One man’s nakedness is another man’s nudity. Each of these assessments of an image configures its seductiveness or shock value differently. This is why our discussion of sex on show starts with exposure in an attempt to understand which ancient bodies were vulnerable or heroic, and which made viewers feel empathy or desire. Not that the desiring gaze is itself straightforward – if we stare at a statue and are turned on by it, are we in thrall to it or is it in thrall to us? What does the statue know? Is it complicit about being looked at? This last question may sound a curious one to ask of an inanimate object but it is key to how the statue makes us feel. Were the figure of Venus on the wooden casket from Roman Egypt (fig. 37) to meet our gaze head on, she would be as provocative as Manet’s Olympia – closer in kind to the prostitute, or Phryne, on whom Praxiteles’ famous Aphrodite of Knidos was supposed to have been modeled, than to the cult statue itself.

Fig 37

Wooden painted panel showing Venus putting on a necklace in her shrine. Fayum, Egypt, AD 250-300.

Instead it is her coyness that captivates, letting the viewer remain a voyeur. The falling boxer on a cup painted in Athens, by contrast, looks straight at us, painfully aware of his own subjugation . His audacity, and the openness of his body, is made all the more pointed when we see inside the cup (fig. 39) where a single nude athlete turns his back to us and bends towards an altar, exposing his buttocks and obscuring his face.

Fig 39

Interior of the same red-figure drinking cup. Attica, Greece 500 – 490 BC.

Although there are kalos inscriptions (meaning ‘what a beauty!’) on the cup, it is hard to enjoy the physical display as men did the statue of Aphrodite in her shrine at Knidos. We feel too exposed for that. The frontal gaze is a powerful thing, as gorgons’ heads inside other drinking cups show (fig. 40). In these cases, the drinkers’ eagerness to drain his wine and see what joy lies within is met by a leering stare that can turn him to stone.

Fig. 40

Black-figure drinking cup with an image of a gorgon in its interior. Attica, Greece, 500 – 475 BC.

Renaissance moralists were not the first to acknowledge that looking can be dangerous. In antiquity, those who came to Knidos had Greek mythology pumping through their veins, mythology which warned of the dangers of stumbling upon a goddess bathing. The seer Tiresias was blinded as a result of seeing Athena in such a state, and Actaeon turned into a stag by the goddess Artemis and then ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

fig. 41

Heavily restored marble statue of Actaeon being attacked by his hunting dogs. Second century AD.

In light of these stories, it is rather wonderful that in the fourth century BC an Athenian pot painter chose to represent a third divine bather, the sea-nymph Thetis, mother of Achilles, in a pose which was soon the preserve of the ‘crouching Aphrodite’ type – an overlap made more obvious by the fact that he distinguishes both Thetis an Aphrodite’s son Eros in white and that Aphrodite herself is seated top left, observing the scene. Our seeing Aphrodite a second time instead of Thetis not only plays to the latter’s ability to assume forms other than her own but enables us to see and not see her simultaneously and so to look, and have the painter look, with impunity. She is not caught off guard without her clothes, she is no even herself, she resembles a living statue. For Praxiteles and those in Knidos, there is no such ‘let out’: the full force of his statue lies not in the desire it stimulates, but in the inescapable fact that this Aphrodite they are witnessing and that all of them are, therefore, at risk. What happens next? The man foolish enough to try to penetrate her is forced to throw himself from a cliff.

This blurring between flesh and marble is at the heart of the Pygmalion myth, which tells how the artist Pygmalion became so enamoured of the ivory girl he had created that he willed it to change into a real woman. It also underpins the story of Pandora, the first ever woman, whom the gods supposedly modelled out of clay to be irresistible to Epimetheus, who took her as his wife, and with her, the jar of trouble she brought as her dowry. And it was not only female figures who asked for animacy. The sculptures of myth’s first artist, Daedalus, ‘seemed to move and to see’ and if ‘not fastened up’, to ‘play truant and run away’. Statues were born imitators –though some were better at it than others: a commemorative statue by Myron in honour of a runner called Ladas was so lifelike that one author commented: ‘soon the bronze will leap to seize the crown and the base will hold it no longer’. Nor were the best paintings barred from competing: Alexander the Great’s court artist Apelles painted the flesh of a boy so that it seemed to pulsate with life. In Rome, images of Augustus and his successors could literally stand in for the emperor; and the emperors’ treatment of images reveals much about their characters. Not content with Parrhasius’ painting of Meleager and Atalanta, the emperor Tiberius so loved the statue of an athlete scraping himself with a strigil, which had been made by another of Alexander’s artists, Lysippus, and was then on display near the Baths of Agrippa in Rome, that he took it to his bedroom. Almost immediately he was forced to return it by a general public who were also in love with it.

The verb used to describe Tiberius’ love for the statue (adamare, ‘to fall in love’) is the same that Cicero uses of Verres’ motivation; it unequivocally stresses that both of them are taking too much visual pleasure in Greek art. In contrast, Augustus’ wife, Livia, is an example of good practice when she saves the life of a man who appears naked before her with the claim that to a chaste woman like herself, looking at such a man was like looking at a statue. Self-controlled viewers should be able to look at an artwork and channel their enjoyment into aesthetic as opposed to sensual pleasure. They should be able to maintain their superiority and the artwork its decency. But good art makes this hard work; as soon as it imitates nature and, more, casts a goddess as a girl, it brings nudity and nakedness worryingly close together. It is not only members of the imperial family whose sexual proclivities are tapped and whose self-restraint is tested. All viewers are tested.’

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum. Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome by Caroline Vout is published by the British Museum Press in hardback at £25. To look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

Last chance to see: Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

The acclaimed British Museum exhibition  Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum will be closing this Sunday 29th September. Don’t miss your last chance to see it!

Preserved under ash, Pompeii and Herculaneum lay buried for just over 1,600 years, their rediscovery providing an unparalleled glimpse into the daily life of the Roman Empire. This spectacular exhibition, sponsored by Goldman Sachs, is the first ever held on these important cities at the British Museum, and the first such major exhibition in London for almost 40 years. It is the result of close collaboration with the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii, bringing together over 250 fascinating objects, both recent discoveries and celebrated finds from earlier excavations. Many of these objects have never before been seen outside Italy.

From the bustling street to the intimate spaces of a Roman home, this celebrated exhibition will take you to the heart of people’s lives in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

If you don’t get the chance to see it by the end of the week, check out the accompanying catalogue published by the British Museum Press.

Praise for Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum:

“[Encapsulates] the latest research and opinions on these once living cities, invaluable in preparation for a visit there”. – Brian Sewell, The London Evening Standard

“Paul Roberts’ book, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, is a brilliant piece of work and gives a full description of a unique event in the history of the world… hugely absorbing.” –

“Undoubtedly one of the most momentous archaeological exhibitions ever staged” – The Guardian

“A wonderful show of wonderful things. Unmissable” – The Independent

“Nothing I’ve seen or read before tells the story in the way the British Museum does’ – The Daily Telegraph

“A brilliantly told story of love, life, sex and death” – Metro

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, by Paul Roberts, is published by the British Museum Press in paperback (£25) and hardback (£45). To look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

Roman Empire: Power and People

Roman Empire: Power and People opens this Saturday 21st September at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, in partnership with the British Museum.

Roman Empire: Power and People brings together over 160 stunning pieces from the British Museum to explore the story of one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen. Highlights include sculpture from the villas of the Emperors Tiberius and Hadrian, coins from the famous Hoxne treasure, beautiful jewellery and even near-perfectly preserved children’s clothing from Roman Egypt.

The exhibition explores the wealth, power and organisation of the Empire, but also how the Romans viewed their provinces and other peoples. Religious, military and personal objects give an insight into the lives of people across the Empire, from northern Britain to Egypt and the Middle East.

Roman Empire: Power and PeopleThe book, Roman Empire: Power and People by Dirk Booms, Belinda Crerar and Susan Raikes is available now from the British Museum Press. Ahead of the opening of the exhibition, we’ve published here an exclusive extract from this fascinating new publication.

“The Roman opinion of their barbarian foes, particularly the Celtic people of north-western Europe, written about in contemporary literature initially seems contradictory: by some authors they were portrayed as uncouth, untamed savages in dire need of the civilizing lessons of Rome; at other times they were noble, simple people with a brave spirit, unhampered by the complex pressures of Roman life and the softening character that came through luxury and comfort. As Caesar wrote in his Gallic Wars: ‘Of all of these tribes, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are the furthest removed from the civilization and elegance of the Province [Gallia Narbonensis], and because merchants visit them least often to import those things that effeminate the mind’ (Caesar, Gallic Wars 1.1). However, despite seeming incompatible, the two opinions worked in tandem: the barbarian way of life was not to be praised or emulated, but victory over an unworthy foe was not much to celebrate. Therefore, the bravery and fighting spirit of the barbarians was to be applauded and mentioned at every opportunity as a tool for increasing Roman pride as their conquerors.

Roman Empire p 53 image

Bronze eagle found at the Romano-British town of Calleva (modern Silchester). Despite being the inspiration for Rosemary Sutcliff’s book The Eagle of the Ninth, it was probably not part of a military standard but rather may have come from a statue of Jupiter. Silchester, early 1st century AD. Bronze, H. 15 cm, L. 23 cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Attitudes towards the peoples of the Hellenic and Persian worlds generally differed from feelings about those of the Celtic provinces. The Greeks were greatly admired by the Romans for their intellectual accomplishments, not to mention their art which the Roman elite imported and imitated with relish. However, they were generally seen as somewhat ‘soft’ –lacking the hard-nosed political acumen and military prowess on which the Romans prided themselves. To be seen as too much of a ‘philhellene’ (a lover of Greek culture) was, for a Roman, a sign of weak and soft character and an accusation often leveled at the emperor Hadrian who spent a great part of his reign in the Hellenic provinces and earned the nickname Graeculus (Little Greek).

Further east, Arabia held a particular fascination for Rome as the source of luxury goods such as spices and silks. For example, a beautiful bust shows a Persian woman wrapped tightly in a veil and wearing the distinctive curved Phrygian cap which characterized eastern people in Greek and Roman art. The immediately alien aspect of this figure demonstrates the hold that the east had on the imaginations of the people of Rome. However, she is carved in a classical style and her facial features appear European. The idealizing of foreigners expressed by this sculpture is also seen clearly in Roman images of Gallic and German foes and their actual resemblance to the people of these areas is highly doubtful.

Roman Empire p 54 image

Marble bust of a woman wearing a Persian headdress. Rome, 2nd century AD. Marble, H. 69.9 cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

“…Like the images on coins, Roman art throughout the empire is filled with depictions of bound captives, or of Roman soldiers and emperors crushing foreign enemies physically under their feet or their horses’ hooves. It was one thing to set up such images at home in Rome, where, as with the arch of Claudius and Trajan’s Column, they fed an already inflated sense of cultural and moral superiority, but they also repeatedly appear in the conquered provinces themselves, visible to the very people they pertain to represent, broken and subdued. … In Aphrodisias, in modern Turkey, two brothers erected a monumental temple complex for the cult of the Roman emperor with depictions of all the nations that the Romans had conquered, as well as images of the emperors physically trampling their subjects.

… It is interesting to wonder how the native peoples of these areas responded to having such graphic reminders of their suppression erected right on their doorstep. Would these peoples have identified with the depictions of ‘barbarians’ that adorned these monuments, or did their exaggerated, caricatured features make them as alien to them as they were to the Romans? The relationship between Rome and the peoples whom it conquered was far more complex than simply winner and loser.”

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum. Roman Empire: Power and People, by Dirk Booms, Belinda Crerar and Susan Raikes is published by the British Museum Press in paperback at £10.99. For more information and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.