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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.

Category: History


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