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Carrie Vout Headshot

The Joy of Sex (Greek and Roman style)

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The Greeks and Romans have left many legacies--democracy, philosophy, mathematics... But they have also left a plethora of sexually explicit imagery--statues with erect penises, bestiality as garden sculpture, and drinking vessels, oil lamps and wall paintings showing scenes of rape and sexual intercourse. Some of these even had religious significance. Next time you are tempted to think the ancients "just like us," remember these images.

Not that any of these images make the Greeks and Romans decadent or debauched; not when they are put back into a world in which people hung phallic pendants around their necks and from their doorways and worshipped gods who had the power to punish with their penises. Instead, they underline the distance of the Greeks and Romans, and remind us that even if we could time-travel back to ancient Pompeii, we would inevitably be lost in translation; that the Romans conceived of their bodies and of the relationships between men and women, mortals and gods, public and private, differently from the Greeks and from us.

What follows offers a taster of these images and of my book Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome--not as evidence for what happened in ancient bedrooms (which was probably no more or less remarkable than is happening now) but for how some of the inhabitants of these two different and diverse worlds used sex to think about who they were and wanted to be; as evidence too of what turned them on and made them laugh. That museums display this material today also throws light on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collectors who preserved these things for longevity. What was their pleasure? What's ours? For somewhere in the clash of cultures, we also learn more about ourselves.

  • 1. Group groping
    The Trustees of the British Museum
    This Greek pot dates from the sixth century BCE and is decorated on both sides by a series of male figures, marked out as mature by virtue of their beards, giving gifts of garlands and animals to beardless youths in exchange for a grope. Several of them are visibly excited, the central pair already enjoying the next stage of the encounter. It would be naïve to take this as evidence of real orgies in Athens. Its couplings are more suggestive than that. They titillate viewers by their very excess and remind them that all gifts ask for something in return. They query and underwrite the normative place of male-male desire in classical Greece.
  • 2. Keeping cool
    The Trustees of the British Museum
    And you thought your parties were fun! This Greek pot, painted in around 500 BCE, may get you hot under the collar, but it is actually a wine-cooler designed to be used at an elite Athenian drinking party. The "symposium" as it was called enabled men to leave their wives at home and let their hair down together. But it also offered opportunities for them to drink too much and end the evening in the arms of a prostitute. The half-man, half-horse creatures depicted here warn against the loss of dignity (humanity even) that too much fun can bring, and underline why the god of wine had to be worshipped. Their antics proved so shocking that at the end of the nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century the erection of the kneeling satyr was painted out by museum curators leaving his drinking cup hovering.
  • 3. Show and tell
    The Trustees of the British Museum
    From the fourth century BCE, Greek artists began to invest in the image of the hermaphrodite. Represented here in a later Roman version, the hooded hermaphrodite (or should that be Hermaphroditus, the god?) lifts its robe to reveal its true identity. In a world in which sculptures of male nudes were common, this image offers a challenge: its penis is not small and neat like theirs but primed to penetrate. Does this challenge make us rethink our responses to the first two slides? How did it impact on an ancient viewer’s sense of identity?
  • 4. Farmyard frolics
    The Trustees of the British Museum
    This table-top terracotta shows Pan, a god whose body is half-male, half-goat, about to have sex with a she-goat. Is she his kind of girl or not? Made in the eighteenth century, it is modelled after an ancient marble group, which had recently been found in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum (itself the model for the Getty Villa) and was in antiquity displayed in its garden. What was its owner, an educated Roman with a library full of philosophical texts, doing with such a subject? And what about those who had rediscovered it? Could they put it on public display? The decision to restrict access to it made it a celebrity: It is not for nothing that the legend around the terracotta’s base boasts that it’s "a copy from memory"!
  • 5. Divine bestiality
    The Trustees of the British Museum
    The story of Leda and the swan is one of the best known and strangest stories to survive from classical antiquity: The god Zeus assumes avian shape to seduce the mortal princess, Leda, who then lays two eggs which hatch to produce Castor and Pollux, Clytemnestra and Helen of Troy. The Roman oil lamp represents the encounter in all of its incomprehensible detail as baby Cupid pushes the unlikely duo together. It’s a scene of bestiality. Its coupling captures something of the ineffable power of what communion with the divine might feel like.
  • 6. Faking it?
    The Trustees of the British Museum
    The Warren Cup is rare among Roman artefacts in showing male-male intercourse, and is graphic even by ancient Athenian standards. Controversially dated to the early empire, is this silver cup making a deliberately risqué statement about Rome’s relationship with Greek culture for a clientele that swapped stories about Julius Caesar’s supposed affair with the King of Bithynia and were as worried as they were attracted by eastern pleasures? Or is it a modern fake? It gets its name from Edward Perry Warren who bought it from a dealer in 1911. Given what we know about his sexuality, were we to conjure up his dream object, this would be it.
  • 7. Getting down and dirty in the baths
    © Scala courtesy of the Minstero Ben ii Att Culturali
    A man squats on the ground to give a woman oral sex. This is not a picture from an adult publication but one of a series of sexually explicit paintings to survive from a changing room of a Pompeian bathhouse. Archaeology suggests that each of these paintings was above a shelf on which bathers left their clothes in baskets. Their competing subject-matter does not cause but saves embarrassment by reminding people where exactly they had left their tunics.