• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Socratic Method

Eros in Greece

by John Boardman, by Eugenio La Rocca, photographs by Antonia Mulas
The Erotic Art Book Society, 175 pp., $25.00

Eros in Antiquity

photographed by Antonia Mulas
The Erotic Art Book Society, 153 pp., $25.00

Greek Homosexuality

by K. J. Dover
Harvard University Press, 244 pp., $22.50

When A.E. Housman, toward the end of his life, decided to correct the learned world’s misunderstanding of some passages in the Latin poets which deal in detail with the mechanics of homosexual copulation, he published, in a German scholarly periodical, an article entitled Praefanda ^1. His meticulous explanation of the matter in hand was distinguished by the precise analysis, caustic wit, and elegant prose characteristic of all his writing, but this time the prose was not English but Latin. That was in 1931; in 1932 the New York publishing firm Covici-Friede livened up their list with a translation of Hans Licht’s Sexual Life in Ancient Greece (Licht’s real name was Brandt—he was director of a Gymnasium in Saxony). The “thirty-two full-page plates” with which Covici-Friede tried to spice the rather stolid fare served up by Brandt-Licht included such daring images as the Medici Venus, the Hermes of Praxiteles, the Louvre Diana, a Parthenon metope, and, for a real thrill, the Naples Aphrodite Kallipygos.

We have come a long way since then. Eros in Greece displays a sequence of photographs which illustrate in exquisite color every aspect of Greek erotic activity from alpha to omega and back again. Eros in Antiquity offers many of the same photographs, plus a generous coverage of the Pompeian wall-paintings and the curiosa, most of them coarsely obscene, from the notorious Gabinetto Segreto of the Museo Nazionale in Naples. In Greek Homosexuality K.J. Dover, dealing like Housman with specifics, calls a spade a spade but, unlike Housman, in his native tongue. “A man and a boy get into position for intercrural copulation” is one of his photo-captions, and another runs: “A hairy satyr masturbates while pushing a penis-substitute into his own anus.” And in Dover’s text the love that in Victorian England dared not speak its name is examined with a clinical eye, its Greek terminology defined with philological exactness, its physical manifestations unblushingly described, and its role in archaic and classical Greek society soberly appraised.

Eros in Greece (originally Eros in Grecia, Milan, 1975) has a broader scope; only half a dozen of the 160 color illustrations portray homosexual scenes. It is essentially a picture book, one of those quarto volumes which are produced for the coffee tables of the well-to-do and end up, after a decent interval, on the display tables of remainder houses. It is a very distinguished specimen of the genre. John Boardman, a renowned authority on Greek art, contributes an essay on “love in Greek art and life” which deals gracefully if not in depth with the place of Eros in mythology and cult; he then presents, through the persona of an imaginary youth of the classical period—“Pamphilos we shall call him”—a sketch of the sexual career of the Athenian homme sensuel moyen: a liaison with an older youth, marriage with a much younger bride, and extramural consolation with cultured hetaerae and the flute girls who entertain guests at the extremely un-Platonic symposia portrayed on red-figure vases. Boardman concludes with a concise but expert discussion of the erotic scenes on these vases which, he reminds us, “are presented without plain wrappers, unromantically, with a smile not a snigger, designed neither to excite nor to embarrass.” This is a salutary reminder to the reader who embarks on the following section, a photographic anthology of the erotic art of Greece.

The photographs (most of them the work of Antonia Mulas) are extraordinary both in themselves and for the brilliance of their reproduction in color. The illustrations for Boardman’s essay, less blatantly sexual than the parade of délices which follows, include some breathtaking landscape pictures: the cliff edge at Erice in Sicily, the temple at Selinus seen across a field of yellow flowers, the Altis at Olympia in autumnal light and color, and a magnificent two-page spread showing the west end of the Parthenon from inside.

The erotic pictures are also technically admirable; compared with those featured in Eros Kalos,2 a pioneering predecessor in the Greek sex picture-book field, they show a decided advance in clarity of reproduction, though this is sometimes achieved at the expense of authenticity. On the Boston Corinthian mirror, for example, the outlines of the improbably athletic coupling it portrays emerge with startling emphasis because the dark green of the original bronze surface appears here as off-white. Most of the illustrations, however, are drawn from the vast erotic repertoire of Athenian vase-painting (Dover lists some 500 items) and the colors are faithfully reproduced; in most cases, too, though not in all, the actual dimensions of the object are stated. This is a highly desirable feature in a medium so addicted to reduction and blow-up; one carved gem twenty-six millimeters in width is magnified more than ten times to fill two-thirds of a double spread and the great metope from temple E at Selinus, 1.62 meters high, is reduced to a miniature seven centimeters square.3

These illustrations cover Greek erotic art from an Etruscan oinochoe with scratched figures cruder than anything to be found in New York public toilets to the sophisticated sensuality of the Aretine bowls, here accentuated by skillful lighting. They are discussed in a critical analysis by Eugenio La Rocca, superintendent of the Capitoline museums in Rome, which deals with the pictures from an art-historical point of view; occasionally he has to justify their inclusion. The bowls made in Arezzo by Marcus Perennius Tigranes, for example, are billed as “the last to show clear evidence of Greek influence.” He also discusses possible mythological interpretations (not all of them convincing) and explains what the pictures represent. Such explanation is standard practice in any publication of Greek vase painting, which often features objects unfamiliar to the modern eye and uses artistic conventions which may not be comprehensible at first glance. In the case of erotic pictures, especially those which portray activity which though obviously sexual is not clearly represented or not immediately recognizable, this can pose a delicate problem; Sir John Beazley was a master of precise understatement in this field4 and Emily Vermeule’s publication of the Warren collection—“Some Erotica in Boston”5—is a model of its kind.

La Rocca does well enough, but he tends to be evasive when the temperature rises: “Two Men at Exercise” is his heading for the Amasis cup which shows two fat men masturbating and he leaves the baffled reader with no explanation of the strange goings-on represented on the Nikosthenes kantharos (even Vermeule is a little mysterious on this one—“boy tending from the rear a symplegma of boy and girl”).6 La Rocca can also, with that slightly batty irrelevance art historians are prone to, take off at a hilarious tangent to the main line; on the Boston mirror, for example, a picture which will have every reader trying desperately to figure out how the lady can possibly operate in that position without breaking her neck, he remarks: “Note the details, especially the extremely fine rosette border of the blanket.”

Eros in Antiquity (which has already reached the remainder stores in the Washington area) displays its wares unaccompanied by interpretative essay or art-historical commentary; this is a hard-core item. There are very few landscape pictures here; blow-ups are frequent and spectacular (a votive vulva and a phallos vase, 15 and 8.5 cms. high respectively, fill each one a quarto page). The Pompeian wall paintings include, besides such well-known items as the bawdy house frescoes and the initiation scenes from the House of the Mysteries, a picture of Priapus weighing his truly formidable member on a hand-balance. The bronzes, marbles, and terracottas form a monotonous line of phallic grotesques; the prize item is a Mercury who, in addition to a huge bent phallus in the usual place, has two more sprouting from his winged cap and one from each ear. The publisher’s blurb claims that “the works in Eros in Antiquity come across with such immense visual impact as to make…dead civilizations live“; unfortunately, this fifteen-page parade of phallic fantasies creates a quite false impression that what the people of Pompeii lived in was an environment something like the inside of an Adult Books establishment.

Dover’s book is a much more serious enterprise; the reader who embarks on it expecting amusement or titillation will be swiftly disillusioned. It is a matter-of-fact, methodical description and analysis of a social phenomenon, central to classical Greek culture, which has been prettily sentimentalized, dismissed as peripheral, or blandly ignored in most presentations of the glory that was Greece. Dover’s is an authoritative discussion; he is a philologist of great stature with wide achievement as editor, commentator, and literary critic, and he has been working his way toward a full treatment of this subject since the publication of his magnificent edition of Aristophanes’ Clouds in 1968.7 His witty commentary on the homosexual yearnings betrayed by Right’s phraseology in the famous debate scene of that play abolished forever the comfortable doctrine that Right spoke against the sophistic arguments of Wrong in the conservative voice of Aristophanes himself: “it is as if a modern preacher, having thundered ‘No girl ever wore trousers in those days’ continued ‘And sometimes you glimpsed the satiny flesh on the inside of her thighs.’ ” And in his identification of the physical phenomena Right finds so enchanting in his nostalgic picture of the boys of yesteryear, Dover set a new standard of liveliness in the exegesis of classical Greek texts:

what stimulates Right’s aesthetic imagination is the visual and tactile contrast between the matt surface of the penis as a whole and the secretion revealed by pushing back the foreskin; the same kind of contrast as is obtained by taking a small bite at a peach.

Since then Dover has dealt briefly with the subject in an article on classical Greek attitudes to sexual behavior8 and in his book Greek Popular Morality;9 he now presents us with an exhaustive survey of “those phenomena of homosexual behavior and sentiment which are to be found in Greek art and literature between the eighth and second centuries B.C.”

The eighth century is now one of the fashionable dates for the late stages of composition of the Iliad and Odyssey, but Dover, of course, recognizes that “there is no overt homosexuality in these poems.” This is a rather remarkable fact, since it is obviously not a case of suppression for reasons of literary decorum; tragedy, as we know from fragments of Aeschylus and Sophocles, dealt unashamedly with this theme and Pindar’s “hymns, lords of the lyre” could refer to it without a blush. The historical problem posed by this Homeric silence has been tackled in various ways. Sir William Ridgeway, writing early in the century, identified the Achaeans of Homer as Aryans, “a body of tall, fair-haired invaders,” in whose society “there was not likely to be any place for the unspeakable sin which cankered Greek society in historical times.” Their descendants were corrupted after the migration to the South: “the sin of Sodom in all ages has been endemic in the Mediterranean basin and has never, except sporadically, and that mainly under southern influence, appeared north of the Alps….”^10

  1. 2

    Jean Marcadé, Geneva 1962.

  2. 3

    The scene on the gem is highly erotic, that on the metope unobjectionable.

  3. 4

    For example, he supplied for the “most characteristic configuration of homosexual courtship in vase painting”—one in which the suitor reaches for the boy’s face with one hand and his genitals with the other—the handy label “the up and down position” (Dover, p. 94).

  4. 5

    Antike Kunst, 1969, pp. 9-15.

  5. 6

    To see what is meant by “tending” the curious reader may consult J. Boardman, Athenian Red-Figure Vases in the Archaic Period (Thames and Hudson, London, 1945), fig. 99.

  6. 7

    Aristophanes, Clouds, edited with introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 1968).

  7. 8

    Arethusa, Spring 1973.

  8. 9

    University of California Press, 1975, pp. 213-216.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print