Eros in Greece
Eros in Antiquity
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 (which means “Dirty Words”). 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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.