Greco-Roman Art

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Greco-Roman Art

The premium placed on the classical body in the European tradition makes the art of ancient Greece and Rome a crucial factor in explorations of the ways in which gendered bodies and sexual difference are conceived of and communicated visually. Whether active and muscle bound or soft and sinewy, the male bodies in post-Renaissance art and the masculinities that they express pulsate with antique energy. The female nude also is traditionally thought to have been invented by an ancient sculptor, Praxiteles (active c. 375–330 bce), whose Aphrodite of Knidos is said to have inspired such devotion in its male viewer that it seduced him into having sex with the marble sculpture. This apocryphal story helps explain why the erotic attraction of that statue helped shape the female form as a male aesthetic ideal.


In applying feminist and postfeminist theories to the art of Greece and Rome and to its reception, popular and scholarly literature is interrogating exactly how those bodies have worked as objects of empathy and desire for modern people, for the ancients, and for individuals as varied as the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989), the writer Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), and the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768). It is also looking beyond the classical ideal to examine Greco-Roman representations whose power lies in challenging convention, including depictions of drunken old women, hermaphrodites, dwarves, and black Africans. This scholarship has highlighted differences and similarities between modern bodies and ancient ones and has accessed differing sexual cultures and constructions of identity.

In the three-part History of Sexuality (1985–1986), which was published in French between 1976 and 1984, philosopher and historian Michel Foucault elucidated the ways in which the Greeks and Romans regulated and constructed their sexualities, emphasizing the gulf between ancient and modern perceptions. Foucault's evidence was mainly literary and highly selective, but the force of his conclusions was far reaching. Homosexuality did not exist in ancient Greece. The sex of one's partner was far less relevant in shaping one's identity than it is in the early twenty-first century. In Foucault's description of Rome there is a move away from male-male desire as the dominant discourse and toward the privileging of the marital relationship. However, it is the issue of control of the self that is tantamount: whether one is the giver or the recipient of pleasure.

There is much in the visual record of ancient Greece and Rome that fits Foucault's conclusions. Images of sexual intercourse that seem both graphic and pornographic to the modern viewer are common on Greek and Roman drinking vessels and on wall paintings in houses and baths in Rome and the Vesuvian area as well as in other media. The fact that representations of the phallus were displayed publicly throughout the Greek and Roman world and that boundary stones often were made in that shape strengthens the notion that people in antiquity had a very different attitude toward the display of the erect penis. At the beginning of the nineteenth century any of those artifacts that were not destroyed were locked away, for example, in the Secret Cabinet of the Archaeological Museum in Naples. A timed ticket lets visitors in, giving them a glimpse of the strangeness of its contents.


In Greece the most salient icon is the image of the beautiful young boy. From the freestanding marble kouroi (youths) of the 650s to 500 bce and the athletic cavalrymen on the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens (440s bce), to the slimmer curves of Praxiteles's male bodies, to the more muscular figures made during and after the rule of Alexander the Great (356–323 bce), shifting concepts of the ideal, youthful, beardless male form served to preserve that image as something to be admired and interrogated. Pots from the late archaic and early classical period (550–470 bce) have painted scenes showing sexual encounters between men and boys. Extrapolating from those images it is a logical step for viewers of an impassive kouros statue or the boys on the Parthenon to imagine themselves in the active role or to map their own vulnerability onto those impersonal contours. Those imaginings bring modern people closer to what it must have meant to be a man in antiquity.

The visual record also illuminates an area that Foucault neglected: women. Pots and fourth-century Attic gravestones in particular provide a window into ancient women's otherwise poorly documented lives and into markers of status such as dress and adornment. Whereas much of the power of the kouroi stems from their nudity, their female equivalents, the freestanding korai of the same period, wear elaborate jewels and ornate dresses. In grave markers the deceased females often are shown putting on their jewelry. The point seems to be that an ancient Greek woman is only as good as her beauty. On pots, wives are shown spinning or weaving, rarely escaping the constraints of the household except to participate in a funerary ritual or fetch water from the fountain, while their men recline at the drinking party, or symposium, attended by naked boy servants, scantily clad female musicians, and courtesans, or hetairai.

Rather than see those respectable and less respectable categories as separate, the viewer often is prompted to blur them: For example, a drinking cup may show a symposium or a scene of wild, drunken maenads on the outside and, once the wine has been drunk, display a modestly dressed woman in the interior. The ambiguities of that juxtaposition counter the idea that all Greek women did was sit in the house and sew by revealing that both versions are shaped by male fantasy.


The Roman conquest of Greece brought the Romans into a complex relationship with Greek artistic production. The Etruscans, who had dominated central Italy until the expansion of Rome in the fourth century bce, coveted Greek pots and adapted their symposium motifs for funerary contexts. Wives rather than hetairai were now shown reclining next to the men. In the Roman republic the visual vocabulary of the conquered gave Roman generals the material for experimentation with new ways of expressing their masculinity and weighing their worth against that of their peers. Those statues often are considered by modern scholars to be only partly successful in their combination of a recognizably Roman head with a generic Greek torso. However, what works for a model such as the Farnese Hercules sculpture, first conceived by Alexander's court artist Lysippus (c. 370–310 bce), works differently in a new context. Also, the Lysippan Hercules was made for the Baths of Caracalla and is as Roman as any statue of a general. If they are classified as Greek at all, those bodies were unlikely to have been dismissed as vain appropriations. They underline the fact that style was more than a by-product of an object, serving instead as a powerful vehicle.

Roman attitudes to relationships and the body were different from those of the Greeks. For example, sex between adolescent and mature males, which had been viewed as something of a rite of passage in classical Athens, was condemned as unlawful. To be seen as Greek was to run the risk of being judged overly luxuriant, effeminate, and un-Roman. When Octavian (63 bce–14 ce) became the sole ruler and assumed the name Augustus, his statues and those of his wife, Livia, blended young classical male and Aphrodite prototypes with what traditionally were viewed as more modest Roman poses (e.g., the veiling of the head) that were intended to curtail sexual activity. Any Greekness in those statues raised them above the sea of senatorial families and made them seem superhuman. Augustus lived past the age of seventy but always was depicted as youthful. Whether he was emulated or adored, eroticism was part of the charisma.

Gardens, villas, and baths gave Romans room to relax and to experiment with a wide range of identities. The images of sexual intercourse described above shared the space with sensuous sculptures of hermaphrodites who lie languidly with their genitalia semiexposed or play fight with a Pan or satyr, as well as with mosaics depicting frequently hypersexual black Africans and hunchbacks. Although the blackness of the Africans works as a distancing device, separating them from the ideal body type, as the hump does with hunchbacks, it is not imbued with abusive discrimination. Perhaps those images fulfilled an apotropaic function, protecting viewers from the evil eye. They were also images whose very difference forced viewers to confront their own bodies. They enabled viewers to indulge their fantasies in the exotic and examine the controls governing normative practice.

In light of the changing attitudes toward the body and the increased value placed on chastity that the spread of Christianity brought with it, one of the ways in which early Christian writers defined their religion in opposition competing cults was to condemn the indecency of pagan imagery. According to the bishop Eusebius (c. 283–371 ce), the emperor Constantine (c. 272–337 ce), after making Christianity the state religion, destroyed statues of Roman gods as stories of their sexual misdemeanors fueled the charge of idolatry. In reality, far from destroying them, he sent them to his new capital of Constantinople, realizing the power of continuity.


Clarke, John R. 1998. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1985–1986. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon.

Foxhall, Linn, and John Salmon, eds. 1998. When Men Were Men: Masculinity, Power, and Identity in Classical Antiquity. London and New York: Routledge.

Kampen, Natalie Boymel, and Bettina Bergmann, eds. 1996. Sexuality in Ancient Art: Near East, Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Koloski-Ostrow, Ann Olga, and Claire L. Lyons, eds. 1997. Naked Truths: Women, Sexuality, and Gender in Classical Art and Archaeology. London: Routledge.

Richlin, Amy, ed. 1992. Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome. New York: Oxford University Press.

                                              Caroline Vout