– Erotic scenes on ancient Greek vases in the Archaic and Classical periods

16 05 2007

Erotic scenes in ancient Greek iconography constitute an important and significant corpus which until fairly recently was unknown outside a limited number of specialists. This relative obscurity was not due to the lesser aesthetic value of such representations, but rather to the fact that 20th century society views sex and erotic art differently. For the ancients sexual activity could be depicted without any sense of shame or guilt; multiple love affairs (virtually a type of polygamy), pederasty, homosexuality and group sex were regarded as conventional and were regulated by a moral code totally different from our own. We must, therefore, understand the social and institutional contexts in which the ancients expressed sexual desire if we are to properly understand and appreciate their iconography. From the art-historical point of view, the intricate network of erotic relationships comprises, much more than mere sexual consummation; it is also a way of looking at social relationships in the making.

Vases are especially rich sources of erotic scenes from archaic times, namely the 6th century B.C., until the end of the classical period. After the 4th century sexual impulse is restricted to the lower level of superficial satisfaction, to the detriment of the moral ideal of bodily and spiritual union and at the expense of the notion of an indissoluble bond between the erotic and the sacred. The love scenes in question come from the entire Greek world — from Ionia to south Italy — and adumbrate a system of erotics which was common in most Greek city-states despite their differing law-codes. However, because ceramic production was greatest in Attica and because the most plentiful and informative written sources were also from this region, this article will focus on Athenian society from 6th to the 4th century B.C. The erotic scenes include depictions which are mythic, religious or hideous in character; others are straightforward expressions of the daily love life of the ancient Greeks.


In agrarian societies, in which the fertility of the earth and of women are essential to the reproduction of the human species, art may depict such concerns either directly through unambiguous images (a woman with child, fruit, the cereal crop, etc.) or indirectly through various allusions and symbols suggesting sexual desire and intercourse. In the male-dominated society of ancient Greece the commonest symbol was the phallus. A winged phallus symbolised the soaring of desire; oversized representations of phalli served as ritual objects, a phallus-eye signalled the male’s ability to see and interpret the world. Herms with ithyphallic scenes abounded: these columns, topped with an image of Hermes’ head, were placed outside houses or alongside public roads. The phallus-symbol was meant to ward off evil and alluded to sexual desire as a positive vital force which counteracted the fear of death.


Directly related to fertility rites is a group of Dionysiac scenes which may be described as follows: Dionysus’ followers (Satyrs, Sileni, Maenads), participate in procession and rites in which wine flows freely in a rowdy, sensuous atmosphere, loosening the bonds of rationality and giving full rein to the instincts. Though the creatures featured in these scenes are hybrids and are of a lowlier nature than mortals or human-like immortals, and though considerable humour is at play here, the frequency of such scenes and their direct link to Dionysaic practices show that these ceremonials and their formalised iconography enabled society to express its instinctual drives.

At Delphi, Apollo was said to hand over his temple to the worship of Dionysus for three months every year: in similar vein the Greek philosophical world-view wisely upheld the distinction between two coexisting complementary aspects of human nature, namely the Apolline element (intellectuality, logic, the rational approach to the world) and the Dionysiac (corporality, instinct, pleasure). Both elements were fully accepted as parts of human nature.


Another interesting group of mythic and religious erotic scenes are those which depict the couplings of gods and mortals or of immortal (mythic) beings alone. The commonest motif is abduction (e.g. Zeus and Ganymede, Boreas and Oreithyia, Herakles/Nessos and Deianeira, Hades and Persephone, the Dioskuroi and the Leukippidai, Pelops and Hippodameia, etc.). Although these scenes feature a number of suggestive erotic details, copulation per se is rarely represented; instead, the pursuit of desire and other narrative details are given prominence. What these scenes bring out in particular are the supremacy of self-control in a world of superior gods and heroes and the precedence of rationality over the instincts. But it is in scenes showing the love life of ordinary mortals that sexual acts are illustrated most openly. There are three main “institutional” contexts for this iconography: marriage, prostitution and pederasty.


The marriage setting rarely features erotic scenes. The couple’s privacy, the reputation of a citizen wife and especially the significance of this institution would not allow this. It should be recalled that matrimony in classical Greece was rarely the consequence of sexual attraction (the wedded couple often met for the first time on the day of the wedding); rather it was a conservative institution whose object was to facilitate the smooth functioning of the smallest unit of the polis, namely the oikos (or household) and to perpetrate it through the procreation of descendants. To this end the wife was supposed to be the ‘manager’ of the household, while public sentiment strongly played down the sexual aspect of marriage. The numerous wedding scenes on vases only hint at erotic interests: such allusions are the nuptial bed, tucked away in the inner chamber, the sensuous atmosphere surrounding the adornment of the bride, the ritual purificatory bath of the couple, and the nuptial procession. Even the quince, which appears in at least one scene is an obvious love symbol and allusion.

Alongside marriage there existed the institution of concubinage. A concubine cohabited with a man either as partner or a secondary wife (in instances where the procreation of offspring by a legal wife was impossible). Such unions were never legal since concubines were not of Athenian citizen stock but were foreign aliens or emancipated slaves.


As a respectable wife a woman was largely excluded from public life and confined to the private space of the household. A number of vase paintings, however, portray a special type of woman as engaged either in sexual acts or in transactions. Pornai (prostitute) a term derived from the verb pernemi (to sell), were usually resident slaves, prisoners of war, emancipated slaves or resident aliens and only rarely (in case of extreme poverty) Athenian citizen women. They were employed either in public brothels, which existed officially since the time of Solon, or in small private houses. (The tax on prostitution which whores paid was one of the chief revenues levited by the city-state). The cheapest paid prostitutes called leophoroi, pursued business out in the open, in the streets. (The shoe of one such lady has been found: the nails on its sole formed the expression “follow me” a sure-fire way of identifying herself, and avoiding long discussions with perspective clients).

Vase painting of prostitution are common and feature a number of discrete stages: e.g. the preliminary visit to the brothel, the client’s evaluation of the “merchandise”, the bargaining process, payment, the offer of gifts like small game animals, perfume-jars, knuckle-bones (used in a game of jacks which had amatory associations), and sometimes even sexual intercourse. Quite often the prostitute is well-clad and spins cloth on a spindle

(the symbol of a reputable citizen wife). These appurtenances also bring out the prostitute’s attractiveness and her domesticated femininity, two qualities which the nature of her work and her low social status in fact ruled out.

Hetaerae, or courtesans were high-class prostitutes and enjoyed some degree of prestige and fame. Their job was to offer not so much immediate sexual gratification (that was best found in a brothel) as recreation and entertainment. Their notoreity was not only due to their particular mental and physical skills or wealth, but also to their close association with socially prominent men. They exercised much influence on these men and were probably much influenced by them in turn (e.g., Aspasia and Pericles, Lais and Apelles, Phryne and Hyperides, Timantra and Alkibiades, Leontion and Epicouros are only a few of many famous couples of courtesans and important men).

Hetaerae were prostitutes of exceptional beauty and intelligence (and therefore exceptionally well-paid). They were often from Ionic or Aeolic Greece (two regions where women enjoyed greater social standing and had better chances of an education).

They were trained in music and dance, had good manners and usually offered their services in the course of a symposium, the major occasion of male entertainment in the Greek world. Here they sang and danced, played the double flute, took part in discussions and granted sexual favours mainly during the komos. This was the culmination and the most relaxing part of the symposium, during which komasts succumbed to erotic desire. This portion of the symposium provided vase painters with abundant narrative possibilities particularly in the depiction of action – the komos was in fact the richest source of inspiration for vase painters interested in amatory scenes and episodes. The representations range from tame tenderness to superlative sensual pleasure, from caresses to unbridled group sex. Visual signals of a komos scene are subsidiary ingredients like symposium couches, hanging flute cases, baskets of food, water basins, games involving leather dildos and laurel crowned symposiasts as well as men and women playing Kottabose (a game in which one had to eject the dregs from his or her wine cup). Every imaginable sexual position is rendered with many variations (e.g. vaginal and anal penetration, fellatio, group sex.).

In order to understand the intimate relation between the social-political context and the visual portrayal of private lives it is as well to bear in mind the change in the way courtesans were depicted. Obviously the change in pictorial convention is to do with the new social demands of a changing century. In the 6th century men and women copulate standing or embrace while one sits on top of the other and has a frontal view of his or her partner, From the early 5th century women, with few exceptions, are assigned an inferior position, they are excluded from visual contact with outer events and are generally demoted to the status of a sexual object. It is no accident that this new mode of representation coincided with the re-establishment of democracy and the Persian Wars. At this period social and political events imposed heavier responsibilities on men, particularly in their physical commitment to the survival of the state, whereas women were increasingly isolated and almost wholly excluded from public sphere.


The exclamation ho pais kalos (“what a beautiful boy!”) is common in the extreme high number of vases depicting pederastic relationships. Such scenes, though they may put off many viewers today, reflect a social convention which was widespread in ancient Athens and throughout the Greek world. Unlike today, pederasty in antiquity was a prestigious activity, conceived (at least in theory) as an educational relationship by which an older man instilled proper values and standards of conduct into a young boy or adolescent.

The senior partner (who was usually represented in art as bearded) was the erastes (“lover”). The junior partner, called eromenos (“beloved”) was between the ages of 13 and 19, and is shown in vase painting as young adolescent. The erastes is attracted by the ephebes’ youthful beauty; the love of physical beauty -according to Plato- eventually leads the lover to knowledge and acquisition of Absolute Beauty. The eromenos in his turn is inspired by his mature partner’s behaviour to emulate his moral virtues, especially his (masculine) courage, or andreia.

Pederasty was highly regarded largely because women were considered inferior, both mentally and physically. The demotion of women prompted the ancients to identify beauty and the sublime with the male body and spirit. This was all too natural in a society which was only acquainted with the sight of naked males “working out” in gymnasia and wrestling schools, both of which were the main educational institutions of the time.

Most pederastic vase paintings show courtship scenes, particularly the erastes offering gifts of an educational character (e.g., a wreath, a branch, a writing tablet) or symbolic gifts (a hare suggesting hunting skills, a cock suggesting pugnaciousness).

In these scenes the erastes may be fondling the boy’s genitals; in rare cases he may be engaged in the only accepted form of homosexual copulation, namely the intercrural method (denoted by the word diamerizein): the man penetrated the boy between his thighs. This particular practice secured pleasure for the erastes while preserving the boys virtue and social standing.

Homoerotic relations along the lines of pederasty are also known to have existed between females in Greek antiquity, especially during the archaic period. A young girl might have an intimate relationship with a mature woman when performing in an all-girls chorus. Such relations are mentioned in literature, but are not depicted on vases.


In ancient Greece sexual attraction and the sexual act have largely positive connotations. On the whole, the Greeks took a broad, natural and unproblematic view of sex. What mattered most was the ability to control the physical instincts and drives; this was dictated by their supreme cultural ideals of rationality and the golden mean. The morality of sex concerned Greek thought as part of a larger question of what was proper conduct in a society of free males. Sex ultimately concerned questions of power and freedom and (in Platonic thought) truth. As interpreted by philosophy, a sexual relationship could lead to the revelation of Truth.

Translated from Greek by J. C. B. Petropoulos, Associate Professor of Ancient Greek Literature, University of Thrace



J. Boardman, La Rocca, Eros in Greece, Milan, 1975

K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality, Duckworth, London, 1978

R. Flacelière, L’amour en Grece, 1960

M. Foucault, Histoire de la Sexualité (V.2: La chair et le corps)

H. Licht, Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, Panther Book, London, 1969

C. Reisberg, Ehe, Hetarentum und Knabenliebe im Antiken Griechenland, Beck, Munchen, 1989

B. Sergent, L’Homosexualité dans la Muthologie Grecque, Payot, Paris, 1959

J. Marcade, Eros Kalos, Geneva 1965

Ν. Boymel Kampen, Sexuality in Ancient Art, Cambridge University Press, 1996

R.Barthes, Fragments d’un Discours Amoureux, Paris, 1977

Α. Λεντάκης, Ο Έρωτας στην Αρχαία Ελλάδα (τόμοι 1-2), Καστανιώτης, Αθήνα, 1997

Περιοδικό Αρχαιολογία τεύχος 10, Ιανουάριος 1984 (άρθρα των Claude Calame, Στέλιου Ξηρουχάκη, Ανδρέα Λεντάκη κ.α.)

Eros Grec, Amour des Dieux et des Hommes, exhibition catalogue, Paris – Athens, 1989


From the Ancient Greek litterature

Plato, Phaedrus

Plato, Symposium

Xenophon, Symposium

Aeschines, Against Timarchus

Demosthenes, Against Neaira




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