Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Caroline Vout, Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013. Pp. 256. ISBN 9780520280205. $34.95.

Reviewed by Beert C. Verstraete, Acadia University (

Version at BMCR home site

This thought-provoking and beautifully illustrated book by Professor Vout, who is Senior Lecturer at the University of Cambridge and a Senior Fellow of Christ's College, is the fruit of a solid record of previous scholarship,1 but its catchy title already hints that the author's target audience goes well beyond fellow scholars and will most certainly not fail to engage anyone with a keen interest in the conspicuous legacy of erotic art and iconography that the ancient Greco-Roman world has bequeathed to us. The book's informal tone is established right in its first sentence: "The ancient Greeks and Romans were not shy about sex." (9) And it also echoes in the fundamental question that soon follows: "Why did the ancient Greeks and Romans put sex on show?" (9) Right from the beginning, the author makes it abundantly clear that reflection upon what might be thought of as the constants of human nature will not get us very far in answering this question, but that, rather, we must consider the all-important cultural context, a much more exacting task: "Human nature is the easy bit. It is cultural difference that is difficult to negotiate." (11)

Not surprisingly, given her overall target audience, Vout everywhere is light on theory (as opposed to the praxis) of critical understanding and appreciation on the part of the 21st-century viewer and reader. Thus, in her opening chapter, "Sex, Love, Seduction," she does not hesitate to affirm that "the value of imagination should not be underestimated" (14) as we, contemporary viewers and readers, try to divine how Greek or Roman men and women, from whatever social class or status, might have responded to a erotically or sexually charged objet d'art or implement. Even though ours must be an imagination informed by sound research, "[n]o amount of research will ever confirm whether, whatever they said in writing, Greeks or Romans ever indulged in oral sex in the privacy of their bedrooms." (14) Our response should not be purely subjective or rest exclusively, or almost so, on the sexual norms and mores current in our own age and society. What the author seems to be enjoining on the modern viewer or reader is an act of imaginative empathy, or to use Hans-Georg Gadamer's well-known hermeneutic term, "a fusion of horizons." Vout perhaps states her hermeneutic most clearly and explicitly in the final chapter, "Desire or the Antique": her book has not "tried to impose contemporary categories but to interpret what the iconography of each object had to say, and said differently, at different periods of the past, and what each object now has to say, articulating this carefully, suggestively even, so as to engage the reader with his or her own looking." (234)

The author casts her eye on a wide range of art and iconography: statuary, painted vases, wall paintings, and numerous domestic and cultic artefacts with erotic and sexual representations and motifs, illustrations and discussions of which already abound in the first chapter. The chapters are organized thematically: I "Sex, Love, Seduction"; II "Exposure"; III "Fantasy"; IV "Divine Encounters"; V "Fatal Attraction"; VI "Desire for the Antique." The fundamental methodology informing her art history is succinctly stated here: "Careful looking and detailed comparison of images—especially, but not only those that are contemporary with one another—lends flesh to individual examples. It allows us to compose frames of visual reference within which to situate Greek or Roman viewing." (17) Vout goes on to underline that "this is not simply a case of our subjectivities versus those of the ancients. Our looking adds another layer of response to an already proliferating set of meanings which takes us back through collection- and cataloguing histories, back to when the objects were rediscovered and desired again for the first time since antiquity." (17) Thus, in our ideal, i.e. in our most concentrated and best articulated viewing we have to "wade" (21) through layers of meaning accumulated over the centuries, and, as the author puts it, " this book is going to leave no layer unexcavated when it comes to seeing sex in Greece and Rome more clearly." (21)

In the section, "Terminologies," in ch. I the author makes it clear that she will always carefully distinguish between what was "represented" and what was "merely suggested" (22)—a distinction that is well observed by her throughout the book. In the following section, "Love and Marriage," Vout, surprisingly but but certainly not inappropriately, also discusses male same-sex desire here, mainly illustrated from Greek vase-painting: "[o]ne of the most fascinating things about Greek culture is its investment in 'homosexuality'…" (28) Surprising art- and cultural-critical forays such as this are indeed typical of this book.

At the beginning of the second and longest chapter, "Exposure," the reader is usefully reminded that, in contrast to nakedness, "nudity is not a natural state but a representational choice, parading at being unaffected." (44) Vout takes us through the idealizing but unselfconscious representation of divine (both male and female) and male-athletic nudity in ancient Greek statuary (including their later Roman versions ) and vase-painting. She also ventures into the far more selective and deliberately Hellenizing and heroizing depiction of male nudity in Roman culture, where it was superimposed on the traditional 'veristic' styles of portraiture. She continues into the age of Augustus and his imperial successors who made "the nude body one of the standard types in a limited range of options…" (81) It is useful, however, to be reminded that the convention of the idealizing depiction of the male nude in classical Greek art enjoyed only a limited range and did not apply to the representations of intellectuals and orators. The depiction of nudity, of both male and female, also provided, as much then as it does now, an ample means for making a prurient impact on the viewer, not to speak of the comedic, satiric, and sheer pornographic possibilities; here, too, the author provides thoughtful guidance through the wealth of illustrative material ranging from Roman wall painting to the famous Warren Cup. The chapter closes with a brief reflection on how the Christian community of late antiquity, on the one hand, and not surprisingly, rejected the nudist conventions of pagan iconography, while, on the other hand, nudity might be "revised once again to signal resurrection, rebirth, or baptism" (88) and Greco-Roman imagery featuring erotic nudity turns up sporadically in the Christian iconography of late antiquity.

As noted earlier, already in the first chapter Vout stresses the crucial role played by the imagination, not only in the artist's or craftsperson's act of creating the erotic or sexually charged object (the author speaks punningly in the third chapter of the rampant "sexhibitionism," both Greek and Roman), but equally in the ancient viewer's response to that object. Consequently, therefore, the object's purely representational aspect, its iconic conveyance, so to speak, to the viewer, of a social reality should also not be overemphasized. Today's viewer, too, is not bound to a reductively representative quality of erotic and sexual iconography. Thus, for instance, as is underlined by Vout, a woman depicted in an erotic Greek vase as performing oral sex on a man or submitting to sodomy should not be simply understood as a prostitute but as any woman, whether married and socially respectable or not, who is objectified in the male imagination as lasciviously pleasuring her male partner. The force of the idealizing imagination should also not be underestimated in the ancient iconography, as, for instance, in the portrayal of a husband and wife couple (cf. the sculpted panel of the funeral altar of Pedana, illustrated on p. 127). Similarly, mythological scenes need not be received and understood in a purely literalistic fashion.

"Divine Encounters," the theme of chapter four has already entered the earlier chapters, especially the second, which touches, among others, on the myth of Actaeon and Artemis. The chapter opens with highlighting the sharp contrast between ascetic Christianity and Greco-Roman polytheism with its erotically and sexually driven deities who crowd the iconography of Greek and Roman religion and must have equally saturated the fervor of its worshippers. Even so, as Vout underlines, "[i]n favouring anthropomorphism, the Greeks were not simply assuming affinity with their gods. They were quantifying the distance between their world and that of the divine." (133.) The ontological gap between god/goddess and mortal was, after all, enormous. Thus, this anthropomorphism did not amount to a benevolent pansexualism, a fact vividly demonstrated, among others, by the fateful encounters between gods (or goddesses) and mortals which ended disastrously for the latter. The iconography of Dionysus, the eroticized god par excellence although, paradoxically, "one of the least adulterous," (148) is discussed in detail, as well as the not infrequently grotesque—not even eschewing bestiality – philandering of the gods, especially Zeus; for these "offered the ancients templates for facing the often unlikely pairings and clumsy couplings involved in love and lovemaking. They also offered alternative templates for sketching divine will and obeisance to it." (151). The deification of Hadrian's Antinous and the stupendous iconography of the second century reflecting and celebrating it, the most remarkable religious phenomenon certainly of late Greco-Roman paganism, as the author, too, sees it – an apotheosis of the erotic Beautiful, if there ever was one – rounds out this chapter.

The fifth chapter," Fatal Attraction," opens with a striking two-page close-up of a marble group of a satyr and nymph (from a Roman version inspired by a second century BCE Greek original which is illustrated in its entirety on p. 178), and with the following question: "How much of what we have been looking at in the last few chapters could, or should be, classified as violent or pornographic?" The contemporary topicality of this question is obvious and is handled perspicaciously by the author. The titles of the three sections following the introductory pages, "Satyr Porn," "Screwing the enemy" (illustrated, among others, from the marble relief of the emperor Claudius conquering Britannia), and "Obsessions" (the last bringing in pendants, tintinnabula, and curse tablets from the Roman imperial period), might give the reader the superficial impression of the drift of this chapter as mainly inspiring a judgmental frisson. However, Vout, as always, urges a balanced outlook: "Given how enlightened, egalitarian and lucid we pride ourselves on being, we should not be too quick to judge the Greeks and the Romans for the pleasure they derived from images of sex, sexualisation and sexual violence, any more than we should let them off the hook." (171) In any case, as is made clear also in this chapter, the ancients did have a strong notions of inappropriateness and obscenity with respect to sexuality and the erotic. Already early on, Vout makes a great deal of the disapproval voiced by Suetonius – who we may be sure was expressing common societal opinion – of the emperor Tiberius' extravagant fondness for Parrhasius' sexually graphic painting of Meleager and Atalanta (11-12, with also numerous references to this later on – see the Index). The author's closing observation on a second-century statue of Leda and the swan which was sold at a New York auction for over twelve million pounds — "[t]hose bidding are as guilty as anyone of pornographizing the classical antique and making Leda the ultimate commodity" —leads the reader into the sixth and final chapter, "Desire for the Antique."

The last chapter, like all the previous ones beautifully illustrated, delves into the later West's fascination with the erotic and sexual transparency of the material culture of Greco-Roman civilization, a fascination which captivated artists, scholars (including the all-important excavators and archaeologists), and collectors alike, starting in the Renaissance and then accelerating in the following centuries right into the present. The pioneer in this respect was the sixteenth-century Italian engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, who "produced a set of heterosexual couples having sex [where] the inspiration was classical." (207). The signal contribution of Johann Winckelmann is also highlighted as well as the crucial importance of the excavation of Pompeii in the mid eighteenth century which "brought both collectors…and scholars…into contact with real bodies" (209). It is not easy to disentangle the motivations, "…[s]ex, symbolism, art, scholarship, and pornography…," (214) behind all these interests and activities. As the author points out, already in Cicero's Rome the encounter with Greek art was a complex and multifaceted one. Detailed attention is paid to collectors, including galleries and museums, above all the British Museum, in the English-speaking world, starting in the eighteenth century and ending with the career of Edward Perry Warren. Already in her first chapter Vout underlines that the reception in the West adds for us another, and an indeed most significant, layer of meaning and meaningfulness to the erotically and sexually colored art and material culture of classical antiquity. In this chapter, therefore, the author engages throughout — especially in the closing pages — with questions of contemporary reception and controversy. As she puts it in her second-last sentence, all this art and material culture "are no easier to understand, their provocations still able to shock and to force us to reconsider what we thought we knew about the classical past, neoclassicism, what makes humans human." (237)

The book has thirteen pages of helpful and detailed suggestions for further reading, followed by a note on Greek pottery, a list of picture credits (beyond those for the British Museum, which are identified in the main text), and an index of names and topics.

The excellence of Vout's book, above all for its vivid thematic range, thought-provoking qualities, and splendid gallery of illustrations, not to forget its reasonable price, make it, in my judgment, an ideal companion text—alongside a text drawing on the written word in our ancient sources—for an undergraduate course on sexuality and the erotic in Greco-Roman civilization.


1.   The Hills of Rome: Signature of an Eternal City, Cambridge University Press, 2012; Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome, Cambridge University Press, 2007; Antinous, The Face of the Antique, Henry Moore Sculpture Trust, 2006.

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