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arts

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Classical Art  
 
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This suggests, as do some literary texts, that visual stimulation was assumed to be part of men's desire for both women and boys. A second-century C.E. satiric travelogue written by a man now known as Pseudo Lucian tells, for example, of a group of men visiting the famous nude statue of Aphrodite at her sanctuary in Knidos, on the coast of Asia Minor.

Granted they go as tourists rather than worshippers, but what is most interesting is the way one viewer expresses his desire for the female beauty of the front of the statue while a second man exclaims over the boyish glory of the back of the figure.

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Thinking about these texts, one sees the great and serene statues of nude athletes, warriors and gods of the Greek past with different eyes, sees them increasingly as objects of visual desire with a strongly homoerotic component.

Whether nude statues of Aphrodite evoked a similar homoerotic response among female viewers is hard to know given that women left so little writing or other evidence of their feelings, but the possibility is there in spite of their being so deeply silenced. Only Sappho's fragmentary poems speak of delight in seeing beautiful girls; and women's motives in giving statues of beautiful goddesses to sanctuaries, although homoerotic visual pleasure may well have played a part, remain unknown beyond their expressions of piety and devotion.

Although both Greek and Roman art show men in homoerotic sexual situations, the few scenes depicting women together are extremely hard to interpret. One vase shows a group of women reclining on banqueting couches and drinking together, some as couples under one blanket, but they use none of the sexual gestures common on vases depicting men.

A second vase represents two nude women, one standing, the other crouching before her and examining the standing woman's crotch. One cannot tell whether the scene concerns sex or depilation, who the women are (probably prostitutes because of their short hair), and who the intended viewers were.

The Roman images of sexual activity provide no equivalents to even these mysterious images, although tombstones with pairs of women in traditional familial poses may indicate the existence of lesbian couples. Again, there is no confirming evidence.

Roman Art

Because the Romans had no equivalent to institutionalized pederasty and did have laws on the books that penalized sex between adult men and citizen boys, they seem never to have had a strong tradition of representing homoerotic sex in the arts.

Their Italian neighbors, the Etruscans, left no literary evidence about attitudes to sexuality, but some of their paintings and decorative objects do show men having anal sex; some scholars assert that these men must be slaves to have been shown in this form.

Among the few exceptions to the Roman reticence about showing homoerotic sex is a famous and problematic silver cup (London, British Museum: Warren Cup), believed by some to be modern rather than ancient. It shows two young men about to have anal sex in an elegant interior; on one side of the cup a figure peeks at them through a doorway.

Group heterosexual activity, as shown in the wall paintings of the Suburban Baths in Pompeii, includes at least one scene in which a man anally penetrates a man who is penetrating a woman.

These are exceptions to the rule that, despite the plentiful graffiti and literary texts about homoerotic activity between men (and the rarer ones about lesbian sex, also written by men), the visual arts of Rome avoid the subject except in idealized and mythicized forms, as when Ganymede and other mythological figures are shown on the walls of Pompeian houses.

Gender Instability: Hermaphroditism, Transvestism, Androgyny

In later Greek and Roman art images appear that question the notion of stable sexual and gender identities. The most famous of these is the hermaphrodite, the youth with a penis and breasts. The Greeks (and Roman copyists) depicted the figure lying down asleep in a pose that seems from the back to be a woman but from the front reveals the confusing attributes and shocks the viewer.

This notion of the shocking joke emerges in Pompeian paintings that combine the hermaphrodite with a satyr or faun who recoils in horror at the sight of the "truth" about the object of his lust. For the Romans, the ambivalence about "prodigies," whose characteristics confused ideas about the natural, revealed itself in the fact that along with the jokes went old stories about burning or burying alive real hermaphrodites.

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