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Classical Art  
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Along with the hermaphrodite's challenge to nature came images of mythological figures of hyper-masculine men in women's clothing. Hercules appears in statues and paintings wearing the feminine garments of Queen Omphale, who had such control over the hero that she could exchange clothes with him and make him sit spinning with her female courtiers.

Omphale always appears nude with the lion skin and club of Hercules, and the nature of her cross-dressing is always confused by her nudity and presentation as feminine.

The same problem attaches to depictions of the Amazons, whose femininity is always asserted through pose, exposure of breasts and legs, and the deeper fact of their invariably being defeated by Greek men.

By contrast, Achilles dresses in women's clothing but is nevertheless always clearly a youth because of his athletic pose and the gesture of reaching for a sword, a gesture that reveals him to Odysseus who has come to find him. Achilles appears cross-dressed on decorative objects, paintings and even funerary sarcophagi, because his mother attempted to save him from death in the Trojan War by hiding him among girls at the court of a friendly king.

For mythological heroes to appear in women's clothing does nothing to challenge the gender system as it was practiced; rather, the point of the stories is the reassertion of the system. So too with Omphale in her Venus-style body and the ever-dying Amazons. Both male heroes go on to deeds of super-human strength and bravery, and these cross-dressing episodes seem merely to cast into relief the power of their masculinity.

Why these episodes should appear on funerary monuments remains an open question. Part of the answer may have to do with death's power of change, but perhaps there is as well an element of fascination with the instability of gender and even of sex in a world where mythological figures can and do change sex as well as gender.

Finally, androgyny as a feature of young men (but not of girls) is an important element in both later Greek and Roman art. Gods such as Bacchus and Apollo were regularly represented as silky, long-haired youths, their poses sinuous and their musculature undefined. Although they are both powerful gods, capable of slaughter as well as joy and art, their boyish bodies were clearly meant to evoke the sexiness of pederasty's boy lovers.

This model seems to have held no attraction for those Romans who, commissioning statues or reliefs for the tombs of their beloved relatives and friends, asked the artists to combine a portrait head with a famous statue body.

For girls, the figure of Diana was the most popular of all, but here the boyishness of the goddess of the hunt is obviated by the emphasis in myth and religion on Diana's chastity and her avoidance of men. Nevertheless, if there is a faint sense of female androgyny and of a world of girls without or prior to men, it remained submerged under the normative, assumed heterosexuality of virgin girls who would inevitably marry.

Young Roman men appear in commemorative and honorific statues with the athletic bodies of classical Greek heroes: except for the beloved of the emperor Hadrian, Antinous. The youth is known from about a hundred portraits made after his mysterious drowning in the Nile (in 129-130 C.E.), and his image almost always stresses the sensual, unmuscular body, the thick curly hair, the soft smooth face, and the curving lips of the beloved boy.

Antinous's portraits regularly stress his resemblance to Bacchus and Apollo, to Hermes and the woodland god Sylvanus, all of whom are young and a bit androgynous. Even when he appears in the guise of a pharaoh to stress his identity as Osiris, one of the gods the emperor associated with the dead youth whom he declared a god, his body never evokes muscular adult male power.

Antinous is in some sense the pivotal figure in a sexual system built out of paradoxes and ambivalences, a system that made all things possible to the discreet but actively penetrative elite man, while pretending that such a man would never lose his head over the wrong person. To see Antinous (and the ancient Greek and Roman sexual system) in this light is to understand why the lesbian and the cinaedus must remain invisible and why the hermaphrodite must be a joke or be murdered.

Natalie Boymel Kampen

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literature >> Overview:  Classical Mythology

The Greco-Roman myths concerning same-sex love have been of crucial importance to the Western gay and lesbian literary heritage, both as texts and as icons.

social sciences >> Overview:  Greece: Ancient

The institution of pederasty (paiderastia) was a conspicuous feature of ancient Greek public and private life, but other forms of male-male sexual relations flourished in the Greco-Roman cosmopolis of the second and third centuries C.E.

literature >> Overview:  Greek Literature: Ancient

Ancient Greece holds a unique place in the heritage of homosexual literature as it was a society that openly celebrated same-sex love in its poetry and prose.

literature >> Overview:  Roman Literature

Roman writers on homosexual or bisexual themes generally followed Greek models; but unlike the Greeks, Romans condoned sex with slaves.

social sciences >> Overview:  Rome: Ancient

Ancient Rome's attitude toward same-sex sexual activity was remarkably various, with role, age, and status as important as gender in the regulation of sexual relations.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Androgyny

A figure of uncertain gender in whom identifying sexual characteristics are stylized or combined, the androgyne is a significant and recurrent subject in art, one that has often held special significance for glbtq people.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Diana

The goddess of chastity, Diana is frequently depicted with nymphs lovingly caring for her body, thus enacting a considerable degree of physical intimacy.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects in the Visual Arts: Dionysus

The Greek god of wine, revelry, and orgiastic delights, and the patron god of hermaphrodites and transvestites, Dionysus has been extremely popular as a subject of Western art.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Endymion

Endymion is frequently represented in art as an exemplar of male physical beauty, youthful innocence, and sexual accessibility.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Ganymede

Since antiquity Ganymede, the beautiful Phrygian youth abducted by Jupiter, has served as an artistic expression for homosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Hercules

A complex and multivalent character, Hercules is an exemplary hero whose myths remind us that a supreme manifestation of virility and physicality can also encompass sexual deeds outside the heteronormative.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Hermaphrodites

Hermaphrodites are a common subject in ancient art, but disappear from art history until the Renaissance, when they are most often employed as non-erotic symbols of the union of opposites.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects in the Visual Arts: Narcissus

Although the myth of Narcissus was originally intended as a moral fable against excessive pride, Narcissus has functioned in the arts as a symbol of same-sex passion, as well as of masturbation and effeminacy.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Orpheus

Although most artists since the Hellenistic age ignore the homosexual aspect of Orpheus, depicting him instead as the classical pattern of the poet-musician, notable exceptions are Colard Mansion and Albrecht Dürer.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Priapus

A Phrygian fertility god whose cult spread throughout the Hellenistic world and usually depicted with enormous genitals, Priapus was the patron of all in need of luck, especially men and women in search of sexual satisfaction.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Psyche

The story of Psyche, a late addition to Olympian divinities, is often interpreted as an allegory of the human confrontation with desire and the divine; although universal, it has had particular resonance for glbtq people.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Sappho

Despite Sappho's status as most ancient lesbian foremother, her image is almost entirely absent from modern and contemporary lesbian art.

social sciences >> Hadrian

The love of the second-century Roman emperor Hadrian for the beautiful youth Antinous was exceptional not because the lovers were male, but because of its intensity.

literature >> Lucian

In Lucian's satiric works, homosexuality is treated as one of a related series of personal traits that characterize villainy, pretension, and ignorance, while the Erôtes of pseudo-Lucian advocates male-male love as honorable and as a sign of social progress.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

arts >> Subjects of the Visual Arts: Harmodius and Aristogeiton

Athenian lovers Harmodius and Aristogeiton were remembered in ancient Greece as the great tyrannicides and celebrated as lovers, patriots, and martyrs.


Ajootian, Aileen. "The Only Happy Couple: Hermaphrodites and Gender." Naked Truths: Sexuality and Gender in Classical Art and Archaeology. A. Koloski-Ostrow and C. L. Lyons, eds. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. 220-242.

Clarke, John R. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art: 100 BC-AD 250. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Dover, Kenneth J. Greek Homosexuality. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Gleason. Maud W. Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome. Princeton,N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Hawley, Richard. "The Dynamics of Beauty in Classical Greece." Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings: Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity. D. Montserrat, ed. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 37-54.

Kampen, Natalie Boymel. "Omphale, or the Instability of Gender." Sexuality in Ancient Art. N. B. Kampen, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 233-246.

Kilmer, Martin. Greek Erotica on Attic Red-figure Vases. London: Duckworth, 1993.

Meyer, Hugo. Antinoos. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern Verlag, 1991.

Stewart, Andrew. Art, Desire and the Body in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Williams, Craig. Roman Homosexuality. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.


    Citation Information
    Author: Kampen, Natalie Boymel  
    Entry Title: Classical Art  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated June 11, 2005  
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