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Classical Art  
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experience is represented in classical Greek and Roman art in several ways.

Some images of same-sex courtship, pursuit, and sexual intercourse survive, especially on Greek vases. These images invariably focus on the activities and responses of men, and they seem to have been made for male patrons.

There are as well a large number of statues that can be understood in relation to ancient literary texts and inscriptions about same-sex desire and desiring gazes, again male.

In addition, ancient art offers some interesting representations of transvestism, and it provides images both of and of the category known as the .

These bits of evidence, although they all are very different from one another, reveal various aspects of ancient Greek and Roman men's experiences of gender and sexuality at the point where these categories diverge from our own.

For example, as modern viewers, we might expect to find examples that we can be certain show us lesbians or that speak to lesbian desire, but we will not find such unambigous images.

We might also expect to find representations of the cinaedus, that Roman figure attested in literature as a man who prefers to play the passive role in a homoerotic system that is never admitted to be fully reciprocal; but, again, such images do not exist.

The current debates in the field of classics about whether there was a "gay" subculture in Rome to which some cinaedi belonged cannot be resolved so far with the aid of visual or archaeological evidence, for there simply is none. What can be said is that certain categories of people could be talked about by male authors in their writings but were apparently considered out of bounds for depiction in visual form.

Greek Vases

The richest source of evidence both for homoerotic sexual activity and for viewers' apparent desire to look at such activity comes from the vases of the later sixth and fifth century B.C.E. in Athens. At the time, Athens dominated the vase making and exporting market, so their decorated vases are found all over the Mediterranean, and Etruscan buyers in central Italy seem to have bought them in substantial quantities.

The vases show everything from Zeus running along one side of a vase in pursuit of the charming boy Ganymede, who rolls a hoop on the other side (Berlin Painter), to a young man fondling the genitals of a smaller and clearly younger boy before him, to "intercrural" sex where the man's penis is clearly placed between the boy's thighs.

All these vases circulated within the culture of that held an honored place in later sixth and fifth century elite Athenian society. As represented in literature, affairs between youths in their not-yet-married older teens and pre-pubescent boys (both freeborn citizens) were understood to be thoroughly respectable. The older partner acted as a mentor as well as lover of the younger, teaching him the ways of manhood in the culture and preparing him for a life of citizenship and responsibility.

Penetrative sex is not illustrated in these relationships because of the stigma attached in Greek elite culture to being penetrated; the penetrator can, in effect, have sex with almost anyone as long as he remains the active party.

The vases may in some cases have been used at drinking parties attended by men and youths who were entertained by boy and girl slaves and prostitutes; but some of them were gifts given in the process of wooing boys, and the vases often bear the name of a boy and the word KALOS, or beautiful.

That the vases formed part of a culture of institutionalized and socially regulated pederastic sex in exchange for gifts is visible from the scenes on the vases as well as from the writings of men such as Plato.

The vases occasionally show us scenes of homoerotic (and heteroerotic) sex that involve people looking on, watching at doors, and even masturbating as they watch. Many of these scenes have as their protagonists the ever-cheerful, ever-ready satyrs, half man and half goat. The satyrs delight in sex with anything, living or inanimate, and looking on also gives them very obvious pleasure.

That men felt desire at the sight of sexual activity is one aspect of the scenes, whether with satyrs or humans, but another important aspect is that the vases themselves seem to have been meant as incitements to desire.

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Top: An ancient Greek vase painting marked with the word KALOS, or beautiful.
Middle: An ancient Greek vase painting depicting sexual activity between a man (left) and a youth.
Above: An ancient marble sculpture of a hermaphrodite.

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