Wine Cup with a Sexual Encounter

Foundry Painterabout 470 B.C.

The J. Paul Getty Museum

The J. Paul Getty Museum

The Greek orator Demosthenes summed up a symposion as "revelry, sex, and drinking." An integral part of Athenian aristocratic society, a symposion was a social gathering at which men ate, drank, played party games, were entertained with music and dance, and had sex with female prostitutes, mistresses, or male youths. This red-figure cup explicitly depicts a sexual encounter between a young man and a woman who is probably a hetaira, or prostitute. Such erotic scenes frequently decorated vases like this drinking cup, designed for use at a symposion and in keeping with the tone of the evening. The symposion was an essential element of Athenian social structure. Athenian men did not marry until they were in their thirties, and the symposion provided an important sexual outlet. Even after marriage, usually an arranged pairing with an extremely sheltered fourteen- or fifteen-year-old girl, a man probably spent little to no time with his wife. Marriage was designed to produce legitimate heirs; the symposion with its music, games, and hetairai was designed to produce pleasure.

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