Etruscans and Romans all had an uninhibited attitude to sexuality and it
permeated not only their art but all aspects of their lives. Sex was a natural
part of life everywhere, whether private or public, in drinking feasts, sports
contests or in the temple.
The goddess Aphrodite
The Greek goddess of love was Aphrodite. Her son Eros pierced gods and humans alike with his love darts. The Aphrodite of Knidos is one famous depiction of the goddess of love, and was made by the sculptor Praxiteles in the 4th Century B.C.E. It is the first large nude statue of a female figure in the ancient world. Even centuries later writers were praising her sensuous aura. The statue was copied with variations many times. This Roman copy derives from the Late Hellenistic type of the Medici Venus.
Rapture and lust
These vessels were used as tableware for the festive banquet of the symposion. The pictures on the drinking bowls, cups and wine mixing vessels show erotic scenes. They depict mythical beings from the entourage of the god Dionysuos such as satyrs, mae-nads and nymphs.
Kylix, sympotic reveler and hetaira (ca. 510 BC) by Thalia-PainterAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
They also show the people who used these vessels for the symposion, men of various ages and hetairai, who were professional female companions similar to courtesans.
Kylix, young man and girl (520 - 510 CB) by Kiss-PainterAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Two Fragments of a kylix: Symplegma Men and hetaira (510 - 500 BC) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Homosexual and heterosexual acts are shown as having almost equal status in this vivid depiction from around 500 B.C.E. In reality, though, social norms were far more strict.
Fragment of a Water Basin (1st century AD) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Satyrs and nymphs
This scene is on a fragment of a water basin. A sexually-aroused satyr is leaping up from seat among rocks and trying to tear the cloak from a nymph‘s lower body.
She is resisting, but her upper body and behind are already bared.
Pottery with erotic relief
Even in archaic times the Greeks were familiar with relief-decorated pottery. In the Hellenistic and imperial Roman periods, certain types made with stamps or negative moulds, such as terra sigillata, were extremely popular. Erotic subjects were among the many which were used.
Form for arretine pottery with relief (20. Jahrhundert) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The great demand for antiquities with erotic visual subjects in the 19th Century led to the production of a huge output of imitations and forgeries, some of which were acquired by the Berlin museums. After scientific analysis this mould has been acknowledged to be a fake.
stamps, arretine pottery with relief (20. Jahrhundert) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
This object, too, is a modern imitation. Just like the previous mould, stamps like this were used in Antiquity as negative moulds in the production of relief pottery.
Youth and hetaira
This small pot with its even smaller pictorial decoration is one of the most famous pieces of Greek art with erotic or explicit sexual content. No handbook of sexuality in Greek Antiquity was complete without a depiction of the intimate encounter between the seated youth and the young woman, probably a hetaira, or courtesan.
Wine Jug by the Schuwalow Painter: An Erotic Miniature (Detail) (around 430 BC) by Schuwalow PainterAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The young man is nestled closely into his reclining chair, his arms pinned to his seat and his legs pressed together and stretched out with his clothing slipped to his knee, and he is ready to perform the sexual act with his completely naked companion. The hair of the sitting person is falling in long locks over his temples and neck, unmistakeably denoting him as a youth, who is clearly getting his first sexual experience at a symposion or in a brothel.
The woman is clearly taking the lead. Because of social norms and pictorial conventions she cannot be a respectable citizen, but must be a prostitute. The hint of intimacy in the slight touching of their heads and their eye contact is no indication to the contrary.
Passion in terracotta
Clay statuettes of people, gods and mythological beings are found in practically all ancient contexts, in houses, sacred sites and tombs. They were commonly used as votive offerings, grave goods, toys and domestic items. Small artworks with erotic or sexual subjects frequently come from the world of Dionysos and the theatre, especially the comic theatre. They are also common as votive offerings to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
A model for the wedding night (Ca. 490 BC) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
This is probably a depiction of a bride on her bridal bed. The female figure is lying in a pro-vocative position with her right leg angled so that her body and private parts are virtually exposed. She is wearing a bridal crown on her head and is dressed in nothing but a red veil barely covering her breasts and reaching down to her hips. Her barely concealed nudity is a reference to the bridal night and her ability to bear children.
Similar clay figures of reclining nude girls – albeit dating from the late 5th Century B.C.E. – have been found in tombs of children and young people in the Keramikos area of Athens, probably intended as part of the goods they would have needed for their weddings in the afterlife. Many of the terracotta types in these tombs depict the girl as a bride.
We know from written sources that a girl would offer toys and figures of a girl – representing herself – to Artemis before her wedding to ask for a happy and fertile marriage, since the goal of a successful marriage was to produce offspring to secure the continuation of the fam-ily.
Relief: Leda and the Swan (1st century BC) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Leda and the Swan
Many Greek myths which have been depicted visually
deal with seduction and desire. Whole books could be filled with the exploits
of Zeus alone, who sometimes changed into an animal to go on his erotic
adventures. The most well-known of these stories are those of Europa and the
bull and of Leda and the swan. Leda can be seen in this relief.
It depicts that well-known episode from Greek mythology. Zeus in the form of a swan is cou-pling with Leda. The offspring of this event were the beautiful Helen of Troy and the Dioscuri. Winged Eros is on the right and on the left behind Leda is an altar, and the whole scene is framed by a pair of trees.
Sensual wall paintings
The painter and art historian Wilhelm Zahn (1800 – 1871) made exact traced copies of Roman wall paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum during his trips to Italy between 1824 and 1836. Then he coloured his tracings and published them in volumes which gained widespread attention at the time.
Satyr and Hermaphrodite (100/200) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Satyr and Hermaphrodite
Erotic sculptures like this marble grouping can also be
found in the gardens of Roman villas. It captures two very different figures in
a curious moment which can only be deciphered if we look more closely.
The muscular smaller figure on the left is a satyr, with his satyr tail still visible above his but-tocks. The satyr has approached the other figure on the right, which he takes to be a nymph or a maenad, with erotic intent. Like the viewer of this grouping, the satyr only becomes aware of the other’s ambiguity on coming closer.
The seated figure on the right is identified as a hermaphrodite by the presence of female breasts and male genitals. The hermaphrodite reacts to the satyr‘s advances by holding him tightly in a leg grip and trying to pull him closer. The satyr resists strongly, his efforts to es-cape the grip shown in the turn of his torso. The outcome is unclear – in this snapshot neither of the participants has the upper hand.
What we see here is a play of attraction and repulsion, of desire, surprise and fright, held in fragile balance.
Bells and Charms (1. – 3. Jh. n. Chr.) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
For the Romans, the phallus was a symbol of fertility
and luck, protecting houses, people and animals against evil. In the time of
the Roman emperors small phallic bronzes had many uses and forms. They were
worn around the neck to bring luck, but could also be fastened to a horse’s
Phallus amulets had many forms, such as here, for example, as simple genitals.
There are also phalluses combined with bulls’ heads and other erotic symbols.
As well as male members together with the fig sign – a hand with the thumb protruding be-tween the index and middle fingers denoting the sexual act.
Tintinnabulum (1. – 3. Jh. n. Chr.) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Bells (tintinnabula) are a special form of the phallic amulet. Unlike the smaller lucky charms, these could take on much larger dimensions, some even reaching a length of 23 cm and a height of 27 cm! The Berlin collection has only a few tintinnabula. This one, though lacking its bells, has the hind legs of a lion, wings and even two additional phalluses!
“Berlin Hermaphroditus” (Around 120 – 140 AD) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
This statue has been heavily altered and depicts
Hermaphroditos, in mythology the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, with both female
breasts and male genitals, who embodies the principle of instability of sexual identity
and intersex beauty. On his head he is wearing a mithra, a woman’s headscarf.
Erotic and sexual themes were avoided for a long time by scholars of Antiquity, but nowa-days they are a perfectly natural topic of study, shedding light on such areas as social histo-ry, the idea of the body and gender roles.
Texts based on:
Die Antikensammlung. Altes Museum, Neues Museum, Pergamonmuseum. Auswahl der ausgestellten Werke. Hrsg. von Agnes Schwarzmaier, Andreas Scholl und Martin Maischberger, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2016 (übersetzte und überarbeitete Fassung der 4. Auflage 2012).
Concept: Lisa Janke
Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz