Love and lust in antiquity

An exhibition in Athens offers an unparalleled - and at times almost pornographic - insight into the changing perceptions of Eros from the 7th century BC to Roman times.

To tell the story of love is no easy task. To tell it across eleven centuries, through hundreds of objets d’art, is harder still.

In one cameo, Eros drags the long-suffering Psyche by the hair and hits her with a mallet. In a clay sealing he holds a fishing cane and catches her in the form of a butterfly. In another clay fragment, he holds a torch, a symbol of love that sets the heart on fire glory.

But, mercifully, love and lust were what the ancient Greeks were good at. They enjoyed it and laid it bare, in all its physical glory, in ancient texts and art, on vases, pots and vessels, through statues and jewellery and lucky charms, in garden decorations and public ornamentation which is why the story of Love, as told for the first time through a collection of eye-popping art, is so compelling.

And why, within four days of opening in Athens on December 10, more than 5,000 people had waited in line to see it.

“Eros is the great unifier, a driving force that the ancients lived up, liked and depicted with abandon either as a winged deity or sexual act in objects great and small,” says Yiorgos Tassoulas, a curator at the Museum of Cycladic Art where the long-awaited show will run until April next year.
“That made our task a little easier.”

Some 272 masterpieces, dating from the 6th century BC to the 4th century AD, have been amassed from some 50 museums to explain the spell that Eros, the god of love, the loosener of limbs, can cast on us all.

With many displayed for the first time, the exhibition offers an unparalleled – and at times almost pornographic – insight into the changing perceptions of Eros from the 7th century BC to Roman times. Alongside rarely seen antiquities from Macedonia, Thrace and Delos, artworks from the Louvre, Vatican and National Archaeological Museum in Cyprus, reveal love as it is: tender, passionate, irresistible, merciless, maddening, painful and bittersweet.

“We searched the storerooms of museums to find objects that had never before been exhibited,” said Tassoulas. “We didn’t just want to go for the highlights. It’s a very important show. We wanted it all.”

All is what spectators get, not least because the ancients viewed Eros with such breadth.

All-encompassing, it embraced sentimental love, erotic desire, passion and the heights of lust. From the affectionate embrace to wild group sex, Eros came in many forms. And as the exhibition so artfully reveals, there was no position, no touch, no predilection too outre to pay homage to the eternally youthful god.
“For the ancients Eros was very broad, it was life and death, the beginning and the end, as evidenced in the alpha and omega of their very expression of it: agapw,” says Professor Nicholaos Stampolidis, the museum’s director.

“That in itself explains why they had a hundred or more epithets to describe it.”

Which is why, says the professor, an eminent archaeologist who has long worked on Crete, he was determined not to allow the exhibition to be “only about sex.” With a theme that was so multi-faceted it had to be backed up with “rigorous research.”

“We didn’t want to put on a high society event which is what most exhibitions end up being, and we didn’t want to talk only about sex,” insisted Stampolidis. “Ancient Greeks were not prudes. As human beings they were balanced. They had their laws and social structures but they were open-minded, tolerant and free of guilt and that is what we have tried to show.”

To this end, the academic spent three and a half years “thinking only”

about love. “It wasn’t an easy task. It’s easy to write about love in either poetry or prose. It’s much more difficult to represent it visually.”

With the help of, inter alia, a peerless collection of phallic lamps, idols, graphic cameos, erotic figurines and love-letters engraved in clay, he devised the idea of dividing the exhibition into nine sections.

Beginning with Eros’ birth, the show tells the story of his upbringing by his mother Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, through a range of spectacular ornaments, including a vase that shows him as a baby being spanked with a sandal and a statuette in which he appears to weep after Aphrodite has scolded him.

It then moves on to the ancient gods and humans struck by his love darts, as conquests go a formidable list, before covering famous love affairs (think Antony and Cleopatra) throughout Greek and Roman history, homosexual love, prostitution and the erotic symbols that the ancients saw as harbingers of fertility and good luck.

“The aim of the exhibition is not to shock,” says Professor Stampolidis.

“We have not been hypocritical.”

But it is hard not to be shocked by this mighty survey of practices and attitudes to sex in classical times.

For one, the ancients appear to have been obsessed by it. And in the stories and fantasies of the ancient world, the varieties in relations between the sexes, as indeed within each sex, seems to know no bounds.

For Aphrodite and Eros are also cruel gods: capable of burning people up, tossing them through the winds of passion before they go insane. As Plato has the aging Sophocles say at the beginning of his Republic: “I am delighted to have left that [Aphrodite] behind me; it is as if I had escaped from some cruel and crazy taskmaster.”

The exhibition, accordingly, does a good job of depicting the dual nature of love. In room after room, and showcase after showcase, viewers are confronted with the goddess Psyche (soul) in various guises being tormented by Eros.

In one cameo, Eros drags the long-suffering Psyche by the hair and hits her with a mallet. In a clay sealing he holds a fishing cane and catches her in the form of a butterfly. In another clay fragment, he holds a torch, a symbol of love that sets the heart on fire “and” says Prof Stampolidis “can also burn the soul.”

All this before viewers even get to the top-floor of the exhibition where children under the age of sixteen are warned not to enter “unattended”.

There in three dimly lit rooms reserved for artistic renditions of sexual congress, pederasty (socially accepted in ancient times) homoerotic love, and the quaintly-named “bucolic love affair,” visitors are bombarded with images from the plainly bawdy to the outright obscene.

From scenes of anal copulation to mutual oral sex, to lucky charms of giant phalluses and engravings of orgies between humans and the half-man, half beast satyrs and silens, Eros is portrayed unflinchingly in all its ancient glory.

“What has been very satisfying is the number of young people, in their twenties and early thirties, who have come to the show and been transfixed not only by the objects but the [English and Greek] wall-texts,” says Tassoulas who helped curate the exhibition. “You can see them standing there reading the texts for hours. Education is our main goal, so we’re delighted.”

In one text, displayed prominently next to a showcase of vases and other antiquities depicting young boys involved in erotic acts with older men, an ancient scribe declares his amore Greco for the younger of the species.

“I delight in the prime of a boy at 12,” he writes. “One of 13 is much more desirable. He who is 14 is a still sweeter flower of the lovers and one who is just beginning his 15th year is yet more delightful. The 16th year is that of the gods and as for the 17th, it is not for me but for Zeus to seek it.”

Surely Aristophanes would have approved? Never one to be reticent about such things, the great 5th century BC comic came up with a combined 197 ways of describing the male and female genitalia.

“We felt it prudent for children under the age of 16 to be warned,” said the professor.

“But although they may have heard about, and read, everything that they see here in magazines or on the internet, we think it important that they also learn about love through art.”

Tassoulas puts it another way: “We’re not forbidding entry to children,” he says. “After all, why should the intensely erotic scenes that we see on television be considered OK and Eros, as represented some 2,500 years ago, be regarded as shocking? What this exhibition shows is that things haven’t really changed.”

Helena Smith writes for the Guardian and Observer newspapers based in Athens.