Sex in Ancient Greece: to have or not to have?

Sex was always in front of peoples’ eyes in the ancient world, as Michael Scott reveals...

This article was first published in 2010

Credit: Detail of a red figure squat lekythos (terracotta) (see also 325673) by Greek, (4th century BC)
Private Collection/ Photo © Heini Schneebeli/ The Bridgeman Art Library
Nationality / copyright status: Greek / out of copyright

The Cycladic Museum in Athens is currently hosting a new exhibition on Eros in the ancient world. It has gripped Athenian audiences and world media, not least for its very visual display of some very sexual material.


Once hidden away in off-limits ‘cabinets of curiosity’ in museums across the world, objects as diverse as lamps, drinking cups, pendants and cameos displaying scenes of sexual activity are coming out of the closet, and at last being credited with the same kind of high profile visuality in the modern world as they had in ancient Greece.

This exhibition makes clear that sex was always in front of peoples’ eyes in the ancient world – from statues in the street to in people’s homes. More importantly, it seeks to show what ancient Greek society thought about different kinds of sexual relations at different stages in life and how the conception of Eros changed over time. These images and sculptures are, finally, not simply being used to adorn touristy calendars and mugs, but being put right at the centre of a thoughtful and scholarly investigation into the cultural mores of the ancient world.

The fascinating thing is that this sexual imagery was doing just the same thing in ancient Greece. That is, it didn’t just indulge viewers, but often tricked them simultaneously into questioning their own sexual customs and actions as well. In the middle of the symposium for example, a reveler might choose to lift and admire a particular drinking cup with a sex scene running around the outside of it featuring a hypothetical reveler having sex with a prostitute.

The real-life reveler may not have been so far off doing the same himself – this was a symposium after all. But if he chose to drink from that cup and finish off the wine it contained, he would find another image waiting for him at the bottom of the cup: that of a (his?) wife sitting at home knitting waiting for her husband.

The cup’s imagery plays with its viewer: enticing him in with a scene of sex that he is only too able to copy in real life, and then confronting him with another image of his loyal obedient wife at home. The cup forces the viewer to question his forthcoming action: sex – to have or not to have? What is the ‘right’ course of action?

The more you look for it, the more you realise that the sex imagery of ancient Greece doesn’t just indulge the viewer in pornographic fantasy, it plays its own game by forcing its users to constantly question their actions and beliefs.


Reprinted from Neos Kosmos