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Sex and death in the classical world

From striking coffin portraits to boldly erotic statues, the art of the Romans and Greeks tells us compelling stories about how they lived, died, and loved.

The Kerameikos, or “potters’ quarters”, in ancient Athens was a place where two very different images of the human body collided – and two very different functions of those images. The painted pottery, that staple of Athenian everyday life, from the drinking party to the kitchen, was produced under the shadow of one of the main cemeteries of the city, next to the memories of Athenians past and of the marble memorials to the dead.

If images helped Athenians live in the company of each other, they also helped in keeping the dead in the company of the living. One of the most arresting jobs of ancient – as well as modern – sculptures was to be some kind of antidote to death and loss.

No statue brings that home more forcefully than the marble memorial of a young woman unearthed in the 1970s in the countryside around Athens. Her name, written on the inscription underneath, is Phrasikleia – and that means something like “aware of her own renown”. Carved around 550 BCE, she is one of the most striking of the surviving grave markers from the ancient Greek world. She has a wonderfully patterned dress, clothed for eternity in her finest. The traces of red pigment that still remain are a useful reminder that most Greek sculpture was richly, even gaudily, painted; and wearing that strange smile that is so common in early Greek sculpture, she seems to guarantee some kind of “real life” in the marble. For, in the whole world, it is only living human beings who actually smile.


Life after death: Phrasikleias memorial. Photo: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

What is so affecting about Phrasikleia is the way that she engages us as viewers even now. She looks straight out and challenges us to look back at her, and in her hand she holds a flower – whether she is keeping it for herself or maybe going to offer it to us, is not clear. The inscription beneath tells us that this is her tomb statue, and it almost lets her speak to us, in her own voice: “I shall always be called a maiden because I got that name from the gods instead of marriage.” That is to say: “I died before my wedding day.” How do I look? She challenges our senses and provokes our senses. There is a vivid encounter here between Phrasikleia and her viewers, and one that we can, if we try, still share.

Phrasikleia faces death in the most forthright way, resolutely refusing to be forgotten. But can an image of a person actually suspend the loss of them, or even for a moment deny it? Hundreds of years later than Phrasikleia, some of the haunting faces from Roman Egypt seem to attempt exactly that. They are almost disconcertingly modern and they hint at what must once have been a major tradition of painted portraits in the classical world – though almost all traces of it are lost to us except in those few places where climatic conditions over the centuries have been kind to wood and paint (Egypt is the main one). It is striking that they incorporate many of the tricks that we associate with modern representations of the human face: the modelling in light and shade, and those subtle catch-lights in the eye. At first sight, they look like the kind of portraits that you might hang on a wall (and that is exactly where many of them do hang in modern museums and galleries). But the truth is rather different. These portraits actually belonged on coffins. Most of them have been removed from their original casings, but a few have remained intact.

One of these is the coffin of a young man called Artemidoros, who died in the early second century CE, excavated at Hawara in central Egypt. We know almost nothing more about him than what we see in his painted face and in the words and images that go with it (whether the fractures of his skull revealed by X-ray occurred before or after death is unclear). But the elaborate coffin suggests a well-heeled family and the extravagant decoration betrays a cosmopolitan way of death – and of life. His mummy is a wonderful combination of the traditions of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and a brilliant example of the cultural mix of the ancient Mediterranean. On the casing are typically Egyptian scenes: a picture of a mummy being laid on a couch and those characteristically animalheaded Egyptian gods. His name is Greek and is written in Greek across his front. “Artemidoros, farewell” it reads (albeit with a careless misspelling in the “farewell”). His face is a Roman portrait.


A young man called Artemidoros, who died in the second century CE. Photo: The trustees of the British Museum

Many other cultures had, of course, represented the human face before, but it was the Romans who made individual likeness of this kind very much their own. Roman art was a complex and creative amalgam, often in dialogue with – and developing – Greek styles of representation. But portraiture was firmly embedded in Roman traditions, and in particular in their rituals of death. The tombs that came to line the roads into the capital greeted the visitor with the faces of the dead. Even more striking, funeral processions of the elite featured family members who wore masks representing the ancestors of the deceased (as well as dressing in the distinctive costume of each one), and the central hall of rich Roman houses was almost a gallery of the images of dead forebears. In fact, when Romans thought about where the impulse to portraiture came from, one of the stories they told was a story of loss: not in this case of death but of poignant absence of another kind.

It is a story that has come down to us because it was included in a vast encyclopaedia compiled by the obsessive Roman polymath, Pliny “the Elder” (so called to distinguish him from “the Younger”), who died in 79 CE, trying to get too close to the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed, and preserved, Pompeii. In his discussion of the origins of different forms of art, he gave a starring role to a young woman who was the creative genius behind one of the earliest portraits. Her lover, it was said, was going away on a long journey and, before he went, she got a lamp, threw his shadow against the wall and traced round it to create his silhouette.

The look of loss: two mummy portraits. Photos: The trustees of the British Museum

There are all kinds of complexities to this tale. Where or when the story began, we do not know (it is actually set in the early Greek city of Corinth); and despite the leading role of the young woman, she remains anonymous, known only by the name of her father as “Boutades’ daughter”. He was a potter who went on to construct a permanent ceramic version of the man from the silhouette – which was said to be the very first 3-D, modelled portrait ever made. But whatever its precise background, in telling this story, some Romans at least were imagining that portraiture from its very origin was not just a way of remembering or memorialising a person, but a way of actually keeping their presence in our world.

Something much like that is going on with the face of Artemidoros. Marks of domestic wear and tear on some of these coffins, even occasionally some children’s scribbling, suggest that for a while at least they stood in the land of the living. Before eventually being buried in the ground, they had a place perhaps in the family home. These portraits, then, were not just memorials. They were attempts to keep the dead present among the living and to blur the boundary between this world and the next.


A mummy portrait (perhaps of a priest) from Roman Egypt. Photo: The trustees of the British Museum

Greek and Roman writers repeatedly explored the idea that the finest form of art was a perfect illusion of reality; or, to put it another way, that it was the pinnacle of artistic achievement that there should be no apparent difference between the image and its prototype.

The most famous anecdote along these lines concerned two rival painters of the late fifth century BCE, Zeuxis and Parrhasios, who held a competition to decide which of them was the more skilled. Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes so realistic that the birds flew in to eat them. It was a triumph of illusion that promised to win the day. Parrhasios, however, painted a curtain – which Zeuxis, flushed with his success, demanded that he draw aside to reveal the painting beneath. According to Pliny, who recounted the incident in his encyclopaedia, Zeuxis quickly realised his mistake and conceded victory, with the words: “I deceived only the birds, Parrhasios deceived me.”

No trace of any such paintings survives, if they ever existed beyond the anecdote. But we do have evidence for a marble statue that was the subject of a similar – though far more disturbing – story. That is a sculpture made by the artist Praxiteles around 330 BCE – a work now usually known as the “Aphrodite of Knidos”, after the Greek town on the west coast of modern Turkey that was its first home. It was celebrated in the ancient world as a milestone in art, since it was the first full-sized naked statue of a female figure (technically, in this case, a goddess in human form), after centuries in which sculptures of women had, like Phrasikleia, been represented clothed. Praxiteles’ original has long been lost; one story is that it was eventually taken to Constantinople, where it was destroyed in a fire in the fifth century CE. But it was so famous that hundreds of versions and replicas of it were made across the ancient world, in full size and miniature, even appearing as the design on coins. Many of these versions have survived.

Today it is difficult to see beyond the ubiquity of such images of the naked female form and to recapture how daring and dangerous it must have been for the original viewers in the fourth century BCE, who were certainly not used to the public display of female flesh (in some parts of the Greek world real-life women, at least among the upper class, went around veiled). Even the phrase “first female nude” underplays the impact, by implying that it was an aesthetic or stylistic development somehow waiting to happen. In fact, whatever was driving Praxiteles’ experiment (it is a revolution whose causes we do not fully understand), he was destroying conventional assumptions about art and gender in much the same way as Marcel Duchamp or Tracy Emin have done since: whether that is turning a urinal into an art work in the case of Duchamp, or Emin’s tent, entitled “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With”.

It was perhaps not surprising that the first client to whom the artist offered his new Aphrodite – the Greek town of Kos, on an island off the Turkish coast –  said, “No, thank you” and chose a safely clothed version instead.


A Roman version of the Aphrodite of Knidos. The original was the first full-sized female nude statue. Photo: Eric Vandeville/ AKG-images

But simple nakedness was only part of it. This Aphrodite was different, in a decidedly erotic way. The hands alone are a giveaway here. Are they modestly trying to cover her up? Are they pointing in the direction of what the viewer wants to see most? Or are they simply a tease? Whatever the answer, Praxiteles has established that edgy relationship between a statue of a woman and an assumed male viewer that has never been lost from the history of European art – as some ancient Greek viewers themselves were all too well aware. For it was an aspect of the sculpture dramatised in a memorable tale of a man who treated this famous goddess in marble as if she were a woman in flesh and blood. It is told in its fullest form in a curious essay written around 300 CE.

The writer reports what is almost certainly an imaginary argument among three men – a celibate, a heterosexual and a homosexual – who are having a long and tricky discussion about which kind of sex, if any, is best. In the course of this they arrive at Knidos and make for the biggest attraction in town, which is the famous statue of Aphrodite in her temple. While the heterosexual is leering at her face and front, and the man who prefers the love of boys is peering at her backside, they spot a little mark in the marble at the top of the statue’s thigh, on the inside near her buttocks. 

As something of an art connoisseur, the celibate starts to sing the praises of Praxiteles, who had managed to hide what must have been a blemish in the marble in such an inconspicuous place – but the lady custodian of the temple interrupts him to say that something much more sinister lay behind the mark. She explains that a young man had once fallen passionately in love with the statue and managed to get locked in with her all night; and that the little stain is the only surviving trace of his lust.

The heterosexual and the homosexual both gleefully claim that this proves their point (the one observing that even a woman in stone could arouse passion, the other that the location of the stain shows that she had been taken from behind, like a boy). But the custodian insists on the tragic sequel: the young man went mad and threw himself off a cliff.

There are several uncomfortable lessons inscribed in this story. It is a reminder of how troubling some of the implications of the Greek commitment to this version of “naturalism” could be, how seductive to blur the boundary between life-like marble and real-life flesh, and at the same time how dangerous and foolish. It shows how a female statue can drive a man mad but also how art can act as an alibi for what was – let’s face it – rape. Don’t forget, Aphrodite never consented.

“Civilisations: How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith” by Mary Beard is published by Profile Books on 1 March, accompanying the “Civilisations” BBC TV series

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left