Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.16

Claude Calame, L'Eros dans la Grèce antique. Paris: Éditions Belin, 1996. Pp. 256, pl. 7. ISBN 2-7011-2160-4.

Reviewed by Robert F. Sutton, Jr., Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures, Indiana University - Purdue University, Indianapolis,

This compact volume is a revised second edition and translation of the author's I Greci e l'eros: Simboli, pratice, luoghi (Rome & Bari: Laterza, 1992). Announcing itself as an alternative to the view of ancient Greek sexuality presented by Michel Foucault in his influential History of Sexuality, this book provides an overview of Eros in archaic and classical Greece, emphasizing the crucial early period of Greek life barely considered by Foucault. While Foucault looked at Greek sexuality with a sociological and philosophical outlook to emphasize its connections with the exercise of power, Calame writes as a humanist philologist employing the cultural perspective of continental anthropology to emphasize ritual, myth, and the integrative role love played in ancient Greece. Moreover, while Foucault relied primarily on mature classical oratory and philosophy, Calame draws on the earlier evidence of poetry (epic, lyric, and drama), inscriptions, and vase painting, as well as the ancient novel and select philosophical texts to present his vision of a complex fusion of action and ideology in the ancient Greek conception of Eros. Developing ideas earlier advanced in his important Choeurs de jeunes filles en Grèce archaïque (recently released in a revised English translation), Calame argues that for the ancient Greeks Eros served as an agent of both physical and social reproduction. It played a crucial educational role that fostered the socialization of individuals and encouraged social integration through institutionalized social rituals that enabled adolescents of both sexes to make the transition to adulthood. While arguing that Eros played an educational role in ancient Greece is hardly novel, Calame derives this role from initiation rituals of pre-polis Greece, and regards the end result of the process as the ability to form a productive heterosexual union in marriage. This attention to the institution of marriage is an important contribution and arises from the author's attention to the action of Eros on the female half of the ancient population that is so often downplayed, neglected, or misunderstood in both the ancient evidence and modern scholarship. Even those who are not ultimately persuaded by its thesis will find that this densely argued and perceptive book has much to offer.

Central to Calame's discussion is the identification of two contrasting modalities of love in ancient Greece which operate independent of gender, though they find a different expression and result for each sex. The first of these modes, found abundantly in lyric poetry, is asymmetrical in that only the subject is actively affected by desire, while the object of desire remains unfeeling. Calame argues that this asymmetry is characteristic of erotic relations between an adult lover and adolescent beloved, whether heterosexual or homosexual (here called homophilia rather than pederasty), and is characterized by uncertainty and lack of trust. The second mode of love is the mutual passion of philotes in which both partners partake. This word is employed in epic to describe the reciprocal love between two adults engaged in a productive heterosexual union, and is characterized by trust based on mutual affection. Since Eros leads to both philotes and philia, for the Greeks he is an important liminal and educational figure who, through institutionalized homophilia, initiates adolescents of both sexes to adulthood by forging the bonds of trust that form the basis of two fundamental social institutions: the polis and the oikos. For males, this erotic initiation takes place in the gymnasium and the symposium. For women the wedding provides initiation to the productive relation of philotes. Calame argues that the contrast between these two modes of love, existing independent of gender, is the major distinction to be recognized in Greek amatory relations, while for Dover, Foucault, and others the crucial contrast is between active and passive partners. This and the emphasis on adult heterosexuality set this book apart from much recent research and reassert a more balanced outlook on ancient Greek sexuality.

This basic thesis is developed in what Calame describes as a "discursive anthropology" tracing out the wider significations and elaborations. This material is presented densely in an elegant formal structure of eleven chapters arranged symmetrically into five parts framed between a "Tragic Prelude" and an "Elegiac Coda." The first part, "Topics of Eros," provides a useful summary of the verbal terms and images in which love is represented in archaic lyric (Chapter 1) and epic poetry (Chapter 2). Calame carefully positions this evidence in its cultural context, arguing that erotic lyric is part of an amatory strategy participating in the very erotic interaction it describes. Lyric poets represent Eros as a contradictory, bitter-sweet force who violently strikes his victim in the seats of emotion, not the mind, and acts from a distance through the sense of sight rather than touch. They view love in the asymmetrical mode and, through the pervasive use of the first person voice, force the reader to identify with the desiring subject who pursues an unfeeling adolescent object, whether male or female. Since the poets' subject is desire rather than its attainment, love is generally unrequited, and rejected lovers have no hesitation in heaping abuse and ill-will on those who spurn them or break faith. Calame catalogues distinctions in the different terms employed for sexual desire (eros, himeros, pothos, etc.) while showing how all depend on the intervention of Aphrodite. Sexual consummation is invariably veiled in metaphor, sometimes through a touch of the hand or particularly through the bed which is invariably the site of lovemaking between adults (in contrast to boys whom poets long to take between the thighs). Epic poetry speaks with a different voice and different conventions. In place of unattainable pursuit set in the present, it describes legendary and divine reciprocal philotes practiced on a bed in a relationship of trust based on mutual consent. Though philotes is characteristic of marriage, it is not confined to married couples. Seduction, which builds a sense of philia, is a common prelude to philotes. This seduction is often accomplished by words and even lies, leading to Calame's conclusion that erotic poetry itself was intended to play a seductive role for poet and reader.

Part II, "Symbolic Practices of Eros," sets these erotic images and modes of thought into a historical and cultural context by comparing the different functions and content of erotic verse and iconography. Chapter 3 examines the practical effects of erotic poetry. While archaic erotic verse seeks, through homophilia, to lead an adolescent to philia, given the poet's general lack of success, it often serves instead to sublimate the unattainable joy of Eros through the esthetic pleasure of verse. The social function of archaic poetry is clarified by comparison with the related literary genres of Hellenistic verse and the ancient novel. Though they seem to repeat the archaic theme of educational seduction, both present a very different outlook: Calame notes that Meleager, for example, by making male pursuit of girls equivalent to that of boys, and by moving the locus of erotic desire from the thighs to rectum, transforms homophilia to sodomy, while in Daphnis and Chloe homophilia is marginalized and unnatural.

Chapter 4 considers the erotic iconography of Attic pottery, presenting an admittedly superficial overview which, nevertheless, provides useful insight while laying down challenges for further research. Drawing on published work, Calame discuses erotic pursuits, courting, and overt sexual scenes found primarily on symposium ware. This discussion could have been enhanced through the inclusion of nuptial pottery (which is mentioned only briefly later) whose polite erotic imagery finds close parallel to the veiled tone and emphasis on touch, glance, and erotic personification in archaic lyric. Calame is particularly successful in moving between mythic and generic representation, and in his insistence on the existence of strong parallels between vases and poetry despite their differences. He urges that, as in lyric poetry, erotic themes on vases were designed as agents of seduction. Both media present examples of praise and blame in the context of the symposium, providing positive images for emulation and negative ones for avoidance. He is mistaken, however, in his dating of the earliest erotic representations and in stating that in the sixth century transgressive, unregulated sexual behavior is confined to the world of satyrs: from c. 565 B.C. Attic Tyrrhenian amphorae and Little Master cups present abundant images of group copulation, including examples of homosexual anal penetration, all clearly within the transgressive realm. He explains that Eros, while present in courting and pursuit, is absent from scenes of lovemaking because he is no longer needed when the object of desire is attained: surely the setting and obscene tone of these scenes also play a role.

The central third section, "Eros in Social Institutions" is the climax of the book where the initiatory thesis (described above) is developed in detail. Chapter 5 treats Eros in the masculine realm of the polis where homophilia leads to the formation of political ties and the transmission of fundamental social values through inverted, ritualized sexual behavior in the symposium and gymnasium, topics that have been fairly well explored. More novel is the argument that, by initiating adolescents to ties of philia, institutionalized homophilia prepares them for philotes in a productive marriage. From the testimony of Sappho Calame suggests that for girls cult sites proved a similar opportunity for initiation through homophilia, though there is insufficient evidence to assess the initiatory function of the Attic Arrephoria and Brauronia.

Chapter 6 concerns feminine eros. Calame dismisses the hetairai early on, after observing that they oscillate between the male and female realm through their active participation in symposium and marginal connection to the household. He argues that for Athenian women Eros is located primarily in the oikos. The wedding provides initiation to adulthood through the intervention of Eros who continues to play a prominent role in marriage after the wedding, for texts from Homer on indicate that marital Eros leads to the establishment of philotes. For women the transition to adulthood (and a civilized state) is a three-step process: marriage transforms a girl from parthenos to nymphe, a liminal status that endures until the birth of a child brings her to full adulthood as gyne joined in a fruitful, productive union.

Having argued that Eros and Aphrodite play a decisive initiatory role designed to arouse a regulated and productive sexuality in Athenians of both sexes, in Chapter 7 Calame considers how these values are challenged through the agency of Dionysos who fosters both the transgression of sexual norms through wine, and their integration through the public ritual of Attic drama. He concludes that the sexual content of comedy presents not true sexual license but parodic exaggeration of normal transgression, while its obscenity enhances the genre's sense of satire and caricature. Tragedy finds many metaphors in marriage. Calame focuses on marriage and sacrifice, on girls who choose death over marriage (Iphigeneia, Antigone), and on Aeschylus' Danaïds whose protest is not against the violence of marriage but the unyielding domination of Aphrodite. He concludes that while tragedy repeatedly shows Eros and Aphrodite to be deadly forces, it identifies the problem as immoderate sexuality and not something inherent in the institution of marriage.

Part IV, "Spaces of Eros," moves back toward a more strictly conceptual realm by examining the recurrent association of erotic love with vegetative landscapes. Chapter 8 focuses on the erotic associations of wild meadows, gardens, and orchards in myth. Erotic abductions, like that of Kore, and other sexual initiations are set in flowering meadows, while Aphrodite's enclosed gardens and fruit-bearing orchards are associated with marriage; a third setting, less visible in the evidence, is fields of grain. In these mythic spaces Calame discovers an initiatory sequence that proceeds from wild flowering fields, to cultivated, enclosed orchards, and finally the grain fields, to parallel the three phases by which a girl is "civilized" as she passes from maiden to woman via marriage. Surprisingly, however, he makes no mention of the women in flowering meadows so common in Minoan iconography, particularly the scene of saffron gatherers from Xeste 3 at Akrotiri on Thera which presents some of the most promising evidence for earlier initiation rites underlying this vegetative imagery.1 Chapter 9 continues this theme into lyric poetry and ritual. Calame explains the prominence of meadows in erotic lyric poetry as a reflection of its focus on adolescents. He closes this discussion with a reading of the civic ritual of the Arrephoria and its movement from the space of Athena to the sanctuary of Aphrodite in the Gardens, "not as a rite of initiation, nor a fertility rite, but a ritual act installing ... two of the best young Athenian girls in their future function of generating citizens" (p. 196), a rather fine distinction that may not be clear to all.

The book's final section, "Mystic Eros" examines Greek conceptions of Eros on an abstract and transcendental level. Chapter 10 discusses philosophical formulations, beginning with cosmogonies where Eros is a creative and mediating force providing both unity and diversity. Eros acquires an ethical dimension in Socratic philosophy. Calame sets the speeches in Plato's Symposium, into the context of his previous discussion, though at its end the educational process is inverted as Beauty, through Eros, leads the adult to virtue, while the adolescent is left with only external beauty. In Phaedrus Calame shows how Plato further adapts the tradition of initiatory Eros, culminating in a reciprocal trust, which is also presented, though more schematically, in Xenophon's Symposium. The concluding chapter reviews the attempts of Orphic mysticism to reconcile Eros the generator, who leads from one to many, with the mystic goal of passing from many to one. Orphic cosmogonies present Eros as the prime creative force who assumes bisexual form, and in the Dervéni papyrus Eros is both the source of differentiation and the goal of unity, transcending the social roles of sex and gender.

This brief outline demonstrates the broad scope of Calame's inquiry into artistic, institutional, and intellectual dimensions of Eros in ancient Greece. While the argument occasionally becomes too neat and schematic, as the author tries to make the evidence fit his initiatory framework, which is not fully persuasive, overall this discussion represents a real advance in understanding. The rich and diverse evidence it assembles on various topics is very useful. By pushing serious discussion of sexual institutions back into the archaic period, by firmly situating the evidence in its cultural setting, by incorporating myth, ritual, and poetry into the discussion, and finally by focusing on marital as well as extra-marital Eros, this book provides a much-needed new perspective on an important and perpetually fascinating dimension of ancient Greek life.


1. Ch. Doumas, The Wall-paintings of Thera (Athens: The Thera Foundation, 1992) 126-75. In the absence of texts, the interpretation of these scenes must remain speculative; for one view see N. Marinatos, Art and Religion in Thera (Athens: Mathioudakis, 1984) 61-96 and Minoan Religion (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993) 201-211.