BMCR 1995.08.01

1995.08.01, Kilmer, Greek Erotica

, Greek erotica on Attic red-figure vases. London: Duckworth, 1993. 286 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780715615195

The book, which comes from the same publisher as Sir Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, strikingly resembles the Dover volume in its layout and approach. Kilmer has consciously keyed his book to Dover’s, adopting, for example, the senior scholar’s list of vase paintings and fitting new vases to it. He acknowledges his scholarly debt to Dover in his preface and introduction, while Dover, in turn, has a note on the jacket flap in which he calls the book a good, solid fulfillment of the kind of further research he hoped his own study would prompt.

Kilmer’s book is broader in its viewpoint than was Dover’s, in that it examines heterosexual and what he calls “autosexual” phenomena along with homosexual, but is narrower in that it focuses on the relatively short period of about 520-460 B.C. and confines itself to Attic red-figure vase painting. In his selection of paintings from that time span, Kilmer well fulfills his title by assembling the hard-core erotica (though in comparison with contemporary pornography, he calls it soft), picking out representations of masturbation and copulation and adding to them ones bearing upon a miscellany of triple-x subjects, including dildos, sadistic sandal wielding, and the female practice of partially depilating the genitals. In a time-honored manner of archaeological studies, he arranges his material in a typology of categories and subcategories.

Left out or skimmed are a number of sexual themes which he presumably sees as not erotica “proper.” Thus he only very lightly touches upon the large class of gift-giving scenes, which occur in heterosexual, male homosexual and lesbian versions, and he gives just a quick nod of recognition to the related, more subtly sexual theme of “conversations” of facing multiple pairs, again occurring in the three variations. Perhaps most surprisingly, he gives very short shrift to the blatant but tender theme of kissing. A scene of a youth and girl about to kiss is included in the plates but not discussed in the text, and a similar depiction of a man and youth gets the begrudging textual comment, “Eroticism is clear in this image; but it is not expressed as genital eroticism” (p. 15). The theme of kissing is most common in the early fifth century, the very time when sandal sadism had a short vogue in vase painting, and a discussion of the contemporary affectionate theme would have been helpful for balance.

Written evidence, also, is eschewed, on the grounds of the relevant writings not coinciding in date with the period of his vase paintings. Actually, however, at least some of the pederastic elegaic poems collected in the Theognidea, were probably current in Athens then (the first three words of one coincide with what a symposiast sings in a vase representation). It is, of course, true that poems couldn’t be considered “erotica,” but they, along with some of the kalos inscriptions on vases and elsewhere, are potentially relevant for the insight they give into the mentality of erastai.

Kilmer’s deliberately narrow focus is an aspect of an overall carefulness of definition and rigor of study which produce solid results. A surprise to him was the relatively low number of male homosexual scenes of copulation: 13 to 15, as opposed to 82 heterosexual ones or, put another way, 18% of the total (using the higher figure). He had expected a stronger showing of the homosexual theme, “given the view scholarship has taken over the last century or so” (p. 173). While, as he says, “we must be cautious how we interpret this,” his proportion is in line with that of a theme of red-figure vase painting he doesn’t take up, the erotic pursuits by deities, which have been collected by Sophia Kaempf-Dimitriadou in her book Die Liebe der Götter in der attischen Kunst des 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (1979). Of her 393 vase paintings, 14% have a male homosexual content, in the form of gods pursuing mortal adolescents. The finding also is in line with Attic comedies and the extant and known tragedies and satyr plays, where male-female sexuality is the norm, but male homoeroticism not unknown, occasionally being in fact at the dramatic center (as in Aeschylus’The Myrmidons, Euripides’Chrysippos, and presumably Sophokles’ satyr play The Erastai of Achilles).

Kilmer demonstrates from the pictorial evidence that the repertory of sexual positions in heterosexual intercourse was strikingly large, and he decisively disproves the theory that Greeks males had an intolerance of female pubic hair.

Less persuasive is his argument that the sets of strigil, sponge, and aryballos in the background of palaestra scenes with homoerotic content signal the use of sexual lubricants, as the equipment is exceedingly common in utterly asexual athletic depictions and there is no sexual scene with a “smoking aryballos,” that is, an aryballos shown being put to such a use. Similarly, although sandals, in contrast, are indeed graphically depicted in sexual employment, one wonders if, as Kilmer argues, their presence below a kline in a coed symposium necessarily foreshadows rough sex to come, anymore than do the boots below an adjoining couch.

As Kilmer notes a number of times, it is fantasy rather than reality that stands behind many of the representations. Indeed much of the erotica he has assembled is set in what Steven Marcus in The Other Victorians (1964) has termed “pornotopia,” a place where “all men…are always and infinitely potent; all women fecundate with lust and flow inexhaustibly with sap or juice or both. Everyone is always ready for everything” (p. 276). The following assessment of Victorian literary pornography by Marcus can accurately be applied to such Attic depictions of wild group sex as R 156, R 192, and R 223 in Kilmer: “it is…something of a misnomer to call these representations ‘relations between human beings.’ They are rather juxtapositions of human bodies, parts of bodies, limbs, and organs; they are depictions of positions and events, diagramatic schema for sexual ballets—actually they are more like football plays than dances” (p. 277).

Greek erotica is not the same as Greek sexuality. Nonetheless it is a striking component of that society’s overall erotic interests, a remarkable island in the wider sexual sea. Kilmer has well charted it in this volume, and it is welcome news that he is preparing a companion study on Attic black-figure erotica.