BMCR 1999.03.03

Naked Truths. Women, sexuality and gender in classical art and archaeology

, , Naked truths : women, sexuality, and gender in classical art and archaeology. London/New York: Routledge, 1997. 1 online resource (xv, 315 pages) : illustrations, map. ISBN 113460386X. $75.00.

This is a thought-provoking series of papers that resulted from a 1994 Archaeological Institute of America panel on gender and cultural issues in classical art and archaeology.

In one of the two introductory chapters by Claire Lyons and Ann Koloski-Ostrow (1-11) the issues of gender in archaeology and the approaches of authors in the current volume are discussed. This is followed by an historical survey of feminist scholarship and theory in art history and classical archaeology by Shelby Brown (12-42) in the second introductory chapter. B. concludes that the process of ‘engendering’ the fields has not been easy and is dependent on the participants’ “breaking down … the barriers between disciplines” in looking for the “… many ‘ways of seeing’ women in antiquity.” (26) Her citations are an excellent annotated bibliography of the literature in the field. Of all the essays, I found these two chapters along with Salomon’s on the Knidian Aphrodite the most accessible. While all of the essays reflect exceptional and far-ranging work and raise important questions, the student must bring an extensive background to these papers.

In chapter three, Robb’s essay (43-65) holds few surprises, demonstrating the transition from a tribal culture with few gender markers to one with more complex symbolism. His period of his study spans Neolithic Italy to the Iron Age. In the Neolithic phase, gender was symbolized in the archaeological evidence only in the case of women with breasts. In the more complex Iron Age gender was identified by the associated with gender activity (male weapons and violence, female ornamentation and beauty). Ultimately these markers become power status symbols as the elite afford more elaborate weaponry and ornament. What R. does bring to the table is a thorough analysis of the material culture, surveying the skeletal biology, mortuary rites, and artistic representations of anatomy from these periods. Along Foucauldian lines, he proposes a social and symbolic interpretation of gender roles among the “honor-shame” societies of Iron Age Italy. He observes that gender-related images of weaponry merge with notions of violence, self-assertion, domination, prestige, and male virility, and similarly, body ornaments and weaving with feminine attributes. He does admit to pockets of ‘feminine resistance’ perhaps expressed through folklore, humor, and cuckoldry. My only quarrel is that these latter are not further explored. But, then that’s the topic of another essay.

Beth Cohen’s paper (66-92) in chapter four explores the nude female breast in its classical contexts, concluding with a new interpretation of the “Barbarini Suppliant” as Cassandra. Only in extraordinary instances was the breast bared in Greek art of the classical period (e.g. female athletes and Amazons, divine lovemaking or rape, prostitution, and frenzied bacchic dancing). C. Investigates scenes presenting female victims of violence, such as the Lapith women attacked by Centaurs at the wedding of Peirithous and Hippodemeia, the slaughter of Niobe’s daughters and sons, etc. The ‘Barbarini Suppliant’, as Cassandra, presents a dazed figure, with one sandal missing, who attempts to hitch up her chiton to cover her exposed breast. C. provides a convincing argument and at the same time brings a feminist (but not unwarranted) reading to her discussion, understanding Cassandra as a topos for female victimization with whom the viewer can identify.

In chapter five Francine Viret Bernal (93-107) investigates, in scenes of Clytemnestra, the iconography in Attic vases of the murderess as a transgressor against socio-political norms. When she is shown with her lover Aegisthus murdering her husband the messages of the vase painters are the same as those of the writers: Clytemnestra was a great danger to the social order. B.’s essay is an excellent demonstration of how a feminist approach bring a better understanding of the evidence. By choosing her lover and participating in the assassination of her husband, Agamemnon, whose throne is usurped by her lover Aegisthus, Clytemnestra makes political claims, and in so doing, appropriates masculine prerogatives. Her weapons, the double ax and the woven net covering her struggling husband, subvert male power. The double-edged ax (pelekus), is one that belongs in the realm of male priests who preside over sacrificial rites, and the woven net is used in the hunt to snare the animal but also alludes to female craft. This is a well-research and well-written study.

There are few extant portrayals of the Greek lyric poet Sappho and these appear mainly on (four) Attic vases, identified by her inscribed name. In chapter six Jane McIntosh Snyder (108-19) examines the iconography in these images, finding that, instead of the emotively intense poet and intellectually dynamic teacher she is proported to have been, she is muted, reticent, and uncharacteristically passive. She is portrayed as a model of classical Greek female behavior. On the earliest vase of the group (hydria in Warsaw, c. 500 BCE, Sappho plays the barbitos but does not sing; in later scenes she either listens to Alcaeus’ recitation, sits reading a book roll, or dances, but does not engage in the act of performing her poetry as male poets do. The hypothesis that ‘men act and women appear’ seems confirmed in Snyder’s comparison of Sappho’s persona with that of male singers (e.g. Orpheus or Thamyris), shown on Greek vases with their mouths open in song.

Joining in the lively debate over the interpretation of the East Frieze of the Parthenon, John Younger (120-53) in chapter seven understands the child figure holding the peplos as a young boy, paired with the older man as a symbol of Athenian socio-political (homoerotic) relationships. The matron-maiden pair is a corollary: older women share their experience to assist adolescent girls’ passage from girlhood to womanhood. The youngest girl, standing apart at the left, is a ‘pre-gendered’ child whose sexuality has not yet been constructed and who, unlike the boy-child, has no clear role. Similarly, the Olympian deities nearby are models for human enfranchisement. This could all be credible if we could prove the child handling the peplos is a boy. Ah, but there’s the difficulty! He counters his critics with (121) “… there has not yet been an identification of these people and their roles that has satisfied all conditions and all scholars….”

In chapter 8 (154-73) Joan Reilly proposes that the tiny ‘doll’ figure (of a mature, limbless, nude woman), seen held by young or adolescent girls on Athenian grave monuments is not a doll but a religious votive. She argues that the scene illustrates the child performing a ritual dedication at menarche, a ritual to assure the child’s healthy development into a functioning, mature woman. There is an excellent survey of the ancient medical texts concerning menarche; R. notes that the texts reflect societal fears and beliefs surrounding menarche. That is, if the mensis is unsuccessful, the belief was it could lead to madness (as well as reluctance to marry).

I remain unconvinced; the image seems in fact to be a doll as earlier studies have concluded.1 One problem with R.’s interpretation of the evidence is, in some scenes, she seems a mere child, not near the age for menses (the age for such a ritual dedication). Another is the limbless figure. Anyone who has seen a child play with dolls has seen that a favorite toy is worn, sometimes broken and often without its clothing (hence limbless and nude).2 As for the maturity of the figure, more often than not girls have preferred playing with mature female dolls over baby dolls as is evident in the overwhelming popularity of Barbie. There are also questions in the use of the (sparse) archaeological record. While it is true that the comparable material appears to be primarily votive, one marble relief from Athens (Fig. 38, Acropolis 7232) depicts only the anatomical votives of parts of female anatomy and not a complete torso; moreover, the anatomical votives in the Athens relief are in much larger scale than the tiny figure of the grave scenes. Thus, R.’s interpretation requires some scepticism. This grave scene probably marks a profound expression of loss of a life cut short by portraying the child at play with her favorite toy rather than her performing the ritual of maturation or a marriage never attained.

The topic of Larissa Bonfante’s paper (174-96) in chapter nine has been the concern of the author in a number of articles3 over the years. Still, none so completely address the subject as this one. Her focus is the social attitudes toward the kourotrophos, a woman holding or nursing a child or children in “classical” Greek, Etruscan and Italic art. Highlighting the differences between the Italic and Greek in attitudes toward representing the nude breast, B. sees in the Italic images a survival of the prehistoric Mediterranean Mother goddess and, in Greece, a repugnance toward its public display. Most of the kourotrophoi are found in Etruria, south Italy and Sicily, where, B. explains, the concept of a mother goddess ruled fertility and child-birth. Most of these are religious votives dedicated to a local divinity and they proliferated between the fourth and second centuries BCE. By contrast, in mainland classical Greek art, the image is virtually non-existent. The Greek practice in art, as in life, illustrated babies handed over to foster mothers to be nursed.

Perhaps Nanette Salomon’s chapter ten (197-219) essay addresses gender attitudes toward the nude in Greece that would become an artistic standard in the Western tradition. S. examines the Knidian Aphrodite, its canon, its history, its political use and its continuities. Her real subject, she states (197-9), is the gender issue of “The continued and incessant idealization of female humiliation in the Western tradition from c. 340 BCE to the present…” She first provides an analysis of the canon in the creation of the ideal youth, secondly the circumstances of Phidias’ creation and its reception, and thirdly the gender implications

In the nude Aphrodite she notes the conflation of the sexual with the divine functions of Aphrodite and the real with the ideal in her sexualized objectification and consequent diminished powers as a divinity. At the onset, Phidias’ creation was associated with prostitution. S. probes the meaning of the figures gestures and the texts concerning the pudica, a term coming to mean shame or modesty. This is contrasted with aidos, which meant virtue in context with a young boy. The Knidia’s aidos (or lack thereof) is sexual. Social ideals of chastity, obedience, hubris are skillfully exposed as gender-loaded terms. For example: “[Aristotle says] … sophrosyne is rational self-control, for the woman it is dutifulness and obedience. Control, for the man, comes from within; for the woman, since she cannot control herself, it must be exerted from the outside. He finds that women are equally incapable of possessing aidos, and that society must work to impose modesty on them.” (210) This has a familiar ring for those acquainted with social writing about women between the sixteenth through nineteenth century in Europe.

In querying the historical conditions for this phenomenon, S. observes the irony of the growing importance of women in the Hellenistic period, while at the same time they are sexualized and objectified in art. As the Hellenistic political world destabilized, the traditional male standard of hierarchical power of citizen/slave vanished. New avenues of control were substituted — hence, the impetus for creating a (female) nude over which the illusion of control still prevailed, at least in the personal and private world of art.

Aileen Ajootian’s study concerning the Hermaphrodite in chapter eleven (220-42) has appeared elsewhere but its richness makes it well-worth replicating here.4 She inquires into the androgynous (Hermaphrodite) image in Greece and Rome, concluding that the figure, stemming from the ancient Near East, functioned as a divinity that presided over human fertility and nurturing (of young people) but was apotropaic in certain contexts as well. Of the various types, one is frontal and boyish, exposing the genitals, another, kourotrophos, holding a baby or Eros, and still another is a sleeping erotic female type. There is evidence that at some time during the fourth century BCE, Hermaphrodite became a deity receiving votive offerings, with a well-established iconography. In Rome, perhaps on the less serious side, some belong to a playful erotic group (with a satyr struggling with a Hermaphrodite). If the Hermaphrodite was a divinity, then what was the function of the last group? A. suggests the answer might lie in the universal Greek conflict between bestiality and the divine, but perhaps the apotropaic character of the phallus as well. “The woman’s body with its initial attraction, is here exploited to surprise the human viewer, and perhaps the Evil Eye as well, as both finally encounter the figure’s true identity.” (233) The author calls for appropriate caution in interpreting the types. While there is little doubt that the frontal, boyish type was religious, the later erotic feminine form, developed in the Hellenistic period, leads us to more questions than answers.

There is less on gender in Rome in this volume than one might wish but Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow in chapter twelve (243-66) elucidates the selection of themes for Romano-Campanian painting seen in two particular Pompeian houses: Casa del Menandro and Casa degli Amorini dorati, both from its last years. Here, the interests favor the authority of the dominus. Masculine power is evident in the erotic, violent, and controlling themes depicted: the erotic is seen in the rape of Cassandra in the Casa de Menandro, violence in the Cassandra, Laocoon and Acteon in Menandro, and domination, vulnerability, power, and control in scenes of Helen persuaded by Paris, Achilles before Agamemnon, Thetis working on behalf of her son Achilles, all of the latter in Amorini dorati.

Certain contemporary events parallel these themes (e.g. Poppaea’s violent death at the hands of Nero [kicked in the stomach when she was seven months pregnant] in the Imperial palace). (257-8) Similar to modern cinema, the ancient images expose a vulnerable or disempowered female; they show 1) woman cut up into idealized fragments to provide no threat of castration or to male power and status, and 2) that male power and status is reinforced through his becoming the voyeur, followed by a plot that moves toward either punishment or forgiveness of the woman.

An epilogue is provided by Natalie Boymel Kampen (267-77) in chapter 13 with a cautionary note on interpreting the problematic relationship of images from a modern distance. In sum, these essays “… help us to see the way … [gender] could become a part of unconscious and conscious strategies for the maintenance or disruption of social order and power.”


1. For the opposing view, see K. Elderkin, “Jointed Dolls in Antiquity,” AJA, 34 (1930) 455-79; C. Vermeule in Aspects of Ancient Greece, Allentown Art Museum, 16 September to 30 December 1979, Allentown: Allentown Art Museum, 1979, pp. 244-5; 252-3; R.A. Higgins, Catalogue of the Terracottas in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum. London: British Museum, 1964, p. 197, no. 734, pl. 97; E. Rohde, Griechische Terrakotten, Tübingen: E. Wasmuth, 1968, p. 42, fig 19b.

2. A most recent instance is that of a child holding a limbless doll on the newly unveiled Black Soldiers Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. In this case the limbless doll is clearly a beloved and worn toy.

3. “Iconografia delle madri: Etruria e Italia Antica,” in Le Donne in Etruria. Ed. By Antonia Rallo. Rome: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 1989. Pp. 85-106 [see my review in AJA 95, 1991, pp. 751-2]; “Votive terracotta figures of mothers and children, ” in Italian Iron Age Artefacts in the British Museum. Ed. by J. Swaddling. London: British Museum, 1986. Pp. 195-203; “Dedicated Mothers,” in Visible Religion 3, 1984, pp. 1-17; her review of Tran Tam Tinh, Isis Lactans, in American Journal of Archaeology 80, 1976, pp. 104-5.

4. Papers published in Berggren, Britta/Marinatos, Nanna, eds. Greece and Gender. Bergen: Papers from the Norwegian Institute at Athens 2, 1995; in the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae ( LIMC), vol. 5, Zurich, Artemis Verlag, 1990, pp. 265-85, s.v. Hermaphroditos; and her Ph.D. dissertation: Natus Bioformis: Hermaphrodites in Greek and Roman Art, Bryn Mawr College, 1990.