BMCR 1999.10.09

Art, Desire and the Body in Ancient Greece

, Art, desire, and the body in ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xiv, 272 pages : illustrations (some color), map ; 29 cm. ISBN 9780521450645 £16.95 (pb).

Dealing as it does with sex, power, and ways of seeing — we are treated to much by way of the “gaze” and the “glance” — this book marries a good deal of modern theory with the historical contexts of Greek art. The result is a work that will appeal on many levels to anyone interested in the social and ideological aspects of visual art in the Greek world, especially from the late Archaic to Hellenistic periods. This interest, it transpires, should not be restricted to art historians of antiquity; social and intellectual historians of the Greek world will also profit from reading this book. Chiefly, this is due to S.’s focus on how art of this period reflects broader issues of its day: for instance, gender relations, concepts of Self and Other as defined in the Greek polis, and the role of art, erotics and visuality. All this is treated by S. in an engaging manner, which he supplements with epigraphical and ancient literary evidence, apart from recourse to modern theory. There were, however, a number of times I found his approach rather doctrinaire, and too willing to inflict what becomes an idée fixe onto the material, which then becomes problematic for him. For all the insights we are allowed, certain implausibilities and contradictions emerge in S’s readings, too.

By way of a long introductory chapter S. notes that viewing of any kind is always historically determined, and we should avoid the naïve belief that we can understand Greek art by simply letting it “speak for itself”, as if this will give us direct access to how it functioned in its own context. He therefore invokes modern speculations on the nature of sight and the gaze by such canonical figures as Sartre, Barthes, Lacan, Foucault (to name a few), as well as other critical approaches which aim to highlight the “gendered” nature of seeing and the power relations it involves. One could object that these views are just as historically determined as anyone else’s, and that S. is being arbitrary in relying so heavily on them. But, to be fair, these writings have become influential, so some reference to them should be made. The problem is that S. is rather too willing to accept them uncritically, so that we get a re-working of such hackneyed polarities as: viewer/viewed = subject/object = active/passive = male/female = sexually empowered/sexually disempowered. Aphoristic quotes from Berger (“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” [p. 181]) tend to hold sway over S’s approach to the material. While seeing this idea at work in many Greek images depicting women, S.’s additional take on this is to argue that much in the function and reception Greek art is determined by all-male homoerotic desire. Thus, for S., the male/female dichotomy is supplemented by erastes/eromenos interaction between viewer and viewed within the culturally-confined tensions of the “gaze” (the public, patriarchal, normative mode of viewing) and the “glance” (the individual’s own spontaneous way of viewing).

Whether such semantic and conceptual distinctions existed so neatly in the Greek world is not altogether clear. Nor is it clear that we should impose these modern antitheses onto ancient viewer/viewed relationships with quite the same relish as does S. Rightly, he talks about the need to understand Greek “scopic regimes”, but is rather limited on this. Reviving some (but not all) of Snell’s insights, he mentions that in Homer ways of seeing are heavily nuanced by the viewer’s state of mind, so that one glares out terror, hostility, or gazes with eroticised longing at another; as well, he refers to Hesiod’s all-seeing, all-knowing Zeus in the Works and Days, whose gaze gives him tremendous privilege and the power to enforce Dike. True enough, but this is only one side of the coin, and S. accords too much power to the putative male, desiring viewer, when it comes to the reception of Greek art. From Homer onwards, vision is a two-way street, so that viewers themselves are susceptible to the effects of what they see. S. seems to allude to this when he notes that sight was considered a form of “long-distance touch” — i.e. that the viewer is affected by what he or she sees. Here the theories of Empedocles, Gorgias and Democritus could have done with some discussion but, though the former two are noted in passing, receive none. For all three writers, vision involves the impingement of effluences onto the eyes, or onto rays of vision emanating from our eyes.1 They imply, then, that viewing is somehow passive as well as active, and Gorgias in particular suggests that seen objects, including artworks, have considerable psychological power over the onlooker ( Hel. 15-19). This idea recurs elsewhere in Greek literature. In epic and dramatic poetry, for instance, people are frequently in the thrall of what they see, so that actual or artistic phenomena instill such cognitive or emotional states as wonder, fear, desire, grief, pity, astonishment.2 At the same time, for all the patriarchy inherent in Greek culture, viewing was not just considered a male prerogative, nor is the arousal of homoerotic desire the prime issue in the reception and function of Greek art. Women, too, are presented as viewing males with desiring, eroticised glances or gazes, and frequently this involves seeing the male as an artwork of sorts.3 In sum: what people see, whether real or artistic, male or female is often presented in Greek literature as inflicting a wide range of emotional and cognitive states on the viewer, whether male or female. Although S. alludes to these concepts occasionally and to the fact that images could function as a thauma idesthai (“a wonder to behold”), his failure to deal with this more fully poses problems for his work.

As for the body, S. gives a useful account of the connotations of nakedness in Greek culture generally and thus in art (Ch. 2). He looks into the question of ritual athletic nakedness and falls into line with a number of commentators who view nakedness for males as a kind of costume, promoted as natural and normative. He contrasts this with female nakedness in art, which, he says, initially denotes only gender and is soon replaced by the general pattern of depicting women clothed. From this S. infers another ideology whereby men are natural, free and naked — supposedly consistent with Homeric ideals — and women clothed and under male control, and cites the Hesiodic Pandora as evidence. But there are problems. Firstly, we need to bear in mind the number of grave stelai which depict men clothed or in armour: nudity was not a given in Archaic representations of men. Also, Homeric warriors do not delight in nudity for its own sake. Hector dreads being killed by Achilles “naked, indeed like a woman” ( Il. 22.124-5), and warriors find that armour actually embodies their own strength, and has an almost transformative power over them (e.g., for Ajax Il. 7.206-13; Hector 17.210-13; Achilles 19.367ff). Important as a powerful body obviously is in Homeric society, it is not enough on its own in a warrior context. This is clear from the instructions of Thetis, who, on presenting Achilles with his new, divinely-made armour calls it his alke or “fighting strength” ( Il. 19.36).

By corollary, clothed and adorned female figures like Pandora are not simply under the control of men, as S. claims, but are enhanced by what they wear. The accoutrements with which Pandora is adorned both delight her and increase the seductive impact she has on men; indeed, even the gods are astonished when looking at her (Hes. Th. 571ff, esp. 587-8). To be sure, Pandora is a wrought object and does not act independently of Zeus’ plan to cause havoc to men. But men do not control her: she is irresistible guile embodied ( WD 83; Th. 589). She is dangerously seductive because of her divine adornments, much like Hera in Iliad 14, whose preparations to seduce and deceive Zeus — “an arming scene in drag” as it has been called — include the kestos of Aphrodite. On occasion S. does acknowledge that heterosexual desire “enslaves men’s eyes” (pp. 19, 162), thus making male viewers vulnerable, an idea known to Euripides (e.g., Tro. 891-4). He uses this as the basis for a suggestive account (Ch. 8) of the sometimes violent heterosexual activity depicted on sympotic vases, claiming that men dominate women as a way of controlling their anxieties about their own desires; such images, S. says, need not reflect reality, but rather the concerns of an oppressive patriarchy. The case here is interestingly discussed, but is not so readily applicable to other aspects of viewer and artwork in ancient Greece.

In Ch. 3, S. discusses the technical means of producing works in marble, bronze and painted pottery. It is a useful section, dwelling on a feature of ancient art too often neglected by other commentators. As well, S. outlines the connotations of the materials used in various artworks, focusing, for instance on the bronze warrior known as “Riace A”. S. plausibly sees this figure as evoking Homeric and Hesiodic ideas of bronze as the quintessential warlike material — the metal of “pitiless” Homeric weapons that is literally embodied in Hesiod’s murderous Race of Bronze. Rightly does S. say that we can hardly look at Riace A (the “rugged killer”, as he calls him) in quite the same way again in the light of these bloody connotations. But what does this do for S.’s erastes/eromenos theory for viewing artworks? Homoerotic viewing seems quite irrelevant here and is over-emphasised in other discussions of works such as the Anavyssos Kouros (“Kroisos”), the Tyrannicides and the Parthenon frieze in Ch. 4. S. does well to focus on the inscription accompanying the Kroisos statue, adducing apt parallels from Homer and Tyrtaeus for its ideology but underplays the inscription’s injunction to pity and the fact that Tyrtaeus speaks of dead young warriors as objects of desire for female viewers (fr. 10.29: the warrior is also eratos … gunaixin). Certain tragic and heteroerotic elements in the Kroisos statue warrant further discussion. As for Harmodius and Aristogeiton, S.’s theory of homoerotic viewing perforce neglects the latter — a mature bearded figure, who, like Riace A, can hardly be meant as an eromenos (in ancient accounts, of course, Aristogeiton is Harmodius’ erastes). Likewise, S.’s view that the Parthenon frieze and cult statue evoke an ideology of “eroticised belonging” through depicting the Athenian cavalrymen as eromenoi seems inappropriate for a temple dedicated to the most militaristic and sexless of all deities. The figures on the frieze are idealised and ideological, to be sure, but for warfare rather than sexual passivity; Aristophanes’ parody of the Stronger Argument’s pederastic fantasies in the Clouds should warn us against viewing these images of heroic youths as essentially objects of homoerotic desire. In fact, this problem seems to dawn on S. himself, who speaks of the “danger” of representing the demos as eromenoi (p. 84), which begs the question in the first place and rests on a rather too literal interpretation of Pericles’ alleged wish for the Athenians to become erastai of their city (Thuc. 2.43.1). At times, (pp. 92, 96, 103), S. does see how male statues like Kroisos, Riace A, and Polyclitus’ Doryphorus (Ch. 5) embody concepts of masculine power, invulnerable to an eroticised male glance; indeed, this apparent volte-face applies even to his account of the Harmodius and Aristogeiton figures, which he says “repelled the probing glance” (pp.73-4). Elsewhere, however, the political ramifications of Athenian art receive better treatment in Ch. 7 where Athens’ fluctuating fortunes, and other aspects of art and desire are more plausibly invoked to explain developments in art and architecture over the sixth to fourth centuries.

S. also deals with an impressively wide scope of images depicting women, goddesses and mythological females ranging from Praxiteles’ Aphrodite to figures on the handles of mirrors, pottery and Attic grave stelai (Chs. 5 & 6). Although he writes of the voyeuristic element in Praxiteles’ work, S. sees in it a revolution acknowledging the power of female sexuality, which, he claims, demolishes the “the entire Greek project of female containment announced by the myth of Pandora” (p. 102). But the power of female sexuality is actually embodied in the Hesiodic Pandora, and Praxiteles’ achievement – sculpting a monumental female nude — is perhaps better understood as a striking, provocative development of this notion in art rather than ushering in completely new conceptions of female sexual potency. In S.’s discussion of images of women in Spartan and Athenian contexts (Ch. 6) he conveniently summarises aspects of their socio-economic status and rituals involving girls in the transition from parthenos to wife and mother. Interesting here is how S. explains the functions of these images in patriarchal regimes, which nevertheless involve a wide range of concepts of femaleness, from potential competitor with boys for arete in Spartan terms, to the embodiment of domestic sophrosyne and beauty, as in the famous Hegeso monument in Attica. S. goes on to address the issue of erotica for women in art and the idea of the female sexual subject (Ch. 8). A couple of mirror cases seem to suggest this possibility, but ultimately he finds it necessary to despair of finding this concept expressed unequivocally in any artefact. He may well be right, but such pessimism seems underscored by an excessive unwillingness to see that Greek culture could acknowledge female heterosexual desire in less problematic ways.

Further suggestive insights are to be found in S.’s treatment of the body in figures outside the polis, such as Gorgons, Amazons, centaurs and satyrs – grouped under the rubric of the Other — and images in the Hellenistic era. While noting aspects of the destabilising power of the Gorgon stare, S. sees another ideology here whereby certain normative values of polis culture and public gaze are reinforced through the depiction of these blatantly transgressive types. S. links what he sees as the rise of “extremism” in depicting the body in the Hellenistic age to the breakdown of the polis era and its emphasis on communal values and individual restraint. Such post-polis extremism, he claims, replaces the gaze with the glance, and manifests itself in works ranging from images of Alexander with his ” domineering pose” and “power-hungry glance” (p. 210) to philosophers disdainful of city life, to Gauls and giants on Pergamon monuments, as well as grotesques and hermaphrodites. Again, this is interesting reading, but is sometimes punctuated by inappropriate attempts to view the material in terms of the erastes/eromenos theories. This is applied, for instance, to the muscle-bound, bloated “Hellenistic ruler” (fig. 139) whom even S. acknowledges as brutal in appearance, and likens to Riace A — itself a creation of the polis-era.

The book contains no concluding overview, which would have been helpful in tying all the various strands together. A wealth of background material is usefully annotated and thoroughly documented, but not in the most convenient form; the unnumbered endnotes grouped under paragraph headings sometimes make reference-checking more time-consuming than necessary. The black and white illustrations are abundant, but not of the highest quality, especially for some pottery images. Overall, S. has given us a rich, stimulating book, presented in a fluent, lively style, and covering much that is topical today; this has allowed him a number of provocative insights, some more convincing and apt than others. While S. is right to see that erotics, modes of vision and art are all linked, sometimes his treatment leads him to questionable findings that seem contradicted by the artworks themselves and aspects of the ancient reception of visual imagery. Had S. taken fuller account of the complexities in Greek thinking about visual images and the body, his book would be more satisfying, and he would have given himself greater scope to say more of value.


1. Emp., A86, A92 D-K, B84, B89 D-K; Gorg., B4 D-K, Hel. 15-19; Democr. A119, 135 D-K; Leucippus A29, A30 D-K.

2. See, for instance: Il. 11.15-46; Il. 18.549; Od. 11.609-14; [Hes.] Scutum, 161-7, 318-20; A. Septem 375-676 dwells on the apotropaic power of the warriors’ appearance and shield-images; A. Ag. 239-243 (pity); cf. A. Ag. 414-19 (the erotic desire caused by statues becomes problematic for the male viewer); S. Tr. 896-7 (pity); E., Hec. 807-8 (pity); Pho. 127-30 (fear), etc., etc.

3. E.g., Od. 6.229-46; Gorg., Hel. 18-19; cf. Hom. Hymn to Aphr. 56-7; E., Tro. esp. 987-992. S.’s references to Plato’s Charmides (154c-160e) are apt, but tell only part of the story.