BMCR 2009.04.65

Images of Pederasty: Boys Were Their Gods

, , Images of Pederasty: Boys Were Their Gods. London/New York: Routledge, 2008. xvii, 262. ISBN 9780415223676. $115.00.

This book meets a real need. The very fact that the authors’ analysis is based on study of approximately 1000 vases (111 of which they illustrate) makes Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty a valuable resource, and an appendix including a catalogue of 647 vases compiled by the late Keith DeVries only adds to its value. The book greatly expands the amount of material available to nonspecialists, demonstrating that there are considerably more pederastic scenes in the surviving vases than has generally been believed, and its balanced and articulate readings of the material—the authors carefully describe recurring patterns, make allowance for exceptions, discuss alternative interpretations, and do not press when the evidence only goes so far—make it a significant contribution to our understanding of Greek pederasty.

The book begins with a jointly authored preface, followed by an introduction by Cantarella reviewing the textual evidence and one by Lear on the iconography of the vase paintings. There are then seven chapters authored by Lear (Courtship; Ideals/Idealization; Consummation; Pederasty and the Gods; Kalos-Inscriptions; Vase Dating; Fragments) and a jointly written conclusion. Cantarella’s capable overview of the major issues raised by the textual evidence suggests we keep an open mind on some debated points, for example on possible historical origins of pederasty as social institution. Lear’s introduction lays out the approach and terminology used in the book, which are perfectly suited to answering the questions it poses. These are in the first instance semiological: instead of asking (mostly unanswerable) questions about what Greek pederasty may have been like for those who participated in it, this study aims to interpret “the language in which images communicate,” which in turn means exploring “the elements of which Greek images of pederasty are composed, how these elements are combined and varied, and what these elements, combinations, and variations show or imply about pederasty or the ideals associated with pederasty” (p. 23).

Indeed, perhaps the single most important contribution of this book is its consistent application of a fundamental principle: images on vase paintings are not “drawn whole directly from the reality of ancient Greek life,” nor are they “snapshots of life in ancient Greece” (p. 24). The authors grant that the point seems obvious, but they do well to insist on it, for, as they note, sometimes “even the most highly trained scholars lapse into considering vase-painting in some sense a trustworthy record of historical reality.” Thus, instead of interpreting a given scene as a pseudo-photographic snapshot of an actual event, Lear and Cantarella invite us to look at the recurring and recombinable elements used by painters to build scenes which spoke to ancient viewers – and are meaningful to us – as evocations of widespread social realities and cultural ideals. In other words, there is no doubt that men courted boys, gave them gifts and copulated with them, just as there is no doubt that they enjoyed the company (and services) of hetairai, or that they drank wine and played musical instruments at symposia. But we should be cautious about concluding that any particular scene portraying these practices is a straightforward depiction of what it really looked like in the moment.

The book’s analyses make use of the following basic elements: scene-type, figure, costume, posture, gesture, prop, synecdoche, symbol, inscription, and decorative program. Some of these terms require and receive further explanation. A scene-type is “a certain set of figures in a certain, typical relation to each other” (e.g. a courting-gift scene, consisting of a male figure marked as older offering a gift to another male figure marked as younger): it is brilliantly suggested that the figures within such scenes can be read like “paper dolls, or perhaps Ken and Barbie dolls” (or rather, as Lear wittily adds, “Ken and Bobby”) used by the artist to create a scenario. These figures “can be put in different postures, make different gestures [e.g. the famous up-and-down gesture], wear different costumes [e.g. cloaks, nudity itself or massive chests and thighs in particular], and use different props [e.g. wreaths or spears],” and each of these elements in turn is “variable and open to interpretation” (p. 26). The term “synecdoche” is used to refer to elements like an athlete’s gym-kit or a hare, which symbolize and evoke a related larger context (the gymnasium and pederastic courtship respectively), and “inscriptions” is here used not in its strictest sense—texts scratched on to the surface of finished pots—but rather to refer to textual elements, such as the famous kalos inscriptions, which were painted on the vase before firing as part of the original design. The relationship between these textual elements and the iconography of the vases on which they are found is the subject of Chapter 5.

The concept of “costume” is expanded in Chapter 2 (“Ideals/Idealization”) to include that of “mask”: examples are the figures’ muscularity, their genitalia, and visual cues to relative age (such as beards and their absence or relative height). Reading the figures’ penises, in particular their size and erect or flaccid state, as elements of costume is a brilliantly effective move, freeing us from pointless arguments, usually sparked by misreadings of Dover, around the question whether Greek boys enjoyed sex with men. Lear’s conclusion: “Through the elements of costume and mask, the lovers in pederastic scenes are portrayed as athletic, modest, and self-restrained, and adhering, in their pederastic relations, to basic Greek conventions about age-roles: to a set of ideals closely related to those that we find associated with pederasty in our textual sources” (p. 72), including one according to which eromenoi are “so uninterested in sex with their erastai that they do not have erections even when sexually stimulated” (p. 66).

And so we come to Chapter 3 (“Consummation”), which opens by making the important point that, although they have drawn a great deal of scholarly attention, only 5 percent or less of extant pederastic scenes explicitly show copulation. As is well known, the overwhelming majority of scenes of pederastic consummation depict intercrural intercourse, a fact which Lear rightly calls a “visual euphemism” (p. 106). We can make no claims about how widespread this mode of intercourse was in practice, or whether it was more or less commonly practiced than anal intercourse (the latter, as jokes in Aristophanes make perfectly clear, was a fact of Athenian life), but the method adopted by Lear and Cantarella allows them to make and refine a significant point. It has been recognized since Dover that most depictions of anal intercourse on surviving vases involve either satyrs or else youths and boys amongst themselves: Lear and Cantarella have now carefully shown that these scenes contain no synecdochic elements connecting them to hunting or athletics, no sign of wooing or gift-exchange. “The only thing these scenes have in common with pederastic iconography,” they conclude, “is the presence of youthful athletic figures,” but even these wear a costume significantly distinct from that marking pederastic scenes: their genitalia are often realistically or even hyperrealistically large and erect. In short, instead of courtship, the scenes depicting anal intercourse “represent group activities of a festive or orgiastic nature, and they relate, iconographically, to a broad set of scene-types that include Satyr scenes and komos scenes” and invite being read in contrast to scenes of pederastic courtship (pp. 118-119). Another important point made in this chapter is that very few surviving paintings show erotic relations between men and boys marked as slaves (p. 135). Although the authors do not pursue the point, it closely corresponds to a perspective widespread in the Athenian textual tradition: pederasty is the province of present and future citizens and not of slaves, an illuminating point of contrast with Rome, where sexual connections between free men and their slaves of both sexes are a prominent feature of the cultural landscape.

Lear’s Chapter 6 (“Vase Dating”) responds, among other things, to the common assertion that “pederasty vanished from vase-painting in the early fifth century,” in turn used in support of an argument that “public approval of pederasty declined in Athens under the democracy” (p. 175). Lear is rightly skeptical both of the premise and of the conclusion. In fact, he points out, “pederastic courtship remains a common motif down into the fourth century,” and while explicit depictions of consummation become rare after the 470s, the same is true of explicit depictions of heterosexual sex as well. If anything, then, this shift is evidence for “a more general trend toward prudery”; it cannot be used to build arguments about change in the public status of pederasty. Indeed, Lear and Cantarella are in general admirably cautious about using shifts in iconography as the principal or sole basis for arguments about change in social practice (e.g., p. 67).

On a few points of detail the book’s conclusion was less persuasive. First, it uses the term “sodomy” (p. 190), a word best avoided in discussions of ancient sexuality, not only because of its anachronistic connotations of illegality and sin, but also because of its unstable denotations: sometimes anal intercourse, sometimes oral sex, sometimes sex with animals, sometimes “deviant sexual intercourse” by forcible compulsion or with minors (as in New York State law to this day). Next, the authors write that “in literary texts, particularly Aristophanes and Aeschines, it seems clear that anal sex elicited social disapproval” (p. 190). This is not clear to me; on the contrary, I read those texts as communicating a knowing familiarity with the practice of anal intercourse, capable of inspiring coarse jokes about dung-beetles and the like; and I would argue that what elicits disapproval is not the act itself, but those boys or men who take pleasure in being penetrated. Thus, when the authors refine their formulation on the same page (“Aristophanes’ and Aeschines’ criticisms do not strike at anal sex itself, only indulging in it to excess or in exchange for payment”), I would add yet a further refinement: criticism is aimed only at indulging in the receptive role to excess or for payment. Finally, on the question of the ideal age of erastai —adult, adolescent, or both?—the authors profess uncertainty in face of conflicting or shifting evidence (p. 191), but perhaps they see a problem where there is none. It may be that there simply were no hard rules with regard to the appropriate age to play the role of erastes.

But none of this detracts from the validity and value of the book’s method and conclusions. Above all, the authors are consistently attentive to the distinction between the language of texts and that of visual imagery. This book amply demonstrates that the two languages tell much the same story about pederasty and that those few points on which they do diverge (e.g., on the role of gifts or the importance of the hunt) are thus all the more noticeable. Most specialists since Dover would, I think, readily grant that Greek pederasty “includes and brings together pedagogy and eroticism,” that it was “an important part of the idealized vision of the life of elite Greek males,” and that it constructed a contrast between the noble, beautiful and self-controlled on the one hand and the excessive, uncontrolled and unattractive on the other (pp. 192-3), but precisely these points have been greatly in need of the detailed support from the vase paintings and clear exposition of their iconography which Lear and Cantarella have now provided. Finally, the authors do their readers a great service by ending not with the figure of the erastes, whose voice and vision dominate the surviving material, but instead with that of the eromenos (p. 192). The young man cast in this role, they argue, “is not represented as a victim or a person who passively submits”; his “dignity is emphasized not only in the literature but also in vase iconography, and he participates actively in the exchange which is at the foundation of the erotic relationship.” The point is worth emphasizing, as it adds an important qualification to the differential models of sexuality so prominent in the textual and visual traditions of Greece and Rome, sometimes oversimplified or even caricatured in the pages of scholarship, but not in this careful book.