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F - 174 : Sex in Ancient Greece

Updated: Jul 2, 2022

Visiting the ceramics departments in a Greek museums is fun. My sentence has a double meaning though. The exhibits make you marvel how people could produce such fine ceramics 2’600 years ago, but the scenes on some pottery make you blush. A bit separated from the main exhibition there are sections filled with pottery full of nudity and erotic scenes.

Sex Scene on a Greek Trinket, around 400 BC

These scenes depict the Greek as a randy culture with a love for pornography and no shame. The scenes are explicit and do not leave anything to imagination. No wonder that the vases were stacked away for decades. But as our attitude to sex has changed, most of these erotic pieces are now back on display. Seems that for ancient Greeks gender identity was a fairly fluid concept. They could be straight, bi, gay, cross-dressers and who knows what - all at the same time. Homosexuality, masturbation, orgies, prostitution and taboo-less sex were part of the ancient Greek world. Pedophile behavior was accepted and supported. It was a quite different world!

Greek Warriors in an Orgy at their Camp depicted on a Vase from 510 BC

We find the same in ancient Greek literature. I remember my amusement when re-reading Aristophanes “Lysistrata” last summer. It was a recent translation, not the sanitized version I had to read in High School. What foul and lude language! The scenes are full of sexual innuendos and obscenities. Most of us are familiar with the plot: Unhappy with their war mongering husbands, Athens’ women go on a sex strike and occupy the Acropolis where Athens war chest, 300 tons of silver, was kept. The men unsuccessfully try to storm the citadel but are mocked by their women for their soft penises and their impotence. The men, all in short dresses with wooden phalluses hanging from the bottom, retreat humiliated. You need to read “Lysistrata” yourself. It is an experience.

Today's Performances of "Lysistrata" are lame compared to the Original Performances

Then there are the hundreds of monuments raised to male fertility. You can find them on every site and in every museum. We know from Herodotus, the ancient historian from Halicarnassus (Bodrum), that the Athenians erected a statue to Hermes with an erected dick. Hermes was the Greek God of Herds, Commerce and Hospitality. I guess the Athenians fantasized about the latter. There are also hundreds of statues of Satyrs, the goat-footed assistants the Dionysus, the God of Wine. They were revered for their sexual prowess.

The Bronce Satyr from Ancient Greece, ca 650 BC could not be more explicit,

Masturbation was not tabu either. The famous philosopher Diogenes from Sinope (404 – 312 BC) taught that if an act is not shameful in private it should not be shameful in public. He justified his public masturbation by saying “if only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly”. Had never heard the story before. I remember Diogenes as the philosopher who preached poverty and said that personal happiness had nothing to do with a person’s material circumstances. We always learn.

Alexander the Great meeting Diogenes in Corinth in 330 BC. German Painting 19th Century

Seems that most Greek men were obsessed with three activities: sex, getting drunk (see my blog E-8) and going to war. They were quite open about it. Sex and how to best enjoy it was discussed in public; men got drunk collectively and enjoyed the company of “dancing girls” in symposiums; the slaughter of enemies was celebrated in poems and plays. Gives Ancient Greek society a rather unexpected dimension. They were not only cultured, sophisticated, intellectually curious and commercially savvy. They also were also horny, drunk bullies. The stories of their galivanting and raping Gods could well be mirrors of ancient Greek society.

Zeus raping Leda, glorified today as "Leda making Love to Jupiter". Michelangelo 1530

Whilst Greeks’ sexual behavior sounds like a free for all, it was not. Sex was the prerogative of men in power. Women, younger men or slaves were excluded. Powerful men took younger boys as lovers and became their mentors, preparing them for their future adult life in public. Marriages were arranged. Women had to stay home, bear children and be faithful. The punishment for adultery was far more severe than the punishment for rape. Sic! As expected, slaves, who made up 1/3 of Athens’ population, had no rights at all – they were sexual play things. The only women with some sexual power were courtesans. Often in high demand, they earned a fortune. As we know, money is power and power protects.

Everybody talked openly about Sex. But publicly showing Affection like Kissing was taboo

Found it fascinating reading about sex in ancient Greece. You bounce between blushing and amusement. There is definitely no sexual practice the horny Greeks have not tried. Whilst people buy their sex toys today in secluded shops, there was no need for doing so in Athens. It was all in the public domain. The local carpenter made and sold dildos and people would borrow them from each other. Apparently, they had to be well lubricated. Olive oil was the best – so ancient texts say.

Fur further reading I recommend:

Sex in Ancient Greece: Facts and Details - the site has excellent references

Alternatively, I get the easy readable book "The Joy of Sexus" from Vicki Leon

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