Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome

By Amy Richlin | Go to book overview
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Eros in Love: Pederasty and Pornography in Greece

H. A. Shapiro


Pornography and Art, Ancient and Modern

Though the origin of our word pornography is Greek, its first coinage in English, in the middle of the nineteenth century, was in response to Roman erotic paintings, then lately discovered at Pompeii ( Kendrick 1987: 11). But by 1850, pornographic scenes, in the most literal sense ("drawings of prostitutes"), on much earlier Athenian vases were also widely known in Europe. Erotic encounters of hetairai (high- class prostitutes) and their customers are most prevalent on red-figured drinking cups of the period ca. 520 to 470 B.C. ( Brendel 1970), the same years in which the export of fine Athenian ceramics to the Etruscans was at its height. When, in the 1820s and '30s, the rich Etruscan tombs began to be unearthed, we may be certain that these erotic vases, which were eventually dispersed to museums and collections all over Europe, were among their contents.

We know too little about the organization of the Athenian pottery industry, or of the Athenian household, to answer many of the immediate questions posed by such vases. Who determined the subject matter: painter, potter, proprietor of the workshop, or customer? Who bought these vases, and who used them, on what occasions? What did the Etruscans, in whose tombs they ended up, think of them? The most reasonable scenario is that erotic vases were used at all-male symposia, or drinking parties, the Athenian version of a stag party. Some were made for immediate export to the Etruscans, who had a well-documented taste for erotica, while others may have reached Etruria by a secondhand market ( Webster 1972: 291). The symposium setting accounts for the concentration of erotic subjects on drinking

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