Abstract: Sex Sells, But Who’s Buying? Erotic Imagery on Athenian Vases


Erotic imagery appears in early Attic black-figure but becomes quite popular in red-figure from about 520-475 B.C.  The setting of these often graphic images of heterosexual and homosexual encounters is usually the symposium, the all-male drinking party.

From special gentleman’s cabinets to special collections, the study of erotic vase images has been encumbered by cultural prudishness.  Now that scholarship has experienced a sexual revolution, the images are being used to explore questions of sexuality, morality, and gender roles among other topics.  However, nearly all studies assume that the images are for and about Athenians, thus must represent ATHENIAN views on sexuality, morality, etc.

A closer look at archaeological evidence shows that very few vases with graphic sexual images come from Athens itself.  In fact, evidence from the houses of Athens shows that these homeowners were not choosing such images for their sympotic ware.  Instead, vases with erotic images were sold on the export market, more specifically, to Etruria.

Once we recognize that erotic images did not appeal to the Athenians, we must re-evaluate the use of these images in assessing Athenian values.  Instead, what we find is an Athenian pottery industry with an astute marketing sense that distorts their own cultural identity to appeal to foreign perceptions of Greek culture.  Parallels can be found in Asian export pottery destined for Europe in the 18th-19th Centuries.

Lecture will contain vase painting images of explicit sexual scenes.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic: 

Kilmer, Martin (1993). Greek Erotica on Attic Red-Figured Vases, London.

Lewis, Sian (2002). The Athenian Woman: An Iconographic Handbook, London.

Lynch, K. M. (2009) “Erotic Images on Attic Pottery: Markets and Meanings,” Athenian Painters and Potters II, ed. J. Oakley and O. Palagia, Oxford, pp. 159-165.

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