Annotated Bibliography on Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Greece

by scholastress

It’s been a blast this semester researching and lecturing on queer historiography in the ancient world. It’s really pushed the limits of my historical knowledge, and led to some rather productive tensions between my contemporary politics and strange, alien social life of pre-modern history. It’s a curious experience. The stakes are different, your interlocutors are highly trained in otherwise conservative disciplines, and there’s an abundance of extremely tawdry material that will make even the seasoned dungeon master blush.

While my time with the Greeks has come to an end, I’m still fascinated by this field and hope to keep reading. Please do let me know if there are any good sources out there I’ve missed.


Beard, Mary. 1980. “The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins”. The Journal of Roman Studies. 70: 12-27.

Davis, Whitney. “Founding the Closet: Sexuality and the Creation of Art History.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 11, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 171-175.

This is a short, pragmatic essay, written in both scholarly and argumentative form. Davis’ experiences as a gay art historian take on positional significance as the art historian makes an account of both the difficulty of teaching the history of alternative sexualities within the discipline and its own systemic displacement of these questions (such that Davis invokes the metaphor of the closet) (173). His address of the material and systemic supports that condition the study of art- the libraries, reference systems, and time allotted for lecture preparation- is an important contribution to appraisals of canonicity that all too often restrict themselves to pure ideological critique. Nevertheless, this work is obviously coloured by the recent debates on global art history or censorship and the Mapplethorpe controversy and as such it is decisively political.

Moving from contemporary issues of access to the historical shaping forces of history, however, Davis attacks several implicit foundations to art historical practice, raising the issue of disembodied objectivity and weasel-word euphemisms in the standard course of the discipline. Taking Johann Joachim Winckelmann as the key instigator of this ‘closeted’ art history. The methodological questions Davis raises are an important continuation of the project of New Art History, and still merit a response. The nuances of Winckelmann’s sexuality and influence, however, are rather underdeveloped- perhaps necessarily so given the length of the article and its (ostensive) librarian audience. This issue will addressed elsewhere in Davis’ corpus (1994, 1998, 2010) and go on to inspire further debate in and of itself (Catriona, 1998; Potts, 1994; Richter & McGrath, 1994).

———-. Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1994.

This book, essentially a reproduction of Whitney Davis’ 1994 special issues of The Journal of Homosexuality, represents a pivotal moment in the development of art historical scholarship on sexuality, as well as an insightful account of the stakes and challenges of producing this research at the time. Davis’ introduction to the volume, by consequence, is highly assertive and imbricated in the language of identity politics, arguing for the recognition of “lesbian and gay scholarship in art history as one of the necessary logical fulfillments of art history itself rather than a mere excrescence upon or within it,” (6). Like the feminist canonicity debates of the 1980s, Davis and his authors attempt to occupy disciplinary space and by consequence argue for the necessity of revisiting standard art historical narratives in light of these new perspectives. Though in hindsight the efficacy of such strategies can perhaps be questioned, such language is nevertheless a clear indication of the political traditions – and limitations- of disciplinarity.

Davis’ own article in the volume, Winckelmann Divided: Mourning the Death of Art History,” picks up where his earlier work on the divisive historical figure left off. The author enriches his previous scholarship through a close reading of Winckelmann’s discussion of Greek formal “freedom”- a concept that proves to be riddled with contradictions. As Davis proves, it correlate neither to political nor artistic liberties within the social history of Greek art, but rather “a species of social-sexual organization possible in both democratic and authoritarian society,” (144). This, combined with Davis’ outline of Winckelmann’s own membership to homoerotic subcultures throughout his travels, is compelling evidence to further Davis’ ongoing point about the discipline’s fraught separation of form from content and the historian’s own sexual subjectivity. This argument, however, soon takes a detour through a bout of psychoanalysis in Davis’ discussion of Winckelmann’s writing on the loss of Greek art and Greek freedom. That the decline or historical destruction of Greek material culture (the ‘right kind’ of Greek material culture, moreover) should necessarily be tied to Winckelmann’s fraught pursuit of a gay identity seems to go too far in the direction of a project like Thomas K. Hubbard in ascribing the politics and vocabulary of Davis’ era to the historically ambiguities of Winckelmann or the Greeks.

———-.  2010. Queer Beauty: Sexuality and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Freud and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. London: Duckworth, 1978. 

Long regarded as one of the foundational studies on Classical Greek erotic life, Dover’s Greek Homosexuality is both a valuable text in its own right and fascinating study of the historicity of the field. Although much of the literature on Greek homosexuality has taken a critical stance towards this canonical piece of research, painting him as either homophobic (Percy III, 2005, 48) or overly sex-obsessive (Davidson, 2001), I found Dover’s study to be measured in its approach, remarkable for its time, and rigorously argued.

The author’s careful relativism in his approach to the topic is often painfully strained, suggesting the larger stakes at play in researching homosexuality in the 1970s. Though very much a specialist of Ancient Greek cultures and language, the author has taken pains to write in an accessible manner to a general audience, perhaps cognizant of the significant role the text would take within gay culture subsequent to its publication.

Although Dover is not an art historian and does not draw from this discipline at all for the most part of his work, this text remains one of the richest resources on erotic Greek pottery and its interpretation. Several photographs are reproduced in the book, though a great deal are discussed only verbally in reference to a lengthy catalog of museum collections across Europe, North America, and – interestingly – the USSR. Dover by his own confession did not personally travel to these locations to conduct his research, but instead relied extensively on photographs. This is a definite weakness to the text- images are often discussed as abstract representations rather than a materially-grounded objects serving quotidian or ritual uses- yet it is difficult to fault Dover too much, particularly given the on-going paucity of images of these objects in scholarly or popular print. The reader should be careful, nevertheless, to remember that these objects had a circulation, production- even a verso side- that is absent from this text.

Dover refers to the pottery images in a citational sense, giving them the authority of historical evidence for the Greek’s decorous standards and cultural jests of this period. This itself is a move that the contemporary reader may wish to trouble; issues of class, race and slavery barely register on the periphery, if at all. The paucity of female material, homosexual or otherwise, does raise Dover’s interest, however, and the nuances of Greek female life within the home and public sphere does receive a concerted, if brief, address. The use of pottery as evidence of practice is also ameliorated to a degree by the author’s lengthy analysis of legal and poetic texts whose rather deftly studied language helps situate the meaning and likelihood of the acts depicted.

Rather than this being an express call towards cross-historical identification within the context of the gay rights movement and rising ascendency of identity politics in the 1970s, Dover is particularly careful to qualify the differences Greek erotic practices present. Out of a lack for better words (and perhaps a distaste of neologisms) Dover uses the term homosexuality through the book, but prefaces his meaning as a “subdivision of the ‘quasi-sexual’ (or ‘pseudo-sexual’; not ‘parasexual’)” (vii-viii)- a distinction which, if under-explained, does inject some important grounds for historical specificity within the broader category of sexual identity and cultural practices.

The picture Dover ultimately paints of Greek homosexuality is wonderfully complex. One gains a multi-faceted understanding of the value (white, upper class) Greek culture placed upon the young male body and the role its beauty played in cultural practices of manhood and valour. The book’s conclusion, however, strikes of determinism. Greek homosexuality, to Dover, must have arisen in response to a cultural need, particularly that of intimacy and community within a social and gendered order constrained by the militaristic demands of the Greek geopolitical position. This point is an interesting one, particularly because it reasserts gender into the foundations of the discussion of sexuality, but may be a touch speculative at this point. I look forward to following this thread through other discussions within the literature, both to test its value and, pragmatically, to bring the issue of gender more forcefully forward in my presentation.

DuBois, Page. “Dildos.” In The Object Reader, edited by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins, 92-110. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

DuBois’ essay, a component within a larger volume of visual/material culture studies, takes the olisbos (dildo) as its object of study and with it, in turn, a host of unanswered questions left over from Foucault and Halperin’s studies of the queer sexual practices of ancient Greece. DuBois argues that this scholarship’s emphasis on dominance and submission through the act of penetration has served to render issues of female sexuality and slavery invisible to the modern eye. The author’s careful textual analysis of linguistic choices made in translation, in addition to her emphatic insistence that slavery undergirds the discussion at hand, culminates in a powerful exposition on the human labour and captivity that lies beneath both ancient Greek discussions of servile objects and queer feminist hopes for the dildo as an object of sexual liberation. This was a very sobering reminder of the class and racial divisions that are often occluded in the study of a culture through its most textually or visually prolific social groups. It has certainly impressed upon me the need to qualify the recuperative or genealogical traditions in queer historiography in a deeply intersectional light.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality- Volume 1: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hubbard, Thomas K. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Berkeley [Calif.]: University of California Press, 2003.

In the essentialist vs. social construction debates concerning sexuality, Hubbard firmly adheres to the somewhat out-modded former category. At times, this argument strains the logic of the volume’s introduction. For example, in direct contradistinction to Dover, Hubbard contends that erastes/eromenos relationships could continue after the eromenos aged out of his youth, citing Aristotle’s exposition on the timelessness of the love of character. Doing so, however, ignores the specificity and proliferation of cultural practice sanctioned or otherwise. The text, as a result, seems to be buttressed on select examples that serve to forward the ideal of gay identity as an all-encompassing, trans-historical category, even though, according to Dover and even the author’s own admission, many of the figures the author relies on as evidence of a uniquely gay culture were regarded as anomalous or deviant in the contexts of their times. Hubbard’s introduction, consequently, seems to argue its point at the cost of a holistic analysis of what sexuality meant to different strata and social spaces within ancient Greek society at large. If a gay sub-culture did exist in the ancient world, Hubbard has failed to clearly trace its contours.

Nevertheless, the volume of primary texts Hubbard has assembled is not without value. Keeping the author’s biases in mind, a wide range of literary, political, and legal texts can be referenced with moderate ease. I particularly enjoyed the graffiti texts reproduced from Thera and Athens, though the lack of visual analysis of these texts within their original architectural context is a decisive limitation. Similarly, a range of sculptural and ceramic works are reproduced in the middle of the volume without any interpretation or context. The scholar, by consequence, must read carefully and wider than Hubbard’s volume in order to discern which images serve as negative models for behaviour (satyr burlesques), positive symbols of ritualistic courtship (gift giving and gaze exchanges), or still hopelessly ambiguous.

Jenkins, Ian. “Is there Life After Marriage? A Study of the Abduction Motif in Vase Paintings of the Athenian Wedding Ceremony.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 30, no. 1 (1983): 137-145.

Love, Heather. 2007. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Lucian. “In Defence of Images.” In Chattering Courtesans and Other Sardonic Sketches, trans Keith C. Sidwell.London: Penguin Books, 2004.

MacLeod, Catriona. Embodying Ambiguity: Androgyny and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Keller. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. 

Potts, Alex. 1994. Flesh and The Ideal: Winckelmann and The Origins Of Art History. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Richter, Simon and Patrick McGrath. “Representing Homosexuality: Winckelmann and the Aesthetics of Friendship.” Monatshefte, Vol. 86, No. 1 (Spring, 1994): 45-58.

Side-stepping the typical essentialist vs. constructivist debates that are so often articulated through Winckelmann’s corpus, Richter and McGrath take up the infamous figure through the lens of homosociality rather than an express homosexuality, allowing for simultaneously greater nuance and ambiguity in the practices and identifications of the early art historian. They are also keen to foreground their analysis of such considerations within the confines of what was behaviour realistically feasible in the public life of Winckelmann’s time. The result of this shift in perspective is a new depiction of the man, no longer the closet case of Davis’ appraisal, but a sophisticated cultivar of international homosocial subcultures to those who could read between the lines. As the authors’ note, “Winckelmann was engaged in nothing less than an effort to give a name, a profile, and a dignity to his desire; today we would say he was coming out,” (46). Thus, while both the authors’ and Davis’ vocabulary strikes as a touch anachronistic at points, Richter and McGrath political investment in Winckelmann’s identifications seem more sensitive to the limits of his specific historical moment. This is, of course, not to say that the authors are blind the stakes of such scholarship (indeed, the latter died of AIDs related complications before the article’s publication), but rather that these scholars’ proximity to the material lends itself to a more sympathetic evaluation of Winckelmann than Davis’ wider-reaching appraisal of disciplinary legacies and their limitations.

The emphasis of the article lies in its analysis of the content and context of Winckelmann’s Abhandlung con der Fähigkeit der Empfindung des Shönen in der Kunst (1763): an unsuccessful plea to a traveling friend to rejoin him in Rome for a refined education at Winckelmann’s direction. The text and its surrounding correspondence are quoted at length in the article. However, given that there is no English translation for the original German, the utility of these sources has a set limit. Nevertheless, though the authors’ analysis of Winckelmann’s writings a provocative thesis emerges, linking homosocial friendship to aesthetic education through the paired figures of older teacher and younger student. While Richter and McGrath describe this model in terms of “homosocial reproduction” (53), it strikes me that the erastes/ermenos dyad is a more thematically appropriate choice for the scholar, and an intriguing insight to carry forward into the study of his work.

Stansbury-O’Donnell, Mark. Vase Painting, Gender, and Social Identity in Archaic Athens. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Equal parts Lacanian and quantitative analysis, Stansbury-O’Donnell’s book is an important effort to chart the systematized nature of vision and spectatorship within ancient Athenian pottery and its historical context. The author’s ambitious goals are made possible through his construction of a database based on a census of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum and the Beazley digital archive. This sources are not without their limitations- as international collections they have been shaped by particular connoisseurial tastes and market pressures- but they do allow Stansbury-O’Donnell to extrapolate in degrees about the frequency and configuration of figure types.

This proclivity for quantitative analysis is also expressed in the frequent use of reductive diagrams to concisely express what Stansbury-O’Donnell calls “the viewing matrix.” As an account of the directionality of the gazes between a ceramic’s illustrated central figures, illustrated spectators, the historical viewer, and the spectators of the historical viewer, this multivalent analytic stands to unite both form, content and social contexts (even though the schematized diagram itself lacks some nuance in its pursuit of the aesthetics of objectivity). Undergirding this network of vision is the Lacanian assertion that the historical and illustrated onlookers were intended to emulate and identify with the illustrated central figure through the process of transposition. In the context of the symposium, this lends itself well to the negotiations of age, prestige, gender and civic identity in Athens. This framework firmly situates the analysis of visual sources outside the naïve assumption that the imagery on pottery was representative of actual behaviour. To the converse, Stansbury-O’Donnell presents a much more enriching analysis of such images as idealized behaviours, indicative of social expectations highly specific to classed and gendered audiences of each pottery form. Such a construct, however, fails to adhere to imagery of parody or pornography that were also common to the symposium, and this omission weakens the overall strength of Stansbury-O’Donnell’s text considerably.

Of particular interest and utility was the author’s discussion of the cultural connotations of the gaze. Like Irene Winter’s article for this class, Stansbury-O’Donnell argues for a sense of cultural contructedness to the way in which vision was negotiated across class, age, and gender. Drawing from philosophers such as Plato as well as different social contentions in Greek public life, the author argues for an understanding of vision as an active meeting of essential qualities of the viewer and viewed. In the context of the erastes/eromenos relationship, one’s look of desire was consequently understood to invoke desire in the object of one’s gaze, leading to a careful decorum of downcast youthful gazes and the segregation of women from much of public life. This point adds considerable richness to nuptial and courtship imagery.

Sutton, Robert F. “Nuptial Eros: The Visual Discourse of Marriage in Classical Athens”. The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, Vol. 55/56 (1997): 27-48.

 Sutton’s text is a meticulous study of the emergence and visual vocabulary of the figure of Eros in the context of wedding scenes in Greek pottery. In surprising contradiction to well-known historical texts and literary ideals, such artefacts express forms of heterosexual love and intimacy between newlywed spouses. This peculiarity is explained only in passing by the author as an effect of audience and context; such vases were primarily bridal in use and ownership, suggesting that visions of nuptial desire served as propaganda of sorts for the understandably skittish brides-to-be. The public (and male) perspective on marriage, in contrast, seems to have remained primarily unemotional and practical.

While Sutton perhaps fails to press this point further to more enriching comparisons across the sexes, he does leave the reader with a rich archive of images and their analyses. Pederastic sexual practices are thus illuminated indirectly; some cups juxtapose contrasting pairings in different registers, while the grasping of wrists and visual intercessions of Eros along gaze lines borrows from ongoing and prior precedents from homoerotic courting. Thus, while the conclusions Sutton draws seem a touch overly concerned with issues of form, the formal programs he unpacks should prove highly useful for this project, facilitating several slide analyses for the class.

——–. “Pornography and Persuasion on Attic Pottery.” In Pornography and Representation, ed. Amy Richlin, 3-35. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Sutton’s earlier examination of the evolution of romantic visual idioms from pederastic to nuptial scenes finds itself in this chapter productively embroiled in the so-called feminist “sex wars” and critiques of pornography emerging in the early 1990s. In this polarized context, Sutton can’t help but bring contemporary debates into antiquity, using theorists such as Andrea Dworkin and Carol Thurston to examine the social use and influence of pornographic materials in ancient Athens. Ultimately, despite the chorus of highly opinionated voices of this literature, Sutton attempts to steer a non-prescriptive (but not exactly neutral) course, historicizing feminist objections to pornography in distinctly Greek terms by describing the persuasive modeling of social behaviour and gender roles as the “Peitho model” (6) of visual culture in antiquity.

This thesis- that erotic representations served as an active but not coercive shaping force in culture- is tested to its limits in Sutton’s diverse array of examples dating from the 6th to 4th centuries BCE. Covering a range of political and social turmoil, including the move towards and away from democracy, Sutton claims that pornographic pottery helped define civic ideals and countercultural refusals alike. His engagement with these heterogeneous sources is an admirable challenge to the uniform narratives one might be tempted to construct with a tighter selection of examples. As a result, however, the broad and somewhat unfocused trajectory of the middle of the text forms something of a descriptive survey of subjects and markets rather than a rigorous argument. Nevertheless, these materials are martialled in the final segment of the text which explores the domestication of pornographic motifs in marital and domestic images for women. Through the careful exploration of iconographic and formal evolutions in the fifth century, Sutton makes a convincing argument for the pedagogical and persuasive nature of such imagery. The outlandishness and explicit nature of earlier examples, however, resist such neat teleological conclusions, and would benefit from more individualized study.

A final curiosity of the chapter, in spite of its otherwise uniform historical language, is its description of erotic pottery as pornography, with both “hardcore” and “softcore” manifestations. Pornography’s literal meaning, as images of prostitutes, does not adhere to all of Sutton’s examples, suggesting something of a willful anachronism. This artifact likely arises from editor Amy Richlin’s direction of the book project in which Sutton’s essay is housed, which identifies itself as a work of feminist culture studies (xii). The shock the word, no doubt an intended iconoclastic assault on privileged depictions of Greco-Roman cultures as forbearers of a humanist intellectual tradition, strikes me as effective to this end. Left unaddressed, however, is a concerted comparison between these two historical moments in pornographic visual culture, particularly in terms of its use, circulation, and social stigma.

Sweet, D.M. “The Personal, The Political, And The Aesthetic: Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s German Enlightenment Life.” Journal of Homosexuality. 16 (1988): 147-162.

Topper, Kathryn. The Imagery of the Athenian Symposium. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Looking strictly at symposia scenes from 530-450 BCE, Topper’s study is a concentrated analysis of the conventions and contradictions in scenes of what was largely “envisioned as a microcosm of the larger polis,” (53). Over the course of her extensive literature reviews and formal analyses, the author comes to argue for a new perspective on symposium pottery as preoccupied with idealized history, representing archaic origins and ideals that may or may not have actually existed in order to negotiate the tumultuous present of a slave-owning, increasingly cosmopolitan society. Thus, like Stansbury-O’Donnell and Sutton argue, Topper approaches her visual sources as forms of social propaganda, often of a reactionary sort. Inclusions as well as exclusions are therefore of paramount importance, as are the visual rhetoric of those depicted.

The most relevant chapter of this book for my project concern the nature of oinochoos, nude youthful wine pourers of the symposium. In contrast to previous accounts, Topper contends that these figures should not be interpreted as either slaves and prostitutes (following from the exclusive social membership of the idealized body) or contemporary Greek sons in their passage to adulthood (due to the lack of textual evidence to support such a supposition, and the predatory nature of symposium guests). Instead, Topper builds a convincing argument that the oinochoos figure was a later invention of Athenian society, meant to invoke ideals of self-sufficiency and civic pride that were complicated by the introduction of slaves (the more likely candidate for the actual bearer of wine). This exploration of socially occluded figures of history brings DuBois’ work to mind, and serves as a sobering corrective to the pottery’s outward display of festivities. The oinchoos’ frequent dual valence as an eromenos figure, moreover, creates an intriguing juxtaposition, suggesting that the eromenos may have also been laden with civic ideals and constructed histories rather than simply sufficing as visual evidence as so many classical scholars treat them (Dover, Hubbard).

 Winckelmann, Johann Joachim. History of the Art of Antiquity, trans. Alex Potts. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006.