Erotica in ancient Greece  

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 This page Erotica in ancient Greece is part of the Ancient Greece series.   Photo: western face of the Parthenon
This page Erotica in ancient Greece is part of the Ancient Greece series.
Photo: western face of the Parthenon

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The ancient Greeks often painted sexual scenes on their ceramics, many of them famous for being some of the earliest depictions of same-sex relations and pederasty. A famous heterosexual example is the orgy scene on the Kylix with Erotic Scenes, attributed to Skythes [1], housed at the Louvre.

Greek art often portrays sexual activity, but it is impossible to distinguish between what to them was illegal or immoral since the ancient Greeks did not have a concept of pornography. Their art simply reflects scenes from daily life, some more sexual than others. Carved phalli can be seen in places of worship such as the temple of Dionysus on Delos, while a common household item and protective charm was the herm, a statue consisting of a head on a square plinth with a prominent phallus on the front. The Greek male ideal had a small penis, an aesthetic the Romans later adopted. The Greeks also created the first well-known instance of lesbian eroticism in the West, with Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite and other homoerotic works.

Other notable visual example include the Venus Anadyomene[2], Venus Kallipygos[3] and the Barberini Faun[4].


Milesian tales

Milesian tales

The Milesian tales are the earliest instances of erotic literature in the Western world. They directly influenced Apuleius' The Golden Ass, Petronius' Satyricon in antiquity. They were mentioned in Traitté de l'origine des romans. Aristidean saucy and disreputable heroes and spicy, fast-paced anecdote resurfaced in the medieval fabliaux. Chaucer's The Miller's Tale is in Aristides' tradition, as are some of the saltier tales in Boccaccio's Decameron or the Heptameron of Marguerite of Navarre and the later genre of the picaresque novel.



Anacreontea (᾿Ανακρεόντεια) is the title given to a collection of Greek poems on the topics of wine, beauty, erotic love, Dionysus, etc. The poems date to between the 1st century BC and the 6th century AD, attributed pseudepigraphically to Anacreon.



Lysistrata loosely translated to "she who disbands armies", is an anti-war Greek comedy, written in 411 BCE by Aristophanes. A group of women go on a sex strike as long as their husbands persist in going to war, thus the play is also an allegory of the war of the sexes. It was most famously illustrated by the British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.



Baubo is an old woman in Greek mythology who jested with Demeter when she was mourning the loss of her daughter Persephone.

In his Greek Myths, Robert Graves writes that Demeter (in disguise) was the guest of King Celeus in Eleusis. The lame daughter of the King, Iambe, "tried to console Demeter with comically lascivious verses, and a dry nurse, old Baubo, persuaded her to drink barley-water by a jest: she groaned as if in great travail and, unexpectedly, produced from beneath her skirt Demeter's own son Iacchus, who leapt into his mother's arms and kissed her." Graves writes, "Iambe and Baubo personify the obscene songs, in iambic metre, which were sung to relieve emotional tension at the Eleusinian Mysteries; but Iambe, Demeter, and Baubo form the familiar triad of maiden, nymph, and crone. Old nurses in Greek myth nearly always stand for the goddess as crone."

Menippean satire

Menippean satire


The Byzantine dictionary Suda mentions that Astyanassa was the first erotic author (in a tradition that included two other women writers, Philaenis and Elephantis): she wrote a book about sexual positions.

Philaenis of Samos's sex manual

In the Graeco-Roman area, a sex manual was written by Philaenis of Samos, possibly a courtesan (hetaira) of the Hellenistic period (3rd - 1st century BC). Preserved by a series of fragmentary papyruses which attest its popularity, it served as a source of inspiration for Ovid's Ars Amatoria, written around 3 BC, which is partially a sex manual, and partially a burlesque on the art of love.

Lucian and the "Dialogues of the Heterae"

Dialogues of the Courtesans

Lucian's Dialogues of the Heterae (also known as Mimes of the Courtesans, Hetairikoi Dialogoi and Dialogue of the Courtesans) is a series fifteen brief prose dialogues of courtesans with friends clients and other courtesans. The were written around 160 AD and first printed in 1494.

Prostitution in Ancient Greece

Prostitution in ancient Greece

See also

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