Ancient Greeks, Modern Romans

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I’m in Rome, Italy—combination holiday and teaching for a week. No complaints here.

Inside the huge Coliseum there are large corridors (as in any big stadium), and this month they’re being used for an exhibit of Grecian pottery and statues—about the god Eros. I’m not generally a pottery or statue kind of guy, but while I was at the Coliseum I did take a look.

As cool as the ancient artifacts were, what blew me away was the exhibit’s narrative. The theme of the exhibit was understanding Eros as an expression of human emotion, power, drama, society. And so the writeup talked about how the ancient Greeks saw sexuality and sensuality in a comprehensive social and political way.

Some pottery featured couples of various ages. Seems that 2,000 years ago people hugged and kissed just like we do. Nice. The exhibit also showed depictions of threesomes and groups. The accompanying text was unblinking: many Greeks, especially the intelligentsia, artists, and upper classes, were non-monogamous, seeing sexuality as a valid activity that could lead to growth in addition to pleasure.

Then we saw art depicting sex between men and adolescent males. And the writeup let me know I was indeed outside the U.S.: it described how these sexual relationships were vehicles for mentoring, and preparation for adulthood and marriage. No mention of abuse, no disgust, no pretending it was something else.

I shivered.

I am NOT advocating such relationships in 21st-century America (and, of course, I must say so firmly, immediately). But it was moving to see an honest description of sexual expression as it was then. No condescension (moralizing that the Greeks didn’t know better), no warning (don’t try this at home), and even more moving—the exhibit wasn’t X-rated. Families strolled right by it, teens looked at it, couples discussed it.

In America, you could actually get arrested for owning these pieces—you know, “child porn.” If it scares someone it can’t be just art, right?

Sex. People have been doing it forever. Some people learn from it. Some people learn about it. Some people think we shouldn’t.

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