Pictures of power: queerness in ancient and classical art

Written by Tom Flanagan | 24th June 2022

In the past century, depictions of homosexuality and queerness were seen as taboo and even censored from art forms, like film. Yet hundreds of years prior, same-sex relationships were prevalent and commonly illustrated in art. Homosexuality was more normalised—if expressions of it at the time would make modern society uneasy—and was depicted as a way of showcasing both power and beauty. With the help of Expert in Archaeology Ruth Garrido Vila and Expert in Classical Art Valérie Lewis, we unearthed the storied history of queerness in ancient times through classical art. 

According to ancient Greek mythology, it’s said that there once lived a boy whose beauty outshone all others. He was no god, but a mortal. And his name was Ganymede. 

He wasn’t only beautiful in mortal eyes though: the gods found him just as alluring. So much so that in a fit of desire, Zeus—the god of the sky and father of all gods—decided he wanted him for himself. Disguised as an eagle, Zeus kidnapped Ganymede and stole him to the heavens; where Ganymede was granted eternal youth and to serve forever more as cupbearer to the gods of Olympus, as well as Zeus’ personal cupbearer and alleged lover. 

Ganymede's tale is synonymous with homosexuality and the inspiration behind the astrological sign Aquarius. Wikimedia Commons. 

The tale of Ganymede has been retold across ancient Greek stories and depicted in art of the time. While Ganymede was also the inspiration for the astrological sign Aquarius—the cupbearer—his name has become synonymous with homosexuality in ancient times. 

Ganymede’s relationship with Zeus was implied to be sexual based on Zeus’ problematic and notorious reputation as an aggressor and rapist. And Ganymede’s story—as it relates to his youth and the age-gap between himself and Zeus—is one of the many examples of how ancient Athenians expected homosexual relationships to be conducted and one that inspired artists over the years. 

Homosexuality in the classical world

While the ancients were open about homosexuality, depictions like the tale of Ganymede and Zeus signal an uneasy normalcy in which relationships of a homosexual nature came to be presented.

“Contrary to what many people think, the ancient cultures’ mentality about homosexual relationships and sex in general was more open than nowadays”, explains Expert in Archaeology Ruth Garrido Vila. “Having homosexual encounters was something acceptable in ancient Greece and Rome but only between men and specifically with young boys, which was seen as a symbol of male power. There were rules, however, such as Roman male citizens could not be sexually penetrated”. 

Rigorous academic debate around pederasty —to describe the ancient relationships between men and younger boys—has been conducted by academics, who characterise this as a recognised social exchange as well as a physical one, while acknowledging how at odds this dynamic is with modern-day values. Yet most of the art salvaged showcases this kind of relationship. 

Ancient Athenians homosexual relationships were seen as both physical and intellectual. Wikimedia Commons.

An ancient Greek kylixa drinking cup used for celebrations and ceremonies—displayed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, depicts a symposium, or party, where a man and young boy are seated nearby one implying their proximity in more than just space. Another more graphic illustration is that found on an amphora exhibited at The British Museum. Here, men are shown to be naked, aroused and attempting intercourse with one another, while two men on either side of the design are holding hunted animals meant as love gifts for the younger partners, who are also pictured. 

While men seemed to get away with anything, the same could not be said for women, says Ruth. “Sex between two women was frowned upon. It happened but it was regarded with disdain at best and taboo at worst. There isn’t much written about it, but in ancient Greece we find an exception in Sappho of Lesbos. The poems of Sappho, who lived between the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. enjoyed enormous popularity throughout Greece for centuries. She wrote wedding hymns mostly yet she was most famous for the verses she dedicated to the women she fell in love with”. 

'Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene' by Simeon Solomon. Wikimedia Commons.

According to Deborah Kamen in “Naturalized Desires and the Metamorphosis of Iphis”, depictions of female love were so infrequent that there remains only one example of this, not just in Greek mythology but all of classical literature: the story of Iphis and Ianthe, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “The tale concerns Iphis, born a girl but raised as a boy by her mother to protect her from her father, who falls in love with another girl named Ianthe'', says Expert in Classical Art Valérie Lewis. “The two fall in love and are betrothed but the mother, fearing her daughter’s biological sex being revealed, goes to the goddess Isis, praying for a solution. Isis, moved by the mother’s pleas, transforms Iphis from a girl to a boy”. Unusually for Ovid, it’s also one of the tales with a happy ending too, with Iphis and Ianthe ultimately marrying. 

The disparity between male and female homosexuality reveals the complicated territory historians must work with when understanding societal views of homosexuality at the time. But broadly, homosexuality was considered to be normal, much more so than in the past century, explains Ruth. 

An erotic relief such as this was considered good taste in ancient times.

“In Ancient Greece, depicting naked athletic bodies was considered something beautiful. The intention of these representations was not about advancing any message but rather a symbol of power and what was considered good taste in decoration. If you go back to ancient Latin, there were no words for “gay” or “homosexual”, so there was nothing “divergent” about depicting these kinds of relationships. Roman men were expected to have both male and female sex partners. In fact, the Emperor Claudius was criticised by historian Suetonius for being “of extreme lust in women, lacking in experience in males”. Romans were shocked that their Emperor Claudius had no taste in men and preferred to sleep exclusively with women”. 

The legacy of queer art

While the ancients exhibited a tolerance towards homosexuality and readily portrayed it in art, changing attitudes and the onset of religion meant later societies chose to censor evidence of same-sex relationships.  

“Much of this was down to the role and rise of religion, which saw sex as a kind of taboo meant only for having children and never just for having fun”, explains Ruth. “From medieval times up until the last century, many of these depictions have been hidden as they were considered perversions and this is still happening in places across the world. When we really think about it, nowadays we are still probably less tolerant towards homosexuality/queer relationships than people were 2000-2500 years ago”. 

Ancient homosexual relationships would be unlawful in modern-day society. Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the most jaded and damaging stereotypes around homosexuality— like the predication with youth and a perception that children should be shielded from learning about same-sex relationships—have unfortunately been inspired by the ancient world and weaponised by conservative institutions. In many ways, however, we can still take some cues—but not all—from how ancient civilisations approached sexuality in general, explains Valerie. 

“What is important to understand in history is that nothing is really ever static. The example of the ancient Greeks educating their boys by pairing them with older men for a couple of years to teach them the ropes of life both intellectually and sexually, and the celebrated three-gender system with Muxe in pre-hispanic Zapotec culture are just a couple of cases that show vastly different gender and sexuality were seen and experienced versus in modern society. Ancient works of art are time capsules that show the zeitgeist of the era, and give insight into worlds, thoughts and beliefs that were lost or have changed over time”. 

A fresco of Sappho is one of the few reminders and symbols of queer women in ancient times. Wikimedia Commons.

Ultimately, queer art is a legacy and a window into a time we’re still learning from. “Depictions of same sex relationships in classical artworks, though not overly frequent, are nonetheless important historical proofs that sexuality has never been entirely heterosexual and that gender was not always binary. Queer people and relationships, despite being looked down upon and having been suppressed, have never ceased to exist. The fact that ancient stories and classical artworks tell of gender fluidity and queer people is an important reminder of the power and endurance of the queer community. And that difference was once celebrated—and one day will be again”. 


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