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Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence. A new exhibition at the British Museum promises to lift the lid on what beauty meant for the ancient Greeks. But while we gaze at the serene marble statues on display — straining male torsos and soft female flesh — are we seeing what the ancients saw? The feelings that beautiful faces and bodies rouse in us no doubt seem both personal and instinctive — just as they presumably did for the ancient Greeks who first made and enjoyed these artworks.
But our reactions are inevitably shaped by the society we live in. Greek attitudes towards sex were different from our own, but are all those myths about the sex lives of the ancient Greeks true? And how does this affect how we view the art? It was certainly the norm in ancient Greece for a man to find both sexes attractive.
Relationships between men of the same age were not at all common: Men also used female prostitutes regularly: As for marital relations, men seldom married before the age of 30, and apart from the wedding night, it was common for married couples to sleep apart. These different sexual relationships are captured in classical vase painting in strikingly different ways.
This is largely true. These arrangements might be expected to lead to unhappy marriages, but we do find examples of loving couples. In terms of art, what I find particularly touching are the tender portraits of wives on tombstones, where women are characteristically displayed as faithful, loving mothers. Interestingly, the bride becomes a figure of intense erotic interest in 5th-century BC Athens. Vase paintings often depict young women putting on clothes and jewellery ahead of their weddings or being led by the hand by their groom, with a winged Eros floating nearby.