GENDER, IDENTITY AND THE BODY IN GREEK AND ROMAN SCULPTURE

R. J. Barrow

CUP (2018) h/b 246pp £75 (ISBN 139781107039544)

 This book published posthumously after B.’s death in 2016, aims to explore a selection of works of ancient sculpture through the lens of contemporary theory from areas such as gender studies, art history, sociology and psychology amongst others. 

A book of this scope could easily be overwhelmed with the number of themes it seeks to explore but the author focuses on ten very different sculptures ranging from a humble Tanagra Statuette to the sublime Aphrodite of Cnidos. The book’s opening chapter gives us an overview of some aspects of the modern context of Gender Studies and the text is supplemented throughout by thoughtfully selected imagery to highlight the features of the sculptures being discussed as well as related works.

The book consists of ten distinct chapters based around a different type of body. Apart from the obvious categories of male and female body, we also have chapters on e.g. the ageing body, the indefinite body and the non-human body. The original context and meaning of each of the sculptures and how they can be interpreted in the modern sense are explored in depth in each chapter. The changing perceptions of the male and female body over time, the fluidity of gender identity and how we interpret things through modern eyes are all considered and discussed. It seems the pressure to look a certain way is certainly nothing new.

To take two examples: in the chapter on the veiled body, B. turns her focus towards a Tanagra figure, a small mass-produced statuette that had little status as a piece of art. B. argues that these statues have as much to say about the status of women in Ancient Greece as other more lauded pieces of art. These statuettes represented real life women and provide a contrast to the ‘fantasy’ nude and non-veiled female figures represented on vases and statuary. B. draws parallels to the veiling of women in Ancient Greece with that of Islamic tradition as being primarily status-related: B. suggests ‘voluminous drapery— including veiling— did indeed mark the wearer’s high status’. The meaning of these statuettes is still undetermined but B. argues that Tanagras ‘must have given a woman an ideal example of how she could look’ and that they were used as aspirational models to represent a feminine ideal— the same purpose women in advertisements fulfil today.

In her analysis of the sculpture of the sleeping hermaphrodite, B. argues that around the 3rd BC ‘different codes of masculinity and femininity are seen to emerge’ with traditionally masculine and feminine attributes starting to appear in representations of the body. This is fully realised in the figure of the sleeping hermaphrodite (c. 350 BC), a statue designed to be viewed from all sides that provides a visual surprise when a figure that appears to be female from the back has male attributes when viewed from the front. B. suggests this eroticized and desirable figure raises wider questions around attitudes towards biological sex in the ancient world and disrupts the status quo between ‘male/viewer’ and ‘female/viewed’. B. suggests that the sleeping hermaphrodite merges the two sexes in ‘a body that combines the most attractive components of each’ and is sexualised in the same way that transgender women are marketed in modern pornography. B. argues that the figure questions the nature of sex, gender and erotic desire in the ancient world and draws parallels with contemporary queer theory and the kinds of questions our society grapples with today.

This is an interesting and diverse collection of essays that raises thought provoking questions around representations of the body and gender in the ancient world.

Lucy Angel

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room