Framing the Scholar: K. J. Dover and Greek Homosexuality

Minna Duchovnay
Bryn Mawr College

The idea for this paper arose from my reading Part III, "Special Aspects and Developments" in Kenneth Dover's book Greek Homosexuality, published in 1978 (1). Up to that time only three books that I know of, dealing with ancient artifacts and sexuality, had been published in the 1930's. None dealt with the material as graphically as Dover's.

Dover explores the culture of sexuality in ancient Athens first by reviewing extant material about the prosecution of an Athenian named Timarkhos, who was accused of prostitution, and then discussing aspects of sexuality during that period. While the author's focus is primarily about homosexuality, he deals with such issues as "the manifestation of Eros," nature and society, including impulse, physique and style, courtship, dominancy and subordination, and both comic and philosophic exploitation.

Part III of Dover's book presents over ninety pictures of vases that portray sexual situations regarding young or old men, homosexual encounters, primarily among males and some females, heterosexual pairings, portrayals of gods and/or satyrs in different sexual poses. Dover's presentation seems to be based on a hierarchy of the figures portrayed on the vases. He uses terms to describe the active participant in a sexual encounter as the figure with power. Erastes is the term used for the active participant. The passive participant, the figure without power, is the eromenos. As I read this section and looked at the plates, I had the sense of looking at a catalogue. The plates are one large section in the center of the book and interrupt the flow of text. Next to each plate shown is an identification number and a brief phrase that describes the sexual content of the picture. An appendix classifies the vases by the century in which it was produced, its current location, and references to standard works. No information about provenience is included.

Discussion about the plates is limited to a running description of sexual context contained in the exemplars. There is little analysis. Some examples of the captions for the lates are as follows:

"a naked man with an unusual amount of body hair"
"a youth dresses"
"a man whose penis is much larger than that of the youth in the right top"
"a standing youth with small genitals and a seated man (vomiting) with larger genitals"
"A boy washes. Note the prominence of his genitals."
"Youths court boys, whose degree of resistance varies. Note that some dark-haired and others blond"
"A hairy satyr masturbates while pushing a penis substitute into his own anus"
"Satyrs enjoy fellation and anal copulation"
"A man courts a boy, and a boy responds affectionately to a man's courtship"
"A man courts a youth of massive physique"

I was astonished at my own reaction of surprise to these plates when I first read the book. I found myself asking the following questions: Why is Dover presenting these en masse? Is he trying to shock me? Did he mean to present these plates as a catalogue? What is trying to convey?

These questions prompted me to learn more about Dover's identity and his scholarly interests in producing his book. From his autobiography Marginal Comment , published in 1996, I learned that as a young teenager, he had developed an abiding curiousity in languages and their structure and for fun had taught himself several esoteric African and Pacific dialects (2). It was his intention to study linguistics at Oxford. He found that subject boring but was exhilerated by learning the Greek language. He turned instead to the study of papyrology. Dover credits Russell Meiggs with learning how to approach the study of ancient texts. That is, one must "begin with the inscriptions, construct historical hypotheses to account for this stone, bearing these words, [and] found here... and then to see how the historiography of the time fitted... [but] never for a moment to forget that the people whose activities [he]... [studied] were real... [and] to put [himself] into their place."(3) It is fair to infer that Dover uses this precept as a basis for his studying the vases.

I had assumed that Dover was an archaeologist because of the extensive use of pottery in his book. I asked myself, should I have known something about him before reading the book? In what way did his training effect his perspective on the subject? What level of experience should I expect a scholar to have to merit study? What do I as the student need to know to penetrate scholarly veracity, perspective, or predisposition, all of which inform scholarship?

In his preface to Greek Homosexuality, Dover claims his objective is "modest and limited": to describe what homosexual behaviour and sentiment were in ancient Greek art. Further detailed or specialized exploration he would leave to others (4).

The book was considered a major milestone when it was first released in 1978, and its reception was essentially positive. There were several mixed reviews. One described Dover as "well known... for his painstaking and controversial assessment of ancient Greek... mores.... [and that the book] is now the standard volume on the subject.... [however it does suffer] from an irritating hesitancy: the author never quite gives us what he thinks about all the materials at hand." (5)

Another noted Dover's valiant attempt to stick as far as possible to "hard" data but provides only "a selective catalogue which fails to indicate provenience, subject, and shape, [and therefore] is not much use to the reader who wishes to ask further questions...." (6)

Dover's handling of the literary evidence is questioned as is his interpretation of the relationship between the erastes and the eromenos. If the book is directed to the classicist, one reviewer suggested that Dover should have provided "a better summary of past work." Further criticisms from this reviewer were that Dover's stated aim is unsatisfactory, the individual topics insufficiently documented, and the book is too often misleading and not for the casual reader. (7)

Who was Dover's intended audience? Classicist or archaeologist? Because of the cross-over between the two disciplines, should a book of this kind have been written with either one or both audiences in mind?

Bernard Knox reviewed Dover's autobiography. He describes Dover as "fierce and sometimes embarrasing[ly] honest" and adds that "Dover's frankness will be no surprise to those who, familiar with his pioneering work on Greek homosexuality,... know that he is a man who never shrinks from calling a spade a spade.... " (8)

Perhaps it is because Kenneth Dover may see himself as direct, honest, and uncaring of what the larger world might say about him, that he was motivated to publish Greek Homosexuality. This directness has a flaunting quality in this book and in his autobiography. In a discussion of postmodernism, Terry Eagleton provides an interesting evaluation of Michel Foucault and his style, one which I believe has direct bearing on my reaction to reading Dover. Eagleton suggests that the scrupulous and non-judgemental nature of Foucault's style is purged of the least hint of normativity: "This stylistic mode is not far at times from a certain perverse eroticism, as the most sensational materials... are mediated through a distanced, dispassionate tone.... Pressed to an extreme, such a conflation of clinicism and sensationalism is the stuff of pornography, which is not to suggest that Foucault's own writing is pornographic." (9)

Dover's tone is similarly distanced and dispassionate; it invests both the book on Greek homosexuality and his autobiography with an aura of self-consciousness. Perhaps it is my sense of his self-consciousness that accounts for my questioning his method of presenting the vases. It strikes me as a calculated attempt at objectivity to remove the personal, that is, any hint of his own identity from our view. In fact it had the opposite effect on me.

Certainly our disciplines encourage the consideration of objective information only. But I wonder how a scholar can retain such objective purity in presenting his or her views. I ask the question, where does scholarly intuition or bias begin? Are they on a different plane entirely, or do they converge?

Dover described the method he chose to use when he was writing the book on homosexuality. By emphasizing one element in Greek sexual life he would answer questions about Greek society in general. His descriptions would be based on what was most easily and clearly observable. He would offer such explanations as are prompted by everday experience. Above all, however, he would attempt to restrain himself from not speculating at more theoretical levels. (10)

But which Greek society? Whose everday experience? Was homosexuality pervasive at all levels of Greek society, or did it apply only to certain strata? Is the existence of the vases and the surviving literature conclusive in our understanding of Greek society? Perhaps my own limited knowledge of Greek archaeology and ancient Greek customs inhibits my unconditional acceptance of Dover's claim of pervasiveness. (11)

The cultural historian Linda Nead has some pertinent ideas on aesthetics and pornography. In her elaboration of an idea suggested by the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, she states that people's cultural tastes and preferences are determined by their upbringing and education. Taste, therefore, functions as an index of social class.(12) Those of us who have the ability "to decode the formal elements of an image... [possess] cultural power." (13)

In the presentation of these plates, does Dover's book have that appearance of pornography which Eagleton ascribes to Foucault? Is the book indicative of his, or our, own higher cultural standing? Both Bourdieu and Nead suggest that legitimacy known also as high culture is... constituted through the denial of lower vulgar or venal enjoyment and the assertion of sublimated, refined, and disinterested pleasure. (14) If Dover is attempting to push us to look at the vases in their "pure" form and view them as if we were in ancient Greece and not in the twentieth century, I would have liked him to say so directly. The omission makes me think that the issue is one of power and not of sexual orientation. Bernard Knox refers to Dover's frankness and his willingness to say whatever he thinks. (15) As a respected scholar, he has great freedom to do so and to exert his influence as he presents the vases in the way that he does. As students in the privileged society of academia, we are given the opportunity to look at work that might be construed as pornographic elsewhere. Within our academic community we can appreciate erotic art as high culture.

Pierre Bourdieu suggests that from this superior view of culture we can experience pleasures that are disinterested, refined, and gratuitous and that these are pleasures we might deny to those in a lower social order. (16) In that regard, it is interesting to me that Dover sees sexual relationships in ancient Greece as the pursuit of those of lower status by those of higher status.(17)(18) A review of the book criticizes Dover for his tendency to "trivialize the Greek homosexual experience by isolating sexual behavior from its cultural context... and by focusing primarily on the 'common man's' view of homosexual practices." (19)

It is unclear how these vases were viewed by the ancient Greeks. Were they created to reflect all Greek society? Or were they used merely satirically or ironically? Somehow, Dover's presentation of material from an ancient society gives this material the embodiment of high culture. Yet the style of his presentation and his classification suggests to me the conscious removal of himself from the material at hand. Even though that was his stated goal, I would have liked more rather than less of his opinions about the material. I was left instead with the sense of being an unwitting participant in a game of objects and observations.

Dover sees the eromenos as being possessed and held in a frame of the erastes' construction. To what degree does Dover's collection reflect his identity or how he presents the identity of the figures on the vases? I offer the suggestion that perhaps Dover is the erastes and his study the eromenos. Is this how scholars perceive their work?

The question remains of how objective Dover, or I, can be in appraising the subject matter. It is praiseworthy that he presented the material so it can be discussed. But there still remains the issue of art and pornography.

I see them being defined here in terms of quality, ownership, and access. Does the mere existence of the book collapse the opposition between art and pornography, or does it rest on the reader's perception? Does the scholar have responsibility to do more than a catalogue of work, or should he analyze what he presents?

Aristotle suggests that a unified form is integrally bound with perception of the self and the construction of an individual identity. (20) I wonder how possible it is today to rationalize the perception of the original vases and their subject matter and construct the identity of the subjects on the vases, the artisans who made them, or of those who may have commissioned their creation. I end with a question: is there an objective validity about an ancient society that can be attained by a scholar in the twentieth century viewing objects made more than two thousand years before?


1 Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, Mass. 1989, 1978) 111-184. Hereafter referred to as Dover GH.

2 Dover, K. J. Marginal Comment: A Memoir (London 1994) 22-24. Hereafter referred to as Dover MC.

3 Dover MC (supra n. 2) 59.

4 Dover GH (supra n. 1) vii.

5 J. Scarborough, rev. of Greek Homosexuality, by K. J. Dover. AHR, 84 (1979) 1028-29.

6 S. C. Humphreys, rev. of Greek Homosexuality, by K. J. Dover. CR, 30 (1980) 61-64.

7 N. Demand, rev. of Greek Homosexuality, by K. J. Dover. AJP, 101 (1980) 121-124.

8 B. Knox. "Habeus Corpus." rev. of Marginal Comment, by K. J. Dover. The Times Literary Supplement 13 Jan. 1995. 22.

9 Eagleton, T. The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford 1990) 384.

10 Dover GH (supra n. 1) viii.

11 Dover GH (supra n. 1) 1-3.

12 Nead, L. in The Female Nude. Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality (London and New York: 1992) 83.

13 Nead (supra n. 12) Ibid.

14 Nead (supra n. 12i) 84.

15 Knox (supra n. 8) 22.

16 Bourdieu, P. Distinction. (Cambridge, 1984) 7.

17 Dover GH (supra n. 1) 84.

18 As an interesting aside: in his book The Maculate Muse on obscene language and Attic comedy, Jeffrey Henderson discusses the differences between ancient Greek society and our own regarding obscenity. The ancient Greeks used expressions of obscenity in drama, for instance, to deal with anger and aggression. However, they were more concerned about "the shame of exposure." Apparently, obscenities in language and art were viewed as permissible as long as the Greeks could be spectators and shame was not attached to family members. See J. Henderson, "Introduction" and "Obscene Language and the Development of Attic Comedy" in The Maculate Muse (New Haven and London, 1975) ix-xii, 1-29.

It is striking to me that Dover strives to be direct and honest, even using the four-letter Anglo-Saxon word when he discusses in his autobiography his sexual relationship with his wife. It is likely that the ancient Greeks (and most people today) would have resisted exposing themselves (and their wives) in this way. As I was looking through Henderson, I had the idea that somehow Dover developed his "honesty" as a result of his readings in Greek literature when he was a student. Perhaps describing the quality of his sexual life is not seen by him as shameful. And I would agree it is not obscene. However, there does seem to be an element of the exhibitionism in his style. See Dover MC (supra n. 2) 243.

19 Ungaretti, J. R. "De-Moralizing Morality: Where Dover's Greek Homosexuality Leaves Us." rev. of Greek Homosexuality by K. J. Dover. JH 8.1 (1982) 1.

20 Nead (supra n. 12) 7.


Bourdieu, P. Distinction. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984)

Demand, N. rev. of Greek Homosexuality, by K. J. Dover. AJP 101 (1980) 121- 124

Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989, 1978)

Dover, K. J. Marginal Comment: A Memoir (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., Ltd.: 1994)

Eagleton, T. The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1990)

Henderson, J. The Maculate Muse (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975)

Humphreys, S. C. rev. of Greek Homosexuality, by K. J. Dover. CR 30 (1980) 61-64

Knox, B. "Habeus Corpus." rev. of Marginal Comment: A Memoir, by K. J. Dover. The Times Literary Supplement 13 Jan. 1995:22.

Nead, L. The Female Nude. Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (London and New York: Routledge, 1992)

Scarborough, J. rev. of Greek Homosexuality, by K. J. Dover, AHR 84 (1979) 1028-1029

Ungaretti, J. R. rev. of Greek Homosexuality, by K. J. Dover, JH 8.1 (1982) 1- 17

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