When Men Were Men ... And Wore Dresses

I love movies, but I sometimes worry that the general public gets a few odd ideas about the ancients from them.

For example in '300' the Spartans dismiss the Athenians for - and I may be paraphrasing - liking little boys. Actually ... whilst many Athenian men seem to have been bisexual, the Spartans institutionalized it as part of their military training and it played a more important role in their society. Greek 'naughty' vases with inscriptions almost all speak of the love of one man for another, and most of those great macho Greek warriors probably slept with more men than they did women given that access to women was limited.

Men sleeping with men was greatly frowned upon by Republican Romans, though it seems to have been tolerated to some extent under the Empire. People's reactions depended on other aspects of the man's life: successful generals such as Sulla could sleep with men; so could powerful emperors such as Hadrian (though his cult of Antinoos was thought of as going a little too far); failed emperors such as Caligula found that it was another black mark against their name ...

I hate people citing 'the ancients' at me when they want to find a way to justify their own views, and someone recently tried to cite them when discussing cross-dressing and the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy. As so often happens, they were wrong - Greek and Roman men did sometimes wear dresses too (chitons and peploi rather than Balenciaga, but it comes to the same thing).

In Naples this relief was just unveiled as a recent find from Herculaneum. It's one of several panels found embedded in the wall of a house (see video at bottom of this post). It's a neo-Attic work, and depicts a rite which formed part of an Attic festival of Dionysus, as David Meadows pointed out, called the Oschophoria.
Two Athenian youths of the highest birth were honored by being allowed to dress as women, and those are the two figures shown to the left in front of the statue of the god (which I assume is meant to represent the one in the temple of Dionysus where the procession started).

The relief seems to have surprised a lot of people, but it is by no means unique. To make the point, I include a small selection of the ancient images of cross-dressing by great warrior-heroes ....

The man on the right is clearly a warrior and can be identified as Odysseus. He's grabbing the wrist of the figure on the left, clad in a white dress, who is ... Achilles, the great Greek hero of Troy, about whose wrath the Iliad was written ... who, before he finally decided to fight at Troy and Achilles hid amongst the daughter of Lycomedes to avoid being enlisted, and dressed as a woman so as to be unrecognizable.
Fresco from the House of the Dioscuri, Pompeii [source].

This mosaic from Zeugma, circa AD 300, depicts the same myth, with Achilles wearing a dress. Again, Achilles' shield is prominently depicted to show the hero in case of doubt ...

This fine mosaic was found in Saint-Romain-en-Gal, but is no longer extant; fortunately a drawing was made at the time, forever preserving the full technicolor image for us of Achilles wearing blue and playing dress-up with the daughters of Lycomedes - Odysseus' more traditionally 'macho' bearded head can be seen in the top left corner.

This third century sarcophagus shows Achilles dressed as a woman hiding at the court of Lycomedes to avoid having to take part in the Trojan War [Louvre Ma 3570]. Another sarcophagus in the Louvre [Ma 2120] shows him also at that court, though not in drag.

Hercules also dressed as a woman, when he fell under the spell of Queen Omphale; in this story she also appropriate and wore his lion skin. Although most examples date to the Roman period, an Attic red-figure pelike ca. 400 BC (British Museum, E370) depicts the myth with the exchange of clothing.

The central tondo of a Julio-Claudian phiale in the BNF, Paris, from the Trésor de Berthouville - it shows Omphale asleep on Hercules' lion skin.

The Omphale myth is interesting as Augustus seems to have adopted it as part of his anti-Cleopatra propaganda, with the Egyptian cast in the role of the Eastern Queen who had enchanted - and metaphorically castrated - a man. Mark Anthony, who had claimed descent from amongst others Hercules, naturally fit the role of the fallen hero ...

This may explain the large number of Augustan and Julio-Claudian images of Omphale excavated around Vesuvius. It also seems to be the source of the image on mass-produced Arretine pottery; for example, a number and moulds in the MFA, Boston, and a mould for making the bowls in the Metropolitan Museum, NY.

This mould in the MFA clearly shows a woman with breasts cradling a club and wearing a lion skin; to the left is a man in a dress.

A panel showing Hercules and Omphale cross-dressing from a mosaic of the Labors of Hercules, circa AD 225, found in Llíria and now in the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid.

Hercules and Omphale. Fresco from the oikos of the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto IX.3.5, Pompeii. Omphale is clearly shown wearing Hercules' lion skin. [photo]

This fresco is now in Naples Museum, which also has an ex Farnese collection sarcophagus with Hercules and Omphale; an ex Borgia collection funerary relief of Cassia Priscilla (p. 148 here), as well as a large number of other images of Hercules and Omphale, suggesting some sort of a cult in the region of Vesuvius.

Another fresco from Pompeii VII.16.17, a house linked to Marcus Castricius, shows Omphale seated above a dress-clad Hercules drunk and rolling on the ground [click here for image].

A Roman statue, possibly a portrait of a woman in the guise, of Omphale [image].

Early Hellenistic earrings from Macedonia with the head of a woman wearing a lion skin [Metropolitan Museum].

Similar heads, in profile, can be found on coins from Phokaia [MFA]; in a coin from Lampsakos Hercules wears the tiara of Omphale [MFA]. Roman coins with the myth here and here - although Augustus meant for Anthony to seem 'shameful' under the thumb of Cleopatra-Omphale to the Republican Romans, those who minted these coins clearly did not feel the same way.

A video showing how the new Herculaneum relief was found and restored:

Text only Copyright © 2009 Dorothy King

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