Vickers' Scandalous Caption and the Library of Congress

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Note: Working Draft!

Of all the many scholars who try to impose contemporary "morals" onto depictions of ancient lives, Michael Vickers is one of the most egregious offenders. Recent discourse about his labeling of a painted vase with pederastic art at the Ashmolean, where he is Curator of Greek and Roman Antiquities, demonstrates his prejudices and disregard for historical reality. With his defense of that outrageous caption of his, he has outdone even his fellow British academician James Davidson in The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World, Orion, 2006.

At the Palaestra

The vase in question, depicting a pederastic scene at a palestra where a man and a youth are clearly in the midst of sexual foreplay, was labeled some time ago by Vickers to read, simply, "Paedophile and victim." The preeminent authority during the first half of the 20th century. Sir. John Beazley had described such a scene as “chucking" the youth's groin, one of three types he defined for pederastic courtship on vases (though more commonly are scenes where the erastês would grasp -"chuck"- both the chin and the groin of the erômenos).

This very week, Andrew Lear (of Lear and Eva Cantarlla, Images of Greek Pederasty: Boys Were Their Gods, 2008, Routledge) informed me that he had seen Vickers' obnoxious caption about a decade ago, in a then still access restricted Bothmer Galley at the Ashmolean. A year or two ago apparently, the Ashmoleon rearranged its collection, putting the cup (“Tondo of an Attic red-figure cup by the Brygos-Painter,” 480-470 BC, Ashmolean Museum [1967.304], Oxford. J.D. Beazley, Attic Red-figure Vase painters, 378, 137) on unrestricted display. Thus, for the first time, the general pubic then became aware of his caption. The following correspondence from a graduate student at Oxford (Ross Brooks) and Vickers' reply on the HNET mailing list indicate the strong feelings on both sides.


Subject: FW: FW: Ancient art and modern audiences
To: H-HISTSEX@h-net.msu.edu
From: Ross Brooks [1]
Sent: 02 July 2010 17:38
List members will be interested to learn that the Ashmolean has now agreed to change the label of the cup in question. It will read: "Man and boy making love. The nature of Greek homosexual love is the subject of current academic debate ." It is, I think, infinitely better than "paedophile and victim" but some may feel that the use of the word "homosexual" in the second sentence still grates a bit. It is, though, as good as it is going to get in current circumstances. My thanks are due to all those list members who commented on this issue; those comments helped form a very solid case for changing the label which the Museum simply could not ignore.
Ross Brooks
Oxford, UK

Subject: FW: Ancient art and modern audiences

To: H-HISTSEX@h-net.msu.edu

From: Ross Brooks [2]

Sent: 24 June 2010 15:39

Further to my previous posting on this matter, I have now received two responses from Professor Michael Vickers, Curator of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum. He wrote:

"The view that “boy-love”, for want of a better term, was prevalent, indeed acceptable, among ancient Greeks though widespread is inaccurate. Sir Kenneth Dover, as often, was thoroughly misguided, and scholarship has moved along since he wrote. If the phenomenon existed at all, it was among a small coterie, and was generally frowned upon. Witness the story told about Pericles and Alcibiades, described by their contemporary Antiphon in these words:

Alcibiades as a boy ran away from home to the house of one of his admirers Democrates. When Ariphron proposed to have [his disappearance] proclaimed, Pericles forbade it, saying that if he was dead, he would only be found one day sooner because of the proclamation, while if he was safe, he would be disgraced for the rest of his life. (Antiph. Fr. 66 ap. Plut. Per. 3.2).

The reason for Pericles’ anxiety was that anyone found guilty of selling their body for sexual favours led at Athens to disqualification from certain civic privileges. See D. Cohen, Law, Sexuality and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 1991), 171 - 202; cf. the Athenians publicly and officially refused to allow those who sold their bodies for sex to participate in city administration (R. W. Wallace, “Private lives and public enemies: freedom of thought in classical Athens, in Athenian Identity and Civic Ideology,” A. Scafuro & A. Boegehold [eds], 127 55 [Baltimore, MD, University Press, 1993], 152).

It was because of Alcibiades’ unruly behaviour that “boy-love” figures much at all in ancient sources. The locus classicus is Plato's Symposium which has been taken by those who would wish to foster that sort of thing as a permit to indulge. It is in fact the opposite. It was one of several works written by Socrates’ admirers to defend their hero from the charge of having corrupted the young (the reason why the Athenians condemned Socrates to death). The passage where Alcibiades marvels at Socrates not having laid a finger (or anything else) on him when they slept together has recently been described as a master stroke, [where] Plato makes Alcibiades’ own words exonerate Socrates of the charge of corruption of the young. (R. Hunter, Plato’s Symposium (Oxford, 2004) 102.

Socrates’own views in the matter are clear from the incident where he rebuked Critias the future tyrant for making a fool of himself over the youthful Euthydemus, pointing out to him that it was both demeaning and unseemly for a gentleman to beg for favours from someone he wanted to impress. Critias took no notice, and so Socrates said "in the presence of many others" Critias seems to me to have the feelings of a pig, wanting to rub against Euthydemus as a pig rubs against stones (Xenophon Memorabilia 1.2.29-30). (Not in T. K. Hubbard, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents [Berkeley, CA, 2003])

There has until recently been a widespread belief that pictures on pots represented first-hand, quasi-photographic, evidence of the daily life of Athenians, and that images of childhood, even the most abusive, might reflect the daily experience of the average juvenile. Just as man-made fibres are very hard-wearing, so too, man-made facts are difficult to eradicate. A recent study has shown how few pots have erotic images: M.L. Banner, Sex and Pottery: Erotic images on Athenian Cups, 600 - 300 B.C. (MA thesis, Department of History, East Tennessee State University, 2003): Out of 7901 cups only 130 had erotic images. As cups with erotic images represented only a small portion of the sample it was likely that they only appealed to the tastes of a small sub-set of the Athenian population. The context of these images is questionable and they should be used with caution by the historical community. Homo-erotic scenes constitute but a small sub-set of the sample, and scenes of (dare one say?) paedophilia smaller still (our controversial cup constituting the bulk of the evidence).

So, for these and many more reasons, I propose to keep the label as it is."

The second response came when Professor Vickers noted the reference to the Warren Cup in the correspondence that had appeared on HIST-SEX. He wrote:

"The Warren cup is now thought to be a work of the early 20th century. See M.T.B. Moevs, "Per una storia del gusto: riconsiderazioni sul calice Warren", Bolletino d'Arte 146 (2008) 1-16. The dealers saw poor old Warren coming and made something to his taste."

I would certainly appreciate the views of list members on these two responses as both seem to me to counter generally accepted views.

Ross Brooks, Oxford, UK


An angry, aging enfant terrible

Obviously, Vickers deliberately chose perhaps the most prized vase that Beazley had ever donated to the Ashmolean for this caption. He wanted to put Beazley down. My considered opinion is that Vickers, presumably as straight as an Oxford don can be, but uptight as a good many, if not most, are these days, is also homophobic. The late long time Curator of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the Metropolitan, Dietrich von Bothmer, personally told me that Boardman had treated Vickers "rather shabbily."

Though apparently entirely heterosexual, and not at all homophobic himself, in footnotes in his Greek Vases, Boardman indicates that his own adored mentor, Beazley, was homosexual.

From Boardman, Greek Vases Ch. 2, pp. 128-138:
fn6: Thus M. Beard in Times Literary Supplement Sept 12, 1986, 1013, a superficial and combative review regularly cited by the very few who cannot understand Beazley's method. The technique was indeed developed in a period much influenced by the approaches of Darwin and Freud, but in application relied more on the former.
fn7: Notably in A. Furtwängler on the Athena Lemnia, especially in Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture (1895) 18-19
fn8: M. Vickers' persistent association of him with the Arts and Crafts movement is quite misleading -- as in Artful Crafts (1994) 82-83, misunderstanding (n. 37) Beazley's comment on bogus classicism; see J. Boardman, RA 1987, 295. Beazley may have met Berenson at E.P. Warren's house in Lewes.
fn9: J. Sherwood, No Golden Journey (1973) for the life of Flecker, with much on Beazley; J.M. Munro, James Elroy Flecker (1976) 26, 32, 54; A.L. Rowse, Friends and Contemporaries (1989) 287-297, speculates on the nature of the relationship. For Beazley's life and academic friendships in Oxford and Cambridge see B. Ashmole's obituary of him in Proceedings of the British Academy 56 (1970) 443-461, reprinted in Beazley and Oxford (ed. D.C. Kurtz, 1985) 57-71.
fn10: Flecker had not been abandoned, though he did eventually marry in 1911 (and died in 1915). Both Flecker and Gow were with Beazley in Paris in 1910 when the latter was studying the pots in the Louvre. For Gow, see F.H. Sandbach in Proceedings of the British Academy 64 (1978) 437-439; H. Lloyd-Jones in Dictionary of National Biography.

Apparently, Beazley's wife's principal functions were to take photographs of his vases and to be a “beard,” the term used for a woman, whether married or not, by gays to accompany homosexuals to dinners and other social events in the hetrosexual world, which in those days still seated couples alternating male and female.

Greek homoerotic vases have always especially appealed, for understandable reasons, to homosexuals, from Johnann Joachim Winkelmann to Edward Perry “Ned” Warren. Warren hired Beazley to analyze Greek vases because the connoisseur he most desired, Bernard Berenson, himself both handsome and charming and one who traded on his good looks, preferred to work for Mrs. Gardner, herself a sort of of a fag hag, (of the eponymous Boston Museum) and to analyze Renaissance paintings, a much more lucrative business, rather than Greek vases. Dietrich von Bothmer, who was both handsome and very charming, was probably Beazley's next most famous student after Boardman. I suspect that von Bothmer himself may have gone both ways. I believe that he met my Uncle Will, who moved in prominent New York gay circles, or at least learned about him in them, because when I first contacted him, he answered by asking if I was one of the Percys fron Northumberland. Incidently, Dietrich added the "von" when he came to America, after having spent a couple years at Oxford studying under Beazley. Dietrich married very well, whether before or after adding the "von' or becoming Curator of Greek and Roman Antiquities. When I last spoke to him, I remarked: "You must have been a truly remarkable curator because they have named two whole rooms for you at the Met." He gayly quipped that the rooms were named not because he was he was such a grand curator, but because his wife had donated the money for them. Presumably, her money also got the gallery named for him at the Ashmolean. By the way, his younger brother, also fleeing Hitler with him, followed him first to Oxford and then to New York, where he became Curator of Antiquities at the Brooklyn Museum, but did not add "von" to his name.

Overwhelmed by admiration for his great mentor Sir John Beazley, and perhaps also by Beazley's very homosexual patron Ned Warren and other Uranians, Boardman remained as entranced by the Greek homoerotic art as any straight could possibly be, but Vickers, being homophobic, resented Boardman all the more for slighting him while going along with the "homosexual agenda."

I've recently learned that Vickers has retired -- none too soon in my opinion. I wish that Davidson would follow him into oblivion, but alas, his travesties are still selling!

Perhaps the best book ever written about Greek homosexuality was Felix Buffière's Éros adolescent : la pédérastie dans la Grèce antique (Paris, Belles Lettres, 1980) which was miscataloged by a cataloger thinking along the same lines as Vickers at the Library of Congress about a decade ago at the same time that Vickers was writing his caption, as Don Mader noticed in the 1990s (“Male Homosexuality – Greece,” "Child Sexual Abuse --Greece," and “Love”), and it is still cataloged that way today.

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