The Tomb of the Diver


The tomb of the diver at Paestum is the finest known example of Greek wall painting of the fifth century, the very best period of Greek art. It also has some of the finest scenes of  Greek homosexuality.   It is a single tomb and was discovered in 1968 by Mario Napoli about a mile south of the town when he was exploring the cemeteries. It dates to around 480 BC – the date can be fixed fairly precisely by a Greek vase which was found in the tomb. Although a number of other and a number of painted tombs are known from Paestum – see the next page – they all date to the fourth and third century. The tomb of the diver is unique in being dated to the fifth century, the best period of Greek art.

Indeed it is virtually unique as a wall painting of this period. There are some fragmentary examples in Turkey and there are of course the Etruscan tomb paintings, but the Tomb of the Diver, though showing some Etruscan influence, is basically Greek.

The tomb contains five painted slabs. There are the two long walls of the tomb,  the two shorter end walls,  and the finest of all, the covering slap which shows the painting of the diver.


Tomb of the Diver, Paestum

The diver, diving into the sea of Eternity

This is the most famous painting from which the tomb takes its name.  It was the covering slap and one must think of the skeleton lying there, looking up and having to see the painting on its side as it were. The painting shows a diver diving into the sea, and it is usually considered to be symbolic, a representation of the moment of death, when the soul dives from life into the sea of eternity.


Homosexual banquet at Paestum

The two long sides of the tomb show scenes from a symposium that is a drinking feast. To the right are a pair of homosexual lovers. The older man is marked by wearing a beard, while the younger man is holding a lyre, but is fondling the older man on the chest. (Click on image to see it in detail.)

On the central couch are two more men, one looking approvingly on the homosexual scene while the other is playing the game of kottabos, a silly Greek game that was very fashionable where you throw the dregs of your wine from a shallow drinking cup onto a target. To the left is another man with a wine cup presumably also preparing to play kottabos.


Gay banquet in Tomb of the Diver

The scene on the other long wall is again of a symposium with homosexuality prominent. To the right is a homosexual couple,  the younger (unbearded)  man entertaining the older man (with a beard) by playing the double  flute.  The central couple both have drinking cups, but are gazing at each other with rapturous eyes of love. The man to the left has a lyre in his right hand and an egg, a well-known sex symbol, in his left hand. Or possibly it is not an egg, but a plectrum, with which he is going to play his lyre.



There are also two smaller end slabs. Here we see a small figure of a woman, dressed in white and playing the flute – the only woman shown in the tomb. At the centre is an athletic nude man, followed by an older man leaning on a stick.






At the other end is this painting of a youth holding a drinking cup in his hand which he has just filled from the large bowl behind,. This is a mixing  bowl, in which the wine was mixed with water – the Greeks always drank their wine mixed with water – only barbarians drink their wine neat.





Numerous other graves of the fifth century have been excavated around Paestum, but the Tomb of the Diver is the only one that was painted. Most of the rest contain fairly simple graves  with few grave goods, implying a fairly democratic society.


The finest red figure vase in the Paestum Museum is this fine storage jar. However the scene is hard to interpret. The main figure to the right is Dionysus, the God of wine, holding a drinking cup in his hand and with wine tendrels growing from his hair and looking decidedly squiffy.

To the left is a satyr, recognisable by his erect penis and animal’s tail. Real men do not show an erect penis in public, even on Greek vases, but if you are a satyr and have an animal’s tail to show your bestiality, then you may display your erect penis.

He is holding a very fine tripod suitable for holding a large wine jar, but usually purely decorative and given as a prize in the games or as an offering to the gods. Is he presenting it to Dionysus –– or is he perhaps carrying it for him to present? During the Dionysian festival in Athens, a tripod was given to the winner so perhaps the satyr is carrying the tripod for Dionysus to present to the winner.



On to the 4th century painted tombs


15th January 2013



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