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An art exhibit at the Roman Coliseum tries to explain the role of a powerful and elusive ancient god, the one the Greeks called Eros and that the Romans called Cupid. The exhibit reminds us that ancient civilizations had a different view of erotic love than we do.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Rome's 2000-year-old amphitheatre known as the Coliseum is in the center of the city. With tier upon tier of arch Doric, Ionic and Corinthian arcades, it's the perfect setting for an exhibit. The marble statues, terracotta vases, and (unintelligible) reliefs of pagan divinities are seemingly oblivious to the jarring sounds of traffic.

Rome's archeological superintendent, Angelo Bottini, explains why Eros was chosen as the subject of this exhibit.

Mr. ANGELO BOTTINI (Superintendent of Archaeology, Rome): (Through translator) Because Eros is universal. There's nothing more understandable than the concept of love. But we also want to illustrate antiquity to a society that knows less and less about the ancients.

POGGIOLI: The works on show come from various museums in Italy and Europe. They include a sculpture of a crouching Aphrodite - Eros' mother - discovered at Hadrian's villa near Rome. And a marble statue of a naked, winged Eros stringing his bow. It's an ancient Roman copy of the great fourth century B.C. Greek sculptor Lysippos.

Exhibit organizers say that although the Greek god of love is one of the best-known divinities, his mythological narrative is less detailed than that of the other gods. Greek tragedy and comedy are filled with tales of Eros' boundless power. The ancient poets, from Sappho to Anacreon, describe him as an invincible force that brings happiness but can also destroy it.

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POGGIOLI: Throughout the exhibit, panels explain that for the Greeks the power of Eros was such that he could dominate nature, mankind and even the gods. Here's a quote from Sappho: "Now Eros shakes my soul, a wind on the mountain overwhelming the oaks."

Nobody can resist Eros, not even Zeus, the father of the gods. Under Eros' spell, Zeus transforms himself into various figures in order to couple with the woman or man who has aroused his desire.

The exhibit contains numerous erotic images of homosexual love. Angelo Bottini says it's an opportunity to illustrate the liberty and spontaneity with which the Greeks lived their sexuality.

Mr. BOTTINI: (Through translator) In antiquity, erotic practices that had nothing to do with procreation. Male and female homosexuality were completely accepted by society.

POGGIOLI: But there's one aspect of erotic love in antiquity that contemporary society is unable to embrace.

Mr. BOTTINI: (Through translator) In the case of men, the homosexual experience was a one-sided relationship between an adult and an adolescent boy. It was seen as a teacher-pupil relationship. We call it pedophilia and it's unacceptable for us.

POGGIOLI: But organizers say even the legendary sexual freedom of the Greeks was subject to certain important restrictions. It affected only adult freeborn males and it had to avoid demonstrations of wild behavior. And there was an established order based on the submission of woman to man, youth to adult, slave to master.

The exhibit shows how the figure of Eros evolved over the centuries. From mysterious force of nature, his power gradually waned as the god of love turned into the putto - the pudgy baby adored by artists of the Italian Renaissance. The Coliseum exhibit lasts until the middle of September.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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INSKEEP: You can see some of the items on exhibit at the Coliseum, if you dare, by going to npr.org.

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