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Prof. Francesca Tronchin Discusses Symbols of Love Throughout Ancient History

Publication Date: 2/14/2012

Centuries before candy hearts and Valentine’s Day even existed, Ancient Greeks had an entirely different symbol for love—the young god Eros. Both Eros and Cupid have a relationship with romantic love, but Eros is described by Homer and other Greek philosophers as being a violent figure. In fact, far from Cupid’s playful bow and arrow, some of Eros’ first weapons were an ax or a whip. So how did we get from this figure to the Hallmark baby that exists today?

Dr. Francesca Tronchin, assistant professor of art at Rhodes, takes a look at symbols of love throughout ancient history:

“Eros is described in early mythology as this primordial entity,” says Tronchin. “And in most Greek art, he is depicted as a young boy or adolescent teenager. Eros in Greek mythology is hardly this cute, chubby baby who gets people together.” The Greek poet Euripides was the first to describe Eros with a bow and arrow. “It’s not until the Hellenistic period (3rd century BCE) that we start seeing the more “Hallmark” version of Cupid, even though he’s still Eros. Certainly the Greeks believed that Eros had the force to bring people together, but I think the sort of romantic sense comes much later.”

According to Roman mythology, Cupid is the son of Venus, goddess of love, and Mars, god of war. “To me, that’s an interesting pairing,” says Tronchin. “Love and War produce this personification of emotional love.” Tronchin says depictions of Venus and Mars in loving embraces are common starting in the Roman period and then continuing on into the Italian Renaissance and beyond. “The Roman Cupid is much more romantic than his Greek counterpart Eros.” As early as the 2nd century BCE, Cupid-like figures were appearing in Roman art. Another closely related figure was Hymen, who represented the personification of fidelity in marriage. “On some ancient Roman sarcophagi, we can see images of Hymen in scenes of husband and wife being married. He is frequently seen with a torch, and is always associated with marriage.” In some pieces from the Italian Renaissance, Cupid and Hymen can be seen side by side.

More symbols
“There were a lot of funny little love tokens in the Greek world,” says Tronchin. “During the 6th century BCE, wild rabbits were symbols of love. An older man could give it to a young boy, or a man could give it to a woman. If you couldn’t get your loved one the real thing, you could give them a terracotta rabbit that held perfume.” Another common symbol in Greek and Roman art is the symbol of the handshake as the gesture of marriage. “Couples are seen shaking hands like they are doing a business deal, which was kind of what marriage was about, at least for the upper classes. Handshakes can also be seen in a lot of Greek funerary art, as a symbol that marriage is eternal, and exists in a life after this one.”

Bronze statue of Eros sleeping, image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 (information compiled by Rhodes Student Associate Lucy Kellison ’13)


Founded in 1848, Rhodes College is a private, coeducational college of liberal arts and sciences. It aspires to graduate students with a lifelong passion for learning, a compassion for others, and the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world.

Tags: Faculty, Research


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