It is a constant fascination of those who live in Italy to cast the mind back to ancient Rome, the relics of which remind us of the country’s glorious past and still stand among us. Swide brings you the top 10 pieces of Roman erotic art.
The society of ancient Rome is venerated as the source of so much that is useful in our own society, we readily praise the Romans for their governance, ingenuity, commerce, philosophy, architecture, art and literature, yet certain aspects of their everyday lives are curiously consigned to obscure corners of museums, chiefly because they challenge our own societal mores and make the classical age seem evermore remote from our own.
The Roman attitude to sex was so far removed from our own relatively prudish attitudes. But to understand the Romans, it is necessary to understand their bedroom practices, perhaps in truly understanding the differences we can learn more about ourselves and the source of our sexual morality and prejudices.
The porn industry today is booming, and yet as a society we remain no more liberal in our attitudes to sexual acceptability. What would a civilisation of the future deduce of our society if it were to look back on today’s society? We cannot say, but we can look at the erotic art of the Romans and make our own conclusions about them.
Surprising as it is to us, sex to the Romans was far from a chaotic free-for-all, but a very real affirmation of statehood and social order. “…lovemaking with the eyes of the ancient Romans allows us to enter a world where sexual pleasure and its representations stood for positive social and cultural values.”
While men were free to enjoy sex with prostitutes and slaves, women were thought to do the same only with more discretion. The marriage is thought to be primarily about having children and making a family, therefore the most important emotion between a man and wife was considered a deep affection. Not always the case however as a wealth of Roman love poetry is dedicated to poets’ wives such as Ovid who wrote elegies while in exile: ‘I am seized by an unbelievable longing for you. The reason is above all my love, but secondarily the fact that we are not used to being apart. This is why I spend the greater part of the night haunted by your image, this is why from time to time, my feet lead me (the right expression!) of their own accord to your room at times I was accustomed to frequent you; this is why I retreat, morbid and disconsolate, like an excluded lover from an unwelcoming doorway.’ Roman erotic art differs from the Greek as the ‘woman on top’ position is extremely popular, seen as both empowering to the male and female and the mark of mutuality within the relationship.
Man and man
The Warren Cup was found near the city of Battir in what is now Palestine, it found difficulty in the early part of the 20th century getting museums to accept it for exhibition. It was eventually bought by the British Museum as the most expensive Roman artefacts of its day. It is toady proudly displayed in a devoted exhibition room as an extremely important artefacts seen in the context of society and sex in ancient Rome. The Cup displays two images of sex between men, both between mature men and more youthful men. Sex between men in Roman times was freely practiced but in general, it was heavily subject to the classism of Roman society.
Woman and woman
Lesbian couplings appear far less frequently than in Greek art but there are some notable examples such as this wall painting on the suburban baths in Pompeii. The baths were places were all kinds of people and it is not clear if they were places were free sex was practiced or whether the erotic art was provided merely as entertainment for the bath-goers.
This depiction of a threesome from on the wall of the baths in Pompeii is thought to be humorous as it depicts a central figure who is both the ‘passive’ and the ‘aggressive’ in the act. Roman men were free to enjoy sex with both men and women, but it was seen as important for a man to take the ‘aggressive’ role in order not to diminish his masculinity. Here we see both at the same time.
Prostitution was rife in all section of society. Women could support themselves legitimately through prostitution, as evidenced by the high taxes they paid, but often it was not a free choice. As slaves were considered the property of their masters they could be hired out to at their masters will. Children conceived by these sex slaves became the property of the master and expanded his wealth. The scene on the suburban baths in Pompeii shows a man engaged in sex with a prostitute. The upper classes brought the brothel to them and had whole wings of their villas dedicated to carnal pleasures, but the brothels were strictly for the lower classes. Often the brothel itself was a mere hovel consisting of a room with a tiny bed, whereas outside there were murals of extravagant bedroom sex scenes possibly used as advertising to entice the customer.
‘Pan copulating with a Goat’, probably the best-known objects in the Naples Museum collection. Roman mythology was full of sex between men and animals, it is not thought that the act was freely practiced in Rome. However, these mythological scenes were re enacted in a theatrical sense and often slaves were forced to punitively engage in sexual practices with animals in public performances, such as women slaves forced to have sex with bulls.
The gods were far more sexually delinquent than the mortal Romans, and themes of bestiality and incest abound in their mythology. This is a mosaic of a Satyr and an nymph engaged in an act that needs no explanation.
The phallus was ubiquitous in ancient Rome as a very potent symbol of fertility and good luck. This an image of Priapus a minor god of fertility which appears at the entrance of The House of Vetti, would have been seen as a sign of the hosts’ success. Priapus is seen weighing his penis against a quantity of gold, which archaeologists theorise would have served as a warning that the hosts enjoyed the favour of Priapus and therefore also his protection.
The male body
We associate the idealised nude male figure with the ancient Greeks more than we do with the Romans. The Romans were somewhat conflicted when it came to public male nudity. For sure the Grek Helenistic influence is evident in much of Rome’s art but nudity in public was considered unacceptable. The toga was considered an important symbol of Roman modesty and the embodiment of Roman values. The male body is mostly idealised in it’s clothed form or at most semi-nude, but if anything the Romans were irreverent and they liked to shock so there are many examples of the naked male form in Roman art. This sculpture of Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus is a heavily restored piece of Roman sculpture dating back to the third century BC it is notable for the depiction of male nudity, which can easily be explained by the Greek nature of the material.
The female body
Earlier depictions of female nudity in ancient Roman art centre on the body of Venus. Roman ladies were depicted clothed usually, but it was not unusual to see breasts exposed. The breast was seen as a dignified, nurturing, comforting and maternal image with very strong positive connotations. Latterly, as the taste for pornographic art became more popular, the female nude became much more widely found, often in the act of performing sex. This painting of Venus on the half shell is typical of the somewhat reserved depictions in Roman nudity compare to that of the Greeks.
In general looking at the sometime pornographic art of the Romans raises more questions than it answers. Where they real life depictions of the everyday habits of the inhabitants of Rome? Or were they more depiction of sexual fantasy? Probably, somewhere in between, it has been theorised that in a mostly illiterate society, the image took on a great deal more significance, and that these erotic images served purposes other than mere titillation, almost like the male and female symbols we see on toilet doors today. What we can be sure of though, is that the Romans enjoyed an irreverent and bawdy attitude toward sex and that it was used as form of entertainment. Sex made the Romans laugh and they liked to fill their lives with sexual imagery to simply make it more colourful.
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