31. Viewing Erotic Images from Antiquity

In this NSFW blogpost, I discuss sex in ancient history.

This week, I am launching series 2 of Two Friends Talk History with its new format! My guest is Dr Briana King, a good friend and frequent travel companion with whom I discuss sex in the ancient world. Our conversation took many tantalising turns, one of which was the way that erotic objects were presented in the ancient world. You can find the episode here:

Sex in the Ancient World Two Friends Talk History

Effectively, any surface could be decorated with erotic art and the meanings behind it were not limited to arousal. The idea of hanging a phallic wind chime outside your front door, decorating store-fronts with priapic imagery or giving a child the gift of a protective phallus necklace might seem strange now, but the phallocentric worlds experienced in the past were comfortable with nudity to a greater degree and had imbued it with many layers of meaning. Several types of domestic and dedicatory objects that represent the manifest desire for good luck and abundance in the ancient world, have the power to make modern audiences squirm.

The prevalence of erotic imagery in the ancient world was common among the Greeks and Romans, though explored differently. Greek art depicting sexual activity and erotic scenes did feature selectively on painted pottery, with evidence suggesting they were only around for a relatively short period of time. Hermae were large sculptural rectangular plinths with a large phallus on the front, topped with a bust of a god or man, and considered protective. To destroy one was a sacrilege and a real existential threat to the city-state. As Thucydides recounted, just prior to the departure of the Athenian navy to Sicily in 415 BCE, many heads of the hermae were vandalised, and since they were viewed as divine protection from evil (like the evil eye) and placed liberally throughout cities at crossroads, this was viewed as an attack on the wellbeing of the city. Alcibiades was accused by his political rivals and had to flee the city for his life (Thuc.6.27). Cities throughout the Greek world used these phallic symbols of protection which were eventually adopted by the Romans.

Illustration of Aphrodite garlanding a herm of Dionysus based on a terracotta figure from Asia Minor, c.100 BCE. Source: Z. Guertin.

Perhaps even more liberally, stimulating visual symbols populated Roman public spaces, private homes and every type of material culture. Roman good luck symbols include delightful examples of erotic imagery. A whole collection of objects in the Secret Cabinet (Gabinetto Segreto) room in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples purposefully exhibits many of the erotic materials found within Pompeii and Herculaneum together in what was once a forbidden collection, only accessible by the wealthy and connected of the 18th century. The room was opened to the public as a permanent exhibition space in 2000. The collection inside has some truly outstanding examples of frescoes, metal work and sculpture grouped into thematic sections.

Images from the Suburban bath complex apodyterium (changing room). Source: Wikimedia commons.

A large array of painted sexual acts were found in a brothel and bath complex in Pompeii and are now displayed in this exhibition space. The contexts of these images make understanding their viewership important. One can assume that erotic decoration in a brothel could serve as advertisements of services the sexworkers offered, material to get clients in the mood and so on. Whereas, the erotic paintings in the Suburban bath complex were used as decorations for clothing cubbies. Each place to store belongings had a different sex-act which ranged from partnerships of homosexual and heterosexual pairings to multiple partners and positions. It should be noted that the frescoes had been painted over at some point before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, but it is unlikely that they had been covered for that long. The erotic bath complex art would have been for a broader viewership than the similar themed and sized frescoes in the brothel. Both men and women from all social classes used the public baths, though probably at different times of the day in most cases. Visitors to the baths could purchase gratification from sexworkers there as well, but it cannot be assumed that this was the primary purpose of those images. Humour, aid-memoires and many other culturally relevant possibilities could account for decorating a public bath changing room with graphic sexual images (Vout 2013, pp.13-14).

Images from the Lupanar (brothel). Source: Z.Guertin.

Out of doors, urban dwellers used erotic objects to decorate and protect their homes and businesses. A display in the Secret Cabinet of erotic tintinnabula. A tintinnabulum was a wind chime or group of bells, in this case, shaped like an ithyphallic (erect) figure or fascinum meant to represent the divine phallus. The magic phallic image embodies protective powers and curative magic, often worn as a necklace charm, or other portable object. The these wind chimes could take some pretty outrageous forms, more than a simple ithyphallic or priapic (an over-size engorged phallus) theme. I include a photo I took in the museum below, and my super family-friendly illustration.

While visiting this room, I have enjoyed the opportunity to sketch these objects on several occasions, partially because there are so many examples but also to listen to the chat going by while I would draw. My favourite visitors to the room were women in their 70s. They probably had the best jokes and canning themselves with laughter.

The complex and nuanced religious landscape of the ancient world included local, borrowed and transformed gods which influenced daily life and social behaviours (including erotic tastes!). The universally popular goddess, Aphrodite/Venus, was prolific all throughout the Graeco-Roman world with sanctuaries and cult sites in essentially every city. We are familiar with her and the associated attributes of her powers, and included with ‘civilised’ types of eroticism. Whereas, a popular but minor deity, Priapus, was another more rustic erotic god with a uniquely large phallus. In the cannon of Graeco-Roman art, ithyphallic images were associated with uncivilised erotic displays and wildness. Priapus (the son of Hermes, like Pan) was responsible for agricultural fertility, gardens and male genitalia and were some of the only examples of deities who were represented being sexually aroused.

The objects discussed fit into daily life of the ancients. Essentially, anyone with the financial means, could procure these objects and display them or wear them as they chose. There was nothing taboo about art that depicted nudity and eroticism. For modern viewers of these fleshy, vibrantly coloured frescoes and decorative bronzes, they may seem lusty or crude, whereas viewing statuary – even if it depicts violent erotic imagery – is seen as tasteful. This follows our inheritance of Enlightenment thinking that the statues from the ancient world were striped of their original colours, if any remained, to present a white polished version that never really existed. One needs to consider the nudity of statuary within this context of viewership. They too were fleshy, wearing popular fashions and bright colours. Though understood to be sacred representations, they were still incredibly beautiful and could be erotic as well. The famous story of the rape of the Aphrodite statue, the Knidian Aphrodite by Praxiteles, illustrates the incredible arousal these objects could create, when a visitor to the statue was so overtaken he pleasured himself then ended his own life for the shame of his actions (Plin. NH. 36.21-22; Pseudo-Lucian Amores 9-17).

Knidian Aphrodite, Museo nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Inv. 8619. Source: Wikimedia commons.

Images depicting deities could blur the line of object and divine. Did frescoes of sex acts communicate bigger ideas or associations to audiences in the ancient world? Probably. Viewing art is never a passive experience, particularly when it can actively invite erotic responses from viewers!

The illustrations I have created for this episode will be available on my Redbubble shop, and behind the scenes extras including an extended podcast interview and downloadable goodies will be available on Patreon. Thank you for checking out my blog and do have a listen to the podcast episode, Sex in the ancient world! You may never think of the Spartans the same way again!

I hope you have enjoyed my post!

Author: Zofia

I am a student of Classical Archaeology and an Artist living in Scotland. My passion for travel and Ancient History takes me to incredible archaeological sites which inspire and influence my art.

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