Erotic Images from Ancient Times

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Novelist Dr Roger Kenworthy on the Memoirs of Nathanial Kenworthy

In an effort to share more of our favourite ancient objects from around the world, Ancient History Encyclopedia staff…

The Arch of Constantine, dedicated on 25 July 315 CE, stands in Rome between the Colosseum and the Palatine…

Attic ceramic kylix or drinking cup (490-480 BCE) depicting an erotic scene. The male holds a sandal, often used as an instrument for stimulation in erotic games. (Archaeological Museum, Milan). Photo © Mark Cartwright.

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This terracotta plaque dates back to the old Babylonian period. It depicts a male and female having sex in a missionary position. Such scenes were mass-produced in southernMesopotamiaduring the old Babylonian era. The precise idea behind producing these erotic scenes is unknown but there may well been a religious purpose. However, they absolutely reflect the private aspect of peoples lives during this period. 2000-1500 BCE, from southern Mesopotamia, Iraq. Istanbul Archaeological Museums/ Ancient Orient Museum, Istanbul,Turkey. Photo © Osama S.M Amin.

Romanoil lamp with erotic motif, 1st 3rd century CE. (Altes Museum, Berlin). Photo © Carole Raddato.

Ancient art and archaeological remains have provided archaeologists and historians today with clues to how the ancients practiced their sexuality and their overall attitude toward sex. To the causal observer, it seems the ancients were more open about their sexuality then we are today. In ancient Rome there were artworks in living rooms or studies depicting erotic images of lovers performing various sexual acts and in ancient Mesopotamia mass-produced terracotta plagues would show couples having sex.

For the Romans, sex was a part of their everyday lives, state affairs, religious rites, myths, even warfare, and featured prominently in their art. One of the most famous collections of erotic art from Roman culture is the artwork featured in thesecret cabinet(gabinetto segreto). The secret cabinet collection is now part of theNaples National Archaeological Museum. It is said when KingFrancis I of Naplesvisited with his wife and daughter in 1819 he was so shocked by the contents of the collection he had them locked away. A brick wall was even built over the doorway to keep the scenes from corrupting people.

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This terracotta plaque dates back to the old Babylonian period. It depicts a male and female having sex while the woman drinks a fluid (beer?) from a jar through a straw. Such scenes were mass-produced in southernMesopotamia, during the old Babylonian era. The precise idea behind producing these erotic scenes is unknown but there may well have been a religious purpose. 2000-1500 BCE, from southern Mesopotamia, Iraq. Istanbul Archeaological Museums/ Ancient Orient Museum, Istanbul,Turkey. Photo © Osama S.M Amin.

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Pan copulating with goat, one of the best known objects in the Naples Museum collection. Photo © Kim Traynor.

Bronze flying phallus amulet, 1st BCE. It would be hung outside a house or shop doorway to ward off evil spirits. National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Photo © Kim Traynor.

The following images are a few select examples displaying how sex was portrayed in Mesopotamian art.

In Mesopotamia, sex was just another aspect of life and there was no shyness, or taboo involved in it. While sex was a part of ones personal life there were also a couple of, what we would consider, odd customs observed. For example, there was the marriage market, where women were auctioned off as brides, and a particular form of sacred prostitution. Each woman had to perform this type of prostitution at least once in her life and it involved sitting outside thetempleofIshtar(Inanna) and agreeing to have sex with the person who chose her.Herodotusexplains this particular custom was meant to ensure the fertility and continued prosperity of the community although his interpretation, and whether this practice even existed as he described it, have been challenged.

This roundpotteryplaque depicts various human daily activities. In the middle, a man and a woman are having sex, and on the left, a standing woman holds a young child on her shoulders.Hellenistic Period, 323-30 BCE. FromMesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. The Sulaimaniya Museum, Iraq. Photo © Osama S.M Amin.

When in Rome: Visiting the House of Livia on the Palatine Hill

The following are a few select images of the artwork and artifacts found in the secret cabinet collection.

Jade is editor of Ancient History et cetera. She is an aspiring librarian with interests in Roman and Greek architecture, Middle Eastern culture, open access to information and digitisation as a method of preservation.

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ThisRomanfresco shows the act of making love. It was found in the bedroom (cubiculum) of the Casa del Centenario (IX 8,3) inPompeii. 1st Century CE. Photo © Heinrich Strzl.

Mithuna Figures, Kandariya Mahadeotemple, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh,India. From the south wall of the antarala, c. 1025 CE. Photo © Jean-Pierre Dalbera.

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