The Erotic Art of Ancient Greece and Rome

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The Romans too were surrounded by sex. The phallus, sculpted in bronze astintinnabula(wind chimes), were commonly found in the gardens of the houses of Pompeii, and sculpted in relief on wall panels, such as the famous one from a Roman bakery telling ushic habitat felicitas(here dwells happiness).

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Classical mythology is based upon sex: myths abound with stories of incest, intermarriage, polygamy and adultery, so artistic depictions of mythology were bound to depict these sometimes explicit tales. Zeuss cavalier attitude towards female consent within these myths (among many examples, he raped Leda in the guise of a swan and Danae while disguised as the rain) reinforced misogynistic ideas of male domination and female subservience.

Early collectors of classical art were shocked to discover that the Greeks and Romans they so admired were earthy humans too with a range of sexual needs and desires. But in emphasising the sexual aspects of this art they underplayed the non-sexual role of phallic symbols.

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The application of sexual scenes to oil lamps by the Romans is perhaps the most likely scenario where the object was actually used within the setting of love-making. Erotica is common on mould-made lamps.

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Marble statue of Pan copulating with goat, found the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. first century AD. (CC BY 2.5)

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The cabinet was not opened to the general public until 2000 (despite protests by the Catholic Church). Since 2005, the collection has been displayed in a separate room; the objects have still not been reunited with contemporary non-sexual artefacts as they were in antiquity.

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It is difficult to tell to what extent ancient audiences used explicit erotic imagery for arousal. Certainly, the erotic scenes that were popular on vessels would have given the Athenian parties a titillating atmosphere as wine was consumed.

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Athenian red-figure kylix, attributed to Dokimasia Painter, c. 480 BC. British Museum. The Trustees of the British Museum

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The phallus would often be depicted on Hermes, Pan, Priapus or similar deities across various art forms. Rather than being seen as erotic, its symbolism here was often associated with protection, fertility and even healing. We have already seen the phallus used in a range of domestic and commercial contexts in Pompeii, a clear reflection of its protective properties.

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Top image: A fragment of a wall painting showing two lovers in bed from the House of L Caecilius Jucundus in Pompeii, now at Naples National Archaeological Museum. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Literature also felt the wrath of the censors, with works such as Aristophanes plays mistranslated to obscure their offensive sexual and scatalogical references. Lest we try to claim any moral and liberal superiority in the 21st century, the infamous marble sculptural depiction of Pan copulating with a goat from the collectionstill shocks modern audiences.

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Marble statue of Mercury in the Vatican collection. The fig leaf is a later addition. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Although female nudity was not uncommon (particularly in association with the goddess Aphrodite), phallic symbolism was at the centre of much classical art.

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Ereshkigal is a chthonic goddess that is found in the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia. She is believed to have been the Queen of the Underworld and a very powerful deity. This may be seen in the myth known as Inannas Descent to the Underworld, where Ereshkigal emerges triumphant after a confrontation with her younger sister, Inanna, who was a formidable goddess in her own right.

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Bronze tintinnabula in the shape of flying phallus, Pompeii, 1st-3rd century AD. (CC BY 3.0)

Simply put, sex is everywhere in Greek and Roman art. Explicit sexual representations were common on Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. They are often eye-openingly confronting in nature.

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In Pompeii itself, where explicit material such as the wallpaintings of the brothel was retainedin situ, metal shutters were installed. These shutters restricted access to only male tourists willing to pay additional fees, until as recently as the 1960s.

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Actors who performed in satyr plays during dramatic festivals took to the stage and orchestra with fake phallus costumes to indicate that they were not humans, but these mythical beasts of Dionysus.

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Very few therefore have seen the collection; and those who have, are said to have no desire to repeat their visit.

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It also indicated a modern willingness to associate nudity with sexuality, which would have puzzled an ancient audience, for whom the bodys physical form was in itself regarded as perfection. So have we been misreading ancient sexuality all this time? Well, yes.

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Satyrs were half-men, half-goats. Somewhat comic, yet also tragic to a degree, they were inveterate masturbators and party animals with an appetite for dancing, wine and women. Indeed the wordsatyriasishas survived today, classified in the World Health Organisations International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a form of male hypersexuality, alongside the female form,nymphomania.

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These types of scenes are especially popular on thekylix, or wine-cup, particularly within thetondo(central panel of the cup).Hetairai(courtesans) andpornai(prostitutes) may well have attended the same symposia, so the scenes may have been used as a stimuli.

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A mosaic depicting Leda and the swan, circa third century AD, from the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, Palea Paphos; now in the Cyprus Museum, Nicosia. (Public Domain)

Ereshkigal is a chthonic goddess that is found in the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia. She is believed to have been the Queen of the Underworld and a very powerful deity. This may be seen in the myth known as Inannas Descent to the Underworld, where Ereshkigal emerges triumphant after a confrontation with her younger sister, Inanna, who was a formidable goddess in her own right.

A famous fresco from the House of the Vetti in Pompeii shows Priapus, a minor deity and guardian of livestock, plants and gardens. He has a massive penis, holds a bag of coins, and has a bowl of fruit at his feet. As researcherClaudia Moserwrites, the image represents three kinds of prosperity: growth (the large member), fertility (the fruit), and affluence (the bag of money).

When the collection of antiquities first began in earnest in the 17th and 18th centuries, the openness of ancient eroticism puzzled and troubled Enlightenment audiences. This bewilderment only intensified after excavations began at the rediscovered Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Marble Herm, from Siphnos, Greece. c. 520 BC. National Archaeological Museum, Athens. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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A herm was a stone sculpture with a head (usually of Hermes) above a rectangular pillar, upon which male genitals were carved. These blocks were positioned at borders and boundaries for protection, and were so highly valued that in 415 BC when thehermaiof Athens were vandalised prior to the departure of the Athenian fleet many believed this would threaten the success of the naval mission.

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The intention of theithyphallic(erect) satyrs is clear in their appearance on vases (even if they rarely caught the maenads they were chasing); at the same time their massive erect penises are indicative of the beastliness and grotesque ugliness of a large penis as opposed to the classical ideal of male beauty represented by a smaller one.

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The phallus was also highlighted in depictions of Dionysiac revelry. Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, theatre and transformation was highly sexualised, as were his followers – the male satyrs and female maenads, and their depiction on wine vessels is not surprising.

Detail of an Athenian red-figure psykter (cooler) depicting a satyr balancing a kantharos on his penis, painted by Douris, c. 500-490 BC. British Museum.

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Painted erotica was replaced by moulded depictions in the later Greek and Roman eras, but the use must have been similar, and the association of sex with drinking is strong in this series.

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The Vatican Museum in particular (but not exclusively) was famed for altering classical art for the sake of contemporary morals and sensibilities. The application of carved and cast fig leaves to cover the genitalia was common, if incongruous.

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Erotic terracotta sculptures in a showcase in the Gabinetto Segreto at the Mu搜索引擎优化 Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Found in a Samnite sanctuary in the old town of Cales (Calvi Risorta). (Public Domain)

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All representations of large penises in classical art are associated with lustfulness and foolishness. Priapus was so despised by the other gods he was thrown off Mt Olympus. Bigger was not better for the Greeks and Romans.

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It is worth noting that even a casual glance at classical sculptures in a museum will reveal that the penis on marble depictions of nude gods and heroes isoften quite small. Classical cultural ideals valued a smaller penis over a larger, often to the surprise of modern audiences.

The censorship of ancient sexuality is perhaps best typified by the long tradition ofremoving genitals from classical sculpture.

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This article was originally published under the title Friday essay: the erotic art of Ancient Greece and RomebyCraig BarkeronThe Conversation, and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.

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The Gabinetto Segreto (the so-called Secret Cabinet) of the Mu搜索引擎优化 Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli best typifies the modern response to classical sexuality in art repression and suppression.

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Rarely does L.P. Hartleys dictum that the past is a foreign country hold more firmly than in the area of sexuality in classical art. Erotic images and depictions of genitalia, the phallus in particular, were incredibly popular motifs across a wide range of media in ancient Greece and Rome.

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Thesecret cabinetwas founded in 1819, when Francis I, King of Naples, visited the museum with his wife and young daughter. Shocked by the explicit imagery, he ordered all items of a sexual nature be removed from view and locked in the cabinet. Access would be restricted to scholars, of mature age and respected morals. That was, male scholars only.

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Of course, the secrecy of the collection in the cabinet only increased its fame, even if access was at times difficult.John Murrays Handbook to South Italy and Naples (1853) sanctimoniously states that permission was exceedingly difficult to obtain:

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However these classical images of erotic acts and genitalia reflect more than a sex obsessed culture. The depictions of sexuality and sexual activities in classical art seem to have had a wide variety of uses. And our interpretations of these images – often censorious in modern times – reveal much about our own attitudes to sex.

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