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date: 09 July 2020

sexual representation, visual

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This article treats visual representations of sex between human beings, hypersexual humans and demigods, and phalli in terms of their meanings for ancient Greeks and Romans and their viewing contexts. Building on the research of scholars holding that contemporary concepts of sexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality have no bearing on ancient attitudes and can only lead to anachronistic judgements if applied to the ancient world, the aim is to combine the evidence of classical texts with that of visual representations to determine the meanings of so-called erotica for ancient viewers. Many portrayals deemed pornographic by modern standards constituted proper decoration, whether they appear in the frescoed interiors of Roman houses or on drinking vessels, mirrors, and gemstones. Artists also created hypersexual creatures such as pygmies, Priapus, and Hermaphroditus primarily as apotropaia; representations of the phallus and of phallic deities installed on the streets and in the shops of cities had a similar apotropaic function.

Keywords: sexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, erotica, pornography, apotropaion, phallus, pygmy, Hermaphroditus, Priapus, satyr

The Cultural Construction of Sexuality

To analyze Greek and Roman visual representations having to do with what we (contemporary Euro-Americans) term “sex” is to enter a world having little correspondence with our own. Ancient constructions of sexuality, gender, and the rules of sexual engagement differ significantly from our own. One finds no conception of pornography in the modern sense of the term; what is more, one finds outrageous sexual imagery used for apotropaic purposes. Nearly every attitude toward sex coming from current Euro-American culture would be foreign to ancient viewers of sexual representation. It is only since the 1970s that classical scholarship, following the lead of cultural anthropology, has abandoned the essentialist view that the ancients were “just like us” with regard to sexuality. For example, an essentialist approach assumes that if sex between adult men and pubescent boys is taboo in contemporary Euro-American culture, it was taboo in ancient Greece and Rome. Some essentialists have argued that because there are self-identified gay men in our culture, there were gay subcultures in antiquity.1

Michel Foucault challenged the essentialist approach, arguing that what we call “sexuality” is a cultural construction arising from the process of acculturation, or attitude formation.2 Since this process is deeply ingrained, individuals within a culture are unaware of the arbitrary nature of the rules that govern sexual behavior. Complementary to and advancing Foucault’s work has been feminist scholarship in the classics, following the lead of Judith Butler’s research on the construction of gender.3 Cultural constructionists have demonstrated that, because the rules governing sexual behavior in ancient Greece and Rome arose from cultural forces different from ours, it is impossible to interpret any ancient representation according to our contemporary standards and beliefs.

For this reason, one cannot use visual representations—as many popular picture books have attempted—to prove that Greeks and Romans were “just like us” with regard to what we call “sexuality,” and that they had conceptions like ours of heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and pornography. Indeed, these words are inventions of the latter half of the 19th century.4 Current scholarly work looks to the contexts provided by classical texts, graffiti, and archaeology to understand the meanings of sexual imagery in terms of ancient Greek and Roman acculturation.

“Erotica” and the Invention of Pornography

Modern misinterpretation of sexually explicit visual representations began in the Renaissance, as wealthy gentlemen assembled collections of “erotica,” including Greek and Roman sculpture, vase paintings, mosaics, ceramics, small bronzes, amulets, and gems with sexual subject matter. Such objects proliferated with the Spanish Bourbon monarchs’ excavations of Herculaneum (beginning in 1738) and Pompeii (beginning in 1748) and added new classes of objects, including frescoes representing frank sexual intercourse as well as bronze phalli with bells (tintinnabula). As the Royal Museum at Portici filled with such objects, the king and his ministers kept tight control over visitors, admitting only gentlemen of high social standing. They also closely monitored the study and publication of objects considered “obscene” by the standards of the time.

In 1819 Francis I Bourbon ordered Michele Arditi to sequester the obscene objects from the collection; even so, Arditi published a study of the phallic objects, correctly identifying them as apotropaic devices.5 It was only in 1839, with the eighth volume of Herculanum et Pompéi, that the sexual representations in the Cabinet of Obscene Objects were published.6 As public museums formed throughout Europe, many had their own “Secret Museums” to house objects that challenged current moral standards.7 It was the problem of finding a word to describe such visual indecencies that prompted Karl Otfried Müller to repurpose the word “pornography” to denote obscene sexual representations.8 To an ancient Greek or Roman, the pornographer was a man who wrote about famous prostitutes. The meaning of the word changed slightly during the Enlightenment, when budding social scientists studied prostitutes and prostitution as a social phenomenon. After Müller’s publication, however, the word “pornography” in its new meaning slowly entered the vocabulary of European languages. It served the polemics around the concept that visual or textual representations of sex could corrupt susceptible individuals. Indeed, the history of the opening and closing of collections of “erotica” mirrors modern sexual attitudes toward the pornographic.9

By separating objects considered obscene by current moral standards from other objects in collections—and indeed from their original archaeological contexts—the Secret Museums contributed to the formation of the modern categories of “erotica” and “pornography.” In their attempt to explain ancient sexual representations through the lens of their own standards of sexual behavior and morality, essentialist accounts are anachronistic; they also often fail to distinguish between representations that were probably sexually stimulating for ancient viewers and those that were meant to have different effects: apotropaic images, half-animal demigods (Pan, satyrs, Silenus), and deities with unusual sexual traits (Priapus, Hermaphroditus).

Archaic and Classical Greece

Attic black- and red-figure vases of the Archaic and early Classical periods present a variety of representations of explicit sex between human beings.10 Between 575 and 475 bce, when they disappear entirely, we find images of men pursuing boys, including offering gifts, touching, kissing, and rubbing penises between the thighs (intercrural intercourse).11 Images of men and women follow a similar pattern but begin a decade later, reaching their zenith in the second decade of the 5th century bce and continuing to the end of the century. Although these representations have received ample analysis in terms of their subject matter, it is still the case that some scholars ignore how the limitations and conventions of the medium prevented artists from representing these encounters realistically. Compositions in both techniques favor silhouettes, resulting in a decided preference for profile views and avoidance of perspective foreshortening. The principle that artists look for models in other art rather than creating representations ex novo applies here and accounts for the repetition of stock motifs.12 For example, artists replicated the “up and down” pose, with the man chucking his prospective lover’s chin with one hand while fondling the genitals with the other, to communicate an advanced stage in the courting process. There is little free invention either of poses or activities—both reminders that a scholar wanting to understand the sexual practices arising from acculturation will have to look beyond these visual representations to interpret them accurately.13

A case in point is the approach to the many images of man-boy, or erastes-eromenos, courtship and sexual intercourse. Because artists almost invariably show intercrural intercourse, some scholars have insisted that man-boy couples did not engage in anal intercourse, even though it is clear from textual sources that they did.14 Another question that the images on vase paintings fail to answer is that of the ideal age of the eromenos. There is an almost equal mix of eromenoi who are clearly young boys and others who look to be about the same age as their lovers. At times artists minimize the identifying mark of the erastes, his beard. The age gap could be as little as three or four years, since the boy became an ephebe, and therefore a sexual prize, at thirteen and continued in that status until eighteen.

Several of these conventions appear on a little cup (a kantharos or karchesion), where the artist has created a clever narrative.15 On one side the erastes is performing the “up and down” exploration of a very young boy; on the other the delighted eromenos jumps up to hug his erastes. The artist has pushed a bit beyond convention by having the boy chuck his lover’s beard while the man touches his genitals; the man’s left arm rests on the boy’s shoulders. Wine is also the subject, as the exuberant vines that frame the couple on both sides indicate.

The development of the red-figure technique painting allowed artists to show more detail in their figures. Whereas in the earlier technique they had to incise internal linear details within the solid black figure, in the new technique they were able to paint those details with a brush directly within the silhouette. Fluid lines rather than stiff scratches defined anatomy, drapery, and a host of animals and objects. On the exterior of a fine kylix (Fig. 1) by a painter named Peithinos (“Persuasion”) we see men courting both boys and women, with both the erastes and the objects of their affections standing and facing each other. Unlike the cup described above, where the difference in age between the erastes and eromenos is clear, Peithinos gives little indication of a difference in age: they are the same height, and the beards of the adult lovers are scant. The artist depicts a variety of emotions with masterly control of gesture and facial expression. Peithinos uses drapery to heighten the sensuality of the closest encounters, including a couple performing intercrural intercourse.

sexual representation, visual

Figure 1. Red-figure kylix. Men courting boys and women, c. 500 bce, by Peithinos. Antikensammlung Berlin, F 2279. Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.

In scenes representing both courting and intercrural intercourse, artists represent the protagonists standing and in profile. Other sexual activities that the erastes and the eromenos may have engaged in are absent from the visual record. There is certainly a deep-seated cultural reason for so limiting these representations: both parties are elite citizen males, and their bodies cannot be penetrated. Their hexis is to be strong and upright.16

Not so, of course, for women, whom Greek men cast as sexually voracious and desiring to be penetrated. Perhaps it is for this reason that the frankest and most inventive images of intercourse appear in representations of the orgies that culminated the all-male symposium, when the female entertainers arrived. Between these two poles of the relatively sedate man-boy representations, and the all-out, no-holds-barred scenes of citizen males debasing prostitutes, is a group showing one-on-one sex between a man and a woman or girl.17 Couples appear for the most part in profile view, most often with the man penetrating the woman from behind, perhaps anally. A composition that appears in two versions, one with a man and a girl, the other with a young man and a boy, drives home the point about artists’ use of visual conventions.18 In both cases the man sits in a low chair and displays a substantial erection. Both the boy and the girl climb up on the chair, steadying themselves on their lover’s shoulder, so that they can mount the man’s penis. To switch the genders of the receptive partners was a relatively easy task for the artist, once the model of this composition became available. Ceramic artists in the Hellenistic and Roman periods take a similar approach; they retain the standard composition of a man penetrating a boy or girl, changing only the genitals and breasts to identify the sex of the object of his affection.19

For the images of heterosexual intercourse that focus on orgies with paid female sex workers (the common porne or the geisha-like hetaira), it is well to remember that they required a vase painter to marshal all his skills to depict multi-figural groups, symposium furniture, and complex sexual positions. The much-discussed kylix in the Louvre, attributed to the Pedieus painter, includes double penetration (anal and oral) of an older prostitute, spanking, and forced fellatio.20 To a citizen male these images may have seemed transgressive and even humorous, but they rang true to his beliefs. They reinforced the homosocial setting par excellence, the symposium, where men gathered to converse, to drink, and to be entertained by flute girls, dancers, pornai, and perhaps hetairai. Pedieus paints a kind of sexual carnival for the pleasure of the man who drank from this cup, a scenario that may have upset the usual rules of sexual behavior encoded in Athenian law and literature. Nevertheless, the artist’s depiction of the voracious woman—even though probably of low or even slave status—was one that citizen males applied, mutatis mutandis, to all women, including their wives and daughters. A similar mentality comes through in representations of women fondling dildoes or being penetrated by macrophallic satyrs—all reflecting the Classical Greek notion (found in texts written by men) that women were sexually insatiable.

Satyrs and Centaurs

Sexualized demigods play an important role in visual representation in this period. In particular, the wild sexual exploits of satyrs—chasing maenads, having anal intercourse with each other, and masturbating—constitute a major theme in red- and black-figure vase painting. Scholars have variously cast these representations of sexual abandon among the retinue of Dionysus as an enactment of repressed sexual desire or as an index of Greek male attitudes toward women.21 The macrophallic, unrestrained satyr is, however, a monster in relation to Greek somatic and sexual ideals; clear evidence from both texts and visual representation reveals that the ideal penis was small, with a tight foreskin.22 Not only is the huge penis laughable, so is the satyr’s improper animal sexuality.

Centaurs, hybrid animal-human creatures like the satyrs, become famously incontinent at the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia. Their attempted rape of the Lapith women is an important theme in Greek visual art (e.g., east pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia), and the battle of the centaurs and Lapiths becomes a potent metaphor for the triumph of Greek civilization and restraint over foreign barbarity.23


Yet another sexualized body, that of the pygmy, appears in the visual art of this period. The images of the pygmy created by Greek (and later Roman) artists have no real connection to the ethnic pygmy, associated with peoples of Central Africa.24 Instead, artists created a representation of a human with the characteristics of disproportionate dwarfism to act the role of the Other. This pygmy type—short, misshapen, and macrophallic—constituted, like the satyr, the diametric opposite of Greek somatic ideals. A Greek would see the ugliness of this pygmy as the probable cause of his unbecoming behavior. In a broad range of scenarios that begin in the visual record with black-figure vase painting, pygmies play the fool. Animals (crocodiles and cranes) attack and torment them; the males are almost always macrophallic and ithyphallic, targeting both other males and females. The Romans expand upon these comic scenarios in the visual arts of the 1st century ce.

Romantic Sexual Encounters in the 4th Century

In the late Classical art of the 4th century bce, representations of the post-symposium orgy disappear, to be replaced by images of one-on-one sex. Several of these representations adorn mirrors and mirror cases, pointing to a woman viewer, and present male-female couples in handsomely appointed bedchambers. Instead of unflattering portrayals of prostitutes being coerced into nonstandard sexual acts, we find attractive women who are the equals of their male partners in achieving the maximum mutual pleasure in intercourse. Artists employ poses, gestures, and gazes that emphasize the specialness of the encounter in an attempt to make the encounter romantic. Several scholars see this move to one-on-one sex as a reflection of the turn away from the collective society of the patriarchal polis to the individual self-awareness that characterizes the rise of Hellenistic urban culture.25 Given the urban density and cultural diversity of great cities like Alexandria and Pergamon, romantic visual representations, like the textual ones expressed in the romance novel, express new concepts of love and sex.

In one of the best-preserved examples, the exterior of a bronze mirror case from Corinth (Fig. 2), the artist has included the god Eros hovering above a handsome couple on a luxuriously appointed bed, reminding us of the widely held belief that sex with a beautiful partner was a gift of Venus. The artist emphasizes mutual enthusiasm by representing the woman as actively engaged in the act of lovemaking; she opens her legs to increase penetration even while turning her head to kiss the man. The image incised on the back of the mirror cover foregrounds the woman’s active engagement (and the artist’s representational skills) more fully: she adroitly assumes the “lioness” position, supporting her upper body with her left arm while raising her buttocks to reveal her genitalia.26 With her right hand she guides the man’s penis. One scholar suggests that a famous courtesan, Leiana, owned the mirror.27 It is more plausible, since it is of bronze rather than silver or gold, that it was the possession of a married or unmarried Corinthian woman, especially since it expresses contemporary beliefs that a woman must achieve orgasm both to conceive healthy babies and to remain healthy herself.

sexual representation, visual

Figure 2. Male-female couple with Eros, exterior of a mirror case, bronze, diam. 17.5 cm, c. 320 bce, from Corinth. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Edward Perry Warren, RES 08. Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.

Serial Sexual Imagery and Man-Boy Love in the Hellenistic Period (323–331 bce)

The Hellenistic fascination with encyclopedic cataloguing of the natural world finds textual expression in the largely lost illustrated sex manuals, all attributed to celebrated famous prostitutes but probably authored by men.28 In visual representation, we find vessels of terracotta and glass, made from molds and therefore produced in multiple editions, that catalogue a variety of sexual positions, many of them acrobatic.29 One example, a fragment of a mold-made glass bowl (Fig. 3), originally demonstrated a total of twelve sexual positions in relief on its interior, with an additional image of the “woman riding” position on the exterior. A couple assuming the same pose as the mirror cover in Fig. 2 decorates part of the bottom of the dish, while another couple in the missionary position adorns the rim of the vessel.

sexual representation, visual

Figure 3. Two male-female couples, fragment of opaque molded glass dish, length 5.5 cm, first century bce. Metropolitan Museum of Art 1995.86. Gift of Nicolas Koutoulakis.

In the Hellenistic period, the visual representation of man-boy sex shifts toward the romantic as well. If artists set pederastic encounters in Archaic and Classical Athens in public places like the gymnasium, with the lovers standing, they now recline, like male-female couples, in beds. Artists make a point of showing the boy being penetrated by the man while they exchange tender gazes. Two examples of this composition adorned mass-produced mold-made terracotta vessels, an indication that there was considerable demand for such representations.30

A cut agate gemstone dating to the 1st century bce, by contrast, represents a private commission, not only because of the expense of producing such objects but also in light of its subject matter: an adult man anally penetrating another adult man, posed so that a viewer can see his erect penis. Framing this image is an affectionate poem addressed to one of the men.31 Although explicit and contrary to the accepted rules of engagement between male sexual partners, the gemstone underscores the exploration of new ways of representing sexual intercourse during the Hellenistic period that paved the way for artists of the early Roman imperial period.


As artists of the Hellenistic period explored non-classical bodies, like those of children, the barbarian Other, and the aged, representations of Hermaphroditus began to proliferate.32 In both literature and visual representation, Hermaphroditus complicates the standard Greek construction of woman as sexually insatiable, emphasizing instead the dynamics of desire. As a demigod with characteristics of both sexes and the offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus is a sign of gender fusion. In the hands of Hellenistic artists, he/she confuses viewers in humorous double-takes redolent with sexual frustration.

One sculptural type of the sleeping Hermaphroditus presents the god prone, with elegantly coifed head turned to the right. A viewer initially admired the beautiful back, buttocks, and legs, but circling the sculpture discovered the creature’s female breasts combined with penis and testicles.33 In a series of frescoes from Pompeian houses, a Silenus or Pan enacts this discovery of Hermaphroditus’s dual nature, as he comes upon him/her from behind. The viewer sees the demigod’s erect penis presumably before the would-be rapist. Another composition meant to elicit surprise and repeated across the media of sculpture, painting, and mosaic depicts Hermaphroditus struggling with a satyr, eager to rape despite the creature’s binary sexual makeup.34 The elaboration of these scenarios in the Hellenistic period points to an identification of gender with genitals, much like the fascination with Priapus, satyrs, and pygmies with monstrous penises. In 1st-century ce Pompeii, there appear images of Priapus in the form of sculpture placed in gardens and small paintings positioned over doorways in houses.35 The demigod seems—perhaps because of his/her sexual duality—to have acquired an apotropaic function.

Augustan and Early Julio-Claudian Representations (c. 31 bce–30 ce)

The proliferation of sexual representations on a variety of objects in this period coincides with the rapid growth of the city of Rome and the provincial capitals of the early empire. As in the Hellenistic period, sexual imagery appears in a variety of media, from expensive gemstones and silver vessels to terracotta vessels mass-produced in the workshops of Arretium (modern Arezzo) (Fig. 4). These vessels imitate the sexual imagery to be found on expensive drinking ware, usually representing beautiful male-female couples assuming a variety of sexual positions. Some Arretine vessels alternate images of male-female intercourse with lovemaking between a man and a boy. This seemingly unbiased alternation of sexual representation suggests that Roman viewers of the lower classes valued and saw the equivalence of these two kinds of love. Imagery on these inexpensive vessels reflect similar, bisexual decorations on luxury items, like a cut cameo-glass perfume bottle, currently in the Ortiz collection, which came out of the ground in 1978.36 One side shows a man kneeling on a bed and the woman turned to him, her back and buttocks on display; on the opposite side we see the boy’s torso and genitals as his lover kneels behind him to enter him. The boy turns his head to gaze at the man and reaches back with his right arm to grasp the man’s right arm. It is a pose that finds wide diffusion in the Augustan period for scenes of a man penetrating a young boy.37 A variation of this composition appears on side B of the Warren Cup (Fig. 5 and Fig. 6), where both look away rather than exchanging gazes. An important anomaly shared by the Ortiz bottle and the Warren Cup is the hairstyle of the boys in both compositions. They have long locks of hair falling down the nape of the neck, indicating their servile status.38 Literary sources confirm that an elite Roman man was expected to be bisexual, alternating between penetrating boys (the pueri delicati) and girls and women, but that his partners could not be of his own class or freeborn (Plaut. Curc. 35–38). Since boys who conformed to this status were limited to the servile class, we can expect that the artists of the Warren Cup and the Ortiz flask were both representing beautiful slave boys.

sexual representation, visual

Figure 4. Male-female and man-boy couple with ithyphallic herm between them, Arretine mold fragment, 30 bce –30 ce. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of E. P. Warren, RES. 08.33c. CC BY-SA 2.0.

sexual representation, visual

Figure 5. Man-boy couple on bed, Warren Cup, side B, 15-30 ce, silver, height 15.2 cm. British Museum, 1999, 0426.1.

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Side A of the Warren Cup shows a young man lowering his buttocks onto his lover’s penis while supporting himself with a strap. The men’s neo-classical proportions with the same Polycleitan body types as seen on the Arretine ware combine with Augustan hairstyles (no long locks to be seen) to emphasize their beauty. The setting, too, is redolent of luxury, including a lyre resting on a shelf and a chamber-servant who looks on the couple from a half-open door. Similar expressions of sexual intimacy in a refined setting appear on other silver vessels of the period, such as the male-female couples on two of the cups from the House of the Menander hoard.39 The fact that such cups belonged to the drinking party suggests that both men and women were expected to comment on them, perhaps stressing the relative pleasures of sexual intercourse that Roman men enjoyed with both women and boys.

sexual representation, visual

Figure 6. Male-male lovemaking, Warren Cup, side A, 15–30 ce, silver, height 15.2 cm. British Museum, 1999, 0426.1.

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Whereas we can only hypothesize the use of vessels with sexual imagery in a banquet setting, the series of erotic pictures from the villa excavated under the Farnesina in Rome provides a specific ideological and viewing context.40 Dated to around 20 bce, these pictures belong to the decorative scheme of three rooms conceived as picture galleries or pinacothecae, and as such underscore the fact that proper collections included works of the Archaic and Classical periods along with paintings showing the calculus veneris, that is, Kama-Sutra-like representations of the sexual positions (Ov. Tr. 2.521–528). Like the fine paintings of the Greek masters, the sexually explicit visual artworks were trophies of the owner’s good taste and sophistication, raising the suspicion that the sexual standards promoted by Augustus’s moral reform were ineffective.41 Instead, the visual record from this period reflects positive social attitudes that cast sex with beautiful partners (of both sexes) as an essential pleasure.

Hypersexual Pompeii? The Later 1st Century

Given the plethora of objects and paintings with sexually explicit representations found in the sites buried by Vesuvius in 79 ce, it is remarkable how little scholarly attention these objects have received. From the viewpoint of curators, it was enough to put like with like, so that until recently a researcher was more likely to find a drawer full of phalli than to find information about where they were discovered. If Pompeii seems a hypersexual city, it is because so many more objects—in many more media—escaped destruction. It is likely that other cities around the ancient Mediterranean would have yielded a like number of such objects had they been covered by volcanic material.

In the region buried by Vesuvius, we see a steady production of images of male-female intercourse, particularly in well-preserved frescoes dating from about 30 ce to the eruption of 79. The handsomest of these include the paintings from the House of the Beautiful Impluvium and that of Caecilius Iucundus, presenting attractive pairs of lovers in richly appointed bedchambers. The painting from the house of Caecilius (Fig. 7), with its inclusion of a bedroom servant and gold leaf used to accent fabrics, is the closest in quality to the fine pinakes that decorated the walls of the villa under the Farnesina in Rome. But in all the Pompeian examples, these erotic pictures—properly relegated to the upper zones of the walls in the Farnesina—form the centerpieces of walls in the center zones. That owners prized such paintings suggests that they—as non-elite individuals—embraced the elite view that paintings of lovemaking belonged in a proper gentleman’s picture collection.

sexual representation, visual

Figure 7. Pompeii, house of Caecilius Iucundus, north wall of peristyle l, between rooms o and p: male-female couple on bed, 62–79 ce, fresco 18 x 15 ½ in. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, inv. 11059.

Photo by Michael Larvey.

As center pictures, these paintings could be combined with center pictures of other subjects within the room. In cubiculum 43 of the House of the Centenary at Pompeii, a painting of the drunken Hercules sleeping while cupids play with his weapons is the focal point of the rear wall, whereas paintings of intimate male-female lovemaking adorn the centers of the right and left walls.42 Notable is the absence of bedroom servants in the paintings of lovemaking—an important marker of elite luxury included in the painting from the house of Caecilius Iucundus. Although the denotation “cubiculum” is a modern one, research has demonstrated that—particularly when it formed part of a suite including other rooms for dining and reception—it was meant for meeting special guests, for private conversations, for sleeping, and for sex. 43 Hercules sleeps while the two couples enjoy sexual intimacy.

Whereas it is possible to build a context for interpreting erotic wall paintings through analysis of their spatial context and the iconography of paintings that accompany them, in some cases the imagery itself provides clues to the owner’s sexual acculturation. A good example is a bronze mirror found in a tomb on the Esquiline Hill in Rome.44 On an ornate bed a woman wearing her hair in the elaborate pushed-up curls of the Flavian period parts her legs to be penetrated by her male lover. Although the imagery is standard, the setting is unusually detailed, including the owner’s pet dog, a mouse drinking from a vessel, and a shuttered erotic pinax hanging above the bed. One is tempted to see the mirror as a special commission, with the artist instructed to represent the couple’s beauty along with the woman’s favorite things. The reverse is also unique, with a zodiac band framing the reflecting disk—perhaps a reminder of the fleeting nature of time and beauty.

In contrast to such custom-made sexual imagery are generic representations repeated in many paintings at Pompeii: they serve to “pretty up” the walls of spaces used for prostitution. The paintings decorating the Lupanar, Pompeii’s only purpose-made brothel, are of relatively high quality, presenting standard male-female couples in a variety of positions (Fig. 8). Placed above the doorways to the five cubicles—each with a masonry bed—arranged around the ground-floor corridor, they emphasize the male-female couples’ bodies with scant attention paid to textiles and furnishings. Sex in the Lupanar was likely a rough and ready affair, with a toss with a prostitute costing no more than a cup of ordinary wine (2 asses). The visual representations, in contrast, present relatively genteel couplings; in one painting the woman, fully clothed, stands by the bed to join her partner in contemplating an erotic pinax.45 It is clear that such representations neither advertise the kind of sex that was for sale (the many graffiti mention male prostitutes for sale as well) nor the social standing of the customers: relatively poor, mostly non-elite clients.

sexual representation, visual

Figure 8. Pompeii, the Grand Lupanar, view of interior from west, 62–79 ce.

Photo by Michael Larvey.

Humorous Sexual Representations

Visual representations of sexual acts that were taboo within Roman culture contribute significantly to our knowledge of ancient sexual acculturation. Paramount among these are the eight paintings discovered in the dressing room of the Suburban Baths at Pompeii (62–79 ce).46 The images consist of small unframed vignettes placed above representations of numbered boxes on a shelf. Excavators found remains of real boxes and a wooden shelf just beneath the paintings where bathers placed their things; the sexual vignettes, then, constituted labels coupled with the numbered boxes. Since these images blatantly illustrate sexual acts that Roman viewers would have considered debased, they provide insight into attitudes toward acts that invective and legal texts condemn as immoral: fellatio, cunnilingus, woman-to-woman intercourse, threesomes, and foursomes.

Of the eight images, three get their humor by showing individuals sullying their mouths and thereby incurring the stigma of the os impurum. As the instrument of public speech, the os, meaning both “mouth” and “countenance,” was to be kept unpolluted by oral sex.47 In one vignette it is a woman who suffers the os impurum by fellating a man who wears a toga and holds a rotulus in his left hand. In another representation that is unique in Greek and Roman art, a woman performs cunnilingus on another woman. The third vignette, also unique, shows a man eagerly performing cunnilingus on a woman (Fig. 9); when this act is depicted it is invariably a male-female couple engaged in mutual oral sex (“69”).48

sexual representation, visual

Figure 9. Pompeii, Suburban Baths, apodyterium 7, south wall, scene IV, a man performing cunnilingus on a woman.

Photo by Michael Larvey.

The most unusual image, and one that reflects strong cultural biases against female-female sex, shows a standing woman who penetrates a woman lying on a bed.49 In the framework of Roman law and invective, the standing woman must be playing the man’s role using a strapped-on dildo (Sen. Controv. 1.2.23: Juv. 6.306–313; Mart. 1.90; 7.67): she is a tribad, a sexual monstrosity. In terms of humor, this representation gets its comic effect from the reversal of proper sexual roles: the woman must always be penetrated but never the penetrator.

Men transgressing their proper sexual roles appear as well in the Suburban Baths. Because Romans constructed the citizen male’s proper sexual role as penetrator of the mouth, anus, or vagina of persons of inferior status (non-citizens, including slaves and foreigners), men who liked to be penetrated suffered the stigma of infamia. Such men, called cinaedi, were considered sexual monsters, even though there was a social acceptance that all men were bisexual. Sexual experimentation before marriage—with partners of both sexes—was to be expected, and an unmarried man’s sexual use of slaves and prostitutes constituted a sexual safety valve that kept elite virgins and married women safe (Hor. Sat. 1.2.31–32).50

One image in the Suburban Baths features the cinaedus in the middle of a sexual threesome: a man penetrates him while he performs his proper male role by penetrating a kneeling woman.51 This representation indexes the fear of Roman men that this sexual monster has the power to attract women; we find him often accused of adultery with married women.52 Another painting represents a foursome where the cinaedus, penetrated by a man, is being fellated by a woman who, in turn, receives cunnilingus from another woman.53 The vignettes of the Suburban Baths constitute a compendium of sexual acts proscribed in Roman culture, save the most defiling and humiliating act of all: irrumatio, or forced fellatio of a man by a man.54 Cunnilingus runs a close second, however, since Romans believed that the woman was penetrating with her genitals the person performing cunnilingus on her—another unthinkable reversal of the proper female role in sex. Given the calculated overturning of sexual rules and roles in the eight surviving paintings of the Suburban Baths, it is clear that their intention is to incite laughter; several scholars have framed this laughter as an antidote against envious bathers who would cast the Evil Eye on the beautiful bodies of other bathers undressing in this space.55

Sexual acrobatics constitute another kind of humor. Three paintings, preserved only in contemporary engravings, once appeared among scenes of tavern life on the walls of the Inn on the Street of Mercury at Pompeii; they must reflect the nude mime (nudatio mimarum), a popular feature of theatrical productions (Val. Max. 2.10.8; Mart. 1.1). The best-known of the paintings features a woman bending over to pour wine into a glass while a man penetrates her from the rear.56

The Phallus as Apotropaion

Many of the visual representations from the cities buried by Vesuvius that offended excavators and resulted in their banishment to the Cabinet of Obscene Objects had apotropaic rather than sexual meanings for ancient viewers. They index the belief that display of the phallus was protective. In this the Romans followed the Greeks, who also attributed protective power to the phallus, whether by itself or attached to a human form. Monumental stone phalli line the sacred way at Delos, and we find stelae of Hermes, upright stone pillars figuring an erect phallus and topped with the god’s head, placed at crossroads.57 The Romans elaborated this form to represent the generative power of the paterfamilias, substituting the head of the paterfamilias for that of Hermes.58

At Pompeii one finds terracotta plaques with phalli, some of them winged, at crossroads and at the entrances to shops. Several large stone phalli have been excavated as well. One of these, found in 1880 (west wall of Regio IX, insula 5) is carved from tuff and painted red. Beneath it was a marble tablet with the words hanc ego cacavi.59 A phallus accompanied by the inscription hic habitat felicitas was found over an oven in a Pompeian bakery; contrary to modern interpretations, the owner of the bakery was not alluding to the happiness of sexual arousal but rather the good luck that the apotropaic phallus would bring to his enterprise—perhaps ensuring that his bread would rise.60

Romans believed that the phallus constituted a fascinum, a term derived from the word fas, meaning “favorable.” A number of bronze phalli that morph into animal and human parts were among the first finds at Herculaneum (1840). These phalli, found in domestic contexts, were suspended from chains. With bells in turn hanging from them, they became tintinnabula; their purpose was to ward off evil spirits, and they index the Roman belief that the noise of the bells, combined the power of male fertility, would protect the person or area where the phalli hung. Related to the tintinnabula are the many amulets worn on the person. Made of coral or amber, they feature the phallus as well as the hand with the thumb clenched between the index and middle finger.61

Protective Phallic Deities

The Romans developed several genres of sexualized deities, most with clear apotropaic purposes. Priapus, an agricultural deity from the Near East, appears in the Hellenistic period as the progeny of Aphrodite and Dionysus (Paus. 9.31.2), and shares apotropaic meaning with the stelae of Hermes. Like him, Priapus protects crossroads and gateways. Additionally he defends gardens from thieves and the entryways of houses. In the obscene and humorous poems collected in the Priapaea, the god threatens intruders with rape.62 The sacral-idyllic landscape paintings that first appear around 30 bce show worshippers of Priapus at country shrines where they pray to the god for fertility. In sculpture and large-scale painting he is often represented lifting his tunic, laden with the fruits of the field, to reveal his enormous member. Artists also created humorous variations, like the figure of Priapus at the entrance to the House of the Vettii at Pompeii, where he weighs his phallus against a sack of coins.63

The laughter that images of Priapus incited becomes an apotropaion against the Evil Eye. The ancient Romans believed—as do many people throughout the Mediterranean today—that someone who envied your beauty or possessions could focus the Evil Eye on you and either harm or kill you.64 If the wrongdoer laughed, it became impossible to carry out the spell, making laughter an antidote to the Evil Eye. Roman artists invented several types of hyperphallic beings, “unbecoming” because of their atypical bodies, their huge members, and the obscene acts they perform—all to cause viewers to laugh.

At the foundation of the humor of Priapus and other representations of hyperphallic beings (including Mercury, satyrs, pygmies, and Aethiopes) is the belief that large penises were ugly and laughable—a construction that first surfaces in 5th-century bce Greece (Ari. Nub. 1009–1023). The phallus, often coupled in visual representation with the deformed bodies of the dwarf, hunchback, and pygmy, becomes a means to incite salubrious laughter. The mosaic from the entryway to the House of the Evil Eye at Antioch shows a hunchback adding his phallus to the host of weapons and creatures that attack a large Evil Eye—an apotropaic image to counter the effects of envy in this liminal space.65

Although visual representations of the pygmy appear in the visual art of Greece, Roman artists elaborated pygmy imagery in the 1st century ce to include scenes of hunting and feasting on the Nile; in all of these the pygmy is sexually incontinent, having sex at picnics and on boats.66 Such imagery appears above all in gardens and tombs at Pompeii, a tradition attested as well at Ostia Antica in the 2nd century.67

New Sexual Representations in Rhone Valley Ceramics, 70–250 ce

New ceramic workshops supplanted those of Arretium (Arezzo) in the late 1st century to serve the army posted along the Rhone. These workshops produced decorated bowls, plates, and wine jugs at Lugdunum (Lyons); a portion of this production was exported throughout the empire. Ceramic artists both copied earlier models and invented new sexual imagery, much of it humorous. Ceramics with sexual subject matter formed a large part of Rhone Valley production, bested only by representations of animals and those bearing gladiatorial scenes or weapons.68

Of particular interest for our understanding of the cultural construction of sexuality are the many applied medallions (médaillons d’applique)—reliefs made in molds and applied to bulbous jugs and pots thrown on the potter’s wheel. These decorated pots—bearing as many as four different medallions—seem to have been popular gifts at the Saturnalia.

Many of the medallions with sexual subjects include short, humorous captions that either comment on the scene or put words into the couples’ mouths.69 A medallion from Lyons features a man kneeling at the foot of the bed entreating his female partner to make love with the words BENE FUTUO, followed by the less clear phrase VOLVI ME (perhaps “I’m laying down my life for you”).70 Another sexual joke appears in a medallion where the man holds a palm of victory while preparing to crown the woman with a wreath. He says TU SOLA NICA, implying that although he won the contest, she is the winner in bed.71 A now-lost medallion found near Arles reverses gender roles: the woman has taken up the man’s arms, a sword and shield, even while assuming the mulier equitans (“woman riding”) position.72 She brandishes the man’s weapons, becoming the “soldier” in the battle of sex; the caption reads ORTE SCUTUS EST (“Look out! That’s a shield.”). It seems that man, at least for the moment, has lost the battle, since the artist represents him with a limp penis. It is an image of psychological castration that would have had particular meaning if the owner was a man serving in the Roman army.

Another medallion presents a visual pun: the representation of a galloping four-horse chariot hanging above the bed comments on the woman’s position (mulier equitans).73 This time the caption puts words in the woman’s mouth—praising her partner’s sexual performance: VA… VIDES QUAM BENE CHALAS. (“V… [first part of man’s name in the vocative]! See how well you open me up.”) Like several of the vignettes from the Suburban Baths at Pompeii, this image gets its comic punch through role reversal: she is a liberated woman who dominates the man sexually—on top in several senses.

Captions also comment on the act represented rather than indicating the protagonists’ speech. A good example is a well-preserved vase (Fig. 10) recently excavated near Lyons, showing a man steering a boat with a rudder held in his right hand while penetrating a woman’s full buttocks.74 She turns to chuck his chin (as in Archaic and Classical art) to express her affection.75 The words NAVIGIUM VENERIS (“sexual steersmanship,” or “on course for sex”) appear above the couple. The image constitutes a clever pun on the man steering or navigating in two senses: he steers the boat even while steering his penis.

sexual representation, visual

Figure 10. Male-female couple on boat with caption NAVIGIUM VENERIS, second century ce, applied medallion on vase, terracotta, diam 16.5 cm, from Lyons. Lyons, Musée de la Civilization Gallo-romaine, inv. CEL 7645.

Photo courtesy J.-M. Degueule.

Sexual acrobats also abound in Roman France in this period. In a lamp from Arles, a woman executes a shoulder stand so that the man, standing on the bed, can penetrate her from above.76 A cupid pushing on the man’s buttocks adds to his thrusts. Several compositions featuring women performing a sexual balancing act suggest, like the painting from the Inn on the Street of Mercury at Pompeii, that they are representations of the nudatio mimarum or other theatrical sex acts. In a medallion from Nîmes, a woman reclines on one man’s back while another parts her legs.77 Complicating these acrobatics is the fact that the woman holds a lamp in her outstretched hand—any movement might spill the oil or the flame. It is a feat similar in its complication to that of the couple from Pompeii, where the woman is trying to perform the sexual act without spilling wine. Another witty lamp shows a woman riding a man while working out with hand weights;78 like the man in the NAVIGIUM VENERIS image, she is multi-tasking.

Finally, Rhone Valley ceramics featuring women copulating with stallions and mules may reflect trained performers (both woman and beast).79 If texts like Apuleius’s The Golden Ass are any gauge, ancient Romans speculated on the mechanics and psychological effects of human-quadruped copulation. In the ceramics the woman is acting out her insatiability (a trait male writers attributed to women whole-cloth) even while she breaks prohibitions against bestiality.

The 3rd Century and Later

Although accidents of preservation greatly reduce evidence for sexual representations in the 3rd century, a partially preserved composition of erotic paintings in a room of the House of the Painted Vaults at Ostia suggests that Romans still valued them.80 The representations with the longest life are those on lamps, and they feature both male-male and male-female lovemaking. The latest of these date to the 6th century and come for the most part from tombs, including areas where burning olive oil was a luxury practice (Brittania, Germania, Upper Pannonia). Such lamps announced the Romanness of the deceased, as did the sexual imagery. Even at this late date, visual representations of sexual intercourse constituted a positive cultural value.

Whether their purpose was to depict the pleasures or the upsets accompanying the gifts of Venus, visual representations of sex were ubiquitous. Like the seemingly obscene phalli and hyperphallic creatures safeguarding individuals, sexual representations carried positive connotations, and they were embraced by Greek and Roman patrons and viewers of both sexes over the centuries. The value in studying such visual representation lies in their ability to distinguish ancient attitudes toward what we call sexuality, obscenity, and pornography from our own.


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(1.) John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); and Amy Richlin, “Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law Against Love Between Men,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3.4 (1993): 554–571.

(2.) Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978).

(3.) Judith Butler: see especially Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999); Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004). Feminist study in classics: Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin, eds., Feminist Theory and the Classics (New York: Routledge, 1993); Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Lisa Auanger, eds., Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002); Marilyn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture (2d edn.; Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014); and Mark Masterson, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, and James Robson, eds., Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World (London: Taylor and Francis, 2015).

(4.) David Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge, 1990).

(5.) Michele Arditi, Il fascino e l’amuleto contro del fascino presso gli antichi, 2d edn. ed. Renato De Falco (Capri: La Conchiglia, 1991 [1825]).

(6.) Louis Barré, Le musée secret, vol. 8 of Herculanum et Pompéi: Recueil général des peintures, bronzes, mosaïques, etc., découverts jusqu’à ce jour, et reproduits d’après le Antichità di Ercolano, Il Museo borbonico, et tous les ouvrages analogues, augmenté de sujets inédits gravés au trait sur cuivre; par H. Roux Ainé (Paris: Firmin Didot frères, 1839).

(7.) Walter M. Kendrick, The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

(8.) Karl Otfried Müller, Ancient Art and its Remains: or, Manual of the Archaeology of Art, ed. F. G. Welcker and trans. John Leitch (London: H. G. Bohn, 1852), 619.

(9.) Kendrick, Secret Museum, 10–18.

(10.) Other sexually explicit subjects include courtships and mythological abductions of mortal boys and women by gods and the sexual adventures of satyrs and maenads.

(11.) Still fundamental is Kenneth J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978); for an overview of the current literature, see Daniel Odgen, “Homosexuality,” in A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Classical World, eds. Mark Golden and Peter Toohey (Oxford: Berg, 2011), 35–54.

(12.) Ernst Gombrich, “Light, Form and Texture in Fifteenth-Century Painting,” Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts 112 (1964): 826–849.

(13.) Jeffrey Henderson, “Greek Attitudes toward Sex,” in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome, eds. Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger (New York: Scribner’s, 1988), vol. 2, 1249–1264.

(14.) See Dover, Greek Homosexuality, passim; but see also J. N. Davidson, “Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex,” Past and Present 170 (1997): 3–51.

(15.) Emily Vermeule, “Some Erotica in Boston,” Antike Kunst 12.1 (1969): 10, fig. 2, pl. 5, 1–2.

(16.) Andrew F. Stewart, Art, Desire, and the Body in Ancient Greece (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 11.

(17.) For a careful examination of these images, see Stewart, Art, Desire, and the Body, 162–171.

(18.) Peter von Blanckenhagen, “Puerilia,” in In Memoriam Otto Brendel: Essays in Archaeology and the Humanities, eds. Larissa Bonfonte and Helga von Heintze (Mainz: von Zabern, 1976), 37–41.

(19.) Hans Dragendorff and Carl Watzinger, Arretinische Reliefkeramik mit Beschreibung der Sammlung in Tübingen (Reutlingen: Gryphius, 1948), 98; and Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, 77, n. 35.

(20.) The Pedeius Painter, Prostitutes and Men at Drinking Party, late 6th century bce red-figure cup, Paris, Louvre, inv. G 13; Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 15.

(21.) François Lissarague, “The Sexual Life of Satyrs,” in Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, eds. David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, 53–81 Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

(22.) Timothy McNiven, “The Unheroic Penis: Otherness Exposed,” Source 15.1 (1995): 10–16.

(23.) Marie-Louise Säflund, The East Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia: A Reconstruction and Interpretation of Its Composition (Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology; Gothenburg: Lund, 1970).

(24.) Véronique Dasen, Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece (Oxford Monographs on Classical Archaeology; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 169–174.

(25.) Otto J. Brendel, “The Scope and Temperament of Erotic Art in the Greco-Roman World,” in Studies in Erotic Art, eds. Theodore Bowie and Cornelia V. Christenson (New York: Basic Books, 1970), 42–46.

(26.) Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 16.

(27.) Andrew F. Stewart, “Reflections,” in Sexuality in Ancient Art, ed. Natalie B. Kampen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 147–149.

(28.) Holt N. Parker, “Love’s Body Anatomized: The Ancient Erotic Handbooks and the Rhetoric of Sexuality,” in Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, ed. Amy Richlin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 90–107.

(29.) Vessels from Delos and Pergamon: Brendel, “Erotic Art,” 54–57.

(30.) Terracotta vessel fragment from Pergamon (late 2nd century bce), formerly Berlin, Antikensammlung, inv. C.7630 (lost in World War II): Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, fig. 7; mold found at Sardis (late 2nd century bce), inv. P79.6/T79.3:8426: Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, fig. 8.

(31.) Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 62.

(32.) J. J. Pollitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 147–149.

(33.) Some scholars identify this representation as the Hermaphroditus nobilis of Polykles mentioned by Pliny: Aileen Ajootian, “s.v. Hermaphroditos,” Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae; Plin. HN 34.80.

(34.) Pompeii, unknown location, fresco of Satyr and Hermaphroditus, Naples Archaeological Museum inv. 27699: Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, fig. 13; Hermaphroditus struggling with satyr, marble statue from Rome (Roman copy of 2nd century bce original), Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, inv. 155: Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, fig. 14; Adrian Stähli, Die Verweigerung der Lüste: Erotische Gruppen in der antiken Plastik (Berlin: Reimer, 1999), passim; and Elizabeth Bartman, “Erotic Statuary in the Roman House,” in Cultural Messages in the Graeco-Roman World: Acta of the Babesch 80th Anniversary Workshop, Radboud University Nijmegen, September 8th 2006 (Leuven: Peeters, 2010), 57–65.

(35.) Clarke, Looking at Laughter, 179–184; and Katherine T. von Stackelberg, “Garden Hybrids: Hermaphrodite Images and Gendered Spaces in the Roman House,” Classical Antiquity 33 (2014): 395–426.

(36.) Perfume bottle, cameo glass, from Estepa, Spain, The George Ortiz Collection, Geneva; Clarke, Roman Sex, figs. 57, 58.

(37.) Repeated on the fragment of multicoloured cameo glass, London, British Museum, inv. GR 1956.3–1.5.

(38.) John Pollini, “The Warren Cup: Homoerotic Love and Symposial Rhetoric in Silver,” Art Bulletin 81.1 (1999): 21–52. Several scholars have disputed the authenticity of the Warren Cup; see Jen Grove, “E. P. Warren’s ‘Paederastic Evangel’,” in Ancient Rome and the Construction of Modern Homosexual Identities, ed. Jennifer Ingleheart (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 226–227, n. 60–67, for the current state of the scholarship.

(39.) Amedeo Maiuri, La Casa del Menandro e il suo tesoro di argenteria (Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 1933), 1:321–330, figs. 126 and 126; 2: pls. 31–36; and Kenneth S. Painter, The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii: The Silver Treasure (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001).

(40.) Primary publication, Irene Bragantini and Mariette de Vos, Le decorazioni della villa romana della Farnesina, Museo Nazionale Romano: Le pitture (Rome: De Luca, 1982); full discussion of erotic paintings in Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, 93–107, figs. 28–35; see also Clarke, Roman Sex, figs. 9–11.

(41.) Paul Zanker, Pompeii: Public and Private Life, trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

(42.) Clarke, Roman Sex, figs. 4–6.

(43.) Andrew M. Riggsby, “‘Public’ and ‘Private’ in Roman Culture: The Case of the Cubiculum,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 10 (1997): 36–56.

(44.) Clarke, Roman Sex, figs. 18–19.

(45.) Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 35.

(46.) Luciana Jacobelli, Le pitture erotiche delle Terme Suburbane di Pompei (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1995).

(47.) Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, 220–223, nn. 52–58; Mark Bradley, “Foul Bodies in Ancient Rome,” in Smell and the Ancient Senses, ed. Mark Bradley, 136–137. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

(48.) Pompeii, Suburban Baths, room 7, dressing room, Scene III, a woman performing fellatio on a man; Scene IV, a man performing cunnilingus on a woman; Scene VII, a woman performing cunnilingus on a woman: Clarke, Roman Sex, figs. 83, 84, 90 respectively.

(49.) Pompeii, Suburban Baths, dressing room 7, Scene V, two women making love: Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 87.

(50.) Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, 196, nn.8–9.

(51.) Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 88.

(52.) Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, 234, n.92.

(53.) Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 90.

(54.) Amy Richlin, “The Meaning of irrumare in Catullus and Martial,” Classical Philology 76 (1981): 40–46; and Werner A. Krenkel, “Fellatio and Irrumatio,” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Wilhelm-Pieck-Universität Rostock 29 (1980): 77–78.

(55.) Clarke, Looking at Laughter, 194–196.

(56.) The engraver’s misunderstanding of the shadow lines beneath the couples’ feet caused him to cast them as “tightrope walkers.” Pompeii, Inn on the Street of Mercury, room b, hand-coloured engraving of destroyed painting: man and woman performing sexual acrobatics, 62–79 ce: Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 43.

(57.) Gérard Siebert, “s.v. Hermes,” Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae.

(58.) See the well-preserved herm of L. Caecilius Iucundus, found in the atrium of the eponymous house (Pompeii V, 1, 26), with bronze genitals and bronze portrait head; Museo Archeologico Nazionale Napoli, inv. 110663.

(59.) Pompeii, region IX, alley between insulae 5 and 6, phallus in tufa with marble plaque, 1st century ce, Naples Archaeological Museum, the Pornographic Collection, inv. 113415: Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 65; the inscription translates “I shat this one out”: A. E. Housman, “Praefanda,” Hermes 66 (1931): 404.

(60.) Pompeii, VI, 6, 18, plaque with legend HIC HABITAT FELICITAS, painted terracotta, Naples Archaeological Museum, the Pornographic Collection, inv. 27741: Clarke, Looking at Laughter, 72–74, figs. 28–29.

(61.) Stefano De Caro, Il Gabinetto Segreto del Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli: Guida alla collezione (Milan: Electa Napoli, 2000), 74–75, 80.

(62.) Carmina Priapea, 25, trans. Richlin, Garden of Priapus, 122.

(63.) Pompeii, House of the Vettii, entryway a/b, west wall, north part, Priapus weighing his member against a sack of gold: Clarke, Roman Sex, figs. 1–3.

(64.) Some useful sources are Thomas Rakoczy, Böser Blick: Macht des Auges und Neid der Götter: Eine Untersuchungen zur Kraft des Blickes in der griechischen Literatur (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1996); Alan Dundes, ed., The Evil Eye: A Casebook (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981); Frederick Thomas Elworthy, The Evil Eye: An Account of This Ancient and Widespread Superstition (New York: Julian Press, 1958 [1895]); and Pierre Bettez Gravel, The Malevolent Eye: An Essay on the Evil Eye, Fertility and the Concept of Mana (American University Studies, Series 11, Anthropology and Sociology; New York: Peter Lang, 1995).

(65.) Doro Levi, “The Evil Eye and the Lucky Hunchback,” in Antioch-on-the-Orontes, ed. Richard Stillwell (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941), 225.

(66.) Isola Sacra, tomb 16, black-and-white mosaic, c. 150 ce; John R. Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.– ce 315 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), figs. 122–123.

(67.) Isola Sacra, tomb 16, black-and-white mosaic, c. 150 ce; Clarke, Ordinary Romans, figs. 122–123.

(68.) Annalis Leibundgut, Die römischen Lampen in der Schweiz (Bern: Francke, 1977), 199; and Donald M. Bailey, Roman Lamps Made in Italy, vol. 2 of A Catalogue of Lamps in the British Museum (London: British Museum, 1980), 64.

(69.) The only parallel for the artist putting words into the sexual protagonists’ mouths is a painting removed from a room of the tavern near the Forum at Pompeii (VII, 9, 33, 62–79 ce, Naples inv. 27690). This was a single room for a prostitute, a so-called cella meretricia. The woman, who has assumed the position for rear-entry sex, turns to her partner, kneeling behind her, to say “LENTE IMPELLE,” or “Thrust slowly”; Clarke, Roman Sex, 154–155, fig. 107; J. L. Butrica, “Review of John R. Clarke, Roman Sex,” Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

(70.) Clarke, Looking at Laughter, 216, fig. 110, and n. 32.

(71.) Male-female couple on bed with caption TU SOLA NICA, 2nd century ce, fragment of applied medallion, terracotta, diam. 9.5 cm, Lyons, Musée del a civilisation gallo-romaine, inv. 2000.0.2567; Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 95.

(72.) Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 101.

(73.) Clarke, Roman Sex, fig. 106.

(74.) Sandrine Marquié, “Les médaillons d’applique rhodaniens de la Place des Célestins à Lyon,” Revue Archéologique de l’Est 50.172 (1999–2000): 268–270, figs. 16, 31; and Clarke, Roman Sex, 142–144, figs. 96 and 96-1.

(75.) Gerhard Neumann, Gesten und Gebärden in der griechischen Kunst (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1965), 67–69; and Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 3.

(76.) Male-female lovemaking with Cupid, lamp, 2nd century ce, terracotta, diam. 9.8 cm, Musée d’Arles et de la Provence antique, inv. IRP 89.214.333; Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, fig. 115.

(77.) Threesome of two men and a woman, 2nd to early 3rd century ce, applied medallion, terracotta, diam. 6 cm; Musée Archéologique, Nimes, inv. 90851.1106; Clarke, Looking at Laughter, fig. 118.

(78.) Male-female couple on bed, lamp, end of 1st century ce, diam. of disk, 9.8 cm; Musée d’Arles et de la Provence antique, inv. CIM.66.00.106; Clarke, Looking at Laughter, fig. 116.

(79.) Woman on bed with a small horse or pony, made in Athens by lampmaker Preimos, mid-3rd century ce, London, British Museum, inv. G&R 1971.4–26.39; Clarke, Looking at Laughter, 226, fig. 119; for further discussion, see Johns, Sex or Symbol, 110–111, fig. 90.

(80.) Ostia Antica, House of the Painted Vaults, room 5, west and south walls, 250 ce; Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, 265–274, figs. 104–107.

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