Erotic Art of Ancient Rome
Erotic Art of Ancient Rome
The Roman Empire was founded by Romulus in  the year 753 BC.  As ancient Rome expanded "from seven hills to three continents," it not only gained in size and cultural scope, but became a pinnacle of wealth and decadence.  By the first century AD there was no question of Rome's power and affluence. Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 AD, burying some of Rome's finest cities--Neapolis, Herculaneum, and Pompeii--in tons of ash(1).   For about 1700 years these ancient cities remained preserved, untouched and unseen.  The excavated remains provide valuable insight into these ancient times through the artistic artifacts that have been unearthed.
Much of Roman art shows an appreciation for the Greek style, especially sculpture.  However, Roman art also features the nude female, instead of focusing almost exclusively on male proportions.  The Roman style and subject matter is also decidedly more erotic than their Greek predecessors.  Sexuality was a very important part of this culture.  Most of what we know about Roman sexual practices comes from poetry of the period.  Homosexual practices were not considered to be unusual or deviant.  In fact, there was no discretion between homo- and heterosexuality(2).   Sexual preference was treated as such, rather than a lifestyle unto itself.  Erotic practices in the early Roman Empire were just as much a way of expressing power as they were an act of leisure.  Rather than take on masculine and feminine roles, sexual partners could be described as having either an active or passive role.  The partner of higher social standing, a freeborn Roman citizen, would have dominance over the passive participant, which in most cases would be a prostitute, slave, or wife(3).   (These roles apply to all forms of sexual intercourse.)  The sexual act was not just about pleasure, it was also a statement of social status.
Art itself served a mostly social function in Roman society.  The Roman home was a place of business and a gathering for social functions.  Homes were ornately decorated not only to impress guests with a show of opulence, but to put them at ease by encouraging laughter and conversation.  Images of lovemaking, both natural and supernatural, were popular subjects for second style wall paintings because sex was a symbol of status.  This was not just because sex could imply control, but because the sexual act was aristocratic in its suggestion of excessive leisure(4).   Another purpose for sexual content in art, especially the more peculiar pieces, was to induce laughter in guests.  The evil eye (a spiritual projection of jealousy or malice) was a popular superstition among the Romans and mirth was considered an important form of prevention.  Erotic Roman art also served as a reflection of spiritual belief, invoking the life force and powers of fertility.  Some wall paintings, such as the Dionysiac mystery frieze of the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, depict the highly sexual religious rituals of the time.  It is important to attempt to understand the art of the ancient Romans in its social and spiritual contexts rather than simply dismissing it as pornographic.

Notes:
1.  "Pompeii." Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia.  1998.
2.  Gill, N. S.  "Non Standard Roman Male Sexuality."  http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa011500a.htm. 2000.
3.  Gill, N. S. "Standard Roman Male Sexuality." http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa011400a.thm. 2000.
4.  Clarke, John R. "'Just Like Us': Cultural Constructions of Sexuality and Race in Roman Art."  The Art Bulletin 78 (1996): 599+.


Satyr and Nymph, House of the Faun, image from apollonius.net
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