The Erotic Art of Ancient Greece and Rome
Rarely does L.P. Hartley’s dictum that “the past is a foreign country” hold more firmly than in the area of sexuality in classical art. Classic erotic 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.
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.
Sex and love were major themes in classical art, as can be seen in this ancient Roman fresco in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples in Italy. (Stefano Bolognini)
The Romans too were surrounded by sex. The phallus, sculpted in bronze as tintinnabula (wind chimes), were commonly found in thegardens of the houses of Pompeii, and sculpted in relief on wall panels, such as the famous one from a Roman bakery telling us hic habitat felicitas (“here dwells happiness”).
However, these classical images of erotic acts and genitalia reflect more than a sex obsessed culture. Classic erotic art and 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.
Tintinnabulum (wind chimes) in the form of a phallus, and other types of classic erotic art, were commonly found in the gardens of Pompeii houses, such as this quadruped-shaped bird with a phallic-shaped scorpionic tail discovered in Pompeii and on display in the Secret Cabinet of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. (Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC-BY 2.5)
Modern Responses to Classic Erotic Art
When the collection of antiquities first began in earnest in the 17th and 18th centuries, the openness of ancient eroticism and classic erotic art puzzled and troubled Enlightenment audiences. This bewilderment only intensified after excavations began at the rediscovered Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Gabinetto Segreto (the so-called “Secret Cabinet”) of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli best typifies the modern response to classical sexuality in art: repression and suppression. The secret cabinet was founded in 1819, when Francis I, King of Naples, visited the museum with his wife and young daughter. Shocked by the explicit imagery in classic erotic art, 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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In Pompeii itself, where explicit material such as the wall paintings of the brothel was retained in situ, metal shutters were installed. These shutters restricted access to only male tourists willing to pay additional fees, until as recently as the 1960s.
Of course, the secrecy of the collection in the cabinet only increased its fame, even if access was at times difficult. John Murray ’s Handbook to South Italy and Naples (1853) sanctimoniously states that permission was exceedingly difficult to obtain. “Very few therefore have seen the collection; and those who have, are said to have no desire to repeat their visit.”
The cabinet was opened to the general public in 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 artifacts as they were originally displayed in antiquity.
Literature also felt the wrath of the censors , with works such as Aristophanes’ plays mistranslated to obscure their “offensive” sexual and scatological 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 collection still shocks modern audiences.
Pan coupling with a goat in a marble sculpture, dating back to between 1 BC and 1 AD, on display at the Archaeological Museum of Naples in the Secret Cabinet, alongside other classic erotic art deemed too explicit to be on public display by Francis I, King of Naples. (Simon Burchell / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The censorship of ancient sexuality is perhaps best typified by the long tradition of removing genitals from classical sculpture. The Vatican Museum in particular (but not exclusively) was famed for altering classical erotic 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.
It also indicated a modern willingness to associate nudity with sexuality, which would have puzzled an ancient audience, for whom the body’s physical form was in itself regarded as perfection. So have we been misreading ancient sexuality all this time? Well, yes.
Marble statue of Mercury in the Vatican collection. The fig leaf is a later addition, applying contemporary morals and sensibilities to so-called classic erotic art. (Sputnikcccp / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Are These Examples of Ancient Porn?
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. These types of scenes were especially popular on the kylix, or wine-cup, particularly within the tondo (central panel of the cup). Hetairai (courtesans) and pornai (prostitutes) may well have attended the same symposia, so the scenes may have been used as a stimuli.
Painted erotica was replaced by molded 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. 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 mold-made lamps.
Attic red-figure hydria from circa 490 BC, depicting a visit to the hetaeras to see the Hetairai (courtesans). (Public Domain)
The Phallus and Fertility
Although female nudity was not uncommon (particularly in association with the goddess Aphrodite), phallic symbolism was at the center of much classical art. 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.
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 the hermai of Athens were vandalized prior to the departure of the Athenian fleet many believed this would threaten the success of the naval mission.
Herm originated in ancient Greece. A herm was a stone sculpture with a head (usually of Hermes) above a rectangular pillar, upon which male genitals were carved. Viewed today as classic erotic art, the herm had a different significance in ancient times and was used as protection from evil. (Zde / CC BY-SA 3.0)
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 researcher Claudia Moser writes, the image represents three kinds of prosperity: growth (the large member), fertility (the fruit), and affluence (the bag of money).
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 is often quite small . Classical cultural ideals valued a smaller penis over a larger, often to the surprise of modern audiences.
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.
While to contemporary eyes this could appear to be ancient Roman porn, this fresco of Priapius from the House of Vetti in Pompeii actually symbolized prosperity. (Public domain)
Myths and Sex in Classic Erotic Art
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. Zeus’s 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.
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)
The phallus was also highlighted in depictions of Dionysiac revelry. Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, theater and transformation was highly sexualized, as were his followers - the male satyrs and female maenads, and their depiction on wine vessels is not surprising.
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 word satyriasis has survived today, classified in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a form of male hyper sexuality, alongside the female form, nymphomania.
The intention of the ithyphallic (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. 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.
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 emphasizing the sexual aspects of this art, they underplayed the non-sexual role of phallic symbols in classical art.
Top image: Sex and love were major themes in classical art, as they remain today. (Public Domain/Deriv)
This article was originally published under the title ‘Friday essay: the erotic art of Ancient Greece and Rome’ by Craig Barker on The Conversation, and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.
Updated on February 5, 2021.