Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.01.03

John R. Clarke, Roman Sex 100 BC - AD 250.   New York:  Harry N. Abrams, 2003.  Pp. 168; ills. 107, numerous drawings.  ISBN 0-8109-4263-1.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by J.L. Butrica, St. John's, Newfoundland (
Word count: 1416 words

Roman Sex is the apotheosis of the coffee-table book on Roman/Pompeian erotica.

Design and execution are excellent in nearly every respect. Only the cover disappoints: a series of solemn grey letters (actually words from Pompeian graffiti) marches across an even more sombre field, with Roman Sex picked out in red. The dust jacket, however, is brilliant, with a white background, title centred over a dramatic red X, and the female and male views of a sleeping hermaphrodite set upright at the outer edge of front and back sides as if attempting a doubly impossible coupling across the divide. The illustrations within (many newly photographed by Michael Larvey) are nearly all in sharp focus as well as clear and bright, and sometimes imaginatively arranged (I'm thinking especially of the phallus that juts across p. 99, though my favourite visual feature is the miniature guardian phalluses that end every chapter).

The text also outstrips the competition. Clarke acknowledges that, apart from some new material, he has largely reworked other publications here, especially his earlier book Looking at Lovemaking (Berkeley 1998); hence there is much discussion of where works of erotic art were found in the homes of Pompeii and what functions they served, though now within a broader socio-sexual context. But this reworking also incorporates a very engagingly written personal memoir of Clarke's own research -- "The Making of Looking at Lovemaking," so to speak -- as well as brief histories of the scholarship on Roman erotica.

The Introduction (pp. 11-15) introduces the world of Roman sexuality as one strikingly different from our own, then sounds some of the themes that will dominate the following 8 chapters. The first, "Every home must have one" (pp. 19-35), is perhaps closest to Looking at Lovemaking in content, with its emphasis on understanding where and why erotic art was displayed by members of various social classes, illustrated through the erotic frescoes in the luxurious "Villa under the Farnesina" at Rome and in the less exalted home of Caecilius Iucundus at Pompeii. In "Woman on top: Women's liberation in the first century A.D." (pp. 39-57), Clarke introduces the reader to the relative freedom and power of Roman women with respect to Greek, illustrating the difference through a pair of mirror-covers; then he presents the frescoes in the Room of the Mysteries as relating to real Dionysiac mysteries (but does not convince me that they in any way reflect the "liberation" of women). "Sex in whorehouses, sex on stage" (pp. 60-75) contrasts the erotic paintings discovered in the Great Lupanar of Pompeii -- sexual art in a sexual business enterprise -- with those in the Inn on the Street of Mercury (showing sexual "acrobats") and in the House of the Restaurant -- sexual art outside sexual premises. Clarke might want to take into account the evidence of Ulpian in the Digest to the effect that "many respectable persons have brothels in their home" (

"Gay sex in bi and straight company" (pp. 78-92) begins with the Warren Cup (Clarke gave it its name), which is authenticated as ancient by comparison with the iconography of man-boy sex on other objects; then Clarke goes on to argue that it shows something rarely seen elsewhere, sex between two adult male equals. My own interpretation will appear elsewhere; we both agree, however, that the object is evidence for something like a "gay" male subculture. "The opposite of sex: How to keep away the evil eye" (pp. 97-112) is, of course, about phallic amulets but also about images of Priapus. "Laughing at taboo sex in the Suburban Baths" (pp. 116-132) surveys the paintings from those Baths, which once depicted some sixteen different sexual practices; only eight survive, but some of them are of vital importance for illustrating what our literary sources state or imply about sex between women. "New sexual imagery from Roman France" (pp. 136-155) discusses a wide variety of sexual images on ceramics (both bowls and medallions) from the valley of the Rhone. The Conclusion, "Sex before Puritan guilt" (pp. 157-162), attempts a summing up of Roman attitudes toward sex and its depiction.

Clarke is an acknowledged expert on Roman erotic art. The view of Roman sexuality that he presents can be said in general to represent the current constructionist orthodoxy, where Roman sexuality is an utterly foreign landscape -- a far cry from the views of Housman, who noted that some of its underlying principles were thoroughly familiar to the Sicilians and Neapolitans of his own day (and no doubt they still are, as they were 25 years ago). On the other hand, he is clearly not averse to using words like "gay" and "bi," which might be denounced as an essentialist fallacy by some but seems to me unobjectionable in a "popular" work of this kind.

Since this is clearly a popularizing work, which cannot afford to lose the bigger picture in the contemplation of minor details, there is little point in dwelling on various errors and imprecisions. When views that I regard as erroneous are presented, they tend to agree with an erroneous orthodoxy, but occasionally they are Clarke's own; for example, he defines the widely misunderstood term exoleti as "men with large penises" rather than as grown-up pueri delicati, and says that no-one has explained the graffito "hanc ego cacavi" that is associated with the large phallus on p. 99 -- but Housman explained it years ago in Praefanda. Latin expressions quoted from paintings or ceramics are sometimes mistranslated; for example, I would take "Lente impelle" as "Use gentle strokes" rather than "Put it in slowly" (p. 154), and "Volvi me" cannot mean "Turn to me" (p. 141). Approaching the book as a reflection of serious scholarship, one has the strong impression that there is a pressing need now for a proper synthesis of both the philological and the material evidence for Roman sexuality instead of the separation that still prevails.

To illustrate this point, as well as some of the complexities and obscurities that surround the subject, I call attention to Clarke's interpretation of an agate gemstone in Leiden (discussed on p. 92, illustrated in fig. 62). It contains a depiction of a sexual act (two persons lie prone on a couch, one atop the other, with a substantial set of male genitalia visible beneath the "bottom"); above this, introduced by "Pardala" (Clarke translates "Leopard," but the name Pardalas is attested elsewhere), is a salutation, "Pardalas, drink, luxuriate, embrace: you must die, for time is brief," while below it, introduced by "Akhaii," is the single word ζήσαις, "live!" (Literary sources tell us that this is what was said when someone drained a cup of wine in a single gulp -- and that it was grammatically incorrect in using the aorist instead of the present tense.) Clarke interprets this as "an unusually sexy image of two [adult] men copulating" that "insists on a kind of reciprocal sex between two men that went counter to the usual artistic and literary constructions of the time" because the "bottom" is depicted with an erect penis. Certainly the muscular legs and short hair suggest a pair of males, and yet -- . Clarke wants the two names to refer to the same person, and so translates "Akhaii" as "O Greek," but this is impossible, because it must come from a feminine proper name Akhaiis. The fact that both a man and a woman are addressed by name seems to suggest that the gem really commemorates the "heterosexual" couple, Pardalas and Akhaiis. But where is Akhaiis in this apparent pair of men? Clarke makes no reference to the evident fact that the "top" has a substantial pectoral bulge exactly where one would expect to see a woman's breasts protrude, and it cannot be explained as an attempt to include the left shoulder. While certainty seems elusive, visual and philological evidence may combine to suggest that we have a pair of women, one of whom (the "top") has taken a male name and uses an artificial set of male genitalia, just like "Megillos" in Lucian, Dialogues of the Courtesans 5 -- or that we have a woman as "top" and a man as "bottom" in the kind of scenario described by Seneca at Ep. 95.21. Art history can answer some questions, philology can answer others: but both are needed for complete understanding even to begin.

The book is rounded out with a glossary and suggestions for further reading, as well as an index and a list of illustrations.

Read Latest
Index for 2004
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:29:01, Friday, 03 April 2009