BMCR 1998.08.12

Looking at Lovemaking. Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C. to A.D. 250


From the title, the glossy pages, and the copious illustrations in both color and black and white photographs, it would be understandable if one assumed that this was another book on erotic art, even though the name of the press, the highly orthodox University of California, might give one pause. However, from the opening pages of his Introduction, Clarke makes clear that he has written a book of scholarship that should be sharply distinguished from the erotic collections of Roman art by such people as Jean Marcadé. And his purpose is to draw a sharp antithesis between modern responses to depictions of sexual intercourse and what he intends to show about the ancient Roman responses. Ever since the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum began in the 18th century, the many wall paintings of erotic content that the excavators discovered were at first either destroyed on site as disgusting or they were detached, usually in a clumsy fashion that doomed them to cracking and fading, and ultimately locked up in the Pornographic Collection of the Naples Archaeological Museum. Later, excavators were able to preserve them on the walls of the buildings in which they were found, e.g., the House of the Vettii of the 1890’s. Still, modern viewers do not look at depictions of Roman lovemaking, C. maintains, even where we have much of the ancient context preserved, as do the Romans who ordered the scenes from painters, chose where they wanted to display them, and freely offered them to the eyes of all members of their family, to their clients and friends, and happily entertained in front of what we consider pornography.

In order to establish the difference strikingly from our expectations and modern ideas about pornography, C. chooses some especially bland technical vocabulary. Rejecting all the terminology of erotica, he establishes “love-making” as his word for varieties of scenes of sexual involvement. He rejects terms like “heterosexual” (preferring “male-female”) and “homosexual” (“male-male” almost exclusively). Then, he treats each scene or object not as intended for our titillation, but exclusively as painted or composed in Roman times for a Roman audience that has long since eluded us. But he works industriously to revive that ancient set of lookers, frankly asking the following questions: “Who made it? (artist); when was it created? (date); who paid for it? (patronage); who looked at it? (intended audience); where did people look at it? (physical context); under what circumstances did people look at it? (use and purpose of object); what else does it look like? (iconographic models).” (p. 11)

I suggest that this is a welcome change, not only because C. uses scholarship intelligently on material that has often been withheld from our view, but also because this stuff is really pretty tame when compared to the well-preserved modern art of Rowlandson, Beardsley, Grosz, Picasso and numerous others, to say nothing of the mass of porno films that are readily available today.

I worked hard to discern the intricacies of the Roman lovemaking that C. offers us in color and black and white, and for a large number of them it wasn’t worth the effort: the pictures were too damaged to offer much, and my imagination was not engaged. So, even though this book is a steal at this beautiful price of $39.95, it isn’t going to reward its enterprising purchaser with much erotic excitement. Caveat emptor.

Once we abandon the hope of excitement, though, C. can offer us a great deal of interest. He has lots of ideas about the ways in which love was made in Classical times; he has covered the field with admirable thoroughness; and he offers some refreshing insights into the ways in which explicit love making on artistic objects functioned as a very pleasant but ordinary part of everyday life at all stages of Roman society. He has studied materials that have only recently been excavated: the Suburban Baths of Pompeii, which yielded in a dressing room seven quite unusual pictures of lovemaking, or the fragmentary glass dish which the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired in 1995. Except for the absolute expert in this topic, most readers will encounter new objects and a significant new interpretation.

C. has written eight substantial chapters in addition to an Introduction and Conclusions. The first two lead up to the Romans: a general theoretical discussion of The Cultural Construction of Sexuality and then a rapid review of Greek and Hellenistic Constructions of Lovemaking. I have already mentioned his proclamation of neutral terminology and methodology on p. 11. C. evokes the ideas of Foucault, disavows an interest in comparative anthropology for this study, and then remarks on the significantly different data we derive from Roman literature about lovemaking and from the visual arts. That means that he will not try to explicate the scenes by means of select quotations from Latin literature.

As for Greek and Hellenistic lovemaking, they offer some iconographic models, but also show limits of experiment which later Roman artists and patrons boldly overstepped. C. challenges Kenneth Dover on his view of the mechanics of male-male sex (pp. 20-21). According to Dover, the preferred way of male-male intercourse was what he calls “intercrural.” C. regards this conclusion as most unlikely, and he treats all those pictures of a handsome young man standing between the legs of an older admirer as simply a very useful way for Greek artists to depict the older and younger man, not in intercourse. As he says, “Dover, in short, makes the common mistake of taking artistic representation as documentation of historical act.” So much for intercrural sex.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 focus on the times of Augustus and Tiberius, specifically 27 B.C to A.D. 30. Here, C. is dealing primarily with materials that have no archaeological context, though they are datable. So some of his listed questions cannot be asked. But he assumes plausibly that cups of silver and expensive items of glass were purchased, owned and used by wealthy patrons, whereas the mass-produced Arretine pottery was valued but affordable by middle and lower class owners. In Chapter 3, he reviews the depiction of male-male lovemaking, and in Chapter 4 the representation of male-female love making. What emerges is the clear fact that scenes of lovemaking were every where available for owners of every social status, and were in use. People drank from cups that showed intercourse of single pairs or pairs of male-male alternating with male-female; and they ate from dishes that showed similar scenes. It was not a hidden pleasure, one that men shared with select friends; on the contrary, men, women, and children looked idly or fixedly at this love making as they dined and drank. And no doubt, as later at Pompeii and Herculaneum, they had large pictures on the same subject to view on the walls. Far from being pornography, this art was a regular aspect of daily life.

One villa in Rome from the time of Augustus did survive, for excavators to discover in 1879, when the great embankment along the Tiber was being built to end the danger of recurring floods. This villa, named at the time the Farnesina, had to be destroyed, but much of its decoration, stucco, wall paintings, etc. was preserved as best as possible; and it is dated generally to about 20 B.C., and often connected with Agrippa and Julia, who were married then. In any case, it was the home of wealthy people, and so its decorations, which include pictures of restrained lovemaking, offer precious material to C. There was a series of rooms, which archaeologists misleadingly call cubicula, as though their single function was to provide a bedroom. In the 19th century, it was a standard deduction for scholars to assume that a picture of lovemaking in a cubiculum was absolute proof that lovemaking was the main activity of the room. C. helps us to know better today. In the Farnesina, the pictures of lovemaking (such as it was) were minor elements of the wall decoration. There was a principal picture in white, of a stately deity; it was bordered on each side by a wide band of black, then a pair of painted candelabras against a black background. Above the candelabras, hardly one-fifth the size of the main picture, were two versions of love-making. Of the pictures that were detached and murkily preserved, all show a couple on a bed, but no sexual intercourse is occurring. In most of the pictures, the woman is fully clothed; in one she is bare-breasted. In three, she is kissing or embracing the man. No genitalia are visible. If this is lovemaking, then, it is a decorous preliminary to the real thing. And I find myself skeptical about C.’s attempts to draw parallels with the more obvious scenes of contemporary Arretine ware and of later Campanian art. These Farnesina pictures were too minor in the total decoration and too restrained in representation to fit our otherwise generous picture of Roman openness to the pleasures of lovemaking.

Chapter 5 takes up the interest the Romans had in representing the sexuality of exotic types. The Hellenistic Greeks had been fascinated with pygmies; the Romans frequently depicted on mosaics black slaves who were, like Petronius’ Ascyltos, macrophallic. Since these slaves are never shown making love, it is a fair question whether C. should have bothered to revise an article earlier published and regale us with their not very interesting anatomies. Of course, he is trying to argue that these macrophallic specimens had some apotropaic value for the Romans. They have none for us, and, thank God, they aren’t making love with anybody.

That brings us to Chapters 6 and 7, which allow us to sample the rich lovemaking remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum, now at last able to ask all the questions of p. 11 and to offer at least some answers. Chapter 6 limits itself to private houses, and Chapter 7 deals with public buildings, from taverns and whore houses to baths. C. immediately sets out in the private houses to challenge the 19th century assumption that every scene of lovemaking defined its room as one in which love was regularly made and the picture provided a desired erotic stimulus and backdrop. Taking one house after another, he shows that the room-arrangement meant that these so-called “cubicula” with their pictures were in fact ordinary rooms for conversation, business, casual drinking, for both sexes and their friends. Therefore, the picture of lovemaking is no more specific to the use of the room or the attitude of the viewers than a cubist picture of Picasso or a De Koening on the wall of a private collection today. What C. chooses to emphasize is that such pictures “spell ‘luxury,’ not ‘lust’.” (p.162) That may possibly be true, but the alliteration does not exclude all the possibilities.

In the first place, we need to know where this particular luxurious taste came from. C. implies that its origin is the wealthy and aristocratic, the homes of recognized status. But he shows us only one such, if it is, the House of the Centenary. Of more than 50 rooms in this colossal spread, only one has a painting of lovemaking. Does that make it a status symbol for others whose wealth is new and questionable? C. talks patronizingly about the way rich freedmen misused this status symbol, placing it more ostentatiously than the true aristocrat or utterly confounding the pattern, like the Vettii, who gave their cook for some reason a set of cheap erotic paintings. But he doesn’t prove to me that the alternative to lust is luxury. What about simple pleasure or variety? When you come down to it, in the second place, how common were these lovemaking scenes? Could the influence have spread up from freedmen and nouveaux riches to the few aristocrats? When you look at the color photos of the lovemaking scenes from the house of the supposed freedman L. Caecilius Iucundus, a rich banker, and then of the unknown but immensely wealthy owner of the House of the Centenary, there is not a lot of difference in the art the two men bought or, I suspect, in the way each used it and it was viewed in their respective domains.

The public display of erotica (Chapter 7) invites us into a “lupanar” (whore house) and a “caupona” (bar), before taking us to the new pictures in the dressing room of the Suburban Baths of Pompeii. The “lupanar”, which was cleverly situated at a fork in the road of Pompeii, had five tiny rooms for love downstairs and five upstairs. Over the entrance to each cubicle downstairs was a picture of love making. `Although the graffiti on the walls bear testimony to the crude quality of the love to be had there, the pictures are, as C. suggests, an elaborate fantasy: they show an ample bed, with fine covers and pillows, and seem to promise a delightful and comfortable “fuck”, which surely was not the case. The “caupona” had a sitting area near its bar, and its wall had some ordinary scenes of daily life framed at the ends by pictures of lovemaking. The only one C. shows and discusses at length is what he calls a scene of “sexual acrobatics”, which presumably amused more than it aroused the clientele. It is lovemaking as funny, as the erotica of Beardsley regularly were, that C. emphasizes as he takes us to the dressing room of the Baths.

It is important to realize that at separate times men, then women, used this single dressing room. As they stripped, they looked up on the side (south) wall, and high up they made out seven scenes, apparently arranged in climactic order, that depicted ever wilder kinds of love making. C. speculates that they were hilarious and that they had discernibly different messages for their male and female viewers. From two not unusual scenes of a woman riding a man and a woman in the forefront being clumsily approached from the rear by a man (according to C.), the eye moves to a picture of fellatio and one of cunnilingus.

The former is a common practice of prostitutes, but the latter tends to be a nono, we are told in literature, except for slaves. Maybe it was no less common in Roman days than nowadays, but who has the statistics? C. thinks that the next picture, which is barely legible, depicts two women making love; because that would be specially appropriate to the climax sought by the patron. Others think differently. Pictures six and seven show multiple sex: two men and a women together in 6; two men and two women at it in 7. They are certainly conversational pieces, even if the dressers didn’t erupt in laughter, as C. imagines. The sequence then ends with a naked male, who has monstrously enlarged testicles, but seems oblivious to his condition as he reads a book roll. It certainly is a scene of incongruity, and C. takes it as meant to mock poets. It may be that the proofreader was distracted by the novelties here, for more than half the typos of the volume appear in this single chapter.

The last chapter sweeps across almost two centuries after the disasters to Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79. It shows that what evidence we have proves that the Romans continued in their merry way with lovemaking in art and everyday ware, that they also carried their genial “mores” into the areas that they conquered and colonized. We can only guess at the reasons that led people in Gaul and elsewhere to adopt this material, but I am sure that status is not the only or the main reason. Here, a little comparative anthropology would in fact be relevant. C. ends up by taking us to a late decorated set of rooms at Ostia, which, apart from color schemes and background patterns, reveal nothing new about Roman constructions of sexuality.

The Conclusions, succinctly packed into 5 pages (275-79), re-assert the fact that Roman sexual acculturation differed markedly from ours; and the villain in the piece, which robbed us of a natural pleasure in lovemaking, was Christianity or, to be more accurate, Judaeo-Christianity. This strikes me as a tired and incomplete explanation, and I found it almost offensive when C. patronized the German August Mau as a Christian and Victorian gentleman. At least, he could have gotten his nationalities straight (p. 179). In any case, it is important to recognize with C. that the Romans were much more open about lovemaking in their readily available representations of male-female and male-male sex: men, women, and children viewed these scenes as an ordinary, curious, amusing part of life. I don’t think that C. has exhausted the subject as thoroughly as he seems to believe. When he asks his final rhetorical question: “Do we see what the ancient Roman viewer saw?” we may agree with him: “I hope this book shows that we do not.” However, he really has not said the last word on this topic, because it simply remains murky what in fact the Roman viewer saw and felt as s/he studied these objects and pictures. But C.’s is a valuable start on an intriguing subject.