BMCR 2021.05.37

Painting, poetry, and the invention of tenderness in the early Roman Empire

, Painting, poetry, and the invention of tenderness in the early Roman Empire. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xviii, 247. ISBN 9781108835411. $99.99.


In this lucidly written, highly engaging book, Valladares traces a Roman evolution of what she perceives to have been an unprecedented kind of desire. This desire looks nothing like the sexually explicit scenes found on Athenian vases or on the walls of Pompeian brothels, imagery that has shocked modern sensibilities and attracted much scholarly attention over the years. Valladares’ subject is not sex, but love; not eroticism, but tenderness. Few would describe the Romans, a people whose foundation stories centre on rape, as tender; even fewer would claim that tenderness was a Roman invention. The book’s bold premise is backed up by close, comparative and contextual readings of carefully chosen case studies from Latin love elegy and Roman and Campanian wall painting. Valladares situates her findings within the history of scholarship on ancient sexuality (4-8), but they should also be seen as an invaluable contribution to the study of ancient emotions.[1]

In the absence of a Latin lexical equivalent, Valladares locates a model for Roman tenderness in Barthes’ tendresse, which he defines as an ‘infinite, insatiable metonymy’.[2] This tenderness, Valladares elaborates, works by ‘presaging erotic pleasure while simultaneously delaying and translating it into a series of signs’ (3). The book’s strongly structuralist framework is reinforced by a solid historical approach. The thrust of the argument is made crystal clear from the outset: amatory tenderness arose in Latin love elegy as a countercultural reaction to Augustan marriage laws. These laws, involving the restriction of extramarital affairs and the obligation for citizens to marry and procreate, took control of the domus away from the elite, thereby threatening their status and identity. The elegists used love as a ‘semantic device’ (23), developing an ‘alternate ethical code’ (20) that resisted Augustus’ marital reforms by infusing illicit heterosexual liaisons with the language of the domus—for Valladares, here and passim, domestication denotes tenderness. A little later, amatory scenes started showing up on the walls of houses in Rome and along the Bay of Naples. These scenes depicted lovers displaying a tenderness (domesticity) that had been privileged by the love elegists, but unlike poetic tenderness, pictorial tenderness did not signify resistance: ‘the elegists’ countercultural romantic fantasy was quickly deradicalized and incorporated into a conservative familial ideology’ (28).

The bulk of the introduction sets the scene for the birth of love elegy, telling familiar tales of Rome’s Hellenisation and the consequent shift in elite Roman mentality away from public and collective duties (negotium) towards private and personal pursuits (otium). It then homes in on the elegists’ pointed fusion of domus and amor, beginning with its more playful formulation in Catullus 68 before unpacking its politicisation (sometimes overt, sometimes more subtle) in the poetics of Propertius. What emerged was a Roman ‘amatory code’ that, according to Valladares, infiltrated love elegy’s elite readership before eventually manifesting on its walls. This process is aligned with Luhmann’s account of a ‘codification of intimacy’ in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, where amour-passion was the uncontrollable bane of the elite until its polemical portrayal in early-modern novels was consumed and subsumed by elite culture, resulting in a love-based marriage system that has carried over into the present day.[3] Valladares’ proposal of a Roman precedent for this phenomenon, if correct, could have major ramifications for interpretations of the ancient Greek novel, a genre often considered the origin of the heterosexual romance.[4]

After an introduction that has literature do the heavy lifting, it is refreshing to find art dictating the pace in the three chapters that follow. The trajectory of each chapter is chronological and geographical, ranging from Rome in the late first century BCE to pre-79 CE Naples. Valladares’ semiotic approach to visual analysis is surprisingly sensitive; her acute attention to the temporality of scenarios, wherein subtle details reveal lovers to be at different stages of intimacy, is particularly impressive.

Chapter 1 interrogates the archaeology, history and iconography of frescoes from cubicula B and D in the Villa della Farnesina in Rome. Valladares makes some astute connections between painted and elegiac bedroom scenes, before pinpointing the frescoes’ domestication of mythological imagery as intrinsic to the incorporation of tenderness into the elite Roman domus. The rest of the chapter tracks down the sophisticated spread and eventual banalisation of this new amatory ideal, exemplified by frescoes of down-to-earth mythological lovers from the Houses of Caecilius Jucundus and Lucretius Fronto in Pompeii.

Myth continues to take centre stage in the remaining chapters. Chapter 2 focusses on tender representations of Polyphemus. As before, tenderness is cultivated through domestication. In his elegiacally charged Eclogue 2, Virgil transforms the hirsute cyclops of Homer and Theocritus into the unprecedentedly human shape of the shepherd Corydon. This physical makeover is paralleled in Polyphemus’ youthful (albeit still gigantic and three-eyed!) portrayal in the Villa of Livia on the Palatine. The multiple pictorial renderings of Polyphemus and Galatea that crop up across Campania attest to a Roman penchant for the myth. In these renderings, the relationship between cyclops and nymph becomes increasingly sentimental and, in a few cases, close to or actually reciprocal. Each example is expertly situated in its original context, and interpretations are bolstered by visual comparison with frescoes displayed in the same room that depict other, similarly humanised and romanticised, mythological couples.

Chapter 3 turns to the ‘tender interior’ of Medea, specifically the Roman reception of Timomachus’ renowned (now lost) painting of the heroine contemplating the murder of her children. Valladares addresses the intensely emotional focus of responses to the painting in imperial Greek ecphrastic epigrams, which variously rebuke, shudder and marvel at Timomachus’ ability to express Medea’s turbulent feelings. The epigrams locate this ability explicitly in the painter’s physiognomical representation of Medea’s face and eyes, more implicitly in his decision not to depict the infanticide; the heroine’s sword and the presence of her children are to be understood as ‘symbolic displacements’ (151) akin to the ‘metaphorical displacements’ (4) of Barthesian amatory tenderness. Valladares moves on to conduct consummate analyses of Medea’s tender domestication in Ovid Heroides 12 and in frescoes from the Houses of Jason and the Dioscuri in Pompeii, regarding the poem’s reduction of the narrative to a fixed moment as analogous to the ‘pregnant moment’[5] captured in the paintings (152)—a fascinating and compelling notion.

In the epilogue, Valladares fast forwards slightly to the late first century CE, where she announces that amatory tenderness has become fully integrated into mainstream elite culture. This integration is primarily evidenced by the conflation of marriage and romance in the Younger Pliny’s letter to his wife Calpurnia (Ep. 7.5) and the touching iconography and unusually long inscription on the Pedana altar, a funerary monument commemorating a husband’s love for his deceased wife. The book culminates with content no less rich, and discussion no less rewarding, than the case studies that constitute its core.

I have three main queries, pertaining to textual, cultural and disciplinary remits. The book’s very first reference—about Livy’s injection of romance into his rendition of the rape of the Sabines (Liv. 1.9) as ‘reflective of the Augustan interest in a tender amatory ideal’—seems too important to be relegated to an endnote, and left me wondering whether the beginnings of Roman amatory tenderness were as staunchly countercultural as Valladares suggests. The second question concerns Romanisation. In her introduction, Valladares acknowledges the Hellenistic legacy of Roman and Campanian wall painting, before arguing (following Hölscher) for a ‘deeply Roman’ semanticisation of Greek forms (8-9).[6] The Greek-becomes-Roman formula risks underplaying the interplay between Greekness and Romanness that in many ways shaped imperial Roman culture, especially the culture of Naples with its strong Greek heritage. As Valladares repeatedly notes, it was the Hellenistic poet Theocritus who first characterised Polyphemus as a lovelorn softy and whose influence is clearly felt in later representations of the cyclops, both literary and visual (85, 87, 94, 98, 103, 105-6). Theocritus’ Polyphemus may look less human than his Roman counterparts, but does that make his love any less tender? Does domestication necessarily equal or result in tenderness?

Polyphemus and Galatea
Polyphemus and Galatea. Fresco from room 18, House of the Hunt, Pompeii (VII 4, 48), 71-79 CE.

This brings me to the issue of definition. Barthes imbues his tendresse with an erotic edge that its English equivalent lacks. The delay or displacement of sexual pleasure suggests not tenderness, but rather longing, or even titillation. In her characteristically sharp analysis of lovers in the Villa della Farnesina frescoes, Valladares states that ‘although sex is clearly the expected result of their interaction, it is demurely and tantalizingly kept from our view’ (40-1). She later describes Galatea giving Polyphemus a ‘Hollywood-style kiss’ (133) in the House of the Ancient Hunt fresco.

What is more, their naked bodies are pressed close together, and Polyphemus’ left palm is planted on Galatea’s upper buttock. There is a reason that this fresco was placed in the Secret Cabinet of Naples’ Archaeological Museum: the bodily positioning of the figures is geared towards full-on passion. This observation does not deny the fresco its tenderness, but it does strike up a more intimate conversation between Valladares’ research and the work on ancient sexuality that precedes it.[7]

 None of the above diminishes the brilliance of this book. Via the concept of tenderness, Valladares has managed to reframe familiar mythological faces in such a way as to add nuance to our understanding of their Roman representation. By mapping out a mutually reinforcing yet ultimately independent relationship between literature and art, Valladares has also allowed pictures to speak as loudly as words in the transformation of Roman culture, offering a welcome alternative to the echo chamber of the intermedial paragonē.

The book contains ten coloured plates and is replete with black-and-white photographs, all sizeable and of excellent quality. Endnotes are concise, typos are minimal, the index is neat and easily navigable, and English translations accompany quotations of modern as well as ancient languages.


[1] E.g. Chaniotis, A. and Ducrey, P. (eds.) (2013) Unveiling Emotions II. Emotions in Greece and Rome: Texts, Images, Material Culture, Stuttgart;  von Ehrenheim, H. and Prusac-Lindhagen, M. (eds.) (2020) Reading Roman Emotions: Visual and Textual Interpretations, ECSI.

[2] Barthes, R. (1978) A Lover’s DiscourseFragments (trans. Richard Howard), New York: 224.

[3] Luhmann, N. (1998) Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (trans. J. Gaines and D. L. Jones), Stanford.

[4] See e.g. Morales, H. (2008) ‘The history of sexuality’, in Whitmarsh, T. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel, Cambridge: 39-55.

[5] See Bergmann, B. (1996) ‘The Pregnant Moment: Tragic Wives in the Roman Interior’, in Kampen, N. (ed.) Sexuality in Ancient Art, Cambridge: 199-219.

[6] Hölscher, T. (2004) The Language of Images in Roman Art (trans. A. Künzl-Snodgrass), Cambridge.

[7] On this note, Valladares discusses Brendel, O. J. (1970) ‘The Scope and Temperament of Erotic Art in the Greco-Roman World’ (in Bowie, T. and Christenson, C. V. (eds.) Studies in Erotic Art, New York: 3-69) and Clarke, J. (1998) Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 BC-AD 250, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London as her immediate predecessors, but ancient sexuality studies have changed a lot in the last two decades. For just one example, see Vout, C. (2013) Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome, London. Vout, like Valladares, takes care to differentiate between what is ‘represented’ in erotic art and what is ‘merely suggested’ (22).