BMCR 2021.08.18

Un-Roman sex: gender, sexuality, and lovemaking in the Roman provinces and frontiers

, , Un-Roman sex: gender, sexuality, and lovemaking in the Roman provinces and frontiers. Routledge monographs in classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. xiv, 380. ISBN 9781138284029 $155.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Over recent decades, interest in gender and sex in Roman art has continued to expand, yet has largely focused on Roman Italy, particularly Pompeii and Herculaneum. Un-Roman Sex: gender, sexuality, and lovemaking in the Roman provinces and frontiers is a necessary addition to the growing scholarship on the study of Roman erotic art, filling in a massive lacuna by focusing on Roman provinces and frontiers in the early centuries of the Empire. As is made abundantly clear throughout the volume, the Roman world was not a homogenous culture, but rather a complex and ever-changing one. This volume greatly contributes to current studies not only in the Roman world, but also in the history of gender and sexuality.

The volume is organized into three sections that focus on sex, femininity, and masculinity. The editors admit one major problem with this organization is the emphasis it places on the binary gender and sex division, although the possibility of a third gender or gender-deviant behavior appears repeatedly throughout the volume. Additionally, the use of question marks and parentheses within these titles suggest to the reader that perhaps such divisions are not so concrete. The authors also (rightfully) acknowledge the significance of this language in discussions on sex and genitals, particularly when used within the scholarly community. By separating the book into these three sections, they do so with the intention of dispelling the typical understanding that “‘gender’ equals women and that sexually tinted imagery is to be considered iconographically pornographic” (9). Indeed, as Tatiana Ivleva and Rob Collins mention in their introductory chapter, one of the strengths of this volume is that the chapters speak to each other in a myriad of ways, not always within the confines of the sections into which they are organized. One of the benefits of this type of volume, which includes a variety of approaches and disciplines, is that a number of other ideas are integrated into the chapters. Such examples include references to the “Romanization” debate (Stemberger), gender performance (Crook), or how language impacts our understanding of the visual and material culture (several authors).

In addition to the plethora of new research it adds to Roman scholarship, the biggest strength of the volume is the clarity of its organization, illustrations, and writing. It is organized for both quick, summary reading and thorough, careful reading. Each chapter, as well as the book as a whole, has labeled introductions and conclusions. Maps, tables, and illustrations are clearly captioned and easy to read without needing a longer explanation from the text. At the same time, the components of each chapter are thoroughly researched and include all the data available at time of publication for each respective topic, allowing the reader to learn about the full scope of current research through the text and appendices. Likewise, all authors and editors should be commended for such clear and concise writing; at no point is the text muddled or longwinded. In fact, the volume was a pleasure to read from beginning to end.

Un-Roman Sex will be of value to scholars at all levels and with varying research needs. In Chapter 1, the introductory chapter, Ivleva and Collins provide a thorough review of the scholarship on gender and sexuality in the Roman world over the last half-century, which is largely part of Classical studies, rather than archaeology. This discussion is continued in Levin-Richardson’s concluding chapter, in which she focuses on the Priapic paradigm presented by Amy Richlin in 1983[1] and the recent scholarship that expands upon and challenges it.

The first section of the book, Part I: Seeing (beyond) sex, focuses on objects that relate to sex in both its meanings—action and body. All three articles focus on Roman Britain and the northwestern part of the Continent. In Chapter 2, John Pearce helps ground the entire volume in the fluidity and ambiguity of interpretation of depictions of sexual intercourse, exploring the depiction of sexual imagery on knife handles from northwestern Europe. Significantly, Pearce also takes viewership into consideration, discussing in what contexts the knife handles might have been used, who may have seen them, and how the gaze factors in (both with the viewer/handler of the knife and the figures in the scene). In the following chapter, Matthew G. Fittock explores the similarities of Venus pipeclay figurines in Roman Britain and Gaul, suggesting these “provincialized” versions were more likely associated with fertility and/or protection than with love and sex, as their Classical counterparts usually are. In the last chapter of this section, Adam Parker studies the phallic and vulvate imagery present in Roman Britain. Like the rest of the Roman world, these images were protective in nature. However, Parker also looks at the interactions with the viewer. He considers gender and age of the user, as well as how material, sound, touch, and other aspects impact the objects and their use.

In Part II: “Representations and performance of the feminine (or is it?),” the authors look at three very different topics related to women. In Chapter 5, Stefanie Hoss takes a thorough look at how representations of female genitalia differed from male genitalia in the Roman Mediterranean and northwest, as well as how these depictions functioned. Additionally, she provides an overview of basic Roman ideas relevant to this discussion, such as apotropaia and the taboo, and a summary of the evolution of sexual art in the Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. This article is a required source for any scholar studying vulvate imagery, an understudied topic. In her chapter, Robyn Crook pivots to the manifestation of gender and sexuality in the literary and material records in Roman Britain. She focuses primarily on textual rather than visual evidence, although the incorporation of archaeological evidence allows for a much more diverse wealth of data. Using source material like the Vindolanda tablets, Crook uncovers the perspectives of those outside the typical elite male Roman writer. In the concluding chapter of Part II, Kaja Stemberger turns to Slovenia, examining the burial evidence from Colonia Iulia Emona (modern Ljubljana) and Colonia Ulpia Traiana Poetovio (modern Ptuj) to explore how dress could express various identities. She also brings up an important point about how language can be a barrier for archaeological methods, discussing how archaeologists outside of Slovenia do not always fully understand terms commonly used in Slovenian archaeology.

Part III: “The stuff of ‘man’” is appropriately named, since it covers several topics related to men.  Tatiana Ivleva investigates masculinity and homosexual relationships among Roman soldiers in the Roman northwest using mainly visual and epigraphical evidence from gravemarkers. She suggests that the Priapic paradigm, which creates a gender hierarchy based on active or passive roles in sex (i.e., penetration), is not as simple as it is typically considered to be, and instead allows for various types of masculinity. Additionally, she convincingly shows that as long as behaviors that ran counter to the Roman ideal, such as same-sex relationships or Roman soldiers who had “wives” and families, were not publicly acknowledged, they were tolerated. Both Chapters 9 and 10 explore different aspects of phallic imagery in the Roman world. Rob Collins catalogues known representations of (erect) phalli on Hadrian’s Wall, creating a helpful typology that is easily applicable to other regions. Alissa M. Whitmore explores the function of flaccid phallus pendants made in the materials of glazed composition (such as faience) from the Mediterranean and eastern part of the Roman world, most of which come from grave contexts. The material itself seems to have lent the image its magical power, because Egyptian and Phoenician cultures were associated with magic. It seems likely the flaccid phalli had an apotropaic function, but may have also been associated with fertility or virility in certain contexts (such as when boys wore them as amulets). Flaccid phalli are another little-studied topic and like Hoss’s article, this is a welcome addition to scholarship on depictions of human genitalia. It also complements Chapters 4, 5, and 9 well, providing a discussion on phalli in another part of the Roman world.

Sarah Levin-Richardson concludes the volume with a shorter chapter that bookends the ensemble wonderfully. She builds upon the previous scholarship presented in Chapter 1 and highlights connections between the articles that readers may have missed.

The book is amply illustrated with black and white photographs, drawings, diagrams, tables, and maps. One minor problem is that some of the maps seem to have originally been in color, then printed in grayscale for the publication. This makes several of them difficult to read, but it is not so bad that one cannot read the information. Four color plates are also included at the end and the index is comprehensive.

This volume is intended for a scholarly audience, especially one with a comprehensive background in Classical studies. Almost all chapters assume an understanding of Roman gender constructs and a familiarity with the literature outlined in Chapter 1. There are a considerable number of Latin words and phrases employed without translation throughout the book, which will make some portions of the reading inaccessible to readers without a Latin background or dictionary. Although many of these are single words, used for specific Roman contexts, not all are common knowledge for everyone. Undergraduates may find it difficult to follow some of the material, as well as scholars coming from outside the fields of archaeology or Classics.

One major drawback to the volume is that it almost exclusively focuses on Roman Britain and the northwest regions of the Roman world. Only Slovenia and the northeast (Near East and Black Sea) appear outside this area as the focus of two chapters. For a book that intended to focus on “Roman provinces and the frontiers,” many of them are missing from the discussion. However, this volume should not be seen as a comprehensive look at sexual imagery in the provinces, nor did the authors intend this to be the case. In fact, they make a point to emphasize the need for more research on the Roman provinces. At the very least, by recognizing the cultural differences in the provinces and frontiers that appear in the archaeological record, this volume challenges scholars to broaden their research, encouraging investigation in largely understudied areas.

Pleasantly aligning with the function of the objects discussed in the book, the reader is also able to avert the Evil Eye while reading it! Collins’s use of “flippant and colloquial terminology” for his typology will make you laugh out loud. The puns sprinkled throughout his chapter and several others add a bit of levity to the rigorous scholarship. In another connection between our modern world and antiquity, Hoss and Collins both conducted their own experimental archaeology that not only helped support their research, but also serve to connect us to the individuals who made and used these objects so many years ago.

Un-Roman Sex is a must-read for any scholar of the Roman period, as well as for anyone studying gender, sex, or the body in history. This important volume not only adds to our understanding of the larger Roman world, but also reminds us that Roman culture did not develop exclusively in Italy. There was constant exchange between the center and periphery of the Roman Empire, which resulted in a great amount of diversity in the material record throughout it.

Table of Contents

1: Tatiana Ivleva and Rob Collins, “Venus’ mirror: Reflections of gender and sexuality in the Roman Empire,” 1-21
Part I: Seeing (beyond) sex
2: John Pearce, “On a knife-edge: an image of sex and spectacle from Roman north-west Europe,” 25-53
3: Matthew G. Fittock, “More than just love and sex: Venus figurines in Roman Britain,” 54-89
4: Adam Parker, “His and hers: Magic, materiality, and sexual imagery,” 90-113
Part II: Representations and performance of the feminine (or is it?)
5: Stefanie Hoss, “Barbie-bodies and coffee beans: Female genital imagery in the Mediterranean and the north-west provinces of the Roman Empire,” 117-182
6: Robyn Crook, “Female status and gender on the Roman frontier in Britain: Between representation and reality,” 183-209
7: Kaja Stemberger, “Dressed for death? A study of female-associated burials from Roman-period Solvenia,” 210-237
Part III: The stuff of “man”
8: Tatiana Ivleva, “Coming out of the provincial closet: Masculinity, sexuality, and same-sex sexual relations amongst Roman soldiers in the European north-west, first-third centuries AD,” 241-273
9: Rob Collins, “The phallus and the frontier: The form and function of phallic imagery along Hadrian’s wall,” 274-309
10: Alissa M. Whitmore, “Egyptian faience flaccid phallus pendants in the Mediterranean, Near East, and Black Sea regions,” 310-345
11: Sarah Levin-Richardson, “Roman and un-Roman sex,” 346-359


[1] Richlin, Amy. 1992 (1983). The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor. Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press.