The ancient Greco-Romans had a totally different attitude toward sex (so the minor or the puritanical shouldn’t read further.)
Suffice it to have a look at these statues, both beautiful and erotic, to intuitively grasp a sensuality that was open and entirely different from the Western manners of today.
The beauty and natural perfection of these bodies convey in fact the idea – a very simple idea, this very gifted Greek student I recently met would say – that sex wasn’t perceived as lewd or licentious; it was instead felt as one of the joys of life:
It is so simple:
as simple (and beautiful)
as a Greek temple.
Sex was actually enjoyed naturally though in ways most contemporary folks wouldn’t even imagine, especially when we consider that these statues were somehow linked to rituals and religion.
Above we can admire the perfect classical beauty of Venus Kallipygos; below, the statue of a Satyr (which a female Roman friend chose among a set and assured me: ‘it is a pretty good erotic sample.’ Well, I couldn’t but yield to her superior discernment.)
Venus was the Goddess of love (both carnal and spiritual) while a Satyr was a Dionysian creature lover of wine, women and boys, and ready for every physical pleasure. Child satyrs existed also (which appears such a sad thing to us nowadays) and took part in Bacchanalian/Dionysian religious rituals, usually (or sometimes) involving orgies too.
At this point I’m sure every reader cannot but agree that the Greco-Romans had a VERY different attitude toward sex. No doubt about that. An ENTIRELY different attitude indeed.
If we could forget that these are classical statues, if we could regard them just as they appear to us and out of their context, we’d surely see them as pornographic.
According to the Wikipedia:
“the concept of pornography as understood today did not exist until the Victorian era. …When large scale excavations of Pompeii were undertaken in the 1860s, much of the erotic art of the Romans came to light, shocking the Victorians who saw themselves as the intellectual heirs of the Roman Empire. They did not know what to do with the frank depictions of sexuality, and endeavored to hide them away ….. The moveable objects were locked away in the Secret Museum in Naples, Italy.”
[For more on these Pompeii erotic artifacts: this post of ours; two other posts, 1 and 2, from Ancient Digger, the former showing a video on the erotic artifacts, the latter discussing Roman sexuality & erotic art; a BBC program on the secret museum. Further readings are listed at the bottom of the page]
Shocking Roman Sexuality
I do not quite agree with Wikipedia on how and when the modern concept of pornography was conceived, seeming this to me a totally Anglo-Saxon centred observation, forgetful of how history can be ancient.
I might be wrong (or right) but who the hell cares, chissenefrega, this whole Victorian thing being incredibly funny.
I can see these prudish Victorians feeling themselves as the heirs of the Romans (which somehow they were, at least in my view) who much to their horror found out how perverted the Romans had been (at least in their view), while together with the Italians they were uncovering all these sexy statues and frescoes.
I am imagining their shocked pale faces and am especially fantasizing about their shamefully and hastily helping the Neapolitans to hide somewhere the abominable truth.
The Neapolitans, incidentally, were at that time probably laughing at them a bit too, being of course much less disturbed by all those “frank depictions of sexuality” (try to guess why, dear reader … ).
Getting back to the Ancients, this Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks is uncovering herself and looking back (and down) in order to evaluate her perfect buttocks.
The reason is again very simple (and very erotic, I’ll confess.)
All originated from a buttock contest between two beautiful sisters, so, who knows, the statue dedicated to Venus-Aphrodite might exactly represent both the winner and her buttocks. I mean – and of course mine is sheer historical interest – there is a chance we are looking at her real ass and not at the usual idealized Greek arses.
I am pretty sure her evaluation of her own buttocks was even more obvious since statues were mostly painted in full colour, so the direction of her gaze was probably more visible because of painted pupils.
This cult of Venus-Aphrodite with beautiful buttocks appeared in Greek Syracuse (Sicily, Italy,) according to some ancient author, because this is where the sisters apparently lived. Again, needless to say, it would nowadays be inconceivable to dedicate a sanctuary (or a holy place) to a goddess because of a pair of hot buttocks (read in the Wikipedia the whole peculiar story of the two lovely sisters.)
Venus was the goddess of beauty, fertility and love. The Roman Venus was born around Lavinium, according to Strabo. If true it was not by chance, since Aeneas, the great Roman ancestor and son of Venus, landed in that area and founded the town after Lavinia, his wife. The Romans by the way were children of Venus and of Mars, the God of War: what a weird mix, isn’t it.
Young couples gathered close to the Venus temples for petting, necking and even coupling. Youths were probably discreet but what is interesting is that their loving felt somehow enhanced, even sanctified by the presence of the Goddess, which is again unimaginable today.
Think of a today’s scenario where men and women flock near a Catholic or an Anglican church, in spring time, or in any time, for petting and all. I mean, even the mere thought of it could offend true Christians.
Of course I do ask for pardon though please it’d also be nice if you religious people did some effort as well. We are not here to offend religion(s) nor to make a porn site out this blog (which could make us richer though not necessarily happier.) We are here to talk about the Western roots. And it turns these ancient Greeks & Romans had entirely different mores as regards sex.
Is it bad? Is it good? Difficult to say. We somewhat prefer the ancient views, but it is our personal opinion. We just love to think Sex to be Beauty, love and sex to be a sublime joy that shouldn’t be necessarily related to reproduction (like too many Popes tried endlessly to teach us.)
An Oppressive Revolution
Ok, one might say, if these are our Western roots, what the hell has then happened? Why had we to undergo such an oppressive revolution that made one of the joys of life into something to be ashamed of?
Was it because of the Victorians? Because of the Muslims? Was it because of the Christian priests and Fathers?
Perhaps the Victorians had later some influence on India, a country were the Kama Sutra was written, the first great text about love and sexual intercourse – beautiful, poetic and scientific – and the Victorians arrived with their not entirely positive influence in this field of human life …
[...if what the Wikipedia says is true. I need some feedback by my Indians readers. Update: I got extensive Indian feedback one year later]
As for the West I am sure the answer is to be found during the times when the Roman Empire turned into a Christian Roman Empire, hence from Emperor Constantine onward (4th century AD.)
Not immediately though. It took some time, it surely took some time before we became totally repressed.
The Christians were mainly responsible, in my opinion, for this change of attitude (and for atrocities committed against non-Christians soon after Christianity took over), but it’d be fair to add that numerous pagans had already become a bit more puritanical as a reaction to some excesses.
One last thing. Are anywhere to be found survivals of such ancient freer attitude towards sex?
I believe so. We have said (Braudel had said) that big civilisations do not die. Plus we had entitled this post Permanences III (but changed its title later.)
Ok. Let’s not spoil what is next in the Sex and the city (of Rome) series.
A Roman Invoking Venus
2) with Lucretius’ initial prayer to Venus.
Lucretius is a great Roman poet. From his verses one can get a good feel of how a real Ancient Roman felt about Venus.
So it is a pretty good conclusion for this Sex and the Romans num. 1 post.
If you are lucky enough to appreciate these verses you’ll live a unique experience, a real time-machine experience. This also classics offer, a time-machine experience.
Try to read these words attentively. You might penetrate the mysteries of a lost, arcane – though still living, still living – world …
Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.
Initial invocation to Venus.
“Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
For soon as comes the springtime face of day,
And procreant gales blow from the West unbarred,
First fowls of air, smit to the heart by thee,
Foretoken thy approach, O thou Divine,
And leap the wild herds round the happy fields
Or swim the bounding torrents. Thus amain,
Seized with the spell, all creatures follow thee
Whithersoever thou walkest forth to lead,
And thence through seas and mountains and swift streams,
Through leafy homes of birds and greening plains,
Kindling the lure of love in every breast,
Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
Kind after kind. And since ’tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose
For Memmius mine, whom thou hast willed to be
Peerless in every grace at every hour-
Wherefore indeed, Divine one, give my words
Immortal charm. Lull to a timely rest
O’er sea and land the savage works of war,
For thou alone hast power with public peace
To aid mortality; since he who rules
The savage works of battle, puissant Mars,
How often to thy bosom flings his strength
O’ermastered by the eternal wound of love-
And there, with eyes and full throat backward thrown,
Gazing, my Goddess, open-mouthed at thee,
Pastures on love his greedy sight, his breath
Hanging upon thy lips. Him thus reclined
Fill with thy holy body, round, above!
Pour from those lips soft syllables to win
Peace for the Romans, glorious Lady, peace!.”
Of The Nature of Things [De Rerum Natura]
by Lucretius [Titus Lucretius Carus]
(Initial invocation to Venus)
Translated by William Ellery Leonard
Project Gutenberg Text
Reference and further reading:
- Michael Grant and Antonia Mulas, Eros in Pompeii: The Erotic Art Collection of the Museum of Naples. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1997 (translated from the original 1975 Italian edition).
- Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996) ISBN 0-520-20729-7.
- Antonio Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii. Getty Trust Publications: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.
- John Clarke, Roman Sex: 100 B.C. to A.D. 250, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.
- “Colonel Fanin” (Stanislas Marie César Famin), The Royal Museum at Naples, being some account of the erotic paintings, bronzes and statues contained in that famous “cabinet secret”(1871) On-line translation of Musée royal de Naples; peintures, bronzes et statues érotiques du cabinet secret, avec leur explication, 1836. Brief introduction by J.B. Hare, 2003.