Let us then have a look at a good collection of the erotic artefacts found in the ancient Roman town of Pompeii. We already know that these paintings, objects etc. shocked the Victorians so much (see our first Post on Roman Sex). Additionally, an interesting account of the best of them (60, with corresponding beautiful lithographs) was written by an unknown author (if I am not wrong, Colonel Fanin being just an invented nick) and published I think illegally in 1816 in a limited edition by a French antiquarian (Stanislas Marie César Famin) with the help of the Neapolitans (this French guy and Rome’s Greek cousins were such terrible brats, weren’t they.)
It is revealing (and funny) how 19th Century Europe got so afraid of this book. All known original copies were destroyed by the French government, but two at least survived. One was hidden in the private case of the British Museum, another ended up in the Library of Congress in Washington. I am pretty sure some millionaire possesses some other copy somewhere in the world.
In 1871 the book was translated into English and went through many pirate (and forbidden) editions (see a history in the next link.) It can now be viewed in the Internet, the problem of the English copy it comes from being the horrible colour separations of the reproduced lithographs.
We do not need to show you all the lithographs and the corresponding comments since you can browse them yourself. These comments seem to me both highly cultivated and captivating. The author appears torn between aroused curiosity, admiration and condemnation.
Below you can see Plate VI (Invocation to Priapus) reproducing a bas-relief which depicted a married couple performing a home sacrifice to this God of fertility.
Here is the comment of the author:
“EVERYTHING in this bas-relief indicates an interior scene, an act of candour and piety, and not a disgusting orgy. The a married pair, clad as decently as the nature of the sacrifice to which they are about to proceed will allow, seem to be asking the god who presides over generation to put an end to a grievous sterility; the expressive gestures of the woman, especially, bear out this explanation. The husband is occupied in stretching out a curtain which is to veil from profane eyes the mysteries of the sacrifice”…
“The god, represented with the figure of a bald-headed and bearded old man, reposes on a little column, before which we observe a kind of altar erected in haste by the married pair, on which they have placed some oak-leaves and the pine-apple which surmounted the thyrsus of the priestesses of Bacchus.”
The Image in Plate XLVIII ( 48 ) reproduces a fresco from Pompeii. It is much more erotic and equally unconventional compared to today’s sexual manners.
“A YOUNG and beautiful married couple are amorously toying on a small bed. A lighted lamp shows that the scene takes place at night-time … the young man is carelessly stretched on his back, while his obliging companion, seated astraddle over him, is left to perform the principal part. In the background may be seen the cubicular slave, who is attentively watching the voluptuous pastime, and seems to be even looking on it with a lustful eye–
Masturbabantur phrygii post ostia servi,
Hectoreo quoties sederat uxor equo.”
Well, I won’t translate these two verses by Roman poet Martial, but the cubicular ( = in bedroom) slave was common and had to serve his/her masters whenever requested. Scenes like this have been realised in the 2005 HBO/BBC original television series Rome, “a fictionalized account of Caesar’s rise and fall” (Wikipedia.) People were mainly shocked by these and other sex scenes, even those who praised the TV series (many did, critics included.) I think it was a good experiment with the aim of showing some good Roman history together with pre-Christian sexual (and non sexual) habits. The latter didn’t save the series since the former was too heavy for contemporary uncultivated audiences.
I liked the series though – one of the finest reconstructions of Ancient Rome I ever saw- and I highly recommend it.
“This fresco – we are getting back to our mysterious author – is not without merit as regards its execution. The woman appears strong and well-formed; her fair hair falls over her shoulders in wavy curls. The man is beardless, but his stature is tall, and everything about him denotes a youth full of vigour and fire. The bed, a very inconvenient one for such sports, is … supported by four legs, too slender to resist long if they were not made of iron, a custom which has been perpetuated down to our own day in the south of Italy. It is, nevertheless, possible that this piece of furniture … was composed of a substance more precious than gold, for at the period of the decline, to which this painting belongs, luxury was carried to such a degree among the Romans, that it surpassed even the most marvellous stories of Eastern poets.”
Colonel Fanin tries here in my view to justify such unrestrained manners with the concept of decline but it must be noted that Rome at the times of Pompeii was instead at her full apex. He then makes another mistake about the colour of Roman women’s hair (historians have proved that Roman hair was of any colour.) “The Roman ladies attached great value to fair hair, though Nature had given them such beautiful black hair. It was indeed their habitual custom to have their heads shaved, and to cover them with light hair, which the young girls of Germany or Gaul sold them at fabulously high prices.” It is true though that the fair hair colour was much appreciated.
He then gives us a lively image of Roman unrestrained wealth:
“Every part of the known world at that time contributed to subserve the reckless and mad luxury of the Romans. India sent them fine pearl necklaces, valued at several millions of sistertii; Arabia, her sweetest perfumes; Alexandria, Tyre, and Asia Minor, precious stuffs worked with gold and silk; Sidon, its metal or glass mirrors. Other countries sent to Rome purple, gold, silver, bronze, all the productions both of art and nature, the choicest wines, and the rarest animals. Under the later Scipio, men of high authority at Rome were seen wasting their substance with favourites, others with courtezans, or in concerts and costly feasts, having contracted, during the Persian war, the Greek tastes; and this disorder grew into a madness among the youths.”