Sex and the City (of Rome)

Callipygian Venus. Fair use

[Notice. A new season of the series Sex and the City (of Rome) has appeared. Here's the first chapter: Sex and the city (of Rome). Season II. 1 ]

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An exploration of Greco-Roman sexuality and of what is left today of such different mores. I have dedicated only 5 posts (out of 250) to this theme but they are always on the ‘top posts’ list on the right column. I wonder why.

What I have tried to understand is how alien Greco-Roman sexuality can be vis-à-vis contemporary sexuality, and why things have changed so much since then.

1. (…)

The ancient Greco-Romans had a totally different attitude towards sex. Suffice it to have a look at these statues, both beautiful and erotic, to intuitively grasp a sensuality open and entirely different from the Western manners prevalent today. The beauty and natural perfection of these bodies convey in fact the idea that sex wasn’t perceived as lewd or licentious; it was felt instead as one of the joys of life.

Satyr. Lowe res. Fair use

“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 endeavoured to hide them away ….. The moveable objects were locked away in the Secret Museum in Naples, Italy.”(Wikipedia)

This whole Victorian thing I find so incredibly funny. I can see these prudish Victorians who felt themselves as heirs of the Romans (which somehow they were, at least in my view) and who much to their horror found out how perverted these Romans had been (at least in their view), while together with the Italians they were uncovering these sexy statues and paintings.

Ok, one might say, if these are our Western roots, what the hell has 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? Of the Muslims? Was it because of the Christian priests and Fathers? [...]

As for the West I am sure the answer is to be found in the times when the Roman Empire turned into a Christian Roman Empire, hence from Emperor Constantine onwards (4th cent. AD onwards) [...].

Christianity was mainly responsible, in my opinion, for this change of attitude, but it’d be fair to add that numerous pagans of that period had also become more puritanical. …

One last thing. Is anywhere to be found any remnant of this ancient freer attitude towards sex? I believe so. (…)

[ read more in Sex and the City (of Rome). 1]

2. (…)

Open sensuality? Yes, since for example the sacred poet Virgil probably sighed for Alexis, a beautiful boy; Horace celebrated incest, adultery and sex with female slaves; Ovid, Petronius and Catullus went a lot further (we might see later); not to mention the Roman phallic festivals like the Liberalia, held on the 17th of March, “where a monstrous phallus was carried in procession in a car… and the most respectable of the matrons ceremoniously crowned the head of the phallus with a garland”, or festivals like the Bacchanalia where similarly a huge phallus was carried and “as in the Liberalia, the festivities being carried on into the night, as the celebrators became heated with wine, they degenerated into the extreme of licentiousness, in which people indulged without a blush in the most infamous vices.” This is Victorian Thomas Wright’s opinion (1810-1877, English antiquarian and writer). See the Wright’s original text where our two quotes are taken from. (…)

[ read more in Sex and the City (of Rome). 2 ]

3. (…)

So far we have wandered about Roman sexuality trying to understand 1) how remote it is from contemporary sexuality and 2) why everything has radically changed in the West since those times.

The first question seems clear. The Romans were very different and fancifully enjoyed pleasures and sex even though they tried not to be dominated by them (see our earlier post on ancient teachings); how different they were finds further evidence in statues like the famous Borghese Hermaphroditus shown above and kept at the Louvre Museum in Paris, especially when we think that these statues were very common in the Greco-Roman world. A hermaphroditus is actually a transsexual. Can you imagine today a VIP’s living room offering the view of a marble transsexual to guests? Well, excluding some eccentric artistic milieus, I think even open-minded people would be very puzzled, what do you think?

The second question is more difficult. I believe that the Christian religion has some responsibility although I acknowledge that sexual pleasure & love are such a tremendous force that they can be a social problem no matter what culture or epoch we live in. As the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater puts it, we like these pleasures too much, therefore they are potentially dangerous, unproductive and every society tries to regulate them in a way or another.

Puritanism in its broad meaning however – loving only what is not pleasurable – is to be condemned in my view.

[ read more in Sex and the City (of Rome). 3 ]

4. (…)

Let us then have a look at a good collection of those 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. … 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.

[ read more in Sex and the City (of Rome). 4 ]

5. (…) Sex and the city (of Rome): a conclusion

We heard this sentence in a History Channel war documentary film: “An army of Don Juans was about to land…”. The film referred to an Italian military expedition sent by Mussolini to some place in the Mediterranean.

Now, I find this funny, and I am asking myself: is this the way many people from the English speaking countries consider us? A bunch of Don Juans lol? I know it was maybe only a boutade but if this is even only partially true, what is the reason for that? Other associations in fact arise. Why Latin folks are considered sensual? Why Casanova is Italian and Don Juan is Spanish? Why all American women went crazy for Rodolfo Valentino?

Now the big question: isn’t it possible that we have here those long-period permanences French historian Braudel was talking about? I mean, aren’t we dealing here with the remnants of a different, pre-Christian, way of living one’s sexuality? Isn’t this what is so seductive, though felt as sinful and almost amoral but, for this same reason, irresistible?

I will finish this draft conclusion of Sex and the city (of Rome) with this interesting passage written by a British historian, C. P. Rodocanachi, dedicated to what he considers a potent factor of the Greek miracle. This text sheds light in our view on the Greek mind and, to a certain extent, on the Roman mind, plus on some aspects of Italian (Renaissance – and modern?) men as well:

Absence of conflicts of conscience: the Greeks were quit “of this inhibiting and agonizing struggle. Their morals were civic and not religious. Their sense of duty was directed exclusively to the city … They knew nothing of the Christian idea of good faith, of intentions conditioning acts in such a manner that the most law-abiding citizen may feel himself a great criminal at heart… [They] may be considered as being intrinsically amoral and this very amorality was a powerful constituent of balance of mind which they could never have attained if their conscience had been torn, as ours is, between the conflicting forces of good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin. They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life without a pang of conscience. So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city they had no damnation to fear, either in this world or the next.”

[ read more in Sex and the City (of Rome). A Conclusion ]

6. (…)

Almost any Italian would confirm that we are not that torn between virtue and vice, pleasure and sin, that we do not fear damnation that much. Even if Italians have captained for centuries the switch from the Roman religion(s) to Christianity, their Christian feelings are superficial, no matter how false (or outrageous) this may seem. Even among Catholics, when taking the Italians and the Irish for example, we are not that strict compared to them.

The Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton’s trial and this whole Scarlet Letter’s type of atmosphere literally sent Italians rolling on the floor laughing – I hope I won’t offend anybody saying that.

[ read more in “Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial” ]

7. (…)

In other posts (see the list at the bottom) we had supposed some connection between Latin people’s behaviours and pre-Christian sexual mores. In our last post we presumed a connection between Italian cynicism and possible survivals of Paganism in our country.

Today we will try to understand a bit the phenomenon of Don Juanism.

Some Italian behaviours are irritating, without doubt. When the young males from here go to Oktoberfest in Munich, Bavaria, as soon as everybody is drunk they think they are entitled to seduce ALL the German women around, and of course they are very much frowned upon. When I was a silly teenager, I confess we used to hunt for female tourists all over the historical centre of Rome. We did this rationally, exactly like hunters do, and of course the majority of the women weren’t so happy about it (well, the minority was our shameless, or shameful, reward.)

This behaviour was sort of common to all Italians but now it only gets marked the closer we get to the South of the peninsula, where traditions – good or bad – are preserved.

There is something we have to understand. Searching far back in the past might shed light on present behaviours. Let us consider one of the most admired (and loved) Romans of all times, Julius Caesar. He had greatness in all he did …

And yet there is another side of Julius Caesar we might like less.

He was totally addicted to sexual pleasure (only ambition in him was greater, argues Montaigne) and he endangered his career a few times because of this. Caesar was very good-looking and narcissistic. He tried to hide his lack of hair (like our prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.) He plucked the hairs of his body and made use of the most expensive perfumes. He liked his skin to be as perfect as the skin of a woman …

[ read more in Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan) ]

8. (…)

Paul Costopoulos. Dear MoR, “favouritism” exists everywhere. … Merit certainly enters the equation somewhere but «knowing the right person» is of great help. What my women friends of all origins were bothered by in Italy was the ogling and buttocks pinching they endured. It seems Italian males have restless hands. Maybe that is what Frutto della passione is writing about. Fruit of passion…very evocative.

MoR. Ah ah ah, Paul, you made me laugh! Yes, you made me laugh but then you depressed me (even though I’ll say aloud to my women readers that I don’t go around pinching.)

Paul. Cheer up Man, certainly the sun and warm Mediterranean climate is responsible for all that. All those provocative sculptures that ornate your squares, fountains and even churches are probably the main culprits. They overstimulate and induce into temptation even the most hardy souls as so many popes attest to. The Medicis popes surely are eloquent examples.

MoR. Yes, Paul, yes, even the most hardy souls, no doubt.

Paul. You show great fortitude.

MoR. I know, Paul.

[ read more in On Roman, Italian and Latin Roots. Italy and the New World ]

9. (…)

There is some annoying narcissism in the Mediterranean people, living in the sun, something for example the Britons, from clouds and rough weather, reproach us, not without reason. But the beauty of classical or Renaissance art cannot be quite understood without considering a certain narcissistic component, in my view. Works of art (like Palladio’s villas or palaces, for example, see the London exhibition) were mainly for great families who sought distinction, éclat. The elegance of a Julius Caesar (here is a post considering this aspect of him), or of most toreros for example, or of the French, who love to correct foreigners who speak their language, can be explained by some vanity as well.

[ read more in Can Narcissism Partially Explain the Cult of Beauty in the Latin Cultures? ]

Published on May 17, 2009 at 4:56 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. [...] Sex and the City (of Rome) which links to other posts regarding Italian sexuality [...]

  2. [...] Sex and the City (of Rome) Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Culture Shock – how to become a dominant cultureTeaching British historyThe Anglo Vice: Male Homosexuality in Anglo-Saxon Countries Published in: [...]


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