Sex and the City (of Rome). 4

Ancient women wrestling. Or a man and a woman?

Ancient women wrestling. Or a man and a woman?

Italian version

Let us then have a look at a collection of the erotic artefacts found in the ancient Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

We already know that these frescoes, mosaics, statues etc. shocked the Victorians so much (see our first Post on Roman Sex).

Additionally, an interesting account in French of the best of them (60, with corresponding beautiful lithographs) was written by an unknown author, a certain ‘Colonel Fanin’ (or Famin? A Mistake in the English translation? see later) and published I guess illegally in 1816 in a limited edition by a French antiquarian (Stanislas Marie César Famin: ‘Colonel Fanin’ himself I guess) with the help of the Neapolitans (this French guy and Rome’s Greek cousins were such terrible brats, weren’t they.)

[On the matter, a History today's take; a good French blog's take]

It is revealing (and funny) how 19th Century Europe got so scared of this book. All known original copies were destroyed by the French government though 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 billionaire possesses some other copy somewhere in the world.

Roman Sex scene

One of those ‘abominable monuments to human licentiousness’. Click for source at a French blog

In 1871 the book was translated into English and went through many pirate (and forbidden) editions. 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.

Plate VI (Invocation to Priapus)

Here is the comment by 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.

Plate XLVIII (48). Spinthria

“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 the 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 TV series Rome, “a fictionalized account of Caesar’s rise and fall” (Wikipedia.)

People were mainly shocked by these and other sex scenes, also those who praised the TV series (many did, critics included.) I think it was a pretty good experiment aiming at showing some 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 audiences.

I liked the series though – one of the finest reconstructions of Ancient Rome I’ve ever saw- and I highly recommend it.

HBO/BBC television series Rome

“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 apex from every point of view.

He then makes another mistake about the colour of Roman women’s hair (historians having 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 and red hair colour was appreciated. Romans were open to a wide world of possibilities, being at the head a vast world.

He here 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.”

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain


Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion.

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Sex and the City (of Rome). 2

Lovers. Herculaneum Fresco. Public Domain

Lovers. Herculaneum Fresco. Public Domain

Italian version

As we have said in the first post regarding Sex and the city of Rome the ancient Greco-Romans had a totally different attitude towards sex and enjoyed a sensuality open to possibilities whose variety can confuse contemporary people (in spite of what we Westerners think of our sexual liberation) to the extent that what we are about to narrate could offend people’s feelings. We therefore ask for pardon but we also make known to minors and prudish people to please not read any further.

God Priapus' weighing his phallus. House of the Vettii, Pompeii

God Priapus ‘weighing himself’. Fresco from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. Click for credits and to enlarge

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), not Man of Roma’s (see the Wright’s original text where our two quotes are from.)

Auguste (Maurice François Giuslain) Léveque (1864-1921). Bacchanalia. Public Domain

Auguste (Maurice François Giuslain) Léveque (1864-1921). Bacchanalia. Public Domain

Before trying to understand what is left today of these distant habits (the post title actually refers to survivals of ancient behaviours in today’s world, we’ll see why), we are going to provide a few detailed illustrations of this freer (or different, in any case) attitude .

So we’ll start by mentioning a Roman goddess, Dea Bona (‘Good Goddess’) and a scandal occurred at the time of great Julius Caesar.

Roman Dea Bona

Roman Bona Dea (Good Goddess)

Roman Bona Dea (Good Goddess)

In Roman religion Dea Bona (Latin for ‘Good Goddess’) was a “deity of fruitfulness, both in the earth and in women … The dedication day of her temple on the Aventine was celebrated May 1. Her temple was cared for and attended by women only, and the same was the case at a second celebration, at the beginning of December, in the house of the Pontifex Maximus [the chief Roman Priest, today's Pope being still the Pontifex Maximus of Rome], where the Pontifex’s wife and the Vestal Virgins ran the ceremony.” (Bona Dea. 2007. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 9, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.)

I wonder if the online Britannica is exact here, since the December celebration was conducted “by the wife of the senior magistrate present in Rome in his home” (any senior magistrate then: Pontifex, consul etc.). In fact, according to Plutarch (2nd cent. A.D., Life of Cicero 19.3, 20.1-2) when Cicero was consul, the day he made the famous speech which is known as his third Catiline oration, he was escorted in the night “to the house of a friend and neighbour; his own being occupied by women who were celebrating the secret rites of the goddess whom the Romans call Bona.”

Dea Bona’s Image

Roman Bona Dea

The December festival was more interesting than the May one since “it was not held in the goddess’ temple … it was an invitation-only affair and pretty exclusive”. The wife of the magistrate managed the whole thing during the night, all was secret and occurred in a context of classy luxury (quote from here.)

What was happening during these secret-sacred rites from which men were strictly excluded? Surely it was something like a mystery cult, hence little we know about it (maybe you can find something in Macrobius’ Saturnalia). According to the Latin poet Juvenal, who wrote his satires many generations later (but who was also probably a bit of a misogynist), the Bona rites included drunken orgies among women (Juvenalis Sat. vi, l. 314):

“Well known to all are the mysteries
of the Good Goddess,
when the flute stirs the loins
and the Maenads of Priapus sweep along,
frenzied alike by the horn-blowing and the wine,
whirling their locks and howling.
What foul longings burn within their breasts!
What cries they utter as the passion palpitates within!
How drenched their limbs in torrents of old wine!
Saufeia challenges the slave-girls to a contest….”

(See a complete version in English prose of Juvenal Satire 6, plus the same passage in Latin verses).

Well, what happened in the house of Julius Caesar according to Plutarch seems to confirm Juvenal’s opinion. Let’s see why.

Sacrilege in Julius Caesar’s house

Two Roman Women. Fair use

Dramatis personae

ψ

The scandal broke during the Dea Bona December ceremonies in 62 BC, when Julius Caesar was Pontifex Maximus. This is why the celebration took place in his house. Caesar of course was absent, being a man. The way it all developed seems to confirm Juvenal’s view, as we have said.

As Plutarch writes, our great source of the Ancient world (Life of Caesar 9-10):

“(9.1) Publius Clodius was a man of noble birth and notable for his wealth and reputation, but not even the most notorious scoundrels came close to him in insolence and audacity. Clodius was in love with Caesar’s wife Pompeia, and she was not unwilling. But a close watch was kept on the women’s apartment, and Caesar’s mother Aurelia followed the young wife around and made it difficult and dangerous for the lovers to meet.”

“(9.3) The Romans have a goddess whom they call Good… It is unlawful for a man to approach or to be in the house when the rites are celebrated. The women, alone by themselves, are said to perform rites that conform to Orphic ritual during the sacred ceremony.”

“(10.1) At the time [when the incident occurred] Pompeia was celebrating this ritual; Clodius did not yet have a beard and for this reason thought that he would escape detection if he were dressed up as [woman] lyre-player, and went into the house looking like a young woman. He found the doors open and was led in without difficulty by a slave-woman who was in on the plot; this woman went to Pompeia and told her, and some time passed, but Clodius could not bear to wait, and as he was wandering around the large house and trying to avoid the lights, one of Aurelia’s [female] attendants got hold of him, and asked him to play with her, as one woman might with another, and when he refused, she dragged him before the others and asked who he was and where he came from.”

“(10.3) Clodius said that he was waiting for Pompeia’s slave Abra (which happened to be the woman’s name), and gave himself away by his voice. The [woman] attendant dashed away from him towards the lights and the crowd, shouting that she had caught a man. The women were terrified, and Aurelia called a halt to the rites of the goddess and hid the sacred objects; she ordered the doors to be shut and went around the house with torches, looking for Clodius. He was found in the room that belonged to the girl where he had gone in an attempt to escape. When he was discovered, he was taken through the doors by the women and thrown out of the house. That night the women went right off and told their husbands about the affair, and during the day the story spread through the city that Clodius had been involved in sacrilege and had committed injustice against not only those he had insulted, but the city and the gods.

“(10.5) Clodius was indicted for sacrilege by one of the tribunes, and the most influential senators joined forces against him and testified about other dreadful outrages he had committed and his incest with his sister.”

[Her name was Clodia - prob. the slutty Lesbia loved by Catullus - a perpetual scandal like her brother Clodius. We'll probably talk about her again, it is important in our view of Roman sex. In the painting below you can see Catullus visiting aristocratic Lesbia's mansion, a nice work by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 - 1912,) an interesting painter of late nineteenth century Britain]

Catullus at Lesbia’s by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema. 1836-1912. 1865

[Online Britannica: “In December 62, when the winter ceremony of the Bona Dea (from which men were excluded) was celebrated in the house of Julius Caesar, a man believed to be Clodius was discovered disguised as a female harpist among the participants. Charged with incestum he was tried before the Senate...Caesar divorced his wife in suspicion that she had admitted Clodius to the ceremony....Clodius maintained he had been at Interamna, 90 miles (145 km) from Rome, on the day in question, but Cicero, who abused the defendant intemperately, presented evidence to the contrary. Clodius was acquitted, perhaps because the jury had been bribed, but immediately began to devise ways to revenge himself on Cicero.” (Clodius Pulcher, Publius. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 9 Dec. 2007) ]

Plutarch (10.6): “Caesar immediately divorced Pompeia, but when he was summoned as a witness in the trial said that he knew nothing about the accusations against Clodius. The prosecutor asked him about the apparent contradiction: ‘why then did you divorce your wife?’ He answered, ‘because I thought my wife should be above suspicion’….Clodius was acquitted because most of the jurors handed in their opinions in illegible writing, so that they would not endanger themselves with the common people by voting against him, or disgrace themselves with the nobility by letting him off.”

ψ

I think the reason Caesar supported Clodius was because they belonged to the same common people (democratic) party. Clodius was popular and influential therefore deemed useful by Caesar for his own political career.

ψ

Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome) 4
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion.

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

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