January 6, 2019
POMPEII AND HERCULANEUM EROTIC ART
Erotic art was discovered in 1752 at the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. They dated back to 79 AD when those cities were destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Originally they were placed in the Secret Museum section of the Naples National Archaeological Museum. Due to the shock at their eroticism, for most of the years since then, they have been shown only to a handful of people. They are now available for viewing to all. Minors, however, are still only allowed entry with an adult or written permission.
The erotic art recovered included sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and household objects. Graffiti was also found. The sculpture perhaps the most famous was “Pan and the Goat”, which depicted them engaged in intercourse. Frescos and mosaics featured Priapus, the god of sex, and other deities as well as people in various sexual acts. Household objects were mainly phalluses, used as windchimes, lamps, decorations, etc. Graffiti was diverse but often offered services: “Euplia sucks for five sesterces” or “If anyone is looking for some tender love in this town, keep in mind that here all the girls are very friendly”. In addition to brothels, the art was located in homes, gardens, judicial courts, theaters, public baths and even in the streets. Straight sex, gay sex, group sex and bestiality is displayed.
The erotic art of Pompeii and Herculaneum offers a complicated view of sexuality. It is straight-forward, reflecting the open attitude toward sexuality in Roman culture of the late first century. Interestingly, instead of focusing exclusively on the pleasurable element, as is the current view, it also represented fertility. The art, especially the sculpture, is often exquisitely-made. But most of the women and some of the men depicted in the frescos and mosaics look oddly joyless, if not grim. (They were slaves, who were used as sex workers). Strangely, their customers also appear unhappy. One is left wondering exactly what these Romans felt about sexuality.