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LHMP #125 Clarke 1998 Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.-A.D. 250

Full citation: 

Clarke, John R. 1998. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-20024-1


If you think about Roman art, you may imagine elegant marble statues. But the popular, everyday art painted on walls of both private homes and public accommodations included a lot of explicit pornography depicting a wide variety of sexual techniques. Most of the wall art is preserved at sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, where the eruption of Vesuvius preserved a moment in time from the 1st century CE. When my family visited Pompeii, back in 1976 when I was a teenager, the more prurient images had literal gate-keepers on duty who would allow access to female viewers only by permission of an accompanying male authority.

* * *

This is an extensive study of Roman art depicting sexual activity, much of it overtly pornographic. Of the entire (enormous) corpus of material, Clarke has only identified two images that may depict or imply sexual activity between women. Both are part of a series of wall paintings at the Suburban Baths in Pompeii (ca. A.D. 62-79), and the physical condition of the paintings makes interpretation difficult and uncertain.

Both occur in the same location (apodyterium 7) and are scenes 5 and 7 in the series there. The framing of the scenes implies ridicule of sexual activity between women, but it must be considered who the intended audience was (men visiting prostitutes) and the social implications of sexual roles and practices in Roman society.

Scene 5 shows a female figure (identifiable by wearing a breast-band while otherwise naked) reclining on her elbow in bed, turned toward a figure standing beside the bed and with her leg raised to rest on the standing person’s shoulder.

The sex of the standing person can’t be determined from the body, which is indistinct due to damage, but Clarke interprets the person as female based on the hairstyle, and because the person’s skin is depicted as pale and similar in color to the reclining woman. In this genre of art, men are systematically depicted with darker skin than women. Clarke also argues that in this sequence of paintings, there is an increasing degree of “perversion” (according to Roman attitudes) in each successive scene. Given this, the placement of scene 5 in the sequence would be unexpected if it represented a prelude to a standard male-female sex act. Clarke further speculates that among the obscured details, the standing woman may be wearing a dildo (and he provides a number of literary references to such a practice in a Roman context).


Following Scene 6, involving a m/m/f threesome with the man in the middle simultaneously penetrating and being penetrated, Scene 7 increases the number of participants and sex acts. The bed contains two men and two women. From the left, a man anally penetrating a second man, who in turn is receiving fellatio from a woman, who in turn is receiving cunnilingus from a second woman.

Time period: 


This sounds like a really interesting book. I wonder if there is more art that would be relevant, but is dismissed for one reason or another?

So much facepalm for the 1970s literalpatriarchal gatekeeping. One hopes that has changed by now.

Given how tenuous the interpretation is on the couple of paintings Clarke does discuss, I'm willing to believe he didn't omit anything that he actually looked at. The male gaze was strong in Roman culture, and it didn't seem to include any "lesbians are sexy to watch" exceptions.

I admit to a slight degree of confusion on where and how to comment - I *think* this is the post I was aiming for (Through the Hourglass giveaway), but that text does not have a comment link; and this post does not show the paragraph about the giveaway. Also, the text says 'read comments' rather than 'comment', which did not help.

I have nothing to say about Roman porn. But if I find myself in Pompeii, I shall take a look...

We're still tinkering with the details of the appearance of the site. (I say "we". My website people are figuring out how to tweak all the Drupal building blocks. I smile and nod approvingly at times.) The issue of the "Comment" link appearing differently depending on what view you're looking at is already on the list. but all appearance feedback is appreciated. ETA: It doesn't help that the LHMP posts have a complex internal structure, with the LHMP entry itself being a separate Thing that gets embedded in a blog post. And each of them has its own comments. There's a reason the site took a lot longer to build than we'd planned! But the advantage is in having the LHMP archive be independent of the framing chit-chat, like the giveaway.

I just missed the seminar this book came out of; Clarke taught it the year after the one I took on Roman narrative painting, so I expect there was a bit of overlap both in theoretical underpinnings and some of the material covered. I do know that my colleagues who were taking it had a lot of fun. (I'd been wondering if there was enough material that you'd be able to get to it.)

I'll include publications with very small bits of relevant information if it's something not covered elsewhere. And the visual arts are one area I've tended to be weak in. Conversely, I've skipped over some publications if they have only a brief passing mention of something where I've covered a more foundational publication on the topic. It's nice to be able to be picky on occasion! It's a testament to how much material is out there.

I have a half-written LOTR fanfic with Eomer/Faramir/Eowyn in the Scene 6 position. Didn't have enough story, though I enjoyed writing the porn (even asked a porn-author friend who would penetrate first).

Ah, Classical porn. I do want to get my hands on that book, eventually: the more explicit side of Roman public art is seldom frequently discussed.

Low culture is always fascinating and instructive. :)

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