Libido: Naked Brunch: Porn in Ancient Rome
Porn in Ancient Rome

By Tracy Scarpino

"Good God, What a Night" by Petronius Arbiter

Good God, what a night that was,
The bed was so soft, and how we clung,
Burning together, lying this way and that,
Our uncontrollable passions
Flowing through our mouths.
If I could only die that way,
I'd say goodbye to the business of living.

From graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii to the poetry of Ovid and Catullus, the Romans left behind an abundance of erotic material. In addition to poetry and artwork, there are many accounts of live performances ranging from the mild to the obscene that can be classified as pornographic. If we consider pornography in the modern sense of writings, pictures, or films intended to stimulate erotic feelings by a description or portrayal of sexual activity, then these live performances can be considered as such. Pantomime actors and gladiators were the equivalents of today’s movie and rock stars making both men and women swoon. They certainly stimulated the libidos and imaginations of the Roman people.

Erotic poetry and literature ranged from odes to Priapus (the phallic god of gardens and fertility) to descriptions of intimate sexual relationships. Catullus and Ovid wrote about their dedication to cruel, demanding mistresses, Juvenal satirized his fellow Romans and what he considered to be their depraved sexual behaviors, and Tacitus and Suetonius wrote histories detailing the fetishes and habits of emperors such as Nero and Caligula.

Roman sexuality was about rough passions, obsessive love, and sadistic power plays. Lacking the natural grace and spirituality of the Greeks, they rarely touched on the spiritual side of sex. Perhaps what makes their sexual representations seem pornographic to the modern mind is this glaring lack of higher sentiment, making it comparable to modern-day pornography as opposed to erotica. Where erotica is considered more socially acceptable, pornography is often criticized for its purely sexual, animalistic portrayals. The very nature that produced and thrived on this raw sexuality is the same nature that made Rome powerful.

"Here Harpocras has had a good fuck with Drauca for a denarius." (C.I.L. IV, 2193; graffiti in a brothel at Pompeii)

Divide and conquer was the mantra in the bedroom and on the battlefield. The powerful phallus they worshipped was a symbol of both love and war, which were eternally coupled in the Roman psyche. Their sexual energy drove them to the top of the world. For several hundred years, Rome’s phallus reigned supreme.

Better Living through Sadism

It is hardly surprising that a rape forms part of the founding myth of Rome:

"The ravished girls were led away to marriage;
their very shame made them more beautiful.
And when one struggled hard against her captor,
He carried her away in eager arms,
And said: ‘Why spoil your pretty eyes by weeping?
Your father took your mother, I take you!’" (Ovid)

From its earliest beginnings to its eventual fall, the Roman Empire thrived and gained power through sadism. The rape of the Sabine women is the quintessential Roman tale. The Romans chase, capture, and rape innocent girls, impregnate them, and thereby ensure the continuation of the race. And so an empire is made: by raping and conquering everything in its path, Rome subjugated the world, forcing its enemies into slavery and bondage.

The crueler they were, the better Romans’ lives became. The earliest Romans learned this and passed it on to subsequent generations until their sadism reached such a debauched pitch in the late Empire that "criminals" being thrown to the lions and Emperors murdering their mothers and sleeping with their sisters became commonplace.

Is it any shock, then, that when it came to sex, the Romans were sadistic? They associated sex not just with pleasure, but with power and domination. Sex was another way for their controlling natures to conquer both willing and unwilling subjects. When they spoke of love, they meant sex and nothing more.

It is said that a nation can best be understood by the behavior of its leaders. The history of Rome’s emperors is a riot of madness, sadism, and sex. The infamously sadistic emperor Nero killed his pregnant wife Poppea with a kick in the stomach. He tied young men and women to stakes and, clothed in animal skins, leapt out from a den to attack their genitals. In Nero’s case, as in many Roman cases, upbringing and his living environment were largely to blame. His grandfather was a savage, cold-hearted man who delighted in organizing the cruelest gladiatorial spectacles. Nero’s father was guilty of adultery and incest. Nero himself was said to have had sexual relations with his mother Agripinna, before he killed her, of course. Suetonius writes:

That he…desired illicit relations with his own mother, and was kept from it by her enemies who feared that such a relationship might give the reckless and insolent woman too great influence, was notorious, especially after he added to his concubines a courtesan who was said to look very like Agripinna. Even before that, so they say, whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, he had incestuous relations with her, which were betrayed by the stains on his clothing.

Nero’s uncle, Caligula, was no different. Madness completely gripped him just a few months after he came to power. Rumor had it that he went mad after his wife gave him a bad aphrodisiac. He used to say, while kissing a woman, "This lovely neck will be chopped as soon as I say so." Caligula’s well-known comment that he wished the Roman people only had one head so it would be easier to kill them typified his thinking. Suetonius wrote that Caligula's reign of terror had been so severe that the Romans refused to believe he was actually dead.

Domitian was also notorious for his cruelty and peculiar tastes. He invented a new method of torture: burning the sexual organs of his victims. He depilated his girlfriends by himself, took special pleasure in gladiatorial fights between women and dwarfs, and enjoyed catching flies, stabbing them with a fine-pointed pen and ripping off their wings. These cruelties, excesses, and dramas formed the backdrop for the theater that was daily life in ancient Rome.

The Fascinating Phallus

Bas relief from Pompeii
Hic Habitat Felicitas

The Roman word for phallus was fascinum. It was the ultimate symbol of power, luck, and fertility. A large penis symbolized everything positive. Shops and brothels hung images of them on their walls for good luck, accompanied by the words, "Here lies happiness." They believed that the male member was the source of life.

In the brothel discovered at Pompeii, paintings of Priapus were found on the walls and over the beds. The group of poems called the Priapeia is dedicated to the Roman god of gardens and love, Priapus. Juvenal makes references to the rituals of a mysterious cult that worshipped Priapus:

And frenzied women, devotees of Priapus,
Sweep along in procession, howling, tossing their hair,
Wine-flown, horn-crazy, burning with the desire
To get themselves laid.

Terracotta Lamp in the Shape of a Fawn from Pompeii, 1st Century A.D.

Phallic worship was not unique to the Romans. It was found in almost every primitive culture.

While the phallus itself (and its representative god, Priapus) was not necessarily or inherently pornographic, the minds of mortal men could not help but marvel at an enormous phallus. Fascinated and terrified by the power between their legs, men turned it into a god.

Hans Licht, in Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, says, "Priapus is the personification of the sexual impulse in its most brutal form." Since the ancients thought sexual impulse and the will to life were synonymous, it is perhaps easier to understand Rome’s ability to destroy and conquer only through her sexual impulses. Where there is strong sexual desire there is also a strong will to live.

Terracotta Drinking Bowl Mask from Pompeii, 1st Century A.D.

Legend says the Romans were so attached to their phallic god Priapus that when Christians came along they were able to convince pagan Romans to give up all their gods except Priapus The Church, unable to deter them from baking the traditional phallic-shaped bread, sanctified the loaves by marking them with three crosses on the top. Thus was born the "hot-crossed bun".

There is a fine line between what was merely ritualistic or symbolic and what was intended as erotic. The same phalluses that children wore around their necks for good luck could inspire adults to pen pornographic verses. We have to look at the context or situation and not just the symbol itself. Sometimes Priapus was nothing more than a scarecrow placed in a garden to scare off thieves and other times he was the embodiment of male virility and sexual satisfaction.

"Call Me Not a Lord, For I Am a Lady"

Man and boy on a black-figure vase, 6th Century B.C.

Above all else, the important thing for the Roman man was to be dominant. Homosexuality was socially acceptable only under these circumstances: If a man was the insertor he retained his masculinity. The man on the receiving end was labeled effeminate and ridiculed.

Nero married two men. In the first marriage, he castrated his lover and dressed him up as the bride. In the second it was the emperor who played the bride. He wore a bridal veil and on the wedding night imitated the sounds of a woman being deflowered. For Nero this kind of spectacle was an elaborate form of erotic play. It titillated him to put on shows and dress in women’s clothing. He wasn’t alone in his love of transvestitism. It might be said that the emperor who didn’t like to dress in women’s clothing was the exception.

Caligula appeared onstage wearing wigs. Elagabalus wanted to be a woman. One way in which he satisfied this urge was to prostitute himself in real brothels. He wanted to cut off his genitals. He asked a doctor to create a vagina for him by means of an incision. He shaved and wore makeup. To one guest in his house, he declared, "Call me not a lord, for I am a lady."

Homosexual relations were often portrayed by poets:

Thallus, you faggot, softer than rabbit fur,
or goosedown, or a sweet little earlobe,
or an old man's listless dick, lying in cobwebs and neglect. And yet, when the full moon shows the other guests starting to nod and yawn, you're grabbier than a plunging hurricane. Give me back my housecoat, which you pounced on, and my good Spanish flax table napkins, and the painted boxwood writing tablets, which you keep on display, jerk, like they wre heirlooms, unstick them from your claws and give them back or I'll use a whip to scribble some really embarrassing lines, hot as the iron that brands disgrace on a common thief, on your woolsoft sides and dainty little hands. You'll get excited in a brand new way, your head will spin like a boat caught out on the open sea when the winds go mad. (Catullus, Carmen 25 © copyright 2 June 1998 by Jacob Rabinowitz)

Many critics blamed this type of behavior on the influence of the Greeks. Juvenal satirizes the effeminate nature of the imported Greek actors:

"On the stage they reign supreme
In female parts, courtesan, matron or slave-girl,
With no concealing cloak: you’d swear it was a genuine
Woman you saw, and not a masked performer.
Look there, beneath that belly: no bulge, all smooth, a neat Nothingness – even a hint of the Great Divide."

"Celadus the Thracier makes the girls moan!" (C.I.L. IV, 4397; graffiti in the Pompeiian barracks of the gladiators)

Certain emperors liked to put on shows. Life, for them, was a kind of live theater. They played out their fantasies on stage and off. Anybody who chose not to participate was out of luck and possibly out of life. Nero certainly was one. He held banquets in public places, using the city’s public spaces however he liked.

He set live Christians on fire for the amusement of his guests. He had a raft constructed on a lake. As guests rode around on the lake, they could see the imported birds and animals and fish that were brought from the ocean. On one shore there were brothels and on the other naked prostitutes danced and gestured. Nero also established a theatrical festival that was held every five years. Roman nobles performed naked boxing tournaments onstage to the shock of the people.

Critics blamed the Greeks for this "degeneracy." Camille Paglia says:

The more moral an emperor, the less he was drawn to theater… theatrical transformation, a seductive principle of our time, can never be reconciled with morality. From antiquity on, professional theater has been under a moral cloud… an emperor’s appearance onstage was shocking, since actors were declasse, barred from Roman citizenship…Tertullian complains of theater’s immorality and its frequenting by prostitutes, who even took to the stage to advertise themselves.

Women found male actors and gladiators exciting, especially the pantomime actors. Juvenal says:

When pansy
Bathyllus dances Leda, all fouettes and entrechats,
Just watch the women. One can’t control her bladder, Another suddenly moans in drawn-out ecstasy
As though she was coming.

Women virtually peed their pants watching these actors, a phenomenon that cannot strike our modern ears as strange. At the end of the republic, pantomime and mime replaced classical drama as the favorite form of entertainment. Pantomimes resembled ballet and acted out well-known stories and myths. Tacitus called pantomimes "evils of the city." Mime performances were overtly sexual. There is an account by the ancient physician Galen about a woman who became bed-ridden over her love for a pantomime dancer:

I was called in to see a woman who was stated to be sleepless at night and to lie tossing about from one position to another… After I had diagnosed that there was no bodily trouble, and that the woman was suffering from some mental uneasiness, it happened that, at the very time I was examining her… somebody came from the theatre and said he had seen Pylades dancing. Then both her expression and the colour of her face changed. Seeing this, I applied my hand to her wrist, and noticed that her pulse had suddenly become extremely irregular…I kept very careful watch when it was announced that Pylades was dancing, and I noticed that the pulse was very much disturbed. Thus I found out that the woman was in love with Pylades.

"Myrtis, you do great blow jobs." (graffiti from Pompeii)

Seneca tells the tale of a man who used mirrors to enhance his sexual experience:
"All my organs are occupied in the lechery. Let my eyes, too, come into their share of the debauchery and be witnesses and supervisors of it. By means of a device let even those acts be seen which the position of our bodies removes from sight, so that no one may think I do not know what I do … To what purpose my depravity if I sin only to the limit of nature? I will surround myself with mirrors, the type which renders the size of objects incredible. If it were possible, I would make those sizes real; because it is not possible, I will feast myself on the illusion. Let my lust see more than it consumes and marvel at what it undergoes."

Pan and a she-goat. Marble statue from Herculaneum, 1st Century B.C.

Seneca adds the comment: "Shameful behavior! Perhaps he was murdered quickly, even before he saw it; he ought to have been immolated in front of a mirror of his own." (Seneca, Natural Questions I, 16). In this passage we see mirrors as a pornographic tool, the predecessor of television and film. By watching himself in the sex act, he became both object and subject, anticipating the homemade porn video by two thousand years.

For those less experienced, Ovid provided some answers. His Ars Amatoria ("The Art of Love") caused an uproar. It instructed men in the ways of winning and keeping women and women on how to please men:

What a girl ought to know is herself, adapting her method, taking advantage of the methods nature has equipped her to use. Lie on your back if your face and all your features are pretty; if your posterior is cute, better be seen from behind … Little girls do all right if they sit on top, riding horseback; Hector’s Andromache knew she could not do this: too tall! Press the couch with your knees and bend your neck backward a little if your view, full-length, seems what a lover should crave. If the breasts and the thighs are youthful and lovely to look at, let the man stand and the girl lie on a slant on the bed. Let your hair come down, in the Laodamian fashion. If your belly is lined, better be seen from behind … Let the woman feel the act of love to her marrow, let the performance bring equal delight to the two. Coax and flatter and tease, with inarticulate murmurs, even with sexual words, in the excitement of play, and if nature, alas, denies you the final sensation cry out as if you had come, do your best to pretend … if you have to pretend, be sure the pretense is effective, do your best to convince, prove it by rolling your eyes, prove by your motions, your moans, your sighs, what a pleasure it gives you. (Ovid, The Art of Love translated by Rolfe Humphries)

Other poets weren’t so much concerned with instructing the reader as telling a story, often autobiographical. Catullus wrote innumerable poems dealing with erotic situations. Some of them were more to the point than others:

I beg you, my sweet, my Ipsitilla,
my darling, my sophisticated beauty,
summon me to a midday assignation;
and, if you're willing, do me one big favor:
don't let another client shoot the door bolt,
and don't decide to suddenly go cruising,
but stay at home & get yourself all ready
for nine - yes, nine - successive copulations!
Honestly, if you want it, give the order:
I've eaten, and I'm sated, supinated!
My prick is poking through my cloak and tunic.
(Carmen 32 translated by Charles Martin)

"But is it art?"

Red-figure vase depicting a woman sprinkling penises set in the ground. c.430-420 B.C.

Pornography in ancient Rome seems to have welled up from the dark unconscious of the people, their imagination and inventiveness apparently limitless. The man watching his own sex act in mirrors has found the excitement in the moving image. Nero dressing as a woman and marrying a man has turned his own life into a pornographic show. Instead of renting a video, men stopped in at brothels. In many senses, they were more active participants in their own sex lives than we today, often playing roles in live pornographic scenes, not simply passively observing, as is done in modern society, when viewing films or reading magazines.

Romans lived in a world where sex was not taboo. Because our world frets so over the subject, pagan sexuality has been relegated to a dank corner of history. Museums keep the most lurid pieces in their collections locked away and only recently have some of these pieces comes out of the closet and up from the sub-basement.

What we do know now is that pornography, or sexual representation, has always and will always exist. It is man’s nature to externalize and give form to his sexual desire, just as it is his nature to survive. Sexuality is the healthy will to life that cannot be suppressed and will find any and every way to thrive. Pornography is the also irrepressible black sheep in the family of arts, always rebellious and ever incorrigible.