Eroticism in Pompeii
by Antonio Varone. Translated by Maureen Fant. (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum: 2001. Pg 115, illustrated.) ISBN: 0-89236-628-1.
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - February 11, 2002
What is eroticism, and how was it perceived in the Roman World? In Antonio Varone's new book, Eroticism in Pompeii he explores the nature of eroticism, from an unbiased and unprejudicial manner. He has elected to set his study in Pompeii. Using the archaeological and epigraphic evidence preserved there, when the city was buried after the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, he provides a panoramic overview of eroticism and sexuality in public, private, and religious situations. Throughout, he has tried to set aside our modern notions of morality in order to present this study from the viewpoint of the Pompeians themselves.
To ensure that this work clearly articulates the Pompeian viewpoint, Varone has allowed the Pompeian's to speak with their own voice whenever possible. To this end, he quotes extensively from Martial and other ancient authors. In addition, this book is resplendent with over 100 color illustrations ranging from graphic depictions of the sex act to erotic artwork, such as phallic shaped oil lamps. By modern standards, much of this artwork would be considered obscene. Yet, as Varone points, out, for the inhabitants of Pompeii, erotic images where part of everyday life, both in the private and in the public arena.
Eroticism in Pompeii is organized into thematic sections covering,
Non-Eroticism, detailing phallic art and other forms of expression that the Pompeians did not view as erotic.
Public Displays, which looks at the public aspects of eroticism at banquets and in regard to erotic performances, ranging from events staged in the theater to impromptu striptease acts performed in wine shops.
The Private Sphere, covering erotic art and literature, and its use as an aphrodisiac. This section also discusses how the Pompeians viewed themselves, and their viewpoints on sex, nudity, obscenity, and notions of privacy. By modern standards, Pompeian couples engaging in coitus had no privacy, as slaves were often present, or at least within earshot, during the 'act'.
The Scared Sphere, in this section, Varone details the role sex played in the religious life of the Pompeians, ranging from the role of the Vestal Virgins to the practice of 'sacred prostitution'. He also discusses the 'magical' nature that the Roman's imbued the sex act with, and its use in religious rituals and as part of festival celebrations.
Eroticism in Pompeii provides an objective introduction into an often overlooked aspect of Roman history. This information will not only help you gain a fuller understanding of the Romans, but it also helps to see the Roman's as they saw themselves, rather than through eyes obfuscated by modern ideas of morality. Varone has handled the material discussed in this book, in a tasteful and scholarly manner. This book is meant to educate, not to titillate. However, due to the nature of its content, and the graphic illustrations, this book may not be suitable for all readers.