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

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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.”

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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.

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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)

Sex and the City (of Rome). 1

Callipygian Venus. Fair use

ITALIAN VERSION

The ancient Greco-Romans had a totally different attitude toward sex (so pls the minor or the puritanical shouldn’t read further.)

Suffice it to have a look at these statues, both beautiful and erotic, to intuitively grasp a sensuality that was open and entirely different from the Western manners of today.

The beauty and natural perfection of these bodies convey in fact the idea – a very simple idea, this very gifted Greek student I recently met would say – that sex wasn’t perceived as lewd or licentious; it was felt instead as one of the joys of life.

It is so simple:
as simple (and beautiful)
as a Greek temple
.

Sex was actually enjoyed naturally though in ways most contemporary folks wouldn’t even imagine, especially when we consider that these statues were somehow linked to rituals and religion.

We can admire above the perfect classical beauty of Venus Kallipygos, while, below, the statue of a Satyr (which a Roman female friend of mine chose among a set and assured me:‘it’s a pretty good erotic sample.’ Well, I couldn’t but yield to her superior discernment.)

Satyr (or Satiro, in Italian)

Venus was the Goddess of love (both carnal and spiritual) while a Satyr was a Dionysian creature lover of wine, women and boys, and ready for every physical pleasure. Child satyrs existed also (which appears a sad thing to us, nowadays) and took part in Bacchanalian/Dionysian religious rituals, usually (or sometimes) involving orgies too.

At this point I’m sure every reader cannot but agree that the Greco-Romans had a VERY different attitude toward sex. No doubt about that. An ENTIRELY different attitude indeed.

lupaottimigut1.jpg

If we could forget that these are classical statues, if we could regard them just as they appear to us and out of their context, we’d surely see them as pornographic.

According to the Wikipedia:

“the concept of pornography as understood today did not exist until the Victorian era. …When large scale excavations of Pompeii were undertaken in the 1860s, much of the erotic art of the Romans came to light, shocking the Victorians who saw themselves as the intellectual heirs of the Roman Empire. They did not know what to do with the frank depictions of sexuality, and endeavored to hide them away ….. The moveable objects were locked away in the Secret Museum in Naples, Italy.”

[For more on these Pompeii erotic artifacts: this post of ours; two other posts, 1 and 2, from Ancient Digger, the former showing a video on the erotic artifacts, the latter discussing Roman sexuality & erotic art; a BBC program on the secret museum. Further readings are listed at the bottom of the page]

Shocking Roman Sexuality

Pan & goat Roman sex
Pan copulating with a she-goat. Click to enlarge and for credits (Wikimedia)

I do not quite agree with Wikipedia on how and when the modern concept of pornography was conceived, seeming this to me a totally Anglo-Saxon centred observation, forgetful of how history can be ancient [a stupid – and not true – thing to say, october 6, 2019].

I might be wrong (or right) but who the hell cares, chissenefrega, this whole Victorian thing being incredibly funny.

I can see these prudish Victorians feeling themselves as the heirs of the Romans (which actually they were, at least in my view) who much to their horror found out how perverted the Romans had been (at least in their view), while together with the Italians they were uncovering all these sexy statues and frescoes.

I am imagining their shocked pale faces and am especially fantasizing about their shamefully and hastily helping the Neapolitans to hide somewhere the abominable truth.

The Neapolitans, incidentally, were at that time probably laughing at them a bit too, being of course much less disturbed by all those “frank depictions of sexuality” (try to guess why, dear reader … ).

Buttock Contest

Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks. Fair use

Getting back to the Ancients, this Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks is uncovering herself and looking back (and down) in order to evaluate her perfect behind.

The reason is again very simple (and very erotic, I’ll confess.) All originated from a buttock contest between two gorgeous sisters.

For which reason, who knows, this statue dedicated to Venus-Aphrodite might exactly represent both the winner and her behind. I mean – it’s sheer historical interest, of course – there’s a chance we are looking at her real ass (not at usual idealized hindquarters according to Greek aesthetics.)

And, the self-evaluation of her buttocks – pretty sure of that – was even more obvious than it appears today since statues were mostly painted in full colour, therefore the direction of her gaze was probably more evident, her pupils being painted.

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This cult of Venus-Aphrodite with beautiful buttocks appeared in Greek Syracuse (Sicily, Italy,) according to some ancient author, since this is where the sisters apparently lived.

Again, needless to say, it would be inconceivable nowadays to dedicate a sanctuary, a holy place, to a goddess because of a girl’s hot butttocks (read in the Wikipedia the whole peculiar story of the two lovely sisters.)

Goddess Venus

Esquiline Venus, in all her voluptuousness
Esquiline Venus, in all her voluptuousness, found in 1874 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome (from the Horti Lamiani possibly). Capitoline Museums, Rome. Click for credits and other pictures of her

Venus was the goddess of beauty, fertility and love.

The Roman Venus was born around Lavinium, according to Strabo. If true it was not by chance since Aeneas, the great Roman ancestor and son of Venus, landed in that area and founded the town after the name of Lavinia, his wife. The Romans by the way were children of Venus and of Mars, the God of War: love and war – a weird mix, isn’t it.

This I am thinking while strolling between the Colosseum, to my left, and the temple of Venus and Roma, to my right, between these symbols of life and death. How multihued the Romans were.

The Greek Aphrodite was instead born in Cyprus – where the Greek student comes from, although I do not believe in signs, like Brasilian Coelho does.

Vénus de l'Esquilin or Venus Esquilina
Vénus de l’Esquilin or Venus Esquilina, again. Some scholars suggest the model for this statue was Cleopatra herself. Flickr image, click for credits. Musei Capitolini. Roma

Young couples gathered close to the Venus temples for petting, necking and even coupling (green areas with temples where common in Rome.) People were probably discreet but what is interesting is that their loving felt somehow enhanced, even sanctified, by the presence of the Goddess, which is again unimaginable today despite our so-called sexual freedom.

Think of a today’s scenario where men and women flock near a Catholic or an Anglican, or a Lutheran church, in spring time, or in any time, for petting and all. I mean, even the mere thought could offend a true Christian.

Of course I do ask for pardon though please it’d also be nice if religious people did some effort as well. We are not here to offend religion(s) nor to make a porn site out this blog (which could make us richer though not necessarily happier.) We are here to talk about the Western roots. Now it turns these ancient Greeks & Romans had entirely different sexual mores.

Is it good? Is it bad? Hard to say. We somehow prefer the ancient customs though it is our personal opinion.  That is, we love to think Sex to equal Beauty, love and sex to be a sublime joy that shouldn’t be necessarily related to reproduction (like ALL Popes tried endlessly to teach us.)

lupaottimigut1.jpg

An Oppressive Revolution

OK, one might say. If these are our Western roots, what the hell has then happened? Why had we to undergo such an oppressive revolution which turned one of the joys of life into something indecent?

Was it because of the Victorians? Because of the Muslims? Was it because of the Christian priests and Fathers?

Perhaps the Victorians had later some influence on India, a country were the Kama Sutra was written, the first great text about love and sexual intercourse – beautiful, poetic and scientific – and the Victorians arrived with their not entirely positive influence in this field of human life …

[…if what the Wikipedia says is true.  I need some feedback by my Indians readers. Update: I received extensive Indian feedback one year later]

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As for the West I am sure the answer is to be found during the times when the Roman Empire turned into a Christian Roman Empire, hence from Emperor Constantine onward (4th century AD.)

Not immediately though. It took some time, it surely took some time before we became totally repressed.

The Christians were mainly responsible, in my opinion, for this change of attitude (and for atrocities committed against non-Christians soon after Christianity took over), but it’d be fair to add that numerous pagans had already become a bit more puritanical as a reaction to the excesses of the previous ages.

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One last thing. Are anywhere to be found survivals of such ancient freer attitude towards sex?

I believe so. We have said (Braudel had said) that great civilisations do not die. Plus we had entitled this post Permanences III (but changed its title later.)

Ok. Let’s not spoil what is next in the Sex and the city (of Rome) series.

A Roman Invoking Venus

We’ll conclude:

1) with this Roman copy of Castor and Pollux, or Dioscuri (youths of Zeus) by Praxiteles, Madrid (see below) – also enthusiastically approved by my female friend;

2) with Lucretius’ initial prayer to Venus.

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Lucretius is a great Roman poet. From his verses one can get a good feel of how a real Ancient Roman felt about Venus.

So it is a pretty good conclusion for this Sex and the Romans num. 1 post.

If you are lucky enough to appreciate these verses you’ll live a unique experience, a real time-machine experience. This also classics offer, a time-machine experience.

Try to read these words attentively. You might penetrate the mysteries of a lost, arcane – though still living, still living – world …

Man of Roma

Dioskouroi. Madrid. Praxiteles (Roman copy) fair use

Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.

Initial invocation to Venus.

“Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!

For soon as comes the springtime face of day,
And procreant gales blow from the West unbarred,
First fowls of air, smit to the heart by thee,
Foretoken thy approach, O thou Divine,
And leap the wild herds round the happy fields
Or swim the bounding torrents. Thus amain,
Seized with the spell, all creatures follow thee
Whithersoever thou walkest forth to lead,
And thence through seas and mountains and swift streams,
Through leafy homes of birds and greening plains,
Kindling the lure of love in every breast,
Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
Kind after kind. And since ’tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose
For Memmius mine, whom thou hast willed to be
Peerless in every grace at every hour-

Wherefore indeed, Divine one, give my words
Immortal charm. Lull to a timely rest
O’er sea and land the savage works of war,
For thou alone hast power with public peace
To aid mortality; since he who rules
The savage works of battle, puissant Mars,
How often to thy bosom flings his strength
O’ermastered by the eternal wound of love-
And there, with eyes and full throat backward thrown,
Gazing, my Goddess, open-mouthed at thee,
Pastures on love his greedy sight, his breath
Hanging upon thy lips. Him thus reclined
Fill with thy holy body, round, above!
Pour from those lips soft syllables to win
Peace for the Romans, glorious Lady, peace!.”

Of The Nature of Things [De Rerum Natura]
by Lucretius [Titus Lucretius Carus]
(Initial invocation to Venus)
Translated by William Ellery Leonard
(1876-1944)
Project Gutenberg Text

Reference and further reading:

  • Michael Grant and Antonia Mulas, Eros in Pompeii: The Erotic Art Collection of the Museum of Naples. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1997 (translated from the original 1975 Italian edition).
  • Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996) ISBN 0-520-20729-7.
  • Antonio Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii. Getty Trust Publications: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.
  • John Clarke, Roman Sex: 100 B.C. to A.D. 250, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.
  • “Colonel Fanin” (Stanislas Marie César Famin), The Royal Museum at Naples, being some account of the erotic paintings, bronzes and statues contained in that famous “cabinet secret”(1871) On-line translation of Musée royal de Naples; peintures, bronzes et statues érotiques du cabinet secret, avec leur explication, 1836. Brief introduction by J.B. Hare, 2003.

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Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome) 2
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)

Sex and the city (of Rome). Season II. 1

See also:

Silvestri, Berlusconi and the Emperor Tiberius