Last night I watched Scandal (1989) together with my wife. It is a British film on the Profumo affair – a big political and sexual scandal in the 60’s UK -, well done and especially instructive to me in some way. I needed reflection and data. A few days ago I realised in fact how some readers of the MoR were like disgusted, or scared, by my earlier post “Decameron Reloaded. That the Fun begin“.
I also received 8 mails expressing total dissatisfaction, to put it mildly, AND a few people on the other hand – following my invitation to write stories with some ‘licentia’ – sent me a few original porn stories (2 of them very well written) I will not publish because my blog is not a porn site.
Man of Roma is puzzled. His public is mainly from the English-speaking countries. Given the culture (society) MoR is in, he’s therefore willing to raise his voice a bit and say:
“What’s the matter with you people out there? Why the hell sex is so scary?”
Of course, in the said post some innocent, playful fun between humans and bears occurred, true, but it’s not that I believe people think I find polar bears sexy. No. I am puzzled for the lack of any in-between thing so far arriving to my mailbox, eg, outrage, dissatisfaction etc. – or porn. Nothing outside that.
Frankly, this to Man of Roma is strange.
While I am waiting from some insight from my readers, I guess it’s high time for ‘Sex and the city (of Rome). Season 2‘ new posts. We need some explaining, in other words.
I did by the way receive an interesting e-mail from a very nice US student of archaeology, complimenting me for my blog and all and asking me thought-provoking questions, such as:
[Your opinion about] “the different ways that Roman sexuality is viewed by Americans and Europeans”. For some Americans especially – she argued – “the ancient Romans and modern Italians become the same people. When telling a friend of a friend about all the ‘sexual’ souvenirs that could be bought — replicas of herms and phalli, calendars and postcards featuring Pompeii’s erotic art — the woman’s reaction was something along the lines of ‘What kind of people would sell those sorts of things,’ to which I was quite taken aback. But she clearly viewed the ancient Romans as sexually deviant, and thus by association modern Italians.”
I replied to these and other questions with 2 (3?) LONG letters that will provide materials for the new Sex and the city (of Rome) season. I didn’t though focus on erotic art only (of which I know so little). Being a dilettante polymath, I am afraid I have totally confused (plus disappointed) her.
We already know that these frescoes, mosaics, statues etc. shocked the Victorians so much (see our first Post on Roman Sex).
Additionally, an interesting account in French of the best of them (60, with corresponding beautiful lithographs) was written by an unknown author, a certain ‘Colonel Fanin’ (or Famin? A Mistake in the English translation? see later) and published I guess illegally in 1816 in a limited edition by a French antiquarian (Stanislas Marie César Famin: ‘Colonel Fanin’ himself I guess) with the help of the Neapolitans (this French guy and Rome’s Greek cousins were such terrible brats, weren’t they.)
[On the matter, a History today‘s take; a good French blog’s take]
It is revealing (and funny) how 19th Century Europe got so scared of this book. All known original copies were destroyed by the French government though two at least survived. One was hidden in the private case of the British Museum, another ended up in the Library of Congress in Washington. I am pretty sure some billionaire possesses some other copy somewhere in the world.
In 1871 the book was translated into English and went through many pirate (and forbidden) editions. It can now be viewed in the Internet, the problem of the English copy it comes from being the horrible colour separations of the reproduced lithographs.
We do not need to show you all the lithographs and the corresponding comments since you can browse them yourself. These comments seem to me both highly cultivated and captivating. The author appears torn between aroused curiosity, admiration and condemnation.
Below you can see Plate VI (Invocation to Priapus) reproducing a bas-relief which depicted a married couple performing a home sacrifice to this God of fertility.
Here is the comment by the author:
“EVERYTHING in this bas-relief indicates an interior scene, an act of candour and piety, and not a disgusting orgy. The a married pair, clad as decently as the nature of the sacrifice to which they are about to proceed will allow, seem to be asking the god who presides over generation to put an end to a grievous sterility; the expressive gestures of the woman, especially, bear out this explanation. The husband is occupied in stretching out a curtain which is to veil from profane eyes the mysteries of the sacrifice”…
“The god, represented with the figure of a bald-headed and bearded old man, reposes on a little column, before which we observe a kind of altar erected in haste by the married pair, on which they have placed some oak-leaves and the pine-apple which surmounted the thyrsus of the priestesses of Bacchus.”
The Image in Plate XLVIII ( 48 ) reproduces a fresco from Pompeii. It is much more erotic and equally unconventional compared to today’s sexual manners.
“A YOUNG and beautiful married couple are amorously toying on a small bed. A lighted lamp shows that the scene takes place at night-time … the young man is carelessly stretched on his back, while his obliging companion, seated astraddle over him, is left to perform the principal part. In the background may be seen the cubicular slave, who is attentively watching the voluptuous pastime, and seems to be even looking on it with a lustful eye–
Masturbabantur phrygii post ostia servi,
Hectoreo quoties sederat uxor equo.”
Well, I won’t translate these two verses by the Roman poet Martial, but the cubicular ( = in bedroom) slave was common and had to serve his/her masters whenever requested.
Scenes like this have been realised in the 2005 HBO/BBC TV series Rome, “a fictionalized account of Caesar’s rise and fall” (Wikipedia.)
People were mainly shocked by these and other sex scenes, also those who praised the TV series (many did, critics included.) I think it was a pretty good experiment aiming at showing some Roman history together with pre-Christian sexual (and non sexual) habits. The latter didn’t save the series since the former was too heavy for contemporary audiences.
I liked the series though – one of the finest reconstructions of Ancient Rome I’ve ever saw- and I highly recommend it.
“This fresco – we are getting back to our mysterious author – is not without merit as regards its execution. The woman appears strong and well-formed; her fair hair falls over her shoulders in wavy curls. The man is beardless, but his stature is tall, and everything about him denotes a youth full of vigour and fire. The bed, a very inconvenient one for such sports, is … supported by four legs, too slender to resist long if they were not made of iron, a custom which has been perpetuated down to our own day in the south of Italy. It is, nevertheless, possible that this piece of furniture … was composed of a substance more precious than gold, for at the period of the decline, to which this painting belongs, luxury was carried to such a degree among the Romans, that it surpassed even the most marvellous stories of Eastern poets.”
Colonel Fanin tries here in my view to justify such unrestrained manners with the concept of decline but it must be noted that Rome at the times of Pompeii was instead at her apex from every point of view.
He then makes another mistake about the colour of Roman women’s hair (historians having proved that Roman hair was of any colour.)
“The Roman ladies attached great value to fair hair, though Nature had given them such beautiful black hair. It was indeed their habitual custom to have their heads shaved, and to cover them with light hair, which the young girls of Germany or Gaul sold them at fabulously high prices.”
It is true though that the fair and red hair colour was appreciated. Romans were open to a wide world of possibilities, being at the head a vast world.
He here gives us a lively image of Roman unrestrained wealth:
“Every part of the known world at that time contributed to subserve the reckless and mad luxury of the Romans. India sent them fine pearl necklaces, valued at several millions of sistertii; Arabia, her sweetest perfumes; Alexandria, Tyre, and Asia Minor, precious stuffs worked with gold and silk; Sidon, its metal or glass mirrors. Other countries sent to Rome purple, gold, silver, bronze, all the productions both of art and nature, the choicest wines, and the rarest animals. Under the later Scipio, men of high authority at Rome were seen wasting their substance with favourites, others with courtezans, or in concerts and costly feasts, having contracted, during the Persian war, the Greek tastes; and this disorder grew into a madness among the youths.”
So far we have wandered about Roman sexuality trying to understand 1) how remote it is from contemporary sexuality and 2) why everything has radically changed in the West since those times.
The first question seems clear. The Romans were very different and fancifully enjoyed pleasures and sex even though they tried not to be dominated by them (see our earlier post on ancient teachings.)
How different they were finds further evidence in statues like the famous Borghese Hermaphroditus shown above and kept at the Louvre Museum in Paris, especially when we think that these statues were very common in the Greco-Roman world. A hermaphroditus is actually a transsexual.
Can you imagine today a VIP’s living room offering the view of a marble transsexual to guests? Well, apart from a few eccentric artistic milieus, I think even open-minded people would be a bit puzzled, wouldn’t they.
The second question is more difficult. I believe that the Christian religion bears some responsibility, although I acknowledge that sexual pleasure & love are tremendous forces to the extent that they can be a social problem to be handled no matter the culture or epoch we live in.
As the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater put it, we like sex too much, it therefore being potentially dangerous and unproductive, with every society trying to regulate it in a way or another.
Puritanism in its broad meaning, however, (eg loving only what is not pleasurable,) is to be condemned in my view even if it can push us to extremely hard work (puritanism was seen, no need to remind it, as a factor of development in areas of the United States according to Max Weber’s theories – if my memory is not faltering.)
As always it is a matter of right measure. The Romans achieved great things (like the Anglo-Saxons did) and worked hard to attain them but lived pleasantly and were (mostly) not puritanical (in the early Republic they were.)
Therefore it is not by chance the Latin folks originated from them (Italy, France, Portugal, Spain etc.) tend to savour life with taste, refinement and joy, this incidentally also being a reason why the Italian and the French ways of life are getting attractive and represent today a school (not the only one) of savoir vivre in the West.
Thing being Latin folks are more or less taught since they were babies to cultivate beauty and all it implies.
It is so simple,
as simple and beautiful
as a Greek temple.
Their ancestors in fact, our Ancient Romans, didn’t just eat (as many Anglo-Saxons do, though progress is evident): they invented a highly refined culinary art. Equally, they didn’t just reproduce themselves (as many Christian fanatics do): they invented forms of refined eroticism which allowed them to live a fuller life.
Is it wrong? Is it right?
Should beauty in all its forms be a main part of our life?
A full answer is more coomplicated than it seems, but I definitely think it isright.
Yes, I conclusively think it is right, my sweet readers. Oh I really don’t have many doubts about that.