Medium:           Context:                 Content:

Commission         Pompeii                    Erotic

Fresco                   1st century CE         Nakedness and nudity

Patron                   Public bath house   Pornography

Private home          Power relations

Roman religion




Works Cited

Christ, Alice. “How Men Look: On the Masculine Ideal and the Body Beautiful.” Art Journal 56.2 (1997) : 24-30. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.

Cohen, Beth. Not the Classical Ideal: Athens and the Construction of the Other in Greek Art. Leiden: Brill, 2000. Print.

De Simone, Antonio. “The History of the Museum and the Collection.” Eros in Pompeii. By Michael Grant. New York: Bonanza Books, 1982. Print.

Eck, Beth. “Nudity and Framing: Classifying Art, Pornography, Information and Ambiguity.” Sociological Forum 16.4 (2001) : 603-632. Scholar’s Portal. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.

Grant, Michael. Eros in Pompeii. New York: Bonanza Books, 1982. Print.

Kleiner, Fred. A History of Roman Art. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. Print.

Özgenel, Lale. “A Tale of Two Cities: In Search for Ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum.” METU JFA 1 (2008) : 1-25. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.

Parker, Holdt. “Love’s Body Anatomized: The Ancient Erotic Handbooks and the Rhetoric of Sexuality”. Pornography and representation in Greece and Rome. Ed. Amy Richlin.  New York: Oxford, 1992. Print.

Pierce, James. From Abacus to Zeus: A Handbook of Art History. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998. Print.

Procida, Richard & Rita Simon. Global Perspectives on Social Issues: Pornography. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003. Print.

Ramage, N & Andrew Ramage. Roman Art. Upper Saddle River: 2005. Print.


By examining these images this investigation has explored the ever fine lines between males and females, active and passive agents and obscene and acceptable imagery. Through consideration of the frames and contexts of the frescoes, this exercise has offered multiple readings of the images and some preliminary conclusions as well as further questions on how images function with and through societal relations and dichotomies.

Half of the images examined here were deemed pornographic in nature upon their discovery and were essentially hidden away from the public in order to protect the people from their corrupting obscenity. This study has shown not only that all of these images share a common style and subject matter, but more importantly that they all deal with gender relations in such a way that may have been threatening to an 18th century monarchy. Although not necessarily supporting a feminist agenda, all of these images question and play with gender, agency and decency dichotomies which is still relevant in our modern society.

Two Men and a Woman Making Love

South wall of the changing rooms, Thermae, Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum of Naples in Naples. c. 79 CE. Fresco.

Located within the changing room of a bath house, this fresco depicts one man penetrating another while he penetrates a woman. It should be noted that its location within a men’s changing room in a bath house allows for both a public and limited viewing of the painting. The image is restricted to only male viewers but any male who could afford to attend would have the opportunity to see it.

This image includes less anatomical details than the other fresco found in a bath house, but the sexual act shown is much less conventional. The figures are stacked one behind the other in such a way that the breasts and genital of all participants are hidden. In fact, the figures are composed in such a summary manner that the skin colour of each figure is one of the only really identifying features. The two men are painted a darker brown and the woman is a light peach tone. The woman wears a bandeau top, sometimes attributed as a bra and other times as a bikini, which covers her breasts. She is the only figure who wears any clothing, as the men are shown completely naked. While showing an act that seems so highly sexual and atypical, even in ancient terms, why not expose the breasts of the woman?

It can be argued that this scene is not outwardly explicit or obscene, but rather it is the filling-in of the scene by the viewer that make it so. By applying the frame of sexual encounter to the image, the viewer understands that one man penetrates another, while he in turn penetrates a woman. Outside of this frame, one could read the figures as layered one on top of the other, indicating depth as the figures receding into the background, rather than engaging each other on the same plane. The foreshortening of the couch creates a shallow ledge for the figures to be positioned on, however, they could hypothetically fit side by side. Instead, the reader understands that the figures are positioned in a interconnecting straight line.

It seems that the image does not need to be explicit in order to get its message across. The artist uses a visual short hand to produce a scene that was understandable to his audience. Given that this scene was commissioned for the men’s changing room of a bath, the artist’s original audience can be narrowed down to citizen males and their slaves who could afford the price of a bath house visit. While the fee was not large, it did presumably keep some of the lower earning citizens excluded. It seems that this type of image would have been familiar to the men, as it was completed in the same style as other frescoes in Pompeii. Also its similarity to the fresco found in Cubiculum 43, indicates that for some this type of image was considered appropriate for both private and public spaces. Although it should again be noted that the bedrooms of a Roman home were more public than modern bedrooms, and that the change rooms had restricted access, making them less public than other civic spaces in the city.

The woman here is perhaps less active than those seen in the other images. She is acted upon rather than controlling the situation. In this grouping, the man on the left appears to have the most agency taking into account ancient attitudes. In the Roman era, to be the penetrator was considered the most active and powerful position in a sexual encounter. The man in the middle holds an usual position as he both penetrates and is penetrated. His position is almost neutral as he gives up and exercises power simultaneously. The ambiguity of his position is perhaps the most interesting element of the fresco in that it creates the possibility to break out of the usual active/passive dichotomy. By combining active and passive qualities into one figure, perhaps he most accurately represents the position of both men and women in the world.

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Two Men and a Woman Making Love

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Couple Making Love

Wall of changing room, Thermae, Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum of Naples in Naples. c. 79 CE. Fresco.

This particularly damaged scene of a couple making love was found on the wall of a bath house in the men’s changing room, which provided both public and limited viewing. The position of the couple and inclusion of genital details makes the act explicit. Both the man and woman are shown completely naked and while the man’s genitals are partially obscured by the woman’s body, she is completely exposed.

It should be noted that this fresco is not as well preserved as most the others examined in this study. The left and bottom half of the fresco has flaked considerably and there are large cracks from the top half, which obscure the image. This may be due to its location in a bath house, where the moisture most likely contributed to the plaster’s deterioration.

In the image the woman sits atop a man who reclines on a couch. The man looks up to the woman, with the back of his head facing the viewer. Adversely, the woman faces straight out to the viewer, in an aggressive, frank pose. She rests both of her arms on her knees and her whole body turns toward the viewer instead of engaging with her amorous partner although they are still coupled. There also seems to be something like a serpent which curls over the woman’s left thigh and arm. It is unclear whether this is part of the original image or if it was added later or what meaning it may have.

The woman wears a contemporary Pompeian hairstyle, similar to that seen on Paquius Proculus’ wife and the Venus Anadyomenes, with loose curls framing her face and a head band to hold the rest back. She does not appear to wear jewellery or any other identifying items of clothing, but perhaps this can be explained by the intimate situation. The rendering of her face is also comparable to that of the Venus Anadyomenes, with emphasis on the dark eyebrows and pronounced brow ridge.

While it would be rash to suggest these frescoes were painted by the same artist without examining them closely in person, it does seem evident that the same style and careful attention was applied to both. The fresco found in a public bath house seems to be of equal importance as that found in the more private space of the peristyle. Although they were found in different types of buildings, it seems that the two patrons valued these subjects equally. While the difference in location explains the differing degree of sexual explicitness, both frescoes were completed by competent artists in a medium which requires skill, time and expensive materials.

Grant puts forth that this type of vignette were a sort of pornography that was found both in public and private places, and were meant as an inducement to make love (154). However, Grant only notes that these images appeared in brothels and bedrooms and this reading seems rather limited as it ignores images found in bath houses which, as evident in this study, may be very similar in content and execution to those found in private homes.

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Couple Making Love

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Scene of Lovers

House of the Centenary IX 8.3 (Cubiculum 43). National Archaeological Museum of Naples in Naples. c. 79 CE. Fresco.

This fresco, depicting a couple making love on a Roman couch, was found in the cubiculum or bedroom of a private home. This is the most private setting explored in this case study, although the Roman bedroom was most likely not as private as a modern one. Bedrooms could be always occupied by the same person or the room could have a variety of uses depending on the season and needs of the owners. The inclusion of a fresco, a very immobile medium, in the decoration of the room seems to indicate that this room had a more permanent use and occupant. The subject matter of the fresco seems particularly well-suited to a bedroom as well, as it depicts an activity that would likely take place in one. While the positioning of the figures clearly makes the scene sexual, the lack of detail and the bandeau top on the woman keeps the image from being too graphic.

The fact that this vignette was chosen for the bedroom, one of few really private spaces within the Roman house, changes the frame for reading the image. In this case the interpretation typically applied to satyrs, that they were meant to encourage love making, seems appropriate for considering the setting and content of the image. As seen in the an-aiskhunto-graphoi discussed by Holdt Parker, Romans were interested in guides to sex and perhaps this image functioned as a visual aid in the same educational vein, as well as a stimulant for copulation.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 6:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Scene of Lovers

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Dancing Satyr

Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum of Naples in Naples. c. 79 CE. Fresco.

This fresco is a common depiction of a dancing satyr as they often appear naked with grotesque features in Greek and Roman art. Being that satyrs are a hybrid of goats and men, their nude depictions are often found to be acceptable in ancient and modern times because they have mythological origins and have largely non-human bodies.

Satyrs have been received in modern culture in a variety of ways. They are sometimes read as representations of the ‘true’ nature of men as it emerges under the influence of wine, which satyrs are always associated because of their connection to Dionysus, the Roman god of wine (Cohen 44). While the satyr shown is shown in the act of revelling, he dances without engaging in any behaviour that would break from societal expectations. Also his genitals are largely obscured, and certainly do not emphasize his masculinity. So this particular image does not seem to fit the description of a manifestation of male liberty from society.

Satyr images have also been connected to satyr plays in Greek culture which were parodies of serious mythical tragedies which had choruses of satyrs instead of humans (Cohen 45). As Cohen indicates, the problem with relating a satyr image such as this one to a satyr play is that when an actor is intended to be shown than the figure wears a mask, shorts and a fake phallus that is clearly strapped on (45). It is clear in this image that the satyr is a ‘real’ satyr, as he does not make use of a costume, is completely nude and while he does have a grotesque face does not wear a mask.

A final and most interpretation of the Dancing Satyr surfaces when the surrounding frescoes are taken into consideration. The Dancing Satyr is framed by two painted pilasters and was painted in a small room just outside the Room of Mysteries, for which the villa is named. In the larger room, the initiation rites of a Dionysiac cult are depicted in a near life-sized fresco cycle. In this cycle, satyrs appear with female satyrs, winged divine creatures and even Dionysus himself, as a young bride is initiated into the cult.

The Dancing Satyr is depicted on a painted ‘Pompeian’ red marble revetment panel flanked by two flat black and red pilasters, very similar to those seen within the larger room. The satyr’s panel is also topped by a thin border with a wider border crowning it. This same effect is seen in the large room, although both the thin and wider border in the large room are more elaborate than those in the small room. By comparing the style, colours and location of the Dancing Satyr with those in the larger room, it is clear that they were meant to be seen in relation to one another. The satyr acts as a welcoming and perhaps warning figure to the visitor of what is to be experienced in the next room.

Interestingly enough the Dionysus cult, both in Greece and Rome, was most popular with women rather than men. It seems that this part of the Villa of Mysteries was created so that the women of the household could worship privately (Kleiner 43). Although it is impossible to know absolutely the sex of the patron of these frescoes, it seems likely that one or more females were involved in choosing the subject matter.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 6:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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