About the Artifacts We Posted Today

Today we posted a couple of artifacts that seemed to raise a few eyebrows: a lamp depicting an erotic scene between a horse and woman and a fragment from a wine jar of a woman and horse kissing. At first sight, you may think wow, these Romans sure were kinky; however, we surmise there is a deeper meaning behind these images. The Romans were an extremely superstitious people and were constantly worried about protecting themselves from the envy or hatred of others. The Romans believed that someone who envied your physical beauty or material prosperity could somehow fix his eye upon you and cause it to emit harmful particles. These particles entered you and could make you sick or even die. Laughter is a sure remedy against the Evil Eye.

There are examples of this apotropaic laughter throughout Roman culture: the ritual joking and ribaldry that takes place at a Roman Triumph, meant to avert the Evil Eye from the victor celebrating his Triumph. In addition, the erotic scenes that are located in the Suburban Baths at Pompeii, these erotic scenes depict socially unacceptable, and in some cases illegal, sexual activities. Some scholars suggest that these erotic scenes helped Romans to remember under which image they left their clothes, however they are also meant to make ordinary Romans laugh because they are acts that a proper Roman would never do, or admit to having done. What makes the images apotropaic is their location: a changing room in a bath house. A person undressing at the baths was particularly susceptible to the Evil Eye of someone who envied his or her beauty…An extremely vulnerable space.

Dr. John R Clarke writes in his book, Looking at Laughter, specifically about the artifact we posted of the erotic scene between woman and horse, “Ancient Roman sources—most notably Apuleius’s Golden Ass—explore both the psychodynamics and the humor of woman-quadruped copulation. Images of sexual intercourse between a woman and a quadruped—especially donkeys, horses, and bulls—are funny because they break the taboo against bestiality even while alluding to men’s notions about the insatiability of women, imagined as wanting ever larger penises and ever more violent penetration. In this composition the artist had no need—nor the space—to represent the theatrical setting for this spectacular sexual act. He was content, as the viewers must have been, to show the essentials of a heavily freighted and extreme taboo.”

In conclusion, Roman humor relies heavily on reversing socially acceptable behavior, pushing the boundaries of social taboos, and mixing superstition with a sense of humor. This is not to say that all sexual imagery in the Roman world was comedic, that is not the case whatsoever. Paintings depicting erotic scenes were painted on the walls of affluent villas as a sign of wealth. Dishes, lamps, bowls, cups, etc. are commonly found with erotic scenes artistically displayed. The Romans celebrated sexuality as a gift from the gods and as an affirmation of life. However, they also used it, in its most obscene forms, as a superstitious weapon.

(If you would like more information about interpreting Roman sexual imagery, I highly suggest reading Dr. John R Clarke, he has written several books on the topic)


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  21. rembrandtswife said: Thank you! This was very informative, and it certainly makes sense with what I already knew about Roman culture and its sexual attitudes.
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