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Thread: The love lives of the ancient Romans

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    Elite Member Honey's Avatar
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    Default The love lives of the ancient Romans

    From one-night stands to steamy encounters in the bathhouse, Pompeii was a society obsessed with sex




    Sex, shopping and chasing slaves
    Roman sexual culture was different from our own. Women, as we have seen at Pompeii, were much more visible in the Roman world than in many other parts of the ancient Mediterranean. They shopped, they could dine with the men, they disposed of wealth and made lavish benefactions. Yet it was still a man's world in sex as it was in politics. Power, status and good fortune were expressed in terms of the phallus. Hence the presence of phallic imagery in almost unimaginable varieties all round the town.
    This is one of the most puzzling, if not disconcerting, aspects of Pompeii for modern visitors. There are phalluses greeting you in doorways, phalluses above bread ovens, phalluses carved into the surface of the street and plenty more phalluses with bells on and wings. One of the most imaginative creations, which once jingled in the Pompeian breeze, is the lusty phallus-bird, a combination (I guess) of a joke and an unashamed celebration of the essential ingredient of manhood.
    In this world, the main functions of respectable, well-off married women - that is, the occupants of the larger houses at Pompeii - were twofold: first the dangerous job of bearing children (childbirth was a big killer in Ancient Rome, as it was in every period up to the modern era); and second the management of house and household. One tombstone from Rome famously hits the nail on the head. It is an epitaph put up by a husband to his wife Claudia. It praises her beauty, her conversation, her elegance; but the bottom line is that “she bore two sons, she kept the house, she made wool”.
    For elite men, the basic message was that sexual penetration correlated with pleasure and power. Sexual partners might be of either sex. There was plenty of male-with-male sexual activity in the Roman world, but only the very faintest hints that “homosexuality” was seen as an exclusive sexual preference, let alone lifestyle choice. Sexual fidelity to a wife was not prized or even particularly admired. In the search for pleasure, the wives, daughters and sons of other elite men were off-limits (and crossing that boundary might be heavily punished by law). The bodies of slaves and, up to a point, of social inferiors, were there for the taking. Poorer citizens, with a less-ready supply of servile sexual labour, would no doubt use prostitutes instead. But individual relations between Roman men and women were not as unnuanced and mechanical as my stark summary might suggest.
    All kinds of relationships of care and tenderness flourished, whether between husband and wife, master and slave, lover and beloved. An expensive gold bracelet, for example, found on the body of a woman at a settlement just outside Pompeii is inscribed with the words, “From the master to his slave girl”. It reminds us that affection can exist even within these structures of exploitation (though how far that affection was reciprocated by the slave girl concerned, we of course do not know). And the walls of Pompeii, both inside and out, carry plenty of vivid testimony to passion, jealousy and heartbreak with which it is hard for us not to identify, even if anachronistically, “Marcellus loves Praestina and she doesn't give a damn”, “Restitutus has cheated on lots of girls”. All the same, the basic structure of Roman sexual relations was a fairly brutal one, and not one that was female friendly.

    Feasting and frolicking
    The lavish banquet at which men and women recline in various states of undress, being fed grapes by battalions of slaves or tucking into silver platefuls of stuffed dormouse, is a familiar image from sword-and-sandals movies.
    The Romans themselves had a hand in mythologising their eating and dining. At Pompeii itself we find wall paintings depicting extravagant parties that fit nicely with our own modern stereotype of Roman dining. One scene shows two couples reclining on couches covered with rugs and cushions. Though hardly a picture of sexual debauchery, other types of excess are on display. The drink is set out on two tables near by. A considerable quantity has already been consumed, for a third man has passed out on one of the couches, while a woman in the background has to be supported by her partner or slave. Another painting from the same room shows a similar scene, but this time in the open air, with the couches covered by awnings and a slave mixing up wine in a large bowl (wine was usually mixed with water in the ancient world).
    So do the dining rooms and dining customs of Pompeii match up to these images on its walls? In part. A group of table settings from another house in the city show four elderly men, naked, with long dangling penises, each supporting a small tray for holding appetisers, titbits or any dainty food.
    But everyday food for most Pompeians, was far from showy. In fact it must have been a repetitive - if healthy - diet of bread, olives, wine, cheese, fruit, pulses and a few vegetables. Fish would have been available and, more rarely, meat.
    The basic diet of ordinary Pompeians is vividly illustrated by a neatly written list, scratched into the atrium wall of a house. Presumably it represents an attempt by someone to keep track of his or her recent expenditure. We cannot now decode all the Latin terms, but it is basically a diet of bread, oil, wine and cheese, with a few extras thrown in.
    It is easy to feel romantic about the simple and healthy diet that these lists seem to represent. Indeed Roman poets, a comfortably-off crowd whatever their protestations of poverty, often waxed lyrical about the wholesome fare of the peasant. Cheap local plonk, they crowed, and some simple bread and cheese, were better than a banquet if the company was right. So indeed it might have been. But the eating habits of the ordinary Pompeians were a far cry from the image of Roman dining in modern movies, or from the image of dining displayed on the walls of Pompeii itself.

    Binge-drinking and brawls
    The best way to escape a diet of bread, cheese and fruit, eaten in small lodgings, where there were limited or no facilities for cooking anything more interesting, was to eat out.
    We get a glimpse of the atmosphere of a bar from paintings in two drinking establishments in the town where the images on the walls were obviously meant to entertain the customers with scenes of the “bar life” that they were enjoying. Humorous, parodic, idealising, though these may be, they are our best guide to Pompeian café culture.
    The first series is from the so-called Inn (or bar) of Salvius (“Mr Safe Haven”). On the left, a man and a woman enjoy a rather awkwardly posed kiss. Above them is the caption “I don't want to [the key word is sadly lost] with Myrtalis”. Whatever the man did not want to do with Myrtalis, or who she was, we shall never know. Perhaps this is a vignette of the fickleness of passion, much the same then as now: “I don't want to hang around with Myrtalis any more, I'm getting off with this girl.” Or perhaps, given the stiffness of the pose, this girl is Myrtalis and the man is none too keen on the encounter.
    Drinking is followed by a game of dice in the next scene, and another argument is brewing. A couple of men are sitting at a table. One shouts, “I've won”, while the other objects, “It's not a three,it's a two”. By the final scene, they have come to blows. It is too much for the landlord, who throws them out. “If you want to fight, go outside,” he says. The customers, as they looked at the paintings, were presumably supposed to get the message.

    Baring all at the baths
    A tombstone from Rome, put up some time in the first century to an ex-slave Tiberius Claudius Secundus, by his partner Merope, includes the piquant observation: “Wine, sex and baths ruin our bodies, but they are the stuff of life - wine, sex and baths”.
    Roman bathing was synonymous with Roman culture: wherever the Romans went, so too did Roman baths. Bathing in this sense was not simply a method of washing, though cleanliness was part of its purpose. It was a mixture of activities: sweating, exercising, steaming, swimming, ball-gaming, sunbathing, being “scraped” and rubbed down. It was Turkish bathing-plus, with all kinds of optional extras, from barbers to libraries.
    Everybody except the very poorest went to the baths, including some slaves - even if they were only acting as retinue for their master. But, as a general rule, the well-off would have shared their bathing with those less fortunate than themselves. In other words, unlike for dining, they went out to bathe.
    Bathing naked, or nearly naked (there is evidence for both), the poor were in principle no different from the wealthy, possibly healthier and of finer physique. This was Roman society on display to itself; it was, as one modern historian has put it, “a hole in the ozone layer of the social hierarchy”.
    But nakedness, luxury and the pleasures of hot, steamy recreation were, in the eyes of many, a dangerous combination. Unsurprisingly, given the nakedness and the possible mingling of women and men (at least in Roman fantasy), baths were also associated with sex. Just like bars, some have been thought to be brothels masquerading under another name.
    And it is not only the modern visitor who is drawn to reflect on quite how hygienic it all was. There was no chlorination to mitigate the effects of the urine and other less sterile bodily detritus. Nor was the water in the various pools constantly replaced, even if there was sometimes an attempt to introduce a steady flow of new water into them.
    The Roman medical writer Celsus offers the sensible advice not to go to the baths with a fresh wound (“it normally leads to gangrene”) . The baths, in other words, may have been a place of wonder, pleasure and beauty for the humble Pompeian bather. They might also have killed him.

    © Mary Beard 2008. Extracted from Pompeii (Profile Books, September 18, £25). The book is available at £22.50, free p&p, from Times Books; tel 0870 608080, timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst
    Mary Beard will speak at the British Museum on Monday, November 10, at 6.30pm. Tickets are £5 but Times readers can order tickets for £3. Call 020-7323 8896 and quote “Times offer”.

    The love lives of the ancient Romans - Times Online

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    Elite Member McJag's Avatar
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    Thanks for this-I enjoyed it.
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    Elite Member Just Kill Me's Avatar
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    Interesting read.

    I'll admit to being a little weirdo and going "awwwwwwww" at this "An expensive gold bracelet, for example, found on the body of a woman at a settlement just outside Pompeii is inscribed with the words, “From the master to his slave girl”. It reminds us that affection can exist even within these structures of exploitation (though how far that affection was reciprocated by the slave girl concerned, we of course do not know)." The last part made me chuckle.
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    Elite Member B.C.'s Avatar
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    I visited Pompeii and the phallic symobls were everywhere. Carved in stone and in the art work. Interesting article. I should have read up on it before going but it was obvious where their heads were. lol I have a picture of the god of fertility with a huge member being held up by a scale(?) at the entrance to a house. What a fine greeting. Their was also pictures of couples engaded in different sexual positions in the brothel. The whole city was very interesting. Thanks for the article Honey.
    Last edited by B.C.; October 5th, 2008 at 01:30 AM.

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    Elite Member cupcake's Avatar
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    did they have stds back then? lol
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    Elite Member Grimmlok's Avatar
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    um, yes

    just not HIV

    mostly clap, syphilis, plagues...
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    Elite Member Fluffy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by B.C. View Post
    I visited Pompeii and the phallic symobls were everywhere. Carved in stone and in the art work. Interesting article. I should have read up on it before going but it was obvious where their heads were. lol I have a picture of the god of fertility with a huge member being held up by a scale(?) at the entrance to a house. What a fine greeting. Their was also pictures of couples engaded in different sexual positions in the brothel. The whole city was very interesting. Thanks for the article Honey.
    I remember hearing that phallic symbols and erections appear in Egyptian hieroglyphics. So much so that the Victorians who looked at them did not want women looking at them.

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    Elite Member yanna's Avatar
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    There are some places in Greece where in Carnival there is the tradition of baking things into phalluses for good luck. I saw a documentary and there were those lovely old women carrying those things around.

    From Pompeii I mostly remember the dick shaped arrows leading to the nearest brothel. Too funny.

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    Elite Member B.C.'s Avatar
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    Yanna, what about the brothel artwork. I have postcard from Pompeii with the ancient porn on it but I'd be afraid to send it to anyone, I might get arrested or crossed off their Christmas card list.

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    stuffed dormouse, eek. loved the article, tho.

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    Elite Member WhateverLolaWants's Avatar
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    Very interesting. Hadn't heard much of this before and had always wonder4ed how they got away with public baths an no sanitation.
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    Elite Member Quazar's Avatar
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    This was very interesting. Thank you for posting.

    I often wondered how anyone had sex, up until maybe 100 years ago with the advent of modern plumbing and hygiene? Everyone and everything was so dirty, how could people stand each other?!

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    Elite Member Honey's Avatar
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    I guess if everyone smells it is harder to notice? Like if you and your hubby have garlic and kiss it is better than just one of you eating it..or it stinks

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