Roman erotica  

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"While preparations were being made, the damsel sat in a room looking up at a certain painting, in which was represented how Jove is said once to have sent a golden shower into the bosom of Danaƫ." --Terence's Eunuch[1]

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ancient Rome is known for its erotic literature and erotic arts.

In the visual arts, there are numerous sexually explicit paintings and sculpture from the ruined Roman buildings in Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Warren Cup illustrates the homosexual and pederastic nature of Roman sexuality. Sex acts were depicted in baths and large phalli were often used near entryways, for the phallus was a good luck charm, and the carvings were common in homes. Other famous examples include The Satyr and the Goat, the Venus Anadyomene, the Priapus from the House of the Vettii and the so-called tintinnabula, bronze phallic wind chimes.

In literature there are the proto-novels by Apuleius and Petronius; the poetry of Juvenal, Martial, Catullus, Propertius and Tibullus; as well as the anonymous Priapeia collection; and plays by Plautus and Terrence, both influenced by Menander.


Erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Hic Habitat Felicitas , anatomic ex-voti

Erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum was discovered in the ancient cities around the bay of Naples (particularly of Pompeii and Herculaneum) after extensive excavations began in the 18th century. The city was found to be full of erotic art and frescoes, symbols, and inscriptions regarded by its excavators as pornographic. Even many recovered household items had a sexual theme. The ubiquity of such imagery and items indicates that the sexual mores of the ancient Roman culture of the time were much more liberal than most present-day cultures, although much of what might seem to us to be erotic imagery (eg oversized phalluses) was in fact fertility-imagery. This clash of cultures led to an unknown number of discoveries being hidden away again. For example, a wall fresco which depicted Priapus, the ancient god of sex and fertility, with his extremely enlarged penis, was covered with plaster (and, as Karl Schefold explains (p. 134), even the older reproduction below was locked away "out of prudishness" and only opened on request) and only rediscovered in 1998 due to rainfall. The Times reported in 2006 "Erotic frescoes put Pompeii brothel on the tourist map".


fascinum, Fescennine Verses, fascinum, tintinnabula, Mutunus Tutunus

A fascinum in Ancient Rome was a phallus-shaped amulet worn around the necks (often of children), to ward off the evil eye or to bring fertility. The word is ultimately the origin of the English verb to fascinate.



The bacchanalia were wild and mystic festivals of the Roman and Greek god Bacchus. The bacchanalia were originally held in secret and only attended by women. Later, admission to the rites was extended to men and celebrations took place five times a month. The term bacchanalia has become a byword for any drunken orgy.

Cleopatra and Messalina

Cleopatra, Messalina

Cleopatra, Messalina represent the female stereotype of the sexually insatiable woman which gained popularity in the Middle Ages and is still present in contemporary culture.


The major writers of erotica at Rome were Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid.

Prose by Apuleius and Petronius

Poetry by Juvenal, Ovid, Martial, Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus

Plays by Plautus and Terrence, both influenced by Menander

Ars Amatoria

Ars Amatoria

Ars Amatoria ("The Art of Love") is a series of three books by the Roman poet Ovid. Written in verse, their guiding theme is the art of seduction. The first two, written for men about 1 BC to AD 1, deal with 'winning women's hearts' and 'keeping the loved one', respectively. The third, addressed to women telling them how to best attract men, was written somewhat later.



The Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid is a narrative poem in fifteen books that describes the creation and history of the world. Completed in 8 AD, it has remained one of the most popular works of mythology, being the Classical work best known to medieval writers and thus having a great deal of influence on medieval poetry.

The Golden Ass

The Golden Ass

The Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, which according to St. Augustine was referred to as The Golden Ass (Asinus aureus) by Apuleius, is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety.



The Priapeia is a collection of poems (ninety five in number) in various meters on the subject of Priapus. It was compiled from literary works and inscriptions on images of the god by an unknown editor, who composed the introductory epigram. From their style and versification it is evident that the poems belong to the best period of Latin literature.

See also

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