Lewd Latin and Beastial Busts: Erotic Art and Poetry of the Romans

Erotic Roman fresco from Pompeii 1st century CEThe first century BC Roman poet Catallus has been making the headlines this week more than 2,000 years after he penned his erotic body of work known as the Carmina. One poem from the Carmina, Catallus 16, begins with the explicit line Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo – literally translated by The Guardian (who go on to question the BBC’s reluctance to offer a translation and send the reader to check out the full text on wikipedia instead) as “I will bugger you and stuff your gobs.”

These Latin words were written in an email by a London business man, to a young woman working in his office. This could have been a mis-judged jest on his part – but it’s one thing to read a bit of ‘burlesque’ ribaldry from a very dead Roman poet. It’s a bit more disconcerting to read the words written in an email from your boss.

The businessman, Mark Lowe, is on trial on a charge of unfair dismissal this week and debate about his choice of words (can we call it a chat-up line?) have been filling column inches of Britain’s dailies.

In his article headlined Sexus Maximus! (even if you’re not a Daily Mail fan, you have to give them credit for the catchiness of their headlines), Tom Holand refers to the the sheer reservoirs of filth contained within Roman literature generally. If ever there were an incentive to learn Latin and start studying the classic writers, this could be it. Apart from Catallus, you could also read Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (a poem about the art of finding, seducing and retaining a woman) or Sextus Propertius’s romantic elegies.

Erotic Roman Sculptures

But it wasn’t just the Roman poets who were perfectly comfortable with depicting the grittier side of love and sex. Roman sculptors were also at one with the idea of portraying people, gods and even animals at their most intimate moments.

An Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) lecture at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, last week gave students an insight into the world of erotic Roman sculpture. The lecturer, Professor Elizabeth Hartman, explained to her audience that much can be inferred about Roman culture and attitudes to sex by erotic statues and more importantly, the context in which these statues were displayed.

Satyr molesting a goat from a courtyard in Pompeii Roman 1st century CE

According to the Dogstreet Journal, one sculpture referred to in her lecture was the marble composition of the god Pan having an intimate moment with a bemused-looking goat this statue is part of the Herculean group now on display at The Naples Archaeological Museum.

As Professor Hartman pointed out, while the Greeks may have thought it acceptable to display an erotic statue in public, the Romans were more likely to keep them within a private house although she adds that it would not necessarily be kept in a bedroom. Pan and the Goat was displayed in a private villa in Pompeii beside a pool in full view of the main dining area.

Plenty of other erotic statues, frescoes and mosaics have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Some of them were deemed so shocking that King Francis I of Naples ordered them to be locked up in 1819.

Other erotic Greco-Roman statues include Leda and the Swan, an original by fourth century BC Greek sculptor Timotheus (in Madrid’s El Prado Musuem). A Roman-era likeness of this statue is held in the Capitoline Museum’s Palazzo Nuovo. The museum also holds a statue of Cupid and Psyche kissing, as well as the Capitoline Venus, a Roman-era statue made in the likeness of an artwork by Praxiteles.

Hartman also pointed out that some erotic artworks could be a deterrent, warning people not to behave like the deviant satyrs, rather than encouraging them to follow suit. She also noted that erotic art could stimulate discussions and debate about sex and more to the point controlling one’s passions, rather than simply being a green-light to going ahead and indulging in them.

For more ancient erotic verse, check out the racy poems of Ancient Egypt, and a preview of the program Sex in the Ancient World – Egyptian Erotica, which details the Turin Erotic Papyrus on display in the Turin Museum.