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Pompeii's Phallus: Eroticism in Ancient Italy
The first thing that becomes evident once past the entrance gate at the present-day site of the city of Pompeii (fee approximately 10 Euros) is the utter silence that envelopes you. Though tourists, guides and workers here talk as much as anyone else, somehow the ancient streets seem to swallow sound as though it is disappearing into the past. Walking the streets so many people lived - and died - on almost 2000 years ago is a lot like walking into a haunted place. You can almost hear the whispers of the people who walked these streets so long ago... and almost feel them brushing by, their leather sandals treading lightly on the paving stones....
In the first century A.D., Pompeii was a thriving city on the coast of what was not yet Italy. Wealthy Romans owned vacation villas there, and Pompeii was a major import/export city. Languages from the four corners of the known world could be heard on every street, and trade of all kinds took place in the open - and behind closed doors. Pompeii had the largest amphitheatre in the known Roman Empire, immense sports arenas, its own vineyards, four luxurious bath houses, and temples to ten different deities.
These deities, along with daily life, scenes from myths and legends, lively flora, simple landscapes and intricate architecture were portrayed in gorgeous frescoes on the walls of almost every home and public building; the entire city virtually glowed with color and beauty.
Life was grand in Pompeii, and the city seemed invincible.
Then on the fine summer morning of August 24, 79 A.D., nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted violently. The citizens of Pompeii were used the mountain's rumbling (a huge earthquake had devastated the city just 17 years prior) and didn't take the eruption seriously until too late.
Burning ash and cinders descended, trapping and killing one tenth of Pompeii's 20,000 inhabitants. (A wonderful account of that day and the following few days was written at the time by Pliny the Younger, and can be found at http://eyewitnesstohistory.com/pompeii.htm.)
Pompeii was buried for centuries, hidden from view until the eighteenth century, and when archaeologists and others began to dig, they discovered the wonders of the long-forgotten city. Along with the almost-intact homes and temples, tiled floors and unbaked bread, and details of the very citizens of Rome in their death throes, the discoverers also found the beautiful frescoes, preserved in almost perfect vivid color.
This art caused a stir that has yet to be stilled. It was hidden from view for years in a number of ways. Much that was taken from Pompeii and instilled in museums was hidden away in secret rooms. One such room was called the "Cabinet of Obscene Objects" later renamed the "Cabinet of Restricted, or Secret, Objects." In Pompeii itself, women tourists weren't allowed to view some of the major works of art until the second half of the twentieth century - to protect their delicate natures.
What could possibly cause this much furor? Sex, of course. What else? But why so strong a reaction, and why to this particular city's art?
Myth:Pompeii graffiti & sex appeal - BBC History .
Many cultures throughout the world have traditions of erotic art, notably the Japanese, Indian, Greek and Roman. Pompeii, as a thriving city in the Roman Empire, had more than its share.
Erotic symbols abound on paving stones and walls, in frescoes and sculpture; the most prominent - no pun intended - is the phallus.
In almost every culture throughout the world, through centuries and through histories, phallic symbols have figured in the lives of people everywhere. The actual symbol itself has differed but its meaning has stayed relatively consistent: power, fertility, male-ness, and... sex.
In Pompeii the phallus had other responsibilities as well. It was, depending on context, alternatively a sign to protect against the evil eye, a symbol of good luck, or a harbinger of good fortune, and it often served as a functional part of sculpture - the water spout for a fountain, perhaps, or a handy hangar for bells or other decoration. Sometimes the phallus was a steed, ridden by a god or a dwarf to some unknown but undoubtedly erotic destination.
And if you look closely at the paving stones in the main forum area, and in the stones of the walls, these phallic symbols point the way to the tiny brothels that populated the busiest area of the ancient city.
Phallus symbols weren't the only erotic images in Pompeii. In most homes, no matter how small, frescoes adorned the walls; in many of these frescoes men and women cavorted in all manner of sexual adventures, positions, combinations and levels of enjoyment. Not infrequently, these frescoes portrayed men - and some women - enjoying the charms of a particularly arousing animal.
The half goat/half man god Pan ran rampant, copulating with any willing creature in these vivid, colorful scenes and on vases, in sculpture, woven into the handles of pottery, and in forest tableaux depicted in clay or bronze.
So why so much sex in ancient Pompeii?
This has been discussed and debated since the ruins' discovery, and the answers are varied and sometimes conflicting. One factor could be that in Pompeii, as in much of the ancient world, men were the ones in charge. It was acceptable for a woman to own a business if her husband or father had left it to her upon his death, she could distribute political material, or be a prostitute. Therefore, the argument goes, men left to their own devices turned their homes and surroundings into teeming dens of iniquity... the problem with this theory is that it runs counter to the pure joy found in many of these images, and to the very everyday acceptability they seem to have had.
We know that in Pompeii, sex was less inhibited than it is today in most countries. There were fewer prohibitions and less denial of the sexual aspect of human nature. The motto, written on one of the walls, seems to have been "enjoy life while you have it - for tomorrow is uncertain" and this in no uncertain terms included immersing oneself in the physical joys of life. Sex ranked as a great way to enjoy oneself and others, and while the stereotypical Roman orgies were most likely not part of daily life, certainly sex was acceptable, practiced, and celebrated.
The erotic images of Pompeii have, since its rediscovery, caused both outrage and appreciation. A few examples can still be seen in the city - the most notable being the almost life-sized fresco in a doorway into the House of the Vettii. A male figure - the god Priapus - holds a set of scales that weighs his phallus while he looks outward, brazenly meeting the eyes of all who pass by. If you dare to walk past him, and further dare to look at the relative size of his not insignificant male-ness, you can't help but be impressed... or maybe shocked.
And if this doesn't cause your delicate heart to flutter too much, or throw you into doubt about your manhood, take a short trip to the National Museum of Naples. Ask the floor guards or the museum workers to show you the Room of Secret Objects, and spend an hour or so perusing the beautiful objects of desire on display there.
Through its art and its history, the silent streets of ancient Pompeii are still speaking to us. It's a world completely alien from our 20th century ideas of proper and moral and allowable... and those secret objects might just hold a key to understanding not only the long gone inhabitants, but ourselves.
And if nothing else, you'll have a great time giggling, blushing, lusting or appreciating as you explore the ancient world's views of life, love, and the pursuit of... each other.