Archive Reviews

John R. Clarke

1. Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C. - A.D. 315, Berkeley : University of California Press 2003, pp. 338 (cloth bound, with both color and black-and-white illustrations). $ 65.00
2. Roman Sex 100 BC - AD 250, with new color and black-and-white photography by Michael Larvey, New York, NY : Harry N.Abrams 2003, pp. 168 (cloth bound). $ 35.00

Reviewed by E. J. Haeberle

John R. Clarke, an art historian at the University of Texas at Austin, has, over many years, established himself as an authority on ancient Roman art. Not only that: His lucid writing style has won him a wide readership well beyond his special field, because he has always taken pains to put his discoveries and observations in the wider context of cultural history.

Clarke’s latest two books are, once again, of special interest to us sexologists, and, while we may not be able to judge the author’s every archeological and philological detail, we can appreciate - and profit from - his descriptions of life in pre-Christian Rome.

The first and more substantial book is a detailed and well-illustrated scholarly study of ordinary Romans, their everyday life, and the role the visual arts played in it. The second is more of a slender "coffee table book" combining shorter texts with especially lavish illustrations (new photographs of Roman relics by Michael Larvey). It shows and discusses a great variety of erotic images and thus helps us to become familiar with a sexual value system very different from our own.

1. The visual arts in ancient Rome have long been studied, but rarely in the context of their everyday role for the majority of Roman citizens. Indeed, here Clarke is breaking new ground. He begins by asking several simple questions, for example: Who paid for the art? Who made it? Who looked at it? What else did it look like? Trying to find the answers to such questions, he takes the reader through three major sections (nine chapters), discussing the "Imperial Representation of Non-Elites", the "Non-Elites in the Public Sphere", and the "Non-Elites in the Domestic Sphere". The first section examines some well-known imperial monuments, such as Augustus’ Ara Pacis, the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, and the arch of Constantine, for the pictorial "messages" that ordinary Romans would have found in them. It turns out that, in the course of time from Augustus to Constantine, the messages changed, reflecting the changing role of the emperor and his political agenda as well as the social changes within the non-elite classes. To these classes belonged, first of all, the slaves (from the uneducated who perfomed simple physical labor to the educated who managed the affairs of their masters), but also rich or poor former slaves (freedmen), army veterans, foreigners, and the freeborn working classes. They all were the targets of imperial messages conveyed in the medium of public art. It taught them their proper role in the imperial scheme of things and made them understand the empire’s character and ideological justification. At the same time, they learned to accept the increasing social complexities in the fast growng capital city. Indeed, Clarke’s careful reading and interpretation of the images makes it clear that the population of ancient Rome was a highly stratified, colorful lot with various expanding or shrinking chances for "upward mobility". The ruling elite, in turn, also responded to changing circumstances by adjusting and refining its messages. In short, what emerges is a Rome quite different from the static, monolithic cliché suggested by most literary sources. It was, in fact, "a pluralistic rather than imperialistic society" (p.16).

In the following sections, the author turns to art works commissioned by non-elite patrons. Such sculptures and paintings in Rome and smaller cities like Ostia and Pompeji allow us to draw more direct conclusions about everyday life. Privately commissioned religious images for the home and outside of it revealed very personal values and preferences, following no official standard. More mundane wall paintings depicted the world of work and commerce. Some of these paintings adorned the work places themselves, others could be found in a patron’s private home, demonstrating his pride in his own career and acquired wealth. Sculptures and floor mosaics showed a variety of commercial activities documenting the achievements of individuals or guilds. However, there were also depictions of gladiator spectacles and theater scenes (some of them quite obscene) that reminded viewers of memorable performances or created anticipation of cultural events. Tavern paintings – again some of them comically obscene – entertained a variety of educated and uneducated customers. (I will turn to the issue of "obscenity" in connection with Clarke’s second book discussed below.) Finally, elaborate tombs testified to the accomplishments and status of the deceased. More modest versions at least reminded the viewers that the departed had lived their lives to the fullest. Turning to the pictorial self-representation of patrons in their own houses, the book analyses the silent "dialogue" between them and their visitors. Again, we become aware that the domestic art commissioned by ordinary Romans for the inspection by other ordinary Romans cared little about traditional standards, but tended toward realism as the most effective way of sharing their practical philosophy of life.

In covering these topics, Clarke offers a number of fascinating asides. He discusses, for example, the meaning and importance of the ever-present religious symbols and rituals, the character of mime and pantomime in theater perfomances, the sexual ideology of the upper classes, the architecture and social role of public latrines, and much more. However, the important point of all this is the the author’s conclusion: The old idea that in ancient Rome "high" art somehow "trickled down" to the lower classes, being debased in the process, is wrong. In fact, "ordinary" art very often stood out as different in both style and content. This reflected the wishes of those who commissioned it. Largely ignored by historians and hitherto barely acknowledged even by art historians, "ordinary" Romans did find ways of expressing their views, beliefs, concerns, and predilections in visual form. Outside of all official art canons, they left us pictorial evidence of how they experienced their world and how they saw themselves. Even so, both elites and non-elites shared many basic values. Unsurprisingly then, from the traditional to the unconventional, from perfection to amateurishness, the art of the "unsung" masses covered a very wide spectrum of form as well as content. Therefore, "there is no such thing as folk, plebeian, or freeman art" (p. 273). Instead, as Clarke convincingly summarizes: "As a result of imperialism’s success, all Romans had to negotiate an increasingly complex environment. Despite the appearance of social homogeneity that legal, military, and economic institutions projected, the reality was one of people of highly diverse cultural formation learning to live together" (p. 274). In this respect, ancient Rome offers an intriguing parallel to our modern, interconnected world and to our present global problems. However, in one important sphere the ancient Romans were not at all like us - in the sphere of sex.

2. Sexual images played an important role in ancient Roman life, both public and private. This much Clarke had already demonstrated in his pioneering study Looking at Lovemaking (1998). Now, five years later, his new text is no less scholarly but aimed at a much larger readership. It is shorter and comes more directly to the point. The illustrations are more lavish (practically all in full color), and among them are photos of several recent discoveries.  

Excavated wall paintings and mosaics in Rome, Ostia, Pompeji, Herculaneum, and other cities, stone and bronze sculptures, lamps, mirrors, goblets, rings and amulets found in many other Mediterranean countries, indeed, stone pavements of ancient public streets, reveal a wealth of erotic images unsuspected even one century ago. As careful scholarship has now demonstrated, these images were by no means hidden away, but proudly displayed in private homes and public places. They were not, as had been believed by some earlier writers, restricted to "houses of ill repute". On the contrary, by tracing maps and floor plans, correlating excavations with surviving literary sources, discovering and examining places of manufacture, and by following trade routes, modern scholars like Clarke have been able to show that erotic art was indeed everywhere in the Roman empire. Children grew up with it, adults enjoyed it, and a mass market supplied it.

This fact alone proves that it is wrong to dismiss all of it as "pornography". As Clarke reminds us, this modern concept (although not the word) was invented in 1850 by the German archeologist C. O, Müller who looked for a "scientific" term to classify some of the ancient objects he considered obscene. Thus, he imposed a 19th-century view on a long lost world that had lived by very different standards. This view prevailed well into the late 20th century when its ideological character was finally exposed. It had prejudged the case and thereby prevented archeologists from fully understanding the historical sites they were digging up.

After a brief introduction, Clarke takes the reader through 7 chapters, describing erotic art in an upper-class Roman house, pictorial evidence of female emancipation in the first century A.D., sex in whorehouses and on stage, "gay" sex in "bi" and "straight" company, sexual images used against the "evil eye", breaking taboos for comic relief, and newly discovered erotic art in Roman France. In a concluding chapter, he summarizes his amply documented findings.

In ancient Rome, having sex was a guilt-free, enjoyable practice, a gift of the gods, and it was regulated only to the extent that it threatened elite institutions (especially property inheritance). Upper-class men, therefore, had to observe certain rules designed to maintain their elite status: No adulterous sex with members of one’s own class! Almost equally important: No licking of female sex organs, no receptive oral or anal intercourse (this was considered a sign of effeminacy and unworthy of a proper gentleman). Apart from that, no restrictions applied. Sex with slaves, former slaves or prostitutes "did not count" on any moral scale, but was taken for granted as part of a man’s normal life. It also made no difference whether his partners were female or male, adults or adolescents.

For upper-class women, on the other hand, things were less easy: Traditionally, they were expected to enter marriage as virgins and then remain faithful to their husbands. However, when the bloody civil wars of the first century B.C. killed many men and their property threatened to be split among too many heirs, the inheritance and divorce laws were changed to allow women to inherit from their fathers and husbands and thus keep the fortune together. Moreover, after a divorce, they could keep what had been theirs. As a result, soon upper-class women began to enjoy a degree of emancipation never seen seen before (and not seen again until the 20th century). This, of course, also implied an increase in sexual freedom as evidenced in some erotic art depicted and analysed in this book. (There is a certain parallel to the period after World War I. When millions of European men were killed between 1914 and 1918, women replaced them in the work force, gained financial independence, won some degree of sexual self-determination, and were given the right to vote.)

Still, there is one aspect of "Roman sex" that is hard to stomach even for the most liberal modern observer: Slavery. Slaves were literally the property of their masters, and this also meant that they had to serve them sexually if so commanded. Indeed, pretty young female and male slaves were bought for sexual purposes, often to satisfy the same master. Even girls and boys barely reaching puberty were considered desirable sex objects and used as such without embarrassment. (Later Christian slaveholders did the same thing well into the 19th century, but with a bad conscience.) This unedifying feature of sex in the ancient world was, of course, tied to the institution of slavery itself. It was repeated wherever slavery appeared again and could end only with its total abolition everywhere.

The fact that Roman men used both female and male "sex slaves", brings up another topic that Clarke discusses in detail: Our modern concepts of "sexual orientation", i.e. our present distinctions between "heterosexuality", "homosexuality", and "bisexuality" do not fit the reality in ancient Rome . There, it was taken for granted that, in principle, any person could become sexually attractive to any other person just as it pleased the whimsy of the gods. Youthful beauty in any sex was desirable and sought after. It brought pleasure to the lucky ones who were given the opportunity to enjoy it. This is not to say that there were no same-sex relationships among adults. Indeed, Clarke devotes a special section to the British Museum’s "Warren cup" (so named by him).This elaborately sculptured silver goblet shows on one side a man anally penetrating a slave boy and on the other side a man doing the same thing with a young adult male. Given the fact that a precious goblet like this was a "conversation piece" in its own time, and that it was made to be shown around to admiring dinner guests, one is forced to realize that the scenes depicted carried no negative connotations for anyone who saw them. As a matter of fact, Clarke also documents a highly artistic glass perfume bottle recently discovered in formerly Roman Spain (1986, near Seville ). This ancient so-called "Ortiz bottle" combines the same scene with a man and a slave boy on one side with the lovemaking of a male-female couple on the other side. In short: Obviously, the gender of sexual partners was not a moral criterion for either the actors involved or for anyone else who became aware of their activity. (Needless to say, ancient Rome also abounded with images of female couples.)

Finally, it must be emphasized again that all the foregoing applied essentially to the sexual attitudes of the Roman elites, restricted as they were by class considerations. However, it is very important to remember – and Clarke stresses this point – that "the elites constituted only about 2 percent of the population. In Rome, a city of over a million people in the period between Augustus and Constantine (27 B.C. – A.D. 315), these elite sexual rules were not what you saw on the street or in homes. The great majority experienced no legal or moral restrictions on sex ". (p. 157) 

Now, what are we to make of these findings? Was the ancient Roman sexual morality inferior or superior to our own? Were the Romans so totally different from us that there is no conceivable bridge from their past to our present? Or were they more like us than we care to admit? Do we envy them, because they were able to express many desires openly that we are forced to hide? Is it possible or desirable to return to the sexual hedonism of ancient Rome ? Finally, since this hedonism flourished during the rise of the Roman empire while its decline and fall were accompanied by Christian ascetiscm, should we here assume a causal relationship? Clarke does not raise these questions, but they jump out at the reader from between the lines.

Of course, no reasonable person would want to return to a slave society in which persons are treated as mere things (and thus literally as sex objects). What slavery really meant, even in Christian times, the world has seen in the American antebellum South. However, other features of ancient Roman life are now beginning to look less outrageous to the modern observer, for example the pragmatic laws governing marriage and divorce, the emancipation of women, the legality of prostitution, the unquestioned toleration of same-sex activity, the acceptance of erotic art in public and private places. In fact, today many European countries - including those of the Northern Mediterranean - are returning to their own pre-Christian traditions, facilitating divorce, empowering women, decriminalizing prostitution, allowing same-sex marriages, becoming more lenient toward nudity and "pornography" etc.. Of course, much of this scandalizes certain American Christians who, with suddenly renewed vigor, are trying to impose a more restrictive sexual morality on their fellow citizens. Still, it seems doubtful - to this reviewer at least - that they will achieve any lasting successes. For too many people all over the world the Christian "good tidings" have long since turned into bad news. This is especially true for people who happen to love partners of their own sex – a sizeable minority in all countries. However, it is now also true for many millions of people in developing countries who are at risk for HIV/AIDS but who – for religious reasons - are denied access to condoms and a proper instruction in the various techniques of "safer sex". Not only does the Catholic Church condemn the use of condoms, but, under pressure from "evangelical" Protestants, American financial support also goes mainly to "abstinence only" programs, even in foreign countries with very different cultural traditions. However, abstinence cannot protect women who, because of their inferior status, are in no position to say no to their promiscuous husbands or boyfriends. These, in turn, usually do not know that they are infected, and, even if they do know, often have no access to condoms. Thus, both males and females are – in the name of Jesus – condemned to die even though they themselves may hold very different beliefs or may not even be Christians. Already, a very large and fast growing number of African AIDS orphans are the bitter legacy of these heartless and mindless policies (see also "HIV/AIDS" and "Prevention" in the e-learning course "STDs" on our web site).

By comparison, the multinational Imperium Romanum was a model of "modernity" and tolerance. Just as it accepted different forms of marriage and a great variety of sexual behavior among its citizens, it also accepted their various religions. No single religious standard prevailed. No sexual or religious conversion was ever required. The sexual and religious intolerance that has been bedeviling the Western world to this day set in only after Christianity had become the official Roman state religion. Very wisely, the author of the two books does not cover this turn of events in the late period of the Roman empire . Instead, he allows us to see and understand some long hidden "pagan" roots of our Western civilization. Thanks to archeology and art history, these roots are finally being uncovered, and John R. Clarke is helping us to take a good look at them.