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Archive Reviews

John R. Clarke
Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C. - A.D. 250,
Berkeley: University of California Press 1998, pp. 406 (cloth bound, with both color and black-and-white illustrations), $ 39.95

Reviewed by E. J. Haeberle

A highly respected German newspaper recently published a lengthy article on pornography by a learned judge who had many years of experience of dealing with this issue. In it, he summed up the conventional wisdom of his profession by stating: "The depictions of sexual activities ... can be found in Europe from antiquity to the present. However, they have become a social problem only since the second half of the seventeenth century...when, through the printing press and (,later,) the invention of photography they could be widely distributed and easily produced.... Sexual themes in single copies may be a moral or esthetic problem, but they are not a problem of society as a whole." (1)

The new book by the American art historian John R. Clarke raises some doubts about this conventional wisdom. By a detailed exploration of erotic depictions in early imperial Rome, Clarke succeeds in showing not only how ubiquitous they were in all sorts of public places, but also that, though mass production, they reached the farthest outposts of the empire. Even in antiquity then, erotic paintings and sculptures were not always rare single objects and a privilege of the rich, but, in the form of cheap merchandise, widely accessible to the lower and lowest classes. As Clarke's study makes clear, it is misleading to rely on ancient literary sources for an understanding of every-day Roman eroticism. Indeed, the enormously varied pictorial and sculptoral record often contradicts the official morality pretended in "high-brow" Roman literature. The standards proclaimed here applied mainly to the upper classes who imposed certain restrictions on themselves in order to claim greater "virtue" which, in turn, would justify their domination of others. In contrast, the visual arts knew little of such considerations, but reflected, in their totality, an ever-present, all-comprehensive hedonism, a lust for life, an uninhibited joy in the pleasures of the flesh.

Aided by excellent illustrations, we can easily follow Clarke's subtle argument as he guides us through ancient Roman public buildings and private homes, showing us wall paintings, sculptures, lamps, vases, flasks, bowls, goblets, and many other articles of every-day use that depict all conceivable forms of sexual activity between couples and in groups - men with women, men with men, women with women, men and boys. The character of these depictions ranges from "high art" to caricature, from the opulent and precious to the mundane. They were by no means hidden away by their owners as "collector's items", but proudly displayed as signs of wealth or as "conversation pieces" to enliven a meal or enhance good fellowship and conviviality. The hitherto often propagated idea that Roman erotica were mostly restricted to certain baths and "houses of ill repute" is simply wrong. Moreover, by analyzing floor plans, Clarke shows that explicit erotic scenes in Roman villas not only adorned bedrooms and private dining rooms, but also entrance halls, courtyards and corridors accessible to casual visitors and even strangers. In short, erotic depictions were simply part of Roman life, they were visible practically everywhere, they reflected a sexual attitude that was both realistic and accepting, and, even where they were mass-produced, they were definitely not "a social problem".

This is not the place to discuss the enormous historical shift in Western culture from the ancient guilt-free acceptance of pictorial erotica to their medieval and modern condemnation. The very fact that we now speak of 'pornography' in this context reflects our 'lost innocence' in this regard. Indeed, all the latest presumed 'sexual revolutions' notwithstanding, today the topic is still laden with so much controversy and general anxiety that it must be considered innovative and daring for a reputable university press to publish a scholarly study such as Clarke's. Certainly, this would not have been possible even twenty years ago.

However, it is not only the content of the book, but also its methodology and its style that set it apart from previous works of the genre. The text stands in the best tradition of Anglo-American academic writing. Although exhaustively researched and footnoted, is easily accessible to undergraduate and graduate students. It is serious, but almost conversational in tone; fluently written, but never simplistic. In the past, histories of erotic art shunned such accessibility in order the avoid the accusation that they corrupted the minds of the young. Clarke's new liberty in dealing with his subject is a reflection of certain increases in academic freedom that, in recent years, have been won after all (although, as we know, there have also been some significant setbacks in the name of 'political correctness'). Most of all, the new study has profited from various methodological advances in the field of sexology. Sexological scripting theory and its correlating paradigm of 'social constructionism' have provided new ways of bridging the comprehension gap between us and our distant ancestors who live in the past as if "in another country". The new 'gender studies' have alerted scholars from many different fields to the psycho-social dimensions of what used to be considered eternal, unalterable biological givens. This, in turn, has enabled students of Western antiquity to free themselves of modern, false intellectual dichotomies such as the supposedly irreconcilable opposites "hetero- and homosexuality". Indeed, in the meantime, a critical history of sexual orientation research has revealed the cultural relativism of many previously undisputed "truths".

Clarke, up to date on the latest sexological insights, is able to take full advantage of them for his pioneering study. He shows us a "new" ancient Rome, a truly "lost world" that, in its sexual attitudes, is totally different from our own modern age. He succeeds in letting us see many falsely familiar ancient depictions "with new eyes" and thus he lets us get a little closer to really understanding them. At the same time, he gives his students a better chance than ever before to talk about erotic depictions in a detached, scholarly manner sine ira et studio.


1. Ulrich Vultejus, "Sex, Liebe und Videos: Die Pornographie, ihr neuer Markt und dessen Grenzen" in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 28, 1998, p. 11

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