When the excavation of Pompeii began in earnest in the 18th Century alongside the various wonders uncovered came a number of artefacts that greatly worried the gentleman archeologists.
They had uncovered a great number of extraordinary and risqué sexual images, phallic objects ranging from carvings to wind chimes. Many of these items were deemed inappropriate for display and this situation was formalised when the ‘Secret Museum’ was established in 1819 in Naples, locking explicit items together and away from ‘unsuitable’ persons.
The segregation and prohibiting of these finds in reality re-eroticized these artefacts divorcing them from their original context. This has perhaps helped to fuel our modern conception of Roman society as sex obsessed and even debauched. However, perhaps this reflects more our own societal preoccupations than it gives a true picture of Roman life.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the only definite brothel in Pompeii is also its most popular tourist attraction. But the reality perhaps does not fit with our preconceptions and is much less glamorous, with just a few rooms, small and dark, virtually prison cells.
While the modern reaction to the erotic in Pompeii, one of horror coupled with fascination, points to our own preoccupations, these images do provide some insight into the Roman world. The preeminence of phallic imagery coupled with images of male fantasy, point to a society dominated not by sex, but by men.
In many of the artefacts, and in much of the architecture, these images portray an erotic world geared for the pleasure of men, sex is power and through its image what it is clearly displayed is the male dominance of the sexual sphere and the masculine nature of Rome. Pompeii offers many wonderful insights into the Roman world and indeed our own.
For more information on this topic I recommend the wonderful Radio 4 programme ‘Secret Museum’ available through BBC online.