Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250 / Edition 1

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Overview

What did sex mean to the ancient Romans?
In this lavishly illustrated study, John R. Clarke investigates a rich assortment of Roman erotic art to answer this question—and along the way, he reveals a society quite different from our own. Clarke reevaluates our understanding of Roman art and society in a study informed by recent gender and cultural studies, and focusing for the first time on attitudes toward the erotic among both the Roman non-elite and women. This splendid volume is the first study of erotic art and sexuality to set these works—many newly discovered and previously unpublished—in their ancient context and the first to define the differences between modern and ancient concepts of sexuality using clear visual evidence.

Roman artists pictured a great range of human sexual activities—far beyond those mentioned in classical literature—including sex between men and women, men and men, women and women, men and boys, threesomes, foursomes, and more. Roman citizens paid artists to decorate expensive objects, such as silver and cameo glass, with scenes of lovemaking. Erotic works were created for and sold to a broad range of consumers, from the elite to the very poor, during a period spanning the first century B.C. through the mid-third century of our era. This erotic art was not hidden away, but was displayed proudly in homes as signs of wealth and luxury.
In public spaces, artists often depicted outrageous sexual acrobatics to make people laugh.

Looking at Lovemaking depicts a sophisticated, pre-Christian society that placed a high value on sexual pleasure and the art that represented it. Clarke shows how this culture evolved within religious, social, and legal frameworks that were vastly different from our own and contributes an original and controversial chapter to the history of human sexuality.

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Editorial Reviews

Edmund White
"Looking at Lovemaking" proves that the ancients were very different from you and me.... This book is at once discreed and bold -- discreetly respectful of nuance and context, boldly clear in drawing the widest possible conclusions about the malleability of human behavior. Clarke has, with meticulous scholarship and a fresh approach, vindicated Foucault's revolutionary claims for the social construction of sexuality. -- Edmund White
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520229044
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 4/16/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 389
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John R. Clarke is Annie Laurie Howard Regents Professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Houses of Roman Italy: Ritual, Space, and Decoration (California, 1991).

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Read an Excerpt

Looking at Lovemaking

Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250
By John R. Clarke

University of California Press

Copyright © 2001 John R. Clarke
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520229044

Chapter 1—
The Cultural Construction of Sexuality

Sex and sexuality fascinate human beings. Whether we associate sex with extremes of pleasure—including the exalted emotions of love, passion, and romance—or with pain and suffering, as a species we tend to give sex a great deal of importance. It is not surprising, then, that the history of sexuality abounds with systems that regulate both sexual intercourse and procreation. Regulation of sex has resulted in lists of practices that a society finds "taboo," "indecent," or "sinful," with punishments for transgressors ranging from social ostracism to the eternal pain and suffering of hell. In addition to these negative strictures, even the presumably positive concept of love itself causes a great deal of turmoil in human lives.

The pursuit of love remains one of the most important themes in art, from the celebrated expressions of high art to the pop lyric. The concept of love is one fairly satisfying way of explaining the sexual commotion that often proliferates in our lives, whether it is the frustration people experience in finding satisfying sex, the obstacles between them and asexual partner they desire, or the difficulty they experience in trying to maintain a sexual relationship.

Analysis of sex and sexual acts has led to the modern concepts—all tied together—of sexuality, heterosexuality, and homosexuality. As we will see, these concepts arise from a desire to consider sexual activity in a psychological and self-reflexive way. The very words—sexuality, heterosexuality, and homosexuality—andthe notions that they express, make it difficult to understand people like the ancient Romans who, as this book will demonstrate, did not have a self-conscious idea of their sexuality.

Even the word gender, a term that in common parlance indicates one's being a male or female by virtue of sexual organs and secondary sexual characteristics, is far from obvious in its implications. Contemporary feminist, gay, and lesbian studies have made it clear that gender—far from being a biological given—is learned.1 People define gender by a set of attributes and actions that go far beyond any biological givens.2

The Cultural Construction of Sexuality

The subtitle of this book, "Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C .–A.D . 250," announces my conviction that sexuality and sex—as we understand them in the late twentieth century—are notions that have little or nothing to do with those of people in other historical periods. Sexuality, rather than being a universal, a given, differs from one community to another and from one epoch to another. It follows that concepts like heterosexuality and homosexuality express social attitudes that arise within human communities that historians have designated as distinct in their culture. Geographical boundaries, common languages, belief systems, religion, and art characterize such communities as cultures.

The historian's assumptions about the past have come under great scrutiny in recent decades, and nowhere more pointedly than in the study of sexuality in different historical periods. Particularly relevant for the focus of this book are the pioneering—but diametrically opposed—studies by Michel Foucault and John Boswell. Foucault's ambitious project, History of Sexuality , although unfinished at the time of his death in 1984, foregrounded the various ways that the ancient Greeks and Romans "constructed" their sexuality.3 Foucault's investigation of ancient texts showed little correspondence between Greek ideas of the body, love, and the uses of sexual pleasure and those of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europeans. Boswell's project in his Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality , to chronicle "gay people" from Roman times through the Middle Ages, announced his belief that homosexuals and lesbians (as we understand them today) lived in past historical periods.4 In the ensuing debate Foucault became the champion of the "cultural constructionists," Boswell of the "essentialists." Although I explore the two sides of this methodological debate, my study of both Greek and Roman works of art with sexual subjects suggests to me that their meanings are almost entirely specific to the cultures—a clear corroboration of Foucault's position. In other words, our late twentieth-century views of sexuality are bound to distort their meaning. If I am to understand ancient Roman sexual representations, I must learn how to bracket out my own attitudes toward such representations, since my ideas are the product of my own acculturation.

What, then, do we—as late twentieth-century persons of Euro-American acculturation—want to know about sex in ancient Roman societies? Or better, how can we learn what sex meant to ancient Romans? The logical place to begin would seem to be Greek and Roman writings about sexual matters. They fall into four general categories: legal texts, medical texts, poetry, and public political discourse. What the texts reveal is an uneven mixture of legal rules and opinions, instructions on the care of the body, accounts of love-hate relations with the poet's boy- and/or girl-love, and the attribution of depraved sexual acts to individuals. Fortunately, the last twenty years have seen a veritable explosion of work on these texts by classical scholars. Much of what they have to say will help propel this book along. And much of what they show us is the blank page, for without exception the writers of these texts were men, and they were men either of the Roman elite class or men who worked for elite patrons.

So it comes as no surprise that a large number of ancient Romans have no voice at all in the preserved literature. We look in vain for the voice of one woman of any class, whether elite matron or poor slave.5 The men put all the words in their mouths—and attribute to them all the deeds they are supposed to have done. Similarly, in all this literature no freedman or slave speaks out in anything other than the utterances constructed by these elite male writers.6 Where are the marginal people? The many foreigners—who ranged from the redheaded northern German or Slav to the black-skinned Ethiopian? The same-sex lovers?7 We find them where we would expect to find them—considering the sources; they are at the margins, where the "white" male elite set them.

Without texts from people at the margins, we turn to works of art that represent lovemaking to elucidate what sex meant for ancient Romans, for the visual record is much richer than the textual record. All social classes—and both male andfemale consumers—viewed works of art and used artifacts that featured representations of lovemaking. Many sexual acts and many sexual scenarios absent from the texts find expression, and often considerable elaboration, in works of art. The reasons for such wealth of sexual representation will emerge from this investigation: they include the conditions surrounding patronage, creation, and consumption of imagery. Artists working for a broad range of patrons created the objects I will consider here. It was the artists' job to please patrons or consumers who ordered or bought their products. Whether they created fresco paintings for the villas of the rich or crude decorations for the owner of a bordello, they had to please the person who paid for their work. By extension, artists had to create a representation of lovemaking that appealed to the intended viewers. Particularly in the case of wall paintings still in place it is possible to hypothesize what might have been the reactions of different viewers who saw them (a freedman or an elite citizen, a man or a woman).

The artisans who made portable objects, such as vases, lamps, coins, small stone reliefs, and mosaic panels, also had to please their customers. When excavation data are available, it is often possible to build a context—that is, a maker, a patron, a consumer, and even the conditions of viewing the sexual imagery. When there is no way of knowing where the object came from, it is difficult to assign the creation of its sexual content to a particular audience. But since these objects exhibit an enormous range of quality, from cheap pottery to outrageously expensive cameoglass vessels, their relative costs point to different target audiences. In this book, then, I employ a variety of strategies in my attempt to recover the contexts for Roman sexual imagery. It is all the more important to explore such context in view of the fact that there exists no entirely satisfactory study of any of the objects listed here, from the still-in-place wall painting to the lamp of unknown provenance in a private collection.

What do exist are compendia of photographs lumping together all the genres of sexual imagery in Roman art. These typically are large-format picture books; some are catalogs of exhibitions. On facing pages or woven into the catalog commentary are ancient texts dealing with sex and love. This pattern, set up in Marcadé's books in the sixties, persists today.8 Is the reader to believe that this or that passage from Ovid's Art of Love illuminates a painting, created a century later as part of the decoration of a house in Pompeii? If the text is one of Martial's invectives against men who like to be anally penetrated by other men, does it explain the elevated images of male-to-male lovemaking on a fine silver cup of the Augustan period of one hundred years before? If we want to know how the ancient Romans thought about themselves with regard to sex, we must use responsibly all the information about each visual representation of sexual activity to build the fullest possible context.

The rules for a meaningful and fruitful study of Roman sexual imagery are simple. In every case, with every object, I ask: who made it? (artist); when was it created? (date); who paid for it? (patronage); who looked at it? (intended audience); where did people look at it? (physical context); under what circumstances did people look at it? (use and purpose of object); what else does it look like? (iconographic models).

Asking these and related questions saves us from the interpretive impossibilities that have characterized many books on Roman sexual representation. For one thing, these rules will keep the art objects within their temporal and physical contexts. If a work of art belongs to the Augustan period, it will reveal information about sexual constructions of that period, or previous periods, but not about the future! For another, rules like these focus on the unique value of visual evidence, as opposed to texts. Notice that the artist, patron, and audience all find representation here. Furthermore, these visual representations—unlike the texts—appear at every level of society. Their potential for revealing the full range of Roman sexual acculturation is much greater than that of the texts.

The underlying premise of books that promise to unlock—in photographs and ancient texts—the erotic life of the ancient Romans is that "the Romans were just like us" in matters of sex. Careful study of the visual imagery underscores the great differences in sexual acculturation between "us" and the ancient Romans. It is the modern writer or reader who wants to make the Romans "just like" him or her. I believe that sexuality is a cultural construction. The ancient Romans' culture, defined broadly as the aggregate of social management strategies that shaped their behavior, taught them how to judge and classify sexual behavior. Of course not all Romans accepted what their culture wanted to instill in them, just as in America many people resist the dominant construction of sexuality with its center in the monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Rather than finding a single Roman "sexuality," we will discover a variety of Roman sexualities.

Postmodernist accounts of cultural constructions have shown us the many waysthat the reader or writer deprives history of its validity by projecting his or her culture onto past societies. It is the aim of this book to demonstrate that among the wide range of different constructions of sexuality current at any specific time in ancient Roman society, very few correspond to what we think sexuality is.

Even this very sentence, however, fails to describe the complexity of the situation, for who is the "we" I have been speaking about? Is it a Euro/Anglo-American "we"? And if that "we" is "American," does it include Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and the many other racial and ethnic minorities who are Americans? Does it include people marginalized because of their sexual orientation or beliefs? There's bound to be a great a deal of ambiguity in both the transmission and reception of ancient sexual imagery, for just as there was no unified "we"—an average Roman—in ancient times, there is no unified "we"—an average American—right now. In this study I must content myself with a constructed "we" defined by my own culture: white, middle-class, American, male, academic. Each reader will make my readings more polyphonic and democratic, seeing them through her or his own eyes and experiences. Whatever the difficulties, something of great value can result from looking anew at ancient Roman sexual imagery. It is nothing less than learning about our own selves as sexual beings who, even as I write, construct and deconstruct—and continue to reconstruct—what we call sexuality.



How "Erotic" Is Roman Art?

The reader will notice that up to now I have not used the adjective "erotic" to describe representations of sexual activity in Roman art. It is probably already clear that the proper question to ask when someone describes a work of art as erotic is: erotic for whom? The word erotic qualifies representations—whether images, movements, sounds—by their ability to arouse someone sexually. Obviously the erotic impact of a representation depends not only on the representation transmitted but also on the condition of the receiver. Erotic stimulation may even change over time for the same individual: I may find an image sexually stimulating on one viewing but not on another. When applied to Roman art, the term erotic is even more slippery, for it implies that texts or visual art that might stimulate the modern reader or viewer sexually were sexual stimuli for the ancient viewer. If a modern authorproduces a book that collects Roman visual erotica, it may carry very mixed messages. The book may focus indiscriminately on images that picture humans in sexual acts; humans in scenarios such as drinking parties or banquets that may lead to sexual intercourse;9 gods and goddesses in the preliminaries of lovemaking; hybrid creatures such as satyrs or pans, copulating; sexual parts such as phalluses and vaginas; phallic deities such as Hermaphroditus and Priapus. Considered in their cultural context, all these images probably did not produce sexual stimulation in the ancient viewer and become therefore erotic. Scholars have amply demonstrated, for instance, that images of the erect phallus, ubiquitous in the Mediterranean even to this day, are apotropaic—that is, their principal purpose has always been to ward off harm from the Evil Eye.10 Hybrid creatures from mythology with exaggerated sexual appetites are the stuff of ribald humor and parody, not inducements to sexual arousal.

In this book I concentrate on representations of lovemaking between human beings, rather than interpret the meanings of apotropaic phalluses, the couplings of gods and demigods, or drinking parties. My focus is the visual representation of what Otto Brendel called the "factual and freely variable portrayals of sexual situations as a theme of art."11

Instead of analyzing twentieth-century reactions to these visual representations, I attempt to reconstruct the reaction of the original viewer. This reaction could range from our meaning of "erotic" (that is, sexually arousing) to side-splitting laughter at sexual humor whose meaning escapes us—as always, it depends on the individual, on who's constructing what to be erotic. When I use the word erotic in what follows, the reader should understand that it denotes a representation of lovemaking rather than my judgment that an ancient viewer found a particular image erotic. In each case I try to specify the conditions governing both the creation and the use of visual images of sexual activity.



"Sexuality," "Homosexuality," and "Heterosexuality"

It is for similar reasons that I avoid using the words "sexuality," "heterosexual," and "homosexual" in this book. Current scholarly debate focuses on these words, and their even more abstract derivatives (see the discussion in chapter 2); the central question here is whether my use of these words projects my own attitudes toward sex onto the ancient representation I describe. Foucault and the cultural constructionists believe that any use whatsoever of such modern terms brings anachronistic distortion to the past, whereas Boswell and the essentialists assert that sexuality existed in every society throughout history and that people of both sexes were heterosexuals, bisexuals, or homosexuals—even if they lacked terms to describe these ways of being. My work convinces me that contemporary terminology distorts the ancient contexts as I reconstruct them. Instead of using the word "homosexual" to describe images of lovemaking between two men or a man and a boy or two women, I use the terms male-to-male lovemaking, man-boy love-making, and female-to-female lovemaking. Similarly, rather than call scenes of a man and a woman copulating "heterosexual" scenes, I prefer the term male-female. As baldly descriptive as this language might seem to some readers, it has the advantage of bracketing out modern conceptions of homosexuality and heterosexuality that can only keep us from understanding the cultural conditions that surrounded sex in the minds of the ancient Romans.



"Lovemaking" and Alternatives

Perhaps the most problematic word of all is the word "lovemaking" itself; not only does it loom large in the title of this book, but it appears repeatedly where other, more direct terms seem appropriate. Colleagues seriously suggested that I escape the trap of applying contemporary constructions to ancient Roman representations by using the word "fucking" or "copulation" or "sex"—or even the most neutral of all expressions, "sexual activity." After all, the term "making love" is a euphemism in modern American English, and in this book it could suggest that ancient Roman images correspond somehow to our cautious, bourgeois framing of sexual intercourse in general. "Lovemaking" runs the danger of displacing meaning just as the words "erotic," "erotica," and "sexuality" have done in so many publications of Roman sexual art. It is indeed true that many of the images we will consider have very little to do with the mutual pursuit of sexual pleasure as an expression of an emotional bond that we call "love." The depictions of the use of prostitutes of both sexes are not properly scenes of "lovemaking," nor are the representations of hypersexual black servants (considered in chapter 5) who are sexually arousedbut not making love with anybody. Yet there seems to be no blanket term general enough to cover the myriad representations of what we call sex or evoke the spirit behind these Roman creations.

To look at lovemaking is to look at the enactment of physical pleasure. Many images of sexual intercourse evoked symbolic meanings in the Roman viewer's mind, such as the goddess Venus in her guise as she who bestows the pleasures of physical union. In the end, lovemaking was the most neutral and open-ended expression I could find, and I use it in this book to avoid defining beforehand the meanings that any particular representation had. I hope the reader will accept its neutral and noncommittal sense rather than take the word as an anachronistic attempt to pull Roman sexual representation "into line" with contemporary notions about lovemaking.



Comparative Anthropology on Sexual Acculturation

Writers on sexual acculturation (Foucault and the cultural constructionists) make interesting use of anthropological work on sex and gender to underscore how far from universal the widely accepted notions of sexuality in modern Euro-American culture really are. Within the discipline of classical studies, John Winkler comments on the potential usefulness of comparative anthropology and ethnography. Although these disciplines hold a certain degree of inspiration, he disclaims using their methods systematically.12 Other authors cite isolated cases to underscore how difficult it is for us to understand practices of other cultures that seem to be sexual in nature.

Several randomly selected examples will clarify aspects of this way of thinking. Jeffrey Henderson, in his overview of sexuality in ancient Greece, asserts that the words "prohibition," and "sexual behavior" are culturally defined terms. To illustrate his point, he cites a passage in Aristophanes' Wasps where the character Philokleon, in discussing various fatherly pleasures, mentions that he routinely enjoys letting his daughter fish small coins from his mouth with her tongue. Even though we know that tongue-kissing was a sexual behavior in fifth-century Athens, this practice falls outside the Greeks' notion of improper, even incestuous, conduct.13 His second example comes from anthropological studies. In the Manchu tribe, a mother will routinely suck her small son's penis in public but would never kiss hischeeks. Among adults, the Manchu believe, fellatio is a sexual act, but kissing—even between mother and infant son—is always a sexual act, and thus fellatio becomes the proper display of motherly affection.14

In New Guinea the adult males inject young men with their semen through homosexual intercourse in the belief that they are transmitting their spiritual powers to them. Their semen makes the next generation good hunters and warriors.15 David Halperin chronicles the uses that classical scholars have made of this ethnographical information in trying to explain pederasty in antiquity.16

Within the closed tribal culture of the Gypsies, Euro-American sexual constructions find few parallels. Concepts of purity and impurity focus on the woman who is sexually active (the woman who is married): she can make a man ritually unclean by throwing her skirts over his head and—as in Jewish law—is not permitted to prepare food while menstruating. In contrast to the danger associated with her genitals is the complete lack of taboo or even sexual associations with her breasts. Since breasts are for feeding babies, the upper body cannot be a source of shame or pollution.17 Anthropologist Anne Sutherland notes that Gypsy women regularly pinch each other's breasts in jest or to punctuate a story.18

In addition to the abundant evidence that anthropology and ethnography provide for the ways that human beings often construe the same physical acts to be either sexual or nonsexual, there are many reminders that societies construct gender and gender roles quite differently. To take one example, many Native American tribes assign the role of woman and wife to the berdache , a male who is penetrated by men. The berdache maintains his special status through marriage to a warrior and performs duties that the tribe usually assigns to women.19

Although I attempt no comparable approach here, comparative-anthropological studies convince me that the only rigorous way to study Roman sexual acculturation is to take nothing for granted. We must enter Roman sexual territory with the full realization that we are entering a completely foreign domain where images that we think are self-evident—because they show sexual acts that we have done or have seen before—are not self-explanatory at all. If we are to begin to understand what these visual representations meant for the ancient viewer, we must learn to look at them as the ancient Roman did. We have to learn, in other words, how to look at lovemaking with Roman eyes.





Literature and Visual Representation

The misleading, or even false, connections between visual images and texts made in the glossy large-format books mentioned above arise from the assumption that any text—as long as it's ancient—might be used to "explain" any visual representation of lovemaking. In this book I restrict my analysis of texts to those found on the object itself. In discussions where I cite a Greek or Roman author to define attitudes toward sexual practices that appear in visual representations, I try always to foreground the author's own context: the period in which he is writing, his patron, his audience, and his own biases. Of particular use here is the work of contemporary scholars on Greek and Roman texts that deal with love, gender, and sexuality. Although Greek texts from the archaic through the late classical period furnish some background for understanding the cultural construction of sexuality, the most striking parallels with the works of art considered in this book begin with the Hellenistic period and continue through the fourth-century church fathers. Yet even here we must use caution. For example, the Hellenistic novel preserves scenarios that put forward a certain ideal of romantic love, comparable to—but essentially different from—nineteenth-century or late twentieth-century notions of love.20 There are abundant visual representations from the Hellenistic period, particularly in the terra-cotta vessels, that seem to present monogamous, tender love between a man and a woman. As we will see, these images probably have nothing to do with the scenarios of the Hellenistic novel.

In contrast to these romantic portrayals of love, the Hellenistic period saw the proliferation and elaboration of sex manuals—often illustrated—that in turn become the butt of early Roman imperial parody in Ovid's Art of Love , completed after 1 B.C . The love poetry of Catullus offers a glimpse at the elite man's sexual passions in the first century B.C .; Martial, writing in the last decades of the first century of our era, frequently targets what he considers his victims' sexual excesses in some of his epigrams. And if Martial comes across as an cynical moralist, Juvenal's heavy-handed satires present us with a professional prig. It is only in Petronius' Satyricon (written by A.D . 65) that the author manages to stay out of the business of condemning or praising sexual behavior. Much later, Apuleius' Golden Ass takes us into the realm of the sexual fairy tale with little moralizing or invective. Taken together, these texts hold quite biased and fragmentary evidence for understanding Roman attitudes toward sex. For one thing, they represent—even if we add even more fragmentary material, such as selected comedies from Plautus, the Priapea , legal, and medical texts—a very small and rather random sample of a much greater body of literature that failed to survive.21 For another, their writers—a point I underscore repeatedly throughout this book—were by and large elite men or men whose patrons were of the ruling class. Absent are the voices of all the others, including women, slaves, and foreigners.

In this study I touch on a few texts where they seem particularly relevant, but always with the realization that their proper contextualization requires extensive interpretation that is both beyond my powers and outside the scope of this book. Here I take up only those aspects of the texts that I can show have more or less direct bearing on visual representation, leaving more sophisticated exegesis to the specialists. My focus on visual representation offers scholars new perspectives that may in turn inspire further textual interpretations.









Continues...

Excerpted from Looking at Lovemaking by John R. Clarke Copyright © 2001 by John R. Clarke. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 The Cultural Construction of Sexuality 7
2 Greek and Hellenistic Constructions of Lovemaking 19
The Augustan and Early Julio-Claudian Periods (27 B.C.-A.D. 30)
3 Representations of Male-to-Male Lovemaking 59
4 Representations of Male-to-Female Lovemaking 91
5 Sex and the Body of the Other 119
Pompeii: The Nerouian and Flavian Periods (A.D. 54-79)
6 The Display of Erotica and the Erotics of Display in Houses 145
7 The Display of Erotica and the Erotics of Display in Public Buildings 195
Italy and the Provinces: The First through the Third Centuries
8 The Invention and Spread of Sexual Imagery through the Roman World 243
Conclusions 275
Notes 281
Glossary 327
A Guide to Classical Texts 331
Bibliography 337
Index 361
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