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Books: Erotic Rome Volume 56 Number 4, July/August 2003
by Gary Devore

[image]A glass perfume flask recently found in Spain depicts an amorous Roman couple. (Courtesy Harry N. Abrams) [LARGER IMAGE]

Two-thousand-year-old porn has its uses. Thanks to erotic images, today's scholars are able to study the sex lives of the ancient Romans--what acts excited and horrified them, why only certain erotic images were popular, and how arousal was expressed by different classes. Classicist John R. Clarke, an expert on Roman erotic art, has gathered a wealth of material in Roman Sex (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003; $35), a book aimed at the popular market. Throughout, the text is beautifully illustrated and designed, and many artifacts familiar from similar books have been newly photographed.

Each chapter explores an aspect of sexuality as expressed in Roman art, such as the fashion for erotic paintings, both explicit and artistic, in elite houses of the early Empire. Brothel pictures of couples in flagrante, apotropaic penises, and depictions of acts that were culturally taboo to the Romans (those between women and, surprisingly, all forms of oral sex) also receive interesting chapters.

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Roman Sex presents, possibly for the first time in English, a new appraisal of the neglected erotic ceramic medallions from Gaul. Many show scenes of sex with captions incised directly into the clay, allowing the participants to speak directly to the viewer. One medallion shows a woman pleasuring a soldier who is in the process of crowning her with his own laurel wreath. A speech bubble has him admit, "You alone conquer (me)."

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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