Explicit sexual representations were common on Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Bronze tintinnabula in the shape of flying phalluses, Pompeii, first century AD. This bewilderment only intensified after excavations began at the rediscovered Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. National Archaeological Museum, Athens.
It is worth noting that even a casual glance at classical sculptures in a museum will reveal that the penis on marble depictions of nude gods and heroes is often quite small. Certainly, the erotic scenes that were popular on vessels would have given the Athenian parties a titillating atmosphere as wine was consumed. And our interpretations of these images - often censorious in modern times - reveal much about our own attitudes to sex. Erotica is common on mould-made lamps. However these classical images of erotic acts and genitalia reflect more than a sex obsessed culture. Modern responses When the collection of antiquities first began in earnest in the 17th and 18th centuries, the openness of ancient eroticism puzzled and troubled Enlightenment audiences. These blocks were positioned at borders and boundaries for protection, and were so highly valued that in BC when the hermai of Athens were vandalised prior to the departure of the Athenian fleet many believed this would threaten the success of the naval mission. Shocked by the explicit imagery, he ordered all items of a sexual nature be removed from view and locked in the cabinet. Actors who performed in satyr plays during dramatic festivals took to the stage and orchestra with fake phallus costumes to indicate that they were not humans, but these mythical beasts of Dionysus. Very few therefore have seen the collection; and those who have, are said to have no desire to repeat their visit. They are often eye-openingly confronting in nature. Lest we try to claim any moral and liberal superiority in the 21st century, the infamous marble sculptural depiction of Pan copulating with a goat from the collection still shocks modern audiences. The phallus would often be depicted on Hermes, Pan, Priapus or similar deities across various art forms. Bigger was not better for the Greeks and Romans. Erotic images and depictions of genitalia, the phallus in particular, were incredibly popular motifs across a wide range of media in ancient Greece and Rome. The application of sexual scenes to oil lamps by the Romans is perhaps the most likely scenario where the object was actually used within the setting of love-making. Marble Herm, from Siphnos, Greece. Athenian red-figure kylix, attributed to Dokimasia Painter, c. Wikimedia The censorship of ancient sexuality is perhaps best typified by the long tradition of removing genitals from classical sculpture. Somewhat comic, yet also tragic to a degree, they were inveterate masturbators and party animals with an appetite for dancing, wine and women. Messenger In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today. Bronze tintinnabula in the shape of flying phalluses, Pompeii, first century AD. Wikimedia The phallus was also highlighted in depictions of Dionysiac revelry. The Trustees of the British Museum These types of scenes are especially popular on the kylix, or wine-cup, particularly within the tondo central panel of the cup. The cabinet was not opened to the general public until despite protests by the Catholic Church. Since , the collection has been displayed in a separate room; the objects have still not been reunited with contemporary non-sexual artefacts as they were in antiquity.
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