Libidinous Pygmies and Perverted Slave Masters: An Introduction to the Thematics of the Roman Orgy Through a Close Reading of a Fresco in the Pompeian House of the Doctor
1.1 Orgiastic Sex as the Inauthentic and Aberrant—A Case Study in Imperial Propaganda
Prepubescent pygmy-boys fornicate beside a picnic table underneath a billowing canvas awning. The penetrator lies flat on his back as his lover rides him astride, facing his feet. The “bottom” (who is ironically physically on top in this case) delights a party of banqueters by bouncing along to the melody of a tibia. The picnickers and flutist are similarly depicted as members of the same chimerical species eliding the features of children, dwarfs, and Cupids. To the right of the ensemble, a pair of pygmies shepherd a wild crane toward the party, while a second couple gossip in the shade of elegantly fenestrated parapets enclosing an idyllic park. To the left of the banquet, a ship with the masthead carved into the shape of an ass carries myriad amphorae on the Nile. One of the diners raises his arm in a gesture of salute, either to celebrate the athletic achievements of the couple having sex at the picnic or to beckon the pilot of the boat into port so that the party can be restocked. The captain, however, is preoccupied. He is in mid-thrust penetrating another pygmy from behind, his chest and mien extended triumphantly toward the heavens as he pumps. On the riverbank, another pygmy rides a hippopotamus among the reeds and raises a mace or a bottle into the air, either sadistically egging the beast on or desperately trying to rein him in. The hippo chomps on yet another pygmy, the entire lower half of his body mashed into ooze that drips from the animal’s jaws in viscous strands. A bystander pathetically attempts to wrest what is left of the victim’s cadaver from out of the creature’s teeth.
When I first visited the so-called Secret Cabinet in the Archeological Museum of Naples, I came face to face with the most unsettling work of art that I had ever encountered, a fresco discovered in the Pompeian House of the Doctor (VIII. 5. 24) dating to the late Julio-Claudian or early Flavian dynasty. The residence received its name thanks to seventy surgical instruments and tools for ointment-making that were uncovered on the site when it was first excavated in the nineteenth century. Situated on the Via dell’ Abbondanza in the vicinity of the Forum, the house has been called “modest” in comparison to many of its ostentatius neighbors in the city. John Clarke describes the original setting of the fresco of the pygmies, which was exhaustively detailed by Antonio Sogliano in 1882. The owner of the house constructed an addition to the southwest section of the building some time after a devastating earthquake in 62 CE. He or she took advantage of the opportunity to install a small peristyle beneath a skylight (compluvium) along with a reception area and a dining room directly beyond it. The image of the libidinous pygmies was taken from the low walls (plutei) that connected the columns of this peristyle. It is thought that an impluvium (water basin) originally surrounded the fresco since waterproof flooring was discovered beneath the compluvium and the space was connected to both a cistern and a channel leading out to the street. The accumulation of water would have enhanced the illusion of being in the presence of the Nile River, the content of the fresco seemingly spilling out into the three-dimensional realm of the viewers themselves and blurring the distinction between art and reality. Yet underscoring the profound divergence that existed between the world of the painting’s admirers and the exotic wonderland depicted by the anonymous artist is the fact that spectators would have only been able to admire the fresco by observing it from vantage points along the frame of a low wall rather than studying it head-on in intimate detail, since the entire space in front of the image would have been overflowing with water. Consequently, there invariably existed physical distance between viewers of the fresco and the object itself mirroring and reinforcing the thematic gulf between “Roman” and “Other” as visitors to the house contemplated the bizarre shenanigans of the pygmies reflected in the rippling pool in front of them.
The depiction of pygmies as exotic, licentious Others has a long pedigree in Greek and Roman thought. Given their name because the span of their bodies was thought to be equal to the length from the human elbow to the knuckle (a πυγμή), they were popular subjects since the end of the Greek Dark Ages. Homer described an annual rumble between pygmies and cranes when the latter encroached upon the pygmies’ sweltering homeland whenever the birds flew south for the winter, a struggle that became known as the geranomachy. The pygmies themselves combine generic features associated with dwarfs, adolescents, and sub-Saharan Africans. Their “civilization” has no basis in reality, and certainly not in the culture of the historical bush tribes who inhabited central Africa. Clarke suggests that depictions of pygmies could often serve to facilitate Roman imperialism by effectively erasing the personhood of subjugated Nilotic peoples, auguring themes associated with racist imperial propaganda that would plague the Western imagination until the modern age. Mary Boatwright concurs with Clarke, insisting that images of pygmies often underscore the τρυφή (luxuriousness) of Egypt, divorcing the lascivious subjects of the depictions from the human sphere. Representations of pygmies may further be understood in light of contemptuous elite Roman attitudes not only toward their colonized subjects, but toward physical disability in general. Dwarfs and deformed individuals were often kept as “pets” that were considered fascinating to their owners due to their ugliness. According to Bert Gevaert and Christian Laes, this prurient interest was likely grounded in large part in an urge to accentuate one’s prosperity by means of stark daily juxtaposition with the less fortunate. All of this is in line with the opinion of Edward Said that the foundations of Orientalism extend to the Greco-Roman past. “In classical Greece and Rome,” he wrote, “geographers, historians, public figures like Caesar, orators, and poets added to the fund of taxonomic lore separating races, regions, nations, and minds from each other; much of that was self- serving, and existed to prove that Romans and Greeks were superior to other kinds of people.” Said might well have added visual artists to his catalogue of imperial collaborators.
Why are the pygmies engaged in orgiastic behavior? In the eyes of many critics, the hypersexual content only serves to further a program of brutal colonial dehumanization. In fact, the very act of portraying these sexual antics might be considered tantamount to an aggressive act of imperial exploitation in its own right. According to arguments developed by Susanne Kappeler that later proved fundamental to second wave feminist thinking in the Classics epitomized by Amy Richlin’s Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, the depiction of an act that is brutally dehumanizing is in fact in some ways more “real” than the “reality” that the representation purports to portray. After all, an isolated event exists ephemerally in time and space and is subject to endless reinterpretation, possessing no fixed meaning. A representation, however, is a facticity that endures forever. The depiction of the pygmies’ orgy can be understood through this thematic lens accentuating the pernicious influence of gross stereotyping as a tool of imperial exploitation. The nudity of the subjects may be central to their brutal debasement. In ancient art, the portrayal of nakedness was often associated with the clichéd celebration of beauty and purity; indeed, it was often the “clothing” of the gods themselves. As Roman artists adapted and readapted age-old formulaic models associated with the human form, however, they could exploit the rich constellation of meanings connected with nudity to make unique artistic statements depending on the context in which that nudity was deployed. In the fresco of the pygmies, the nakedness is vulgarly explicit, with bare buttocks and erect penises confronting viewers at every angle. There is sex on display everywhere, but the pygmies themselves are not very sexy. There is no intimacy or passion on display here. The subjects are simultaneously unrealistic and childlike rather than objects of beauty or desire. The faces of the penetrated partners are not even visible. The festive, public context of their intercourse seems to render their efforts more ridiculous than alluring. While gay sex is ubiquitous, females are evidently nowhere to be found. One wonders how the strange species even reproduces itself.
In light of all of this, at first glance, the idea of viewing the sexual acts depicted in this fresco through the prism of reality and lived experience seems almost foolhardy. If the pygmies are meant to be rendered as quintessential Others, it might stand to reason that their preferred form of festive, exhibitionist sex was likely viewed as a bizarre act in its original cultural context. This would fall squarely in line with Alastair Blanshard’s suggestion that Roman orgies are largely grounded in discursive fantasy rather than authentic cultural practice. Writing about “the Myth of the Orgy,” Blanshard opines that:
(The idea of Roman orgies) is an enormous superstructure built on few and flimsy foundations. The Romans never routinely engaged in sexual orgies and would have been appalled that we thought that they did. The very few instances where we can find references to anything remotely approaching an orgy seem to indicate, if we can even believe them, that these were one-off affairs. If the Romans did try the orgy, they certainly didn’t seem to like what they found. Roman sexual activity was largely based around the idea of satisfying one dominant male. This sits uneasily with the notions of reciprocity and bodily sharing implicit in an orgy…The orgy largely exists in people’s minds.
Blanshard goes on to explain that the myth of the orgy is fundamentally misogynistic, bound to paranoid male fantasies on the rare occasions when the Romans deigned to talk about it at all. He even suggests that Christians might have accused the Romans of holding orgies to dispel rumors about their own cult, suggesting that the legendary popular image of the Romans as polyamorous debauchees might date more to the post-classical world and the imaginations of modern European and American artists than the ancient past. Normativity in the Roman was bound to the idea that a dominant man should penetrate his way down the social ladder. The implication is that the experience of being penetrated was fit only for people like slaves, prostitutes, and one’s legal wife. For this reason, the chaotic couplings of an orgy seem somehow fundamentally “inauthentic” or “aberrant” to the Roman cultural experience in Blanshard’s imagination. Many ancient Romans would have undoubtedly shared his anxiety about group sex. For example, around the time of the creation of the fresco of the pygmies, Seneca wrote that “Even among prostitutes there exists some sort of modesty, and those bodies offered for public pleasure draw over some curtain by which their unhappy submission may be hidden… (since) towards certain things even a brothel shows a sense of shame.”
Interestingly, Blanshard’s problematization of orgiastic imagery is not the first example of sexual content contained in ancient material evidence resulting in that evidence’s relegation to the realm of the “inauthentic” and “aberrant” because it failed to square up with contemporary notions of how certain scholars would like to imagine the Romans behaving in the bedroom. The future King Francis of the Two Sicilies (r. 1825 to 1830) made a habit of visiting the Neapolitan Archeological Museum with his wife Maria Isabella and daughter Louisa Carlotta in tow to broadcast the sophistication of the royal house as the family admired one of the finest collections of classical statuary in existence. The gallery was the pride of Naples and a veritable place of pilgrimage for European adventurers on the Grand Tour. During the eighteenth century, the Greeks and Romans were idealized as the originators of the values of the Enlightenment, and their aesthetic accomplishments were the inspirations for the entire neoclassical movement. To experience their art was thought to be to commune with the zeitgeist of a lost and better age.
However, the royal family was in for more than just a glimpse at edifying busts of dead emperors when they explored the museum. Much of the art uncovered in Pompeii portrayed sex in a frank manner that defied eighteenth century values, compromising the morals that the Bourbon dynasty wished to inculcate. Like it or not, art depicting sex was not “a vulgar exception… (but) the rule” in Pompeii. The very word “pornography” entered into the English language in the mid-nineteenth century in part as an attempt to describe the genre of erotic representation seen so ubiquitously in the ruins of the ancient city. Interestingly, when the word “pornography” was described by Webster’s Dictionary for the first time in 1864, the ultimate definition was “licentious painting employed to decorate the walls of rooms sacred to Bacchanalian orgies, examples of which exist in Pompeii.”
According to legend, Francis and his family were flabbergasted by the art that they encountered, including objects like a statue of a faun penetrating a nanny-goat, a tripod made of Pan-figures with erect penises, paintings of slaves attending their masters during sexual trysts, and enough priapuses to scar poor princess Louisa Carlotta for the rest of her life. Disgusted by the obscenity on display and the increasingly scurrilous jokes of visitors to Naples, Francis concluded in 1819 that “it would be as well to confine all the obscene objects, of whatever material, in one room, the only people allowed to visit this room being of mature age and proven morality.” In this way the Secret Cabinet was born, a restricted annex meant to contain “disreputable monuments of pagan licentiousness.” “Women, children, and non-elite men were strictly barred from seeing…any of the objects.” Certain modern works were hauled off to the room as well, including Titian’s provocative “Danae.” Demand for permits to visit the hidden chamber climbed to such an extent that licenses soon had to be printed rather than handwritten. According to the display in the museum today, “the way in which the collection was administered became a symbol of the cultural backwardness of the Bourbon regime.” After the discovery of the fresco of the pygmies in the House of the Doctor, there was little question about where it would be housed.
During the Revolution of 1848 and again during the Risorgimento, troops vowed to open the Secret Cabinet to contrast the censorship and incompetence of the Bourbon dynasty with the liberty and openness of the new regime. After the unification of Italy, Giuseppe Fiorelli unsuccessfully attempted to abolish the puritanical restrictions once and for all in 1860. But the Cabinet’s contents compromised Mussolini’s plan for a Nova Roma in the first half of the twentieth century. Appeals to Romanitas, the “quality of being like a Roman,” were key to the fascist agenda, and the party’s provision of “peace, work, bread, roads, and water” was explicitly meant to call to mind the achievements of the ancient Caesars. Mussolini even hosted a major exhibition called the Mostra Augustea della Romanita on the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birthday, with Giulio Quirino Giglioli appointed to serve as the general director of the exhibition; Hitler himself visited it twice. The Secret Cabinet was made completely off limits during this time since its unwholesome images contradicted the fascist fantasy of austere Roman morality that Mussolini held to be so fundamental to Italian nationalism. The Cabinet was eventually reopened in 1976. Women were only admitted in the 1980s. Then it was closed yet again until a grand rechristening in the year 2000 and the construction of a special wing devoted to it in 2005. Today, children scamper freely about the hallways and access to the collection seems completely unrestricted to visitors of all ages, although various publications suggest that the age limit is technically 14. One wonders what the Romans and eighteenth and nineteenth century Grand Tourists would have made of this latest development.
It is unfortunate that the culturally specific meaning of the fresco of the pygmies is lost in the anonymous jumble of the Secret Cabinet’s “erotica.” In the words of Nicholas Fox Weber, “One wishes only that (the works of art) could be seen where they belong: in the context of everything else in this archaeological museum, as part of a life as a whole rather than as the sort of peep show that censorship and prudery have forced them to become.” The Secret Cabinet contains an array of widely disparate objects that are essentially only united by modern ideas about their sexualized attributes. The fact that nude statues of Venus were almost always deemed uncontroversial in European museums but that a tripod with images of erect penises should be considered obscene enough to be relegated to a restricted annex says more about modern European values than ancient Roman ones, since both nude statues of Venus and images of erect phalluses were in no way exclusively associated with sexual titillation in the ancient world. In the words of John Clarke speaking in reference to the most famous work in the Secret Cabinet in a documentary about the history of pornography:
The removing of the Pan and the Goat from the culture that it was embedded in and putting it away started a process that still continues today, that is: cordoning off sexual representation from the rest of life. For the Romans it was a part of the continuum, for us it is still a very scary thing. We believe in the power of images of sex to create disturbance.
Scholars have struggled to articulate subtle differences in the meaning of different types of art that to the Bourbons seemed uniformly eroticized and therefore dangerous in the illicit passions that they might evoke among patrons to public museums, institutions which expanded knowledge of the Classics to a wider audience than ever before but caused consternation since traditional educated elites no longer held an exclusive monopoly on access to historical information which might inspire unruly behavior. Yet in reality, the bronze tripod with legs formed by ithyphallic figures might have simply been a charcoal brazier associated with religious offerings, with the penises serving an apotropaic rather than pornographic function. Depending upon the context in which they were depicted, images of phalluses could be considered humorous, lucky, or merely a symbolic and highly generic way of illustrating a boundary. All of these distinctions are eradicated in the hodgepodge of the Secret Cabinet, where these kinds of images are lumped alongside objects like paintings of hermaphrodites being seduced by Pan, erotic images on dinnerware, and our fresco of hypersexual pygmies.
Assembling the content of the Secret Cabinet carried the attendant ramification of distorting the public understanding of Greco-Roman history by excluding key pieces of material evidence from study and enshrining a lack of sensitivity to the nuances of each individual piece’s original meaning and reception. In the same way, categorically dismissing the fresco of the pygmies as contemptuous imperial propaganda and the broader idea of the Roman orgy as nothing but a hyperbolic fantasy carries the attendant risk of ignoring the potential range of non-mutually-exclusive understandings that an original Roman audience might have reached when contemplating a work of art illustrating group sex at a banquet on the Nile. When Duke Francis and Alastair Blanshard forged spaces (rhetorical and otherwise) in which depictions of sex that they found unsettling could be banished as “inauthentic” or “aberrant,” their actions disempowered future scholars by restricting access to source material on the one hand and silencing Roman sources on the other by branding their claims fallacious, incredible, and illegitimate when they depicted intercourse in ways that did not reflect modern (and sometimes ancient) ideas about propriety. Blanshard’s description of the orgy essentially creates an echo-chamber of elite prejudiced attitudes in which only vanilla sex is viewed through the prism of lived experience and supposedly non-normative sex is banished to the realm of the fantastical precisely because it is non-normative. Blanshard mistakes that which is taboo for that which is rare, implausible, or non-existent. In fact, group sex and sex in the context of banquets and orgiastic rituals are often prominent and startling features of Roman art and historiography, and a willingness to engage with their depiction on their own terms and in the thematic company of other lived experiences in antiquity rather than exclusively through the prism of “fantasy” can often prove revelatory. This is even true in the analysis of pieces such as the fresco of the pygmies in the House of the Doctor, which ostensibly portrays a completely imaginary scenario.
1.2 A Sampling of Contemporary Critical Views of the Orgiastic Pygmies Beyond Propagandistic Readings
Let us reconsider the fresco of the pygmies in its original Roman context. The first task is to cautiously set aside the notion that the fresco would have necessarily or exclusively been read as a derogatory or wholly fantastical depiction in its original Roman setting in all respects and by all viewers. Clarke emphasizes that it is not always a straightforward task to decide when a pygmy is symbolizing a colonial Other and when the image is intended to be perceived in other ways. His confusion on the matter, however, seems to miss the point that even clownish depictions of pygmies bound to non-colonial concerns could never have completely escaped the imperialist discourse surrounding these types of images in other contexts. For this reason, they must have inevitably spoken at least in part to the perpetuation of “propagandistic” discourse in the absence of any critical interrogation of the demeaning “Orientalist” perspective. However, I nonetheless agree with Clarke that “the best antidote to fanciful overinterpretation is to insist on the circumstances of creation and reception for each visual representation” when considering a specific work of art. Even if issues associated with propaganda were inevitably at play in depictions of pygmies as a generic class, the only way to untangle whether a specific depiction was primarily grounded in such concerns or also spoke to other themes demands a close investigation of contextual issues associated with the piece and its installation in its original setting. Until now, attempts to interpret the fresco of the pygmies beyond emphases on colonialism and dehumanization have focused on the fresco’s apotropaic or documentary functions. We will examine each of these in turn before I suggest an additional prism through which to view the work grounded in the details of the group sex being portrayed, questioning whether the pygmies were in fact meant to represent “Others” in all respects.
Undercutting the idea that the fresco of the pygmies should exclusively and fundamentally be understood as anti-provincial propaganda is the fact that the fresco seems to imagine the pygmies as magical, playful, and even lovable beings. Meyboom and Versluys’ description of the variegated roles of pygmies in Roman art accentuates their symbolic roles connected with the idea of fertility and the copiousness of the Nile flood. Clarke describes how the portrayal of pygmies was often associated with the παράδεισος motif of wild animal hunts in sacral-idyllic landscapes in addition to σύμπλεγμα (complex sexual couplings), all of which feature in the fresco in the House of the Doctor. To Clarke, these kinds of images were “lightning rods, to pull away the forces of evil from non-deformed individuals through the laughter they incited… when a Roman encountered a visual representation of deformed, phallic dwarfs in a liminal–and therefore dangerous–space, he or she understood that laughter was the point.” Clarke understands the sexuality on display in these kinds of depictions as a variation on other kinds of apotropaic depictions of sex and the human body, linking the power of laughter with the ability to draw away the unwelcome attentions of the evil eye. The work of Robert Garland, who has explored the “talismanic” character of deformity in antiquity, reinforces this reading. For her part, Marilyn Skinner writes that depictions of ithyphallic pygmies and bath-servants with erect penises are similar to phallic images like those of the god Priapus, and that the laughter which they invoked was itself considered to be apotropaic, to say nothing of an opportunity to release anxiety.
Clarke’s idea that the pygmies on display in the House of the Doctor serve a primarily apotropaic purpose can be challenged, however. In her incisive review of Clarke’s work, Alexandre Mitchell reminds readers that pygmies were popular objects of mirth since time immemorial and that laughter directed in their direction was not necessarily always apotropaic in nature. However, she seems to overstate her case insofar as most other depictions of beings with erect phalluses are almost invariably associated with apotropaic functions in classical art, particularly when they are discovered in liminal spaces like gardens and the entrances to baths where visitors pass from one thematic realm into another, often accompanied by a change in dress. The fact that so many depictions of pygmies have been discovered in gardens, tombs, and baths suggests a link to apotropaism even if the intended function of the representations sometimes transcended the merely apotropaic. In other words, the apotropaic association could no less be completely eradicated than the imperialist connection whenever this kind of art was put on display. At best, either function could be emphasized or downplayed depending on the tastes of the individual artist/patron.
While I disagree with Mitchell that the pygmies are not necessarily invested with apotropaic power, I share her misgivings that Clarke may be drawing too much attention to the apotropaic power of laughter in this specific incidence, at least in terms of the inherent “humor” of depicting a pygmy in the first place. It seems to me laughter is perhaps not the only source of the pygmy’s power as an apotropaic symbol. Images of the creatures are quite common in Pompeii, with depictions found in locations associated with banqueting and in tombs like the monument of Vestorius Priscus, which depicts pygmies hard at work on a Nile barge in a totally non-sexualized and non-humorous setting beneath an image of a festive symposium attended by full-size humans decked out in Greco-Roman garb. This is an inversion of the classic distinction between sober-minded Romans and decadent, partying pygmy-Others. The pygmies as a class are evidently foils whose antics reflected, distorted, and magically charmed the lives of the people who encountered them rather than merely serving as crass representations of hilarious decadence juxtaposed with Roman sobriety. Of course, the pygmies might serve as humorous symbols of lasciviousness, but this was not their only role in Roman art. Nor are they always ugly and deformed—indeed, they often resemble elegant, blithe beings.
The fresco of pygmies in the House of the Doctor seems at least in part humorous and talismanic in nature, and certainly would have been interpreted that way by many viewers considering the general association between apotropaic images, erect phalluses, and liminal spaces like gardens which bridged the gulf between the private and public and indoor and outdoor worlds. The Roman garden was itself a fantastical landscape with an atmosphere in some ways reminiscent of the fairytale-like world evoked in the fresco of the pygmies, typically suffused with exotic statuary and panels with features like Egyptian deities, Nereids, and sundry mythological characters. Far from being merely objects of contempt, the pygmies might have been viewed as lucky beings whose wondrous qualities could prove to be protectively empowering.
Beyond the fresco’s apotropaic power, scholars have also drawn attention to its potential documentary connections to Egyptian culture. Nilotic landscapes in Roman art had certain generic features in common which help to explain some elements of the fresco. Pompeii had long been associated with the appropriation of Egyptian culture. In fact, the sanctuary of Isis at Pompeii was one of the oldest in Italy. It included Fourth Style paintings portraying flotillas, priests and priestesses, still lives, and (of course) pygmies. Egypt had a longstanding reputation for licentiousness. Sex manuals like those of the legendary Elephantis were commonly associated with the province, and Roman authors luxuriated in tales of notorious prostitutes like Rhodopis, women whose names became bywords for promiscuity (and this despite the fact that papyrological evidence suggests that sexuality was much more downplayed in Egypt than in Pompeii itself).
Eroticized banquets with couples languishing by the Nile were evidently common visual motifs in Rome whether or not they involved pygmies. For example, in the magnificent mosaic from the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste, the scene is enlivened with erotically charged vignettes of men and women lounging at picnics set along the Nile. It is hypothesized that the mosaic dates anywhere from the late second century BCE to the late first century BCE, and has been interpreted in light of Roman views of Egypt in literary sources. It underscores the fact that visually, Egypt was long associated with the erotics of banqueting in the Roman imagination. The presence of pygmies might simply provide an opportunity for the artist to get away with being particularly explicit in his depiction of σύμπλεγμα, undoubtedly a playful nod to the fertility rituals for which the abundant country was famous in addition to a commentary on the land’s notorious τρυφή.
Ceremonial ὄργια in honor of Dionysus orchestrated in the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty were subjects of gossip even centuries after the fact, doubtless contributing to Egypt’s reputation as an appropriate artistic venue for the depiction of luxury and outlandishness. Ptolemy II organized an enormous celebration including 24 chariots drawn by 96 elephants, a mile long parade, and still more vehicles pulled by “lions, oryxes, ostriches, and wild asses,” and also “leopards, cheetahs, lynxes, a white bear, brown bears, camels laden with cinnamon and the tusks of 600 elephants, 130 Ethiopian and 300 Arabian sheep, a snake reported to have been 45 feet long, and 24,000 Indian dogs,” to say nothing of a “giraffe… (and) black African rhinoceros.” During the height of the Dionysian rites in Alexandria, a large ceremonial phallus was carried on a float and worshipped for its life-giving properties.
Paul G. P. Myboom
and Miguel John Versluys ground their understanding of images like the fresco
of the pygmies in the House of the Doctor in the history of these kinds of fertility rituals stemming from Egypt itself, providing a so-called interpretatio aegyptiaca of the scenes in question. They argue that the sex seen in these images of fornicating dwarfs should be interpreted as representations of the symbolic union of Isis and Osiris. They insist that the σύμπλεγμα must have ceremonial overtones, an idea which can be traced far back in Egyptian history. For example, the Turin Erotic Papyrus 55001 from the twelfth century BCE depicts priests and Hathor-dancers in various sexual couplings, in one case in the presence of an ithyphallic dwarf. Myboom and Versluys believe that the Pompeiian frescoes might not depict parodies at all, but “genuine imitations” of ceremonial rituals. While temple prostitution (hierodouleia) was not native to Egypt, it was likely associated with foreign cults such as that of Astarte at Saqqara and the worship of hybrid gods like Zeus-Amun. The god Bes was especially associated with fertility, and so-called Bes chambers have been discovered containing erotic figurines in Saqqara in proximity to the Anubeum dating to the mid second century BCE, including decorations showing Bes flanked by female worshippers; it is unknown, however, if these images were associated with prostitution or childbirth. Later, soldiers’ graffiti related to Bes provides evidence of the longevity of interest in his cult. Myboom and Versluys are at their most convincing when they explain that sexualized depictions of dwarfs and pygmies become far less common after 200 CE, arguing that this shows an increasing divergence between pagan and Christian ideas about Nilotic τρυφή. The idea is that the associations between σύμπλεγμα and pagan fertility rituals would have been so obvious to Roman viewers that the depictions would no longer have been deemed culturally appropriate in a Christian context.
Whatever the associations between Bes and sacred prostitution and the question of whether images of homosexual couplings can meaningfully be said to symbolize the union of Isis and Osiris, the Pompeiian scene incorporates the eroticized σύμπλεγμα associated with divinities such as Bes and weaves them into a rich tapestry of discursive strands that emphasized the lascivious “Otherness” of Egypt, but also the country’s bounty, vitality, and infinitely renewable fertility, all within the setting of a peaceful garden protected by delightful apotropaic images.
But for all of these insights, a question which Clarke took for granted remains unanswered: why is the image of the pygmies having group sex particularly “funny,” especially since the pygmies in this particular fresco are more cherubic than deformed and grotesque? And if we agree with the interpretatio aegyptiaca of Myboom and Versluys, why should the “genuine imitation” of public sex in an orgy take on the specific features that it does, complete with a musician playing a tibia and homosexual pairings which otherwise have no precedent in Egyptian art? At the same time, what, if anything, does all of this have to do with the wild hippopotamus hunt taking place on the fringes of the scene? It is here that an investigation of the particular kind of orgiastic sex on display in the fresco is particularly illuminating and reveals the perils of relegating the sexual evidence in the painting to the realm of the merely fantastical, apotropaic, or documentary when it in fact served all three purposes simultaneously and also a fourth which might seem altogether less obvious upon first examination: a reflection of anxiety about social class, sex, and public performance in a specifically Roman context. Indeed, again and again throughout this dissertation, tensions between propaganda, fantasy, slander, humor, the documentation of lived experience, and a reflection on what it means to behave in a sexually “normative” fashion in a brutally classist society will prove to both haunt and enrich our exploration of the thematics of the Roman orgy.
1.3 Interrogating the “Otherness” of the Orgiastic Pygmies—An Interpretatio Romana of the Scene
Group sex was often deployed as an amusing motif in Roman art. On the basis of the discovery of its depiction on several lamps, it has been hypothesized that its portrayal might have served an apotropaic function much like images of dwarfs and pygmies in their own right. Images of group intercourse are particularly common which depict chains linking a woman between two men, as if to underscore the drainer’s domination. In several surviving Nilotic images from Pompeii, “Egyptians” engage in group intercourse in festive settings. In one painting, a woman fellates a man while another partner penetrates her from behind as they sail on the Nile to an appreciative audience of river creatures; in another image, pygmies flit about in the background as an apparently full grown heterosexual couple have reverse-cowgirl style sex while two maids stand by, one playing the tibia. The image of the tibia-player beside the couple having sex is strikingly reminiscent to the fresco from the House of the Doctor and suggests that a pattern book was used at least in part in the crafting of both images.
Despite our emphasis so far on Otherness, there are thematic links in the fresco that bind the image inextricably to Romanitas. It has already been demonstrated that in generic images of this kind, both pygmies and full-grown humans are depicted engaging in group sex, complicating a simplistic divergence between viewer and subject. In the fresco from the House of the Doctor, the pygmies are portrayed as cute, essentially human-like figures rather than monstrous or deformed beings. Indeed, we know that they are pygmies because they fit the cues (an Egyptian setting with a heron, the presence of a hippo, etc.), but otherwise, they are quite cherubic and might as well be human children in line with other images in the later history of Roman art. It has even provocatively been suggested that images of libidinous pygmies might be associated with critiques of the Roman imperial family, who restricted access to Egypt, harnessed its luxury to fuel the engine of their authoritarianism, and were reported by historians to participate in orgiastic practices during just the time when this fresco was said to have been executed in the reign of the emperor Nero. Regardless of whether the fresco refers to contemporary events in imperial circles, other elements of the painting unequivocally ground it in the world of the Romans themselves. The pygmies are surrounded by dainty examples of Hellenic architecture rather than huts. Both the House of the Doctor and a sumptuous opus vermiculatum mosaic in the House of Menander depict realistic cityscapes behind the pygmies, grounding the images in the everyday visual experience of the viewer and complicating the idea that the artist is interested in a complete distancing between spectator and object. Like the “Greek” characters of Plautus in his adaptations of New Comedy, the pygmies are ostensibly Others, but really inhabit a world that, in some ways, greatly resembles Rome itself. Nor are all of the pygmies in the fresco in the House of the Doctor engaged in outlandish acts. One couple simply strolls in a garden while its members chat with each other, undoubtedly doing much the same as visitors to the peristyle itself. There exists a kind of intimate closeness to the society which the pygmies are aping, although the reflection is a distorted one, as if seen in a fun-house mirror.
Impudicita (the quality of being sexually penetrable outside of wedlock) seems to be on parade in the fresco of the pygmies, but because the class distinctions between the pygmies is unclear, it is not entirely evident whether stuprum (transgressive sex that defied class and gender norms) is being committed. This is a key feature of the scene that would have likely been prominent to a Roman viewer conscious of class but which has hitherto been invisible to modern commentators. We will see in later parts of this dissertation that when indiscriminate group sex between freeborn citizens comes up in Roman historiography, it is a cause of great concern and consternation to conservative historians, but that the topic of group sex among slaves and the enslaved in erotic poetry is often the subject of great jocularity. The scene of the pygmies depicts group sexual acts without reference to the class distinctions that made such acts either normative (albeit hedonistic) or non-normative. It is fundamentally impossible to tell if the tibia player is a slave, if the penetrated partner is a freeman, or if the captain of the boat is a Roman citizen. For this reason, the artist can combine the shock value of scenes in historiography depicting indiscriminate orgiastic sex without sensitivity to class with the hilarity of poetic portrayals focusing on slaves and Others, since the “pygmies” are imaginary beings who inherently do not display class distinctions, and so are inherently sexually subversive from a Roman perspective. Because the pygmies seem to inhabit a classless society at war with the forces of nature, there is no social ladder to hump one’s way down. Instead, there is inherent scope for a free-for-all.
As in the realm of literature, the theme of impudicitia could be harnessed by artists to explore the inherent tension between hilarious invective and serious outrage. In traditional classical Greek portrayals of homosexual behavior, the explicit depiction of anal sex was somewhat rare, perhaps a means of preserving the illusion of the sanctity of freeborn boys. By contrast, Roman artistic portrayals often depict anal sex far more blatantly, allegedly since there invariably existed the assumption that the sex portrayed was reinforcing class hierarchies: that is, that the penetrated drainers were the likes of slaves or prostitutes. While this formula holds true for images such as panel paintings depicting servants fulfilling the sexual needs of patrons in locations such as brothels, we have already shown that the couplings of the pygmies complicate this simplistic scenario. The possibility of indiscriminate group sex is outrageous because such public exhibitions inherently complicate class hierarchies, but in this case, there are no hierarchies to complicate. There is nothing in pygmy-land but hilarious permutations of bodies and unbounded vitality. If Clarke is correct and the fresco was meant to be perceived as humorous from a Roman perspective and that its apotropaic power was in fact bound to its humor, its inherent elision of the class distinctions that normally defined sexual acts as normative or non-normative is surely at least part of the reason for this power.
Still another dimension of meaning to the sexual acts on display in the fresco becomes evident in consideration of the spatial hierarchies that defined the lived experiences of the members of ancient cities such as Pompeii. Imagine what it would have been like to walk through the town on the eve of its destruction. On the outskirts of the city were long stretches of roadside punctuated by tombs. This was the zone of the dead, with nothing but epitaphs and rotting offerings of victuals to memorialize the ghosts of the maiores. Along the gates of the city were both amphitheaters and dumping-grounds for unwanted children. This was the zone of the dying, where the bodies of unwanted humans from infants born outside of wedlock to gladiators bound for the arena were exploited for gain or left to rot. And within the towns themselves were the zones of the living, overflowing with images evoking sexual penetration and interspersed with brothels and taverns which often served the sexual in addition to the alimentary appetites of their clientele. Apotropaic images of erections were ubiquitous, from ithyphallic statues to mosaics, lamps, frescoes, and graffiti. The overall impression would have been overwhelming: the ancient world was a primal place in which a civilized veneer barely concealed the brute facts of a savage, altogether more basic existence. Sex and violence were everywhere, barely controlled by being confined to set spaces within the city and wielded as weapons against set groups of people whose reputations did not matter: those afflicted with infamia. People’s roles were clearly demarcated—one’s position in the city (and sexual vulnerability) clearly signified who was in power and who was an outcast.
Literal and discursive violence upheld power. Certain people were permitted to exploit others, and those who broke the rules of the game could expect merciless approbation and violence against their bodies and even their memories. The image of rape was ubiquitous, represented everywhere from myths to paintings to reenactments in the arena and perpetrated against the bodies of slaves everywhere from brothels to aristocratic boudoirs. The exploitation of the vulnerable was seen as more than just an unpleasant fact of life. It was what it fundamentally meant to be a Roman. The spatial organization of the city and ideas of sexual normativity both upheld Roman power—to be a Roman citizen was to be a penetrator who exploited the less powerful in permitted zones within the urban space and within certain parameters; the way one treated a tavern-girl for hire, for example, was not the way one treated the unmarried daughter of another Roman citizen. In this world, as Blanshard intuited, the idea of an indiscriminate orgy was dangerous, something fundamentally disorderly to the organizing spatial regimes that defined the domain of a Roman city. This does not mean, however, that group sex had no place within the Roman city. Indeed, its very transgressive potential perhaps made experimentation with it all the more irresistible.
Now, think back to the fresco of the pygmies. Clarke emphasizes that to understand the nature of Roman laughter, one must first examine the nature of “looking” itself. In other words, we need to understand Roman “scopic regimes” and untangle how humor is culturally constructed, exploring the assumptions underlying jokes which provide impact to their punchlines. To Clarke, we have already seen that pygmies are quintessential Others who provoke laughter and function as apotropaia, lampooning commonly held ideas about cultural beauty and dispelling the evil eye by distracting it with hilarious deformity. Clarke specifically believes that the fresco in the House of the Doctor parodies scenes on triumphal arches and sarcophagi, caricaturing Roman virtus rather than naively celebrating it. Usually in images of heroic exploits, he explains, “the hero always wins,” and he contrasts the defeat of the pygmies at the hands of the Nilotic beasts to the glorious fates of epic heroes. This is a subtle point. Like Mary Beard’s description of a Hellenistic or Roman statue of a drunken old woman whose body has been ravaged by time makes clear, certain images can be seen as “sneers” at canonical heroic values. As for the orgiastic banquet, Clarke suggests that “this image shows just what a proper Roman was not supposed to do at a convivium before you turn the corner and enter the triclinium: drink too much, dance, and have sex in the open.”
All of this stands in line with Clarke’s emphasis on the Otherness of the pygmies. Yet just as an analysis of the group sex portrayed at the picnic revealed that the specific humor of the situation portrayed in the fresco was likely bound to the elision of class-distinctions rather than merely the outrageousness of group sex as a theoretical act per se, consideration of the fresco in light of the spatial hierarchies of the Roman city further suggests a level of meaning that has hitherto been invisible to modern commentators. The fact of the matter is that wild animal hunts, the public performance of sex to music, and even the goring of living victims by wild beasts were regular facts of life in Roman cities rather than merely fantastical occurrences. The only difference is, they normally took place within set spatial domains such as amphitheaters and brothels rather than indiscriminately out in the open. In fact, the fresco in the House of the Doctor does not construct the pygmies as unintelligible Others, but as individuals going about experiences in their daily lives that are normally relegated to specialized “performance spaces” in a Roman town. Clarke may suggest that on sarcophagi and triumphal arches the hero always wins, but many Pompeiians would have been all too familiar with the faces of the dead and dying in the amphitheater and realized that virtus and victoria were in fact not always joined.
“Group sex” in the form of intercourse in festive performative settings for the delight of a crowd is strongly attributed in the archeological record in Pompeii. It has been suggested that while pantomimic actors often hoped to inspire more from their audience than simply a knee-jerk sexual response, the uneducated class reveled in bawdy scenes on the stage that toyed with the distinction between simulation and reality. Antonio Varone stresses the erotic nature of popular performances and explains that they often culminated in live acts, tracing the history of these kinds of spectacles to Atellan farces and fescennini, in which eroticism was particularly prominent. An image from a caupona in Pompeii on the Via di Mercurio known from a copy made in the nineteenth century shows a man penetrating a woman from behind while simultaneously drinking from wine goblets and balancing on a tightrope. Martial describes a woman being raped in a public mythological reenactment of the sex between Pasiphae and a bull. Kathleen Coleman has extensively explored these kinds of performances as lived experiences in the Roman world where violence served to uphold autocratic power by channeling the frustrations of the mob into a herd mentality that could be exploited to uphold the might of the emperor. In the Flavian era, dwarfs were set against each other in combat during the Saturnalia, and Domitian was notorious for arranging battles between females and dwarfs. Considering the tradition of depicting such battles as mythological reenactments, one wonders how often real-world brutality was justified by the creation of violent tableaux vivant featuring real-life “pygmies” at war with exotic beasts and each other.
The upshot of all of this is that if a Roman viewer found the content of the fresco of the pygmies to be outlandish, it was emphatically not because of the nature of the acts themselves, but because of the fact that they are presented as mundane and in a manner in which the features associated with social class that normally determine the bounds of acceptable behavior are blurred. The pygmies inhabit a kind of state of nature where daily life is defined by being subject to the forces of sex and violence normally kept at bay in amphitheaters and brothels by the spatial demarcations of a Roman city. They are not outlandish Others, but mirror images of the Romans with all class distinctions, pretense, and spatial boundaries stripped away: infames in a world of infamia run wild.
The scene in the fresco of the pygmies is thus fantastical not because it shows fantastical acts, but because it takes social practices out of their social context. Insofar as this is too, it affirms Clarke’s intuition that Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque and its liberating inversions of social norms can be used as a meaningful prism through which to think about the history of Roman humor. There is something gallant about the pygmies all indiscriminately dying, fighting, and loving life together in a single indiscriminate heap, trying vibrantly to conquer the forces of nature in a world lacking the institutional barriers to stave them off. There is a sense of de-individuation on display here in the carnivalesque atmosphere of the picnic, in which no one has a reputation to uphold and everyone can simultaneously be a gladiator, a sexual performer, a penetrator, a drainer, a gentleman enjoying a stroll in a garden, and hippo-meat. The fact that no women are depicted in the orgy must have been a deliberate choice on the part of the artist, since we know from the example in the House of the Ephebus that generic images of couples performing intercourse in front of pygmies and tibia-players often included women. This undercuts Myboom and Versluys’ interpretatio aegyptiaca of the scene in question, since if the sex was primarily meant to depict the union of Isis and Osiris, one would not expect the artist to omit female figures. Rather, it seems to me that the exclusive inclusion of men enhances the carnivalesque atmosphere of the painting by ensuring that no one is sexually situated in their “proper” place. An image of a pygmy male dominating a pygmy female would have conformed to traditional notions of Roman normativity, with everyone playing an appropriate role. A world in which everyone is male is inherently more chaotic, since each individual can simultaneously be subject to penetrating or draining at any moment, and it is entirely unclear if traditional social hierarchies are actually being upheld in the sex being portrayed. According to this understanding, the inclusion of women would have robbed the picture of much of its subversive edge.
The orgiastic imagery juxtaposing brutal death with musical sex was meant to do more than, as Clarke believed, remind diners of how not to act at a dinner party. It also served as a brutal memento mori about what it meant to be a non-Roman-citizen or one of the infames—an exciting and colorful life in its lack of restrictions, but a brutal and grotesque existence where death was always close at hand. To be a Roman citizen meant the occasion to be entertained by sex and violence inflicted upon others. In the world of this panel painting, life itself is conceptualized as one grand gladiatorial spectacle. The triumphant, public sex accompanied by no shame on the part of the penetrators or drainers epitomizes the transgressive potential of an orgy to collapse all categorical distinctions even as the violence surrounding the scene underscores the idea that the inevitable consequence of a world without boundaries is destruction.
1.4 Contextualizing the Fresco of the Pygmies in Its Full Architectural Framework: Orgiastic Sex as Subversion or Bad Taste
The artist’s focus on gladiatorial behavior and public spectacle is accentuated by the other panels found beside the fresco of the banqueting pygmies in the House if the Doctor. The fact that the images have long been carted off to separate rooms of the Archeological Museum of Naples and have largely been subject to disjointed scholarly traditions is an unfortunate reminder that the sexual content of the original fresco has historically banished it from most of the discourse about the art discovered in the House of the Doctor.
Beside the fresco of the fornicating pygmies was an additional panel depicting pygmies battling with crocodiles, with one dueling against a particularly vicious example with sword and shield in hand, mimicking the pose of a gladiator. Still others ride and attempt to harness a crocodile, while others cooperate in battle against an animal so enormous that it could be an elephant, hippo, or another crocodile, the whole scene portrayed against the backdrop of a magnificent sacral-idyllic landscape containing realistic Greco-Roman villas rather than huts. While all of this seems thematically in line with the content of the orgiastic fresco, a third panel on the site defies simplistic attempts at a cohesive explanation of the ensemble under the peristyle. This particular pluteus has traditionally been described as a pygmy reenactment of the judgment of Solomon between two mothers claiming the same infant, the scene immortalized in 1 Kings 3:16-28. The image has been called “unparalleled” by Mary Beard, transcending what is usually seen in depictions of pygmies that have been discovered elsewhere in Pompeii in places like the sides of the couches in the triclinium of the House of the Ceii, which depict pygmies up to sexual antics very similar to those in our fresco. What does “Solomon’s Judgment” add to our understanding of the space?
There exists a rich bibliography about the painting’s meaning, with some claiming that it is an anti-Semitic caricature, and others identifying Socrates and Aristotle as the people to the left and right of the Hebrew monarch. The world of Judaea and Egypt seem to combine into a single exotic Orientalist space. Beard believes the story is either the tale of Solomon or one quite similar to it. Clarke seems more confident, saying the scene “would have invited fanciful story-telling, or ekphrasis.” Scenes of judgment have been found in the Villa under the Farnesina, but by Clarke’s own admission, the scenes in the House of the Doctor are reminiscent of other imagery, like friezes of butchers on tomb reliefs at Ostia. In his view, the infusion of pygmies into the mix transformed the “serious” into the “silly.” Nevertheless, the inclusion of the story of Solomon seems highly unusual given the Egyptian motifs defining the other paintings on the site. But if not Solomon, then who is being depicted?
It has been suggested that the panel perhaps shows a scene in the life of the pharaoh Bakenranef of the Twenty-fourth dynasty (ruled c. 725-720 BCE). Known to the Greeks and Romans as Bocchoris, scarabs with his Egyptian name roughly contemporary to his reign have been found on Ischia, the site of Pithecusae, the first Greek colony in Italy, bearing witness to the longevity of his association with Hellenic peoples. Diodorus of Sicily describes the legendary wisdom of the king and his greatness as a lawgiver, explaining that he abdicated the throne rather than fulfill a prophetic dream in which he could only continue ruling Egypt if he carved the priests of his kingdom in half and walked between their bodies. Another of his legendary judgments is preserved in the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria, in which a prostitute who demanded to be paid after inspiring a wet dream in a prospective client is given the shadow of a real coin by the wise king rather than the real thing by means of an elegant analogy. Gaston Maspero, the historian who coined the term “Sea People,” records that the king was likely associated with stories about dividing a child between two women who both claimed it, two beggars arguing over the same cloak, and a wallet full of food between three people who were all hungry, tales which might have been drawn from the lost book Bocchoreidion by the mysterious Pancrates; the evidence seems to be the discovery of these motifs in Pompeiian frescoes that conjure up Egyptian aesthetic values. Yet Maspero’s source for the idea that Bocchoris is associated with narratives about the division of a child between rival claimants seems to be drawn from turn of the century archeological analysis of frescoes from Pompeii theorized to depict the deeds of the pharaoh, which would make the identification in this context a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in the same way that suggestions that the more dehumanized a depiction of an Egyptian landscape, the closer it must have been executed in time to the Battle of Actium. If anything, the scene is slightly more reminiscent of Diodorus of Sicily’s story about the king’s refusal to carve up his priests than the narrative about a child being claimed by two mothers. For better or worse, attempts at identifying specific pictorial scenes as representations of one historical figure or another have fallen out of fashion in contemporary analysis of the painting, and the “Judgment of Solomon” has stuck.
It is striking that much of the discourse surrounding the meaning of the Judgment of Solomon has been divorced from an exploration of its relationship to the orgiastic panel. Indeed, as we saw in the case of Walton McDaniel, evidence of the group sex was sometimes even deliberately omitted because the activity was seen as inherently offensive. If the panel of the Judgment of Solomon were thematically in line with the other frescoes, however, one would expect the scene to be connected to issues connected to public performance and spectacle. The scene depicts a soldier about to carve what looks like a headless, de-feathered chicken with a butcher’s knife. A woman in a bonnet (evidently the only female pygmy in the House of the Doctor) restrains it in place. To the right, a man seems to plead before a seated ruler holding a staff and enthroned on a dais between two counselors—the fact that the clearly male figure below the dais has almost always been uncontroversially identified as a woman pleading for her baby’s life is surprising given the century of discourse surrounding this painting. Perhaps the scene is a parody of public sacrifice, with an animal which is already dead taking the place of the living victim; perhaps, as Clarke suggests, it is a parody of legal judgment; perhaps in accordance with the theme of exploring actions in liminal spaces in the Roman city, the scene is even a subtle allusion to the practice of infanticide or abortion. The misshapen form certainly seems, like Antonia’s description of her son Claudius, “nec absolutum a natura, sed tantum incohatum.”
To insist upon one reading over another is ultimately a fruitless enterprise. Seen in conversation with the orgy, the panel underscores the bizarre yet familiar (unheimlich) nature of the distorted world depicted in the peristyle as a whole. The only sex in this world is orgiastic gay sex; the only baby in this world, if it is a baby at all, resembles a multicolored miscarriage; the only woman in this world exists to sacrifice an infant and not to nurture it; the only domesticated animals in this world are monstrous riverine creatures likely to devour you alive. The magic of the ensemble is its adaptation of a plethora of disjunctive narrative traditions about pygmies including clichéd images of hunts, orgies, boat rides, and banquets with pictorial traditions representing actions that typically took place in the Roman arena or in brothels to create a single, bizarre landscape in which the carnivalesque was depicted as the banal. The whole serves as a meditation on normativity, virtus, masculinity, and violence in the provocative context of a world without class distinctions, a fitting introduction to the area of the triclinium, where hierarchy was always on display in the very arrangement of the seating, but the effects of wine constantly threatened its perpetuation. Of course, this reading is in no way mutually exclusive with the image’s apotropaic, documentary, and even propagandistic functions as a monstrous monument to colonialism.
During the Julio-Claudian and Flavian eras in Pompeii, a rapidly growing population saw wealth distributed beyond a narrow class of aristocratic landowners to what J. B. Ward-Perkins called a “growing middle class, whose tastes and rapidly rising standards of living demanded comparable living conditions.” While the term “middle class” should not be naively applied to antiquity, the observation that a substantial class of urban dwellers existed in Pompeii who were neither impoverished peasants nor super-wealthy real estate barons certainly holds true. This class was willing to appropriate, reinvent, and experiment with artistic traditions to carve out a memorable space for themselves in their homes. The fresco of the pygmies might be understood as the product of a constant game of one-upsmanship and conspicuous consumption that defined elite life in Roman civilization and the experiences of those with pretensions to elite life. Even after two millennia, the painting remains shocking, befuddling, infuriating, and provocative. The execution is at times astounding, with the full force of the techniques of Roman illusionism combined with the effects of time to create a blurred, steamy landscape of oranges and blues evoking the vermilion of the desert and the turquoise of the Nile. Subtle distinctions between the artistic styles of the different panels add variety to the ensemble and enliven the plutei with a sense of diversity even as thematic similarities between the panels result in a fundamental aesthetic unity.
The execution is so fine that some have hypothesized that the fresco might even be a wholesale appropriation of a lost Hellenistic original (or at least the section of it depicting the Judgment of Solomon). This would seem to complicate attempts to ground an understanding of the painting in a specifically Roman context. Certainly the similarity between the tibia player in our fresco and the flutist depicted in the house of the Ephebus is very suspicious, suggesting, as has been mentioned already, the use of pattern books. However, scholars like Beard would explain that to insist upon blind appropriation is to oversimplify the history of Roman painting and ignore the rich interplay between adaptation, appreciation, and invention that defined the creation of ancient frescoes, in which even small changes to a generic scene could profoundly transform its meaning. The history of Roman painting was largely defined by a series of creative twists on traditional topoi that could be mixed and matched to surprise viewers as artists engaged in a constant dance between appropriation and reinterpretation in novel contexts. Whether or not some of the figures in the panels were derivative of known paintings, the choice of the panels as an ensemble in the peristyle was meant to create a conversation between pieces, empowering them to speak to each other and enhance each other’s meaning in unique ways. Certain figures might be whimsical inventions, while others might be reworkings of famous lost masterworks. For example, Beard and Henderson understand the paintings of Andromeda and Perseus and Polyphemus and Galatea from Bosoctrecase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as local original masterpieces that then became inspirations to other local homes.
We do not know enough about the context of the painting of the orgiastic pygmies to tease out what figures are original and which are derivative. We can only say for certain that the artist chose to emphasize content with strong thematic links to public performance and infamia, which would have furthered the painter’s aims by grounding the fantastical, apotropaic content in the lived experiences of the victims of Roman imperialism while simultaneously softening their presentation by divorcing it of the charges of struprum in view of the pygmies’ inherent classlessness. The fact that this painting was evidently executed in the era of the emperor Nero is perhaps especially telling, since he was said by Roman tradition to be associated with transgressive sexualized theatrical spectacles. Before the godlike Roman emperor, everyone was essentially rendered of the same servile class, traditional rules of morality did not apply, and life itself was one extended theatrical spectacle. Clarke is quite right that the image of the pygmies was meant to be funny, but not because it depicts group sex, but group sex out of the classist social context of “where it belonged” in Roman society (the brothel, the aristocratic bedroom, the mystery cult, or the theater). In the Rome of Nero as in the fresco, group sex sometimes threatened to break free of the boundaries of where it was supposed to be contained.
Ultimately, the decorative scheme of the peristyle in the House of the Doctor has inspired over a century of agony, censorship, and soul-searching among classicists struggling to pin down its meaning. In the end, we cannot discount the possibility that it might even be interpreted as an example of phenomenal bad taste in a “middle class” house, in line with the aesthetic judgments of the negotiatores on the island of Delos who might have patronized a statue of Venus with hilariously oversized nipples during the heyday of Roman imperialism on the island. The fact that the entire surface of the walls of the peristyle was not covered with paintings, the obvious differences in skill level between the painters of the different panels, the hasty construction of the peristyle as a whole in the wake of an earthquake, and the aggressively over-the-top melodramatics of the content of the images might all suggest a less than perfectly refined aesthetic taste at play in the sponsor of the fresco. While this interpretation in no way diminishes the monument’s significance as a document of Roman attitudes toward sex, violence, and physical and cultural difference, it serves as an important reminder that even the most nuanced and enlightened modern interpretations of an ancient masterwork might sometimes be anachronistic in their charity with regard to the sophistication of the intentions of the original artist and patron. Many Romans might have simply seen the fresco as something like a kitschy depiction of garden gnomes gone wild.
1.5 Problematizing Blanshard’s Dismissal of the Roman Orgy Through Further Examples of Group Sex in Pompeian Art
Regardless of one’s opinions of the aesthetic merits of the peristyle in the House of the Doctor, the act of viewing the group sex on display through the prism of lived experience empowered us to understand the reasons that the image was likely considered both humorous and subversive. Because examples of group sex sometimes involved the danger of people who should be penetrators acting as drainers and because orgies were only considered normative when undertaken with subordinates, an image of a classless pygmy society engaging in festive group sex was inherently transgressive from a Roman perspective. By the same token, the choice of specific images of sex set to music juxtaposed with gladiatorial imagery deliberately evoked the ambiance of the Roman amphitheater, where sex and violence were nightmarish lived experiences that were in every way the opposite of mere discursive fantasy. Blanshard’s dismissal of the reality of the Roman orgy would impoverish understandings of the fresco of the pygmy by over-simplifying its content as imaginary and “unreal,” thus disempowering us from understanding its poignancy as an example of social commentary. At the same time, it carries the danger of denying the experiences of the institution’s historical victims, whose ordeals deserve to be remembered in all their horror. By mistaking the orgy’s supposed lack of normativity for its lack of existence, Blanshard entrenches the power of patriarchal discourse by dismissing examples of transgressive or exploitative sex to the realm of the imaginary. He fails to realize that the very “rules” of Roman normativity necessitated the brutal exploitation of women, slaves, and Others in often startlingly public contexts. To declare that the Roman orgy is a discursive fantasy is to make a political statement silencing the voices of the victims of Roman imperialism, a system which often made a public spectacle of the violent sexual degradation of its victims.
Beyond images of orgiastic pygmies, other paintings from Pompeii often portray sex taking place in the presence of slaves, rendering attempts to suggest that images of “group sex” are rare in Roman culture simply incredible to me if “group sex” is understood to include exhibitionist coupling in public, often drunken scenarios in the presence of third and fourth parties. Countless erotic images were painted by local artists from albums containing stock models, with slaves sometimes serving as voyeurs to the antics of their masters, and sometimes being coerced into participation. The depiction of slaves being debauched is especially common in private households, inns, and brothels, where the space was inherently bitty and cramped and a single noisy soundscape would have created a public element to sex everywhere from brothels to bedrooms regardless of the presence of flimsy partitions between chambers. Propertius complains about how erotic paintings incite girls to licentious behavior, and Ovid too mentions the prominence of figurae Veneris in formal domestic contexts.
Elite households often contained paintings of groups engaged in erotic behavior. One such image from the house of Caecilius Iucundus (famous as the hero of the Cambridge Latin Course) portrays a couple directly after intercourse being attended by a female slave. The image was found in the peristyle and could be seen by anyone in the house. It was evidently meant to broadcast Caecilius’ aristocratic pretensions: here was a man who could afford a cubicularius. Like the image of the orgiastic pygmies, the fresco was banished to the Secret Cabinet after its discovery by Antonio Sogliano in 1873. Whether the scene depicts a master sleeping with his slave about to be attended by a third slave or a Roman mistress rising from bed after intercourse with her husband and about to greet her maid is ambiguous, and undoubtedly a large source of the titillation that such images must have provoked. Similar frescoes from the Villa Farnesina are particularly explicit in addition to pictures from the Villa di Centocelle, which all depict couples making love surrounded by servants ogling them and providing wine. The Villa Farnesina and its painted panels were executed in the late second style and likely date to around 19 BCE; it was once hypothesized that it might have belonged to Augustus’ daughter, the supposedly promiscuous Julia. Not only were the bedrooms of aristocratic houses outfitted with erotic paintings depicting slaves, such images were often located “on the outer fringes of the house adjacent to the servants’ quarters, sometimes with a door opening onto a sidestreet.” The implication is that the owners of the houses might have sometimes rented out their domestic slaves as prostitutes. People often boast of their multiple sexual conquests in extant graffiti, with one man claiming he had vaginal sex with the memorably named Nanfa and Amomo and anal sex with a certain Perennis. Nor were such boasts confined to men. Consider, for example, Romula and Euplia’s claim to have seduced thousands of men. Clearly sex in the Roman world often had a communal and indiscriminate element in which the powerful luxuriated in their ability to exploit the bodies of the powerless. Along somewhat different lines, if Romula and Euplia were prostitutes, their boast would acknowledge the power of non-aristocratic women to effectively act like men by actively seducing passersby for gain in a communal public context.
Antonio Varone goes into great depth exploring the inherent connection between eroticism, art, and communal life in Roman Italy. His research on so-called “erotic pictures with doors” is particularly fascinating in its attention to the inherent group sexual dynamics often at play even in “normative” aristocratic Roman bedrooms. He hypothesizes that a game existed in which erotic panels were inserted into empty frames in bedroom walls by slaves while their masters were engaged in sex on the inside of the rooms. His evidence for the phenomenon is exhaustive. A medallion on a vase from the Rhone valley depicts a woman being penetrated from behind by a man, who is in turn being penetrated by another man; above them is a provocative picture encased in a doorframe featuring galloping horses.  On a mirror in the Antiquarium Communale of Rome, a painting of a couple having doggy style sex in a doorframe forms the background to a second scene of similar thematic content, with a man penetrating a woman from the front. A cameo in the Archeological Museum of Naples shows a picture of a couple having sex in front of a frame, an image that Varone argues probably represents an erotic picture with doors. Still another image imagines a woman having sex with a man before an erotic framed painting and wishing him well, congratulating him at his prowess at lovemaking. Varone suggests that when the doorframes were opened, diverse erotic portraits could have been iserted into the windows by slaves in the anteroom in an inherently communal game akin to roulette. That this was a kind of erotic game is suggested by an image in the lupinar of Pompeii, in whic
h a man on a bed gestures to an erotic painting on the wall as if in an effort for the woman to copy the posture.
Varone’s strongest piece of evidence is drawn from a magnificent abode on the decumanus. An empty window-frame has been discovered at the opulent House of the Centenary (IX.8.6) in a private portion of the house connected to the servants’ wing but near a luxurious dining room, suggestive of the fact that the owner might have met friends there in a “hidden chamber.” The only explanation for the window must be that third parties were intended to look through it (though at 166.5 cm from the floor it is a bit high). As we have seen, panel paintings might have been inserted into it, since on the right hand side near the cubiculum door, two small holes likely left by nails might have been used for the insertion of doors. In the room are images of couples having sex in front of framed paintings of other couples having sex. Regardless of the truth of Varone’s claim, the possibility of aural and visual voyeurism and the titillating potential participation of third parties were evidently constant fixtures in the aristocratic Roman bedrooms. Martial writes evocatively of small holes deliberately drilled into the walls of brothels to facilitate the observation of couples having sex. But such shenanigans often transcended the confines of the lupinar. Later in the same book, Martial writes masturbabantur Phrigii post ostia servi, Hectoreo quotiens sederat uxor equo.
The point of all of this is that depictions of group sex and orgies in Roman culture were not considered outrageous because they were unreal and imaginary, but because they were a natural feature of the cultural landscape that was simultaneously absolutely forbidden among married, respectable Roman peers by the unwritten but restrictive rules of sexual normativity which defined appropriate behavior in the bedroom by class rather than by natural inclination, gender, or other potential organizing principles. During the second wave feminist revival of the 1990s, dismissals of the reality of “pornographic” and “misogynistic” depictions of ancient sexuality took hold, but while this trend liberated classical scholarship from slavish obsession with the “objective facts” of ancient history and replaced it with an emphasis on the transformative nature of discourse itself, this trend carried the attendant consequence that the voices of the victims of ancient sexual violence (many of whom were women, the enslaved, and ethnic minorities) were effectively silenced. Beginning in the late 1970s, concerns emerged that feminism would transform into a single issue movement associated with the condemnation of pornography, and ideas were expressed emphasizing sex positivism, particularly after the publication of Ellen Willis’ “Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography” in the Village Voice. This gave rise to the so-called third wave in feminist thought. Its thematic emphasis on lack of judgment, the importance of evaluating lived experiences on their own terms, and sensitivity when exploring the suffering of minority groups in post-colonial contexts all make possible the reclamation of the Roman orgy as something more than a tired, misogynistic trope. Even at its most clichéd, pernicious, and dehumanizing, the thematics of its presentation speak to fundamental and often startlingly unexpected aspects of the conceptualization of sexual morality in ancient Rome as a system in which social and political roles were meant to directly mirror sexual roles and penetration was viewed as an inherently dominating enterprise rather than an act of sharing.
1.6 A Thematic Preview of the Dissertation
In my dissertation, I investigate group love and sex in festive settings as a locus of rhetorical invective, transgression, and subversion and explain how descriptions of orgies and even love between friends might simultaneously serve conservative discursive ends and at the same time empower certain groups to resist, reimagine, and overturn traditional socio-economic and sexual hierarchies. The topic of group love in ancient Rome and group sex in particular is fundamentally bound up with issues concerned with freedom, power, and coercion. A genealogy of the Roman orgy and an uncovering of its successive archaeological layers reveals fundamental organizing principles behind all of the discourse surrounding group sex, explaining how various topoi connected with orgies were invented, reinvented, and occasionally discarded in the thematic shadow of a lived experience which often included group sex, but only in the presence of incessant reminders that respectable citizens should never behave this way among themselves. Why is group sex such a prominent feature of the existing literary and archeological record in the Roman Empire relative to the situation in other historical civilizations? The dissertation explains that the answer to this question has a great deal to do with the history of class, slavery, and prostitution in the Roman world and the special importance of spectacular theatrical and religious displays as exhibitions of brute power in Roman society.
The Roman orgy is a fascinating topic for a variety of reasons beyond narrow questions bound to “sexual orientation” and whether or not attraction to specific gendered attributes are a culturally specific or biological phenomenon, questions which often dominate attention on the subject of sex in the Greco-Roman world. For example, the upcoming chapters speak to the following six themes, all of which have been previewed in our exploration of the frescoes in the House of the Doctor.
- The Question of Fantasy Versus Reality in the Ancient Sources
We found in our exploration of the fresco of the pygmies that a significant body of scholarship exists questioning whether the various attributes of the painting represent “authentic” ancient fertility rituals. At the same time, a great deal of discourse exists underscoring the inauthentic, dehumanizing, and imaginary nature of the acts being depicted. The “realists” insist on some kind of institutional religious core to the proceedings, and the “symbolists” on its apotropaic or dehumanizing features. Interestingly, virtually no one explains the content of the painting by suggesting that it depicts a fun and joyous event that takes place for its own sake rather than for an ulterior motive.
In much the same way, most modern discourse on orgiastic practices in imperial Roman history has fallen into two camps. The first attempts to read comprehensible “authentic” political motives behind hyperbolic ancient historiographical accounts of figures such as emperors and empresses engaging in orgies. The second insists that ancient historiography is grounded in anti-dynastic propaganda and misogyny and that these features divorce the sources from lived experience and render them fundamentally factually “inauthentic,” interesting only from the perspective of literary analysis. Consider, for example, the case of the alleged group-sexual antics of the Empress Messalina. Barbara Levick, on the one hand, believes that Messalina might have involved herself in political conspiracies with the men with whom she was accused of committing adultery. Levick implicitly demonstrates her faith that there is a core of truth in the accounts of the ancient historians about the empress’ behavior, however distorted.  Sandra Joshel, on the other hand, very eloquently attempts to dismantle the idea that Messalina represents anything more than a lurid male fantasy, emphasizing that Tacitus’ account tells us virtually nothing about the real woman. Interestingly, both Levick and Joshel and the schools of thought which they represent agree upon one thing: Messalina was not really having group sex, even though this is the single fact upon which the ancient sources unanimously insist.
While this trend of doubting Roman historians was originally bound to admirable second-wave feminist concerns with the harmfulness of misogynistic depictions of women in power and the realization that the sources did not naively represent Truth with a capital T, it unfortunately also stood in line with a long tradition relegating anything associated with group sex to the realm of the imaginary, slanderous, insulting, forbidden, and “inauthentic.” It was, in a sense, a form of censorship of the ancient sources—a kind of metaphorical fig leaf over the mouths of people like Tacitus and Suetonius. Stooges of the patriarchy might have written the history books, but at least enlightened modern critics could reclaim the narrative by insisting that the male authors were liars and gossipers.
At stake here is nothing less than our entire understanding of how we should imagine the narrative of ancient history. The fact of the matter is, the possibility exists that Messalina indeed coerced her peers into group sex—perhaps because it had political purposes (a possibility sometimes grudgingly admitted by modern sources), or perhaps because she was a bored, privileged, and very unwise young woman who derived pleasure from being the center of attention and exploiting her subordinates (a possibility never mentioned by any contemporary source beyond Robert Graves in Claudius the God).
While there are good reasons to call the potential veracity of the ancient sources into question, there also exist at least four significant dangers in categorically dismissing all of the evidence of orgiastic sex as “inauthentic” without a proper investigation of their potential grounding in lived experience.
The first is that calling the stories imaginary ignores the fact that many of them involve narratives of innocent victims being raped by their social and political superiors. When all of the existing historical evidence corroborates the accounts of victims of rape, their suffering should not be dismissed so off-handedly as “fantasy” because it does not align with how we would like to imagine aristocratic totalitarian figures like Caligula, Messalina, and Nero acting. The second problem is that dismissing orgiastic accounts off-handedly because group-sex among peers was seen as non-normative in Rome mistakes that which is taboo for that which is unreal and ironically reinforces patriarchal norms by suggesting that the only forms of sex likely bound to lived experience were “normative,” when much of the evidence suggests that this is not the case. The third danger is that calling the orgies fantasies off-handedly is deeply classist, as group-sexual elements were often part and parcel of daily life for many non-elite members of the Roman Empire. Joshel cannot fathom Messalina the wealthy and famous aristocrat in an orgy, but would have no problem imagining a prostitute engaging in the same behavior. The fourth issue is that the dismissal of the orgy stands in thematic line with a long legacy of “inauthenticating” sexual content in the Classics when it stands out of line with modern values.
The only way to untangle the dilemma of the “veracity” of group-sex in the Roman world is ultimately through a forensic approach that weighs the evidence carefully in a cross-culturally sensitive context, taking the charge of group sex much more seriously than most contemporary scholars of ancient Roman sex currently do. The second chapter of the dissertation will accomplish this, questioning whether there is better evidence for the existence of European witch-cults in the early modern period or the orgies of Messalina. The investigation will shed light on fundamental mysteries of Roman history, such as the nature of the empress’ legendary bigamous “marriage.” All of the discourse might be dismissed as the repetition of slanderous gossip, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that modern historians should take the charges seriously enough to interpret them as potentially factual. Indeed, considering the violent nature of the imperial orgies which were described by Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio as degrading spectacles involving rape, to completely insist upon the sources’ lack of veracity may be tantamount to denying justice to the institution’s historical victims.
- The Relationship Between Libertas, Licentia, and Exploitation
Our exploration of the fresco of the pygmies suggested that orgiastic content in these kinds of Nilotic images might have become increasingly prominent and hyperbolic over time as Egypt became established as a province of the empire and the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire. Regardless of whether or not this is true, the owner of the “House of the Doctor” was operating in a social context in which he chose to represent an act of group-sex as the crowning glory of his peristyle, displaying the freedom to represent deeds in his own abode that might be viewed as offensive to traditional social mores. The fact that his proud celebration of a hedonistic image necessitated the brutal dehumanization of the “Egyptian” “pygmies” depicted in the painting was of course beside the point.
During the time of the American and French Revolutions, it was theorized that ancient people accepted major curtailments of their personal liberties in return for direct involvement in the government of their city-states, in effect exchanging personal freedom for political freedom. This would no longer have been the case after Augustus became emperor. As the Republic tottered and the autocracy of the Julio-Claudian dynasty replaced a state of former political liberty for the upper class, promiscuity might have become something like the last vestige of freedom for many people, as if all that was left of libertas was licentia. Tibullus, for example, declares that in an age when Roman citizens were no longer politically autonomous legionaries, only in the realm of lovemaking could he be a “soldier.” Ovid echoes the sentiment. The loss of political autonomy coupled with a great rise in personal power over aspects of private life like sex with slaves perhaps created an atmosphere in which orgies were considered spectacular events either reinforcing social norms when subordinates were compelled to be penetrated, or transgressing such norms when free citizens dared to penetrate each other and seduce married partners. Orgies were often associated with the idea of “freedom,” but “freedom” at the expense of an Other. The third chapter of the dissertation explores the origins and erosion of monogamous norms in the Roman Republic and the emergence of the orgy as a transgressive space associated with libertas (for some). Ultimately, behavior normally excluded to the boundaries of a brothel or a cult could sometimes be appropriated by aristocrats as a display of libertas in an increasingly autocratic context.
- Class Consciousness, Conspicuous Consumption, and “Social Networking”
We have seen that the owner of the House of the Doctor might have been engaged in a game of one-upsmanship with his neighbors as they attempted to produce increasingly over-the-top artwork to broadcast their creativity, sense of humor, and subversive tastes. Insofar as this is true, both the orgiastic content of the fresco of the pygmies and the image of the couple having sex in front of a slave in the house of Caecilius were associated with issues connected with conspicuous consumption (and in the case of Caecilius, class consciousness, since the depiction of a cubicularius indicated high social status). Such issues come up again and again in the history of group sex in Roman civilization. This was a culture in which arranging for a lavish orgiastic banquet among free citizens could be interpreted as a shocking indication of one’s power and personal freedom, particularly if it was orchestrated among social equals. It was also a civilization in which group sexual encounters with slaves where Roman citizens acted as penetrators inherently enforced the social hierarchy. The very titillation associated with orgiastic parties was their potential to blur the simplistic class and top/bottom penetrator/drainer distinctions so fundamental to the idea of Roman normativity in the bedroom. Issues associated with conspicuous consumption and class are thus essential to both the erotics and the thematics of the Roman orgy.
When aristocratic banquets were arranged in the first centuries BCE and CE, the popularity of group sex between prostitutes and free men and discourse about secret cultic orgies must have existed ubiquitously as background noise. Roman aristocrats seem to have sometimes responded to all this discourse in their arrangement of their nightly shenanigans. Sex parties were associated with major political risk, but this may not have prohibited certain very powerful and very reckless men and women from experimenting with group sex in their displays of conspicuous consumption at banquets. Because orgies were so taboo, perhaps there existed a certain allure in being able to get away with publicly hosting them, though no aristocrat, emperor, or empress was successful at doing so for long. Even in the most permissive context, orgies among freeborn citizens were stigmatized. When extant ancient authors wrote about such sex parties in which free citizens assumed non-penetrative roles or freeborn women participated, they never approve of what they described. In fact, almost every depiction of these goings-on is hostile. The third chapter of the dissertation suggests that the root of this hostility is not, as traditionally thought, Christian-style disgust at the idea of group sex per se, but rather disgust at the idea of citizens acting like slaves and non-citizens.
One can only guess at further motives for freeborn aristocrats holding orgies, behavior which seems to have been hitherto restricted to mystery cults and bordellos. In the first century BC, the national government was falling apart, and aristocratic families found it increasingly possible and tempting to exert their power over other people. They could sometimes even declare civil war on the state itself with armies more loyal to themselves than to the Senate. Holding an orgy made the point that the sponsor could essentially get away with doing whatever he or she wanted. At the same time, these kinds of parties could perhaps be arranged to cement ties between new political allies in one’s social network. Orgies involving freeborn citizens inherently involved the potential for mutual entrapment. If freeborn men and women participated in an orgy, everyone present became equipped with intimate incriminating knowledge about each other, minimizing the risk of each individual ever being an informant about the counter-cultural party. For this reason, orgies could both serve as a potent social lubricant and also potentially lend themselves to plots against the government, as seen in the case of Augustus’ own daughter.
- The Nature of Subversion and Transgression
Our exploration of the fresco of the pygmies and Blanshard’s attack on the idea of the existence of Roman orgies suggests that deciding which sexual acts represent the “normative” and which represent the “transgressive” can be a thorny process. The implication of much modern work on sexuality seems to be that if an act generally seems to be described in non-opprobrious terms by a plurality of authors, we call that act “normative,” and we call it “transgressive” if it broke widespread social taboos about proper social and gender roles. From this perspective, however, the Roman orgy or group sex as a general class can be described as neither normative nor transgressive. The reason is that whether it was depicted as normative (and hilarious) or transgressive (and grotesquely horrifying) depended completely upon issues connected with social class. If a freeborn man had sex with his wife in front of masturbating male slaves like the scene depicted in Martial XI.104.12, the group sex would have been considered normative (and perhaps comical), since everyone would be fulfilling their proper role of subordination in the bedroom. If a Roman empress competed with a prostitute to see who could have sex with the most married men, the situation would be inherently different—now we have entered into the realm of the transgressive and the horrifying. Blanshard’s categorical denial of Roman orgies ignores the class distinctions that were at the heart of the nature of normativity and transgression in the Roman world. At the same time, it mistakes the opprobrium of conservative authors at lack of normativity for the idea that this means that no one actually behaved in non-normative ways, which is an error in logic.
To say that Foucault’s work on the venerea is more sophisticated than Blandhard’s exploration of the same terrain would be gross understatement. Yet Foucault’s schematization of Greco-Roman sexual morality is equally problematic from the perspective of the lived experience of the Roman orgy. Foucault’s aim is to examine the philosophical origins of Greek and Roman thought on the nature of sexual normativity. He associates ideas about normative masculinity not only with the act of penetration, but also with issues associated with self-control and the importance of maintaining moderation in areas of life where taste prevailed (for example, how often to have sex, and with how many partners.) For Foucault, pagan sexual morality was concerned with an “aesthetics of existence” which did not formally codify the forbidden and the non-forbidden in a “hermeneutics of desire,” but merely suggested the constant, vigilant use of logos to moderate one’s behavior. He describes two forms of immoderation: one of “fulfillment,” and one of “artifice” which stems from it. Immoderation was fundamentally unnatural, and contrary to a system of ethics which should be based on need rather than pleasure, a system of thought which Foucault located in Platonic writings. He suggests that this would later go on to dominate Roman thought in the third volume of the History of Sexuality as the Romans paid even more attention than the Greeks to the “care of the self” after reflecting on an earlier Hellenic philosophical tradition on the “use of pleasure.” According to Foucault, the first and second centuries were associated with the creation of a stricter and stricter morality, particularly illustrated in increasingly sentimental and rigid understandings of marital fidelity. Foucault’s revolutionary idea was that this emphasis on hyper-attention in Rome to self-moderation stemmed from the ruling class being empowered by the emperors to control increasingly large clientele in the imperial provinces. This was in contradiction to the simplistic popular narrative of hedonistic, disengaged, and bored politicians operating in an autocratic world in which there was no longer any use for them.
Foucault’s exploration of “normativity” and “transgression” proved enriching to the history of the study of sexuality in the Classics and beyond it. His theories indicate that Roman orgies would be considered “effeminate” from traditional Platonic and Stoic perspectives, grounded as they were in non-penetrated roles, the luxury of banquets, and inherent immoderation. This is a non-obvious and rather profound point: it is Foucault who empowers us to understand that if a Roman man were to orchestrate an orgy at which he penetrated a series of slave-girls, he would seem to be acting effeminately despite the fact that he ostensibly appeared to be an arch-penetrator and no one was breaking the rules of proper social role-playing. The reason is that his excessive desire and immoderation in choice of partners would reveal an implicit lack of self-control. For this reason, even in “normative” contexts, there is always something slightly “off” about a Roman orgy, which is perhaps yet another reason why it is often depicted as a humorous scenario. A Roman man having sex with many people and around other people is inherently not behaving in a very masculine manner.
Nevertheless, like in the case of Blanshard, there is much that is wrong with Foucault’s approach, and the problem again stems from an insensitivity to detail about class and lived experience. Even if everything that Foucault says is true about how Platonic and Stoic philosophers conceptualized sex in the early Roman Empire, this does not mean that their concerns were grounded in expanded opportunities to participate in government and sponsor local clientele. The fourth chapter of the dissertation will show that much of the discourse about sexual moderation among both early Christians and Stoics was written in response to the excesses of the late Julio-Claudian court. In other words, much of the sex that was going on in Rome at the time was precisely not of the sort that people like Seneca would have approved. The fact that what the elite senators said was “normative” and what the rabble, slaves, and the tyrannical Roman emperor enjoyed was seen as “transgressive” is too simplistic. What most people were doing and even what the government was sponsoring was often what Foucault would call the transgressive, which somewhat enervates the idea of transgression itself. At the same time, Foucault’s summarization of Stoic and Platonic thoughts on sex fail to illuminate very much about Roman views of female sexuality. In fact, a sophist could argue that from Foucault’s perspective, a woman like Messalina would seem to be acting absolutely normatively, since if succumbing to libidinous desire and a lack of self-regulation is quintessentially feminine, what could be more in line with nature than the orgies of Messalina?
While I am deeply sympathetic to and inspired by Foucault’s synthesis of sources from a diversity of historical time periods, his collapse of distinctions between the licentious Julio-Claudian period and the sober environment of the Second Sophistic is unfortunate because he ignores great differences between the historical periods. His claim that marriage was as a whole becoming a more strict institution in the first century CE is especially shocking, because while some Stoic sources might emphasize marital fidelity, this was in fact likely the era with the highest divorce rates in all of history before the modern era. Even Jesus railed constantly against divorce. When Seneca wrote about sexual moderation, the message was different than when a philosopher in the Second Sophistic expressed the same thought. One message would have been subversive to the official government line, and the other would have been completely in line with officially endorsed conventionality. Foucault’s History of Sexuality ironically ignores its actual history from the perspective of changing attitudes toward sex and totally neglects the non-vanilla hedonistic sex that was constantly going on as background noise but was not endorsed by conservative elite authors.
My analysis of the Roman orgy suggests an alternate model for thinking about transgression that is, again, hinted at in our analysis of the fresco of pygmies. I suggest in the third and fourth chapters that transgression is ultimately rooted not in the “non-normative,” but in the subversion of norms, enabling the possibility of liberation from restrictive social roles that, for Foucault, are positively tyrannical and limit the possibilities of human freedom. The pygmies are not shocking (and hilarious) because they are having group sex, but because they are having it accompanied to music as if in a theater among slavish actors in an everyday context at a banquet among equals. The Roman orgy was transgressive not because it was inherently “non-normative,” but because it sometimes deliberately inverted the usual hierarchies of who was allowed to penetrate whom. Even when it did not, men seemed to be acting effeminately by succumbing to the pleasure of multiple bodies at once rather than moderating their actions. The orgy is a locus of a kind of sex that both Foucault and Blanshard chose to exclude from their “histories” of Roman sexuality because its existence deeply problematized their metanarratives about what the limits of ancient normativity looked like. Perhaps the orgy was too feminine for Foucault in its luxuriousness, and too masculine for Blanshard in its brutality and misogyny.
It must be said, however, that Roman orgies have little to do with modern orgies accentuating a free and open exchange of bodies in a non-judgmental and loving context. Today, many who participate in group sex perhaps find it liberating because it breaks down monogamous norms. As in the case of ancient Roman transgression, the titillation comes from subversion of a hierarchy, from the breaking of a rule. Yet at least for men, these kinds of monogamous norms did not exist in antiquity, when it was considered acceptable to penetrate social inferiors even after getting married. In light of this fact, the transgressive edge to the most transgressive imperial Roman orgies was not bound to the titillation of being able to sleep with multiple partners in itself, but being able to engage in intercourse with individuals with whom it was usually categorically forbidden to do so, inverting traditional social hierarchies in the deindividuated ambiance of the throng of bodies.
- Tyrannical Behavior by Emperors and the Establishment of the Imperial Cult
We have seen that the orgiastic content of the fresco of the pygmies has potentially been interpreted as propaganda since Egypt was the personal property of the Julio-Claudian family and several of its members had a reputation for orgiastic sex. I have suggested in this paper that the painting might have been a kitschy celebration of the kind of sexual identity and sexual behavior celebrated by the emperor Nero. Yet why would the head of state embrace modes of sexuality widely seen as deviant, non-normative, and effeminate? What was going on in the Julio-Claudian period that resulted in no less than five figures in the dynasty (Julia the Elder, Tiberius, Caligula, Messalina, and Nero) being accused of engaging in group sex, when the official line promoted in the statuary and imperial propaganda emphasized these figures’ clichéd traditional virtuous qualities? The fourth chapter of the dissertation explores these questions.
Modern scholars often insist that depictions of Roman orgies are inauthentic topoi meant to underscore the insanity of various powerful imperial figures who disenfranchised the senatorial class. According to this line of thought, charges of adultery and aberrant sexuality were used as convenient excuses to destroy and demean political enemies yet almost never reflected lived experience. But remember that in the example of the fresco of the pygmies, insisting upon the fantastical nature of the sex and violence on display without considering the possibility of “lived experience” denied the existence of certain realities such as the spectacles of Nero and Domitian, who are said to have staged theatrical sexual extravaganzas set to music on the one hand and gladiatorial fights featuring dwarfs on the other. To insist that the fresco had no basis in reality would have blinded us to the fact that the pygmies in the fresco are being conceptualized as gladiators and performers, and not totally unfamiliar characters. In exactly the same way, the problematization of the idea of “reality” of imperial orgies should not preclude us from thinking about historical accounts of imperial group sex through the prism of potential lived experience, or certain fascinating thematic issues will be overlooked and the stories of the innocent, non-royal victims of the imperial orgies will be ignored and denied.
Orgies often served as a locus for contemplation about freedom and autonomy and one’s relationship to the government, since sex was inherently a political act in a society that saw “humping down the social ladder” being synonymous with normativity. Multiple social classes participated in an orgy in either traditional or shocking permutations of bodies, so the situation was inherently socially unstable. The organizing force that brought all of these bodies together and determined who got to penetrate whom was inherently coercive. From Foucault’s perspective on ancient sexuality, the idea of a ruler being sexually immoderate seems especially problematic, since sexual moderation was seen as a reflection of one’s ability to govern not only one’s own appetites, but govern in general. For this reason, the coercion inherent in the orgy’s overturning of traditional sexual hierarchies was seen as something congruent with political tyranny, just as the sexual act itself was seen as a microscopic reenactment of the macroscopic social order of things, with the Roman man’s privilege of penetrating his wife, slaves, freed slaves, and non-citizens being understood as being parallel to, symbolic of, and perhaps even synonymous with the imperium of the Roman state in general.
As we have seen, almost all contemporary scholars accentuate their lack of belief in the presence of group sex as a feature of Roman social and political life, especially Blanshard. Yet if “brothel parties” in fact took place among late Republican aristocrats at which they engaged in orgies as a display of their libertas (as the historical record insists occurred), it would come as no surprise that tyrannical Julio-Claudian figures like Caligula, Messalina, and Nero might have been tempted to subvert the anarchic edge of these kinds of parties by hosting them themselves and forcing the aristocracy to participate, mortifying the class that had once used the orgy for very different ends. We have seen that discourse about group sex is especially prominent in the historiography of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, an era in which emperors literally declared themselves gods and publicly got away with murder. Arranging sex parties among Roman citizens was associated with great political risk, but also the possibility of making a strong statement about the degree of one’s power, to say nothing of courting popularity with the Roman populace when mobs of people were invited to the spectacles. Displays such as the pageants of Nero can be interpreted as debauched entertainments at which the bounty of empire could be redistributed to the plebs and the aristocratic senatorial class could be humiliated by the emperor and brought down to size. Before the emperor, everyone was equal: a slavish mortal. He made sure that the rich didn’t monopolize the goodies for themselves.
The history of the Roman orgy thus speaks partly to the history of tableaux vivant and theatrical spectacles fundamental to urban life in the capital. Bettina Bergmann describes the Roman theater as a place where “ritual,” “festival,” and “spectacle” mixed together in a rich intertexuality in which art was fundamentally interactive, giving the audience a unique power to enact prerogatives that were usually left to the emperor alone. There was danger in the gaze of the audience, according to Holt N. Parker; all eyes were on the emperor, and peril existed in the agency of the mob to withhold their chants and applause. Demeaning the aristocracy in an orgy could channel the gaze of the audience and its applause to good end.
At the same time, the image of emperors and empresses engaging in orgiastic behavior in which they had sex indiscriminately with whomever they pleased, whatever the consequences, sounds a great deal like the alleged behavior of the gods. I argue in chapter four of the dissertation that the development of the ruler-cult is fundamental to the evolution of orgiastic practices in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Consider the sexual actions of the gods in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who rape, manipulate, exploit, and commit injustice with impunity. To be a god meant to be able to have sex with whomever one wanted and in whatever way one pleased. The god-like Roman emperor himself had nothing to hide, and could do as he wished to anyone at any time. The petty rules of morality did not apply to him. There existed a dialectical tension between the convention that group sex was permitted when it came to free men and prostitutes but absolutely forbidden in the case of intercourse between citizens. This psychic conflict perhaps sometimes made the idea of holding an orgy irresistible to individuals who accurately saw themselves as the most powerful people in the world and who, for better or worse, were also the rulers of mobs of hundreds of thousands of non-citizens who thirsted for their sexual “superiors” to be brought down to size. Of course, all of this stands in stark contrast to the clichéd images of idealized monogamous marriages evoked in the numismatic iconography, statuary, and moral legislation of the Julio-Claudian emperors. And of course, accusations of promiscuity and adultery in general were useful tools when emperors wished to get rid of pesky family members and would-be conspirators, whether or not such behavior was actually going on. Yet none of this suggests that we should doubt that the Julio-Claudians might have actually been realistically interested in sometimes orchestrating the orgies which every extant ancient source insisted that they did, and often within living memory of witnesses and named victims.
The later Julio-Claudian emperors like Caligula and Nero were experimenting with the trappings of absolute monarchy after five centuries of Republican rule, and they were worshiped as literal gods throughout the empire. These were youthful despots unaccustomed to being contradicted, and the idea that their behavior might have gotten out of control in their unchecked exercise of absolute power is more than plausible. In a dynasty characterized by seven generations of incest, alcoholism, child abuse, psychological torture, constant conspiracies, mental illness, and widespread lead poisoning, anything was possible. Wise arm-chair Roman emperors like Barbara Levick with years of college education who theorize that the sexual antics of ancient figures were all rationally motivated by political insights might be better equipped to make wise political decisions than the inexperienced teenaged aristocrats who sometimes found themselves at the helm of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately for people like Messalina, their political strategy which may well have included the holding of public orgies to show off their power and curry favor with the mob proved ineffective in the long run. Julia’s plot was exposed, Caligula was assassinated, Messalina was executed, and the aristocracy eventually revolted against Nero and vilified his memory. When stories (true or false) of public sex games appeared again in the reigns of Roman emperors in the late second century CE, it is no coincidence that they were again associated with rulers who associated themselves either with violent popular spectacles (Commodus, like Nero) or godhood itself (Elagabalus, like Caligula.) Once again, their alleged counter-cultural behavior was condemned by posterity, and all of these emperors’ reigns ended in chaos and revolt.
- The Concept of Decadence, Historical Immorality, and Historical Collapse
Implicit to the fresco of pygmies being locked away was the idea that its content was thematically dangerous because it represented the art of a decadent and licentious society in sexual disorder. And implicit again to this line of reasoning is the idea being that the depiction of homosexual and/or group sex is inherently demeaning and representative of a society in collapse. This connection linking political decadence with sexual decadence is a fascinating one that continues to haunt western discourse to this day and forms part of the subject of the third and fourth chapters of the dissertation.
I argue that conceptions of love are bound foremost to rapidly fluctuating popular schematizations of historical progress—in other words, the emphases of discourse on the meaning and value of love vary chiefly depending on an author’s attitudes toward the past and present and whether a process of “decadence” negotiates the thematic space between them. Awareness of technological change and refinement over time has led to a significant body of discourse on progress in the modern world. In antiquity, analogous discourse on progress was bound to an awareness of the history of changing norms associated with love, from ancient discipline (or constrictive prudery) to modern debauchery (or exhilarating liberty). Changing attitudes toward group love reflect the evolution of Roman thought on the nature and possibility of historical change itself. Writers operate under different discourses on progress as they describe the past, present, and future. Sallust and Livy assert that the chaste past is better than the adulterous present; in the Julio-Claudian era, sycophantic historians declare the present “great,” and the glorious Republican past becomes dangerous to describe in an era of hypocrisy and adulation; then in the Flavian dynasty, there is another change as the Julio-Claudian past is called depraved and the present is branded virtuous; finally, Christianity suggests the present is corrupt in all forms of sexual expression, and only the future promises goodness after the Apocalypse. Attitudes toward love (and group-love in particular) often broadcast Roman metanarratives about progress even more than discourse on technological progress.
From all of this discourse on love and progress there evolved the idea that love itself determined the course of historical progress, with “aberrant sex” associated with collapse. In May 1971, President Nixon complained that All in the Family was promoting homosexuality and declared,
You ever see what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them. Aristotle was homo, we all know that. So was Socrates. The last six Roman emperors were fags. Neither in a public way. You know what happened to the popes? They were layin’ the nuns; that’s been goin’ on for years, centuries. But the Catholic Church went to hell three or four centuries ago. It was homosexual, and it had to be cleaned out. That’s what’s happened to Britain. It happened earlier to France. Let’s look at the strong societies. The Russians. Goddamn, they root ’em out. They don’t let ’em around at all. I don’t know what they do with them. Look at this country. You think the Russians allow dope? Homosexuality, dope, immorality, are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the communists and left-wingers are pushing it. They’re trying to destroy us!
Nixon’s brutish schematization evokes fear of a lack of self-regulation and terror at the idea of society slackening. Other metanarratives about Rome, love, and historical collapse were even darker. No metanarrative concerning historical decadence seems so misguided in retrospect as the work of Joseph Vogt, whose “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) popularized the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome, with the originally “Aryan” conquerors increasingly diluted by Semitic and African genetic influences.
Building upon my research on Roman orgies and shifting sexual standards in the late Roman Republic, I first address the topic of decadence from the perspective of the common but outmoded belief that “perversion” was the destabilizing influence in Roman culture in the third chapter of the dissertation. Contrary to the opinions of scholars like Blanshard, I argue that behavior which might be considered licentious did in fact exist in the Republic as a response to changing political and economic conditions in which the sexual availability of slaves and prostitutes upset traditional patterns of morality. However, my exploration of this topic suggests not only that the idea of sexual excess as a chaotic influence is a case of mistaking causation and correlation, but that a plethora of forces existed that pushed the old equilibrium of the Roman Republic over the edge of chaos into a new homeostatic state marked by despotism. In the eyes of Jose Ortega y Gasset, the modern world was liberated from a tendency toward chaos and collapse due to the nature of technological evolution and its marriage to the scientific method, ensuring material progress and an increasingly vibrant standard of living over the long run. A failure of “technique” doomed the Roman Empire to collapse because the pace of technological and scientific progress was ultimately retarded before it could gain the unstoppable momentum it seemed to attain after the Italian Renaissance. Mono-causal explanations for Roman decadence such as “perversion” are ultimately fruitless. In fact, the era of the greatest sexual license in Roman history is ultimately the one of its greatest economic and territorial expansion.
My dissertation not only pays close attention to the rhetorical importance of negative topoi associated with gender, sexuality, and power, but also attempts to scrutinize and flesh out the arguments of researchers like Thomas McGinn, whose work suggests that ancient historiographical accounts of “decadent” behavior may in fact have close ties to lived experiences and political realities, particularly given the ubiquity of prostitution in the Roman world, with aristocrats collaborating in the perpetuation of the practice and Roman emperors since Caligula taxing it. The paper also explores topics such as license and discipline in the Roman Republic, the Bacchanalian conspiracy of 186 BC, love poetry in the late Republic and Augustan era, orgiastic celebrations in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and early Christian appropriations and subversions of classical hierarchies associated with sex and power. It is even suggested in the fourth chapter that the Christian agape represents an appropriation of the orgy, desexualizing it to avoid the exploitation of participants, but maintaining its practices of kissing on the mouth, declaring love for each other, singing songs, intermingling among different social classes, drinking wine together, and toasting the resurrection of a savior-figure.
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Turin Erotic Papyrus 55001
 In this dissertation, I will use the word “orgy” to describe group sex in the festive setting of a ceremony or a banquet. By “group sex,” I mean either a sexual combination of three or more bodies or a sexual coupling of two people in the presence of sexually aroused spectators. To describe the religious ceremony in honor of Dionysus from which the English word orgy derives, I will use the Greek ὄργιον. These distinctions are not always obvious. For example, though intuitions might differ on the subject, I would describe a live sex show involving a single couple performing for a crowd as an example of group sex. It would be an example of an orgy if food and wine were being consumed and there were a masturbatory or potentially participatory ambiance in the room. If a crowd at a sex show were to sit in stony and unaroused silence as the couple performed, I would still call it an example of group sex, but it would somehow seem less than orgiastic to me. An orgy implies a party of some kind, and a party demands conviviality.
 There exists no active verb in the English language meaning “to sexually envelop a penis.” This linguistic poverty mandates that the act is symbolically conceptualized as something inherently passive, a demoralizing reflection of patriarchic standards. The phrase “bottoming” is usually restricted to gay sex and implies a kind of subservient position; as this fresco illustrates, it is not always even physically accurate. To remedy this problem, I will use the active verb “drain” to mean “sexually envelop a penis.” Accordingly, for the purposes of this dissertation, a “drainer” in a given sexual scenario is a “penetrated partner.”
 Figures 1-6 on pages 60-64 of the dissertation illustrate this fresco and its placement beside other paintings in the House of the Doctor.
 For a detailed description of the “small house with an odd plan,” see Laurent Bricault, M. J. Versluys, and P. G. P. Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2007), 162-69. For a description of the fresco, see Karl Schefold, Die WäNde Pompejis; Topographisches Verzeichnis Der Bildmotive (Berlin,: W. de Gruyter, 1957), 227. A discussion is also featured in Giovanni Pugliese Caratelli, Ppm: Pompei Pitture E Mosaici I-Ix, vol. VIII (Rome: Instituto della enciclopedia italiana, 1990-2003), 606-08. See also Jean Marcadé, Roma Amor; Essay on Erotic Elements in Etruscan and Roman Art (Geneva, New York,: Nagel, 1961), 36.
 W. H. Davenport Adams, The Buried Cities of Campania; or, Pompeii and Herculaneum, Their History, Their Destruction, and Their Remains (London,: Nelson, 1873), 234.
 Mary Beard, Pompeii : The Life of a Roman Town (London: Profile, 2008), 130.
 The details in the remainder of this paragraph are taken from Clarke’s work in Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 162-64.
 In an article on the Archeological Museum of Naples from 2000, The New York Times erroneously reported that these plutei were the headboards for beds and that the pygmies are depicted “frolicking in sexual pursuit of one another” with no mention of either the orgiastic content or the hippopotamus mauling. See Nicholas Fox Weber, “Opening the Doors to Erotic Roman Antiquities,” The New York Times, August 13 2000.
 For the idea that guests might have sat on the low wall and dipped their feet into the basin as they admired the art, see Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 164. The idea is certainly picturesque, but the wisdom of dangling one’s feet over the plutei and potentially wetting them by splashing about in the meager cubic centimeters of water in the impluvium seems suspect to me. See Figures 5-6 on pages 63-64 of this paper for a reconstruction of the peristyle.
 For an expert discussion of the use of imagery associated with pygmies in Roman tombs and gardens, see John R. Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans : Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315, The Joan Palevsky Imprint in Classical Literature (Berkeley, Calif. ; London: University of California Press, 2003), 191-215. See also Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae vol. 7 (Zürich, München, Düsseldorf: Artemis & Winkler Verlag, 1994), 595-98.
 Hom. Il. iii. 5. The pygmies were said to inhabit both India and the area around the source of the Nile, which were thought to be connected by the great southern ocean. Arist. Hist Animal viii. 14 locates their homeland in Upper Egypt. For an in-depth catalogue of ancient references to pygmies, see William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, New impression ed., 3 vols. (London: John Murray, 1902).
 Veronique Dasen, “Dwarfs in Ancieny Egypt and Greece,” Oxford Monographs on Classical Archeology (1993): 175-88. The idea cannot be discounted, however, that the Greeks and Romans may have heard legends about the bush people or even encountered them on occasion, cementing the idea of pygmies as real beings and not merely legendary gnomish creatures.
 John R. Clarke, Looking at Laughter : Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 89-107. See also Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 156-60. Clarke argues that representations of Egyptians and pygmies became increasingly clownish in character during the first century BCE in the thematic shadow of imperialistic enterprises in Egypt, becoming particularly hyperbolic around the time of the Battle of Actium. However, individual frescoes are often difficult to date, and his theory can turn into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy when it artificially imposes a date of creation on a piece on the basis of its subjective hyperbolic qualities.
 Mary Taliaferro Boatwright, Peoples of the Roman World, Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 166.
 See Plin. Nat. 7.75 for a description of the empress Livia’s dwarf Andromeda, who was granted her freedom. Her prominence at court is interesting in light of the allegation at Suet. Aug. 43.3 that Augustus shunned the company of dwarfs. According to Plut. Mor. 520c, markets where monstrous beings could be purchased took root in Rome (τῶν τεράτων ἀγορὰν), a fact also attested by Quint. Inst. 2.5.11, which mentions the high prices fetched for deformed slaves.
 Christian Laes et al., Disabilities in Roman Antiquity Disparate Bodies, a Capite Ad Calcem, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill,, 2013). 221.
 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1978), 57.
 See Amy Richlin, Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). The book is a pioneering feminist interpretation of a variety of material and literary sources of evidence from antiquity concerned with the portrayal of sex and gender. It provocatively suggests that ancient presentations of sex may have fundamental links to the thematics of modern pornography, particularly when it comes to issues associated with dehumanization and exploitation. This emphasis stands in opposition to the opinion of post-modernists like Foucault who focus on understanding sex and sexuality in antiquity on their own terms instead of with the help of modern schematizations shaped by very different social concerns.
 Susanne Kappeler, The Pornography of Representation, Feminist Perspectives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 3. For an eloquent rejoinder to the idea that pornographic representations are inherently bound to oppression, see Earl Jackson, “Review of Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome by Amy Richlin,” Bryn Mawr Classical Review 5 (1992). Jackson writes from a non-heteronormative perspective, wishing to end the censorship of gay pornography. He questions Kappeler’s understanding of the inherent link between real-world oppression and the artistic portrayal of aggressive sexual acts. He points out that her perspective inherently demeans drainers by assuming that they are merely passive objects rather than willing subjects in their own right. He also complains that a lack of attention to the nuances in the distinction between materiality and reality is inherently insensitive to the victims of “real” trauma such as rape, whose lived experience transcends its mere representation. While I am sensitive to many of his critiques, the idea that dehumanized depictions of sex can have strong associations with oppression in both ancient and modern contexts nevertheless seems valid to me.
 Mary Beard and John Henderson, Classical Art : From Greece to Rome, Oxford History of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 113-15.
 The generic figure of the pygmy is so inhuman that in some images depicting them, bestiality is even featured. A crocodile mounts a pygmy in a famous carving on a lamp, a scene of one animal pleasuring itself at the expense of another. See Gaston Vorberg, Glossarium Eroticum (Hanau/M.,: Müller u. Keipenheuer, 1965), 19.
 Alastair Blanshard, Sex : Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity, Classical Receptions (Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). 49-50.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 64.
 See Sen. Nat. Qu. xii. The translation is taken from Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Thomas H. Corcoran, Natural Questions, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,, 2014).
 For an in-depth description of the tortured history of the Secret Cabinet, see Michael Grant and Antonia Mulas, Eros in Pompeii : The Secret Rooms of the National Museum of Naples (New York: Morrow, 1975). See also Stefano de Caro, The Secret Cabinet in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, ed. Ministero per I Beni e le Attivita Culturali Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Arcgeologici di Napoli e Pompei (Ministero per I Beni e le Attivita Culturali Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Arcgeologici di Napoli e Pompei, 2000). Additional information was obtained from the display marked “History of the Collection” in the museum itself.
 Judith Harris, Pompeii Awakened : A Story of Rediscovery (London ; New York
New York: I.B. Tauris ;
Distributed in the USA by Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 113.
 Ibid., 120. See also Walter M. Kendrick, The Secret Museum : Pornography in Modern Culture (New York: Viking, 1987), 13. For a description of the role of Karl Otfried Mueller in the development of the German word pornographie to describe the art of Pompeii, see Hans Maes, Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography (London ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 141.
 This statue was associated with a long history of censorship since the eighteenth century even before it was locked away in the Secret Cabinet. Originally discovered in the garden of the Villa of the Papyri in the era of King Charles VII and stored in the royal basement, it was withheld from the view of no less a personage than Winckelmann himself, who wrote that he ‘had the good fortune to be admitted to see them all (works of art), except this obscene one, which was not to be seen without a special license signed by his majesty, for which … I thought it did not become me to be the first to apply.’ See Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today, Classical Presences (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 309. For the suggestion of King Charles’ confessor that the image was “worthy to be ground to a powder,” see Maes, Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography, 142.
 The quotes in this paragraph are taken from the display marked “History of the Collection” in the Archeological Museum of Naples. Fisher and Langlands suggest that the story may be an apocryphal invention by museum director Michele Arditi, who credited Francis with inspiring him to remove the original 102 objects chosen for sequestering. Fisher and Langlands emphasize that many of the objects were freely available to public sight before this time. See Kendrick, The Secret Museum : Pornography in Modern Culture, 307.
 Maes, Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography, 142.
 Catharine Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945 (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 189.
 Annie Lewine, “Ancient Rome in Modern Italy: Mussolini’s Manipulation of Roman History in the Mostra Augustea Della Romanitá,” Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity and Classics 2, no. 1 (2008).
 Hales and Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today, 310.
 Ibid., 313.
 Weber, “Opening the Doors to Erotic Roman Antiquities.” While I appreciate Weber’s sentiment, the creation of the Secret Cabinet is itself an event of monumental historical importance in the history of censorship and pornography in the West, and disassembling the collection at this point would seem to be a disservice to the history of European museums as cultural institutions.
 “The Road to Ruin: Antiquity,” in Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation, ed. Kate Williams (UK: BBC, 1999).
 Maes, Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography, 144.
 Harris, Pompeii Awakened : A Story of Rediscovery, 115.
 Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality : Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, Ideologies of Desire (New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 92.
 For an important rejoinder to an overly-simplifying narrative emphasizing the restrictiveness of Bourbon censorship, see Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands’ chapter “The Censorship Myth and the Secret Museum” in Hales and Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today, 301-15. The authors suggest that stories about the art locked away in the Secret Cabinet are highly romanticized, that many objects were long on display before being locked away, and that the collection was assembled only very gradually, and often in a conscious effort to promote scholarship about art and sex. While I am sensitive to this reading of the legacy of the Secret Cabinet, the indistinct hodge-podge representing modern rather than ancient ideas about sexual propriety and the collection’s legacy of being hidden from the public by oppressive monarchic regimes suggests an altogether darker texture to its history in my eyes. The fact that so much content was hidden away due to homosexual or group sexual content and that women were restricted from access to the collection until the 1980s is not a “myth” even if the story of the collection’s creation is highly mythologized. Insofar as this is true, Fisher and Langlands’ choice of title for their chapter is unfortunate at best and insensitive at worst. They claim “we use the word ‘myth’ primarily with its stronger sense in mind: that is, a story with a cultural purpose, serving modern agenda” (303). Yet the word “myth” can also used to discount and belittle the lived experiences of oppressed minority groups, and the term should be employed cautiously.
 An orgy in Rome might in fact be considered “normative” so long as all the penetrators were of a higher social class than the drainers. However, for reasons explored later in this chapter, the excess inherent to an orgy was deemed rather effeminate according to conservative tastes even when penetrators and drainers were all of the “proper” class.
 Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 156-60.
 Clarke, Looking at Laughter : Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250, 9.
 Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 173.
 Clarke, Looking at Laughter : Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250, 67.
 For a discussion of the importance of apotropaic images such as phallus-fascina in baths, where one’s vulnerability when naked evoked fear of black magic and the evil eye, see M. W. and Dunbain Dickie, K. M. C. , “Invida Rumpantur Pectora: The Iconography of Phthonos/Invidia in Graeco-Roman Art,” Jahrbuch Fuer Antike und Christentum 26 (1983).
 Robert Garland, The Eye of the Beholder : Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World (London: Duckworth, 1995), 109.
 Marilyn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, Ancient Cultures (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 259-62.
 For a rejoinder to Clarke that suggests that the images might be too readily associated with apotropaia, see Alexandre G. Mitchell, “Review of Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture by John R. Clarke,” Bryn Mawr Classical Review 9 (2008).
 See Figure 7 on page 65 of this paper.
 Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans : Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315, 192-93.
 Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, The Gardens of Pompeii : Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Caratzas Bros., 1979), 7-8.
 Molly Swetnam-Burland, Egypt in Italy : Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture, 108.
 Dominic Montserrat, Sex and Society in Græco-Roman Egypt (London, England ; New York, NY, USA: Kegan Paul International ; Distributed by Columbia University Press, New York, 1996), 106-35.
 H. W. Janson, Penelope J. E. Davies, and W. H. Janson, Janson’s History of Art : The Western Tradition, Eighth Edition, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011), 195.
 See Miguel John Versluy’s discussion of Piet H. Schrijvers’ work in Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 7. The Augustan period lacks large mosaics like this, so it might seem to date to an earlier period.
 Bernard Livingston, Zoo : Animals, People, Places (New York: Arbor House, 1974), 22. The author paraphrases Athen. Deipnos. V.
 Harris, Pompeii Awakened : A Story of Rediscovery, 117.
 Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 6. For an extensive bibliography on recent work on dwarfs in Nilotic scenes, see ibid., 170.
 Ibid., 197-98.
 Montserrat, Sex and Society in Græco-Roman Egypt, 124.
 Ibid., 125.
 Roger Matthews and Cornelia Roemer, Ancient Perspectives on Egypt, Encounters with Ancient Egypt (London: UCL, 2003), 157-90.
 Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005.
 This association between Bes and the pygmies was kindy suggested to me in a conversation with Joseph Manning at Yale. For the suggestion that Bes might have originated as the “deification of the negrillos (sic) whom expeditions from (inner Africa) had conquered” and that the god might have had historical connections with Greco-Roman depictions of pygmies, see the discussion of the work of P. Monceaux in Walton Brooks McDaniel, “A Fresco Picturing Pygmies,” American Journal of Archaeology 36, no. 3 (1932): 262.
 John G. Younger, Sex in the Ancient World from a to Z, The Ancient World from a to Z (London ; New York: Routledge, 2005), 315-24.
 Vorberg, Glossarium Eroticum, 208.
 Pompeji: Geschichte, Kunst Und Leben in Der Versunkenen Stadt, ed. Marisa Ranieri Panetta (Stuttgart: Belser, 2005), 210-11. The erotic scene on the boat is taken from the House of Quadrigas (VII. 2. 25). The scene depicting the tibia-player beside the couple having sex is from the summer triclinium of the House of the Ephebus (I. 7. 9-10). See Figure 8 on page 66 of this paper.
 For example, see the third century paintings discovered in 1868 in Ostia in the Campus of the Magna Mater. Images may be accessed at: http://www.ostia-antica.org/vmuseum/cynegetica.htm
 For this idea, see Mitchell, “Review of Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture by John R. Clarke.” I find the argument to be both imaginative and intriguing, though it presupposes that the thematic content of the fresco installed in the middle of the house would have been viewed through a fundamentally disapproving lens.
 Salvatore Ciro Nappo, Pompeii : Guide to the Lost City (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), 64.
 Rebecca Langlands, Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 319-20.
 See James N. Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love : A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World, 1st U.S. ed. (New York: Random House, 2009), 101-21. Davidson complicates attempts by scholars like Sir Kenneth Dover to find representations of sodomy sublimated ubiquitously in Greek art and literature.
 Williams, Roman Homosexuality : Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, 93.
 Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans : Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315, 195. While his analysis of the portrayals of pygmies is often quite cogent, he seems to take for granted that the group-sex would have been seen as comical simply due to its outlandish nature and the fact that it was being committed by pygmies rather than paying attention to the blurring of class distinctions which I believe lies at the heart of the image’s power.
 See Catherine Edwards’ work in Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, Roman Sexualities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 66-95.
 Clarke, Looking at Laughter : Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250, 229.
 Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 161.
 Ibid., 163.
 Beard and Henderson, Classical Art : From Greece to Rome, 142.
 Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 163-64.
 Otto Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (New York: AMS Press, 1975), 174.
 Antonio Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, Pompeii Thematic Guides (Roma: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 2000), 49.
 Ibid., 51.
 Mart. Spec. 5.
 Kathleen Coleman, “Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments,” Journal of Roman Studies, no. 80 (1990): 44-73.
 Stat. Silv. 1.6.57.
 Dio 67.8.4. For the suggestion that “in general, the imperial court of the first century had all the paraphanalia and trappings of a medieval court” in its emphasis on the grotesque, see Brian W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian (London ; New York: Routledge, 1992), 25.
 See his discussion of the various categories of the carnivalesque in M. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1968).
 The character of the pygmies is interesting, and much hinges on their attitude toward each other. The pygmies seem to be heroically trying to cooperate to harness the Nilotic creatures. This suggests that the pygmy riding the hippopotamus and raising the mace in our fresco is doing so in defense of his friend rather than in an act of wickedness.
 Pompeji: Geschichte, Kunst Und Leben in Der Versunkenen Stadt, 210-11.
 Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 6.
 See Figure 2 on page 61 of this paper.
 For the suggestion that the scene depicts authentic methods used by Nilotic people to capture crocodiles, see McDaniel, “A Fresco Picturing Pygmies,” 260-71. With regard to the fresco that is the subject of the introduction of this dissertation, McDaniel says “Even though the Egyptians themselves were a lively, fun-loving people who had some propensity for caricature in their own art, they might not relish finding at Pompeii pictures of their native land with the scene almost always inhabited by absurd little runts doing ridiculous, sacrilegious, or scandalously obscene things. Even this same Pompeiian room contains some that we do not care to describe.”
 See Figure 3 on page 62 of this paper.
 Beard, Pompeii : The Life of a Roman Town, 130.
 For a discussion of the scene as an anti-Semitic caricature, see August Mau and Francis W. Kelsey, Pompeii, Its Life and Art (New York,
London,: The Macmillan company;
Macmillan & co., ltd., 1899), 17. For the idea that Socrates and Aristotle are onlookers, see Theodore Feder, “Solomon, Socrates, and Aristotle,” Biblical Archaeology Society 34, no. 5 (2008). For the idea that the fresco is proof of the presence of Christians and Jews in Pompeii, see L. De Feis, Alcune Memorie Bibliche Scoperte a Pompei (Florence1906).
 Beard, Pompeii : The Life of a Roman Town, 130.
 Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans : Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315, 164.
 Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 169.
 Robin Lane Fox, Travelling Heroes : Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer (London ; New York: Allen Lane, 2008), 31.
 For his reputation for wisdom and judiciousness, see Diod. 1.45, 1.79, 1.94. For the story about the priests, see Diod.1.65. For the alternate tradition that Bocchoris was burned alive by Shabaka, a Kushite king, see Man. 4.66. (from Syncellus, according to Africanus), frag, 67 (a) (from Syncellus, according to Eusebius.)
 Clem. Strom. 4.18.
 For a description of the alleged judgments of Bocchoris, see G. Maspero, History of the Ancient Peoples of the Classic East, ed. A. H. Sayce, trans. M. L. McClure, 3 vols., vol. 3 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge 1897), 245-46.
 “Not finished by nature, but just begun.” Suet. Claud. 3.2.
 See Anthony Corbeill’s work in Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 99-128.
 J. B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture, 2d (integrated) ed., The Pelican History of Art (Harmondsworth, Eng. ; New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 185.
 John Joseph Dobbins and Pedar William Foss, The World of Pompeii, The Routledge Worlds (London ; New York: Routledge, 2007), 195.
 Pompeji: Geschichte, Kunst Und Leben in Der Versunkenen Stadt, 210-11.
 Beard and Henderson, Classical Art : From Greece to Rome, 22.
 Ibid., 11-63.
 Ibid., 50-53.
 The promotion of “indecent” theatrical spectacles was neither limited to the imperial family nor to men. See Plin. Ep. 7.24 for an account of Ummidia Quadratilla, an aged dowager who kept a professional troupe of pantomimes who gave both public and private performances during the height of the Julio-Claudian decadence. Ummidia dismissed her grandson whenever the freedmen performed in order to protect his morals. Pliny’s description of the sycophantic applause of her admirers in the arena is strikingly reminiscent of the description of the applauding courtiers at the court of Nero at Suet. Nero. 20. This was the cultural milieu in which images such as the fresco of the pygmies were being produced.
 For a description of the statue, see Andrew F. Stewart, Greek Sculpture : An Exploration, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 56-58, 226-28. For the idea that the statue might have represented “motel art for ancient businessmen,” see Beard and Henderson, Classical Art : From Greece to Rome, 139.
 This section of the paper may ultimately be placed in Chapter 2 concerning material evidence for orgies.
 Harris, Pompeii Awakened : A Story of Rediscovery, 120.
 Prop. Ele. II.6, 29.
 Ov. Trist. II.521-24.
 See Figure 9 on page 67 of this paper.
 de Caro, The Secret Cabinet in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, 28. See inv. 110569. See also Kymberly N. Pinder, Race-Ing Art History : Critical Readings in Race and Art History (New York: Routledge, 2002), 14.
 Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 76-77.
 Museo Nazionale Romano, cubicula B and D. See pl 326,7, inv no 1187; pl. 326,6, inv. 1188; 326.5, inv. 1188, pl. 326,9, inv 1128.
 de Caro, The Secret Cabinet in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, 41-42. Both the House of the Vettii (VI, 15, 1) and the House of the Centenary (IX, 8, 6) were built with this layout.
 CIL IV 8897.
 CIL IV 2310b.
 Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 66-72.
 Ibid., 69. Second to third century AD, now in the Lyon Museo. There is also a terracotta vase from the Rhone valley showing a couple having sex behind another picture in doors showing a quadriga, See Figure 12 on page 70 of this paper.
 Ibid., 68. From the Palatine c. 70 AD, Rome Antiquarium Communale, no 13694. See Figure 10 on page 68 of this paper.
 Ibid. Inv. No. 25847/15. See Figure 11 on page 69 of this paper.
 Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 69. See Figure 13 on page 71 of this paper.
 West wall of the brothel, VII.12.18.
 Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 66-67.
 Mart. XI.45.
 Mart. XI.104. (The Phrygian slaves behind the door were masturbating whenever the wife rode Hector, her steed).
 For a discussion of this article and the roots of sex positive feminism, see Ellen Willis, Beginning to See the Light : Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press : University Press of New England, 1992).
 In the example of the fresco of pygmies from the House of the Doctor, the orgiastic content distanced Roman viewers from the world of the subjects by abstracting them as apotropaic exotic symbols engaged in musical, spectacular acts of sex usually restricted to the theater or the bordello. But at the same time, the depiction of the group sex titillated Roman viewers by presenting a provocative wonderland in which class and gender distinctions were blurred and hence the concept of sexual transgression itself did not exist, since notions of what constituted normativity were bound to such distinctions in the first place.
 For the argument that “homosexuality” is a modern culturally constructed category and that attraction in the Greek world was bound to fundamentally different kinds of schematizations of desire (shades of Foucault), see David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality : And Other Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge, 1990).
 The fact that many classical historians spend so much time exploring canonical literary texts during their training undoubtedly contributes to this trend of viewing ancient historiography as a genre almost akin to fiction. Professors exploring ancient history in history departments, however, are trained to be equipped with a slightly different set of skills because there is often a greater emphasis on the synthesis of evidence rather than a literary deconstruction of each individual piece of evidence as “literature.”
 Barbara Levick, Claudius (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990), 64-67. Levick does not seem to realize that Messalina’s marriage to Silius precedes the celeberation of the vintage, but this is understandable, since it will eventually be argued that both were likely orgies. She, however, calls the idea of the marriage as a Bacchic ritual as an “alluring modern fantasy” (67).
 Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 221-54.
 Insofar as much of the evidence about the internal goings-on of the imperial household was off limits to non-members of the dynasty, “gossip” was often the only way for people like women, slaves, and the poor to distill the political information that profoundly influenced their daily lives. For this reason, “gossip” can be interpreted as a kind of People’s History, and its content contains important messages about cultural dissatisfaction regardless of its connection to truth.
 See, for example, the lecture of 1816 “The Liberty of Ancients Compared With That of Moderns by Benjamin Constant and Biancamaria Fontana, Political Writings, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge Cambridgeshire ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
 Tib. Ele. 1.1.
 Ov. Am. 1.9.
 Ray Laurence, Roman Passions : A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome (London ; New York: Continuum, 2009). See this book for a detailed discussion of the prominence of displays of conspicuous consumption in the prosperous socio-economic context of the early Roman Empire.
 For a discussion of the efficacy of using tropes associated with debauched dining habits in an adversarial political context, see Anthony Corbeill’s work in Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 99-128.
 For the idea that the charges of adultery were often used for political purposes, see Catharine Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
 Michel Foucault et al., The History of Sexuality Volume 2, Vintage Books ed., 3 vols. (New York: Vintage Books, 1990 (French original published in 1984)), 89.
 Ibid., 56-57.
 The History of Sexuality Volume 3, 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1988 (French original published 1984)).
 As Foucault said, the ethical system he was describing was one designed for men. But this does not mean that a prudish ethical system did not exist defining the sexual lives of women. Foucault is right that the do’s and don’ts were not codified in a book like the Bible, but if an elite women ever engaged in intercourse beyond wedlock or if an elite man submitted to penetration, as much anxiety could be raised as in the most hysterical Christian contexts of the Middle Ages. Sexual ethics regulating the lives of men were based on the idea of learning to control oneself for the sake of being able to control others. Sexual ethics regulating the lives of women were based on learning to control oneself for the sake of being able to submit to others. But learning to control oneself was normative for all, at least in the eyes of prudish Stoics and Platonists.
 For an in-depth description of the state of marriage in the first centuries CE, see Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage : Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford
New York: Clarendon Press ;
Oxford University Press, 1991).
 Meg Barker and Darren Langdridge, Understanding Non-Monogamies, Routledge Research in Gender and Society (New York: Routledge, 2010).
 Blanshard, Sex : Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity, 65-87.
 In book 59.28, the historian Dio expresses the joy of the Roman mob at the demeaning of aristocrats in the imperial brothels held by Caligula.
 Bettina Bergmann et al., The Art of Ancient Spectacle, Studies in the History of Art, (Washington, D.C.
New Haven, Conn.: National Gallery of Art ;
Distributed by Yale University Press, 1999), 9-11.
 Ibid., 163-69.
 Duncan Fishwick, The Imperial Cult in the Latin West : Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, 2nd ed., Etudes Préliminaires Aux Religions Orientales Dans L’empire Romain (Leiden ; New York: E. J. Brill, 1993).
 Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome, 62.
 Quoted by James Warren, “All the Philosopher King’s Men,” Harper’s MagazineFeb, 2000. Accessed at http://harpers.org/archive/2000/02/all-the-philosopher-kings-men/
 José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses : Authorised Translation from the Spanish (New York: W. W. Norton & co., 1932).
 Thomas A. McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World : A Study of Social History & the Brothel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 14-77.