Glittering Translucence: The Glass Menagerie in Previews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway


The stage at the Belasco Theater was so empty it was naked. The set amounted to an ugly table with chairs, some cluttered shelves, and a phonograph. The backdrop was the stark brick wall of the theater itself. When Joe Mantello first appeared onstage, I mistook him for a techie until he began delivering his opening monologue, tackling a role usually played by a much younger man in a much better costume. I already found myself mulling over inevitable comparisons with the production of The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theater in 2013 starring Cherry Jones (Amanda), Zachary Quinto (Tom), and Celia Kennan-Bolger (Laura). I wondered whether it was worth revisiting the play so soon after that great success, which was the first production I’d seen to portray Tom as a gay avatar of Tennessee Williams himself, adding new and unexpected dimensions to the proceedings; his arguments with his mother about where he was sneaking off to at night were never quite so poignant.


In that production, the tragedy of the Wingfield family played out on a literal island circumscribed by rippling ebony ooze. Laura seemed to materialize out of thin air, unexpectedly popping out of a couch with all of the suddenness of a half-forgotten memory that somehow intrudes on the consciousness again. This time, though, there was nothing but emptiness. In the shadows, Sally Field (Amanda) and Madison Ferris (Laura) were already visible as they waited in the orchestra to climb onstage. Bracing myself with the reminder that this was still in previews, I had no idea that I was about to be totally transported and enthralled.


A long silence ensued as the performers went through the cumbersome process of lifting Ferris’ wheelchair onto the stage. My heart skipped a beat. I had no idea that a performer with muscular dystrophy had been cast as Laura, who is described in the script as “crippled.” Out of her chair, back arched, and down on all fours, she moved with an indescribable elegance, flowing like water across the stage. I’d never seen a production before where the physical components of Laura ‘s handicap were explored with such nuance. Both the challenges and elegances of physical movement are so central to Ferris’ characterization that it almost feels at times like a dance performance (I was not at all surprised to read in the program that the Broadway newcomer has dance experience.) There is no awkwardness on display here, usually par for the course in performers’ interpretations of the shy and fragile character. Ferris’ Laura is long acclimated to the challenges of her difference. She owns them. And in her space, Laura moves confidently, uniquely, and even elegantly. Rather than her own inner demons, it is largely society’s cruel pigeonholing that forces her into the role of a pariah.


If Eugene O’Neill is the American Aeschylus and Arthur Miller some iteration of Sophocles, then Tennessee Williams is our Euripides. Both were celebrated for their multi-dimensional female protagonists, their powerful abilities as storytellers, their lines dripping with poetry, and their exploration of the forces of Bacchanalian wildness that always lurk just beneath the veneer of polite society. Needless to say, all of this is pure dynamite for actors. The Glass Menagerie is one of the great ensemble pieces in American theater, and the synergy between the members of this cast was particularly electric. I was initially unsure about Mantello’s interpretation of Tom, which in some ways couldn’t help but disappoint after Quinto’s revelatory queer reading of the role. Over time, though, the dichotomy between Tom’s maturity and the relative youth of his sister and mother highlighted that shimmering, slightly unreal quality that William hoped to capture in the play. If Quinto played Tom as the play’s author trapped claustrophobically in his own memories, Mantello portrays him something like the play’s director, separated from the past in time and space but putting on a show for us in the audience in which he selectively interacts with his former ghosts. The understatement of his performance attractively highlights both the intensity of Fields and the subtlety of Ferris.


Speaking of Fields, she is a force of nature as Amanda, a caged eagle. In her blind rage against the bars of her enclosure, she wounds herself and everyone around her. Now she is driven by a sense of rage over the isolation of her daughter and the selfishness of her son; a moment later, she is soft and maternal; at still other times, she’s lost in obsessive memories of better days. Fields’ Amanda channels the great heroines of world theater, echoing the rambling desperation of Blanche, the imperiousness of Lady Macbeth, and the spiteful wit of Hedda. There is a dangerous undercurrent to Field’s performance bound to her acute awareness of the desperation of her position. Her Amanda is nostalgic for the past but far from delusional about her present. She realizes that she is burdened with an alcoholic son who is about to abandon her and a handicapped daughter she cannot support. The prospect of a gentleman caller is the only hope that can save the Wingfields from themselves. But when her daughter balks in terror at this caller when he finally arrives, Amanda herself becomes the flirtatious center of attention. While she hosts him at dinner with her daughter quivering with embarrassment in the other room, there is an effect such as I have never seen before in any theater. The emptiness of the stage is suddenly revealed to be translucence, a fitting quality for a play named for glass sculpture. Without giving it away, I’ll say that it conveys the same idea of symbolic gulfs evoked in the previous production at the Booth Theatre where the family was literally trapped on an island.


The entire final act was illuminated by true candlelight, providing the scene with an ethereal, almost ghostly ambiance. Earlier in the play, Ferris portrayed Laura as a slightly spoiled young woman whose life’s meaning was reduced to subtle shows of rebellion against her mother’s will. Ferris obsessed over her glass figurines not with an air of insanity but one of triumph, lording over an imaginary world in which, for once, she could be in control and ignore the admonishments of the world around her. At last, though, she invites the gentleman caller into this world, where he finds that he has been set up as a kind of idol deified since high school. In this space, the way Laura moves and the way she uses her imagination are completely natural, and at least for a fleeting moment, he sees the beauty in her existence and not the stigma associated with it. The chemistry between Laura and her “suitor” (a bright eyed and bushy tailed Finn Wittrock) is sizzling, the most sexual of any interpretation I’ve seen. Their tender dance was the emotional climax of the night, symbolic of the themes of the entire production.


Like the casting of deaf actor John McGinty in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ferris’ casting proves that physical difference or disability not only should be no bar to the display of talent, but can even bring new life to classic roles. As wonderful as Michael Arden was as Quasimodo and Celia Kennan-Bolger was as Laura (a sublime performance, in fact), there is something special about the truth that actors bring to parts when they share aspects of that character’s identity in real life. Many actors can try to imitate a limp, but few can move with the combination of grace and dexterity required by someone with muscular dystrophy, let alone one as gifted in physical storytelling as Madison Ferris.


Famously, The Glass Menagerie ends with Tom’s injunction for Laura to “blow (her) candles out.” Perhaps fittingly, this performance was the first I’ve seen in which she flat out shakes her head and refuses to do so. This production will linger in my imagination for a long time.



So That It Burns


Upon the cusp of evening shade suffused

with rays of twilight sleek and luminous

my love lingers beyond the ashen span

which glistens on the bed of Tithonus.

As summers wane and dusk invidious

imbues the wilting arch of firmament,

so equally my nimble ardor swells

to drench the stars, gleaming and permanent.

When autumn showers form a breathless mist

which clings upon the face of cobblestones,

the lovestruck poet should not hope to list

what nature and imagination loan.

He drafts within his heart unspoken songs

of boundless pitch which no page could abide,

when transient moments grow a bit more long

and deathless beauty walks along his side.

These subtle metamorphoses run deep

inside our souls before we get too old,

when kindred hearts both skip a single beat

and friendly glances grow a bit more bold.

But little else is crueler to discern

than gusty changes once their course has run,

that fan a feeble heart so that it burns,

but blow out fire in the other one.

Is A Computerized Brain Far-fetched?


Here’s my Letter to the Editor which was featured in the New York Times last year.

Kenneth D. Miller’s article (against the longterm efficacy of cryogenic freezing) is a cogent reminder of how little we still understand the nature of consciousness. But his assurance that the ability to upload a human mind is unimaginably beyond the potential of our civilization is misplaced.

The brain is a machine that runs on electricity, and consciousness is an emergent aspect of the workings of its physical parts. There’s no reason to think that a three-pound brain is so uniquely mysterious that it could never be truly comprehended, particularly given the likelihood of exponential growth in computing power in the future.

The first steps may not involve trying to model a working brain on a computer, but trying to integrate computers into working brains while still preserving autonomy, memories and sense perception.

When this is done, our understanding of the electrochemical foundations of consciousness will be transformed, and a great deal may become possible. For now, though, even a small chance of being “awakened” after cryogenic freezing is better than no chance at all.


In Defense of Transhumanism


My article appeared last year in the Washington Post.

When I first tried to start a club for the study of transhumanism at Yale, I was astounded by the university’s response. The chaplain intervened and vetoed the request. An email to me explained that there were already enough atheist groups on campus, assuming evidently that the words humanist and atheist were synonyms. I found myself awkwardly assuring a series of administrators that transhumanism had nothing to do with transgender students who didn’t believe in God. Broadly speaking, it involves the use of futuristic medical technology to lower the incidence of disease, enhance the capacity of the imagination and prolong the human lifespan. “We’re into things like cyborgs and genetic engineering,” I said.

It seems to me that while transhumanism resembles its progenitors, it is distinct from each of them, and lessons can be drawn from all of them.

First, there is the ugly specter of the eugenics movement, a disaster associated with decades of pseudoscientific research in an embarrassing array of discredited fields. People who see transhumanism as an extension of eugenics may be concerned that future policies could lead to rising inequality, intolerance for difference and the abuse of power.

In the future, with in vitro fertilization available to the rich, embryos will be screened for genetic profiles probabilistically likely to thrive according to various indicators. As we gain increasingly precise knowledge of the human genome and the probabilities of healthfulness associated with different genotypes, it will eventually be possible to select children likely not only to be healthy but also to excel. With popular inaction, this could lead to an unjust scenario in which fitness and intelligence might map onto the socioeconomic level of one’s parents. Legal restrictions on the selection of fetuses on the basis of genetic health, however, would be hugely regressive and counterproductive.

Transhumanists should demand the possibility of such prenatal care for all citizens rather than allowing the free market to restrict it to the few. In the long term, the development of increasingly efficient gene editing technology (both in vitro and, some day, in the womb itself) will likely significantly lower the associated costs. Although the horrors of eugenics should serve as a sobering reminder of the evil that can be perpetrated in the name of progress, they should not stifle discussion in the academy about the responsible implementation of genetic engineering in the future.

The second major source of transhumanist thought is science fiction, a genre that tends to favor dystopian narratives because they can be made so colorful from an artistic perspective. Despite all of the 19th-century novels bemoaning the effects of the Industrial Revolution, I suspect that if we could go back in time, we would still choose to industrialize. But perhaps the shape of the revolution would be different — we would hopefully pay attention to the kinds of things the novelists and poets complained about — for example, we might be less abusive toward the environment and more respectful of the rights of workers from the onset. [Eight questions to ask before human genetic engineering goes mainstream.

In our future, daily life will be transformed through the increasing automation of labor and the rise in sophistication of artificial intelligence. Life may be less about the 9-to-5 grind and more about education, community and the creation and enjoyment of art. Rather than imagining a future in which humans and machines are at odds — as many thinkers have predicted — transhumanists look forward to the advent of cyborgs, in which computers are incorporated into the brain itself, leading to radically enhanced processing power and the ability to preserve consciousness for lengths of time now deemed inconceivable. The ultimate lesson from transhumanism’s origins in science fiction is perhaps to seek those inventions that would radically enhance lifespans and empower the human imagination to control what it experiences in ways hitherto unimaginable, liberated from the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune.

A third source of transhumanist ideas, and the one of greatest interest to me, is the tradition of humanism. When Cicero used the word “humanus” to symbolize the noblest aspects of our species’ character, he showed that he believed something fundamental separated human beings from all other types of beings — the inculcation of our rational faculties and our ability to apply those faculties over time to the development and preservation of our civilization.

Today, we often hear that truth is a construct and nothing but a reflection of power. Values are relative. But humanism and the idea of progress stand as rejoinders, and transhumanism falls squarely in line with this tradition. How can we best harness the power of progress? Not by seeking to control and exploit people different from us, a transhumanist might say, but by attempting to alleviate suffering and build bridges between imaginations. A willingness to empower more people than ever before to be born healthy, intelligent and able to devote long and meaningful lives to love, leisure and lifelong education is, to me, transhumanism at its best — an antidote to postmodern malaise.

On the Inauguration Day of Donald Trump

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The grandeur of his office is a perk
but now the Donald has to get to work.
He’ll require a great deal of endurance
if he hopes to kill our health insurance
and banish same sex couples from our sights
and criminalize reproductive rights
and see to it pollution laws all go
and build a wall to fence off Mexico
and toss every illegal in a cell
and spark a war in central Israel
and put the country’s Muslims on a list
and throw in prison all who would resist.
I will not soon forget this epic date.
So this is what it feels like to be great!
It’s harder to be President than rich
Yet we elected Putin’s rabid bitch.

Lauterbrunnen (On Love and Sunburn)


How could I help but mine the shapeless hours

above pied valleys cloaked in pine and flowers,

dwarfed by wrinkled amaranthine mountains,

morphed by nourishment on milk of fountains?

Cascades of vapor splashed with such a sound

you would have thought it thundered underground.

I yearned to see the russet dusk begin.

But soon the sunlight burned my face’s skin.

Then I was forced to quit the lonely height

and banish nature’s temple from my sight.

Whenever too at dinner we should meet,

so ravenous however much I eat

and drunken on the wine of every view,

I find I cannot stop glancing at you.

If I am caught, is this game lost or won?

The mystery, God knows, is half the fun.

Each time I steal a look, I know I’ve won.

But take care staring too long at the sun.

Experience has made it understood

that Nature is more beautiful than good.

On Simulism: a New Perspective


Arguments in favor of simulism date to the dawn of philosophy, when thinkers like Parmenides of Elea insisted that the world of appearances was an illusion. Though the suggestion that you exist in a simulation may seem incredible, consider the arguments in this paper with an open mind.

Before I present my own thoughts on the subject, I first want to consider Nick Bostrom’s influential contentions in favor of simulism, which can be summarized as follows:

“A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one… If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation. In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3). Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation.”[1]

While the argument is intriguing and even in line with recent suggestions that the universe seems to be a projected “hologram,” scholars might disagree with Bostrom for several reasons. The first two have been mentioned by others; the third is my own reflection.

  1. Information which we gather from within a simulation might not be an accurate reflection about the limits and possibilities in the world beyond the simulation, just as Mario’s knowledge of what happens when you eat a mushroom in his universe tells him nothing about what eating one in our world would do to him. In other words, even if our universe seems to hold the capacity of the creation of simulations containing conscious beings, why can we assume the same thing about the world beyond our universe which gave rise to us? This argument can be mitigated at least somewhat, however, by suggesting that given knowledge of our own existences and of the nature of our universe and the possibilities within it, we can make meaningful assumptions about what might have given rise to it.
  1. The mathematics in question is based on pure conjecture. Bostrom suggests: “While it is not possible to get a very exact estimate of the cost of a realistic simulation of human history, we can use ~1033 – 1036 operations as a rough estimate… We noted that a rough approximation of the computational power of a planetary-mass computer is 1042 operations per second, and that assumes only already known nanotechnological designs, which are probably far from optimal. A single such a computer could simulate the entire mental history of humankind (call this an ancestor-simulation) by using less than one millionth of its processing power for one second.”[2] The entire premise of his argument is predicated on this idea, though in reality, we know almost nothing about what it would take to create a simulation of the entire mental history of humankind. We must buy into his math, however, to believe that there are likely vastly more “posthuman computerized consciousnesses” than everyday, mundane consciousnesses derived from an original universe.
  1. Because Bostrom believes there are likelier to be more simulated consciousnesses than actual consciousnesses due to the enormous theoretical processing power of computers the size of the planets, he suggests we are already in such a simulation, or almost no beings in the universe will ever reach the level of being to create such simulations. However, from the perspective of our giant universe as a whole, it seems like there is evidence (if Earth is not atypical) of a great deal of animal consciousnesses, and life (if not consciousness) down to the bacterial level. The upshot of all this is that the chances of being born a live organism somewhere in the enormous universe might well be higher than the chances of being born a conscious being trapped in a consciously designed simulation created by sophisticated beings like postmodern humans.

At first glance, then, Bostrom’s formulation seems neither sound (because he makes assumptions about over-simulations on the basis of a random under-simulation) nor valid (because his justification for the high number of sims relative to base realities is unfounded). Yet despite some disagreement with Bostrom, I am ultimately a simulist, but partly for independent reasons. (Note that Bostrom himself is not a simulist—he says that we are either in a simulation or likely to never create them.)

I shall use the example of Mario throughout the discussion. Our world and Mario’s world aren’t as different as you might first imagine. To begin poetically, is life possible with no consciousness, so that something can be alive but not even realize it? The existence of plants proves that this is so. Is rationalism possible without sense perception, so that something can make accurate calculations but possess no conscious will of its own? The existence of robots and computers proves that this is so. Is experience possible without three dimensional consciousness? The existence of dreams proves that this is so. Is consciousness possible after total oblivion? Our own existences as human beings prove that this is so. After all, we were all effectively dead before we were born. We know that plants can be very much alive in our three dimensional world with no awareness of this fact—and so we, too, can potentially exist within a world of meaning that is all around us and yet beyond us.

  1. Mario might imagine that he is completely unique in the universe and randomly came into being by a process of pixels spontaneously assembling (that is, he imagines that he is the one and only Mario on the one and only television set on the one and only game device in the entire universe, and all these devices came into being by random chance). Or, he might guess that he is one of a large number of similar beings conveyed on a large number of things called game cartridges that are deliberately designed. The latter is likelier than the former. But why? Consider this scenario. If in the future, an archeologist discovers a single book from the lost civilization of 2015—and no other books survived—on what would you place a bet? That the book would be a popular one like the Bible or Harry Potter, or that the book would be someone’s single copy of a lost doctoral thesis? The former is likelier. For analogous reasons, Mario is right to begin to be suspicious that he is a unique thing and not a common one. That is, he is right to guess that he is likelier to be only a version of himself than the one and only version. And if he came into being by some process that worked over time, it is likely that the process would operate more than once and not only in his unique case, since something itself must have given birth to the process and organized it. And the same is true of you—if you won the chance to be yourself, you are likelier to be one of many such winners than the one and only winner, because in any game of chance, the existence of more winners implicitly means more chances to win. Remember, your possession of your conscious will in the form of an individuated consciousness is a separate and distinct fact from your mere existence. David Vincent Kimel might exist somewhere in time and space because a sperm and egg came together, but this fact is distinct from my actually being the one experiencing his consciousness as a singular rational entity and writing this blog post. The inevitable implication of “I think therefore I am” is that the very existence of the “I” requires a separate explanation from the existential implications of its thoughts. It could be that your consciousness’ possession of your specific body was random. But it would seem more rational to assume that you exist as you for a reason, which would give rise to and raise the probability of your existence. If chaos alone governed the universe, the odds would be highly stacked against life in general, let alone the evolution of your individual consciousness—I’ve read that even forming a protein would be (2) (10^-32) unlikely. We need to begin imagining some kind of a process that could give rise to the experience of individuated conscious wills.
  1. Now, think about Mario again. Even if he realizes he is more likely to be one of many Marios than the only version of himself, this would still not explain why he acts as he does–for example, why he leaps over a pit rather than into it. Of course, the answer why he jumps over the pit is that he is simulated to do it; someone is playing him. Simulism, or the seemingly ridiculous idea that Mario is basically a video game, doesn’t just explain why something called a “Mario” exists and that there are likely very many versions of him, but also shows why Mario is this particular Mario; why, for example, he grabs the coins that he does. The same is true of you. It could be the case that we are all born in a random and infinitely complex universe governed by no designer. But even if a sperm and egg came together to make you, this does not explain why you are experiencing your consciousness and not somebody else’s, or infinite other ones. Only simulism gives the answer. The only implausible alternative is that everything else in the world is something caused, with the sole exception of your possession of your own conscious will. The only answer to why you are yourself is either “this is the only thing in the universe that has no reason” or “I’m probably one of many versions of my consciousness, and I am being simulated to act in one way and not another, in the same way that Mario decides whether to grab a coin or not.”
  1. The question arises, even if we realize that our possession of our individuated consciousness is a fact that is distinct from the facticity of my being (that is, the fact that David Vincent Kimel exists somewhere in the universe is a distinct fact from “my” (the author’s) actually being the individuated consciousness writing this document), and even if we concede that it is likelier than not the case that this fact exists for a specific regulated reason which increased the odds of my coming into existence as a member of a non-unique class rather than the unique result of random chance,(for the same reason that Mario should suspect he is a non-unique thing and that a random book from the world of 2015 is likelier to be The Bible than a random thesis), why should we suspect an intelligently designed entity is behind it all and not merely some natural process we don’t understand (karma, etc.)? Now, imagine this possibility. What if in the whole history of the vast original universe, at least one original civilization existed that was so advanced, it started to deliberately construct simulations, even of its own past—what Bostrom calls ancestor simulations. Why would it do it? Perhaps to cure boredom. Perhaps to figure out all the secrets of the past. And perhaps even to download the conscious minds of all the unfortunate individuals who lived in history before simulations allowed people live out their dreams. Regardless of the reason, imagine it happened even once in the whole history of the universe. What would happen when the simulation of history reached the point when the simulation itself was created? The answer is, it would create a simulation of itself. Then, it in turn would create a simulation of itself, and there would be infinite simulated identical realities.  Bostrom is on the right track when he says: “It may be possible for simulated civilizations to become posthuman. They may then run their own ancestor-simulations on powerful computers they build in their simulated universe. Such computers would be “virtual machines”, a familiar concept in computer science. (Java script web-applets, for instance, run on a virtual machine – a simulated computer – inside your desktop.) Virtual machines can be stacked: it’s possible to simulate a machine simulating another machine, and so on, in arbitrarily many steps of iteration.”[3] What he misses is that an ancestor simulation that truly replicated its own history would create a situation where the “stacked simulations” were in fact exact replicas of each other. And even if the creation of an ancestor simulation may seem to face insurmountable odds, it may also be the case that a simulated civilization (a civilization simulated in the first place, of some kind) became sophisticated enough to understand its own programming enough to tap into its own coding and examine its underpinnings in fine enough grain to recreate the conscious life of the past. The end result would be the same.
  2. If Bostrom’s formulation of the Doomsday Hypothesis is apt, if we consider the present moment not “a year of human civilization” but rather “a year in the existence of the universe,” if the universe is finite and if we find ourselves in a random year of its existence, it is likelier to be nearer the end of the series of years than toward the beginning. This would only be true if the entire universe were in danger of being shut off altogether, which could only be true in the case of being in a simulation.

Now, what is likelier? That you are a single random combination of atoms that came together by chance and that you experience your specific life equally randomly, or that you are one of an infinite number of versions of yourself created when a single very unlikely simulation in an original universe (or within a simulation) simulated itself? The upshot of this is, that it is likelier we exist in a universe designed by a rational will than that we are alone in random space, and that life after death might really be possible, since it should be theoretically possible to upload consciousnesses once the simulation ends.

(Note that the argument that a perfect ancestor simulation might have been created, or that a simulation might have simulated its own coding, mitigates the problem mentioned in the opening critique of Bostrom that we cannot make assumptions about the nature of the environment beyond our universe on the basis of assumptions of the conditions within our universe; yet we can indeed make meaningful assumptions about the environment beyond our universe if we posit that it exists as a copy of itself. However, in this case, we should posit that Bostrom’s logic only applies if we are in an ancestor simulation specifically, and not in a simulation of some kind, despite however many simulations of various kinds might be produced by civilizations within our solar system.)



[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.


On Rights and the Right to be Genetically Engineered


On Rights and the Right to Be Genetically Engineered: A Transhumanist Perspective

Imagine a scenario in which a mother could be given medicine to ensure that her child would be born without debilitating congenital illnesses. In such a world, should access to this medicine be considered a human right?

Before you jump to any conclusions, consider the question reformulated in this way:

Imagine a scenario in which the technology existed to genetically engineer embryos to ensure that they would be born without debilitating congenital illnesses. In such a world, should being genetically engineered be considered a human right?

Intuitions may differ with regard to these two questions. I am interested in the distinction between them, and in potential answers to both of them.

How are the questions distinct? Of course, one striking difference is that medicine seems to be a more pleasant turn of phrase than being genetically engineered. The former evokes Florence Nightingale, while the latter calls to mind Frankenstein’s monster. The rhetorical distinction is loaded with terrible baggage grounded in the tragic history of the19th and 20th centuries. Anxiety over the very concept of genetic engineering is at least part of the reason that documents like the European Union’s convention on human rights and biomedicine have historically prohibited altering the gene pool as a crime against “human dignity,” as if the matter were totally non-contentious.[1] By the same token, the US National Institutes of Health refuses to fund gene-editing research on embryos.[2] This terror at the very prospect of genetic engineering stems at least in part from awareness of the evils historically committed in the name of pseudo-scientific eugenics. The aims of transhumanists, however, are not those of the racist eugenicists; the latter attempted to murderously destroy human difference, while the former at their best seek to level the playing field between individuals in a welcoming, non-judgmental, and racially neutral context offering new medicines to as many people as possible as non-invasively as possible.

Genetic engineering is a form of medicine presaged by current forms of treatment. Even now, for example, there exist tests empowering couples to choose between embryos before they are implanted into the womb on the basis of how statistically likely they are to develop there.[3] At the same time, fetuses are often screened for developmental disorders, etc. Though the associated technologies are in their infant stages (pardon me for a pun), the ability to select between embryos on the basis of their complete genetic profiles and to even begin editing those profiles through the use of methods like the CRISPR interference technique may eventually become a widespread social norm. This adds a sense of immediacy to the first form of the question and raises a variety of further questions. For example, to what degree should embryonic selection be subsidized by insurance? If national laws forbid parents from selecting between embryos on the basis of certain genetic qualities, would they in fact be justified in doing so? How can we edit an embryo’s DNA when the embryo itself cannot give consent? Is consent a matter of concern for an entity which according to many intuitions is little more sophisticated than an individual sperm or egg? If consent is a meaningful concept for an embryo, how can we justify compelling an embryo to be born in the first place? Etc. At the same time, the second form of the question differs from the first insofar as it seems to me to imply that parents would have an active obligation to engineer their children if it were true, which is a contentious prospect, particularly given the precarious current state of the associated technologies.

It is my conviction that social progress at its best evolves in such a manner that people of all creeds, kinds, and classes should be increasingly empowered to harness the transformative power of technology and medicine to enhance their lives and protect themselves from random accidents of fortune. This is why I believe in transhumanism, the central arguments of which are bound, for me, to the notions that sensitivity to unwanted pain should inform institutional policy, which in turn ought to aim to minimize citizens’ agony and maximize their happiness by means of the expansion of their potential to make meaningful contributions to society at large through the expression of their “rights;” and that the most effective means of doing so is the promotion of education and the development of new medicines and other beneficial technologies created at the most efficient rate possible through the promotion of synergy among the independent institutions of economics, politics, and academics, collaboration hitherto confined to times of total warfare, non-coincidentally bound to conditions conducive to rapid eras of technical progress. These ideas are investigated both in the first part of the essay, where I explore the characteristics of human rights, and in the conclusion, when I reflect on future policy.

In the middle part of the essay, I suggest that access to effective genetic engineering in the form of screened in vitro embryonic selection should likely be considered a human right even at the present juncture, and certainly when gene-editing becomes a cultural norm. Yet I also come to the conclusion that the right to be genetically engineered cannot currently be understood according to the traditional thematics of human rights for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that given contemporary levels of technology, it is not possible to genetically modify an embryo in the womb itself, and even the most cautious in vitro modification is hugely controversial. Embryos destined to be born might be argued to have the “burgeoning right” to at least be born in possession of a sound mind and all five senses in working order if there exists medicine to ensure this, though the human right of parents to give birth to children completely naturally might trump such burgeoning rights according to the intuitions of different cultures depending on the degree of invasiveness of the associated technologies. Though a future age may think my intuition quaint or even prejudiced, if being engineered were any kind of right in 2016, it would suggest that the results of natural intercourse which are always hazardous and random in the status quo would somehow be declared morally off-limits, a conclusion too advanced for the current century, and too intolerant for any century.

If genetic engineering becomes cheap, effective, and efficient enough, however, I imagine that the vast majority of parents will surely adopt it in short order to maximize their offspring’s chances for health and happiness. Those who choose not to do so will likely be in such a small minority that the creation of a coercive apparatus compelling them to do so would only sully the futurist cause and the interests of freedom and diversity in general. For this reason, whether or not it is a human right to be genetically engineered to enjoy certain baselines of existence (a question depending to a degree on the state of the available technology), the rights of parents to prenatal genetic healthcare should always be considered paramount.

I. On Human Rights and Access to Genetic Engineering for One’s Children


I seldom encountered a persuasive argument that anything could be considered a “human right” beyond appeals to authority, intuition, or social utility. For example, consider the right to freedom of expression. Why does it exist? One might say that the right is enshrined in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has been fundamental to the Western tradition since the days of Greece and Rome. But these would be appeals to authority. Simply asserting that something has long been considered a norm does not necessarily mean that the norm is just or universally applicable. Another might say that the ability to openly communicate feelings and opinions is fundamental to the operation of democratic forms of government, and that a free marketplace of ideas will lead in the long term to the best discourse and the most progress for society at large. But these would all be appeals to social utility. A right should be something fundamental to all individuals qua their humanity, and not necessarily something grounded in what is best for society as a whole—otherwise, for example, things like gross public torture could be justified for the sake of preserving national security through the promotion of deterrence. A final person might say that we are all fundamentally free to express ourselves in a state of nature, and society exists to defend our liberty rather than to infringe upon it. But these would be appeals to our intuitions about what constitutes the state of nature and what the goals of an ideal society should be in relation to that fanciful construct.

If the core arguments of cultural and moral relativism should be taken seriously, it is difficult to imagine how the existence of human rights can be universally defended through appeals to logic alone. Even in the relatively straightforward case of freedom of expression, it is clear that there exist gross differences between cultures with respect to intuitions about what constitutes the limits of acceptability. While most societies would agree that the freedom to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater in hopes of inciting a panic should be curtailed by force of law, the question of whether incendiary hate speech or religious slander should be tolerated is a matter of hotly contested opinion. In a postmodern sense, asserting that something is a right is tantamount to coercively imposing your “truth” onto others, and with every assertion of moral authority comes discursive baggage and problematization associated with the expression of power. If everyone has a “right” to be genetically engineered, for example, what does that mean about the “rights” of parents to decide about what is best for their own developing embryos by deciding not to genetically engineer them? And what might the “right” of an embryo to be genetically engineered imply about the “right” to abort that embryo altogether? Or about the right of a child to sue parents for wrongful birth? Some “rights” are mutually exclusive with each other, and our intuitions about which rights to privilege will surely diverge depending on our respective philosophical, moral, and social perspectives. To assert the existence of a right is ultimately a deeply political action.

Defenders of universal human rights must inevitably grapple with these relativistic thinkers, who insist that “morality” is ultimately something manufactured, constructed to suit the intuitions of the culture which originates that morality, and thus the product of a kind of self perpetuating cycle where doctrine recapitulates and reinforces custom, and custom recapitulates and reinforces power. It comes as no coincidence that that which is called right or wrong, good or evil, often parallels the values that would best prop up mighty individuals at the head of great social hierarchies. An example of this phenomenon is the appropriation of Christianity by Roman imperial authorities in the fourth century AD, when the government emphasized aspects of the doctrine most amenable to the ends of the increasingly authoritarian state. Injunctions to be obedient to slavemasters were accentuated at the expense of, say, calls for the rich to radically renounce their possessions. In any time or place, the powers that be will pick and choose what religious laws to emphasize and which to let slip to the wayside. Yet beyond asserting that one’s moral practice is in line with God’s law, philosophers , politicians, and prophets have all had great difficulty proposing a set of concrete principles universally compelling to all rational members of every human culture.

Of course, the great achievements of Locke and the eighteenth century revolutionaries who followed him cemented the idea of universal human rights to life, liberty, and property in the popular imagination. But on close examination, where do these rights really come from, and what are their limits? Are they in fact universal in any meaningful sense, or are they constructed to suit the exigencies of specific geopolitical situations?

The difficulties inherent in these kinds of questions inspire many down the road of moral relativism. But I cannot find it in my heart to follow in their footsteps, even if I agree with them that “rights” are ultimately constructed, partly on the basis of appeals to authority, partly on the basis of intuitions about fairness, and partly on the basis of social utility given the current level of technological development. Setting aside appeals to authority, let’s examine intuitions about fairness and the relationship between rights and social utility.

The concept of the veil of ignorance might be employed to suggest why rights might be afforded to others in a just society from a purely rational perspective, on the assumption that without a set social identity, an individual is a kind of “pure subject” whose intuitions are not self-interested. It stands to reason that if we were to design a just society without foreknowledge of our social identity, it would be one which would ensure a level playing field for all members from at least certain vantage points. This idea might be employed to defend, for example, the promotion of certain social welfare programs, since the threat that you might be born indigent suggests that blinded by the veil of ignorance, you would prefer for such programs to exist than the alternative. However, from an anonymous rational perspective, one might equally well value being born into a society that taxes its people less and encourages scientific innovation more, under the theory that technological progress ultimately alleviates more burdens than any well meaning lawmaker, and that the more entrepreneurs are taxed, the less they might be capable of taking risks and investing in new technologies. So, the veil of ignorance does not necessarily illuminate how an ideal society should be constructed without avoiding the perils of subjectivity, for no pure subjectivity can exist.

How then can the specter of individualistic intuition be escaped? It seems to me that intuition can be narrow, grounded in one very iconoclastic viewpoint, or broad, found across many cultures. Most broadly speaking of all, from the perspective of all mortals with hopes and dreams capable of feeling pain, nature left to its own devices is often more beautiful than it is good. Human societies join together to promote the ends of frail human beings, since the law of the jungle favors only the strong, and there is no justice but the victory of the sharpest jaws. The laws and moral principles crafted by different civilizations are in some sense a reflection of the local geography (for example, we might expect to find values associated with hospitality in harsh terrains), the customs of neighboring cultures (for example, ideas about strategies to appease the gods might be borrowed from a nearby civilization), and spontaneous indigenous invention (for example, a unique creed might be written in a specific culture.)

Yet it further seems to me that given the randomness of birth and the fundamental equality of all mortals with respective to their frailty, most major world religions, legal systems, and moral philosophies emphasize the imperative of not treating others in ways that you yourself would not want to be treated under the same circumstances. This was Hillel’s silver rule; Jesus expanded upon it by actively urging people to treat others as they themselves would have themselves be treated. (But how one would like to be treated is not necessarily how others would like to be treated, and in this ambiguity there often proved to be much room for oppression and consternation as one culture tried to foist its beliefs onto another with threats of gunfire and hellfire.)

As a human capable of feeling pain, my intuition is that given the choice between two paths, the road associated with the least amount of unwanted pain for the smallest number of humans and the greatest amount of happiness for the most people should be chosen if there is no other real difference between the branching roads. Of course, the fantasy of the Aztecs was that their gory sacrifices appeased the gods and upheld the peace and prosperity of the state and cosmos alike; in the case of the ancient Roman games, the message was sent to the plebs that social outcasts would not be tolerated, leading, reasoned the Caesars, to less pain in the long run by deterring others from emulating the victims of the lions. This was a dark spin on traditional utilitarian arguments that emphasize the importance of maximizing benefit. Unfortunately, what constitutes “benefit” or utility is obviously subject to debate.

But perhaps we can all concur as rational and cooperative human beings capable of feeling pain that disutility in the form of unwanted pain should be minimized if it all possible, and particularly when there is no rationally proven difference between two paths except that one contains more unwanted pain than the other for the greater number of people for no greater purpose whatsoever than upholding brute hierarchies of power in a terroristic context. When considering the existence of a social institution associated with the oppression of a victimized minority group which claims to be in pain, ask yourself what supposedly virtuous ends that oppression serves—if the answer is chiefly “supporting the powers that be by instilling obedience to convention through terror,” the institution is likely an oppressive rather than a progressive one, particularly when its victims are random people who broke no law. This perspective begins to make the Aztec pyramids and the Roman Colosseum seem like reprehensible institutions regardless of one’s cultural perspective, though the Aztecs claimed their rites upheld a sacred cosmic balance, and the Romans emphasized the importance of their spectacles as a social leveler. Ultimately, though, the institutions inculcated more vice and dehumanization than virtue and love, and hence led to a path of greater pain and misery than more humane and joyous alternatives. (Indeed, Christianity’s elimination of both institutions stands among its greatest achievements.)

Insofar as all of this is true, what could be more painful, more brutal, or more bound to terror than a path entangled in the tendrils of the circumstantial genetic jungle? A world without genetic engineering is one in which we are all effective sacrificial victims to the romantic notion of an unchanging, single, sacred Human Nature, and in which we are all gladiators armed for the battle of existence unevenly by an indifferent mob of sperm and eggs. Inaction in the face of our slavery is horrifying, but justified by the fact that we take the horrors of life for granted as a necessity because they have accompanied civilization from time immemorial, and dystopian science fiction has made us fear a better future.

The injunction “do unto your neighbor as you would have your neighbor do unto you” becomes less problematized from the perspective of affording each other rights and freedoms than from the vantage point of trying to hoist specific religions upon one another. Behind a veil of ignorance, for all of the difficulty of finding common ground beyond individual subjectivity, one thing that most people would likely agree upon is that regardless of who they are destined to become, at the point they are all compelled to live in an unjust world, they should at least be afforded fundamental freedoms in line with the technological progress of their age if they do not infringe upon the freedoms of others, in addition to certain safeguards against unwanted pain, under the principle that they should be compensated for being forced to exist in the first place, and they will be happiest the more readily they are empowered to grapple with the vagaries of fortune, and the more protected they are from the brutality of illness. If this is the case, one would seem to prefer a society in which genetic engineering were at least a possibility, since if someone is going to be compelled to be born, he or she would likely hope for a healthy genetic profile. A world in which such engineering were forbidden on face would lead to more random misery, and hence a path of greater pain for more people. And for what? To uphold an unjust status quo in which random minorities monopolize healthy genetic profiles at the expense of the majority, who are obedient to the supposed necessity of being slaves to the genotypes bestowed by nature because it is “dignified” to be the dupe of chance.

Transhumanism accentuates the inherent benefits of new medicine ensuring a baseline of existence free of gross genetic illness. In the future, perhaps an enhanced human imagination itself will lead to less human suffering in the long term, since more medicines produced by more geniuses will mean that we will be increasingly liberated from the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune, our leaders channeling their energies into technological research bound to life-affirming constructive technologies rather than those leading to existential destruction. The more inclusive of potentially meaningful contributions the academy, government, and market become, the more rapidly all of this will be achieved. In the future, robotics and computing will transform the landscape of what it even means to be human. We must embrace the idea that it implies more than the brute fact of our animalistic existence. The true “human” is the “human imagination” in an age in which our species’ spirit is empowered to transcend and transform its very form. From the bounty of technological progress and automation can come human liberation and transcendence if the transition into the new epoch is handled with mercy and a sense of equity. The more happy, healthy, and intelligent humans are born, the more meaningful contributions to the arts and sciences can be made, and the less disutility there will be for everyone on earth.

II. On the Right To Be Engineered

Genetic-Engineering.jpgIn recognition of all of this, I want to call conscious attention to the fact that because I am a transhumanist, I want to privilege a perspective on this question of genetic engineering that would do the most to further a movement which, as I understand it, calls for increasing access to pioneering medicines for all people.   At the same time, however, in addition to considering this “political” dimension to the question, I also want my opinion to be grounded as much as possible in the use of logic that would be meaningful for all rational, compassionate individuals. As I have said, beyond appeals to authority, I think that while “rights” are partially socially constructed, they can still be grounded in fundamental and perhaps even universal human intuitions about fairness. Ultimately, they are a form of compensation. No one asked to be born, but we are all compelled to exist on a planet in which gross inequities exist and physical and emotional pain run rampant and many of our dreams do not come true. So long as we live, we agree to play a game whose rules we did not write, and in the midst of this struggle we feel some sense of empathy and commiseration for other sailors, who are all in the same leaky boat as we are.

Humans are mostly self-interested, but also quite social and cooperative, which can sometimes run against self-interest. I believe that this is the real reason we value an abstract universal “right” to things like freedom of expression. Our intuitions as rational humans capable of feeling pain tell us that it is wrong for the strong to randomly oppress the weak and for the majority to silence all dissent, and our social structures mandate that such a state of affairs cannot long endure in harmony with progress and willful cooperation. With respect to society at large, the community could not function without legal and political institutions to ensure that might alone did not determine justice, or the many who are weak would eventually overthrow the few who are strong. With respect to our rational individuality, we would all like to be treated as dignified autonomous agents whose perspectives are worthy of respect, and so we value the rights of others to the same freedoms that we value for ourselves, providing a model for friendly reciprocity and preemptively defending ourselves from the retribution of agents who would be right to resist dehumanization.

With all this being said, we can consider the case of genetic engineering along analogous lines. People who believe that being genetically engineered is a right might present the following arguments. No one asked to be born, but not only do we compel our children to exist in the first place on earth as it is, we also compel them to be members of society with all of its inequities, and to follow its laws, which are often unjust. In return for the twin sacrifice of existing at all and functioning in a community that might constantly disappoint and pigeonhole them, individuals are repaid by society by being legally assured of certain rights—freedom of speech, the right to hold property, etc., privileges which would in fact be undermined by the brutality of sheer force and randomness in a world without laws and strong community life.

The right to be genetically engineered would be directly in line with these other kinds of rights. By genetically engineering embryos, we would compensate future humans for forcing them into existences that they did not choose. We would ensure that they would grow up to be individuals best equipped to pursue their happiness through the unhindered use of their five senses in bodies that are free from physical pain. Our community’s body of scientific knowledge could liberate them from the brutality of the circumstantial and genetic wheel of fortune with all of its inequities and empower them to begin life on a level playing field. Behind a veil of ignorance, it would seem reasonable that most individuals would rather be born in a world which ensured that he or she was healthy and in possession of all five senses than one in which the matter was left to random chance. For all of these reasons, the right to be genetically engineered could be understood as something fundamental. Indeed, it might be especially important that genetic engineering be articulated as a right, or the fruits of genetic engineering might only be enjoyed by a select few instead of guaranteed to all members of society by the government. This is particularly true since in the deeper future, in the thematic shadow of increasing automation, higher degrees of intelligence than ever before may be needed to secure employment, and the restriction of such abilities to the wealthy could set the stage for revolution.

Beyond these arguments, we could also bring up reasons related to social utility in the form of fewer people born in need of constant expensive medical attention; the creation of a larger population of hardy and ingenious agents able to make meaningful contributions to the arts and sciences in the long run; and even appeals to authority in the form of the traditional relationship between the development of new technologies and the extension of rights to new groups. (In fact, for those who consider embryos fundamentally human-like in nature, the idea of their right to medicine before birth seems especially compelling, in contradiction to the idea that certain religious perspectives might, on face, reject genetic engineering. One would rather safely engineer a single embryo if possible than choose between several on their basis of their genetic profiles and abort the rest.)

However, while these are good reasons why parents should have the right to engineer their children, there are nevertheless other reasons to believe that being genetically engineered should not be articulated as a universal human right just yet. We cannot assume that the intuition that it is best to transcend nature is universally valid from all perspectives. Even behind a veil of ignorance, a rational person might choose to be born into a society which radically valued parental rights rather than in a world which might coercively mandate forms of genetic engineering without sensitivity to the long term health risks in the form of, say, the consequences of meddling with linked genes. If the right to be genetically engineered were taken seriously and enforced by the government, the loss to individual parental rights would be severe. Certain disorders along the autism spectrum and illnesses such a bipolar disorder are often associated with great ingeniousness—the automatic elimination of all genes demonized as pathogenic might result in a less imaginative, diverse community in the long term, to say nothing of leading to a slippery slope where parents will increasingly deliver genetically similar children, more prone to be wiped out by random circumstance in the form of disease.

At the same time, insofar as even the mandatory use of inoculations is controversial in our present age, trust in the transhumanist movement would likely be greatly undermined in a world in which its adherents began clamoring for the rights of all embryos to be engineered given the primitive current state of technology; in fact, there would likely be acute and active resistance to its measures among parents, retarding the movement to bring medicine to more people in the long run. To make matters worse, the idea that being genetically engineered is a right carries prejudiced assumptions about the inherent value of one form of rational conscious life over another, suggesting that those who are engineered are so superior that all beings have an inherent right to be just like them. Anyone with mentally handicapped loved ones knows that in the most important ways, all people are equal. At the same time, implying that the embryo has a right to anything at all might imply value judgments about “personhood” that would touch upon the abortion debate (though one could make an argument that there is a distinction between embryos who will be brought to full term and embryos in general.)

Despite all of this, however, I am deeply persuaded by arguments that in a world in which people did not ask to be born, society owes its children the possibility of access to medicine that could help to level the playing-field for them and ensure maximum chances for a happy and healthy adult life regardless of the wealth of their parents. In the future, were it possible for embryos to be given cheap medicine ensuring at least a bare minimum of physical well-being, I might be persuaded that those embryos destined to be born have a right to at least certain baselines, and I would certainly engineer my own children this way. But given the current state of technology and my commitment to parental freedom, I think that while it might not be best to articulate being engineered in itself as a human right at the present juncture, access to genetic engineering in the form of prenatal care and optional screening for one’s embryos before implantation should definitely be deemed one.

III. Quo Vadimus?


I am deeply concerned that in the status quo, the rich will in short order have access to technologies that will ensure their children will be born with a lower likelihood of random genetic illness than those born to parents without access to the same kind of wealth who conceived their progeny the old fashioned way; remember, we are on the cusp of being able to hand pick embryos based on their genetic profiles, from which it is but a short step to overt gene editing. It is worrying that in a world which does not discuss genetic engineering using the language of human rights, access to effective genetic engineering in the form of strategies like the selection of embryos based on their genetic profiles will increasingly be left to the whims of the free market, mapping genetic health on top of socio-economic differences. This worrying fact is not a reason to ban such practices altogether, however, but to subsidize them for all people and to fund research to perfect them. Indeed, they could never be effectively banned across all cultures. Societies that forbid them would be fighting a losing battle.

Of course, whether I should be allowed to genetically engineer my children to be born with their five senses is different from whether I should be able to engineer them to have features like blond hair, though by choosing my mate, I am effectively crudely genetically engineering my children anyway. Questions about acceptable limits to genetic engineering (for example, parents who might deliberately choose to engineer their children to be deaf) should not distract us from recognizing that in fundamental ways, the ability to choose what our children will look like and how they will be raised is the most fundamental natural “right” of all from the perspective of the individual, and the right to genetically engineer is only an extension of this prerogative. Until there are great advances in medicine, to insist that all parents should be compelled to engineer their children would be just as unjust and counterproductive as insisting that all parents should be compelled not to engineer their children for fear that the potential of a slippery slope should stop us from talking cautious first steps on a great and meaningful journey.

Unfortunately, we are now living in an age when genetic engineering is in its infancy, and risky procedures are only just beginning to be performed on embryos. We will not know the long-term health effects of some of these operations until the children are grown, and until now, genetically engineered embryos are destroyed as a matter of course. There have been recent calls to ban pioneering cheap genome editing techniques, and scientists in China have made waves by beginning to “edit” the DNA of embryos despite the misgivings of their peers in the West, leading to calls for a ban.[4] While the risks of the technique are real, I think that the ban is in fact misguided and even smacks of cultural imperialism (one scientist in the New York Times even wrote of the “moral authority” of the scientific community in the US to determine the course of the research.)[5] At the same time, there have been other recent developments which are more promising, with Britain beginning to permit cautious exploration along new frontiers.[6] The future is anyone’s guess, but policies will likely vary by nation. Any sort of transnational moratorium would be hugely unjust.

As we have seen, in the near future, effective genetic engineering in the form of the selection of the fittest embryos suggests that the progeny of those who have sex the old fashioned way without access to thousands of dollars worth of counseling in fertilization clinics will be markedly disadvantaged unless they are subsidized for similar treatment. In the long term, one could well imagine a scenario in which women could have the choice for embryos both to be brought to term outside of their bodies and to be engineered according to a variety of potential prerogatives likely partly to be determined by the democratic process. Such technology would do a great deal for the promotion of transhumanism, to say nothing of the rights of embryos destined to be brought to term, divorcing us from the necessity of aborting the other embryos. Feminism would also be promoted by women’s liberation from the necessity of bearing a baby inside one’s own body. But the development of an artificial womb or at least technology to engineer a child within a womb without harming a mother is a long way coming. One wonders if the United States had focused on such goals with as much passion as it did the journey to the moon or increasingly more lethal weaponry, such technologies might already exist. Were there to be an advocacy for the creation of such technologies and the alteration of language banning it on face in major world documents on the nature of human rights, true progress would begin to come about.

Ultimately, if societies can justify going to war and killing millions of people and spending millions of dollars in the name of higher causes, societies can also justify empowering a small number of parents to genetically engineer their embryos to maximize their prospects for health and happiness in the long term despite the risks of the attendant procedures, particularly given parents’ right to abort a child in the status quo or give birth to it at random when it did not ask to be born, subject to every cruel genetic shift of fortune. (Years of technological refinement may still be required, however, before the techniques become safe enough for regular use.) Some day, if the genetic profiles of a variety of individuals are examined, a library of genotypes probabilistically likely to be physically and intellectually rigorous could be formed, and we could build a greater generation than the current one without succumbing to intolerance for difference or limiting the fruits of the technology to the wombs of the few. The time will soon come to empower parents to take cautious risks by genetically engineering their progeny to ensure the possibility of a better life for their children and the possibility of a better future for all of us in the form of more meaningful contributions from the gifted. The only alternative is delay, inequity, and eventual social instability as the medicines are unevenly distributed across classes and countries.






[6] Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority recently permitted scientists at the Francis Crick Institute to use the CRISPR-Cas9 editing technique on human embryos. For a report on the contentious decision, see

Reflections On the Populousness of the Roman World

060930-120153 Model of Constantine's Rome Northwest View of Palatine Hill Area

Reflections On the Populousness of the Roman World 

David Vincent Kimel

I. The History and Significance of the Questions at Hand

Prior to the popularization of the work of T. R. Malthus (1766-1834), it was widely believed among seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers that a sprawling population was evidence of a prosperous society governed by just institutions. Although he did not agree with this idea in its entirety, David Hume wrote in 1777 that “if every thing (sic) else be equal, it seems natural to expect, that, wherever there are most happiness and virtue, and the wisest institutions, there will also be most people.”1 This notion linking a state’s metaphorical and literal vitality inevitably informed early scholarly opinions on the size of the Roman Empire’s population. The period of the Antonine emperors in particular (96 CE-180 CE) was associated by such historians as Edward Gibbon with notions of hyperbolic grander thanks to its supposedly enlightened political leadership. Citing an opinion undoubtedly antithetical to contemporary stirrings in the American colonies, he declared in the third chapter of the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776 that “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”2 With his imagination fired by the holistic grandeur of antiquity, Gibbon wrote in chapter two that the Roman Empire constituted “the most numerous society that has ever been united under the same system of government.” This opinion was echoed with just as little grounds by earlier scholars like Isaak Vossius, who estimated that the city of Rome at its height housed some 14 million people “with an area twenty times greater than that of Paris and London combined.”3 No less an authority than Montesquieu wrote in 1721 that Europe was depopulated compared to the days of the Caesars, with the eighteenth century population likely representing one fiftieth of the ancient total.4

It would be comic understatement to suggest that common assumptions about the size of Rome and its empire have somewhat altered over the past three centuries. In the wake of work such as David Hume’s groundbreaking study on the populousness of antiquity and, most importantly, Julius Beloch’s Die Bevoelkerung der griechisch-roemischen Welt published in 1886, altogether smaller numbers began to be imagined for antiquity, with the entire population of Italy during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) amounting to perhaps no more than 6 or 7 million people, with three quarters of a million to 1 million people crowded into Rome itself.5 Hume worked with a wide body of knowledge about ancient literary sources, pointing out how the often extravagant totals mentioned by ancient authors were unrealistic and contradictory. For his part, Beloch revolutionized approaches to the issue by turning to quantitative analysis; specifically, he sought to measure changes in the size of the Roman population by studying fluctuations in the size of the city’s public grain doles, proceeding to estimate what percentage of the population those receiving the grain represented. According to modern authorities like Walter Scheidel, Beloch’s conclusion that the Roman Empire at its height contained some 35 to 80 million people definitively set the parameters for all future discussion on the subject.6 While acknowledging the existence of important contributions to the question of Rome’s populousness since 1886, scholars like John C. Caldwell believe that “much of classical demography, originally deduced from literary sources and burial inscriptions, remains essentially unchanged.”7 Whatever the validity of this claim, it is unlikely that mainstream academic opinion will ever favor the assertions of Vossius and Montesquieu again. After all, they appear at odds with well-known trends in comparative demographic history, which, for better or worse, only admit to limited gains in world population until the advent of the industrial era.

Of course, the question of whether the Roman Empire contained 35 or 80 million people seems to leave a great deal of room for meaningful debate. Unfortunately, personal bias often appears to motivate authors toward defending lower or higher estimates. For example, in an attempt to highlight the productivity and populousness of pre-Roman Gaul, C. Jullian averred that before Caesar’s invasion, the population probably stood at some 20 million people, which proceeded to double over the course of the next century thanks to “the long famous fertility of Celtic women.” Likewise, E. Lo Cascio’s rejection of Beloch’s totals and his insistence on a population of 7-14 million for Augustan Italy have been branded patriotic hogwash by the late Keith Hopkins.8 Nationalism certainly becomes a particularly thorny issue when it comes to the scale of the Roman Empire’s population compared to that of Han China. The notion that one empire was significantly more populous than the other invariably reveals bias in favor of the “progressiveness” of Roman or Chinese culture, since evidence to suggest any fundamental differences in size simply does not exist. (Admittedly, recent efforts seem aimed at building bridges and accentuating the similarities between the two imperial systems, though the thematic emphases of this approach might arguably conceal its own kind of bias shaped by the fear of stepping on professional toes.9) At other times, pride in one’s academic discipline, such as Medieval Studies, might tempt some to underrate the Roman period’s supposed luster relative to subsequent history. There is surely something deliberately revisionist in the air when it comes to Angus Maddison’s 2001 attempt to suggest that far from representing a height in Europe’s population, the number of people on the continent might have stayed the same or even slightly increased over the course of the period formally known as the Dark Ages.10 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna wrote disparagingly of the very notion of the “Dark Ages,” claiming that the bleakness of the era was largely a rhetorical trope developed by Christian authors longing for the imperial order of the past.11 However, other “authorities have posited the population of Europe halving during the first six centuries of the modern era,” maintaining that the decline of Roman civilization was indeed accompanied by a fall in population.12

Fundamental questions concerning the quality of life in ancient Rome, the scale of the empire’s economy, and the ways in which urbanization transformed the provinces are all bound to debates over population size; for example, a lower population might reveal an unexpected source of economic strength, with more benefits for everyone to go around and less competition for jobs.13 Unfortunately, in many ways our state of knowledge remains woefully speculative. In the words of Scheidel: “Our ignorance of the size of ancient populations is one of the biggest obstacles to our understanding of Roman history. After generations of prolific scholarship, we still do not know how many people inhabited Roman Italy and the Mediterranean at any given time.”14 Attempts to glean the likely populations of major cities from vague references in ancient literary sources can be compared to similar attempts to understand the scale of Pre-Columbian American society by assembling a constellation of random quotations and trustingly treating them as scientific evidence. In an effort to draw attention to the ludicrousness of such methods, David Henege jokingly attempted to calculate the population of elves and orcs in Middle Earth by analyzing references from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.15

In this study, I present important sources of evidence about the size of Rome’s population over time, discussing various broad indicators of growth and then examining approaches to the question of populousness grounded in a diversity of different sources, from the analysis of bones to studies of comparative DNA profiles. The fact that debate persists to this day with an intensity belying the poverty of the available evidence is telling, though few scholars disagree with the broad parameters established by the work of Beloch with regard to the grain dole and with Harkness (1896) and McDonnel (1913) vis a vis funerary inscriptions.16 Ultimately, I will show that while there exists a general consensus that the Roman world was far removed from modern population dynamics, the methods of evaluating the data are all extremely problematic, and one’s conclusions about the size of the empire’s population often reveals more about the nature of the researcher and his or her academic interests than historical truth.

II. Harnessing Evidence on the Populousness of the Romans

During the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 CE-117) , the Roman Empire stretched 3000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the banks of the Euphrates and encompassed some 1,750,000 square miles, approximately half the territory of the contemporary United States. Roman civilization facilitated the spread of Hellenistic civilization around the Mediterranean basin and its hinterlands, creating a great cultural melting pot solidified by centuries of general peace.17 Even after a millennium and a half of neglect, the ruins of cities like Leptis Magna and Pompeii are impressive enough to awe millions of tourists a year; the urban landscapes of the empire at its height, before centuries of theft and collapse took their toll, must have been magnificent indeed. Surveying the rural landscape of Turkey and noting the many hulks of abandoned Roman cities, Gibbon took the ruins as evidence of the populousness and vigor of antiquity compared to the state of affairs under the Ottomans:

(The Asian provinces) of the east present the contrast of Roman magnificence with Turkish barbarism. The ruins of antiquity scattered over uncultivated fields, and ascribed, by ignorance, to the power of magic, scarcely afford a shelter to the oppressed peasant or wandering Arab. Under the reign of the Caesars, the proper Asia alone contained five hundred populous cities, enriched with all the gifts of nature, and adorned with all the refinements of art. Eleven cities of Asia had once disputed the honour of dedicating a temple to Tiberius, and their respective merits were examined by the senate. Four of them were immediately rejected as unequal to the burden; and among these was Laodicea, whose splendour is still displayed in its ruins.18

The notion that the Pax Romana was an era of unprecedented prosperity has definite implications with regard to opinions concerning the size of the population that enjoyed its fruits, even if the effects are difficult to quantify. In the second century BC, the archeological record shows great ranches dotting the Italian countryside where once there had been barren fields, suggesting demographic change. These are the so-called latifundia, cash-crop plantations manned by hundreds of thousands of imported slaves.19 The suicides of Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BCE represented the final act in a century of tragedies and brought an end to the Civil Wars. Until the early third century CE, battles were subsequently altogether more infrequent and smaller in scale. Given the destructiveness of warfare in pre-modern societies, the introduction of peace associated with the rise of Rome might conceivably have facilitated a growth in population.20 The idea that the Celts, Berbers, Teutons, and Illyrians who had once inhabited Rome’s provinces lived like noble savages in blissful harmony with nature is flatly contradicted by the fact that 90-95% of all world societies, statistically speaking, were involved in periodic warfare to some extent or another and that violence was part and parcel of everyday life for the people of most pre-modern civilizations. Indeed, the historical record attests to unending combat among indigenous peoples before the Roman occupation.21 At the same time, Roman culture celebrated fertility and encouraged early marriage among women, with the mothers of three children granted special economic privileges by the emperor Augustus.22 According to Frier, surviving Egyptian census data suggested that the vast majority of women married during the Roman period. Specifically speaking, he estimated that some 80% were wedded by the age of 20.23

Added to these trends was the introduction of innovations like “iron tools, iron knives, screw presses, rotary mills, even water mills…silver and bronze coins, money taxes, chattel slavery, writing, schools, written contracts, commercial loans, technical handbooks, large sailing ships, shared risk investment, (and) absentee landlordship,” all speaking to possibilities for enhanced productivity and the accommodation of a large population.24 Grain imports and handouts, bathhouses, aqueducts, gymnasia, sewage systems, written laws, and paved roads facilitating travel and migration might easily be added to the list. Keith Hopkins explained that by raising taxes and spending money on the defense of distant frontiers, the empire facilitated long distance trade and enhanced possibilities for social mobility.25 Authors such as Horace, Martial, Juvenal, and many others all affirmed that these economic opportunities drew significant numbers of migrants into Italy, with the city of Rome ballooning to ever larger heights, a trend confirmed by rising numbers of insula type high-rise apartments discovered in the suburb of Ostia dating to the first two centuries CE.26 In certain parts of the empire, sources of evidence even seem to suggest that Roman rule was associated with long life-spans (and presumably a large population). For example, a graveyard from the North African site of Castellum Celtianum was found to contain 1,258 individuals with an average lifespan of 60.2 years in a time period where the average life expectancy of most world societies was in the high teens or early 20s.27 Although the site is unique, graveyard inscriptions from the salubrious provinces of North Africa in general suggest life expectancies closer to 40 than 20.

While all of this seems compelling enough, how can one go about attempting to actually quantify the Roman population? Comparisons to other historical epochs, informed conjectures, and old-fashioned common sense in the face of extremely limited evidence are the rules of the day. In 2 CE a census in Han China counted 12,233,062 families, which has been used to suggest that some 60 million people lived under imperial rule. An Augustan census of 14 CE included 4,937,000 citizens. This has been interpreted to suggest rough parity with China, for “assuming that full-fledged citizens of Rome constituted less than 10 percent of the empire’s total population at that time, it is (thus) reasonable to conclude that the Roman Empire contained 50 to 60 million people in the early decades of the first century CE.”28 Adding to these numbers were streams of slaves from beyond Rome’s borders, an insidious source of population growth. Sir William Smith’s epic nineteenth century dictionary mentioned that the Roman Empire saw the system of slavery augmented “to a prodigious extent.” Quoting Book VI of Athenaeus, the author reflected upon the idea that “very many Romans possessed 10,000 and 20,000 slaves and even more.”29 Even if this total seems exaggerated, the number of slaves owned by certain aristocratic Romans was likely to be very high indeed. Pliny the Elder recorded in Book XXXIII.10 of his Natural History that 4,116 slaves were left to the heirs of a single Augustan freedman who (paradoxically) had seen his estates greatly diminished during the Civil Wars; Dio Cassius reported in Book V.1.27 of his History that Augustus allowed a man to take 40 slaves or freedmen with him into exile out of sympathy for his impending loneliness. In his paper “Believing the Ancients: Quantitative and Qualitative Dimensions of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Later Eurasia,” Timothy Taylor took the words of Athenaeus at face value when he declared that Scheidel’s estimate of slaves at 10% of the classical population was likely too low; when it came to classical Athens, after all, Athenaeus described a populace of 21,000 citizens, 10,000 resident metics, and 400,000 slaves, implying that 93% of that city’s population was enslaved.30 Even if these numbers are off, they imply a world in which it was possible to imagine sprawling numbers of unfree people toiling alongside a small core “in-group” of citizens, such as was famously the case in fifth century Sparta.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 8.57.49 PM.pngThe Romans themselves took great interest in numbering their subjects for the purposes of taxation and (during the Republic at least) conscription, though most of the information drawn from these censuses and, indeed, how the surveys were even conducted in the first place is tragically lost. Nevertheless, from the first century BCE to the fourth century CE, literary sources mention the numbers reached by selected censuses. (Please refer to Table A for a representative sampling.31) Twenty-five different censuses are recorded from the third century BCE to the end of the second century BCE, ranging between some 137,000 to 395,000 people.32 These numbers clearly do not approximate the entire population of the empire; most scholars assume that they represent the number of adult male citizens, though even this is not uncontroversial. Whatever the case, the numbers rise dramatically to 910,000 in 70/69 BCE and a whopping 4,063,000 in 28 BCE when the method of taking the census itself evidently changed. 14 CE saw 4,937,000 people counted. Claudius’ census of 47 CE totaled 5,984,072, further evidence of long-term growth.

But can these numbers be trusted? Basing his work on a seminal 1971 study by P. A. Brunt, P. M. G. Harris insisted that the general trends to which the data spoke made perfect sense in light of Roman history. For example, from 465 BCE to 493 BCE the population of Rome seems to have increased by two-thirds if the census was accurate, a trend associated with an extension of citizenship rights to allied states and an increase in the cultivation of the ager publicus, or land for public use. By contrast, 218 BCE to 203 BCE saw steep losses in the wake of the Second Punic War so grave that the author compared them to demographic trends in Aztec Mexico after the arrival of the conquistadors. The Lex Julia of 90 BCE enfranchised several allied states up to the banks of the Po River, adding nearly a million people to the empire. Finally, by the time of the 47 CE census, Claudius had begun to extend Roman citizenship to the people of southern Gaul, further driving up the numbers.33 Estimates about the size of Rome’s population often toy around with this data, asserting that various census totals represent different hypothetical percentages of the total populace.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 9.00.11 PM.pngThe 1886 work of Beloch on the size of the Roman grain dole served to contextualize these numbers. (Please refer to Table B for data related to the public distribution of goods in Rome.34) In 123 BCE, Gaius Gracchus instituted the practice of doling out grain to the urban masses, and in 58 BCE Cicero’s enemy Publius Clodius Pulcher made the practice permanently free of charge. Beloch put the information that 150,000 to 320,000 men were eligible to receive the various doles to good use by attempting to guess how many dependents (wives, children, slaves, etc.) these men might have had, and how many foreigners likely lived in the city alongside them. He ultimately concluded that 800,000 inhabitants for the city of Rome seemed consistent with the levels of grain imported during the age of Augustus. This number likely increased over time. Dionysius of Halicarnassæus, for example, attested in Book IV.3 that the ancient walls of Rome had nearly the same circumference as those of Athens, but that by his time, Rome’s suburbs were so extensive that it was impossible to tell where the city ended or the countryside started. Also consistent with a narrative of increasing population is Gerda de Kleijn’s work on the water supply of imperial Rome.35 The completion of the Aqua Claudia and the so-called New Anio aqueducts begun by Caligula in 38 CE and completed by Claudius in 52 CE suggest an increasing demand for fresh water, just as Claudius’s construction of a second harbor at Portus to supplement the one at Ostia suggests a growing urban market for grain and other goods. Altogether, the population of the city likely peaked at 1.2 million people, making it the largest urban center in Europe (and according to some sources, the largest in the world) until the early nineteenth century.

When it comes to the first two centuries CE, the archeological record is unanimous throughout the lands bordering the Mediterranean that the volume of goods traded dramatically increased, which might be consistent with a rising population prospering during peacetime. Sites like the colony of Cosa grew greatly in size and, like Rome, gradually acquired high-rises and suburbs.36 We know there were 430 so-called urban centers in Italy during the age of Augustus. Using this information, Elio Lo Cascio took issue with Scheidel’s statement that Italy as a whole probably contained 6 million people total (the so-called “low count”). Pointing out that if the estimates were raised for 25 major towns from 15,000 to 20,000 inhabitants and the average of the 405 minor cities from 2000 to 3000, a total of 3 million would be reached, which would mean that half of Italy’s pre-industrial population was urbanized—a number which comparative demography suggests is altogether too high.37 Thus, he estimated that the total population must have been somewhat greater than 6 million if even 35-45% of Italians lived in cities, since ancient agriculture was rudimentary and a great deal of food would have to be produced by many hands to feed the sprawling populace. One is struck by how even a slight shift in assumptions can radically affect an interpretation of the extant archeological evidence. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, a degree of agreement has been reached concerning certain issues in Roman demography. For example, despite statistically outlying sites like Castellum Celtianum, Harkness’ 1896 work with funerary inscriptions suggested a stationary population for the empire with an average life expectancy of 18 years, and McDonnell’s widely cited study in 1913 harnessed a still more extensive corpus of inscriptions to raise life expectancy in Rome “to 22 years for males and 21 for females, in the Iberian Peninsula 39 and 34 years respectively and in Africa (not including Egypt) 48 and 46.”38 In 1966, Keith Hopkins used United Nations model life tables to reach an empire-wide life expectancy of 20-30 years.39

Archeological fieldwork in Egypt has proved to be especially informative thanks to the discovery of papyrological records containing information of interest to demographers. The literary record is unfortunately erratic when it comes to contextualizing this data, which is certainly disheartening considering the centrality of this kind of evidence to conjectured numbers for Roman Italy. For example, Josephus in his Jewish War II.385 suggested that 7.5 million people lived in Egypt outside of Alexandria; Diodorus of Sicily, however, said in his Library of History I.31.6 that the number for the entire country was a paltry 3 million. Roger Bagnall and Bruce W. Frier took Diodorus’ number seriously and used it as the basis for all of their work; however, one is struck by the fact that they might have just as easily based their findings on Josephus’ number.40 The surviving archeological evidence cannot provide definitive answers and is often more tantalizing than edifying. For example, while scattered examples of birth registrations have been discovered in Egypt, they are few in number and the practice in general seems to have been optional. At the same time, we know that local administrators took detailed tax records with a large number surviving in clumps dating to the reign of Claudius (41- 54 CE), but almost all of the archives have been lost.41 Scheidel put the number of Egypt’s people during the Roman period at 4.75 million people, with 35% of the people inhabiting urban areas, though the categories of “urban” and “metropolitan” often bleed into each other.42 Nevertheless, as in his account of the population of Italy, Scheidel’s estimate might have been too low. Joseph Manning, for example, explained that during the Roman period as a whole, growth in population was reflected in gradually increasing agricultural and craft production.43 And according to some ancient sources, the city of Alexandria came to rival that of Rome in size and splendor.

Recent years have seen further refinements in the debate over the size of the Roman population. Comparative genetic analyses of individuals hailing from former imperial provinces represents a particularly exciting, nascent field. Eric Faure in 2008 turned to Roman history to explain the distribution of chemokine receptors related to the CCR5- Delta 32 allele. Homozygosity for the CCR5-Δ32 allele results in resistance to R5- tropic HIV-1. The frequency of this allele is lowest in areas corresponding to the lands of the Roman Empire. 10% of Europeans on average have the gene, but only 4% of Greeks, and almost no one in North Africa. To explain the data, Faure suggested that feline zoonoses might have spread among provincial populations as the Romans brought increasing numbers of cats to new areas with them to serve as pets and to control pests.44 Although he suggested that gene flow between colonizers and the colonized was “low and indirect,” this data suggests that the scale of Roman occupation was extensive enough to leave fundamental and permanent marks on Europe’s genetic landscape.

III. The Limitations of Existing Demographic Models of the Roman Population

Petrus_Roselli._Carte_marine_de_la_mer_Méditerranée_et_de_la_mer_Noire_(15th_century)While, as we have seen, eighteenth century models of the Roman population were informed by the underlying assumption that the empire represented a period of unprecedented prosperity, current estimates of the civilization’s population are caught up in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that it could only have been a large natural fertility regime with rampant disease similar to other pre-industrial societies. The problem is that this approach, while grounded in reasonable assumptions, denies the possibility that the Roman Empire was somehow uniquely ahead of its time, which was once assumed as a given—after all, Europe did not see such extensive urbanization and such large metropolitan centers until over a millennium and a half later. Tim G. Parkin declares that “no one today would seriously regard as accurate” Pliny’s estimate of 600,0000 total people for Seleucia, but this is an arbitrary assumption grounded in nothing but the belief that the Empire contained few such extensive cities.45 The dismissive tone of the author is particularly telling. After all, had his assumptions about the inherent trustworthiness of Pliny been different, he might have forgiven the author under the grounds that he could have been referring not only to the city of Seleucia itself, but also to its extensive surrounding hinterlands.

Nevertheless, multiple sources of evidence discussed in the previous section of this paper can safely be labeled problematic. For one thing, even if the Roman Empire saw extensive urbanization, large-scale internal migration, and the formation of suburbs, this redistribution of people geographically is not necessarily synonymous with population growth. Moses Finley seems to have been correct in his critique of Keith Hopkin’s model of Roman commerce, declaring that opportunities for exploitation could increase without a corresponding growth in productivity.46 Studies such as those by Barbiera and Dalla- Zuanna attempting to understand population size with reference to burial sites are often hampered by the paucity of the existing sources of evidence; for example, they use eleven cemeteries to represent the entirety of the period between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, but have ten data points for the sixth to seventh centuries alone. They also systematically ignore the fact that the bulk of the Western Roman population practiced cremation during the first two centuries CE, while early Christians (who practiced burial but lived on the fringes of society and likely did not have the best diets) were probably over-represented.47 Evidence for enhanced nutrition might be grounds for believing that Italy was becoming a more salubrious and populous place. It might alternately, however, be evidence for economic collapse as lands formally devoted to cash crops were turned over to the production of fruits and cereals and formally massive urban populations broke up into smaller groups whose nutrition did not rely on grain doles. There is simply no way to know the truth, though the fact that the paper was written by medievalists rather than classicists perhaps informed the ultimate thesis. Whatever the case, a high population for Rome and its empire might be interpreted as a mixed blessing vis a vis long term growth. At I.12, Herodian described how “because of its very high population, and because it took in immigrants from all over,” mortality was highest in Rome during times of plague. And contrary to the naïve impulse that a large population implies a prosperous nation, Bruce W. Frier aptly explained that with higher population can paradoxically come lower living standards and less opportunity for economic advancement.48 Paradoxically, the lower the population of Roman Italy is estimated to be, the more urbanized and prosperous its people might seem to appear.

It is impossible to know to what degree rising birth rates and immigration were responsible for the dramatically increasing numbers seen in Table A. An increasing percentage of a stable pre-existing population might simply have been granted citizenship over time with no corresponding growth in population size. Even the epigraphic data, deemed over-analyzed by Scheidel, can prove to be deceptive. For example, epigraphic patterns differed depending on location in the empire. Old ages seem to have systematically not been recorded in Noricum, but were a popular typos in Africa.49 The number of surviving grave sites, just as in the case of the number of surviving documents from Egypt, is not enough to make accurate estimates for the state of the empire as a whole. Even the little evidence that survives is in some degree inherently unrepresentative. For example, young males between the ages of ten and fourteen were underrepresented in Egyptian papyri dealing with the census, likely because the census was taken regularly and once it became known that a boy reached the age of fourteen, he became liable for taxation; females were under-registered as a rule.50 It is not even clear what category of people were eligible for being counted in censuses of Roman citizens. Saskia Hin, for example, pointed to the possibility that Augustan counts might have included widows, children and grandchildren liberated from patria potestas, and freed slaves.51 At the same time, while there is some evidence for the growth of the Roman population in urban contexts, there is also evidence for a drop in fertility among certain subsections of the populace. A full three-quarters of the senatorial families of the early Roman Empire disappeared after a single generation. This extraordinary fact has been variously interpreted, but it was likely, at least in part, the result of deliberate birth control, delayed marriage, and even infanticide.52 While Augustus passed laws punishing bachelors and rewarding fertility among Roman wives, two children were exposed in his own family: the child of his granddaughter Julilla, and an infant whom the future emperor Claudius suspected was illegitimate.

Compounding these problems is a lack of sensitivity to just how untrustworthy the numbers mentioned by ancient literary sources can be. As we have seen, scholars such as Bagnall and Frier somberly employed numbers mentioned by Diodorus of Sicily in their estimates of the size of the Egyptian population. However, this ignores the fact that Diodorus has been called one of “the most accomplished liars of antiquity” and was condemned to hell in one of Lucian’s satires for his poor scholarly standards.53 In fact, some have even assumed that Diodorus (or a scribe) simply made a typo and meant to write 7 million rather than 3 million, since he used just that number at an earlier point in his history.54 Ultimately, even the most respected and meticulous authors of antiquity were liable to make mistakes. In Book I.2 of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides mentioned that 200 triremes were dispatched by Athens to Egypt in 460 BCE, which would mean that 40,000 men were sent to the Nile in the midst of the First Peloponnesian War when there were incredible strains on manpower. A Persian source, Ctesias, says that the number was actually 40 triremes, and he may (or may not) have been closer to the mark.55 Duncan-Jones readily accepted Cicero’s assertion that the state income of Ptolemaic Egypt was 300 million sestertii. However, we know that the entire Roman Empire’s annual income ranged between 650 and 900 million sestertii, and the notion that 35-40% came from Egypt alone seems improbable.56 To make matters worse, ancient sources in general cannot be fully trusted when it comes to any number. Scribal errors and the use of letters to represent digits resulted in maddening variations across the manuscript traditions of many ancient authors, which sometimes only survive in their present form from a single copy that may or may not have been accurately transcribed.57

Gibbon’s notion that the Roman Empire represented the most populous state in the history of the planet seems hyperbolic, yet his use of evidence was actually quite reasonable and rather similar to contemporary approaches, albeit informed by different assumptions about the possibilities for the veracity of the source material and the proportion of people who were enslaved and/or otherwise unrepresented in the data set. He wrote, for example:

We are informed that when the emperor Claudius exercised the office of censor, he took an account of six millions nine hundred and forty-five thousand Roman citizens, who, with the proportion of women and children, must have amounted to about twenty millions of souls. The multitude of subjects of an inferior rank was uncertain and fluctuating. But, after weighing with attention every circumstance which could influence the balance, it seems probable that there existed, in the time of Claudius, about twice as many provincials as there were citizens, of either sex, and of every age; and that the slaves were at least equal in number to the free inhabitants of the Roman world. The total amount of this imperfect calculation would rise to about one hundred and twenty millions of persons; a degree of population which possibly exceeds that of modern Europe.58

It is singularly discouraging that Gibbon’s use of the same source material as Walter Scheidel could result in an estimate twice the size of contemporary guesses. Be that as it may, imaginative applications of common sense to ancient data can sometimes generate compelling arguments indeed, shedding light on obscure demographic forces. For example, when considering whether or not the deliberate breeding of slaves raised the population of Roman Italy, Hume ingeniously concluded that the effect was likely minimal:

At the capital, near all great cities, in all populous, rich, industrious provinces, few cattle are bred. Provisions, lodging, attendance, labour are there dear; and men find their account better in buying the cattle, after they come to a certain age,from the remoter and cheaper countries. These are consequently the only breeding countries for cattle; and by a parity of reason, for men too, when the latter are put on the same footing with the former. To rear a child in London, till he could be serviceable, would cost much dearer, than to buy one of the same age from Scotland or Ireland; where he had been bred in a cottage, covered with rags, and fed on oatmeal or potatoes. Those who had slaves, therefore, in all the richer and more populous countries, would discourage the pregnancy of the females, and either prevent or destroy the birth.59

Hume backed up his argument by noting that individuals bred into slavery, so-called vernae, enjoyed special legal rights compared to other kinds of slaves, so there was likely not many of them. (owners preferring to maximize the possibilities for exploitation). Moreover, Cato, Varro, and Columella mention nothing about the profitability and desirability of breeding slaves. Xenophon’s Oeconomicus actually suggests that male and female slaves sleep separately. While it is impossible to tell whether or not Hume was correct about the impact of slave-breeding on the size of the population, the silence of these iconic texts on the issue is difficult to ignore. To Hume, as to most modern authorities on the subject, the eighteenth century image of an empire of 120 million people fuelled by the breeding of massive numbers of slaves seemed somehow intuitively unreasonable.

IV. Final Thoughts: “Losing the Trees for the Forest?”

Rome-Forum-night-italy-1-XLKeith Hopkins warned that economists and demographers exploring the Roman past often make simplifying assumptions in an effort to see where they lead without paying attention to the complexities and ambiguities of the real world situation: “It is as though, in order to guess the weight of an elephant, you first imagine it to be a solid cube.”60 As we have seen, assumptions about the overall size of the Roman Empire have shifted dramatically over time, with the same problematic evidence interpreted through various thematic prisms forged by one’s academic interests and general beliefs about the nature of pre-industrial civilization as a whole. Be that as it may, Beloch’s work in 1886 broke real ground by harnessing reported census returns to make reasonable guesses about the size of the population, and since then, the general parameters of the debate have been set; the Roman Empire likely contained c. 60 million people, with the city of Rome boasting somewhere around a million inhabitants at its height. The size of individual provinces— even the relatively extensively documented Egypt—remains controversial. However, if the Roman Empire was not a natural fertility regime and consistently showed life expectancy above the mid twenties, it would be unique in the history of the pre-industrial world.

There is perhaps an unfortunate tendency in modern scholarship to ignore the possibilities for such uniqueness, or to make generalizing claims about the size of the ancient population without paying attention to the ways in which cultural practices might shape demographic realities. The fundamental problem is that the evidence for institutions such as birth control, infanticide, etc., is limited to passing references in literary sources, complicating the possibilities for evaluating the “modernity” or lack thereof of ancient practices, to say nothing of their demographic effects.

However, in the tradition of Hume, I believe that there still exists the possibility to make use of common sense and a strong imagination to add new information to our knowledge of otherwise extremely inaccessible states of affairs. For example, what is one to make of the ancient Roman saying “sexagenarios de ponte deicere”—“(to) hurl sixty year old men from the bridge”? Modern scholars who treat the subject almost unanimously assume that the phrase refers to a remote period in Roman history when an over-eager youthful populace attempted to monopolize voting rights, casting elderly men off the planks that Roman citizens would cross to reach voting places.61 However, at least one ancient author, Festus, admitted that the saying might have referred to ancient practices of senicide. The answer to the puzzle seems lost to time, but there are some clues to guide us. First, we know that bridges in general were invested with religious significance in early Rome—to this day, the pope, like the Roman emperors before him, is known as the Pontifex Maximus. Moreover, on the 15th of every March, a series of ancient purification ceremonies began whose origins were purportedly obscure; the Vestal Virgins would throw life-size dolls (argei) from the Sublician Bridge into the Tiber. Some have theorized that this was a proxy for former human sacrifices, though as far as I know, few have specifically connected the practice with the ancient saying.62 Human sacrifice in general was banned by Crassus and Lentulus as late as 97 BCE, and Romans in the time of Cicero and Augustus seem to have preferred to ignore the issue. However, I personally suspect that it was no coincidence that Julius Caesar was “sacrificed” on the Ides of March, the very day when the ancient ceremonies associated with senicide and the freedom of an independent youthful electorate took place.63

This is a situation in which an ancient practice which may or may not have existed was likely limited to a small circle of old men in extremely early Roman history. There certainly exists no way to measure its overall demographic effects on the size of the population (which, anyway, might have been negligible to begin with.) However, a sense of imagination with regard to the surviving ancient evidence can highlight unexpected quirks which made the structure of Roman civilization unique rather than a cookie-cutter example of a pre-industrial society. While archeologists pine for new discoveries and many scholars believe that our best hope for new knowledge of Roman demography will derive from this source, an ability to creatively reconstruct past social practices in the tradition of Beloch and Hume perhaps suggests another avenue for hopefulness with regard to our understanding of the structure of ancient society at large.


1 See David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). Chapter: ESSAY XI: OF THE POPULOUSNESS OF ANCIENT NATIONS, accessed at

2 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 6 vols. (London: Printed for W. Straham; and T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1776). Chapter 3.

3 See the opening essay in Isaac Vossius, Isaaci Vossii Variarum Observationum Liber (Londini: Prostant apud Robertum Scott bibliopolam, 1685).

4 See the Baron de Montesquieu, The Persian Letters, Letter 112, 1748. Roger B. Oake points out that the 1758 edition of the letters was edited to read a tenth rather than a fiftieth. See also Roger B. Oake “Montesquieu and Hume,” Modern Language Quarterly 2 (March 1941): 25–41.]

5 In 1973, the famous classicist Moses Finley still branded Beloch’s study “The fundamental work on ancient population figures.” See M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, Sather Classical Lectures, (Berkeley,: University of California Press, 1973). Pp. 182.

6 Walter Scheidel and Sitta von Reden, The Ancient Economy, Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002). Pp. 201.

7 John C. Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?,” Journal of Population Research 21, no. 1 (2004). Pp. 11.

8 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 182. See E. Lo Cascio, ‘The Size of the Roman Population,’ JRS 82 1994. Pp. 115. See also C. Jullian Histoire de la Gaule, (Paris; 1920) Vol. 5. Pp. 25-28.

9 For a cultural, political, and economic comparison between the two empires in a spirit of building bridges between subfields of history, see Walter Scheidel, Rome and China : Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, Oxford Studies in Early Empires (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Donald Kagan criticized the book to me in a conversation for its unwillingness to dwell on the implications of fundamental differences vis a vis conceptions of liberty between the two empires.

10 For the development of this argument, see Angus Maddison and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Development Centre., The World Economy : A Millennial Perspective, Development Centre Studies (Paris, France Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,2001).

11 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna, “Population Dynamics in Italy in the Middle Ages: New Insights from Archeological Findings,” pp. 369.

12 Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?.” Pp. 2.

13 Quoted in L. de Ligt and Simon Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14, Mnemosyne Supplements, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2008). Pp. 17.

14 Ibid.

15 David P. Henige, Numbers from Nowhere : The American Indian Contact Population Debate (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998). Pp. 287-280.

16 Caldwell drew my attention to their work. See Harkness, A. G. 1896. Age at marriage and death in the Roman Empire. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 27. Pp. 35-72. See also McDonnell, W. R. 1913. On the Expectation of Life in Ancient Rome, and in the Provinces of Hispania, Lusitania, and Africa. Biometrika 9. Pp. 366-380.

17 M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, 2nd ed. (London: Hogarth Press, 1985). Pp. 29-30.

18 Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter 2.

19 M. I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980). Pp. 84.

20 For a description of the destructiveness of periodic old wars and the old order, see Alan Macfarlane, The Savage Wars of Peace : England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap (Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).

21 See Lawrence H. Keeley, War before Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). pp. 28.

22 For the most comprehensive contemporary evaluation of the institution of Roman marriage, see Susan Treggiari, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies., “Roman Marriage Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian.” (Oxford New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1991),

23 Bruce W. Frier. 2000. “Demography” in A. K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, and D. Rathbone (editors), The High Empire: AD 70-192. Cambridge Ancient History Volume 9. Cambridge University Press.

24 Peter Garnsey, Keith Hopkins, and C. R. Whittaker, Trade in the Ancient Economy (London: Chatto & Windus : Hogarth Press, 1983). Pp. 12.

25 For an analysis of this important element of Hopkins’ contribution, see John R. Love, Antiquity and Capitalism : Max Weber and the Sociological Foundations of Roman Civilization (London ; New York: Routledge, 1991). Pp. 215.

26 Fritz-Heiner Mutschler and Achim Mittag, Conceiving the Empire : China and Rome Compared (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Pp. 127.

27 Tim G. Parkin, Demography and Roman Society, Ancient Society and History (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). Pp. 8-9.

28 Alfred J. Andrea, James H. Overfield, The Human Record: Sources of Global History: To 1700, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. Pp. 146.

29 See the entry under slavery in William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 2nd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1870).

30 Timothy Taylor, Believing the Ancients: Quantitative and Qualitative Dimensions of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Later Prehistoric Eurasia, World Archaeology, Vol. 33, No. 1, The Archaeology of Slavery, (Jun., 2001), pp. 27- 43.

31 See Table A taken from Tenney Frank, “Roman Census Statistics from 225 to 28 B. C,” Classical Philology 19, no. 4 (1924).

32 Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 19.

33 P. M. G. Harris, The History of Human Populations (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001). Pp. 168- 172.
34 See Table B taken from

34 Gerda de Kleijn, The Water Supply of Ancient Rome : City Area, Water, and Population, Dutch Monographs on Ancient History and Archaeology, (Amsterdam: Gieben, 2001).

35 Ibid.

36 Alan K. Bowman and Andrew Wilson, Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems, Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Pp. 142-143.

37 Ibid. Pp. 101.

38 For a summary of findings on inscriptions, see Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?.” Pp 9-10.

39 Hopkins, Keith. 1966. On the Probable Age Structure of the Roman Population. Population Studies 20(2). Pp. 245 onward.

40 Roger S. Bagnall et al., “The Demography of Roman Egypt,” In Cambridge studies in population, economy, and society in past time 23. (Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1994),

41 See chapter 3 of Walter Scheidel, Death on the Nile : Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, Mnemosyne Supplements, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2001).

42 Walter Scheidel, Debating Roman Demography, Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava Supplementum, (Leiden Netherlands ; Boston: Brill, 2001). Pp. 141.

43 Joseph Gilbert Manning, Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt : The Structure of Land Tenure (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

44 See Eric Faure, “Could FIV zoonosis responsible of the breakdown of the pathocenosis which has reduced the European CCR5-Delta32 allele frequencies?” Virol J. 2008; 5: 119. Published online 2008 October 16,


45 Parkin, Demography and Roman Society. Pp. 65.

46 Joseph Gilbert Manning and Ian Morris, The Ancient Economy : Evidence and Models, Social Science History (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005). Pp. 212.

47 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna, “Population Dynamics in Italy in the Middle Ages: New Insights from Archeological Findings,” pp. 379.

48 See chapter 4 of Scheidel, Debating Roman Demography.

49 Bowman and Wilson, Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems.

50 Walter Scheidel, Measuring Sex, Age and Death in the Roman Empire : Explorations in Ancient Demography, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series, (Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1996). Pp. 56-57.

51 See Saskia Hin’s essay in Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 187-285.

52 D. S. Potter and D. J. Mattingly, Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, New and expanded ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010). Pp. 100.

53 Lloyd, quoted in Robinson, Eric W., “Thucydidean Sieges, Prosopitis, and the Hellenic Disaster in Egypt,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Apr., 1999). Pp. 135.

54 Parkin, Demography and Roman Society. Pp. 65.

55 Robinson, Eric W., “Thucydidean Sieges, Prosopitis, and the Hellenic Disaster in Egypt,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Apr., 1999), 132-135.

56 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 196.

57 Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 20.

58 Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter 2.

59 David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). Chapter: ESSAY XI: OF THE POPULOUSNESS OF ANCIENT NATIONS, accessed at

60 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 193-194.

61 See, for example, Lily Ross Taylor, Roman Voting Assemblies from the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar, Jerome Lectures, 8th Ser (Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan Press, 1966). Pp. 92.

62 For a sampling of contemporary thoughts on the issue, see Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World : A Cultural and Social History, Ancient Society and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). Pp. 265-268.

63 Incidentally, I believe I am the first to make this claim. It at least adds credence to the idea that Caesar might actually have been told to “Beware the Ides of March”—it was no ordinary day.

Works Cited

Bagnall, Roger S., Bruce W. Frier, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies. “The Demography of Roman Egypt.” In Cambridge studies in population, economy, and society in past time 23. Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Bowman, Alan K., and Andrew Wilson. Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems, Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Caldwell, John C. “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?” Journal of Population Research 21, no. 1 (2004): 1-17.

Finley, M. I. The Ancient Economy, Sather Classical Lectures,. Berkeley,: University of California Press, 1973.

Finley, M. I. The Ancient Economy. 2nd ed. London: Hogarth Press, 1985.

Finley, M. I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. London: Chatto & Windus, 1980.

Frank, Tenney. “Roman Census Statistics from 225 to 28 B. C.” Classical Philology 19, 4 (1924): 329-41.

Garnsey, Peter, Keith Hopkins, and C. R. Whittaker. Trade in the Ancient Economy. London: Chatto & Windus : Hogarth Press, 1983.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 6 vols.London: Printed for W. Straham; and T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1776.

Harris, P. M. G. The History of Human Populations. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.

Henige, David P. Numbers from Nowhere : The American Indian Contact Population Debate. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Hopkins, Keith. 1966. On the Probable Age Structure of the Roman Population, Population Studies 20(2).

Jullian, Camille. Histoire De La Gaule. 8 vols. Paris,: Hachette et cie, 1920.

Keeley, Lawrence H. War before Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kleijn, Gerda de. The Water Supply of Ancient Rome : City Area, Water, and Population, Dutch Monographs on Ancient History and Archaeology,. Amsterdam: Gieben, 2001.

Ligt, L. de, and Simon Northwood. People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14, Mnemosyne Supplements,. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2008.

Love, John R. Antiquity and Capitalism : Max Weber and the Sociological Foundations  of Roman Civilization. London ; New York: Routledge, 1991.

Macfarlane, Alan. The Savage Wars of Peace : England, Japan and the Malthusian  Trap. Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Maddison, Angus, and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Development Centre. The World Economy : A Millennial Perspective, Development Centre Studies. Paris, France Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,2001.

Manning, Joseph Gilbert. Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt : The Structure of Land Tenure. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Manning, Joseph Gilbert, and Ian Morris. The Ancient Economy : Evidence and Models, Social Science History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat. Persian Letters. The 5th ed. London,: M. Cooper, 1755.

Mutschler, Fritz-Heiner, and Achim Mittag. Conceiving the Empire : China and Rome Compared. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Parkin, Tim G. Demography and Roman Society, Ancient Society and History. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Parkin, Tim G. Old Age in the Roman World : A Cultural and Social History, Ancient Society and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Potter, D. S., and D. J. Mattingly. Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire. New and expanded ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Scheidel, Walter. Death on the Nile : Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, Mnemosyne Supplements,. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2001.

Scheidel, Walter. Debating Roman Demography, Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava Supplementum,. Leiden Netherlands ; Boston: Brill, 2001.

Scheidel, Walter. Measuring Sex, Age and Death in the Roman Empire : Explorations in Ancient Demography, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series,. Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1996.

Scheidel, Walter. Rome and China : Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, Oxford Studies in Early Empires. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Scheidel, Walter, and Sitta von Reden. The Ancient Economy, Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

Smith, William. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1870.

Taylor, Lily Ross. Roman Voting Assemblies from the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar, Jerome Lectures, 8th Ser. Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan Press, 1966.

Treggiari, Susan, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies. “Roman Marriage Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian.” Oxford New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1991.

Vossius, Isaac. Isaaci Vossii Variarum Observationum Liber. Londini: Prostant apud Robertum Scott bibliopolam, 1685.

Libidinous Pygmies and Perverted Slave Masters: An Introduction to the Thematics of the Roman Orgy

Libidinous Pygmies and Perverted Slave Masters: An Introduction to the Thematics of the Roman Orgy[1] 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

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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”[2] (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.[3]

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 11.26.23 AM.pngWhen 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] John Clarke describes the original setting of the fresco of the pygmies, which was exhaustively detailed by Antonio Sogliano in 1882.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.”[17] Said might well have added visual artists to his catalogue of imperial collaborators.

IMG_5673.jpgWhy 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[18], 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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21]

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.[22]

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.[23] 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.[24] 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.”[25]

IMG_5693.jpgInterestingly, 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.[26] 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.[27] 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.[28] 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.”

Pan_with_a_she-goa_2507863b.jpgAccording 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[29], 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.”[30] 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.”[31] 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.[32] 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.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36] 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.”[37] 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.[38]

app0017.jpgScholars 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.[39] 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.[40] 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.[41] 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.[42] 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.[43] 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.[44] 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”[45] 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.[46] 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.”[47] 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.[48] The work of Robert Garland, who has explored the “talismanic” character of deformity in antiquity, reinforces this reading.[49] 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.[50]

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 10.06.31 AM.pngClarke’s idea that the pygmies on display in the House of the Doctor serve a primarily apotropaic purpose can be challenged, however.[51] 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.[52] 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.[53] 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.[54] 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.[55] 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).[56]

999204621c7b27e6b01aeb7c25855960.jpgEroticized 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.[57] 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.[58] 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.”[59] 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.[60]

Turin-Reconstruction.jpg 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.[61] 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.[62] 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.[63] 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.[64] Later, soldiers’ graffiti related to Bes provides evidence of the longevity of interest in his cult.[65] 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.[66]

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.[67]

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

pict_md_dnBdYHFnYWU1ODs7PzkoYH53YGJicCs4bXtgaTNnbG5WT0QMVEdcREpfS0wDGB0YFkJESkYIBwYICg4VS15K.jpgGroup 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.[68] Images of group intercourse are particularly common which depict chains linking a woman between two men, as if to underscore the drainer’s domination.[69] 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.[70] 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.[71] 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.[72] 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.[73] 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.[74] 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.[75] 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.[76] 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.[77]

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.[78] 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.[79] 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.[80] 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.[81] 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.[82] 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.”[83]

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.[84] 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.[85] 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.[86] Martial describes a woman being raped in a public mythological reenactment of the sex between Pasiphae and a bull.[87] 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.[88] In the Flavian era, dwarfs were set against each other in combat during the Saturnalia[89], and Domitian was notorious for arranging battles between females and dwarfs.[90] 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.[91] 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.[92] 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.[93] 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.[94] 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.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 10.13.15 AM.pngBeside 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.[95] 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.[96] 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.[97] 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.[98] 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.[99] 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.[100] Clarke seems more confident, saying the scene “would have invited fanciful story-telling, or ekphrasis.”[101] 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.[102] 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.[103] 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.[104] 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.[105] 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.[106] 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.”[107]

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.[108] 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.”[109] 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).[110] 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.[111] 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.[112] 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.[113] 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.[114]

001a.jpgWe 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.[115] 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.[116] 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[117]

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.[118] 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,[119] and Ovid too mentions the prominence of figurae Veneris in formal domestic contexts.[120]

eop1567.jpgElite 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.[121] 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.[122] 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.[123] 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.[124] 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.”[125] 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.[126] Nor were such boasts confined to men. Consider, for example, Romula and Euplia’s claim to have seduced thousands of men.[127] 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.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 10.36.12 AM.pngAntonio 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.[128] 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. [129] 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.[130] 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.[131] 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.[132] 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.[133]

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 10.39.15 AM.pngVarone’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.[134] 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.[135] 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.[136]

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.[137] 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.[138] 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.[139] 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.


  1. 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.

tumblr_n4r0u7GvHT1r1a51ho1_500.jpgIn 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.[140] 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. [141] 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.[142] 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.[143]

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.


  1. 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.[144] 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.”[145] Ovid echoes the sentiment.[146] 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.


  1. 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.[147] 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.[148] 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.[149]


  1. 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.[150] 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.[151] 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.”[152] 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?[153]

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.[154] 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.[155] 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.


  1. Tyrannical Behavior by Emperors and the Establishment of the Imperial Cult


orgies-perverts.jpgWe 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.[156] 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.[157] 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.[158] 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.[159] 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.[160] 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.[161] 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.


  1. 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![162]

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.[163] 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.[164] 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


[1] 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.

[2] 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.”

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] W. H. Davenport Adams, The Buried Cities of Campania; or, Pompeii and Herculaneum, Their History, Their Destruction, and Their Remains (London,: Nelson, 1873), 234.

[6] Mary Beard, Pompeii : The Life of a Roman Town (London: Profile, 2008), 130.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] 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).

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] Mary Taliaferro Boatwright, Peoples of the Roman World, Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 166.

[15] 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.

[16] Christian Laes et al., Disabilities in Roman Antiquity Disparate Bodies, a Capite Ad Calcem, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill,, 2013). 221.

[17] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1978), 57.

[18] 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.

[19] 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.

[20] Mary Beard and John Henderson, Classical Art : From Greece to Rome, Oxford History of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 113-15.

[21] 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.

[22] Alastair Blanshard, Sex : Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity, Classical Receptions (Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). 49-50.

[23] Ibid., 58.

[24] Ibid., 64.

[25] 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).

[26] 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.

[27] 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.

[28] 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.

[29] 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.

[30] 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.

[31] Maes, Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography, 142.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Catharine Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945 (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 189.

[34] 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).

[35] Hales and Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today, 310.

[36] Ibid., 313.

[37] 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.

[38] “The Road to Ruin: Antiquity,” in Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation, ed. Kate Williams (UK: BBC, 1999).

[39] Maes, Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography, 144.

[40] Harris, Pompeii Awakened : A Story of Rediscovery, 115.

[41] Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality : Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, Ideologies of Desire (New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 92.

[42] 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.

[43] 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.

[44] 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.

[45] Clarke, Looking at Laughter : Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250, 9.

[46] 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.

[47] Clarke, Looking at Laughter : Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250, 67.

[48] 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).

[49] Robert Garland, The Eye of the Beholder : Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World (London: Duckworth, 1995), 109.

[50] Marilyn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, Ancient Cultures (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 259-62.

[51] 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).

[52] See Figure 7 on page 65 of this paper.

[53] Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans : Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315, 192-93.

[54] Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, The Gardens of Pompeii : Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Caratzas Bros., 1979), 7-8.

[55] Molly Swetnam-Burland, Egypt in Italy : Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture, 108.

[56] 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.

[57] 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.

[58] 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.

[59] Bernard Livingston, Zoo : Animals, People, Places (New York: Arbor House, 1974), 22. The author paraphrases Athen. Deipnos. V.

[60] Harris, Pompeii Awakened : A Story of Rediscovery, 117.

[61] 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.

[62] Ibid., 197-98.

[63] Montserrat, Sex and Society in Græco-Roman Egypt, 124.

[64] Ibid., 125.

[65] Roger Matthews and Cornelia Roemer, Ancient Perspectives on Egypt, Encounters with Ancient Egypt (London: UCL, 2003), 157-90.

[66] 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.

[67] 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.

[68] 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.

[69] Vorberg, Glossarium Eroticum, 208.

[70] 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.

[71] For example, see the third century paintings discovered in 1868 in Ostia in the Campus of the Magna Mater. Images may be accessed at:

[72] 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.

[73] Salvatore Ciro Nappo, Pompeii : Guide to the Lost City (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), 64.

[74] Rebecca Langlands, Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 319-20.

[75] 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.

[76] Williams, Roman Homosexuality : Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, 93.

[77] 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.

[78] See Catherine Edwards’ work in Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, Roman Sexualities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 66-95.

[79] Clarke, Looking at Laughter : Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250, 229.

[80] 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.

[81] Ibid., 163.

[82] Beard and Henderson, Classical Art : From Greece to Rome, 142.

[83] 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.

[84] Otto Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (New York: AMS Press, 1975), 174.

[85] Antonio Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, Pompeii Thematic Guides (Roma: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 2000), 49.

[86] Ibid., 51.

[87] Mart. Spec. 5.

[88] Kathleen Coleman, “Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments,” Journal of Roman Studies, no. 80 (1990): 44-73.

[89] Stat. Silv. 1.6.57.

[90] 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.

[91] 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).

[92] 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.

[93] Pompeji: Geschichte, Kunst Und Leben in Der Versunkenen Stadt, 210-11.

[94] 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.

[95] See Figure 2 on page 61 of this paper.

[96] 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.”

[97] See Figure 3 on page 62 of this paper.

[98] Beard, Pompeii : The Life of a Roman Town, 130.

[99] 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).

[100] Beard, Pompeii : The Life of a Roman Town, 130.

[101] Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans : Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315, 164.

[102] 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.

[103] Robin Lane Fox, Travelling Heroes : Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer (London ; New York: Allen Lane, 2008), 31.

[104] 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.)

[105] Clem. Strom. 4.18.

[106] 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.

[107] “Not finished by nature, but just begun.” Suet. Claud. 3.2.

[108] See Anthony Corbeill’s work in Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 99-128.

[109] J. B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture, 2d (integrated) ed., The Pelican History of Art (Harmondsworth, Eng. ; New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 185.

[110] John Joseph Dobbins and Pedar William Foss, The World of Pompeii, The Routledge Worlds (London ; New York: Routledge, 2007), 195.

[111] Pompeji: Geschichte, Kunst Und Leben in Der Versunkenen Stadt, 210-11.

[112] Beard and Henderson, Classical Art : From Greece to Rome, 22.

[113] Ibid., 11-63.

[114] Ibid., 50-53.

[115] 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.

[116] 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.

[117] This section of the paper may ultimately be placed in Chapter 2 concerning material evidence for orgies.

[118] Harris, Pompeii Awakened : A Story of Rediscovery, 120.

[119] Prop. Ele. II.6, 29.

[120] Ov. Trist. II.521-24.

[121] See Figure 9 on page 67 of this paper.

[122] 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.

[123] Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 76-77.

[124] 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.

[125] 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.

[126] CIL IV 8897.

[127] CIL IV 2310b.

[128] Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 66-72.

[129] 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.

[130] Ibid., 68. From the Palatine c. 70 AD, Rome Antiquarium Communale, no 13694. See Figure 10 on page 68 of this paper.

[131] Ibid. Inv. No. 25847/15. See Figure 11 on page 69 of this paper.

[132] Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 69. See Figure 13 on page 71 of this paper.

[133] West wall of the brothel, VII.12.18.

[134] Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 66-67.

[135] Mart. XI.45.

[136] Mart. XI.104. (The Phrygian slaves behind the door were masturbating whenever the wife rode Hector, her steed).

[137] 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).

[138] 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.

[139] 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).

[140] 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.”

[141] 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).

[142] Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 221-54.

[143] 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.

[144] 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).

[145] Tib. Ele. 1.1.

[146] Ov. Am. 1.9.

[147] 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.

[148] 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.

[149] 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).

[150] 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.

[151] Ibid., 56-57.

[152] The History of Sexuality Volume 3, 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1988 (French original published 1984)).

[153] 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.

[154] 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).

[155] Meg Barker and Darren Langdridge, Understanding Non-Monogamies, Routledge Research in Gender and Society (New York: Routledge, 2010).

[156] Blanshard, Sex : Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity, 65-87.

[157] 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.

[158] 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.

[159] Ibid., 163-69.

[160] 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).

[161] Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome, 62.

[162] Quoted by James Warren, “All the Philosopher King’s Men,” Harper’s MagazineFeb, 2000. Accessed at

[163] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses : Authorised Translation from the Spanish (New York: W. W. Norton & co., 1932).

[164] 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.