THOUGHTS ON A BOWL FROM POMPEII
Generally, this website is devoted to bringing the past to life through its own voices, hopefully helped by some evocative images and some supplementary information offered through footnotes. In a reversal of that, the subject of the following article is an image and everything written here is the reaction to it of the living. In presenting this, there is no intention of urging the reader to adopt one of the divergent opinions given, but simply to invite him or her to partake of the feast of ideas and to contribute if so inclined.
Edmund Marlowe is the author of Alexander’s Choice, a novel with a Greek love theme.
Recently browsing a fascinating website devoted to the history of erotic art, I came across four images of a Roman artefact that looked like a medallion. One was simply a close-up of another. Of the remaining three, one appeared much clearer than the others:
No information on it was given, though there were captions for most of the other images on that page, all of Roman artefacts. I assumed at once that what I was looking at here was a scene of pederastic love-making: a pubescent boy on the lap of an adult male, the latter’s organ implicitly buried inside the boy in an act of pedication, while the boy had one foot on the ground, presumably to make thrusting easier. However, what astonished me was that the boy had an erection, proving his excitement at what he was doing. This was not because I thought it improbable that he should be thus excited: assuming that he was willing and was past the possible discomfort of an initiate, it would be much odder if he was not.
My astonishment was that he should be shown to be aroused in the passive role on an ancient artefact, simply because my understanding had been that this was never done. There are countless Greek vases with pederastic scenes, but the unbroken convention in them is that even when a man is shown fondling the genitals of an emotionally responsive boy with the obvious intent of arousing him, the boy remains incorrigibly and highly improbably flaccid. I believe the explanation for this is that no male was supposed to find the passive role sexually enjoyable and a decent boy could therefore only accept a lover’s advances out of affection and for the good that the love affair would do him. To depict anything else on a vase would ruin the scene for Greek sensibilities, as well as embarrassing and offending the boy model or subject. Though pederastic scenes are very much rarer in Roman art, Roman literature is generally just as contemptuous of those who enjoyed the passive role. The only pederastic artefact as graphic that I know of is the famous Warren Cup, for which the British Museum paid an unprecedented sum. Though far more artistically impressive than the “medallion” I thought I was seeing, in the two love scenes it depicts, one boy is flaccid, while the other’s genitals are hidden. The other striking difference is that on the Warren Cup, the men and boys do not look at each other, while, on the “medallion”, they not only are, but do so with an apparent affection that would be expected in a Greek context, but is surely unusual in the usually grimmer context of Roman pederasty. There is, however, at least one episode in Roman literature where the “medallion”’s scene would not be out of place: in Petronius’s naughty Satyricon, after the boy of Pergamon has been seduced, he abandons the polite fiction that he does not enjoy being pedicated and demands in a single night a third performance, in which it is implied that he comes from the excitement. The narrator comments that such was typical of boys his age. Had I at last encountered the visual equivalent of that scene?
Though the website where I found the image looked serious and scholarly, I was a little worried that, since no attribution was given, the “medallion” might not really be Roman. I asked for more information and the website owner replied he did not know the provenance, but doubted it could be fake.
Determined to find out more, I next had the cheek to consult the greatest expert I could think of, Professor Thomas Hubbard, author of much the most useful single volume on ancient homosexuality, whose reply was kind and very helpful, though not what I expected.
Thomas K. Hubbard
Thomas Hubbard, Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of countless authoritative books and articles on ancient homosexuality, most notably Homosexuality in Greece and Rome (2003), a vast anthology of ancient texts with notes and commentary.
I have never seen this medallion before, but my experience is more with Greek art than Roman. Let me ask my colleague John Clarke, who is a specialist in Roman erotic art. One thing I would note, if one looks at the full image at http://www.historia-del-arte-erotico.com/rom_objetos/909.jpg [“Image 1” on the website already mentioned], is that the figure on the left must be female rather than male. The penis must be attached to the man/satyr on whose lap she is sitting; she appears to have a vagina, even if her breasts are underdeveloped. I'll let you know if John is familiar with this object.
* * * * *
Edmund Marlowe: Realising my assumption that the figure on the left was a boy must henceforth be regarded as questionable at very best, and astonished I could have made such a mistake, I next asked for the opinion of Bob, not a historian, but a wise old friend …
Bob, 19 September 2020
The shape of the leg and buttocks of the person on the left, as well as the anatomical alignment strongly argue it is a boy, not a girl or woman. I'm well over 90% sure of this.
If the penis was the man's, it is:
1. Too small,
2. Half-way toward the man's knee.
The man's penis is embedded in the boy, not sticking up between the boy's legs. On the other hand, if the penis belongs to the boy, it is in precisely the correct place, and of the right size. I would be astounded to read a counter-argument. It's a boy.
The only thing arguing against it are some slight bumps on the boy's chest, but boys in the throes of puberty often develop slight breast enlargement . The size of the nipples also tells me it's a boy, they are a bit smaller than the man's, not bigger as a woman's would be.
There is nothing in this image that can reasonable be interpreted as a vagina, only as testicles.
What would be interesting to know is, what is on the boy's head? Was headgear like that for males or females of the era. That I do not know.
To me, this is clearly an adult male sodomizing a teenage boy who is reacting lovingly and is clearly stimulated by it.
Moreover, an adult male's testicles simply could not be seen at this angle, they would be hanging way to low. But if what we are seeing is a boy, then the testicles are in the perfect place.
I also would like to know what the man is holding or touching with his right hand.
This is a 13-15 year old boy. Full stop. That is my opinion.
Oh, I just noticed something else.... The boy's head size is proportionally correct for a teenager, it's noticeably smaller than the man's head.
* * * * *
Edmund Marlowe: I relayed this opinion to Professor Hubbard in time for him to summarise it in his letter to Professor Clarke. Next, he sent me their correspondence about it …
Thomas K. Hubbard to John R. Clarke, 19 September 2020
Subject: question on Roman medallion
I have been asked about the image that can be found at http://www.historia-del-arte-erotico.com/rom_objetos/909.jpg with no identifying information. […] I don't know whether this is one of the erotic images you are familiar with.
Is this a boy or a woman who is being penetrated/about to be penetrated by the seated man? I believe it to be a woman because the visible penis is simply too low to be hers, and when I magnify the image, I see the verticle line of a vulva at the bottom of her mons veneris. The breasts are also somewhat swollen. But my correspondent believes it must be a boy of 13-15, based on the thin legs and buttocks; he objects that the penis is too low to be the man's. But it is also too low to be the boy's. I would just attribute this to awkward draftsmanship on the part of an artist who was eager to show the dirty bits.
If it is a boy, it would be a fairly unique example of a puerile erection in response to anal penetration, at least in Roman art. Is the type of headgear on the penetrated individual significant? Can it mark gender?
Then there is also the question whether this is genuinely Roman or a later forgery. The fact that the website on which it is found lists no museum is suspicious. Let me know what you think. […]
John R. Clarke to Thomas K. Hubbard, 21 September 2020
John R. Clarke, Annie Laurie Howard Regents Professor, Department of Art & Art History, likewise at The University of Texas at Austin, is the author of many books on Roman art and sexuality in the relevant period, and may thus fairly be considered the person most qualified to answer the question.
I remember the bowl from the Raccolta Pornographica, but didn’t include it in my work because it represents demigods rather than human.
It’s Naples, National Archaeological Museum: Raccolta Pornografica (inventory 27714 according to Johns; 27671 according to Grant). I attach a good color photo by Antonia Mulas. Here’s what Catherine Johns says in Sex or Symbol? (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982): “An erotic scene in low relief on a bronze bowl from Pompeii. The male figure is a satyr (he has animal ears and a small tail), the female either a nymph or maenad. 1st c. BC-1st c. AD.”
I don’t have access either to De Caro or the catalogue of the MANN, but I think what looks like yarmulke-like cap might be a hairnet. As for her private parts, without examining the object directly, it’s hard to tell. Definitely a female about to position herself on the satyr’s lap. Notice how her right leg is drawn up and over the satry’s right leg. She has her hand on her knee (rending rather poor). She may be a Hermaphrodite who has just given up his/her struggle. But Hermaphrodites usually have more prominent genitals.
Attached two scans from Johns’s book: one at 300 dpi; the other at 600. The other scan is from Michael Grant, Eros in Pompeii, photo also by Antonia Mulas. […]
Bob again, 22 September 2020
Having been forwarded all of the foregoing, and further consulted:
The genital area of the boy (and I firmly believe it's a boy) in the image you first sent looks very different than in the images in the pdf you just sent. In your first image there's a distinct penis, but that region looks very different in the subsequent pdf images.
As for the location, it is precisely correct anatomically if it's a penis and a boy. That's NOT a vulva, it's a scrotum.
As for the medallion being a forgery, or genuine medallion but a retouched image of it, certainly that's possible, I have no means to determine if either of those things are true.
HOWEVER, if I take the first picture you sent as an unaltered image of a genuine medallion, I very firmly stand by my opinion as originally expressed. It's a boy!
In these images the genital area of the boy is too small to see clearly even at maximum magnification, and it's also much brighter than the rest of the body. Based on this, it's ambiguous at best, but given the other elements I described (headgear, head size, nipple sizes, lack of distinct breasts, etc.) I am still inclined to think it's a boy, not a girl. What it certainly is NOT is a woman.
Here's the problem from my perspective...
The first image you sent, and the one I based my original analysis on, was greatly cleaned up relative to the subsequent images I saw. In that first image a penis and testicles appear very clearly between the boy's legs.
However, subsequent images are far more ambiguous. It creates the suspicion that the first image may have been retouched (I find this likely given how well cleaned up the entire image is), or is an image of a different object altogether (I find this improbable).
* * * * *
Edmund Marlowe: At this point, thoroughly intrigued that the image could evince such definite but contradictory opinions and convinced that even a small possibility (mostly dependent on image 1) that the mysterious figure was a boy meant that this bowl from Pompeii was of Greek love interest, I consulted four more of my most erudite correspondents, each of whom was forwarded the foregoing correspondence at the same time. Here follow their replies …
Faris, 26 September 2020
My first thought on opening the images was that it shows a woman. I agree that the positioning of the visible genitals is highly awkward to the extent that it's hard to say who they belong to. However - and I stress that I am no expert on Roman art or art of any kind - the hairstyle of figure, the chest swellings and the shape of the hips and thighs are immediately suggestive to me of a female. As Bob points out, boys do often develop gynaecomastia in puberty but would an artist have included such a thing in a work like this? I also agree with Hubbard that the slit above the penis could most easily be interpreted as a vulva.
If, as Professor Clarke relates from Catherine Johns, the man is a satyr, does that affect the calculation at all? Are there many depictions of satyrs with human boys in Roman art? And would such a pederastic depiction have graced an object with the functions that Johns said a lebes had? I really don't know; I ask out of ignorance. The question of whether it is a hermaphrodite seems worth examining but again I know nothing at all about the standard depictions of hermaphroditism in Roman art.
In short I personally would not add this to our world repository of pederastical tableware; certainly not to rank with an object like the Warren Cup. If I had commissioned a saucy bowl showing man-boy sex and received this in return, I would probably want my money back. If some authority on Rome other than Hubbard were to argue against me with reference to other works I would be delighted to admit I am wrong; I base my opinion solely on how the image appears to me.
Jay Edson, 26 September 2020, and writing also for his wife
I had B (my spouse) look at it also. Here is our judgement.
First of all, enlarge the picture so that you can see the details better. Keep in mind that given the predilections of the Romans in the old days we would most likely be choosing between a mature woman and a boy – not either an adult man or a pre-pubescent girl.
B and I concur. It’s a boy.
1.The visible genitals don’t line up with where the man’s genitals would be, but with the boy’s.
2. The size of the genitals is right for someone who has begun to mature, but who is still a boy.
3. If they had wanted to portray a woman, they would have used a fully mature woman. The hips are too narrow for this, and there is a lack of breast development. (Again, the slight rounding is consistent with the slight enlargement you see on many boys who are beginning to mature into being men.)
4. The height of the standing boy is equal to the height of the sitting man. That is too small for a mature woman.
5. It’s nicer as a boy.
These were our conclusions before reading what any of the others wrote.
Alright. Cancel point 5. But its true.
The reaction I just sent was based entirely on the jpg. I had not read the doc nor looked at the PDFs at that point.
If you go look at the Naples image (Image 3) you see an interesting thing. The boy (and it is most certainly a boy) no longer has an erection. Making bowls where images lost and gained erections must have been a real trick. Seriously, though. Look closer. Directly above the base of the penis there is a gouge. I think the erection was removed. Probably someone didn't like it, and just wanted a boy sitting on the lap of his benevolent and pure-hearted grandfather. Also notice how small the genitals have become. It is not only an un-aroused boy, but a very little one. I have heard that despite stories of debaucheries etc., the ancient Romans had a puritanical streak. My guess is that that led someone to modify the bowl.
And one more question: given the fact that the figure is so obviously a boy, why would most of the more informed among us not see this? I wonder if expectations are getting in the way. This is not meant as an ad hominem argument, but as a description of something that does happen. People who see things without pre-suppositions sometimes see more clearly. Being ignorant has its advantages.
Dr. H. Reddy is a scholar of ancient and modern languages and an amateur classicist.
What an interesting puzzle! Thank you. Please recognize my lack of familiarity with such images and classical art in general; I can contribute only impressions and general arguments, but maybe they can help.
I'd put my bets on Hubbard and his friend if I had to, rather than with you and Bob – but the ambiguities are intriguing
The position of the genitals seems an accurate depiction of penetration of the vagina from behind, certainly within the range of error suggested by the accuracy of proportion in the image overall. It looks to me that a penis is "disappearing" into the vulva (hence the "nose-cone" shape, with no evidence of foreskin), and a bit of the slit of the vulva is still visible above, as has been observed. If that's a boy's penis, it would be where a girl's vagina would be anyway, so the position doesn't tell us much! That penis, if it were a boy's erection, would almost certainly be thinner, maybe even a wee bit (sorry) longer – or so I guess, for I have never seen an immature erection in this era of erotica. (Are there any cases at all?) What I see is a fat erection that is longer than we see, because it's partly inside the woman.
The fullness of the breasts really look like those of a maturing young woman. I have never seen (or noticed, at least) male youthful comeliness from this era to be suggested by anything other than either a neutrally flat child's chest or developing and a decidedly masculine six-pack. So I don't agree with Bob that the sometimes swollen (and feminine-looking) breasts of adolescent boys are a reference point here, since these are "motherly" organs, quite out of line with typical ideals of the masculinity of boyish beauty. I can really only read them as feminine here.
The width of the hips of the one penetrated is, I admit, narrow for a woman, but I'd have to look over a lot more unambiguous images of this kind and of that era to know whether markedly so. The same goes for the hairstyle, which again seems much more a female look.
But now things become ambiguous: is that a head band, or the rim of a cap? If the latter, my instincts do turn to the boyish; we need greater expertise in headgear and hairstyles to address this. There is also something about the posture of the one penetrated, in particular the muscular and upright stockiness of the right leg; something rigid and masculine rather than languidly and submissively passive.
That is impressionistic, I grant. But less so is the proportion of head-to-body, which suggests a boy not fully grown, as does the figures' marked difference in height, which is also not a predominant feature of male-female difference in such depictions (women are hardly ever less than a head lower in height to a man, in fact commonly equal). That height difference recalls all those pederastic Greek vases; women may be a little smaller, but the boys are more often considerably so.
And that face – I can only say it "rings" masculine!
So, the more I look at it, the more ambiguous it becomes. I wonder whether that may be an intentional effect, or one whose ambiguity can be explained. Are there other examples of woman/boy ambiguity in such work? Might it be a joke of sorts, with a man/boy sex scene hiding as heterosexual, or for all I know the converse? Might the artist have been practiced in man/boy sex scenes, and so his depictions of heterosexual scenes inadvertantly incorporate many/boy tropes – or precisely the opposite.
One more possibility to consider: if this is an imitation, perhaps a Greek man-boy scene served as a model and was redone as a heterosexual one. The boyish features are then mostly "leftovers" from the original scene.
John Hamilton, 28 September, writing also for his colleague Nick
John Hamilton is an antiquarian bookseller and former philosophy tutor; Nick is a fine art photographer.
I don't think my own opinion counts for much, to be honest! I think you know a great deal more about ancient pederasty than I do, as well as about the ancient world generally. What I can say is that my first reaction to the image was that it was of a boy sitting atop of a man, but reading the materials I am now more inclined to think that it is perhaps a woman. There is the hint of breasts, as well as a hair style that looks distinctly feminine, and the figure's hips are perhaps a bit wide for a boy's. The genitalia are definitely male, but do they belong to the figure on top or to the man?
Reading Bob's summary, I am not totally convinced that the general physique of the figure excludes it being a woman. To me the figure looks feminine, though this is somewhat subjective. I do agree, however, that the penis is in the wrong place for it to belong to the man, but I am inclined to agree with Hubbard that this is just poor draughtsmanship. The penis is too small to be a man’s penis if we are seeing all of it, but not if it is disappearing inside the woman's vagina. There seems to be a slight mark or line above the top of the penis which seems to suggest the top of a vagina. (Of course, I am not very au fait with women's anatomy.) Of course, it's a bit too high up, and the angle of the penis entering the vagina is wrong, so that this would in actuality be a rather uncomfortable sex act, but again I am inclined to think that this is because the artist is a bad artist, and, as Hubbard says, wanted to show 'the dirty bits'! Basically, then, I am inclined to side with Hubbard.
However, as you will see from the email I'm forwarding, Nick is sure that Hubbard is overanalysing and that we ought to trust our initial impression. Incidentally, when I first showed Nick the image, I simply said it was an image from a Roman bowl, and asked him what he thought it depicted – in other words, I didn't 'lead' the witness – and he immediately said that it “obviously” showed a man having anal sex with a boy, and the boy quite obviously enjoying it. I then acquainted him with the disagreement over the image – to which the email I'm forwarding is his response.
Just one more thought from Nick: Nick wondered whether it might have been drawn with deliberate ambiguity so that the artist could pass it off as either man-woman or man-boy depending on who he found he had to sell it to! Would this be too clever an idea?
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