Scholia Reviews ns 7 (1998) 14.

John R. Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C. - A.D. 250. Los Angeles, Berkeley & London: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. xvii + 372, incl. 16 colour plates and 90 black and white plates, 19 line drawings and 1 map. ISBN 0-520-20024-1. US$39.95 UKú37.50.

Hendrik F. Stander
Department of Ancient Languages, University of Pretoria

Looking at Love-making offers us a vivid image of a sophisticated society that placed a high value on sexual pleasure and the art that represented it. It contains more than 120 pictures of artists' renditions -- in paint, ceramic, silver, cameo glass, and gems -- of human beings copulating. But Clarke shows us that these ancient Roman images do not fit into our late twentieth-century conceptions about sex. Roman sexual images are not self-evident. They reveal a sexual culture that evolved within religious, social and legal frameworks that are vastly different from our own. Clarke cites several anthropological studies on sex and gender to show how difficult it is for a modern person to understand practices of other cultures that seem to be sexual in nature. He says that Jeffrey Henderson has shown that in the Manchu tribe a mother will routinely suck her small son's penis in public but would never kiss his cheeks (pp. 15-16).[[1]] The Manchu believe that fellatio is a sexual act performed by adults, but kissing -- even between mother and infant son -- is always sexual in nature, and thus fellatio becomes the proper display of motherly affection.

Clarke therefore argues that if we don't want to distort the meaning of ancient Roman sexual representations, we must learn how to bracket out our own attitudes toward such representations. It is for this reason that the author also avoids using the words 'erotic', 'sexuality', 'heterosexual', and 'homosexual'. What is 'erotic' for example? When a picture stimulates a modern reader or viewer, it does not necessarily mean that it would also stimulate an ancient viewer. Also, instead of using the word 'homosexual' to describe images of lovemaking between two men or a man and a boy or two women, Clarke says that he prefers to use the terms male-to-male lovemaking, man- boy lovemaking, and female-to-female lovemaking (pp. 12-14). This helps to bracket out modern conceptions of homosexuality and heterosexuality that can only keep us from understanding the cultural conditions that surrounded sex in the minds of the ancient Romans.

Clarke shows that there is a big difference between the message of ancient writings and that of ancient works of art. For example, the former tell us of the shame that is incurred by someone who engages in oral sex, but the latter show us pictures of men and women engaging in both fellatio and cunnilingus. Clarke explains this disparity by saying that the Roman writers were writing for and about the elite. Their values are those of the class they belong to. Visual art displays the non-standard attitudes. The study of the visual arts therefore expands the scope of ancient Roman sexuality far beyond the elite class. The diffusion of sexual imagery across class boundaries enables us to see the faces of people who had no part in writing the ancient texts.

The disparity between Roman literature on the one hand, and works of art on the other, can also be seen when one looks at the subject of male-to-male lovemaking. A study of this issue will underscore how difficult it is for us to really understand the Roman sexual framework. Clarke says, for example, that wealthy Roman gentlemen bought slaves to satisfy their sexual whims (p. 83). Upperclass people took it for granted that the elite male would have his pretty boy to make love to, but he would also have his female love toys -- all under the same roof with his wife. Such sexual usages would be shocking to modern morality, but it constituted no problem for the Roman elite, since it was love between unequal partners. However, one should never have sex with another freeborn male, whether a boy or an adult. Furthermore, all Roman literature made it clear that the elite man's role must only consist in inserting his penis into the love object. The male passive partner carried a great stigma.

Clarke shows that the information given above is based on textual evidence. He says that works of art tell a different story from the ancient literature because both readers and writers construct sex from the point of view of the elite male. Some vase painters depicted both partners as being of the same size and age, but several pictures show that there were also those who appear to enjoy a relationship of equality. He also argues that it is remarkable that these Romans found pleasure in looking at male-to-male lovemaking depicted on vessels they drank from, for this gives us a glimpse of a society innocent of the notion that all male-male intercourse was shameful.

In Looking at Love-making Clarke has also made use of recent archaeological discoveries, such as the paintings of the Suburban Baths at Pompeii, uncovered in 1986 and first published in 1995. Clarke is the first to study many of these Roman luxury objects of the Augustan period that have only recently come to light. But he also comes up with surprisingly fresh information even on well-known objects.

It was not the aim of Clarke to provide theologians with a text book when he wrote Looking at Lovemaking. Nevertheless, this book contains invaluable information for every New Testament scholar, since Clarke describes in it the sexual values of the ancient world in which the New Testament is embedded. While I was reading this informative book, I was constantly aware of how relevant the information in it is for New Testament studies -- though Clarke himself does not reflect on this relevance. Let me give one example: Clarke shows that artists always depicted beautiful men with long and tight foreskins, and he adds that 'circumcised men -- Egyptians, for instance -- were the butt of parody' (p. 21). Clarke does not expand upon this matter, but we do know from other literature that Greeks and Romans indeed regarded the removal of the foreskin as disgusting. Greeks considered a bare glans so repugnant and indecent, that they underwent surgery to restore the foreskin to its natural shape (Celsus Med. 7.25.1; Soranus Gynecology 2.34; Dioscorides 4.153). Even those adequately endowed frequently secured the foreskin in place with a string or a pin (fibula) for cosmetic reasons. And in the New Testament Paul tells his followers that they should not seek to undo their circumcision: 'Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised' (1 Cor. 7:18). One therefore also realizes that Timothy paid no cheap price to qualify to join Paul on his journeys, since we read in Acts 16:3: 'Paul wanted to take him (= Timothy) along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.'

But there are numerous other instances where Looking at Lovemaking can provide us with valuable background information for a proper understanding of the New Testament. It also provides art historians, classicists and cultural historians with a new model for using visual imagery to understand the process of acculturation. It returns the art to its original physical and iconographic contexts while questioning the images in the light of recent feminist and cultural theory and new scholarship on ancient Rome.

The text of the book is well written, and it is free of typographical errors. It has detailed endnotes, a thorough bibliography and a good index. It is printed on high quality glossy paper, and it is a pleasure to read (and the pictures to look at!). Looking at Lovemaking is indeed a fascinating book for historians, classicists, theologians, and anybody else who finds lovemaking interesting.


[[1]] Jeffrey Henderson, 'Greek Attitudes Toward Sex', in Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Roman, edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger (New York 1988) Vol. 2, 1249-64.