“Leda and the Swan,” a fresco discovered in a bedroom in Pompeii, shows the mythological Spartan queen and the Roman god Jupiter disguised as a swan. (all images courtesy Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

A new exhibition at the Pompeii Archaeological Park will explore scenes of erotic art in the ancient city. Art and Sensuality in the Houses of Pompeii opened last Friday, April 21.

Encompassing 70 works from the Pompeii Archaeological Park’s vast troves, the exhibition includes two erotic medallions from a chariot discovered last year, an erotic scene painted on a bedroom ceiling, and three walls from a reconstructed bedroom in another villa. Also featured is the “Leda and the Swan” fresco discovered during excavations in 2018, which depicts the Greek god Zeus (Jupiter) taking the form of a swan and “seducing” the Spartan Queen Leda. (Some readings of the myth interpret the encounter as a rape scene.)

Rather than rare or mystifying findings, works of erotic art were commonplace throughout Ancient Rome and its empire, and many such works in Pompeii depicted the gods of Greek and Roman mythology. The Greek god Eros (Cupid in later Roman narratives) was a symbol of passion, fertility, and creation and is portrayed is many erotic works, while other displays simply recreate scenes from myths.

A fragment of a fresco depicting a nymph and a satyr

In these ancient myths, sex was rampant. Reflective of this phenomenon — and perhaps inspiring it — ancient Greeks and Romans had a drastically reduced sense of obscenity and shame. Additionally, sex was not tied to religion in a shameful or incompatible way.

This began to change around the third century CE, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. By the time Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, Christianity was already spreading in Rome.

In ancient Pompeii, phallic sculptures were displayed on shop signs and in the street and turned into charms to be worn around the necks of children and cattle, amulets thought to ward off evil.

Sculptures depicting gods were found in the gardens of the wealthy.

The rooms and gardens of the rich were also adorned with images of gods having sex — perhaps as an omen of fertility, and in an attempt to show that the owners were educated enough to know about Greek mythology. Smaller objects like phallic oil lamps, maybe used at parties to entertain guests, have also been found. Ancient Romans placed a significant value on pleasure — food, wine, and sex all fell into this category.

A fresco from the House of the Centurion in Pompeii (via Wikimedia Commons)

Still, not everyone was included in this ostensibly free approach to sexuality, says Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park.

“People look at the erotic images of Pompeii and see liberation but they also had written and unwritten rules, and it wasn’t actually this world of great liberty,” Zuchtriegel told the Guardian. “Take homosexuality … it was certainly tolerated but that does not mean it offered the kind of participation and acceptance that we today are maybe wishing for.”

Images of erotic scenes lined the walls of brothels in ancient Rome.

In brothels, erotic scenes were displayed on the walls as a sort of list of available options for patrons. Prostitution was legal and taxed, but the government often treated sex workers as non-citizens, and there was a stigma around the practice.

In addition to Pompeii Archeological Park, the National Archaeological Museum in Naples has also curated a collection of erotic objects. Until 2000, the 250 sexually-themed pieces were locked away in the museum’s “Secret Room,” which only allowed special access, and were “censored and physically separated from the other collections.” Now, anyone over the age of 14 can visit.

“Pan Copulating With Goat” in the Naples Museum collection (via Wikimedia Commons)

The exhibition at Pompeii offers a special tour for children that focuses on Greek and Roman mythology. Other visitors can be guided through the show with the help of an app. The exhibition will run through January 15, 2023.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.