Mike Aquilina

Smut in the Ruins

Tuesday January 08th 2008, 3:01 am

When I first published my short essay Roman Cruelty, Christian Purity, people asked me if Roman culture was really all that smutty. Or was I maybe exaggerating just a little?

If anything, I understated the evidence, because it’s best not to go there. But you can see plenty of examples of ancient preoccupations by visiting the websites of antiquities dealers, who do a brisk trade in “erotic-themed” lamps and amulets. And there is no shortage of academic studies of the matter.

Now comes historian Jacqui Murray to vindicate my claim. In an essay titled Ancient Lives Uncensored, published in in the Brisbane (Australia) Courier-Mail, she says pretty much what I said: “For centuries the public’s view of Roman life has been sanitised by royal rulers, governments, archaeologists and some historians.” Though Dr. Murray is more sanguine (or at least neutral) on the proclivities of the ancients, her claims echo my own.

ANYONE looking for lessons in the history of censorship and propaganda need look no further than Pompeii.

For the past 200 years the real story of this ancient town, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, has been kept from public view.
Our image of Roman life has been censored, sanitised and sanctified.

For anyone raised on the white marble and white toga version of Rome, the latest offerings on Roman life will come as a shock.

The idealised world passed on to us by the great writers of classical Latin was largely restricted to the very small minority that represented Rome’s scholarly elite.

Forget all those stories about Caligula and his horse, Nero, in Capri’s Blue Grotto and the goings-on by other degenerate members of Roman imperial families.

The reality was that plenty of ordinary Roman folk were up to, or at least had no inhibitions about, what gave rise to the term “pornography”.

These misunderstandings have arisen because many of Pompeii’s artefacts have been spirited, or locked, away for centuries.

I’ll spare you the detail, but it’s there.