Ancient art and archaeological remains have provided archaeologists and historians today with clues to how the ancients practiced their sexuality and their overall attitude toward sex. To the causal observer, it seems the ancients were more open about their sexuality then we are today. In ancient Rome there were artworks in living rooms or studies depicting erotic images of lovers performing various sexual acts and in ancient Mesopotamia mass-produced terracotta plagues would show couples having sex.
The Secret Cabinet
For the Romans, sex was a part of their everyday lives, state affairs, religious rites, myths, even warfare, and featured prominently in their art. One of the most famous collections of erotic art from Roman culture is the artwork featured in the secret cabinet (gabinetto segreto). The secret cabinet collection is now part of the Naples National Archaeological Museum. It is said when King Francis I of Naples visited with his wife and daughter in 1819 he was so shocked by the contents of the collection he had them locked away. A brick wall was even built over the doorway to keep the scenes from corrupting people.
The following are a few select images of the artwork and artifacts found in the secret cabinet collection.
Mesopotamian Sexuality & Artwork
In Mesopotamia, sex was just another aspect of life and there was no shyness, or taboo involved in it. While sex was a part of one’s personal life there were also a couple of, what we would consider, odd customs observed. For example, there was the marriage market, where women were auctioned off as brides, and a particular form of sacred prostitution. Each woman had to perform this type of prostitution at least once in her life and it involved sitting outside the temple of Ishtar (Inanna) and agreeing to have sex with the person who chose her. Herodotus explains this particular custom was meant to ensure the fertility and continued prosperity of the community although his interpretation, and whether this practice even existed as he described it, have been challenged.
The following images are a few select examples displaying how sex was portrayed in Mesopotamian art.
Jade is editor of Ancient History et cetera. She is an aspiring librarian with interests in Roman and Greek architecture, Middle Eastern culture, open access to information and digitisation as a method of preservation.