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Abstract and Keywords

Among the many roles of Roman sculpture—whether private portraits, imperial propaganda, shop signs, or mythological Idealplastik—was the reinforcement of social stratifications, especially the hierarchy created by the gender binary so ingrained in classical cultures. While social class, foreign status, and transgressive sexual identities sometimes complicated matters, the iconography of “male” and “female” was mostly straightforward—even if the relationships between gender and power were sometimes knotty in the Roman world. This chapter explores those iconographies and the social roles on which they were based, as well as a few cases in which such standard imagery was contravened. It also addresses methods scholars have employed to bring issues of gender, sexuality, and status to the forefront of Roman art history. The chapter pays special attention to feminist scholarship on images of women and the means by which these asserted individual identity, cultural ideals of femininity, and sexual difference.

Keywords: gender, female, women, nudity, Kampen, portrait, body


In the late 1960s, scholars questioned the canon of works that constituted the field of Roman sculpture. In particular, they sought out art and artifacts that documented the lives of Roman citizens unattested in the ancient historical sources (Bianchi Bandinelli 1967). In the study of classical art and archaeology, the question of gender arrived at the same moment as the new social history that aimed to redefine history from below. Workers’ struggles, rather than court intrigues, took center stage. Classicists asked where the silent women of Rome were and found tales of stoic mothers and courageous daughters in the ancient written sources (Pomeroy 1975). Livy’s account of the founding of Rome and Plutarch’s exemplary lives, however, focus on elites, and the occasional mention of womenfolk concerns the privileged, political classes. In the wake of the social upheavals of the late sixties, art historians and archaeologists turned their attention to the monuments commissioned by the lower echelons of Roman society. Some scholars sought to include ignored works of art in the corpus; others aimed to demonstrate the dominant influence of imperial art, for instance, the immense appeal of Augustan classicism, or, conversely, the gulf between court art and that of humble citizens (see essay 4.7, Petersen). The question of gender was first posed at this juncture—when Roman art was viewed in terms of its full range of patrons, from senators to ex-slaves, from metropolitan Rome to remote provinces.

Gender refers to the construction of sexual identities, usually articulated in terms of anatomical and sociocultural differences (Montserrat 2000, 154). In the classical world male and female were polarized into a binary system in which the male was aligned with strength, wisdom, virtue, initiative, and integrity, while the female was identified with weakness, ignorance, vice, indolence, and deceit (Kampen 1996b, 16). Heteronormativity, in which the sexual norm is presumed to be heterosexuality, also shaped depictions of gender. Thus the female was inherently secondary and, therefore, powerless, in the patriarchal society of Rome. Yet, women’s biological role as mothers (p. 452) rendered them crucial to the empire and its well-being, and the good wife and mother were enshrined in the household (Treggiari 1991; Dixon 1992). In reality, boundaries were somewhat blurred in the social hierarchy that endowed elite women with honor and respect, as well as some influence (J. P. Hallett 1984). In the following, we begin with the moment at which representations of women became significant in the study of Roman sculpture and then turn to issues of gender in reliefs, portraits, and mythological sculpture. If our inquiry into gender favors the female, it is because images of women in ancient Rome demonstrated difference in a male-dominated culture.

Gender and Status

The book that changed the field was Natalie Boymel Kampen’s Image and Status: Roman Working Women in Ostia (1981). This groundbreaking volume considered the iconography of female vocation across a variety of activities (from retail trade to artisanal production and professional services), and pointed out gendered differences in the imagery: male-dominated production of tools or equipment in comparison with the prominence of female social relationships and caregiving (Kampen 1981). Other than minimal antiquarian interest in crafts and trades, until this study there had been little interest in art depicting the lives of anonymous Romans. That labor—and women’s work specifically—was depicted at all in Roman art had not previously been thought worthy of investigation (Brown 2000).

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Figure 4.8.1 Greengrocer’s Relief, late second or early third century AD. Ostia, Museo Ostiense.

Women’s work involved service to customers, represented in scenes of women selling goods in market stalls or shops, or the care of infants and children, as seen in the sarcophagi depicting biographical narratives of male subjects from birth to the attainment of high office (Kampen 1981; 1982, 65). Nurses in the latter appear as subsidiary figures in scenes of the protagonist’s attainment of political and military power, also evoked with female figures personifying virtues or abstract ideas underlying the social order. Kampen’s study of the second- and third-century reliefs from Ostia traced the contours of a culture coexistent with that of the court of Rome and senatorial aristocracies.

The literal, nonsymbolic style of funerary reliefs (although some may have served as shop signs as well) represent simplified figures and generic scenes of street life (Kampen 1981). They do not reference the ideal forms of Hellenic statuary, and mythological allusions are usually absent. For example, one relief represents a produce saleswoman who stands in a market stall made from trestle tables (figure 4.8.1). She is framed by her goods, which are rendered with sufficient linear detail to identify garlic, cauliflower, and zucchini. The half-figure behind the table shows the simplified and rough forms of a rounded face with hair pulled back and a body clothed in a loose tunic and mantle. Lacking the individualized facial features of a portrait, the figure instead appeals with a gesture that signals speech with the two little fingers in a closed position while the others are extended on the oversized hand. The grocer is shown pointing to her goods and addressing a potential customer in the characteristic tactic of the “hard sell,” (p. 453) demonstrating her mettle at attracting customers in a crowded market (D’Ambra 2007, 139). The saleswoman appeals directly to the viewer, who stands in for the passersby at the marketplace. The reliefs commissioned by working-class patrons tend to depict figures placed frontally who are dominated, if not subsumed, by objects, the goods they sell or produce. The scenes and settings typically appear to be containers for the inventory of items, arranged in rows or stacks in a shallow space. Often more closely observed and finely detailed than the figures, the trade goods come into sharp focus as the means of making a living.

This relief and many others like it commemorate saleswomen in scenes that characterize the teeming, competitive atmosphere of the marketplace. The corpus of Latin inscriptions includes epitaphs of a female dealer in grains, a mosaic worker, and perfumer, among many others. The reliefs depict the most public aspects of their jobs: the greengrocer hawking her wares, a poultry seller carrying out a transaction at her stall, and so on; women are the focus of attention and activity. This aspect of their labor made the women appear disreputable and degraded to elite men, who characterized them as aggressive, shameless, and surely willing to sell their bodies as easily as they would a head of garlic (D’Ambra 2007, 140). Notably, the reliefs celebrate the qualities that ensured the women’s success and also demonstrated their marked difference from the (p. 454) modest and demure matrons of means. The reliefs and inscriptions indicate that women worked alongside their husbands or supported themselves in a variety of occupations or professions, yet they remain largely invisible in the texts of poets and historians who provided the standard accounts of Roman life.

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Figure 4.8.2 Relief from the Basilica Aemilia, Punishment of Tarpeia. Augustan period. Rome, Antiquarium of the Roman Forum.

Natalie Kampen’s contribution lies in her focus on the status and public roles of women in one community within a circumscribed period. Her analysis of the rather style-less style of the reliefs from Ostia, with their shallow spatial setting, the clutter of sharply-contoured objects, and the simplified figure style with no individualization, also applies to reliefs in the provinces. Working people across the empire conveyed their identity in art through their occupations. Rather than reflecting regional differences, reliefs commemorated artisans and merchants in a remarkably similar style, as seen in the blacksmiths’ reliefs from the Isola Sacra Necropolis in Ostia and Aquileia in northern Italy, as well as in monuments to service staff, such as the wet nurse Severina in Cologne (Kampen 1976, 164–6, 178–9, fig. 61).

In subsequent essays, Kampen extended her interest in gender to the state reliefs of the Augustan period with mythological or allegorical subjects (see essay 3.5, Sobocinski and Wolfram Thill). The themes from the founding of Rome conveyed a sense of the social order and the ideal roles of men and women, rulers and their subjects, Romans and barbarians. Patriarchy maintained a strict hierarchy of values that privileged the dominant male citizen at the expense of the female, characterized by scholars in the eighties as “the other,” that is a lower being, chaotic, unruly, and closer to nature. In the ancient accounts of the early city, female sexuality was seen to undermine the institutions of family and the state if not kept in check. In particular, unmarried women served as intermediaries for outsiders to gain access to Rome, as in Livy’s accounts of the Sabine women and Tarpeia (Kampen 1988, 15–19). Indeed, a public building in the center of the Roman Forum, the Basilica Aemilia, featured a sculptural frieze representing scenes from the legendary founding of Rome, with the Rape of the Sabine Women and the Punishment of Tarpeia among the extant panels (figure 4.8.2). The fragmentary reliefs depict (p. 455) the Sabine women under assault with their arms flung out and streaming locks of hair. The Sabine women, however, become Roman wives and are thus transformed from outsiders to insiders: their identity and allegiances change. The Roman Tarpeia, on the other hand, has allowed the enemy to enter the city, and for this she is punished by the foreigners she has helped: the relief depicts the Sabines crushing her with their shields. Even those who profited from her treachery scorned her actions. The themes celebrated women who assumed Roman values as their own as exemplary citizens. Furthermore, Kampen observed that the classicizing style of the reliefs, recalling Hellenic art of the fifth to fourth centuries BC, underlined the theme’s implications of the overriding triumphalism and destiny of Rome (Kampen 1988, 19).

Another monument from Augustan Rome, the Ara Pacis Augustae, was decorated with relief sculpture that commemorated the dedication of the altar and set the historical event in the heroic context of early Rome. One panel depicts a resplendent full-figured female with two babies on her lap. The theme of regeneration of the Roman populace and the natural world is writ large in the relief that represents the health and well-being of Rome: the human figures take center stage with the enthroned earth mother flanked by the personification of breezes, as indicated by their billowing drapery, while the stalks of grain refer to the thriving fields and the diminutive animals to the resilience of the herds. While the identification of the female figure as Tellus is somewhat controversial (she has also been called Italia and Pax, among others), the iconography of fertility is very apparent in her voluptuous body and attendant figures. It is characteristic that the fecund female body is equated with the land, now blooming forth without interruption due to the Augustan peace. In this example of state art, motherhood is idealized as Tellus, the figure with the handsome facial features of a goddess and whose cleavage and midriff are revealed through clinging and nearly transparent garments, an outfit that would bring scandal to a Roman matron. Clearly Tellus is a figure from the realm of art and, as such, would have been distinguished from a Roman matron by viewers; yet, the pure and rarefied version of femininity in this scene, with its visual linking of babies and breasts as well as the motherly lap cradling fruits of the field, plays into traditional ideals of womanhood. The political and patriotic aspects of Augustan themes appealed to many citizens throughout the empire who commissioned works of art and architecture in emulation of the famed Roman monuments for their own cities. For example, a relief from Carthage in North Africa seems to be a close copy of this panel (Zanker 1988, 313–14). A showy edifice in Pompeii featured the vine scroll ornament of the Ara Pacis, which, no doubt, enhanced its elegance and demonstrated the worldliness of the woman, Eumachia, who built it for her fellow citizens (D’Ambra 2012, 400–413).

Natalie Kampen also turned to imperial monuments of later periods to analyze representations of women under imperial rule. The categories of gender and status proved effective in the analysis of female figures, whether Dacian women forced into exile as seen on the Column of Trajan or Julia Domna depicted on the Quadrifrons Arch in Leptis Magna (Kampen 2009, 38–63, 82–103). As mothers of the next generation, women maintained the social order by transmitting values and norms. Imperial women like Julia Domna were often assimilated to personifications that enlarged their presence (p. 456) and endowed them with authority, if in name only. The authority of imperial women, however, lacked any basis in public office, so remained informal and intermittent as they occasionally stepped in as surrogates. In propaganda the emperors’ wives or daughters were confined to the domestic and dynastic spheres, with imagery bearing the high gloss of Hellenic art. On the other hand, those who felt the rough hand of imperial might, such as the vanquished Dacian women, were represented with sufficient ethnographic detail to identify them as barbarians indigenous to specific contested regions (for costume, see Sebesta and Bonfante 1994). Despite the curiosity their representations probably aroused in Roman spectators, the Dacian women gained a degree of dignity as they were portrayed struggling to keep their families together. In the pioneering studies of Natalie Kampen, gender became a trenchant analytical tool, particularly when inflected with the variables of social status. Rather than conceptualizing woman as other, this fulcrum allowed scholars to observe how the category of woman was represented within a highly differentiated social structure.

Statue Types

Representations of women in Rome were common in both the public and private spheres (see essay 3.4, Wood). Unfortunately, today, many are unidentifiable, though they were once labeled by inscriptions on their bases (now lost) and may also have been recognizable via portrait heads (often also now detached from preserved pieces). Statues erected in fora honored outstanding women of the leading families. Since the only public office women could hold were priesthoods, they were notably disadvantaged in the Roman competition for honors, titles, and other marks of public acclaim (Nicols 1989, 117–42). Only about 10 percent of honorific statues represented women (Trimble 2011, 216). We might expect that these statues offered realistic depictions of elite women in comparison to the simplified figures of saleswomen identified by their stock in trade. Female portrait statues, however, appear formulaic and standardized with heavily draped bodies in the manner of goddesses. Women were portrayed in a limited number of statue types (the Pudicitia, Ceres, the Kore Albani, Hera Borghese, and the Small and Large Herculaneum Woman types) derived from Hellenic tradition (Fejfer 2008, 335; see essay 3.4, Wood). Whether these statue types were specifically identified with the various goddesses by Roman patrons likely did not matter; more important was the presence of the statues amidst displays of male honorific figures in the most prestigious quarters of cities. The statues endowed honor upon women deemed worthy and gave them visibility. The latter, however, was tempered by their representation in the form of familiar female figures from the repertory of classical culture and the state religion. That the statue types had not changed for hundreds of years enhanced their venerability and linked the women with tradition and the cultural legacy of Hellenism (p. 457) under Rome (Trimble 2011, 198, on the type of the Large Herculaneum Woman as “a generic form of classicism”).

The female honorific statue embodies a deep contradiction in Roman society: in order to be ennobled in the form of a statue, the women assumed the form of goddesses or personified virtues. This guise elevated them above their peers but effectively masked their identity with conventional poses, drapery suited to divinity, and often idealized faces. In other words, the images of women of substance all looked somewhat alike, as the conventional statue types allowed for limited modification or individualization. Male honorific statues also can be classified into standard types, but these were rooted in the experience of their political participation celebrated in active, heroic forms. Men were commemorated in statues as orators, warriors, and priests, roles in which they participated in civic life and through which they made careers, whereas women were distinguished by sculptural forms that transformed them into divinities or abstractions, figures larger than life but without reference to their conditions of existence.

In the past scholars have made much of the minor differences among the various female statue types in order to identify and classify them. Although grounded in closely observed details, the literature, paradoxically, has demonstrated the rigid replication of types to create appearances of uniformity (e.g., variations are found in the positions of arms and patterns of drapery folds with bundles at the shoulders or hips). The monotony of draped female figures reflects Roman attitudes that, in contrast to public, political men, wives and mothers should recede from sight and exert moral influence, if at all, within the religious and domestic spheres.

Portraits and Likeness

The popularity of standardized statue types to create the effect of uniformity produced immediately recognizable, monumental images for esteemed women (Trimble 2011, 200–205). If the sculptural bodies were not realistic representations of their subjects, then were the heads also borrowed from the classical repertory? Or were the heads portraits with individualized likenesses in order to modify or customize the statues? Social protocols of gender affected the development of portraits, and to understand the differences in development and function of both female and male portraits, it is necessary to turn to their model, the imperial portrait.

The emperor’s portrait forms the Zeitgesicht (the period face), the features and style of which were emulated in the portraits of citizens. Yet, the male private portraits (that is, portraits from outside the imperial family) are not identical with the imperial models (Fejfer 2008, 270–85), but were individualized for recognition. The emperor’s portrait clearly leads the way, while the other images follow. The portraiture of imperial women, however, has been more difficult to distinguish from the (p. 458) private female portraits, and, in fact, the heads of unidentified women often bear elaborate adornment in the form of coiffures (331–69). It appears that the emperors’ female relatives were not always in the vanguard. First of all, imperial women of the high empire are less visible in the ancient sources, both written texts and artifacts. They tend to be represented by fewer sculptural portrait types. In addition, the marble heads of busts or full-length statues were usually found without inscribed bases to identify them by name.

The study of coins has established the basis for identifying representations of imperial personages, including imperial women (Wood 1999, 63–70, 88–92, 289–95). Yet coins’ miniature portraits in profile, their shallow relief, and the lack of noses on many sculpted heads in the round, limit the value of comparisons between these two portrait types (Fejfer 2008, 411). Furthermore, on coins imperial women’s images on obverses tend to be paired with personifications of virtues on reverses, such as Concordia, Fecunditas, and Castitas (Alexandridis 2010, 201–4). The personified virtues are abstract in concept and depicted as veiled and draped female figures with attributes. They are virtually interchangeable as stock types. The canon of female virtues ornamented coins to support the moral and ethical foundations of society and the empire. The imagery distances viewers from the imperial women, who appear simply as fixtures to round out the political agenda of the imperial court.

Imperial female portraiture has long been characterized as realistic heads with fashion hairstyles (Bartman 2001, 1–25). While modern scholarship has submitted the female heads to intense analysis in order to delineate features of individual likenesses, minimal descriptive detail means that many female portraits cannot stand up to this level of scrutiny. In fact, homogeneity tends to be a marked characteristic of female heads, and faces of women in the imperial household may not have been at all easily recognized even when their husbands or fathers ruled Rome. The number of female heads, their limited number of portrait types, and their relationship to the coin profiles are rather different than those of the emperor (Alexandridis 2010, 219–24).

The interpretive problem lies in the production of portraits, attitudes about making women visible, and the tradition of representation. Although we know very little about the production of portraits, we must question how many women of any rank modeled for sculptors, given ideals of modesty and, in the case of imperial women, the chasm in social status between the artisans and the women of the imperial court. Propriety demanded modesty and self-restraint from women, who receded from public view in most instances. By adopting portraits with generic or classicizing features, sculptors endowed women with ennobled presences and greater stature. Portraits were produced after other portraits, and when depicting women, sculptors often made use of the venerable tradition of representing them as beautiful, ageless goddesses. Instead of being surprised by uniformity among female portraits, perhaps we should be startled by the extent to which their conventional sets of features were individualized (Dillon 2010, 131–4). There are, however, periods in which female portrait faces assumed a greater degree of individualization.

(p. 459) Abstraction and Adornment

Adornment appeared in period styles that featured showy or striking coiffures (Stephens 2008, 110–32). Cultus (i.e., adornment and dress) entailed the regimens of labor, care, and control over the body and its outward appearance that resulted in refinement and sophistication (Olson 2008, 9). The style of the Flavian and Trajanic periods is often described as realistic, with harsh or aging physiognomies sharing broad features under elaborate or architectonic coiffures. Although the scholarship attributes hairstyles to tastes of the imperial women, the enduring appeal of the so-called Flavian coiffure suggests that other phenomena were at work beyond that of copying the styles of imperial women (D’Ambra 2013). The hairstyle marked the women beneath it as members of a group of matrons whose inherent dignity was demonstrated by their impeccable grooming and comportment. As the coiffure spread across the empire and endured, it very well may have expressed a cosmopolitan style projecting high culture and status.

Status has been thought to have been the primary factor in representation that trumped gender: elite female patrons preferred the classicizing forms that embodied ideals of beauty, while women of the lower social orders were portrayed in a vernacular style characterized by reductive, inorganic forms. This generalization does not hold true in portraits and funerary statues in which anonymous (many lower-status, occasionally freedwomen) women donned elaborate coiffures or adopted the resplendent body of Venus in styles that overtook those of the imperial women’s imagery (D’Ambra 1996). It is peculiar in a starkly hierarchical society that the women of the imperial house did not dominate nor even stand out from the women below them in rank in their imagery (Fejfer 2008, 344–5). Since the emperor’s wife held no political office and performed a loose array of traditionally female duties involving cult and patronage, neither dedicated costumes nor attributes defined her iconography. The suppression of explicit individualized features has confounded scholars, who have retreated to the complexity of the highly wrought coiffures instead. Yet, the reserved faces with limited descriptive detail were capable of representing a broad swath of womanhood with a sense of the appropriate characteristics of dignity and integrity. The definition of the portrait requires some latitude to include these highly standardized and formulaic heads. But again, we must remember that inscribed plaques, usually engraved on bases separate from their statues (and now lost), completed the function of commemorative statues by identifying their subjects specifically (Trimble 2011, 181–96) and often named titles and honors achieved by women (see essays 3.4, Wood; and 4.5, Tuck).

(p. 460) Action Figures


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Figure 4.8.3 Doll of Crepereia Tryphaena, mid-second century AD. Rome, Musei Capitolini, Centrale Montemartini.

The best testimony of the wide influence and appeal of the female sculptural portrait lies in its use for girls’ dolls. More commonly made of rags, dolls were also carved of ivory and a few of these from the second century AD are finely produced with high levels of workmanship. One in particular evokes the idealized female portraits of the Antonine women through its pristine facial features and tower coiffure (figure 4.8.3). Its adult figure also appears ready to be dressed in the high-belted tunics favored by the popular statue types. The doll was found with its seventeen-year-old female owner, Crepereia Tryphaena, in her sarcophagus in the city of Rome (Sommella Mura 1983, 10–16). Although Crepereia Tryphaena was nearing maturity, she apparently had not cast off the doll that accompanied her to the grave. The doll, with its looks of a sculpture in miniature, took part in the girl’s life, rather than being erected as a monument to it.

The ivory doll bears some resemblance to female portrait sculpture of the mid-second century AD due to the finesse of its workmanship (down to the fingernails) and the (p. 461) period style of the coiffure. The facial features, however attractive, have been simplified to the point of caricature with overly large almond-shaped eyes and small, pursed lips. It does not portray an individual but, rather, projects to the doll’s owner an image of a lovely, fair maiden. That the doll possessed a grooming kit with a mirror (also interred with the girl and her doll) suggests that the games played included studying the face in the mirror and applying the techniques of beautification (D’Ambra 2007, 61–2). Small ivory combs and jewelry also belonged to the doll, who wore a ring to which a tiny key was attached—the key opened the box of grooming accessories.

Precious possessions under lock and key point to the imaginary world inhabited by Crepereia Tryphaena and her doll. The fine contours of the doll’s face and figure demonstrate how ideals of sculptural form serve to introduce girls to the requirements of a refined and sophisticated appearance. As artifacts deriving from artistic traditions, such dolls functioned as hand-held sculpture. Hands were intended to move the doll’s limbs, supplied with joints at the shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees. Tasks such as changing the doll’s clothes probably kept Crepereia Tryphaena busy with her toy, though in other games the doll’s movements brought her into the girls’ world with a semblance of life. In imaginative play, the doll as a sculpture in miniature engaged with Crepereia Tryphaena in very different ways than statues, which only seemed to step off their pedestals in myth or poetry (see essay 6.5, Perry). Given that the female body and its beautification was considered in poetic terms as a work of art, it is fitting that some Roman girls played with dolls that resembled honorific statues (D’Ambra 2013).

Heroes and Leaders

Toy figures found in boys’ tombs consisted of action figures, such as soldiers or gladiators. A preference for action figures also marks the monumental statuary of the emperor and elite males. Sculpture distinguishes the emperor and the senatorial leadership in their various roles as statesmen and orators, generals, or priests of the state religion (Fejfer 2008, 181–212). Marble or bronze figures feature the heads of state mounted on spirited steeds, declaiming with scrolls in hand, or in the act of offering to the gods with heads veiled. As much as these figures evoke aspects of military command, public service, or ceremonial duties, they are statuary types with conventions of their own.

Clothing characterizes the role of the figure in male sculpture, and the same subject was depicted in different costumes that befit his various offices and appointments. As the female honorific sculpture adapted Hellenic models that featured idealization, male statue types typically represented youthful bodies at their peak of development and among these, the nude portrait statue raises provocative issues. Nudity is frequently considered a hallmark of classical visual culture, and contrary to many modern Western conventions, there was a rather firm division between nudity and eroticism in antiquity—naked figures were not necessarily sexual. Nakedness had originally been viewed as a shameful state for outsiders and other non-elites like slaves and prisoners, but later came to signify positive agonistic, heroic, or divine associations for a male portrait sitter when viewed through a Hellenic lens (Bonfante 1989; C. H. Hallett 2005, chap. 3). As (p. 462) with many things Greek, nudity in portraiture was initially avoided in the visual crafting of Roman male identity, but private patrons had adopted the costume of “heroic nudity” as early as the first century BC, as seen in the Tivoli General (figure 6.2.1) and the Pseudo-Athlete from Delos. Indeed it is not until Greek visual culture effectively usurped the native Etruscan over the course of the late Republic that the transition from clothed gods (Etruscan) to nude ones (Greek) took place. The acceptance of nudity in the Roman visual language came first to images of gods before being deemed appropriate for mortal men (C. H. Hallett 2005, 89–92). The type of nudity eventually chosen for Roman male portraits was aspirational, asserting the virility and athleticism of the sitter through an idealized and muscular physique; this state of undress evoked the perfection and vigor of great gods and heroes.

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Figure 4.8.4 Sleeping Hermaphrodite, first century AD. Pompeii, Ufficio Scavi.

Nude male portraits frequently employed weapons as attributes, likely to clarify this undressed state as heroic rather than vulnerable, yet male nudity need not be motivated by a specific mythological narrative. The exposure of the female body, however, required justification by the mythological vignette of Venus bathing, which evoked the Roman matron’s beautification regime and the female stylization of the self (D’Ambra 1996, 219–32; 2000, 101–114). Both male and female nude portraits employed the attributes of divinities, not to suggest apotheosis, but that the sitter possessed the superior characteristics of the emulated god (C. H. Hallett 2005, 225–9). The poses of the nude male figures also communicated physical strength through posture and gesture: well-balanced contrapposto, a raised arm, face squarely regarding the viewer. Often the wrinkled faces of the portrait heads seem to clash with their powerfully formed physiques, as in the portrait statue of Claudius in the guise of Jupiter. The divine body replaces the emperor’s own figure, known for various physical defects or deficiencies, as accounted in the ancient written sources (Suet. Claud. 2–4).

Hermaphrodites and Hermaphroditus

Hermaphrodites present a special case in Roman constructions of sexual and gender identity in their endowment with both male sex organs and female breasts; in Roman eyes they violated natural laws of anatomy and defied the categories of the social order. While the myths of Hermaphroditus inspired depiction of hermaphrodites in sculpture and domestic wall-painting (Diod. Sic. 4.6.5; Ov. Met. 4.285–388), actual intersex people were mostly reviled by the Romans and seen as ill portents (Livy 31.12). The fourth-century AD author Ausonius described hermaphrodites as either sexually apathetic or prone to excessive passion. Hermaphroditus more emphatically contravenes expected Roman gender norms than, say Omphale, yet images of the double-sexed figure are more popular, according to the surviving archaeological evidence (Ajootian 1990; Kampen 1996a). No doubt, the popularity of the hermaphrodite reflected fascination with the doubling of sexual attributes and the abundance of vitality this implied. The most familiar sculptural type of Hermaphroditus, the Sleeping Hermaphrodite (p. 463) who twists his/her body to present male and female sex organs to viewers on opposite sides of the sculpture, offering the opportunity for a titillating surprise, has excessively colored modern interpretations of this subject. Yet a number of other depictions of Hermaphroditus offer the viewer direct access to both male genitalia and female breasts in one glance (figure 4.8.4). The anasyromenos type wears a garment that reveals the female breasts and lifts the hem of the dress to reveal male genitals (Ajootian 2000, 220–23). The lifting of the garment is an essential element of this type of hermaphrodite image: as women’s garments concealed their pubic region even if the breasts were clearly rendered under the cloth, Hermaphroditus must raise his/her skirt to distinguish him/herself as not simply female. The aggressive gesture of exposure suggests that statues of hermaphrodites may have served to avert the evil eye, in the manner of Priapic imagery in Roman domestic gardens (Ajootian 2000, 230; Clarke 2007, 180).

Sexuality and Sexual Behavior in Roman Sculpture

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Figure 4.8.5 Warren Cup, Augustan period. London, British Museum.

As has been noted above, much of the iconography of female figures in Roman sculpture emphasized their fertility and sexual attractiveness to men, yet these images were (p. 464) not explicitly sexual. Statues of goddesses, as in the Venus types, appropriately exploited the divinity’s appealing fleshiness in nude representations. The opportunity to eroticize male figures did not go unmissed by Roman sculptors; a class of Idealplastik representations of vaguely mythological young men has been singled out as a genre of “sexy boys” because of the subjects’ youthful, lithe, nude forms and poses that draw attention to their genitalia (Bartman 2002). This category of eroticized young men in sculpture can be viewed as an exception to the rule of heteronormativity in Roman visual culture, as these figures were likely commissioned by men.

Sexuality or eroticism in Roman sculpture can be difficult to interpret, and it should be noted that overtly sexual scenes are effectively absent, being more the purview of Roman painting (as in scenes from the Suburban Baths at Pompeii; Clarke 1998, 212–40). Symplegmata, however, are indeed scenes of intercourse yet are exclusively mythological in nature as the couplings include at least one nonhuman, like the group of a satyr and a hermaphrodite from Villa A at Oplontis or Pan and a goat from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum (Stähli 1999). Other examples of explicit sexual scenes are found in the so-called minor arts, and the best-known and most controversial example of such a scene is the silver Warren Cup, with its depiction of homosexual activity on a rather luxurious object (figure 4.8.5; Clarke 1993; 1998, 61–78). The figured relief scene displays the style and technique found in monumental relief sculpture, and its subject matter (p. 465) appealed to a rarefied group of connoisseurs or collectors. With its Augustan date, the Warren Cup forms the antithesis to the Tellus panel of the Ara Pacis. The panel on the state altar and the silver goblet both display the elegance of high classical style, with graceful symmetry, masterful balancing of relief layers, fine details, full-bodied figures with chiseled profiles, and recondite allusions to myth and paideia. Yet the Ara Pacis represents the female body as nature, the fruits of which sustained the empire, while the couplings on the silver vessel contravened state-sanctioned morality. The bombastic appeal of the former with its complex symbolic repertory may have gone over the heads of some Romans, although its linking of the female form with fields in harvest was easy to grasp. The frank sexuality of the Warren Cup may have evoked an intellectual nostalgia for the Greek symposium from those who had never experienced it, so to attribute it to those who flouted the Augustan moral campaign would be overreaching. An erotic charge takes effect at different intensities in the two works.


Scholarship on Roman sculpture now deploys a more expansive identification of “the Romans,” including patrons and viewers of sculpture from the lower social orders and the edges of the empire. Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli first brought attention to the problem of “the other” in imperial society within and without the city of Rome (see essay 4.7, Petersen). Gender is implicit in this configuration of the other, defined by difference and represented as the opposite of the elite male citizen of metropolitan Rome. In Bianchi Bandinelli’s groundbreaking studies, those outside of the empire or barely enfranchised within it assumed its forms of representation through appropriation or adaptation. Natalie Boymel Kampen’s early scholarship explored gender within the lower social orders of the freed and freeborn working classes, a realm in which the classicizing forms of Hellenic art had no purchase. Although social status was a determinative of the reliefs’ style, gendered differences are apparent in the emphasis on gestures and human contact in the working women’s commemorations. The classically draped figures of elite women erected in public, initially dismissed because they all looked alike, turn out to be portraits of individuals despite their highly conventional types and features. As the human body dominated the sculptural repertory, gender figured prominently to make visible both social norms and transgressive states.


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