Pompeii, Pornography & Power

The Victorian Censorship of the Erotic Artefacts of the Graeco-Roman World



To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome
– Edgar Allan Poe, ‘To Helen’

In 1752 an exquisitely detailed marble statue was uncovered during the excavation of Pompeii. The statue was a depiction of the Roman god, Pan cavorting sexually with a she-goat (fig. 1). This was a problem. The statue could not be destroyed or put on display. King Charles of the Two Sicilies placed the statue in the hands of the royal sculptor, issuing strict orders that no one would be allowed to access it. Thus began the history of the ‘secret museums’. At Pompeii, horrified archaeologists continued to discover very sexually explicit artefacts.

Fig 1. Pan and the Goat, Marble Statue, De Caro, (2000:25)
Fig 1. Pan and the Goat, Marble Statue, De Caro, (2000:25)

The way the Ancient Romans lived surrounded by art, and how it influenced their social and political behaviour, has been a matter of debate since the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 18th century. In this article I  explore the way the ancient Romans expressed their sexuality through sexual representation in their art, and how the Victorians subsequently responded to the explicit artefacts of the Graeco-Roman world. By locking this material away in the Secret Museum in Naples and the Museum Secretum at the British Museum in London, the Victorians temporarily closed the doors on the true art, social and sexual history of their, and our, ancient ancestors, and how this links with the Obscene Publications Act in 1857. I will examine how ‘pornography’ was defined, and how the concept linked directly to the artefacts from the Pompeian excavation. Finally, I will explore the complications for the antiquarian within the competing discourses of sexual behaviour, sexual representation, and classicism, and the conflict of self and political censorship.

Arguably, aspects of Victorian values and social class systems are something that we still embrace today. Victorianist, Kellow Chesney argued, ‘Much of the fascination of the Victorian age derives from its strange familiarity … compare the common circumstances of the Victorians’ daily life with our own, and it is astonishing how unremote these people seem’ (Chesney, 1991: 1). The British are a former imperial power that once compared themselves with the ancient Romans. Since the discovery of the erotic artefacts, however, we have taken it upon ourselves to share the Victorian values that censored sexuality and sexual representation.

In Part I, I explore Roman culture in Pompeii: looking at social and sexual humour and taboos, sexual representation within art, and what art meant to them. I will focus solely on the Julio-Claudian dynasty (27 BC – 68 AD)[i], and the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. I will examine the context of sexual representation, only referencing other periods, art and artefacts should the argument require me to do so. I will look at theories by art historian, Professor John R Clarke, on how the Romans regarded sexuality and sexual representation, and opposing arguments by classicist, Thomas McGinn. It is important to attempt to grasp the basic sexual ideals of the ancient Romans in order to appreciate the artefacts, in their original context, before the Victorians overlaid their own cultural beliefs onto them, robbing them of their original context.

Fig 2. The Warren Cup (detail), Luxury Drinking Vessel, Williams, (2006:11)
Fig 2. The Warren Cup (detail), Luxury Drinking Vessel, Williams, (2006:11)

In Part II, I explore the Victorian’s response to the excavation of Pompeii, in the long 19th Century, and the artefacts that were unearthed. Using the work of cultural historian, Walter Kendrick and art critic, Isabel Tang, I will analyse the history of the dig and the resulting censorship of the artefacts when the King of the Two Sicilies became directly involved and ordered the establishment of a secure room within the walls of the Naples Museum.  This censorship of ‘obscene’ artefacts complies with the ‘policing’ of sex and the censorship of the discourse of sexuality by our Victorian ancestors, and my inquiry will expose how this led to the invention and definition of the word ‘pornography’ as we understand it today.

In the final part, I will explore the social and societal implications of the Victorian’s ‘policing’ of sexual discourse using the theories of the philosopher and social theorist, Michel Foucault. This exploration will reveal how Victorians viewed their society, and the groups within that society, most notably the working classes, and the fears of the effect of the discourse of sex and sexual imagery on their society as a whole.

Fig 3. The Lion, Tintinnabulum, 1st Century BC - 1st Century AD, Grant, (1997:142)
Fig 3. The Lion, Tintinnabulum, 1st Century BC – 1st Century AD, Grant, (1997:142)

I will also explore the related topic of collecting erotic artefacts in the 19th century, and the difficulties the antiquarians faced because of censorship. I will discuss the findings of some particularly contentious pieces, including a close reading of the Warren Cup — a small silver cup used in social gatherings, (fig. 2) — and a tintinnabulum — a good luck charm that the ancient Romans would have hung in their homes to ward off the evil eye, (fig. 3) — both of which I viewed firsthand at the archives of The British Museum. I will also explore the kinds of artefacts that interested such antiquarians which I’ll evidence from the Witt Scrapbooks — a series of scrapbooks, c.1839, containing a collection of sketches and paintings of erotic artefacts from the ancient world, — and the Naples Catalogue — an official catalogue of the erotic artefacts in the Naples Museum, c.1857, — that I personally viewed in the Paul Hemlyn Library. These provide a link between the Victorians, the Graeco-Roman world, and the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

I will conclude by summarising my key points and then ask whether our contemporary views of the discourse of sexuality and the dangers behind erotic art and artefacts have really changed and/or moved forward from our Victorian ancestors. I will conclude with the public and media response to the British Museum’s acquisition and exhibition of the Warren Cup and the response to the Museum Secretum.



Roman Culture and Sexual Representations in Context

της σεξουαλικής αγκαλιά μπορεί να συγκριθεί μόνο με μουσική και με την προσευχή[ii]


Fig 4. Lararium, Shrine, c. 67 AD, Clarke, (2007:26)
Fig 4. Lararium, Shrine, c. 67 AD, Clarke, (2007:26)

Under the reign of Nero, 60 AD, in common with the majority of Romans, Aulus Vettius Restitutus joined other Romans in preparation for the daily sacrifice to the gods. He changed into his toga and made his way to the servants’ atrium and casted his eyes over the painted Lararium, a shrine (fig. 4). It depicted the genius, in a toga, the guardian spirit of the household, a Lare either side of him, twin deities protectors of the home, and below them was the agathodaemon, a good spirit rendered in the painting as a snake. Restitutus lit some incense and placed a libation bowl alongside the offering of fruit from his orchard. The sacrifice began with hope of fertility, long-life, and protection to the house and its occupants (Clarke, Roman Life, 2007: 27).

Pompeii and Herculaneum were the two Cities of Vesuvius. Classical historians, Michael Grant and John R. Clarke estimate that the population of Pompeii would have been between 20,000-25,000. It covered about 160 acres and its circumference measured just less than two miles (Grant, 1971: 45). This was about the average size of a provincial Roman city in that period.

The houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum were extravagantly decorated with frescos, sculptures, and charms, in styles that classical historians, such as Grant and Clarke, now refer to as: first-(Incrustation-), second-(Architectural-), third-, and fourth-styles. Grant argues that the first-style began in the 1st century BC (Grant, 1979: 14-15). After the earthquake of AD 62 — prelude to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 17 years later — the economy collapsed as well as the city. Many citizens were forced to restore their homes. Many owners refashioned them as miniature villas, and modernised them using the qualities of the fourth-style, a style that came about in the Flavian period, AD 20, during the reign of Tiberius.  This remained fashionable until the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.  The common themes were geometrical shapes with ‘residual architectural features’ and motifs representing the gods, Dionysus and Apollo, and the goddess, Venus (Clarke, 1991: 169). They were rich in colour, most notably red, black and yellow. Style and visual art were hugely important to Roman society, and indicated the status of the owner. The quality and topic of visual art was, as Clarke explains, a mark of the ‘owner’s good taste and sophistication’ (Clarke, Looking at Laughter, 2007: 191-92). The collection of a Roman would include original or copies of Greek masterpieces, and a certain amount of erotic pictures. Clarke argues that to have erotic imagery in your home would also indicate your appreciation and importance of the nature of life.

Fig 5. Leda and the Swan, Fresco, c. 67AD, Grant, (1997:146)
Fig 5. Leda and the Swan, Fresco, c. 67AD, Grant, (1997:146)

There are different interpretations set forward by Classicists as to the purpose of the erotic artefacts. Three of those interpretations can be represented by Clarke, Guido Calza and Thomas McGinn. Evidence has shown that iconography and ideals presented in erotic imagery were passed down from the Greeks to the Romans, like their gods. Mythological settings were common throughout paintings in Roman homes, some of which were serious representations of religious events including sexual exploits of the gods (fig. 5), as well as idealised couples — what Clarke calls ‘beautiful lovemaking’. The Romans found beauty in full-figured women. This body type was often used when depicting goddesses in the period of the ancient Greeks. Clarke describes this body type as having ‘large but firm breasts, wide hips and rounded contours.’ (Clarke, 2001: 21)

Representing gods and goddesses in art was of huge importance. As Grant explains, in the Graeco-Roman world religion was either a ‘personal cult of divinity,’ or ‘the totality of the citizenry organizing solemn processions and the sacrifice of animals … in the honor of one or another of the more important divinities’ (Grant, 1979: 50). In 80 BC, Pompeii was placed under the protection of Venus by Sulla, the dictator of the Roman Empire 82 BC – 79 BC, and this protection was illustrated throughout Pompeii by murals and frescos.

Fig 6. Priapus weighing his member, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Grant, (1997:53)
Fig 6. Priapus weighing his member, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Grant, (1997:53)

The Romans did not have a concept of public and private spaces in the way we do. Access was, however, limited depending on status: client, guest or family. In Clarke’s Roman Life, a popular history concerning the daily lives of Ancient Romans, he demonstrates how business would have commenced in a Pompeian home. He uses the House of the Vettii and the Vettii brothers as his key example. The Vettii brothers were freedmen who used to run their master’s wool-treating shop. When they became freedmen they set up and ran their own business within their richly decorated, fourth-style house. The Vettii brothers and the House of the Vettii are most often used by Classicists as key examples due to the astonishing preservation of the house and its contents. A working day would begin with salutation: the opening of the house to receive clients. A client would arrive and be led by a slave to meet with one of the Vettii brothers. The slave could only take the client a certain path through the house that would terminate at the largest reception room in the house, the great oecus (Clarke, Roman Life, 2007: 46-47).

Fig 7. Water Skier, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Clarke, (1997:CD-Rom)
Fig 7. Water Skier, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Clarke, (1997:CD-Rom)

On his immediate arrival the client couldn’t help but notice the palpable symbols of protection and wealth on display. A fresco of Mercury was subtly painted on the northern wall. But it would have been the fresco of Priapus painted on the wall by the opening to the atrium that would have caught his eye. Standing proud was a bearded Priapus weighing his enormous member against a bag of coins (fig. 6). Priapus was the son of Aphrodite and Dionysus — though some say Hermes was his father — and was the God of fertility,  and protector of livestock and gardens. As the slave led the client through the atrium he would have viewed decorated walls of cupids (fig. 7) — often associated with Dionysus, God of wine and festivity, — frescos of mythic battles, and of Mercury. He would continue past the impluvium; a well, and out to the peristyle. The client could have paused to take in yet another representation of Priapus — a half–life-size marble statue, situated between two beautiful statues of cupid, with a hole drilled into his prominent phallus and shooting water into a basin in front of him (fig. 8). The House of the Vettii was certainly indicative of the Vettii brothers’ ‘nouveau-riche mentality’ (Clarke, 1991: 208). The client would finally arrive at the great oecus where business would commence (Clarke, Roman Life, 2007: 46-47).

Fig 8. Priapus, Marble Fountain, c. 67 AD, Grant, (1997:51)
Fig 8. Priapus, Marble Fountain, c. 67 AD, Grant, (1997:51)

It is hard to ignore the theme of protection, riches, and carousing within the walls of the House of the Vettii. As a representative example, the presence of Dionysus, Mercury and Priapus were all very prominent and obviously of great importance to the Vettii brothers and their values. Nevertheless, the House of the Vettii wasn’t only home to those three deities. Upon leaving the great oecus a guest or client would have seen two frescos of Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes and Aphroditus. It is said that a Naiad named Salmacis fell in love with him and their bodies came together as one. Both sets of sex organs, however, remained. One of the images of Hermaphroditus could be found in the room referred to as oecus p where Pan discovers Hermaphroditus (fig. 9), and another can be found to the right of the doorway inside the great oecus. This one shows Pan surprising Hermaphroditus who is clearly excited, illustrated by his erect penis (fig. 10).

Fig 9. Pan Discovers Hermaphroditus, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Clarke, (2007:CD-ROM)
Fig 9. Pan Discovers Hermaphroditus, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Clarke, (2007:CD-ROM)

The erect phalli of Priapus and Hermaphroditus were not the only explicit sexual imagery in the house. The cook’s room contained three images of lovemaking, two of which remain in excellent condition (figs. 11-12), which demonstrate that even the slaves were rewarded with images of splendour. Clarke believes that the Vettii brothers adored their cook, and felt it was important to reward his fine cuisine with beautiful art. In Roman Life, Clarke conjectures that to acknowledge and reward the cook the Vettii brothers offered to decorate his room in any style that the he wished. The images chosen are akin to the ones you would find in the local brothels around Pompeii (fig. 13).

Fig 10. Pan Surprising Hermaphroditus, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Clarke, (2007:CD-ROM)
Fig 10. Pan Surprising Hermaphroditus, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Clarke, (2007:CD-ROM)

There were several brothels located in Pompeii — appearing to be part of the Roman culture — that were vastly decorated with pictures representing different sexual similes above the entryways to the cubicles. A fresco from one such brothel depicts a man and woman making love on a bed. The woman is sitting on top of the man with what appears to be a breast band around her chest. Her right arm is outstretched with her hand resting on the bed to the left of his head. Her left arm is slightly bent back and her hand is falling between her legs, guiding the man’s entrance. The man is lying on his back propping himself up on his right arm while he holds the woman’s waist with his left hand. In comparison, one of the frescos from the cook’s room is almost identical with the exception of the couple facing the opposite way. These paintings are clearly a representation of the other suggesting that the cook, perhaps, visited the local brothel regularly.

Fig 11. Erotic Scene I, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Grant (1997:52)
Fig 11. Erotic Scene I, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Grant (1997:52)

Some historians have questioned the purpose connected with the erotic imagery found in the cook’s room. While historians, Clarke and McGinn, argue the function of the cook’s room and its paintings, Calza, using a similar modern theory to McGinn, questions the function of the House of Jupiter and Ganymede, another property in Pompeii. The latter two historians fall in to a trap set by the Victorians where an ancient and very Other culture is interpreted by the values of our own.

In opposition to Clarke, the historian McGinn argues that the cook’s room could conceivably be a private ‘sex club’. ‘… these private ‘sex clubs’ were, as far as we know … not very numerous, once the possible examples of true brothel … are excluded, the following examples are left as possibilities … : House of the Vettii. The secluded room x1 … ’ (McGinn, 2004: 163-64). He continues to loosely narrate that there is ‘no real harm to its standing as a “sex club”’ (McGinn, 2004: 165).

Fig 12. Erotic Scene II, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Grant (1997:52)
Fig 12. Erotic Scene II, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Grant (1997:52)

The layout of the building, and its imagery, is what gives the impression of a brothel, or ‘sex club’ to some historians. McGinn argues that because the room in the House of the Vettii is conspicuously secluded and contained, and that the three frescos in the room are of couples making love, then there has to be a possibility that the House of the Vettii had a ‘sex club’ in their domus. McGinn seems to be missing the point. In contrast, Clarke argues,

It is highly unlikely that the Vettii set up a room in their servants’ quarters as a brothel. For one thing, it was not a profitable business, … For another, wealthy and pretentious freedmen like the Vettii would avoid commerce of any sort within their house; this was precisely the kind of association that would remind people of their servile origins. (Clarke, 2001: 174).  

Fig 13. Erotic Encounter, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Grant (1997:33)
Fig 13. Erotic Encounter, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Grant (1997:33)

McGinn believes that ‘erotic art appears to have been a near-universal feature of Roman social life, a fact that has encouraged brothel-spotting in some controversial places.’ (McGinn, 2004: 201). He refers, again, here to the House of the Vettii, concluding that the graffiti by the front door and the erotic imagery in the cooks’ room are evidence enough to suggest that room x1 is in fact a ‘sex club.’ His acknowledgement of the vast amount of erotic imagery in Roman culture contradicts his conclusion of brothels and ‘sex clubs.’ The untidy and unremitting conjecture strengthens Clarke’s alternative theory on the matter of the cooks’ room.

Calza, however, appears to sit between Clarke and McGinn when analysing the House of Jupiter and Ganymede in concluding it to be a Gay Hotel. According to Clarke, ‘Calza builds his gay-hotel hypothesis on three different sorts of evidence: the changed layout of the house; the meaning of the graffiti; and the imagery of the house’s largest room’ (Clarke, 1991: 320). The image is of Ganymede and Jupiter that gave the house its name.[iii] The set up of a brothel included facing doorways and privacy of ground-floor rooms. The House of Jupiter and Ganymede had these qualities. Clarke also mentions that the historian’s theory of layout originates from interpretations of a red-figured Greek Vase that illustrated such qualities, and can also be exemplified by the Warren Cup[iv] (Clarke, 1991: 323). Furthermore, all the graffiti found in the House of Jupiter and Ganymede referenced no women, nor did it seem that men reading it minded as none of it had been attempted to be removed.

For example:

Livius me cunus
lincet Tertulle cunus…
Efesius Terisium amat[v]

In Clarkes’ opinion, many of the sexually-referenced graffiti that was found throughout Pompeii all indicate prostitution as a social institution. For example:


It appears, however, that most of the graffiti that has been translated mentions sexual acts between males and females, rather than male and male, and most often the females referenced were ancellae or togatae, prostitutes.

Fig 14. A Woman Fellating a Man, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Clarke (2001:137)
Fig 14. A Woman Fellating a Man, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Clarke (2001:137)

But the presence of brothels cannot explain all the erotic art. Throughout Pompeii and Herculaneum graffiti and erotic imagery can be found in many public places, not just private. One of these public places was the Suburban Baths. There was a shortage of water in Pompeii and Herculaneum, largely as a result of the active volcano, Mount Vesuvius. It was also the reason most Pompeian homes had an impluvium in the main atrium of the house. Due to the lack of water there were public baths all through Pompeii — only the rich had their own private bath — where the people would go to wash. The problem with the public baths, in the Graeco-Roman world was the threat from the evil eye. The evil eye holds cultural longevity and can be located across many European societies. It was believed that if someone was to look jealousy at you then they could impose the evil eye on to you which in turn could result in death. Clarke believes that the owner of the Suburban Baths placed erotic imagery in the changing rooms to dispel it.

Fig 15. A Man Performing Cunnilingus on a Woman, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Clarke (2001:138)
Fig 15. A Man Performing Cunnilingus on a Woman, Fresco, c. 67 AD, Clarke (2001:138)

The imagery wasn’t of ideal couples or deities involved in sexually deviant acts; on the contrary, they embodied Roman sexual taboos. Clarke concurs with classicist, Luciana Jacobelli that the ‘sex pictures were put there to make bathers laugh’ (Clarke, Looking at Laughter, 2007: 195), however, he also believes that the laughter at the surprise of seeing these kinds of images would offset the effect of the evil eye. There are reported to have been 16 vignettes in the Suburban Baths, displaying outrageous sexual acts, some of which depict two of the three major taboos in Roman society: fellatio (fig. 14) and cunnilingus (fig. 15). The third major taboo being “forced fellatio”.

For the Ancient Romans, oral purity held great substance. The os (mouth) was the organ of speech and expression. These were both used in public speaking — especially in the service of the State — and for greeting. It was a social organ. For the ancient Romans, oratory was art. If it was found that one had committed a forbidden oral act then they would suffer, by law, the status of infamy and would not be able to ‘vote nor represent themselves in the court of law’ (Clarke, Looking at Laughter, 2007: 192). The importance of the purity of the mouth is also validated in Priapea: Poems for a Phallic God, a selection of Roman poems put together, edited and translated, by W.H. Parker, for example:

Pedicabere, fur, semel; sed idem
si prensus fueris bis, irrumabo.
quod si tertia furta molieris,
ut poenam patiare et hanc et illam,
pedicaberis irrumaberisque[vii]

This passage verifies that one of Priapus’ purposes within Ancient Roman culture was that of protection; protection of property. It is also further evidence towards the insight of the taboos of the Ancient Romans and the importance held towards the purity of the mouth. As historian, Amy Richlin points out, ‘the strongest Latin invective is that against the os impurum, the unclean mouth.’ (Parker (ed.), 1988: 122-23)

Fig 16. Phallic Symbol, Brick Engraving, Grant, (1997:30)
Fig 16. Phallic Symbol, Brick Engraving, Grant, (1997:30)

Another way of dispelling the evil eye — or protecting one’s self against it — was that of talismatic phallic representation. Clarke explains that ‘scholars have amply demonstrated … that images of the erect phallus, ubiquitous in the Mediterranean even to this day, are apostrophic — that is, their principle purpose has always been to ward off harm from the evil eye.’ (Clarke, 2001: 13). These apostrophic interpretations, says Clarke, go on to note that the many phallic imagery found in Pompeii were placed there to protect homes and businesses, not just the sex industry. Phallic representations have been found carved into walls (fig. 16) and pavements (fig 17), frescos often depicting Mercury or Priapus with an erect phallus, statues and sculptures, and smaller items, such as tintinnabulums, hanging in homes, all helping to protect and ward off evil.

It seems the representation of sexual imagery — pre-AD 79 — demonstrates that the ancient Romans were a superstitious culture who valued the importance of social status, the importance of deities and the pleasures in life, rather than the orgy of sex and decadence.

Fig 17. Phallus, Lava Paving-Stone, Grant (1997:31)
Fig 17. Phallus, Lava Paving-Stone, Grant (1997:31)

The life of the Vettii, and contrary often portrayed in popular history, the pleasures in life didn’t last. On August 24, AD 79, a major earthquake hit Pompeii and Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius erupted violently. The lava poured down the side of the mountain burying the cities and the people, freezing them in to time, wiping them off the map, for almost two millennia.

The many representations of sexual imagery in the Cities of Vesuvius were part of a public and private art culture that also depicted mythological and historical scenes that any class could possibly own. Similar imagery would have been found all over the Roman Empire. Mythological masterpieces would have been found in every house in the Cities. Erotic imagery and sexual graffiti was found in every day Pompeian homes as well as brothels and the public baths. Some of these erotic paintings were depicting ideal couples making love or mythological deities cavorting sexually, which would have been displayed as part of an art collection in any Pompeian house. Some of the erotic imagery was depicting services offered in brothels, and some of the paintings were for humours sake, depicting sexual taboos, staged to fend off the evil eye. Whatever the imagery and where ever it was displayed it is clear, when staged in their original context, erotic art was, indeed, part of Roman culture.



The Excavation of Pompeii and the Victorian Invention of Pornography


Advance, and wander on through crumbling halls,
Through prostrate gates and ivied pedestals,
Arches, whose echoes now no chariots rouse,
Tombs, on whose summits goats undaunted browse,
See where yon ruined wall on earth reclines,
Through weeds and moss the half-seen painting shines,
Still vivid midst the dewy cowslip grows,
Or blends its colours with the blushing rose.


Around 1710, in the small town of Resina, south of Naples, an Italian peasant was digging a well on his land. Working under the blistering heat the peasant discovered a substantial quantity of marble and alabaster. Amongst his findings he began to unearth fragments of yellow marble. The yellow marble was called gallo antico and was particularly valuable at that time in Italy because of its link and value to the ancient world.  The peasant sold the gallo antico to a local vendor where it caught the attention of D’Elboeuf, the Supreme Officer of the Guard Maurice de Lorraine, a representative of the Austrian hold over South Italy. D’Elboeuf was in the process of building a new home in Italy and had originally purchased the gallo antico for its interior. His intentions changed, however, and the value of the marble redirected his interest. D’Elboeuf approached the peasant and proceeded to purchase the land where the marble was found, ordering an excavation of the area where the peasant was digging his well (Barker, 1907: 144). Progress was slow and after two years the project was terminated.

In 1738, subsequent to the Spanish taking back Naples, the project was resumed under the order of King Charles of the Two Sicilies. It was not long until the well opened into the centre of an amphitheatre which later was revealed to be the amphitheatre of Herculaneum, one of the lost cities of Vesuvius (Barker, 1907: 144). Over the next eight years discoveries were being exposed in mass volume and the Museo Borbonico (“Bourbon Museum”) was set up to house and guard these artefacts. The volume of discoveries began to decline, however, and by 1745 the excavators decided to turn their attention to a hill named Cività (‘City’), a few miles southeast of Herculaneum. What lay waiting under Cività was the magnificent Pompeii.

The excavation of Pompeii was considerably easier than that of its neighbouring city. When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Pompeii had been swallowed by ashes and stones that had frozen it in time, rather than the sea of mud that had drowned and petrified Herculaneum. The excavation of Pompeii was yielding artefact after artefact ranging from household items, frescoes, to Roman bodies preserved beneath the ash. The first intact fresco was found in 1748, in what appeared to be an ancient Roman dining room. Further into the excavation, a skeleton, still holding coins from the Nero and Vespasian era, was discovered in the same house. These extraordinary discoveries would be reburied by the archaeologists for when the site was visited by a person of significance, where he would expose it as if it was the latest find (Kendrick, 1996: 3).

 It was in 1758, however, that rumours began to circulate about ‘lascivious’ frescoes being discovered beneath the ruins. In an excavation of the Villa of the Papyrr, a marble statue was revealed. This statue, however, began a string of responses, creating horror and interest simultaneously.  It was this intellectual panic that saw the beginning of legal prohibition of sexually explicit material, which today we describe as ‘pornography’.

The contentious object found at Pompeii was a small marble statue depicting the god Pan cavorting with a she-goat in great detail.  As Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Director of the British School of Rome, explained to Tang: ‘Normally with a statue, the bits that you can’t easily see are only roughed out. But with this … you find that the genitals of both Pan and the nanny goat are fully present and visible. You can’t ever get an uninterrupted view’ (Tang, 1999: 26). The statue was immediately placed under the supervision of the royal sculptor, Joseph Canart, by King Charles with strict orders that no one should be allowed access to it.

By the turn of the 19th century, the excavation was still revealing both common and sexually explicit artefacts. At first the notion was to deny the content of the discoveries, but in 1819, when it became impossible to do so, the Duke of Calabria, Francis I, suggested that the ‘obscene’ artefacts be locked away in the Gabinetto degli Oggetti Osceni (Cabinet of Obscene Objects – AKA, The Secret Museum) at the Museo Borbonico. The ‘obscene’ frescoes painted on the walls of Pompeii, were barred and bolted.

The amount of ‘obscene’ artefacts discovered at the dig would have been another reason for the panicked response. Kendrick suggests that both the common and ‘obscene’ artefacts would have been distributed throughout the Roman Empire and that it was only because of the preservation from the ash of Vesuvius, that these artefacts were in such a condensed area. Kendrick argues that any artefacts found outside the cities of Vesuvius, obscene in nature, probably ‘succumbed to the zealous progress of Christianity’ (Kendrick, 1996: 10)[viii]. As the classicist, Dr Simon Goldhill explains to Tang, ‘it’s very important for the Victorians that the ancient world, both Greek and Roman, as full of clean white statues that they could respond to as purity, beauty and sublimity’ (Tang, 1999: 29). This can also be seen in the poems of Macaulay, such as ‘Pompeii’ (1819) and The Lays of Ancient Rome (1842) in which the Victorian idealisation of Roman heroes and values is apparent. Most of Europe compared itself to the culture of the Graeco-Roman world, so the discovery of Pompeii and its obscenities became a threat, not only to the ideas of the Graeco-Roman world, but to their own.

Meanwhile, over the ocean in Britain, the Victorians were attempting to shift the focus from the act of sex itself and were trying to put in place a legal structure around the act of ‘looking at sex’. The Victorians knew they couldn’t regulate someone becoming sexually excited so they fought on regulating the items and images that could trigger the sexual excitement.[ix]

In May 1857, Lord Chief Justice Campbell addressed the House of Lords and the Cabinet regarding his concerns about the corruption that looking at items and images — that could cause sexual excitement — would do to British society: ‘from a trial which took place before me on Saturday, I have learnt with horror and alarm that a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic — the sale of obscene publications and indecent books — is openly going on’ (Thomas, 1998: 139).[x] Lord Campbell produced the Obscene Publications Bill and set it before the House of Lords, and even with little support, the Obscene Publications Act 1857 was passed and harsh penalties were put in place for people who distributed material deemed to, in the words of the Act, ‘deprave and corrupt’ individuals and, by implication, the society itself. Cultural historian, John Springhall and Tang both note that such legislation specifically targeted the ‘protection’ of the working classes, women and children. Springhall argues that it was these sections of society (those not male, adult, and middle or upper class) that were continually defined as ‘victims,’ and that literature and pictorial art was being investigated by politicians for its power to ‘corrupt’ (Springhall, 1998: 7). An extreme example of misplaced anxiety would be the prosecution of social reformer, Annie Besant, under the Act for publishing Charles Knowlton’s, The Fruits of Philosophy, a guide to birth control for the working classes (Thomas, 1998: 154).

Another example of the implementation of the Act, cited by Tang, was the case of Henry Hayler. Hayler and his family ran in advance of a police raid. The raid uncovered 130,248 prints and 5,000 negatives of an ‘obscene’ nature, as decided under the Obscene Publications Act. These photographs and negatives were immediately seized and destroyed, and nothing from the sexually explicit Hayler collection survived (Tang, 1999: 16). In her Channel 4 documentary, Tang suggests ‘the idea that sexual imagery would harm was now enshrined in law. 19th century culture had now succeeded in creating two Secret Museums; the literal one in Naples, and a metaphorical one, which now existed in a legal document and in the minds of an entire culture.’ (Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation, 2006).

Categorisation became essential within museums. They needed to name, define and, in the case of the erotic artefacts, contain the items. Seven years before the passing of the Obscene Publications Act the word ‘pornography’ turned up in English print. Looking back through history it is evident that the word ‘pornography’ only existed, pre-19th century, as the Greek word pornographos, its definition, ‘writing about prostitutes’. It wasn’t until 1850, in an English translation of German art historian, C.O. Müller’s Handbuch der Archäologie der Kunst, that the word ‘pornography’ first appeared in English print, and this was directly in context of the Pompeii artefacts. It is in 1857, however, the first definition of the word ‘pornography’ shows up in a medical dictionary, defined as: ‘a description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene’ (Kendrick, 1996: 1). It is also in 1857 when a major work was published on the same subject: William Acton, Prostitution, considered in its Moral, Social, & Sanitary Aspects (London: John Churchill, 1857).

Seven years after the Obscene Publications Act was passed, and the regulation of items and images was now in legal documentation, the word ‘pornography’ was placed in Webster’s Dictionary, 1864, again directly addressing the finds in Pompeii, ‘licentious painting employed to decorate the walls of rooms sacred to bacchanalian orgies, examples of which exist in Pompeii’ (Kendrick, 1996: 13). These definitions are an insight to how ambivalent and complex the term was. In Goldhill’s opinion, what the definition ‘pornography’ was doing to ideas was the same as what the Secret Museum was doing to objects. What he means by this is, the items found at Pompeii have a power over Victorian society, the ability to corrupt, and therefore just as the Secret Museum segregates the material, the word ‘pornography’ tries to segregate a set of ideas (Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation, 2006).

For the Victorians, privacy was an essential part of their culture, and they couldn’t accept that their ancient Roman ancestors had no concept of privacy whatsoever. Our ancestors had developed anxieties about sex and sexuality and saw dangers, medically and towards society as a whole, and had become tied in with Christian values — as historian, John Boswell points out, efforts to conceal homosexuality, for instance, were ‘undertaken by the editors of the Loeb Classics, the standard collection of Greek and Latin classical texts with English translation’ (Boswell, 1981: 19). It was believed, by the Victorians, that if people were exposed to ‘obscene’ imagery it would lead to sexual excitement and ultimately result to masturbation. Victorian society favoured ‘onanism’ as a euphemism for masturbation, from the ‘sin of Onan’ (private sexual gratification, neither heterosexual or for reproduction) in the Old Testament (Mason, 2008: 1), and masturbation was a worry for many Victorian parents and other individuals with those ‘urges.’ The Victorians believed that if a person resorted to masturbation it would be the start of an addiction and they would want to consume more explicit imagery, becoming constant masturbators.

As the Victorianist, Dr. Diane Mason argues, paranoia about the medical harm of masturbation was at its peak, ‘masturbation in the Victorian period, the era which not only consolidated masturbation’s status as a condition of grave scientific and medical importance but during which the paranoia about the practice was at its height’ (Mason, 2008: 4). Art historian, Alison Smith, argues that ‘the ultimate fear [was] that in loosing this sacred seed, men would become enfeebled, they would become in feminised, and they would degenerate’ (Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation, 2006). Masturbation was viewed as a ‘secret sin’, which is a corruption of the individual and would inevitably corrupt society through ‘boys, freely pool[ing] their knowledge and experience of the vice with their fellows’ (Mason, 2008: 13). Physician, Nicholas Francis Cook argues that masturbation, ‘if persevered in, must reveal itself’ even though it is thought to be a solitary and private sexual practice,’ to which Mason adds that the, ‘disorder manifested in a range of physical symptoms which were widely broadcast in clinical and popular medical writing, through periodical advertising and publications by quack practitioners and, more spectacularly, as waxwork exhibits in anatomical museums’ (Mason, 2008: 13). The vast amount of ‘obscene’ artefacts discovered at Pompeii, therefore, became evidence as to why the Roman Empire fell. The Victorians believed it was because of masturbatory behaviour.

Conversely, even though the excavations created a political and scholarly panic, the dig continued, and in 1860 Giuseppe Fiorelli took over as head of the project. It was Fiorelli’s name that has become infamous pertaining to the Pompeii excavation. In response to his contractual obligation as head of project, Fiorelli developed a practice that we still use today, where he would insist preservation of artefacts in their original place if at all possible.  He also mapped out the city so he could record the original location of an artefact in order for the place not to be forgotten once it had been removed. It was Fiorelli, also, who invented the technique of filling the shells made by the hardened ash with liquid plaster. This was just another commitment made on Fiorelli’s part to show us the last moments of Pompeii, as Goldhill explains, ‘For the first time we had a whole town, a whole culture and it was possible to see where that imagery fitted into the town’ (Tang, 1999: 29). Because of the secret museum, however, the world was not able to see the whole culture in its original context at all.



Access and Denial by Class and Gender, and the Antiquarians

Thou shalt not go near, thou shalt not touch, thou shalt not consume,
thou shalt not experience pleasure, thou shalt not speak … ultimately
thou shalt not exist, except in darkness and secrecy.


Discourses on sexuality and sexual behaviour was still common in the 17th century. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century those attitudes towards sexual behaviour and the discourse of sexuality changed gear and Western society appeared to enter into what Foucault called a ‘world of perversion’ (previously acceptable behaviour was reclassified as perverted). The challenge of dissenting Christianity, Catholic emancipation, and Chartism — social change — were leading factors in the Victorian establishment’s use of repressive powers, especially towards the working classes.  Discourse concerning sex between parents and children, teachers and pupils and domestic servants were almost, if not utterly, silenced. Yet, by not talking about sex they were encouraged to talk about it, albeit with shame and guilt. In The History of Sexuality. Vol.1 Foucault refers to this connection as a ‘confession of the flesh … to all insinuations of the flesh: thoughts, desires, voluptuous imaginings, delectations, combined movements of the body and soul’ (Foucault, 1978: 19). With this silence, and yet the encouragement to confess, the discourse and act of sex gained power and resulted in fear amongst Western civilisation.

As a result of the change in attitude towards the act and discourse of sex became, what Foucault refers to as a ‘police’ matter. He argues that it was thought to be a necessity to regulate sex, ‘a policing of sex: that is, not the rigor of a taboo, but the necessity of regulating sex through useful and public discourses’ (Foucault, 1978: 25). Popular guides were distributed to the Victorians, written by 19th century practitioners such as RV Pierce, JH Kellogg, and EB Foote. These guides were distributed specifically to parents and those who were deemed at risk of corruption, children, women, and the working classes — a replica of the system put in place in Italy regarding which persons were allowed access to the Cabinet of Obscene Objects in Naples. Both the British Victorians and the Italians believed that these groups of persons were most likely to be at risk of corruption. They were thought not strong enough to fight off the ‘anima’ instinct, resulting in ‘voluptuous imaginings’ and resulting in masturbation.

With these fears spreading amongst the British Victorians segregations within family households were implemented. Houses for families, particularly the working classes, were being built with segregation in mind. The children were removed from the parents’ bedroom and siblings of the opposite sex were also segregated. Because of the perceived dangers of masturbation, Victorian parents were advised on surveillance methods.

Children, women, and the working classes were not the only social groups to be labelled as a risk to society. Homosexuals were, as far as the Victorians were concerned, a completely different species, therefore, the discovery of homo-erotic artefacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum would have fuelled the Victorian anxieties, panic and fears. The Victorians frequently compared their own Empire to that of the Romans — as indicated in Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, (1842), the continuing popularity of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), and Sir Charles Lucas’ Greater Rome and Greater Britain (1912). With more homo-erotic artefacts being discovered in Pompeii — frescoes located in the House of Jupiter and Ganymede, for example — would have most certainly added insult to injury. Boswell suggested that the tolerance of homosexuality in Ancient Roman culture was largely perceived to be an indication that every male had homosexual desires and our ancestors believed that this would, again, be a threat to society and even the human race, ‘the ancient claim that societies tolerating or approving homosexual behaviour do so to their own manifest detriment, since if all their members engaged in such behaviour, these societies would die out. This argument assumes — curiously — that all humans would become exclusively homosexual if given the chance’ (Boswell, 1981: 8).

Fig 18. The Warren Cup, Luxury Drinking Vessel, Williams, (2006:6)
Fig 18. The Warren Cup, Luxury Drinking Vessel, Williams, (2006:6)

One particular item that originated from Pompeii circa, 1st century AD was the Warren Cup. Like many ancient Roman artefacts it is suggested that this artefact may date back to the late fall of the Greek Empire and the rise of the Roman Empire. This little silver cup would have been used in ancient Roman social rituals. It is 11cm in height and depicts two homo-erotic scenes around the bowl of the cup. The first engraved scene is of a bearded, naked, man lying on his back on a decorated bed. The man is holding a young man’s hip easing and aiding his penetration of the young man — for an ancient Roman it would have been perfectly acceptable to penetrate a boy or another man if you were a man yourself. The young man is resting his right hand on the older man’s hand and is using the curtain to help lift him and aid the penetration (fig. 18). Turning the cup ever so slightly you can see a young boy slave peaking at the two men from behind a doorway (fig. 2). The second scene on the cup is a little more graphic. It depicts a young man and a young boy. The young man is presented leaning on his left side behind the young boy, their legs intertwined. He is raising the boy’s right leg to gain access in order to be able to penetrate him, and is also looking in that direction. The young boy is looking in the opposite direction, holding the sheets on the bed, clearly awaiting the young man’s entrance. His genitalia are clearly shown (see fig. 19). This item caused a lot of controversy when it was discovered and continues to do so today. I will return to this later.

Fig 19. The Warren Cup, Luxury Drinking Vessel, Williams, (2006:8)
Fig 19. The Warren Cup, Luxury Drinking Vessel, Williams, (2006:8)

The Warren Cup’s first modern owner, from whom it is named, was Ned Warren, in the 20th century. It had been in search for a permanent home since the 19th century but with the Obscene Publications Act implemented, and the definition of pornography in place, erotic artefacts were difficult to pass on, even between collectors. Collectors of Graeco-Roman artefacts were rife in the 19th century, and collections of erotic artefacts were in circulation all through Europe. The antiquarians, however, could not publish their discoveries. One such antiquarian was Dr George Witt (1804 – 1869).

Witt was a colonial physician, and later a banker. Once Witt had returned to England from Australia in 1854 he had made enough money to indulge his inner-collector. He had an affection for ancient cults, especially that of Priapus, the god of fertility. His time as an antiquarian built up several scrapbooks, later bound and categorised: Persian, Egyptian; Vases Grecques et Etrusques; Grecian, Etruscan, Roman; Aboriginal, American; Indian Drawings; Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese; Japanese Prints (2 vols); Modern, all of which he later donated to the Paul Hamlyn Library, where they remain and can be viewed on request.[xi]

I was granted access to Witt’s scrapbooks and other items within the Paul Hamlyn Library. I viewed two of his scrapbooks and his copy of The Naples Catalogue (1857). In its original form the Naples Catalogue looked just like Witt’s scrapbooks. Upon inspection of these books images were presented using a series of media. The language changed between English, French and in some cases, Latin. Handwriting changed and the style in which illustrations were drawn also had variation. It appeared that these books were not solely compiled by Witt. The sporadic leaping from one hand to another, one language to another, and one illustrative style to another, reminded me of the nineteenth century erotic novel Teleny: or the Reverse of the Medal (London: 1893), which was often attributed to the great Oscar Wilde but upon closer inspection appeared to be written by several hands, none of which was that of Wilde (Hirsch, 1934: 47). The Hunterian Museum Director, Dr. David Gaimster agreed, ‘It is quite clear from many of the scrapbooks that a lot of this material was being exchanged between collectors, that somebody who’d seen something in a museum … had drawn an item and sent an illustration on to Witt’ (Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation, 2006).

Fig 20. Votive Phallus, Tintinnabulum, c. 1816, Fanin (2007:77)
Fig 20. Votive Phallus, Tintinnabulum, c. 1816, Fanin (2007:77)

The Naples Catalogue and the Witt Scrapbooks had similar, and in some cases, the same content, which resulted in a direct link with the Pompeii artefacts.  One of these items was the ‘Votive Phallus’, a tintinnabulum. Both Witt’s scrapbooks and The Naples Catalogue show drawings of different types of tintinnabulums, the one of interest, however, is one known as ‘winged lion’, plate XXIV in The Naples Catalogue (fig. 20). Unfortunately, it was not possible to take photographs or to photocopy the Witt scrapbooks or The Naples Catalogue. The Secret Erotic Paintings book, however, is a facsimile of The Naples Catalogue. In its English translation, from French, this item was described,

This curious bronze…represents a votive phallus under the form of a winged lion, bearing two other phalluses … The hind part is terminated by two feet, one of which is lifted to the belly. On the back of the bronze we remark a ring, which was used to suspend it. We have also on this phallus four little bells attached to the same number of small chains. We have here the symbols of force, rapidity, and triumph, which were characteristic among the ancients of the worship of the phallus (Fanin, 2007: 77-76)[xii].

This understanding of the ancient world, by the French Antiquarian, Fanin, ties in with the idea of the tintinnabulum as a lucky charm argued in Part I.

Witt’s affiliation and interest in the ancient cults, in particular the cult of Priapus was not only demonstrated within his scrapbooks but also within his collection. In 1865, subsequent to ill-health, Witt donated his collection of artefacts to the British Museum. The British Museum was faced with a dilemma due to the erotic nature of the artefacts. Gaimster told Tang, ‘It was forbidden to destroy the material culture of the past; at the same time, it was forbidden to display the objects.’ Upon receipt of the ‘Witt Collection’ the British Museum opened its own Museum Secretum (AKA, ‘Cupboard 55’). Gaimster continued, ‘access to the Secretum was tightly controlled. Those persons wishing to see the collections would write to the director … to apply to see this material, and then would have undergone a stringent cross-examination. The process was calculated to weed out all but the most scholarly and the most honest’ (Tang, 1999: 39-40). This directly links the controlled access of the Secret Museum at the Naples Museum with that of the British Museum. It is not the only similarity that the two Secret Museum’s share, however. The acceptance of the erotic artefacts belonging to Witt placed Pompeii in London. Several artefacts from the ‘Witt Collection’ had a direct link to Pompeii including the tintinnabulum, some intact, some partial.

After assessing the Witt Scrapbooks, and seeing an intact tintinnabulum on display in the British Museum, it was invaluable to see one of these charms close up. The fragment of the tintinnabulum that I viewed represented the ‘winged lion’. It was taken from the many artefacts of the ‘Witt Collection’, however, it was originally donated by Charles Roach Smith (1807 – 1890), a Victorian collector from Kent, that was passed into the ‘Witt Collection’ at the British Museum – the Witt Collection becoming a repository for erotic artefacts. The origin for this tintinnabulum was indeed Pompeii, and viewing the incredible detail evidenced that the ancient Romans were serious in their views regarding the representation and superstition surrounding the phallus. With many collections from Victorian Antiquarians now residing in the British Museum, it is impossible to ignore the underground interest in the erotic artefacts from Pompeii and other parts of Europe in the long 19th century.

Fig 21. Pan and the Goat, Terra-cotta Statue, 19th Century, The British Museum (2011:Online Database)
Fig 21. Pan and the Goat, Terra-cotta Statue, 19th Century, The British Museum (2011:Online Database)

The final artefact I viewed from the Witt Collection connects the Secret Museum in Naples to the Museum Secretum in London.  Never publically displayed, the British Museum holds a small terra-cotta replica of the most infamous Pompeian artefact, the statue of Pan and the Goat. Even though recording was restricted in the Secret Museum — sketching was prohibited — this 19th century replica, apparently sculpted from memory, has become the topic of debate amongst scholars (fig. 21).  A British Museum curator, Dr. Aileen Dawson, told me that sculpture was attributed to the 19th century sculptor, Joseph Nollekens. She related a conversation that she had with Nollekens’ biographer, John Kenworthy-Browne, in May 2007, that he expressed his suspicion over the attribution of Nolleken’s name to the small sculpture. I subsequently contacted Kenworthy-Browne, in August 2010, and he replied, ‘I published the group (The Sculpture Journal vol II, 1998), but now I think that was a mistake. It is not modeled like other Nollekens t.c.s, and I do not think that Nolly was attracted by subjects like this – whereas Townley certainly was… No doubt some young sculptor did model it from memory (it being forbidden even to make sketches of the objects at Portici) but I cannot think who did it’[xiii] (Kenworthy-Browne, 2010). As with many of the contributors to the Witt Scrapbooks, the identity of the sculptor remains a mystery, symbolising the opaque world of the antiquarians who studied erotic artefacts.

For many, the collectors were the ‘possessive guardians of the Secret Museum’ (Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation, 2006), they were beyond the reach of the Obscene Publications Act because they were seen as trusted gentlemen scholars who could distinguish between ‘art’ and the ‘obscene’, and would have been seen to have the aesthetic sensibility that means their moral sensibility would win over their baser instincts.

With this in mind it is clear that the power given to these items, by locking them away, has in turn caused debate and speculation between scholars throughout the nineteenth-century and into the 20th century.  Even with the disassociation of Nollekens name from the terra-cotta group the reality that it still exists demonstrates that even artists and sculptors were influenced by, not only the pure sculptures from the ancient world but from, the Victorian labelled obscene sculptures. The anonymity of the sculptor strengthens the argument that the erotic artefacts were given power by locking them up and labelling them as obscene and in danger of corrupting the working class people, children and women.


The Ancient Romans, The Victorians and Us

 ‘Pornography’ names an imaginary scenario of danger and rescue … The Secret Museum is not a history of pornography; it is a history of ‘pornography.’ There is a considerable difference.


What can be concluded from this study of the Victorian response to the erotic artefacts excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum, is that the Victorians had idealised their Roman ancestors entirely out of context. Due to the decline in sexual discourse during the course of the 18th century, by the 19th century, it had been placed under the act of ‘policing’ and censorship.

The Ancient Roman values circulated largely around their religious beliefs. The ancient Roman gods and goddesses each represented different aspects of life for the Graeco-Roman world. The Victorians, however, appeared to only accept the representations of gods and goddesses that fit within their own value system. A god such as Priapus would have been conveniently under-represented and most likely not acknowledged at all without repercussions. Yet, the ancient world sought to hold Priapus in rather high honour, combined with phallic representations all through the Empire.

In their original context, as John R Clarke argues, the many representations of the phallus — involving Priapus as well as individual phallic engravings, paintings, and sculptures — denoted superstition amongst the Romans. For them the many depictions of the phallus were that of protection, protection from the evil eye in the case of the stand-alone symbol, and the protection of one’s property, and specifically one’s garden in the case of Priapus.

On the contrary to what our Victorian ancestors believed—once these erotic artefacts had emerged — the Ancient Romans still had taboos, largely, but not entirely, concerning that of the os (mouth). The Victorians, however, could not, and would not, accept any explanation or reasoning behind the erotic artefacts other than their Roman ancestors were, in fact, corrupted by these obscene images, which directly contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. For our ancestors, observing one of these erotic frescoes could only result in the desire to, weakening and corrupting the observer. Yet, as Clarke contends, the sign of a sophisticated Roman would be his collection of art which would include Greek masterpieces (mythological settings) and erotic painting (Clarke, Looking at Laughter, 2007: 191-92).

But by the mid 19th century, after the establishment of the Gabinetto degli Oggetti Osceni (Cabinet of Obscene Objects) at the Museo Borbonico, the ever increasing discoveries of erotic artefacts from the Pompeii and Herculaneum dig, and the fear that images, obscene in nature—according to the Victorians—were somehow corrupting, or had the ability to corrupt, the working classes, women and children, the term and definition of ‘pornography’ was born, and initially directly linked to the artefacts in Pompeii.

By taking the artefacts out of their original context, and placing them in their own belief system, the Victorians were, in the words of John R Clarke, creating an ‘anachronistic distortion to the past’ (Clarke, 2001: 14). By locking these artefacts away, restricting access to both scholars and the public, and by the imposition of the Obscene Publications Act, the Victorian political and intellectual elite sought to censor the discourse of sexuality, exercising their political power to control society by controlling cultural artefacts. The irony was that in doing so, the ‘obscene’ artefacts became powerful through the belief that such objects could ‘deprave and corrupt’. In Foucault’s terms, this is the discourse of authority overwriting the discourse of sexuality. But, my feeling from this exploration is that the Secret Museums represent a more ambivalent stance with regard to erotic material, the dilemma of King Charles of the Two Sicilies remains: contemporary erotic material can be easily dismissed as pornographic, while the art of the ancient world seems much more difficult to contextualise.

With policing in practice, authors, publishers and antiquarians — collectors of erotic artefacts, particularly — found it difficult to decide what to write, what to publish, and how to collect, and possibly, publish on their collections. Even the author of the Naples Catalogue was in a personal battle as to what should and should not be said, and what could and could not be said and eventually decided on applying the same censorship to the catalogue as to the artefacts that were locked away in the Secret Cabinet — women, children and the working classes were prohibited to read it,

We have taken all the prudential measures applicable to such a collection of engravings and text. We have endeavoured to make its reading inaccessible, so to speak, to poorly educated persons, as well as to those whose sex and age forbid any exception to the laws of decency and modesty. With this end in mind, we have done our best to regard each of the objects we have had to describe from an exclusively archaeological and scientific point of view. It has been our intention to remain calm and serious throughout. In the exercise of his holy office, the man of science must neither blush nor smile. We have looked upon our statues as an anatomist contemplates his cadavers (Kendrick, 1996: 15).

Had the Victorians accepted the erotic artefacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum in their original context, would ‘pornography’ actually exist today? We share many of our Victorian ancestors’ views on ‘pornography’ and this, in effect, has also controlled the way the discourse of sex still takes place. Like our ancestors, even scholars appear to have the inability to approach the subject of the Pompeian excavation and its finds without placing it within the context of the 20th and 21st century, such as McGinn, who appears to view every Pompeian building with an erotic fresco as a ‘sex club’.

The very idea that we are still much like our ancestors, a reaction to the Witt Collection initially comes to mind. In an article for the Sunday Times, entitled ‘Rude Britannia: Erotic Secrets of The British Museum’, Tony Barrell immediately refers to the Museum Secretum, then Cupboard 205, as ‘the porn cupboard’ (Barrell, 2009). His approach and response to the cupboard would have been confirmation of weakness and influence that this material had over men of a certain kind to the Victorians. Tang, however, was also a disappointment in her reaction to the collection. She recalls in Pornography: the Secret History of Civilisation, ‘It was hard not to gasp with laughter because to open a drawer and to find it full of penises was so unexpected as to be surreal. But then came the revulsion, because to see all these little penises like this suggested something quite disturbing, almost demented’ (Tang, 1999: 15). Tang’s response accords to the Victorian’s view regarding women’s access to ‘obscene’ artefacts.

On April 15, 2011, I attended the ‘Watching the Media: Censorship and Creative Practice’ symposium, at Edge Hill University. In his keynote address, entitled ‘Freedoms of Expression versus the Need for Protection’, the cultural historian, Professor Julian Petley (a long time opponent of political and artistic censorship), argued that many, so called ‘obscene’ publications — photographs, films, and online sources — are still taken out of context, a notable example he cited was the photographs of Alice Liddell by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). He also persuasively argued that censorship remains as much a feature of 21st century culture as it did the 19th.  We later discussed the dangers of cultural censorship through ill-informed, or incorrect, contextualisation. The Victorian response to the erotic artefacts of Pompeii was a failure of one culture to understand another. By locking the artefacts away, restriction both access and discussion, the Victorians were limiting, and, in essence, attempting to change history. In many ways the true history of Roman art is yet to be told.

I wonder if, as a society, we will ever truly escape the opinions of our Victorian ancestors? If the voices of scholars, like Petly, are heard, and the discussion of what should be classed as ‘obscene’ is expanded, we may then be able to open our minds to the real lives of our ancient ancestors. Until then, the debate will continue as to the purpose and reasoning for the many erotic artefacts — especially the representation of the phallus —found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the repression of the true history of our ancient ancestors will continue. As a nation who would like to believe they have moved on from their Victorian ancestor’s repressive views of sex and the complex discourses that surround it, we still conform with many of their ideas of ‘pornography’ and have evolved into a self-censoring society.


The Response to the Warren Cup

Fig 22. 'Do you want the Straight Goblet or the Gay Goblet?' Cartoon, Nick Newman, 1999 (Williams, 2006:4)
Fig 22. ‘Do you want the Straight Goblet or the Gay Goblet?’ Cartoon, Nick Newman, 1999 (Williams, 2006:4)

It was the response to the British Museum’s announcement that they were finally putting the Warren Cup out on display, on exhibition in the ‘Ancient Greece and Rome’ department, however, that backs up the theory that we have yet to move on from our Victorian ancestors. Ozimek from ‘The Register’ referred to it as ‘smut’ (Ozimek, 2010), and others that mock the sexual content in cartoon form (fig. 22).  There was a glimpse, however, of society moving forward, away from our ancestors. In a Guardian article in 2006, entitled ‘British Museum Exhibition Reveals Saucy Side of the Ancient World’, Maev Kennedy reveals an understanding and interest in the ‘sex and society in Ancient Greece and Rome’ describing the cup as ‘dazzlingly beautiful and jaw dropping’. In an interview with the curator, Dyfri Williams, Williams explains, ‘We wanted to show this fantastic object in a context in which we could ask how much we understand about attitudes to sexuality when it was made. These objects seem extraordinary to us now, but there were many objects in common use, and wall paintings and mosaics in baths and in private houses, showing very similar imagery’ (Kennedy, 2006). The marble statue of Pan and the Goat is now on display in the Naples Museum.

Fig A. Author viewing a plate from the Witt Collection, Authors Personal Collection, (2010)
Fig A. Author viewing a plate from the Witt Collection, Authors Personal Collection, (2010)

© This article has been supplied on condition that anyone who consults it is understood to recognise that its copyright rests with the author and that no quotation from the article, nor any information derived therefrom, may be published without the author’s prior, written consent.

[i] the Imperial period in the Roman world that is associated with the reign of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero

[ii] Attributed to Marcus Aurelius, From the Greek. Trans: ‘The sexual embrace can only be compared with music and with prayer’. Trans: Havelock Ellis. (1920) ‘The Object of Marriage’, The Medical Review. Princeton, University Press

[iii] The fresco is in very poor condition and hard to analyse its true content

[iv] The Warren Cup is a silver wine-cup decorated with homoerotic scenes dated to first century AD

[v] Clarke, 1991. pp324-25. Trans: Livius that cunt [in this context cunt is a derogatory term for a homosexual] licks me. Tertullus, you’re a cunt, too. Efesius loves Terisius [a male, presumably from Ephesus, and another male.]

[vi] Clarke, 1991.  p221,Trans: Eutychis, born in the house of her master [later corrected to “from Greece”] has beautiful skills and costs two asses. The as was one of the smallest coins in circulation at the time.

[vii] Parker (ed.), pp122-23. Translated: ‘In your back way I’ll go if once you thieve / If twice, me in your mouth you will receive / And if a third such theft you should attempt / Both penalties you’ll have to undergo / In arse and mouth my potent force you’ll know.’

[viii] See Kendrick’s The Secret Museum, 1996, and Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, c.1980, for more on this theory as my world limitations deny me the ability to expand here

[ix] The Ancient Romans, however, regulated class and who did what to whom.

[x] The poison metaphor referred to the high profile trial of Dr William Palmer, the ‘Rugeley Poisoner.’

[xi] Another similar and problematic Victorian collection of erotic books at the British Museum was donated by Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834 – 1900). The museum trustees wanted Ashbee’s library of Spanish literature but not his erotic collection. Ashbee’s will offered the trustees both, or neither. Ashbee’s collection, like Witt’s, formed the original ‘private case of forbidden books’ (Thomas, 1998: 129).

[xii] The Forgotten Books Fascimile edition states that the original Naples Catalogue was compiled in 1816 by the French antiquarian, Stanislas Marie Cesar Famin. However, the copy I saw in the Paul Hamlyn Library was dated 1857. The English translation appeared in 1871 and was  attributed to ‘Colonel Fanin’. Like the sculptor of the terra-cotta pan and goat, the true identity of Colonel Fanin remains unknown. Given its inclusion with the so-called Witt Scrapbooks, it is tempted to conjecture that the translator was in fact Witt.

[xiii] This is the first official publication of Kenworthy-Browne’s disassociation of Nollekens’ name and the group sculpture. After my meeting with Dr. Aileen Dawson at the British Museum, however, the British Museum database was updated, ‘In conversation with A. Dawson in May 2007 he said he did not believe that Nollekens modelled this group as it lies quite outside the scope of his oeuvre.’



From the Witt Collection, Paul Hamlyn Library, The British Museum, Joanna Bowring, Head Librarian. Viewed August 18, 2010

Dr. Fiedler. (1839)  Antike Erotische Bildwerke in Houbens Roemischem Antiquarium Zu Xanten, Xantan. The British Museum attributes this to George Witt and refers to it as ‘Vases Grecques et Etrusques’

Dr. Fiedler & Professor Königl. (1839) Antike Erotische Bildwerke in Houbens Roemischem Antiquarium Zu Xanten, Xantan. The British Museum attributes this to George Witt and refers to it as ‘Grecian, Etruscan, Roman’

Ledoux, Abel (ed.). (1857) Musée Royal de Naples, Peintures, Bronzes et Statues Érotiques du Cabinet Secret avec leur explication par le Colonel Famin. Exemplaire No. 469. Paris.

From the Witt Collection, The British Museum. Viewed August 18, 2o10

Sculptor Unknown, Terracotta Pan and Goat, c.1800. British Museum. Registration No. M.550. Dept. Prehistory and Europe, Dr. Aileen Dawson (head curator)

Cup, c. 510BC-500BC. British Museum. Catalogue No: Museum Secretum W46Vase E816. Dept. Greek & Roman Antiquities, Dr. Paul Roberts (head curator)

Tintinnabulum, recovered from Herculaneum c.1BC. British Museum. Catalogue No: Museum Secretum M309. Dept. Greek & Roman Antiquities, Dr. Paul Roberts (head curator)


‘Ancient Greece and Rome,’ The British Museum. London. Visited August 18, 2010


‘Watching the Media – Censorship, Limits and Control in Creative Practice’ Symposium at Edge Hill University. Attended April 15, 2011


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Broadcast Media

The Last Days of Pompeii (1935). Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. Turner Home Ent [DVD].

Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation. (1999) The Road to Ruin (Antiquity). London. Channel 4 , London. 14 Oct. 1999. [DVD]

Online Sources

Barrell, Tony. (2009) “Rude Britannia: Erotic Secrets of the British Museum.” The Sunday Times. Available from: <http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article6812813.ece&gt;.
[Accessed 19 Aug. 2010]

Clark, JR & Thomas, ML. (2009) The Oplontis Project.
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John Bruno Hare. “The Royal Museum at Naples.” Sacred Texts
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[Accessed 21 August 2010]

Kennedy, Maey. (2010) “British Museum Exhibition Reveals Saucy Side of the Ancient World.” The Guardian.
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[Accessed 21 August 2010]

Ozimek, Jane Fae. (2010) “Beeb, British Museum Face Smut Issues Over Saucy Pot.” The Register. Available from: <http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/05/25/bbc_cartoon_smut/&gt;
[Accessed 21 August 2010]

Other  Sources

Newman, Nick. (1999) The Warren Cup Cartoon. The Sunday Times

Kenworthy-Browne, John. (2010) [Interview by email, 19 August 2010]

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