The Indelible Ink of Erotica

BY: Michael Arkin

When Napoleon’s soldiers unearthed The Rosetta Stone in Egypt in 1799 it was considered the most valuable piece of ancient literature ever uncovered. With its discovery scholars were finally able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. While its importance can’t be discounted, its subject matter, affirming the support of King Ptolemy V by the priests of the temple at Memphis, is anything but exciting.

Far more titillating passages from antiquity can be found in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Written in Mesopotamia during the Third Dynasty (circa 2100 BC), the epic story about a king and Enkidu, a wild man sent by the gods to stop Gilgamesh’s oppression of his subjects, stresses the importance of sexual pleasures. In fact, Enkidu is only humanized after his encounters with a temple prostitute who “spreads out her robe” before “performing the primitive task of womanhood.”

Some 1,500 years later Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos. Sound familiar? Known for her lyric poetry, evidence suggests she married a wealthy man from a neighboring island and one of her poems mentions her having a daughter. So how did a married mother become the original Sapphic sister and the namesake for girl on girl love? Her very personal poems focused on the female community and her only surviving one, Ode to Aphrodite, is a prayer to the goddess for help in securing the love of an unnamed woman.


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When it comes to archeoerotica, the troika of Catullus, Propertius and Ovid were the ancient equivalents of Anne Rice, E.L. James and Jasmine Guillory although the three wrote elegies, not prose. Described by the New York Times as “courtly love restaged by the Marquis de Sade,” Latin elegies provide us with unique insight into day-to-day life in Rome.

In the twilight of the Republic Gaius Valerius Catullus (84 BC-54 BC) was writing erotic poetry about homosexual penchants and his undying dedication to a woman named Lesbia who drove him to the brink of madness. Only three copies of his works have survived the millennia, with one in the Vatican Library (oh, those naughty priests!).


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Perhaps his most famous poem is #97, which begins:

I swear it’s difficult to tell, by sniffing,
which is Aemilius’ mouth and which is his tail.”

You get the picture. Although the poem was at the heart of a controversy when it was included in Purdue University’s curriculum, it ranks as one of the most enduring poems from antiquity.

Unlike Catullus, Sextus Propertius’s poems have been labeled “militantly heterosexual”. Born between 49 and 47 BC, his bewitching elegies about his passion for a woman named Cynthia approach the pantheon of Latin literature.


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Rounding out the trinity is Ovid (47 BC-17 AD) whose Ars Amatoria was a two-volume manual of seduction for the Roman man about town. He quickly followed their wild success with a third, targeted to women. The books, with their ribald celebration of extramarital sex, played a major part in Ovid’s banishment by Emperor Augustus who was determined to promote morality among the depraved masses. The real reason may have something to do with Ovid’s “indiscretion” as an accomplice in the adultery of Augustus’ granddaughter. His books, which were burned by Savonarola in Italy in 1497, were banned in Elizabethan England and seized by US Customs as recently as 1930.


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Nearly 2,000 years before The Joy of Sex became a bestseller, The Sex Manuals of Elephantis were must-reading among adventurous Romans. Although there are no extant copies of the book that was penned by a Greek woman, its illustrations were so graphic it became one of Emperor Tiberius’ favorites and we all know what a kinky freak he was.


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While I could go on about The Poems of Priapeia, a volume of 95 poems about you guessed it, penises, or how the Moche of Peru adorned their pottery with same sex unions and pederasty, no overview of ancient erotica would be complete without mention of Petronius’ Satyricon. The novel, a parody of Homer’s Odyssey, tells the story of Encolpius, a retired gladiator who, after offending our old friend, Priapus, takes off on a journey of sexual and other misadventures with his young slave and lover, Gilton.

So while The Rosetta Stone forever changed mankind’s understanding of the written form, ancient erotica shows us that some things never change.


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