Friday, March 21, 2014


Lourdes Conde Feitosa, The Archaeology of Gender, Love and Sexuality in Pompeii. BAR international series, S2533. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013. Pp. x, 63. ISBN 9781407311517. £21.00.

Reviewed by John R. Clarke, University of Texas at Austin (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

In this translation, by Miriam Adelman, of Feitosa's doctoral thesis, "Amor e sexualidade no popular pompeiano: uma análise de gênero em inscrições parietais," (Universidade Estadual de Campinas, UNICAMP, Brasil, 2002), the author proposes to approach the theme of love among non-elite groups. She attempts to open up the issues surrounding the interpretation of the erotic graffiti found at Pompeii by looking closely at two classes of graffiti: those using the word futuere to emphasize men's virility, and those using cunnum lingere to emphasize women's gratification. She devotes four chapters to the framing of this inquiry with the intent of demonstrating how traditional scholarship, based on texts written by or for elite males, has failed to consider the ordinary person, whose only voice comes through in media like graffiti.

The first of these chapters (see Table of Contents, below) evokes Michel Foucault to underscore history-writing as an interpretative act and invokes several works in Women's Studies to define gender roles in antiquity. Specifically for Pompeii, Feitosa argues that women like Eumachia entered the political arena; however, her reading of programmata that provide "evidence of women's participation in the support and nomination of candidates," based as it is on weak sources like Matteo Della Corte, is dubious (8). Chapter 2 considers the sequestering of objects in the Gabinetto Segreto of the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, as well as the reserved treatment of erotic graffiti by modern scholars, as symptomatic of anachronistic attitudes toward Roman sexual representation, lumped together as "erotic." She criticizes Foucault and Veyne for espousing the notion of the elite man's Greco-Roman ideal of "self-mastery" to explain the "natural inferiority" and "indolence or lassitude" of women and non-elite men (15). Grimal and Cantarella fare better in Feitosa's opinion, although she comments that Cantarella reproduces the Foucauldian legacy.

In Chapter 3 the author sketches out the burial and rediscovery of Pompeii, an exercise that seems to do little to further her thesis, since it is certainly common knowledge among specialists. She defines inscriptions, graffiti, dipinti (tituli picti), writing on wax tablets, and programmata (although fig. 3.7, labeled "graffiti," actually represents dipinti, including programmata). She mentions the organization of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum and praises Matteo Della Corte (who by any modern standards was far from a trained epigrapher)—and especially his most dubious work, Case ed abitanti di Pompei. Two subsections discussing the Pompeian economy constitute brief book reports on a variety of approaches and opinions up to 1999.

Chapter 4 proposes to define "popular culture" through recourse to a highly selective group of studies focused entirely on analysis of texts; this section could have benefited significantly from studies of visual representations.1 Within this chapter, her discussion of graffiti in the section entitled, "Graffiti: the popular (di)verse," fails to take into consideration the specific locations of the graffiti, often providing less information than the cryptic notes in the CIL. Work on the physical context surrounding graffiti, combined with analysis of the concurrence of different kinds of graffiti in the same location, has allowed scholars to glean important information about both the viewers and the writers that goes beyond what the study of the texts in isolation provides.2 Feitosa considers the various literary graffiti studied by Mario Gigante, underscoring his important conclusion: "graffiti . . . are shot through with and adapted to the popular context and perspective" (33). In her discussion of "the Pompeian popular," Feitosa reviews the conditions of the slave and the freedperson, calling up the image of Trimalchio in support of her claim that there were rich and prestigious freedmen from Pompeii. She concludes—unsurprisingly —that the common people of Pompeii were ". . . characterized by the simplicity of their names, social position, and cultural values" (38).

After what seems like a 38-page preamble, it is in chapter 5 (pp. 39-53) that Feitosa presents her analysis of two sexual practices denoted by the words futuere and cunnum lingere. She proposes that these words relate, respectively, to male and female sexuality. She reviews the modern literature on the sexual definition of the Roman elite male (penetrator but never penetrated) and contrasts this construction with the "masculinities" in the "common people's world" as seen in a group of graffiti that, according to her, represent "erotic and affective activities among men." Here I disagree with many of the translations, but in particular must note that Feitosa has got the verb irrumare wrong. It is not the equivalent of fellare: as Krenkel and Richlin have amply demonstrated, it means "to force someone to fellate you," and as such it was an act that deeply debased the unwilling recipient of the penis.3 She also translates cinaedus as "effeminate," without reference to the literature on the subject. Although she states that the forms of the verb futuere represent more than male prerogative, she does not provide enough analysis of her one example, Miduse fututrix, to compel conviction (44). Although this graffiti suggests the possibility of "a man being fucked by a woman," it is more likely that, as in Martial, it's simply invective meant to effeminize the man.4

What follows is Feitosa's rapid move from the consensus among historians that the first and second centuries CE saw a great degree of emancipation for elite women to the representations of cunnilingus in Pompeian graffiti. Unfortunately Feitosa, or her translator, renders cunnum lingere "to suck cunt"—a major and quite distracting problem for her proposed translations.

Feitosa rejects J. N. Adams's contention that accusing a person of performing cunnilingus was an attempt to vilify him, as well as Holt Parker's assertion that this practice was equivalent to being penetrated by a woman. On the basis of the graffiti, Feitosa attempts to present cunnilingus as an ordinary activity. Given her aim, it is a shame that she does not discuss a unique painting from the Suburban Baths at Pompeii that represents a man performing cunnilingus on a woman (apodyterium 7, scene IV). Both Jacobelli and I have framed this image as comic, since every other known representation of cunnilingus depicts "69," where the woman receives cunnilingus in return for performing fellatio on the man. In the Suburban Baths vignette, where the artist has cast other over-the-top sexual scenarios—it seems—to provoke laughter, the woman dominates the man in pose and size.5 Is she, following Parker's construction of cunnilingus, the fututrix¸like the Midusa invoked in the graffito?

In the concluding section, Feitosa proposes that popular sexuality, read from the perspective of gender, shows give-and-take in matters amorous among the common people of Pompeii. Her comments are brief and unsurprising. She questions Cantarella's assertion that because their relations lay outside of Roman marriage law, men and women of the common classes took part in liberal sexual activities. She doubts modern constructions of the popular classes and their behavior, including "liberal customs," "sexual promiscuity," and "emotional and social maladjustment," based as they are on "class bias and negative value judgments regarding not only the popular classes of Ancient Rome but those of today as well" (54). Feitosa argues, rather, that the graffiti present a case for "interrelation," explaining that ". . . the concept of masculinity, taken as an insignia of authority and power, gives way to a view of the masculine constructed in relation to the feminine: as agreement established between those who share work, luck, misfortune and exploitation" (54). In Feitosa's construction of their sexual politics, the lower classes were egalitarian and—well—nicer to each other than the elites. Gender and love relationships were experienced differently by the Pompeian popular classes, constituted as they were by "groups on the periphery of the Roman social world" (54). Insofar as her argument rests on reading congenial social relationships into the graffiti, I remain cautious, as when she translates Secundus cum Primigenia convenient as "Segundus [sic] with Primigenia in common agreement." A more likely translation is "Secundus and Primigenia had sex together," based on clear parallels from Ostia Antica.6

Given the potential for chapter five to open up discussion of the sexual mores of the common people of Pompeii, it is regrettable that Feitosa's discussion is so brief and circumscribed. The scholarly world would benefit from full consideration of the graffiti in question, framed in their physical locations and in relation to the visual representations of sexual activity. Sexual humor, too, would have to be dealt with more fully, since the role-reversals reported in many of the graffiti could have just as easily been meant to lampoon the named individual as to describe his or her unusual sexual preferences or performances.

This book contains many errors: in editing (misspellings, missing letters and phrases); in translation; and in copyediting. Regrettably, in several cases even the most forgiving and assiduous reader cannot hope to recover the author's intended meaning. These errors limit the book's usefulness and credibility as does the omission of much work done on Pompeian graffiti and Roman popular culture in the last two decades.7

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Gender, love and sexuality: methodological perspectives
Chapter 2. Representations of love and sexuality in academic literature
Chapter 3. Pompeii: constructing a historical scenario
Chapter 4. Graffiti as a form of popular expression
Chapter 5. Love and sexuality on wall inscriptions


1.   In particular, Thomas Fröhlich,Lararien- und Fassadenbilder in den Vesuvstädten: Untersuchungen zur "volkstümlichen" pompejanischen Malerei, Römische Mitteilungen, supplement 32. Mainz, 1991; John R. Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315 (Berkeley, 2004); Francesco De Angelis, Jens-Arne Dickmann, Felix Pirson and Ralf von den Hoff (eds), Kunst von unten? Stil und Gesellschaft in der antiken Welt von der "arte plebea" bis heute. Beiträge zu einem Kolloquium anlässlich des 70. Geburtstags von Paul Zanker, Rom, Villa Massimo, 8-9. June 2007. Palilia 27 (Wiesbaden, 2012).
2.   Two scholars in particular have examined the spatial context of wall inscriptions: James L. Franklin, Pompeii: The Electoral Programmmata, Campaigns and Politics, A.D. 71-79. Papers and Monographs of the American Academy in Rome 28 (1980), and Rebecca R. Benefiel, "Dialogues of Ancient Graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii," American Journal of Archaeology 114 (2010): 59-101.
3.   Werner A. Krenkel, "Fellatio and Irrumatio," Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Wilhelm-Pieck-Universität Rostock 29 (1980): 77-88; Amy Richlin, "The Meaning of irrumare in Catullus and Martial," Classical Philology 76 (January 1981): 40-46.
4.   I thank Anthony Corbeill (personal communication) for pointing out that ". . . throughout Latinity the passive form of the verb (futuere) has only women as the grammatical subject—or, occasionally, men who are penetrated by other men. Passages such as Mart. 7.70, when a woman adopts sexual behaviors identified as masculine, affirm the rule. This category also likely explains the use of fututum at Mart. 11.7.13."
5.   Luciana Jacobelli, Le pitture erotiche delle Terme Suburbane di Pompei (Rome, 1995), 56-57: John R. Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250 (Berkeley, 1998), 224-27.
6.   A. W. van Buren, "Graffiti at Ostia," Classical Review 37 (1923): 164; see also Apuleius Met. 4.27.
7.   E.g., the work of Kristina Milnor, John Bodel, Lauren Petersen, and Sandra Joshel.

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