In the Eye of the Beholder

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Putti manufacturing perfume. House of the Vettii, VI.15.1

Like many of my fellow classicists, I have recently been to the British Museum to see the latest exhibit of ancient art ‘Defining Beauty: The body in ancient Greek art’. The exhibit makes use primarily of objects (both Greek originals and Roman copies of lost Greek works) already in their collections with the addition of a few pieces on loan – most notably perhaps the rather inspiring Belvedere Torso normally held in the Vatican Museums. The curation of the items focuses not just on beauty in the traditional sense – beginning most obviously with the Crouching Venus – but also on more general aspects of the body and physicality: motion, musculature, nudity, athleticism, proportion, divinity and mortality, sexuality, the grotesque, and wisdom. Each gallery focused on a particular aspect of how the human body could be realised, and to what ends.

As I wandered through the exhibit, I started thinking about the day to day reality of the human form and and the timeless desire to strive for the ideal, if not for beauty itself. To that end, I thought to look to the evidence that might survive in Pompeii which might equally illustrate the view of the body – not through the art – but through the texts. The are, of course, many ancient sources that prevail upon both men and women to tend to their own attractiveness – whether by staying clean and sweet smelling (Ovid Ars Amatoria III.193-199), using make up and ointments (Ovid Ars Amatoria III.200-204; Juvenal Satires VI.461-473) or fixing your hair (Martial Epigrams XIV; Ovid Ars Amatoria III.163-164). Archaeological evidence survives in abundance as well: combs and hair pins, jars of make-up and creams, tweezers, mirrors, scrapers and smoothers, and unguentaria filled with perfumes and oils. The use of some of these items is attested in three graffiti, one from a shop, and two from the Palaestra, which identify men who work as barbers or hairdressers.

CIL IV 743 =  ILS 6428b    shop VIII.4.12-13
A(ulum) Trebium / aed(ilem) tonsores.
‘Aulus Trebius, barber, for aedile.’

CIL IV 8619a
Aristo / to(n)sori.
‘Aristo, barber.’

CIL IV 8741
P(ublius) Corneli/us / Faventi/nus / tonsor.
‘Publius Cornelius Faventinus, barber.’

There are numerous graffiti that speak to the physical qualities of the addressee, but what I found surprising is that they are rather general, calling more for beauty and youth than any specific physical attribute or characteristic.

CIL IV 9171 = CLE 2059
Sic [t]ib[i] contingat semper florere Sabina / contingat / forma{e} sisque puella diu.
‘So may you forever flourish, Sabina; may you acquire beauty and stay a girl for a long time.’

CIL IV 1234 = CLE 232
Pupa qu(a)e bel(l)a s tibi / me misit qui tuus es(t) val(e).
‘Girl, you’re beautiful! I’ve been sent to you by one who is yours. Bye!’

CIL IV 8807a
Ceio et mul/tis pupa / venust/a.
‘Girl, you look lovely to Ceius and many others.’

CIL IV 2310b
Euplia hic / cum hominibus bellis / MM.
‘Euplia was here with two thousand handsome men.’

CIL IV 8870
A(n)ser ab(i) Amo(e)na[e] / loco.
Gosling, leave my beauty alone.

Two more specific texts talk of beauty in terms of light – twinkling eyes, radiance – but again, provide somewhat elusive concepts of what might make someone physically appealing.

CIL IV 6842 = CLE 2057
Si quis non vidi(t) Venerem quam pin[xit Apelles] / pupa(m) mea(m) aspiciat talis et [illa nitet].
‘Anyone who has not seen the Venus painted by Apelles should take a look at my girl: she is equally radiant.’

CIL IV 1780
Quid faciam vobis, ocilli lusci.
‘What shall I do for you, twinkling eyes?’

A series of others similar in content and construction debate the attractiveness of blonde versus brunette – perhaps demonstrating that even in antiquity blondes were thought to be more fun:

CIL IV 9847
Candida me docuit nigras o[d]isse / puellas odero si potero si non / invitus amabo.
‘A fair girl taught me to scorn dark ones. I will scorn then if I can; if not… I will reluctantly love them.’

CIL IV 1520 = CLE 354
Candida me docuit nigras / odisse puellas odero si potero sed non invitus / amabo / scipsit(!) Venus fisica Pompeiana.
Blondie has taught me to hate dark girls. I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them. Pompeian Venus Fisica wrote this.’

Besides hair colour, there is one graffito that addresses the ethnicity of a chosen lover, suggesting that where others may reject one on based on the colour of skin, the writer relishes in the idea of it:

CIL IV 6892 = CLE 2056
Quisquis amat nigra(m) nigris carbonibus ardet / nigra(m) cum video mora libenter {a}ed{e}o.
‘He who loves a dark-skinned girl burns on black coals; when I see a dark girl I gladly eat blackberries.’

There is one admonishment to women that suggests that engaging in too much grooming may be a detraction:

CIL IV 1830 = CLE 230
Futuitur cunnus pirossus multo melius [qu]am glaber / ea[d]em continet vaporem et eadem v[ell]it mentulam.
‘It is much better to fuck a hairy cunt than a smooth one: it both retains the warmth and stimulates the organ.’

And finally, a warning that just because a woman is beautiful on the outside, that does not mean she is worth being pursued:

CIL IV 1516 = CLE 955
Hic ego nu[nc f]utu(i)e formosa(m) fo[r]ma puella(m) laudata(m) a multis se lutus intus {e}erat.
‘Here I’ve screwed a beautiful girl, praised by many, but inside there was a mudhole.’

Beauty did, of course, cause envy. This is apparent in the opening section of a curse tablet, wherein a woman is calling upon the gods to destroy a rival. This is done by condemning features of her physical appearance, so that she would no longer be attractive to the man for whom they both vie.

CIL IV 9251 = I² 2541, Inside tablet A
Facia / capilu cerebru flatus ren[es] / ut ilai non sucedas n[e?] / qui ilaec INL in odium / ut ilic ilac odiat como[do] / aec nec acere ne ilai qui qua acere posit ulo[s] / filios.
‘I consecrate to the infernal gods her face, her hair, her mind, her breath, her vital organs, so that you cannot gain possession of her; may he be hateful to her and she to him; even as she shall have no power over him, so may he be completely unable to give her children.’

Despite the large number of texts and images relating to gladiators, they are never described physically, but for their wins and losses or for their ability to seduce women. Liaisons between gladiators and women of all social standing are frequently alluded to in the ancient literature, often indicating the desirability of the men is due in part to their physicality, and strength, and in part to the allure of the bestial and forbidden. Two gladiators record their multiple (in theory) successes in this arena.

CIL IV 4356 = ILS 5142d
T(h)r(aex) / Celadus reti(arius) / Cresce(n)s / pupar{r}u(m) dom(i)nus.
‘Celadus the Thracian, Crescens the net-fighter, lord of the girls.’

CIL IV 4397
Suspirium / puellarum / Celadus t(h)r(aex).
‘Celadus the Thracian, the girls’ desire.’

CIL IV 4345 = ILS 5142b
Puellarum decus / Celadus t(h)r(aex).
‘Celadus the Thracian, pride of the girls.’

CIL IV 4353 = ILS 5142e
Cresce(n)s retia(rius) / puparum nocturnarum mat[tin]ar[um] aliarum / ser atinus medicus.
‘Crescens the net-fighter, doctor of girls in the night, in the morning, and at other times.’

There is also a suggestion of the sexual interest in gladiators by high-born women in a graffito documenting the sale of two gladiators to the wife of Decimus Lucretius Valens.

CIL IV 8590
Ven[i]vit / mul(i)eri / D(ecimi) Lucreti Vale(ntis) / Onus(tus) eques I / r(ationis) / Saga / t(h)r(aex) / m(urmillo) / I / XX.
‘Sold to the wife of Decimus Lucretius Valens: Onustus, horseman of prime quality, Sagatus, Thracian murmillo, prime quality.’

He was a magistrate well-known for the games he gave, but it was highly unusual for an editore to own gladiators, as the standard practice was to rent them as needed for specific events. It has been suggested, therefore, that this text does not represent an actual sale, but is a jibe, with venio used as a double entendre, to indicate that Valens’ wife preferred to spend time abed with these fighting men instead of her husband.

The graffiti then, unsurprisingly, perform the same function as they usually do, in that they offer a typical glance into the reality of the idealised forms of the ancient art. The texts, though frustratingly general, reiterate the desire for beauty in the physical form that is so clearly realised in the tangible shape of statuary and vase painting. For Romans, the visual ideal was as important as it was for the Greeks, not just in the form of copied artworks, but for the average person, scribbling messages in the streets of Pompeii.

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