Herodotus Histories Article

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Aulis and the Ithy-Phallos

Excavation of Entranceway a-b of Pompeii's grandest single residence, the House of the Vettii, which opens onto the Vicolo dei Vettii and is positioned directly opposite the House of the Golden Cupids, revealed a somewhat astonishing wall-fresco (De Carolis, 42). The frankly obscene nature of this painting is at odds with what we might expect for an entrance hallway; it depicts Priapus, the Roman god of the erect penis, weighing his outsize phallus in a balance used by moneychangers or tradesmen. I would like to inquire whether the iconography of this painting bears any relation to other existing Roman artifacts, and finally interpret it in light of research into Roman literary sources.

In analyzing this painting, it is worth recalling Ling's discussion of Roman wall paintings, which he breaks down into four basic points. The first is the ubiquity: by our standards, an individually commissioned mural is reserved for the wealthy, in Pompeii it is not. As Ling puts it, "the extent to which ancient houses were painted far exceeds that in later societies" (1-2). The second emphasizes visibility: more highly visible rooms would be decored with paintings of higher quality, and "lesser rooms were progressively simpler" (2). The third emphasizes the architectural context, reminding us that the paintings should be understood within the functional context of the room and to ask "how they are adapted to the size, shape and function of the room" (2). And finally Ling emphasizes the relation between owner and painting, that they must be understood as a kind of display of "tastes and aspirations of the householders who commissioned them" (2). In the case of the House of the Vettii, there is a relatively clear understanding of most of what Ling requires here. The Vettii have been identified as a pair of wealthy freedmen, and the house itself is one of the more lavish within Pompeii. The expensiveness of the painting is evident from its level of detail, and indeed the painting's representation of the weighing of coins, and of the fruits associated with a cornucopia, are announcements of the wealth and commercial success of the Vettii. It is also worth noting that the style of the painting suggests that it was painted much earlier than many of the other freschi in the House of the Vettii, suggesting that it had been kept and maintained from a previous owner or to maintain what was considered a particularly good decoration for the foyer. The only one of Ling's stipulations which requires additional explanation is clearly the third: how does this depiction of Priapus, which is clearly expensive and (like the massive penis of Priapus) designed to impress, function within the context of an entry hall?

Richard Payne Knight was the first to describe in detail the specifics of the phallic representations discovered in the remains of both Pompeii and Herculaneum. Payne Knight somewhat oversubscribed to a later neo-Platonist reading of the imagery which saw it as representative of the Platonic "demiurge," the creator of the world whose great characteristic attribute was represented by the organ of generation in the state of tension and rigidity which is necessary to the due performance of its functions. Many small images of this kind have been found among the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, attached to the bracelets which the chaste and pious matrons of antiquity wore round their necks and arms. In these, the organ of generation appears alone, or only accompanied with the wings of incubation, in order to show that the devout wearer devoted herself wholly and solely to procreation, the great end for which she was ordained. (27-8)

As a way of sidestepping the general prudishness of his audience, Payne Knight suggests that the phallic art of Pompeii is all susceptible to this sort of allegorization. It is true, however, that a statue of Priapus was also discovered in the excavation of the House of the Vettii, in Room w. This statue features a large phallus as well, and is overall comparable to the style of the entryway painting, however a carved hole in the phallus has seemingly indicated that the original placement of the statue was in the garden, where it functioned as a fountain.

This is how Payne Knight justifies reading it as an abstracted form of fertility symbol: all other extant historical evidence suggests that the sexual element is hardly a metaphor. Younger decribes Priapus as "apotropaic," which is surely the original function of the erect phallus on the statues. Another wall painting in Pompeii depicts Priapus with the Cadeuceus of Hermes, and the assumption is that the two gods were likened to one another by analogy with the Greek "herms," statues used as boundary markers which depicted a bust of the god Hermes with an apotropaic ithyphallos affixed to the front: the flashy Athenian politician Alcibiades had been ostracized from Athens in the 5th century BCE when the herms were defaced and their phalloi knocked off, proving that there was still a very active sense of religiosity about these figures (Younger 160). Younger notes that the cult of Priapus is attested to in Hellenistic Lampascus in the 3rd century BCE, and the cult "spread to Rome by 90 BCE" (Younger 160). But Watson notes that the Roman cult of Priapus differed substantially from the earlier cult, with "the emphasis on the god's intrinsic ridiculousness and obsessive pursuit of sexual gratification being a radical departure from the Greek tradition of Priapea." (Watson, 207-8). The graphic sexuality of the depictions fit in with the Roman sense of sexuality as being defined not by gender but by activity vs. passivity; Conway writes that in the Roman sexual ethos to be active often involved expressing one's dominion over another. To be passive meant to submit to this domination. In the Roman setting, the popularity of the god Priapus illustrates the importance of this aspect of masculinity. Priapus was an extraordinarily well-endowed fertility god, frequently depicted in paintings and statues with his oversized member ready to defend the garden or household against intruders through penetration of the enemy.25 Aside from depictions of Priapus, phallic images were found throughout the empire on a wide variety of objects, such as jewelry, pottery, masonry, and street-corner plaques. As a sign of fertility and strength, the phallus was venerated, and the symbol was used as an apotropaic charm. Phallic wind chimes and front-door plaques graced the home, so that the phallic image was ever present in one's comings and goings in the Roman world. Its ubiquity reminded those who would be men that generation and domination through penetration was an essential part of the act. (Conway, 22)

In other words, the depiction of Priapus ordinarily has a sense of threat or menace about it: the painting in the entrance hall at the House of the Vettii is clearly, then, a highly domesticated version of the ordinary representation.

This sense is borne out in the surviving literary evidence concerning the function of Priapus and his cult within the Roman household. We have an extant corpus of just under a hundred epigrams, short poems intended for inscription rather than performance, associated with the worship of Priapus, which survive in a collection known as the Priapeia. Priapeia c. 22 may be taken as representative of the genre. The text of the inscription reads:

Whoever shall herein pluck a violet or a rose, or pilfer vegetables or unbought apples, I pray that in the absence of both woman and boy he may continually burst with that rigid tension which you see in me, and that his penis may in vain beat throbbing on his navel. (Priapeia 22)

We must first understand the various levels of religious significance such an inscription would have had for the Romans. The Latin language does not distinguish terminology between a short metrical verse composition like this, and a magical spell: they are both indicated by the word used for a poem like this ("Carmen"). Moreover the Romans had a tradition of assuming that under certain circumstances the poet could be considered a "vates" or inspired bard, who speaks under the direct influence of some god: Vergil, to whom authorship of the Priapeia was historically assigned (although modern scholarship finds this unlikely), was considered precisely such a "vates." Remarkably indeed the reputation of Vergil for prophetic inspiration would survive into the Christian era, when his eclogues were considered to have been mystically inspired prophecies predicting the birth of Christ.

We must connect this with another important fact of the Priapic poems, in common with Roman verse generally: the understanding is that to read it is to read it aloud. This fact seems to be alluded to specifically in the jokes of some of the epigrams. For example, Priapus in c. 23 ventriloquizes the voice of the thief after he has been captured and sodomized:

Here has the bailiff, now of this plentiful garden the guardian,

Bidden me care for the place he to my…

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