The History of Sex: Pompeii -- The Perils of Procreation -- (Chap. I, Pt. 11)

Dr. Varone also shoots down my theory that Roman erotica was designed to boost the population to defend the Empire.

A Roman menage-a-trois
'Procreation was a problem among the Romans,' he concedes. 'They provided incentives for women who had more than three children. Nonetheless, many Roman women did not want to have children.'

The grave markers at Pompeii reveal why: whereas most men lived until they were at least twenty-two (usually dying in battle), the majority of women died between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, probably from complications after childbirth.

'But don't associate recreational sex with procreation. You had a child with your own wife; it was a question of dynastic continuity. Don't confuse their marriages with our marriages. Back then, your father and my father would have picked both of us up by the scruff of our necks, married us off, and then we would have had to procreate. But they didn't really have a relationship. So you had sex with whoever you wanted to, and with your wife you just had to procreate.'

'In the vast majority of erotic scenes, we know the people depicted were prostitutes because of the way they were dressed or their jewelry. And they used to worry about getting pregnant, because if a prostitute was pregnant, she wasn't going to be able to work much. They used many things to prevent pregnancy: sponges, vinegar douches and condoms made of sheep's bladders.'


'So what was the main purpose of erotic art?'

'I think they were used for decorative purposes in the sense that they tried to create an atmosphere. Most of these renderings depicted nice environments, people who were well dressed, perhaps lovely vases in the background, and the general idea was to make people think "I'm not in this horrible lupanar, I'm in a private bachelor's pad."

There was always an attempt to imitate the world of the very wealthy. But the very wealthy and the noble were in a completely different world.'

The doubly-endowed Priapus in the lupanar at Pompeii

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