You are here

Un-Roman Sex: Gender, Sexuality, and Lovemaking in the Roman Provinces and Frontiers

Un-Roman Sex: Gender, Sexuality, and Lovemaking in the Roman Provinces and Frontiers

Edited by Tatiana Ivleva and Rob Collins. London: Routledge 2020. Pp. 380. $155. ISBN 9781138284029 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This collection of 11 contributions, including an introductory chapter by the editors and an afterword, examines provincial material culture to tease out new interpretations of gender and sexuality. In the introduction, the editors state their intention to contest the current scholarship on these topics, while increasing the visibility of evidence from the non-Mediterranean Roman provinces. Nevertheless, Roman Britain is the spotlighted province, the focus of all but two of the chapters.

If scholarship on the Roman provinces to date has focused on paradigms of romanization and identity, it has largely ignored the discourses on sexuality and gender—particularly sexual and gender identities outside of Roman Italy that are both nonelite and non-Mediterranean. This volume attempts “to move beyond structural and theoretical binaries of Classical and Roman provincial scholarship and build bridges between the two disciplines” (6). The contributors hope to provide an alternative to the top-down paradigm of romanization by employing instead the model of globalization to reveal the differences in the social constructions of human relationships with regard to sex, gender, and what we moderns call sexuality. They are looking for emic views in their analysis—that is, how provincial subjects understood gender and sexuality.

John Pearce, in his contribution on sex and spectacle in Roman northwest Europe, structures his argument around the Syston knife handle, a tiny object (6.4 cm long) discovered in 2009. A standing male holds a female figure leaning on the back of a second, kneeling male figure. The standing male is about to penetrate either the woman or the kneeling man. Pearce adduces a dizzying number of parallels within the corpus of about 25 examples of such bronze knife handles as well as similar representations on ceramics. His proposal that the acrobatic sexual threesome has its source in theatrical performance is sound. In terms of viewership, if the knives were used for shaving and grooming, these decorations may reflect the dominance of male penetrative sex and—at the same time—may be apotropaic.

Matthew Fittock’s extensive overview of the typology and contexts for the 401 pipeclay figurines of Venus from Roman Britain, argues that they reflect a different set of beliefs from those belonging to mainstream, nonprovincial contexts. Used mainly by civilians rather than the military, they evoked protection and fertility (rather than love), and their findspots in domestic rubbish dumps tells us that they were discarded. At the peak of their occurrence in the third century, they also appear in temple deposits, sometime as deliberately broken ex votos. Their rarer counterparts, metal figurines, come from civitas capitals, in contrast to the wider distribution of pipeclay Venuses.

Adam Parker surveys a wide range of phallic and vulvate imagery from Roman Britain, including pendants, finger rings, harnesses, and carved stone objects that he presents as expressions of personal magic, functioning to protect individuals and things from danger, particularly the evil eye. He offers a new perspective by framing them in terms of the Roman concept of materia magica, noting that the prevalent use of shiny metals, such as copper and its alloys, may have added to their apotropaic power. Some phallic pendants were designed to point outward from the body.

Stefanie Hoss provides a broad chronological survey of the representation of female genitals in the art of the Mediterranean as well as that of the northwest provinces; she establishes that, unlike representations of male genitals, artists unfailingly represented female genitals in highly schematic forms. She demonstrates that artists almost always used substitutes for the apotropaic depiction of female genitals, including the mano fica, cowrie and scallop shells, and the lunula. Amulets designed for animal harnesses often combine the mano fica with a phallus in a double horn shape. Her distribution maps for the various types are useful, as are her multiple lists and appendices.

Robyn Crook examines the meeting of class and gender in Roman Britain through analysis of Roman historical accounts of British queens (Boudicca, Cartimandua, and a Caledonian queen), the Vindolanda writing tablets, and funerary representations. Roman writers projected their ideals of gendered behaviors onto the British queens, weaponizing their gender or their sexuality to justify conflict with them, whereas the Vindolanda tablets (92–130 CE) shed light on the importance of familial relationships within the military structure, including wives, children, sisters, and parents. The three published military diplomas suggest that family life was a common feature in Roman Britain. Although funerary monuments constitute only 10% of inscriptions mentioning women, it is important to note that some indicate women’s rights to inherit, while the imagery often represents indigenous clothing and hairstyles.

Kaja Stemberger compares two Roman cemeteries in Slovenia (Emona and Poetovio), focusing on objects of personal adornment to understand how they might express female gender and ethnic ties. She problematizes the projection of modern national costume onto the Norico-Pannonian dress of the Roman period, then employs analysis of woolworking implements, jewelry, mirrors, hairpins, and belt fittings, brooches, and amber ornaments to distinguish the attire of women buried at the two sites. Despite its merits, it is difficult to integrate Stemberger’s work with the Romano-British content of much of the book.

Ivleva analyzes epigraphic evidence from the European northwest for sex between soldiers and male slaves and proposes an alternative to the framing of soldierly sexuality as compulsory heterosexual. She builds on the phallocentric or penetration model to demonstrate that soldierly masculinity in the provinces did not exclude nonhegemonic masculinities. She interprets two gravestones depicting freedmen of soldiers (figs. 8.5 and 8.6) as evidence that the freedman was the soldier’s lover, proposing that their epigraphic formulas record same-sex relations in the same way as inscriptions recording opposite-sex relations. She frames several tombstones representing two males in a parallel manner to male-female couples as a way of recording “below-the-horizon” same-sex relationships—and as evidence that Roman sexual conventions did not invariably rule in the provinces.

Collins’ study of phalli carved on Hadrian’s Wall in Britain results in a catalogue documenting 59 phalli from 22 sites unevenly distributed across the wall corridor, and he estimates that they represent perhaps 25% of the total. He distinguishes eight types, giving them humorous names—for example, “running hammer,” “double dong”—and dates them to three phases: Hadrianic, Severan, and late fourth to early fifth century. Interestingly, some phalli were not intended to be highly visible or visible at all, an indication that visibility was not essential to their apotropaic efficacy.

Alissa Whitmore examines faience pendants representing flaccid male genitalia, found both in sites in Roman Italy as well as in the Near East and the Black Sea region; the Italian finds date from the first centuries BCE and CE, but they continue into the third century in the east. Their material may have associated them with Egyptian magic. The majority come from burial contexts, and the fact that they are often strung together with other amulets (as in the amulet string or crepundia worn by children) suggests that they were apotropaic. Whereas most flaccid phallic pendants come from children’s burials, their association with women in the Near East and Central Asia suggests that they were also related to fertility. As in the case of Stemberger’s chapter, the material does not integrate well with the Romano-British focus of the bulk of the volume.

Sarah Levin-Richardson’s afterword comments on the broader implications of the studies presented, noting that some challenge the penetrative model, opening the possibility of alternative sexualities in the provinces and even in Roman Italy. She reviews recent work on the instability of the body-gender relationship that undermines the rigid binaries prevalent in previous scholarship. She characterizes Whitmore’s study of flaccid penis pendants as “decentering the erect phallus” (351) and Pearce’s analysis of the Syston knife as destabilizing the priapic boast of the male penetrator, since the blade handle folds to penetrate his buttocks.

Levin-Richardson identifies a second theme, that of bodies and boundaries, in how male and female genitalia are depicted and deployed (as in the contributions of Collins, Hoss, and Parker), with the phallus outnumbering (and outperforming?) the vulva as apotropaion. Further, one can extrapolate from the contexts surrounding the use of apotropaia the degrees of bodily vulnerability among children, men, and women—and even the bodies of animals. Their multiplication, whether carved on Hadrian’s Wall or strung together and worn on the body, parallels what one finds in magical binding spells.

What is freshest about this book is the contributors’ willingness to find interpretive models that look beyond the evidence from Latin literature and the cities buried by Vesuvius. They remind us that evidence is always incomplete and that the ambiguity of messages may be intentional: rarely is there a single, “correct,” interpretation. This investigation of provincial material culture underscores the premise that visual representations reflect diverse cultural constructions, and as such they are bound to stray from Italocentric Roman attitudes toward the practices of life.

John R. Clarke
Department of Art and Art History
University of Texas at Austin

Book Review of Julius Caesar’s Battle for Gaul: New Archaeological Perspectives, by Andrew P. Fitzpatrick and Colin Haselgrove (eds)
reviewed by John R. Clarke
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 1 (January 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1251.Clarke

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.