Deborah N. Carlson
John R. Clarke
This article treats visual representations of sex between human beings, hypersexual humans and demigods, and phalli in terms of their meanings for ancient Greeks and Romans and their viewing contexts. Building on the research of scholars holding that contemporary concepts of sexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality have no bearing on ancient attitudes and can only lead to anachronistic judgements if applied to the ancient world, the aim is to combine the evidence of classical texts with that of visual representations to determine the meanings of so-called erotica for ancient viewers. Many portrayals deemed pornographic by modern standards constituted proper decoration, whether they appear in the frescoed interiors of Roman houses or on drinking vessels, mirrors, and gemstones. Artists also created hypersexual creatures such as pygmies, Priapus, and Hermaphroditus primarily as apotropaia; representations of the phallus and of phallic deities installed on the streets and in the shops of cities had a similar apotropaic function.
Glass came of age during the Roman period. Within the ancient world it had been used from the mid-second millennium
Vessels, windows and other items spread widely throughout the empire and beyond, and to all levels of society. Over the next 400 years, how the material was used changed with time and place as the various regional industries responded to the needs and preferences of their communities.
This was a major high-temperature industry which would have made considerable demands on resources such as fuel, but there are still many things that are unknown about it. Where, for example, was the glass itself made? Waste from secondary workshops producing vessels is regularly encountered, but evidence for the primary production is extremely rare. This has led to considerable debate, with competing models being proposed. Glass is not a material where scientific techniques such as those used to provenance pottery have proved very helpful. The composition of Roman glass is extremely uniform throughout the empire, and again there has been much debate about why this might be. Of late, some useful advances have started to be made in approaching these questions, and this may eventually disentangle what was going on.
The study of Roman glass provides a unique window into the past. Through it the impact of new technologies and materials can be seen, as well as the choices people made about what was useful in their lives—all against the background of some of the most beautiful and skilful vessels ever made.