Roman Art: Sex & Violence

Pan and Goat Priest and SonsThe BBC site ran an essay by Alistair Sooke, art critic for The Daily Telegraph newspaper. In it he detailed some of the art from ancient Rome that was shocking by modern standards as well as that of our Renaissance fore-bearers.

Some of the artworks were sexual in nature while others were violent. Frankly, I found his tone to be stiff and uptight, as if somehow our ancient ancestors were barbaric (though I think he purposely did this in order to create a false sense of surprise or outrage). Yet he also acknowledges that they were learned and, in the broadest sense, perhaps; civilized.

So why the apparent tension between shocking sexuality, violence and the existence of all of the trappings of civilization? I think the answer is that we humans have two hearts, beating at different paces. One is a slower, more careful, pace that allows us to build civilizations, create written languages, etc. The other is a darker, more passionate or base heartbeat. This is what drives our personal desires, inclinations to personal violence, sexuality, and even our dreams.

Our Roman ancestors, living in time where man interacted more closely with his neighbors (in cramped ancient cities) and with nature (in the vast forests and waterways of an undeveloped world), felt the tension of these “two hearts” and their art and literature reflected that.

Even now, we feel this too. Our desire for a brutal punishment for those who hurt children or revenge for a country that attacked us in war. Yet we also know that we cannot live in a dark world of passions. We also need the more rarefied air of compassion and philosophy that our Roman ancestors (and our ancestors in all parts of the world) also needed.

Our ancestors knew this and they wrote thoughtful poems, built societies based on law and vast cities; while also indulging themselves in the more base arts.

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