Category Archives: Art

Ancient Rome and Intersex People, Those Known to the Romans as Hermaphrodites

I’ve recently finished my MA dissertation (hurray!) and it focussed on disability in ancient Rome. Part of my research focussed on intersex people, those the Romans knew as hermaphrodites or those with an ambiguous gender. It’s a fairly unusual topic but one which tells us a great deal about how the Romans treated those they categorised as ‘abnormal’.

The Sleeping Hermaphrodite. Roman (100-200 CE). Currently housed in the J.Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

Intersex people in modern society are rare. Some conditions such as Classical Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia are estimated to occur in 1 in 130,000 births in the U.S. (Intersex Society of North America). It is likely, in Roman society, intersex people were equally as rare but the Romans were aware of their condition in some capacity and, like with many other people with disabilities, treated intersex people with fear and contempt.

Here’s what you need to know about the Roman’s relationship with intersex people:

– The Romans were unaware of the different conditions which cause individuals to display both male and female attributes. They believed those born with physical variations were signs of natural corruption. As such, intersex people could be considered as punishments or warnings from the gods.

– The Romans coined the term hermaphrodite, after Hermaphroditus (the divine offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite). The Greeks previously used a term similar to androgynous, according to Livy (27.11.4) and Pliny (NH 7.34).

– The majority of sources which deal with intersex people and the Romans concern Rome’s mythological past, including Romulus’ reign and the following few centuries. Authors such as Livy and Julius Obsequens, writing many centuries after the events supposedly occurred, are also thought to have embellished their accounts. Furthermore, their original sources (thought to be priestly records) are now lost to us.

– Intersex people were considered prodigies; viewed as both divine punishment of the family and the Roman state and warnings of impending doom. The birth of intersex infants, who were of neither male nor female gender, represented a physical manifestation of corruption within the state.

– The births of intersex babies are recorded alongside unusual animal births, such as ‘a lamb with a pig’s head’ (Livy 31.12.6-8.) This tells us that intersex infants were considered as almost ‘sub-human’. The births usually took place in settlements outside the limited confines of the Roman state at the time. In this way, the Roman state may have been able to suggest to their citizens that the births were warnings not necessarily within their own state but close enough to home to warrant concern.

– Intersex infants were killed shortly after their births. Their murder usually involved an ‘expiation’ ceremony, a ritual carried out to appease the gods. The baby would be placed in a box and drown at sea (or in one instance, a river). Prior to the baby’s disposal hymns, dedicated to Ceres and Persephone, were sung by 27 virgins and sacrifices were made.

Statue of Hermaphroditus. Roman (200-300CE). Currently housed in the Louvre Museum.

– The expiation ceremonies usually coincided with times of political strife, such as a ritual carried out in 207 BCE during the Second Punic Wars. As such, intersex infants were used as scapegoats.

– Some parents of intersex children did attempt to conceal their child’s true nature from the state. One instance, recorded in Livy (31.12.6-8.), refers to a 16-year-old intersex child who was discovered by the Haruspices (those in charge of interpreting divinations) and killed. That the child survived to the age of 16 is telling. Either the child’s parents concealed him or the child (possibly not an intersex person) may have simply been a scapegoat, used to show that the state was fulfilling their duties to the gods in understanding their divine will through prodigies.

– The attitude towards intersex people appears to have changed over time. Initially, as we have seen above, intersex children were thought of with fear and disgust. By the 1st century CE, intersex people were regarded with fascination. Phelgon of Tralles (FGrH F36.6) recorded how a high-born girl, on her wedding day, began to experience incapacitating stomach pains and within days had physically transformed into a man. The case was brought to Claudius’ attention and he celebrated the ‘rebirth’, honouring the gods’ intervention with an altar. Males were highly prized in patriarchal Roman society and Claudius’ celebration of the transition appears to reinforce the importance of males and male heirs within society and elite families.

– Intersex people were depicted in art often for humorous purposes. The Sleeping Hermaphrodite type, which depicts a seemingly feminized figure lying on hir side, was deliberately designed as an illusion (see top image and one below). Those approaching the statue may have assumed – as many modern viewers do – that the sleeping figure is wholly female only to discover the figure possesses male genitalia (Von Stackelberg, 2014). Similarly wall paintings from Pompeii depict satyrs attempting to rape intersex people. The image was seemingly intended to be humorous (from the perspective of Roman viewers) as the viewer was aware of the individual’s true nature whereas the satyr was not.

The front view of The Sleeping Hermaphrodite. See top image for back view. J.Paul Getty Museum.

If you want to learn more about intersex people in ancient Rome, take a look at:

Garland, R. 1995. The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World. London: Duckworth

Graumann, L.A. 2013. Monstrous Births and Retrospective Diagnosis: The Case of Hermaphrodites in Antiquity. In: Laes, C., Goodey, C., Lynn Rose, M. eds. Disabilities in Roman Antiquity: Disparate Bodies A Capite ad Calcem. Leiden: Brill, pp. 181-210.

Greaves, A.M. 2012. Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (Reifenstein’s Syndrome) in the Roman World. The Classical Quarterly. Vol. 62/2, pp. 888-892.

Satterfield, S. 2011. Notes on Phlegon’s Hermaphrodite Oracle and the Publication of Oracles in Rome. Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Neue Folge. Vol. 154/1, pp. 117-124.

Von Stackelberg, K.T. 2014. Garden Hybrids: Hermaphrodite Images in the Roman House. Classical Antiquity. Vol. 33/2, pp. 395-426.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Ancient Rome, Art, Classics, History

The Uffizi Gallery, Florence: Top Sights For Weary Tourists

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy boasts one of the most impressive collections of Renaissance art in the world. The gallery is house in the 16th century building complex commissioned by Cosmo de’ Medici, at the time the head of the powerful banking family.

The Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Cosmo intended from the onset to use the building, not only as offices and meeting places for Florence’s rulers, but as a means of displaying the Medici’s large collection of art. And, of course, as a means for the family to show their wealth, power and good taste.

The Uffizi has served as a inspiration for artists; was the highlight of many a Grand Tour; and is now one of the most popular attractions in Italy. In summer the gallery is packed with tourists from around the world and many are willing to queue for hours to gain entry. The gallery is deceptively large so, if you’re running out of time and patience, here are a few of the sights you must see:

The Niobe Room

The Niobe Room

The Niobe Room acts as something of a respite for those struggling with the crowds. It’s generally quiet as people tend to toddle in, glance around and immediately leave. The room is lined with statues and huge paintings fill the walls.

Titian

The Venus of Urbino.

Similarly the Caravaggio, Titian’s work is on the lower floors of the gallery and on the way out. His Venus of Urbino resides here and depicts a beautiful reclining nude. The painting dates from 1538 and is amongst Titian’s finest and most famous works.

The View From The Top

Florence

The views from the top of the gallery and from the windows on its main corridors are incredible and have changed very little since the building’s completion. Make sure you stop to admire the view over the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio in the West Corridor.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s Medusa.

The works of Caravaggio are hidden away on the lower floors of the gallery and, when you’re trying to find your way out, can be easily missed. However, they’re particularly fine examples and his Testa di Medusa is remarkable. He created one version in 1596 and another a year later, the second version is on display at the Uffizi. Also present in the room are his Young Bacchus and Annunciation.

Botticelli

The Birth of Venus.

By far the most sought out picture in the gallery is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and it’s certainly worth wading through the crowds to see. The painting, created in 1486, is larger than one would expect and dominates the vast room in which it is held. Unfortunately, its beauty is somewhat detracted as a large glass screen has been placed over it for protective but if you persevere and ignore everyone else around you, it’s definitely worth the effort.

The entire series of rooms devoted to Botticelli should also be explored especially as some of his other, less raved about paintings, are magnificent. These include Fortitude, the painting depicting one of the same virtues, which he completed in 1470.

Fortitude.

The Main Corridors

The East Corridor.

It’s easy to rush through these areas if you’re the hunt for Botticelli, but the main corridors alone are fantastically grand and should be considered an attraction in their own right. Make sure you look up as much as possible as the ornate ceilings are all unique and depict scenes from Greco-Roman mythology.

Famous faces from the Medici family glare down at visitors and the array of sculptures from their high vantage point on the walls. It’s also evident how much the Medici used classical art and its associations, particularly with the Roman emperors, to emphasise their own power. Keep an eye out for busts of the emperors Nero, Caligula, Trajan and Augustus.

The ceiling of the Uffizi.

The Tribuna

The Tribuna.

The octagonal room is filled with paintings and sculptures but its main attraction is its décor. The relatively small room was the main attraction for many on their Grand Tour during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The domed ceiling is highly ornate; the marble floor lavish; and the high windows providing the perfect amount of light for one to appreciate the hanging paintings and statues. It’s no longer possible to enter the room but it can be admired from its three doorways.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, History of Art, Travel