Article: Aulis and the Ithy-Phallos Excavation

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[. . .] Thief! thou shalt suffer the pain albeit crying in anger

'What! For a cabbage all this? This for a cabbage I bear?' (Priapeia 23)

The notion that reading this inscription entails reading it aloud causes the person reading it to speak the very dialogue that Priapus predicts for him, enacting the cries of someone being forcibly raped. In other words, the "magic spell" element of this particular inscription is a sort of trick or "charm" (to use the modern English word which etymologically derives directly from the Latin "carmen") which forces the reader to enact verbally the penalty promised.

The sense of punitive (and sexualized) vengance inherent in the Priapic inscriptions is amply borne out in our other chief surviving literary source for information about the specific forms of religious practice which underlie the Vettii fresco in Pompeii, the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. Named as "arbiter elegantaiae," or arbiter of elegance, in the court of the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, Nero, Petronius was eventually accused of conspiracy against the emperor, and was forced (as the historian Tacitus records) to commit suicide at imperial command in 66 A.D., only thirteen years before the eruption of Vesuvius. We may thus consider the Satyricon to be relatively contemporaneous with the Pompeii eruption. Overall, it is a seemingly realist prose work describing the outlandish and frequently sexual adventurers of its protagonist Encolpius -- presented as a sort of randy undergraduate -- as a way of satirizing contemporary manners and morals in Rome. The work survives mostly in large fragments, with a more or less intact set of chapters from the center of the work, but as Sulivan notes, the overarching structure of the work is provided by Priapus:

A brief recapitulation of the earlier lost episodes as they can be reconstructed from allusions in the work may be worth giving….what gives some tenuous continuity to Encolpius' adventures is the basic plot: the wrath of the ithyphallic deity, Priapus, against the inadequate hero. This comic motif is patently based on the wrath of Poseidon against Odysseus in the Odyssey. (17)

Indeed the text of Petronius will deliberately describe Priapus in mock-Homeric terms, even taking advantage of the literary form (Menippean satire) in order to express the hero's plight in pseudo-epic verse:

Over land and white Nereus' sea I am hounded

By the mighty rage of Priapus of Hellespont (157)

But again, what is sensed in the satire here is aggression averted or re-channelled. Certainly the extant text of the Satyricon represents Priapus in his traditionally aggressive fashion. But we have a sense of rather graphic sexual vengeance here turned into comedy, especially because the revenge of Priapus upon Encolpius in the text is to cause him impotence, in precisely the same fashion as the curse-inscription quoted above (Priapeia c.22).

We have a persuasive explanation, in other words, for why Priapus should be placed immediately in the entrance hallway to the House of the Vettii: the apotropaic function that he ordinarily served in a garden, to chase out thieves or intruders by threatening them with rape, violence, or some kind of curse or other vengeance is here domesticated to serve as a kind of formalistic apotropaic device for the doorway, like a mezuzah in the Hebrew tradition. But this particular Priapus, conceived of not as an agricultural but as a household god, displays his urbanity in relaxed fashion. The idea that the massive phallus is somehow equivalent to the commercial success of the Vettii is obvious, especially considering the use of the scales of commerce here to register the size of it. In some sense, perhaps, the sense of power that is attributed to the rustic god's propensity for buggering intruders is here sublimated to the sense of power attendant upon commercial success: psychologically this is likely to make sense in terms of the Vettii's status as freedmen, since slaves under Roman law had virtually no sexual autonomy and even male slaves were likely to be used sexually by their owners. This is described by Petronius, where the vulgar freedman Trimalchio admits that, when a slave, "for fourteen years I was the old boy's fancy. And there's nothing wrong if the boss wants it. But I did all right by the old girl too, if you know what I mean -- I don't say anything because I'm not the boasting sort. Well, as heaven will have it, I became boss in the house, and the old boy, look, was mine, heart and soul. That's about it -- he made me co-heir with the Emperor and I got a senator's fortune." (Petronius, 89). There is, of course, no evidence to suggest that the Vettii had anything in common with the target of Petronius' most expansive and detailed social satire, save their status as freedmen who would become extremely wealthy, the growing number of whom is registered as a common complaint in the satiric literature of Rome during the imperial period. The only real inference that can be drawn is that the sense of aggression subdued into mercantile vigor which can be read from the entryway painting could also be applied to the lives of Roman slaves who patiently worked to buy their freedom and then go into business. Perhaps it is merely the joke in the "uncivilized" Priapus here depicted in eminently sober-minded fashion is a reflection on the owners of the house, who themselves have marked a sort of social progress by their ascent from slavery to wealth and prominence.

But the largest ultimate meaning here is accorded by the location of the painting not in the House of the Vettii, but in Pompeii. Pompeii was certainly extremely prosperous at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, as the archaeological evidence of numerous expensive consumer goods of the time will attest, and its position at that time as a port town for southern Italy, with a strategic placement near the mouth of a river, made it actually quite a commercial hub. But the simple fact was that Pompeii itself was not Rome. To a certain degree, a wealthy man's house in Pompeii would therefore be, to some extent, inclined to self-conscious allusion toward the distinction made in Rome between city and countryside. In particular Rosen's discussion of the semiologic function served by Priapus is absolutely correct here; Rosen sees Priapus as denoting not merely sex and aggression, but conscious rusticity. There is a traditional association of rustic life with sexual frankness -- as many jokes about farmer's daughters will attest -- and to some degree Priapus encourages this, but in Rosen's account "the crudity and coarseness of Priapus' humor… are readily sanctioned by his status as a god far removed from contexts of urban sophistication and refinement." (Rosen, 227). Instead of being a signifier for aggressive sexuality, or necessarily intending the threat that is lurking behind most depictions of the god, Priapus (according to Rosen) becomes instead a signifier for country life, and the valorization of the rustic over the urban in much of the Roman literature of the imperial period (Vergil's Eclogues and Georgics in particular) suggests that the invocation is meant to be suggestive that one is officially no longer in Rome. In part this seems to connect nicely with the seeming connection between Priapus and the Greek Hermes within the Pompeiian imagination -- the Greek herms were, after all, boundary markers of a sort, just as Priapus was intended as a property marker as well. The sense of crossing over from country into city is therefore nicely captured in the paradoxical depiction of Priapus here: he is staging his own rustic wildness in the fashion of a prosperous urban merchant, and demonstrating that (of course) the only way that someone could afford a residence in Pompeii that is equivalent in size and wealth to a Roman domus is through the sophistication of commerce. Given that Hermes serves as the god of commerce as well, it seems like the depiction of Priapus at the House of the Vettii is not as different from the other painting depicting him with the cadeuceus. To some extent, the liminality involved in Hermes role as boundary-marker and psychopomp is here alluded to, when Priapus lets us know that we are in a rich man's country house, with all the civilized amenities of a city house.

Works Cited

Carolis, Ernesto De. Gods and Heroes in Pompeii. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001. Print.

Conway, Colleen. Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Knight, Richard Payne. A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus. Leeds: Celephais Press, 2003. Print.

Ling, Roger. Roman Painting. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Print.

Petronius. The Satyricon. Translated with an introduction by J.P. Sullivan. New York and London: Penguin Books, 1986. Print.

Priapeia. Translated with an introduction by Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Francis Burton. London: John Lane, 1890. n. pag. Web.

Rosen, Ralph M. "Comic Aischrology… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Aulis and the Ithy-Phallos Excavation.  (2011, August 27).  Retrieved July 22, 2019, from

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"Aulis and the Ithy-Phallos Excavation."  August 27, 2011.  Accessed July 22, 2019.