Ancient History & Civilisation

A gender-friendly occupation

The word pornography was created by cobbling together the Greek word porne, “prostitute,” and the Greco-Latin root -graphy,”writing.”

But porn, explicit sex manuals, and very graphic graphics were around much earlier than Greco-Roman times.

So far, the record for the oldest how-to on love couplings is the five-thousand-year-old Chinese Handbook of Sex, written by an emperor with time on his hands, evidently. (Sorry to disappoint, but the often-cited Kama Sutra from India is not only a Ravi-come-lately for sex advice, having been composed between the second and fourth centuries A.D., but only a fraction of it is on sex.)

Judging by what has come to light, the ancient Egyptians were the first to produce X-rated graphic novels. Or at least one. In early 1897, as British archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt drearily plowed through thousands of papyrus fragments they’d found in the ancient rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynthus, Egypt, they stumbled upon a lascivious picture book. On the sadly damaged eight-and-a-half-foot scroll, the erotic connection between music and sex was explored, illustrated with twelve panels of satirical, eye-popping graphics covering a wide range of Egyptian ideas on smutty fun.

One vignette shows a “sexual Olympics” sort of challenge; an aroused man attempts sex with a nearly naked woman who is standing above him in a chariot! The whole thing may be a parody, expensively carried out for a private audience. Now called the Turin Erotic Papyrus, it reposes in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy. Other explicit works, including a painted leather scroll, have turned up at Hatshepsut’s Deir el-Bahari temple and elsewhere.


Writing porn began almost as early as writing itself. Archaeologists have found examples in Egypt, Rome, and Greece—more than a few penned by women.

Again, amid the masses of papyri hidden in the ancient ruins of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, archaeologists and researchers discovered a tantalizing fragment of a sex manual, a work of art by a Greek woman called Philaenis. This find proved even more shocking because it revealed that women of Greco-Roman times not only behaved as lasciviously as men, but they also wrote about the imaginative sex they’d had (and/or had fantasized).

Philaenis lived during Hellenistic times, on the Greek island of Samos or perhaps Leucadia (accounts disagree). She may have been the courtesan that inspired the coining of the word pornography. Whatever her day job, she began her literary odyssey by coming up with a killer title for her book. She called it On Indecent Kisses. Her erotic manual was clearly popular (judging by its mention by other writers, plus the number of papyrus fragments found at multiple sites), and centuries later would provide inspiration for Ovid’s bestselling Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love).

The introduction to her book begins: “Philaenis of Samos, daughter of Ocymenes, wrote the following things for those wanting … life.” (The rest of the line is missing.) The author methodically organized her book into chapters, such as “How to Make a Pass,” and “Seduction through Flattery” (a small fragment reads: “say that he or she is ‘godlike’ “). Other surviving chapter names include: “Cosmetics for Seduction Success”; “The Use of Aphrodisiacs”; “Abortion Methods”; and “Sexual Positions.”

On Indecent Kisses evidently contained some suggestions for female-to-female intimacy that terrified males in ancient Greece and Rome, where the thought of women engaging in mutually satisfying behavior turned male stomachs. The brilliant seventh-century B.C. poetry and lyrics of Sappho of Lesbos had done much to bring attention to X-rated activity among gals out into the open, but the thought of lesbians (or tribades, as they were more commonly referred to then) had the average Athenian or Roman breaking out in hives. (See the entries on tribades and outercourse elsewhere in this book for more details.)

Philaenis’s handbook for the voluptuary really pushed the outrage envelope, because it apparently included illustrations of sexual positions. Yes indeed: a Joy of Sex B.C., with how-tos for couples gay and straight. In the reign of Emperor Trajan the Roman poet Martial, who preened himself on hip vulgarity and flippant, ad hominem porn, found Philaenis’s matter-of-fact nonfiction and art so horrifying that he scurried home to write scurrilous epigrams about her.

Another writer from Samos, a poet called Aeschrion, was even more dismayed to have “his” home island named as Philaenis’s turf as well. In response, he wrote an epigram denying that she ever wrote lewd books or “did research” by consorting with men in that way.

For all the stir she caused, Philaenis was by no means the only gal to carry out such work. A talented female poet called Elephantis also did illustrated editions that focused on how to organize group sex. Wow. It got a mention from Roman historian Suetonius, author of the still-famous Lives of the Twelve Caesars. In his biography of Emperor Tiberius, he said that the nasty old voyeur owned a copy of her “learn through pictures” book. It got heavy use on the isle of Capri at his sexual pleasure park, where youngsters were forced to engage in group sex. According to Suetonius, it was used as a reference, “so that no one should lack a model for the execution of any lustful act he was ordered to perform.”

Other feminine porn artists included Nico of Samos, called a writer of lewd books by Xenophon; and Astynassa, who took on the literary persona of Helen of Troy’s personal maid to pen her book on sexual positions.

Although only a smidgen of biographical data has surfaced about male pornographers, nevertheless they did crank out a disreputable number of raunchy little books. Their numbers included authors Sabellus, Musaeus, Mummius, Sotades of Mantinea, Timon of Phlius, Botrys, and a fellow from fabled Sybaris called Hemitheon. The latter wrote a homoerotic novel called Sybaritica, cited for its “lubricity” by writers Martial and Lucian.

Purveyors of pornography back then evidently felt compelled to describe the postures of venery, as sex positions were called, and brag about the number they’d included in their book. Author Paxamus, for example, boasted of twelve positions in his tome calledDodecatechnon (Twelve Techniques). The poet Martial also commented on “the debauched books of Elephantis, with nine postures.”

So what were the favorite Greco-Roman positions, anyway? Judging by the extant paintings and illustrations, one called the Rider was extremely popular. The woman sat proudly above the man, who was supine on his back. If she faced him, the pose was calledVenus pendula conversa; if away, it was Venus pendula aversa. (See the amount of Latin you can learn if the topic is gripping enough?)

Another subset of titillating tales also became popular in the second century B.C. The first may have been written by Aristides of Miletus, a luxurious Greek city-state in Asia Minor. Called Milesiaka (Milesian Tales), they were collections of short stories, told in the first person, using ribald language and salacious anecdotes of love and adventure. They appealed to male readers, these trashy novels; some were even found in the gear carried by legionaries.

As mentioned in the entry on masturbation, early porn books often enhanced private moments for many a lustful Roman or Greek, engaging in what the Victorians liked to call “self-pollution.”

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