The iconography of sex workers and the figurae veneris in Roman wall painting throughout the empire has been the subject of much debate in scholarship, namely as to their didactic, pornographic, or comedic function (Myerowitz 1992; Guzzo 2000; Clarke 2007). Reflective of an elite anxiety over increasingly complex power dynamics, these erotic scenes present their subjects in fluctuating roles of dominant and pathic, in marked contrast to the static mores of the Imperial Roman elite (Fredrick 1995). This expression of erotic power and fluidity in visual art is in direct conversation with the hyper-sexualized characters of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, suggesting the author’s familiarity with and further exploitation of this erotic visual motif. Though the relationship between the erotic visual and the literary has been explored by scholarship (see Slater 1998; McGinn 2004), an analysis linking the iconography of the Roman sex worker to the dominant femme in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses reveals the ways in which Apuleius constructed his conception of gender fluidity.
This paper seeks to reevaluate our understanding of the sexually dominant woman in Roman art by analyzing the extent to which the powerful, magical women in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses 1, foreshadow the more pronounced erotic behavior of Lucius and Photis in book 2. In the first instance, Meroe and her sister Panthia are described as “sitting on my face” (super faciem meam residentes, Met. 1.13) with their victim, Aristomenes, “thrown on the ground” in a pathic position (prostratus humi, Met. 1.12). In the second instance, Photis is positioned in a similar posture of contested power, “sitting on me” (residens super me, Met. 2.17). Residentes and other variants of the verb sedeo often illustrate the sexual position of “the woman on top,” or mulier equitens, a choreography confined to the skills of Roman sex-workers. Indeed, Meroe herself is described as a “leathery old sex-worker” (scortum scorteum, Met. 1.8.1), pointedly “othering” and sexualizing her character in its introduction.
The language in book 1 depicts moments of sexual conquest and enslavement, which emasculate the protagonist (virilia desecamus, Met. 1.13) and hyper-feminize, or perhaps monstrously “masculinize,” the antagonists. Apuleius’ play with visual iconography informs both how we interpret the power dynamics within the novel and how we understand sexual fluidity in Roman wall painting. Through these moments of sexual enslavement to witchy women, both Aristomenes and Lucius take on an erotic role traditionally reserved for the young boy or woman, beginning their concomitant journeys into “otherness,” while the women assume the social infamy and sexual prowess characteristic of the Roman iconographic scortum. The horror and the monstrosity within this scene precisely come from the fact that it is the women who function as dominate, not the prescribed Roman male, an inversion explored to the point of hilarity in the explicit scenes inside the apodyterium of the Pompeian Suburban Baths. Thus, reading these Apuleian journeys into otherness alongside the figurae veneris in Roman art reveals the ways in which sexual power dynamics were explored and conceptualized by the contemporary viewer/reader.
The Ancient Novel and Material Culture