In a 2009 article entitled “Women’s Desire, Archaeology and Feminist Theory,” Natalie Kampen explored different ways in which women in the Greco-Roman world might have responded to statues of a nude Aphrodite, especially Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos. As Kampen herself pointed out, much of the scholarly work produced on the Knidia for the past two decades has tended to discuss this well-known sculpture as a locus for male-viewing practices and men’s sexual desires (Kampen 2009, 208). Greatly dependent on the accounts of Pliny the Elder (NH 36.20 – 21) and Pseudo-Lucian (Amores 13 – 16), which tell of a youth who once embraced Praxiteles’ masterpiece as if it were a real woman, these studies present the Knidia as closed and inaccessible to the female gaze. Instead, Kampen proposed that the Aphrodite of Knidos and other similar statues ought to be understood as “constantly shifting image[s] open to multiple fantasies and desires” (Kampen 2009, 207). After all, the numerous extant replicas of Praxiteles’ type indicate that nude depictions of the goddess bore different meanings depending on whether they were dedicated at a temple, in a house or in a tomb. More than just objects of male desire, sensual images of Aphrodite could symbolize for female worshippers the power to elicit such desire—a power coveted not only by prostitutes and courtesans, whose income and well-being depended on their physical attractiveness, but also by married women and their daughters interested in arousing the sexual responses considered necessary for conception (Kampen 2009, 211 – 214).
In this talk, I build on Kampen’s observations about the Knidia to re-consider Roman-era representations of the so-called Sandal Binder. Created during the Hellenistic period, the Sandal Binder type was immensely popular and, like the Aphrodite of Knidos, reproduced in a variety of media. Usually rendered in a small scale, these statuettes and figurines are often found in private contexts, such as houses and tombs. Yet despite their presence in what are clearly domestic settings, representations of the Sandal Binder have been traditionally interpreted as witty, titillating images designed to amuse and arouse male viewers. For instance, a first-century marble statue from a house in Pompeii (I, 11, 6-7) has been described as depicting the goddess as a hetaira and taken as evidence that this building was a brothel (Della Corte 1960, 76 – 77; Zanker 1998, 74). But the house’s pictorial décor and several small finds, including women’s jewelry and two seal rings bearing the names of freedmen, suggest instead that this was a “middle-class” residence where the Sandal Binder was proudly displayed in the family’s tablinum (Armitt 1993, 240 – 241)—a space that would have been accessible to men and women alike. As Pompeii’s patron deity, Venus is often given pride of place in the decoration of such private reception rooms. But, as Kampen and others have shown, Roman women frequently saw in the goddess of love a personal model and protector (Kampen 2009; cf. D’Ambra 1996; Kousser 2007). A silver hairpin from Roman Britain, usually dated to the late first/early second century C.E., further illustrates just how intimate the bond between a female viewer and (an image of) Venus could be: made to be integrated into a woman’s coiffure, this hairpin physically placed the wearer under the goddess’ aegis, inviting those around her to see her in a new light. Itself a mark of cultural sophistication, this dainty personal item was also a powerful manifestation of the widespread diffusion of Roman ideals of womanhood in an empire built both by foot soldiers and sandal binders.