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Fine Art and Coarse Art: the Image of Roman Priapus

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This paper is concerned with the Gaeco-Roman phallic god Priapus, specifically with the representation of his cult image in Roman literature and art. Latin priapic verse portrays him as an inferior god with an inferior cult image; this is sometimes presented as the very opposite of fine art: hardly art at all. It is coarse in both senses of the word. Artistic representations also serve to construct this image for the rustic, earth-bound god, who, in sharp contrast with more noble deities, is rarely liberated from the poor fabric of his ‘statue’. This image has generally been taken at face value: it is assumed that the Roman countryside was full of simple peasant figures of the god, which are now, inevitably, lost. While this might be true, the portrayal of Priapus in art and literature is poor evidence for such a ‘reality’. These are sophisticated images for a self-consciously sophisticated audience. It may be that this portrayal of Priapus served a specific function, establishing him as a foil to the civilization of a hellenized, early–imperial Rome.
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: Clare College, Cambridge

Publication date: December 1, 1997

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