While Latin love poets, such as Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid, revolutionized ancient amatory poetry by articulating a new fantasy of everlasting heterosexual love, Roman wall painting underwent an equally radical change. Instead of the skillful imitation of colored marbles popular in the third and second centuries BCE and the
I argue that the answer lies in the profound social and cultural changes that came about with the end of the Roman civil wars and the rise of Augustus. In this period, core concepts such as citizenship, family, and marriage were being redefined. Augustus’s marriage laws (promulgated in 18 and 17 BCE) not only made marriage obligatory for the great majority of adult citizens but also dictated who was allowed to marry whom.
During my time at CASVA, I focused primarily on expanding and revising the chapter dedicated to one of the most frequently depicted mythological lovers in Roman wall painting: the Cyclops, Polyphemus. In Roman poetic and pictorial representations of the romance between Polyphemus and Galatea, the Cyclops is portrayed as a long-suffering, sympathetic character whose troubles parallel those experienced by the human lovers of Latin elegy, who constantly lament the fickleness and cruelty of their mistresses. Generally perceived as an ill-fated love affair, the story of Polyphemus’s infatuation with a beautiful and elusive sea nymph inspired numerous pictorial compositions that emphasized the insurmountable distance between them. Yet in one example dated to the late first century CE, a fresco from the House of the Ancient Hunt in Pompeii, Polyphemus and Galatea are joined in a Hollywood-style kiss. By alluding to a possible happy end, this image emblematizes the impact of a Roman aesthetic of tenderness, which transformed this terrifying creature into a romantic hero whose apparent monstrosity became a mark of his essential humanity.