40+ Photos Of E.r0.tic Art Throughout History, From Egyptian Papyruses To The Ruins Of Pompeii

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
June 3, 2023

Depictions Of Sex In Ancient Civilizations Around The World

Erotic art is not limited to one time period, culture, or even location. Examples have been found from China, Japan, and India to Egypt, Greece, and Peru.

According to Sotheby’s, sexual art first emerged in China during the Han Dynasty, around 206 B.C.E., and it became more widespread throughout the region over the centuries. Paintings of nude women in baths and couples engaged in sex acts were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they provide art historians with insight into what Chinese people saw as beautiful and erotic at the time.

In nearby Japan, Shunga was a type of art that depicted sensual acts on woodblock prints. It was outlawed in the country in 1722 — but that didn’t stop its production.

India’s history with erotic art is perhaps best known by the Kama Sutra, the Sanskrit guide to sex from around 400 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. The text wasn’t initially illustrated, though many artists have since put their spin on the work.

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Wikimedia CommonsOnly fragments of ancient Egypt’s Turin Erotic Papyrus exist, but what has been discovered leaves little to the imagination.


Additionally, the Khajuraho temples that were built in central India between 950 and 1050 C.E. depict many sex acts between men, women, and animals. According to author Theodore Carter, some historians believe that people traveled to the temples to learn about sex.

Ancient Egypt had the 8.5-foot-long Turin Erotic Papyrus, a scroll painting with 12 vignettes depicting a variety of sex positions that dates to around 1150 B.C.E. And the Moche civilization of Peru created pottery of people engaged in anal sex as early as 100 C.E.

However, some of the most famous depictions of erotic art are from the ancient Greek and Roman periods — and much of it came to light during the excavations of Pompeii.

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The Erotic Art Hidden Beneath The Ash In Pompeii

When archaeologists began excavating the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in earnest in the early 19th century, they were stunned by the amount of explicit art they uncovered. Buried in the 79 C.E. eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the frescoes and sculptures had been perfectly preserved for centuries.

King Francis I of the Two Sicilies found the art too obscene for the public, and he ordered it hidden away. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli stashed the artwork in a secret room that only scholars — and anyone who bribed the guards — could access.

DeAgostini/Getty ImagesThis fresco of Priapus in Pompeii depicts the deity’s extremely large phallus.

Some of the most famous pieces found in the ruins include a sculpture of the Greek deity Pan having sex with a female goat, erotic frescoes depicting various sex positions that decorated the walls of Pompeii’s brothels, and a painting of the Greek myth of Leda and the swan.

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The painting shows Leda, the queen of Sparta, being seduced — or raped, depending on the version of the story — by Zeus disguised as a swan. According to legend, Leda went on to lay two eggs, one of which hatched into Helen, whose face “launched a thousand ships” and led to the Trojan War.

The erotic artwork was removed from its secret vault in 2000 and is now on display in Pompeii and various museums.