Khajuraho Temples, India
Khajuraho Temples, India

Eroticism and Love in the Ancient World

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, which got us thinking along the lines of love – the ancient kind. We’ve rounded up a few examples of ancient erotic art as well as examples of devotion in celebration of this occasion.

Sexuality and Erotic Art

From antiquity to the modern day, sexuality is prevalent throughout many elements of society. In this case, we are looking at representations of sexuality and erotica in the ancient world, which first takes us to India.

In Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India, you’ll find the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Khajuraho Temples (pictured above and right). Here, the carvings are intricate and beautiful, and the site is known around the world for its explicit exotic sculptures.   

Built between AD 900 and 1130, the temples tell the stories of 11th century life as well as depict instances of love and passion – although not between the deities. The temples are a true architectural marvel and they appear to celebrate women in varied forms. Female figures carved into the walls can be seen washing their hair, yawning and even applying make-up.



Visit the temples in person

If you’d like to visit the Khajuraho Temples in person, join our North India tour led by Dr. Mehreen Chida-Razvi. You’ll explore the Chaturbhuja Temple as well as the Duladeo Temple, whose walls and pillars are decorated partly by sculptures of women in erotic poses.

Moving on to Italy...

...More specifically to Pompeii. If you’ve visited this historic archaeological site before, you might already be aware of the erotic graffiti that can be found here. On the street vicolo del Panattiere, in House of the Vibii, Merchants, you’ll find a graffito that reads, “Atimetus got me pregnant.” In neighbouring Herculaneum, at the bar/inn joined to the maritime baths, another graffito says, “Apelles Mus and his brother Dexter each pleasurably had sex with two girls twice.”1 If you venture to the Marine Gate, above a bench just outside of it, you’ll see the following, “If anyone sits here, let him read this first of all: if anyone wants a screw, he should look for Attice; she costs 4 sestertii.”

Also in Pompeii, although a more recent discovery, is the fresco of Leda & the Swan. Dr. Eireann Marshall, our award-winning expert guide lecturer, discussed the presence of sex and erotica here, and said that while there is an obvious presence, it shouldn’t be the main focus of these discoveries:

“The reception of the rather graphic fresco of Leda and the Swan and the equally colourful depiction from the same House of Priapus, weighing his impressive phallus, have focused on the erotic nature of the depictions, neglecting the world view of ancient Pompeiians.” Eireann added: “As myths were associated with Greek literature, the owner of the House of Leda and the Swan would have commissioned the fresco in order to impress his guests with his culture. This is emphasised by the fact that the same house has revealed another painting of a myth, a rather more beautiful megalographia of Narcissus. So, where we see quite transgressive sex, Pompeiians would have seen erudition.”

If you’re interested in exploring (or even revisiting) Pompeii this year, there are a few options. The first is our flagship Pompeii tour, which is an all-inclusive 8-day adventure starting from £1,945pp. Choose this trip and you’ll be joined by one of our expert guide lecturers – many of whom have personally excavated at Pompeii – and you’ll also enjoy private access to the Cave of Sejanus, to Herculaneum Theatre and to the store rooms at Paestum Museum.

Alternatively, you can combine an exploration of Pompeii with a new year’s celebration on our Pompeii & Naples at New Year tour. Not only will you discover this world-famous archaeological site at a time of year when it’s typically devoid of tourists, you will also spend time wandering around the vibrant city of Naples. Finally, if you’re on a budget, choose our Bare Bones Pompeii tour. From just £765pp, this 5-day trip is led by a local guide and includes accommodation, daily breakfasts, and guided visits to an array of sites, including Pompeii itself.

Other Valentine's Day site recommendations:


The Sanctuary of Aphrodite, as visited on our South Cyprus tour. Legend has it that Aphrodite was born on the island of Cyprus and Paphos, a harbour town soaked in ancient myth, was a centre of the cult of Aphrodite. Here, you’ll find the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Departing on 23rd September, 2020, this is an eight-day archaeological adventure led by Dr. Paul Croft. A British archaeozoologist and field archaeologist, Paul is the manager of the Lemba Archaeological Research Centre as well as a resident of Cyprus, so is the ideal expert to lead this fascinating tour. Not only will you gain a privileged introduction to Cypriot archaeology, you will explore diverse archaeology from Neolithic houses to the fabulous mosaics at Paphos. You'll also journey into the unspoilt Troodos Mountains, where spectacular Byzantine churches and traditional villages await discovery. With only one departure on the cards for 2020, don't wait – book your place today. 


The Taj Mahal, as visited on our India tour, from the Cultural Journeys range. Commissioned by the Mughul emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal is an icon of devotion. It took around 22 years to complete and this impressive mausoleum used marble from a quarry around 200 miles away from its site. It attracts millions of visitors per year, and with its story – along with its architecture – it’s easy to see why.

Also on our India tour, you'll pay visits to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Qutub Minar, Hawa Mahal, the Agra Fort, the Elephanta Caves, and also Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. This is a journey of contrasts, stretching from the north to the south – starting in Delhi and moving on to Jaipur, Ranthambore, Agra, and ending in Mumbai. There are three departures to choose from – 13th October and 10th November, 2020, or 25th March, 2021 – and the tour starts from £3,245pp.

The Tomb of Nefertari, as visited on our Egypt: Highlights & Discoveries tour. Considered to be one of ancient Egyptian art’s most magnificent achievements, the tomb of Nefertari is a sight to be seen. The wall paintings within this tomb are simply incredible and its astronomical ceiling, dark blue with pointed stars, represents the heavens. Nefetari was one of Ramesses II’s wives and the tomb constructed for her was, undoubtedly, a real labour of love.

This tour departs on the 20th October or the 3rd November, and starts from £4,595pp. Led by expert Egyptologist Lucia Gahlin, enjoy 12 days discovering the delights of this historic part of the world. You'll get access to the grand gallery and royal burial chamber of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, you'll explore the impressive temple site of Abu Simbel, and you'll visit the enigmatic Valleys of the Kings and Queens. 

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Eroticism and Love in the Ancient World was published on 1 January 2020