Weird History

Why Were Hermaphrodite Statues So Popular In Ancient Rome?

Statues of sleeping hermaphrodites have been found in several different countries, different cultures, and different periods but many people have no idea where the trend began and why it became so popular.

Hermaphrodites, or people born with both male and female genitalia, have existed since the start of the human race. They've been treated harshly in the past and are still misunderstood in certain places today. Some were even listed at birth along with animals that were born with deformities in official records, which suggested that they were less than human.

When you see how many of these lovely sensual sculptures were made throughout Greek and Roman history, it'd be easy to assume that they were commissioned out of a new-found tolerance for innate differences. Unfortunately, that was not the case. 

Given the importance of understanding sexual orientation in today's society, it's interesting to uncover the complicated history behind these relaxed and reclining hermaphrodites. 

  • Hermaphroditus Was The Child Of Hermes And Aphrodite

    Born male, Hermaphroditus is the son of gods Hermes and Aphrodite. According to legend, a nymph named Salmakis falls in love with him and asks the gods to unite her and the object of her affection forever. Her request is granted and the gods merge Hermaphroditus and Salmakis into one being who is both man and woman.

    Hermaphroditus is usually portrayed with female legs, breasts, flowing locks, and male genitals. Some historians believe Hermaphroditus is the inspiration for many Greek and Roman sculptors. 

  • The Birth Of An Intersex Baby Was Considered To Be A Bad Omen

    The Birth Of An Intersex Baby Was Considered To Be A Bad Omen
    Photo: JakeVordun / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    According to advocacy group InterAct, about 2% of the global population is intersex, which the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights defines as having characteristics that "do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies." In ancient Roman times, intersex babies were seen as bad omens, divine punishments, or signs of misconduct.

    They were often executed but some parents concealed their child's intersexuality from state officials to protect them.

  • It's Possible That There Were Hundreds Of Sleeping Intersex Statues

    It's Possible That There Were Hundreds Of Sleeping Intersex Statues
    Photo: Paris 16 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Over the years, fear turned to fascination and intersex individuals were regularly depicted in both sculpture and paintings. Because nine known copies of the "Sleeping Hermaphrodite" have survived to this day, experts believe there may have originally been hundreds in existence.

  • They Were Meant To Surprise Art Purveyors

    Most present-day admirers expect the "Sleeping Hermaphrodite" to have atypical anatomy. But originally, the art viewer was meant to approach the statue from behind, where the curves and shape suggested the figure was female. When viewers moved to the front of the piece, they saw male genitalia.

    Indeed, much of the Hellenistic Period art that featured intersex people was meant to be shocking. The ancient Romans seemingly found subverting viewers' expectations to be humorous.