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10 - Performing Blurred Gender Lines: Revisiting Omphale and Hercules in Pompeian Dionysian Theatre Gardens

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2020

Allison Surtees
Affiliation:
University of Winnipeg, Canada
Jennifer Dyer
Affiliation:
Memorial University of Newfoundland
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Summary

Select Pompeian homes displayed Dionysian-themed visual representations linked to gender reversal in or near garden settings. For the purposes of this study, I focus on two key mythological characters, the foreign Lydian Queen, Omphale, and the hero, Hercules, who offer a glimpse into how this gender reversal can potentially reinforce or break down perceived social and cultural barriers for ancient Roman diners. While ancient visual culture was not intended to be a precise reproduction of literary accounts, I suggest that an adaptation of Ovid's Fasti 2.313–31 is pertinent to our understanding of the visual representations of the pair in or near garden settings, which I call ‘Dionysian Theatre Gardens’. When Omphale and Hercules appear with visual representations of Dionysus and his retinue, I maintain that the pair serve as props in the backdrops of small-scale Julio-Claudian performances (for example, pantomime, poetic recitations) that were part and parcel of the convivial experience. The inclusion of the cross-dressed pair in a theatrical context, I will argue, made gender reversal an intrinsic part of both domestic and public life.

CONSTRUCTING THE DIONYSIAN THEATRE GARDEN

The connections between the foreign deity Dionysus, gardens and dining spaces help to garner a better understanding of the potential for Omphale and Hercules‘ theatrically staged presence within Pompeian domus. Dionysus was an omnipresent figure in the ancient Mediterranean, worshipped as the embodiment of transformation through wine, revelry and performance (Henrichs 2013: 560). These multiple personae appear in visual representations of many Pompeian homes, primarily as wall paintings and sculpture in or near garden spaces, where dining took place. The representations include the deity himself, satyrs, maenads and theatrical masks, as well as subsidiary characters related to the Dionysian mythic cycle (Neudecker 1988: 47–51; von Stackelberg 2009: 27). In order to explain the presence of such imagery within garden settings, two explanations emerge, which, as will become more apparent below, are not mutually exclusive. The first maintains that the garden evokes or represents a bucolic setting for cultic or ritual performances that were synonymous with the god Dionysus (Dwyer 1982; Mastroroberto 1992; Seiler 1992; Zanker 1998: 171; von Stackelberg 2009; Petersen 2012).

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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