Eva Canterella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World translated by C. O. Cuilleain. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. Pp xii + 284. ISBN 0-300-05924-8 . US$13.00.
University of Maryland
This book traverses all of Graeco-Roman antiquity and touches on Jewish culture in giving an overview of attitudes toward sexuality, mainly male same- sex coupling, and of men's experience of sexual relations with other men. The overall thesis is that male-male sex had very different roles in Greece and Rome, that the later Roman view (at least from Catullus onward) is an amalgam of Greek and Roman views as the Romans absorbed the forms of Greek culture; that neither culture condemned active male homosexual acts, although the Romans detested male `passivity' in sexual encounters, and that the condemnation of homosexual practice, per se, comes from Jewish culture and was transported by Christianity into a pagan culture already grown increasingly oriented toward marriage and chastity. There are eight chapters, four each on Greece and Rome, plus a conclusion. The four Greek chapters cover the 'beginnings', the classical period (in Athens, inevitably), philosophical views, and women. The Roman chapters are more of a historical sequence: the early Republic, the late Republic and Augustan period, the Empire, then finally Jewish attitudes toward same-sex intercourse as the ultimate source of change in Graeco-Roman sexual regulation.
Obviously, only the broad lineaments of cultural attitudes over such space and time could be drawn in 284 pages. Other questions, beside the status and nature of male-male sexual activity are adumbrated. There are a few pages on female same-sex relations in Greece and in Rome and another few on the consequences for women of men's involvement with men, but exploration of complexity or variability in attitudes at any one moment is ruled out. C.relies extensively on earlier scholarship, notably that of K. J.Dover and Paul Veyne, to define the subject as well as to describe cultural formations, and so no new ground is opened up to scholarly cultivation. The Greek Hellenistic period is not treated (except for a few poems from the Palatine Anthology); we go from fourth-century Athens to Rome. On the Roman side the sequence of laws and edicts and the relevant court decisions, both Republican and Imperial, provide the spine of the treatment. Apart from these Roman culture is represented by poets (especially Catullus, Tibullus,Martial, Juvenal) and by gossip about Caesar and Augustus. Toward the end, C.'s opposition to John Boswell and Michel Foucault emerges: to Boswell in describing the early Christian view of homosexuality, but to Foucault, oddly, only in the Conclusion, although C.'s reconstruction of the problems addressed by fourth century Greek thinking about male sexuality contrasts strongly with his thesis that an ethic of self-control grew up from a sexually unconstrained (for men) Athenian culture.
The book proposes both to reveal men's experience and show the change in outlook shaping their experience over time. On the one hand the general movement it recounts of increasing permissiveness in the range of acceptable male-male sexual relationships in Greece and Rome separately, followed by disapprobation and finally legal sanctions against all same-sex activity in the late Empire seems right. On the other hand I find the lineaments of each culture so reductively sketched as to be not even a caricature but a cartoon. Blunt generalizations from some prominent texts may be enough to plot large changes over long periods of time, but they are inadequate to illuminate the range of experiences at a given juncture. Since the level on which the book seems to make its case is so general, I will concentrate on pointing out what I think are fundamental problems with the description of particular cultural formations. I will focus mainly on Chapter Two: 'The Classical Age', because that is the material I know best and is the basis on which C.'s description of Roman difference rests. The same kinds of problems are found in the rest of the book as well.
My difficulty is with C.'s dogmatic and uninquiring approach. Analysis, in the sense of careful examination of the meanings of words, of the aim of various discourses, of the interactions of sexual behaviour with other aspects of social life, we do not get. Evidence is not examined but deployed, often familiar evidence to reductive ends. In Chapter Two, paederasty emerges as monolithic, pervasive but rule-bound. All the social tensions documented by Dover and Foucault and highlighted by David Cohen have disappeared. Norms, law, and behaviour are collapsed together: boys should test their lovers before yielding, various laws abetted them in doing so, and that's what well- brought-up boys did. This reductionism does allow C. to focus on the social demands made on boys as they matured. They were expected to change roles several times, from passive homosexual relations to active ones to relations with women. She points out that men may have moved with strain from a congenial role to an uncongenial one. But this observation is not followed up by any attempt to set out the actual range of acceptable adult male behaviour at Athens. Hints in Aristotle that some did not make the first transition are not brought to bear.
Likewise, there is no effort to test her central idea that paederasty at Athens was educational. The (very problematic) initiation hypothesis for the origin of Greek paederasty and the assertion of Pausanias in Plato's Symposium (unreliable: see below) suffice to win her endorsement.(1) Yet if one looks for positive confirmation that paederasty was a central educational institution at Athens the evidence is fugitive indeed. C. explains the fact that lovers are kept out of schools and gymnasia, that paidagogoi shield boys from older men's attentions, as an effort to ensure that boys choose lovers well. Lovers' behaviour, according to Pausanias, does not sound educational: flattery, perjury, sleeping in doorways. On the other hand, the Alkibiades of the Symposium, who thinks he will get wisdom poured into him by Sokrates, never has a clue about what Sokrates is trying to teach him by ignoring his seductive moves; he doesn't even conclude that he gave in too easily, which on C.'s model would be the obvious lesson. One might deduce that training by precept and example was not the standard pattern in erastes-eromenos relations at Athens. If its educational value was a rhetorical justification for paederasty that also served as a brake on men's expectations, the overall effect might be similar to what C. perceives - a system that dictates who is expected to do what when - but we would understand the need for obfuscation better.
C. (like others) does not try to account for scenes like the one in the opening of Plato's Charmides, in which a whole throng of 'lovers' dogs Charmides, pushing and jeering. The model of couples still controls discussions to such an extent that the aspect of sheer public display in homoerotic pursuit goes unaccounted for.
Citation of evidence follows the same pattern. For instance, C. paraphrases Iliad 24.128-30 as follows (p. 9-10): 'Achilles, says Thetis, must carry on living, and having forgotten Patroclus he must take a wife "as is proper."' The lines (128-31) actually say, 'My child, how long, mourning and grieving, will you eat out your heart, remembering neither food nor sex (eunes)? For you will not live long, but already death and strong fate stand near you.' Thetis could not possibly tell Achilles to get a wife, for she knows that he is about to die, and in a context in which kleos is so important she would no more tell him to 'forget' Patroklos. This is not an isolated mistake; the reader cannot trust C.'s paraphrases of ancient authors.(2) The problem is that C. focuses on the sexual possibilities in a literary scene (or any writing) to the exclusion of all other aspects, so that statements nonsensical in context are extracted from the words.
The same failure to attend to context or pragmatics means that passages are often flattened out, treated as straightforward descriptions of behaviour when they have quite other rhetorical goals. Pausanias's speech in Plato's Symposium is taken as 'an explicit piece of evidence, which makes it hard to imagine that boys were forever engaged in the pointless game of diehard resistance imagined by some scholars.'(p. 20) C. does not tell the reader that Pausanias is pushing for life-long homosexual attachments that are to begin at the moment when a boy conventionally ceases to be attractive - hardly a statement of the norm! Nor does she remark that dramatically this is the speech of a lover to a company that includes his over-age beloved (Agathon). It is crafted as a seduction, not a sociology treatise. The weaseling distortion of Athenian ideas can be tracked to the second nomos on voluntary slavery for the sake of self-improvement. While this may pass as a reference to apprentices and disciples, extending the idea to lover-beloved attachments is chicanery.
Other cultural issues, such as competition and preserving one's reputation, the problem of shame that is almost ubiquitous in Greek discussions of pederasty outside love-poetry, are not factored into C.'s description of the experience of male same-sex relations. When C. must labour to find hints that support her thesis or torture them out of recalcitrant texts she does not ask why. Chronology is left vague. Words like 'sex', 'love', 'degeneracy', 'passivity' are used unreflectively as though ancient experience were a calque of ours (assuming that we agree on what these words mean!) and unnoticed value judgments no hindrance to understanding.
I must be brief about the rest of the book. In Chapter Three, C. pays more attention to context because she wants to discount apparent opposition to male same-sex intercourse in Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. She argues that these authors contrast eroticism with reproductive sex and accept only the latter as legitimate; they make no comparison of homosexual and heterosexual relations. The pages on Aristotle (Pp. 68-69) confuse and distort his meaning. C. reports that according to Aristotle, 'those who love other men "by nature" (physei) are not immoral.' True, but only because Aristotle place them outside the human arena in which morality is relevant (NE 1148b).
The new praise of marriage in these authors she attributes to reaction to the Peloponnesian War, for the moral decay caused by the war and the plague included loss of the ethical dimension of paederasty and extension of male- male liaisons beyond what was acceptable (for which the evidence is Aristophanes' description of most Athenians as passive partners). The need for a higher birth rate after the loss of so many young people also added pressure. C. does not compare her view that traditional morality was lost with Foucault's interpretation, perhaps because she denies that male-male sexuality is the issue in these texts.
Chapter Four includes a section on Sappho, derived from Bruno Gentili. The pages on the impact of paederasty on women are interesting. Boys, she says, were not a real threat to wives' position because the two occupied such different places in the social system. Emotionally, who knows? The chapter ends by calling attention to some of the debates over the relative merits of boys and women found in literature of the imperial period. C.describes the debate in Achilles Tatius's Leukippe and Kleitophon as a draw without mentioning that it is embedded in a novel that valorizes romantic heterosexual love.
The section on Rome (Chapter Five) begins by connecting male sexuality with the will to dominate. Slave boys are therefore fit objects of attention but freeborn Roman boys are not. With the infiltration of Greek culture men began to `love' boys and to pursue citizen boys, as poetry shows. But without the framework of educational paederasty there was no basis for mutual respect. Boys became spoiled (though not so bad as emancipated women, (p. 149)), and no natural term set an end to relationships. Untraditional configurations of male-male coupling spread; despite its violation of Roman character more and more men began to find the passive position satisfying. Caesar, virile yet alleged to have played the `woman' once, legitimized it. In this cultural context C. places the development of Roman law on the subject.
The discussion of Roman legal developments that winds through the four Roman chapters is the most interesting feature of the book, as befits C.'s area of expertise. The material is not nearly so well known as the literary texts, so non-specialists can benefit from having the issues and problems set out. C. believes that the Republican lex Scatinia (as she prefers to spell it) and a praetor's edict served until the third century AD, when a series of ever harsher imperial prescriptions culminated in Justinian's decree of the death penalty for all same-sex sexual activity. The lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis was not concerned with same-sex behaviour; the shift in official attitude is thus well into the Christian period. I am not sure that the law was responding to the 'unstoppable spread' (p. 155) of `passive' male behaviour. 'The facts show that real Roman males are getting rarer and rarer' (p. 154), but the `facts' are the assertions of Martial and Juvenal. Real concern was concentrated, it seems from the legal reaction, in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, by which time any spread must long since have occurred. On the other hand, the emperors' slow efforts to move toward Judeo-Christian morality from a different pagan construction of sexual virtue must beat least part of the explanation.
The Italian version of the book came out in 1988. There has been a great deal done on these issues since, overtaking C.'s attempt at an overview. References to the books of John Winkler, David Halperin, David Cohen and to Before Sexuality have been inserted into the bibliography;they contain more nuanced accounts of Greek practice than C. offers.(3) For ideologically savvy 'thick description' of Roman material one should look to Maud Gleason's essay in Before Sexuality and especially to Amy Richlin's outstanding essay on Roman `homosexuality' in response to Foucault.(4) She gives a much more satisfactory description of the interrelations of practice,attitude, and law.
The book contains bibliography and index. The translation is smooth and usually idiomatic, the text free of typographical errors. There are a few mistakes; the names Rissman and Hallett are spelled incorrectly in the notes; some numbers in the references are wrong. Not all works cited in the notes are in the bibliography.
(1) C. does refer to the Erotika attributed to Demosthenes, but there is no demonstrable notion of the boy's yielding. Charizesthai and the like are not used. The boy should homilein with his lover,"associate with" him, if he renounces asking for anything disgraceful. Sex seems to be ruled out.
(2) Other examples: Frogs 57-59 is taken to be Dionysos's admission of desire for Kleisthenes (45); Aristotle Pol. 1272a (not 1972)does not condone male-male liaisons on Crete (68) but defers consideration of their moral status; Octavian's epigram on refusing Fulvia is taken to imply his morality (160), ignoring the reason that he gives (". . . my prick is dearer to me than life itself"); Catullus 93 is mistranslated so as to say the opposite of what it does say (157; it is also misquoted,audeo for studeo).
(3) J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire: the Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece, London: Routledge, 1989; D. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays in Greek Love, New York, 1989; D. Cohen, Law, Sexuality, and Society: the Enforcement of Morals in The Classical Age, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991; D. Halperin, J. Winkler, & F. Zeitlin (edd.), Before Sexuality: the Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.
(4) Gleason, M., 'The Semiotics of Gender: Physiognomy and Self-Fashioning in the Second Century C.E.', Before Sexuality; Richlin, A.,'Not Before Homosexuality: the Materiality of the Cinaedus. and the Roman Law against Love between Men', Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, 1993, 523-73.