Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 32.

Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, Roman Sexualities. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998.[[1]] Pp. x + 343. ISBN 0-691- 01179-6. US$19.95, UK£12.50.

Segun Ige,
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban

This is an exciting collection of articles that provides a range of appraisals of Roman as distinct from Greek sexualities (pp. 7-12). It presents the reader with twelve interesting and insightful theoretical engagements with the subject. Skinner opens the volume with an introduction that outlines some of the relevant feminist studies of Classical texts and assesses the influence that Foucault's proposition concerning the cultural mediation of sexual identities has had on Classics (p. 6).[[2]] She also provides an overview of the collection which consists of five major parts with the following sectional headings, 'Unmarked Sexuality' (pp. 29-43), 'Wayward Sexualities' (pp. 47-95), 'Gender Slippage in Literary constructions of the Masculine' (pp. 99-193), 'Male Constructions of 'Woman' (pp. 197-291) and 'Female construction of the desiring subject' (pp. 295- 310).

Jonathan Walter's article, 'Invading the Roman Body' (pp. 29-42), examines the Roman concept of manhood. His main argument can be summed up in the phrase 'not all males were men' (p. 32). The Romans defined a vir as a hegemonic male who is sexually inviolable. In the conventional Roman view a man could not sexually desire another man. Having a woman's experience, according to Walters, opens the Roman vir up to a process of unmanning, which meant that he had, or rather 'suffered' a woman's experience (muliebria pati, see, for example, Just. Dig., Sal. Cat. 13.3, Tac. Ann. 11.36, Curt. Ruf. 6.6.8). If a man were sexually penetrated, it would mean that his social character would have to be redefined. A physical beating could usually only be carried out on slaves; the beating, rape, and castration of an adulterer reflected his loss of status; similarly, the remarkable Roman law prohibiting sexual harassment of women applied only to women whose status exempted them from physical insult. The exception was the Roman soldier who could be honourably penetrated by the sword and who could be subjected to beating.

Walter's argument is complemented by Catherine Edwards in her 'Unspeakable Professions' (pp. 66-95). This chapter focuses on legal, literary, and social descriptions of what it meant to be an actor, gladiator, or prostitute in Rome. These professions carried some degree of infamia, since their core activities involved the commodification of bodies and the provision of pleasure to others. According to Edwards '[a]ctors, gladiators, and prostitutes were paraded as examples of what those who sought officially sanctioned dignitas ("social standing") should at all costs avoid' (p. 67). In spite of the lack of dignitas associated with these professions, Edwards points out in the section 'Aristocrats of Pleasure' (pp. 85-90), that some members of the nobility participated in the demeaning activities of these professions for monetary gain or as a result of humiliating compulsion.

Holt Parker's 'The Teratogenic Grid' (pp. 47-65) opens Part Two of the collection. Parker challenges the simple active/passive dichotomy in ancient sexual relations. Parker contends that the indiscriminate application of modern sexual terms, such as 'heterosexuality' and 'homosexuality', to the Roman world is not only anachronistic but also parochial. In between the active/passive polarities are some other categories which were considered anomalous and abnormal. For Parker, the difference between the anthropology of the modern world and ancient Rome demands terms that are at once simpler and more accurate. Along the lines of normality, abnormality, and anomalousness, 'the Teratogenic Grid' develops into an enlargement of Walter's thesis, and it further magnifies the vir as the dominant sexual force, with women constituting some sort of abnormality. The salient differentiation that Parker makes between the ancients' conception of the cinaedus and the modern perception of a homosexual, reinforces his contention that the application of modern concepts of gender and sexuality to ancient discourses is anachronistic.[[3]]

Skinner's own chapter, 'Ego Mulier: The Construction of Male Sexuality in Catullus' (pp. 129- 50), focuses largely on poem 63, in which Attis castrates himself and in doing so becomes a woman (a metamorphosis reflected in the remarkable change from the masculine to the feminine grammatical gender from line eleven on). Skinner links this myth to the 'dubious' (p. 134) gender identities of ancient men, which she relates to the difficulty some ancient male adolescents experienced in attaining the hegemonic identity of the Roman male (pp. 134-36). Skinner goes on to argue (p. 142) that the 'monstrous inversion of gender relations' in the poem 'reflects elite alarm over perceived restrictions on personal autonomy . . . during the death throes of the Roman Republic.' Her argument proceeds in this way by associative leaps to draw a very personal conclusion (p. 147): '[f]or a woman like me to identify with the Roman man who identifies with women is thus to occupy an intermediate place within our nexus of genders, one distanced from prevailing sexual dimorphism and perhaps at one remove from ideology.' The remark positions today's female reader in relation to ancient male representations of sexuality in a way that challenges conventional attitudes.

Ellen Oliensis, in Chapter 6, 'The Erotics of Amicitia: Readings in Tibullus, Propertius, and Horace' (pp. 151-71), which can be seen as a corollary to Skinner's article, deals with the awkward relationships that existed within the social constructs of amicitia in the first century Rome. The apparent homogeneity between the patron-client and lover-beloved relationships is particularly problematic for Oliensis because of the different balance of honour and power they contain. The article looks at evidence for the intersection of these personal ties in a wide selection of poems: Tibullus (1.1, 1.5), Propertius (1.5, 1.6, 1.10, 1.13, 1.20), and Horace (Odes esp. 2.12, 3.16, and the erotics of the relationship between poet and patron). Oliensis concludes with a dilution of Konstan's strong opposition between the sexual symmetry of the Greek novels and the hierarchical relationships evident in the rest of Greek and Roman literature.[[4]] The poems analysed reveal a greater degree of sexual reciprocity than Konstan would allow.

David Fredrick in Chapter 7, 'Reading Broken Skin: Violence in Roman Elegy' (pp. 172-93), attempts to unravel the mystery behind elegiac violence by focusing on the abuse of the female body. Frederick divides women in Roman elegy into two categories: aesthetically perfect candidae puellae, and degraded and abused durae puellae. He adopts a rather post- modern approach by applying modern film theory to these ancient texts -- particularly the representation of women as virgins to whom a 'fetishistic scopophilia' is applied or whores who are treated with 'sadistic voyeurism' (p. 173). Frederick traces the use of the erotic body to represent poetic qualities in elegy to Callimachus, for whom the young adolescent male 'represents programmatic attributes and transgresses them through infidelity' (p. 174). The idealised erotic body is opposed to the tortured body of the jealous lover, just as erotic epigram is contrasted with unfashionable epic poetry. The Roman elegists made use of a female rather than a male erotic object and in their case 'the genre's trajectory leads from the intangible wound of the amator as he falls under the mistress's charms and so departs from epic narrative, to a second wound, the suspicion of infidelity that breat the fetishistic spell, to the physical wounding of the mistress, which marks the poet's (always temporary) realignment with both masculinity and epic' (p. 179).

In her chapter, 'Pliny's Brassiere' (pp. 197-220) Amy Richlin examines the female body in ancient scientific literature, specifically, in Pliny's Natural History. 'Pliny's Brassiere' is an exploration of the female body (as contained in Pliny's Natural History) and the medicinal myths associated with it. Included in her treatment of the subject is a catalogue of bodily effluvia: menses, milk, urine, saliva, and even hair. At the same time, she looks at how women also take care of themselves through the maintenance of the body, from fertility medication to the use of abortifacients. Richlin treats her subject lightly and relieves Pliny's eccentric compendium of unusual ideas with deft touches of humour. She does not, however, deal effectively with the problem of the extent to which people in Pliny's day actually gave credence to the traditional beliefs he recounts. To be fair to Pliny, the term fascia ('band', 'tie') had a wide range of meanings in Latin (it was synonymous with vitta 'head-band', for example) and bandages were used for a variety of purposes in the ancient world.

Sandra Joshel, 'Female Desire and the Discourse of the Empire: Tacitus' Messalina' (pp. 221-54), is a much longer chapter than it needed to be. It was not necessary to recount Tacitus' narrative of Messalina's marriage to Silius (Ann. 11.12-11.38), for example, and the main argument could have been presented more economically by avoiding repetition and terminological verbosity such as: 'It is within this economy of imperial power that we can fully observe how Tacitus' construction of Messalina's agency functions as a discursive screen' (p. 242). Occasionally the argument goes beyond what can reasonably be recovered from the text. Thus Joshel argues that Messalina's 'mouth is equated with her vagina' (p. 235), on the grounds that Vitellius, the prosecutor of Valerius Asiaticus, had at once taken her orders and performed cunnilungus on her. All this from Tacitus' statement that Asiaticus had fallen fraude muliebri et impudico Vitellii ore ('by the treachery of a woman and the shameless mouth of Vitellius', Ann. 11.3). Joshel's main argument appears to be that 'Tacitus's Messalina functions as a sign of the imperial household, the city, and imperial power itself' (p. 242) -- both wife and city are represented as corrupt and ungovernable, especially when contrasted with sexual relations among the tribal Germans (p. 240). In substantiation of this thesis, Joshel notes an interesting reference to Messalina in Charlotte Brontė's description of the mad West Indian wife of Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. In both texts 'the sexual clings to the political' (p. 226). Nevertheless this account of Tacitus' narrative that manipulates the past to suit the historian's own present concerns (especially his sense of powerlessness) does not do justice to the pathos the annalist has injected into the conclusion of Messalina's story.

Judith Hallet's article 'Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman reality in Latin Literature' (pp. 255- 73), investigates the representation of tribadism among male Latin authors (p. 257). Hallett shows that these authors (Phaedrus 4.16, Plautus Truc. 262, Seneca Contr. 1.2.23, Ovid Met. 9.666- 791, Her. 15.19, Seneca Ep. 95-20f., Martial 1.90, 7.67, 7.70, Juv. 2.36-55) generally describe the practice as Greek rather than Roman, or treat it in an unrealistic manner (by attributing the male sexual organ to women). Thus the Romans 'fail to accept and tolerate female homoeroticism' and 'deny tribadism as a cultural and physical reality' (p. 270). Hallett's chapter is complemented by Pamela Gordon's contribution, 'The Lover's Voice in Heroides 15: or, Why is Sappho a Man' (pp. 275-91), which shows that Ovid Romanises Sappho and portrays her as a 'mannish lesbian', skilled in sexual techniques. Such a representation reflects a society in which the 'dominant culture perceives female homoerotic behavior as an unseemly usurpation of the privileged role of the male' (p. 288).

The last article in the volume, 'Tandem Venit Amor: A Roman Woman Speaks of Love' (pp. 295-310), by Alison Keith, attempts to establish a connection between Vergil's Dido episode in Aeneid Book 4 and Sulpicia's elegies. Keith argues that 'Vergil's portrayal of the love of Dido and Aeneas provides Sulpicia with a framework in which to articulate a woman's love for a man' and that 'Sulpicia's imaginative engagement with the Dido episode in the Aeneid exposes the inadequacy of our standard either/or model of "pro-" or "anti-" Augustanism for investigating the relations among female subjectivity, agency, and sexuality in Augustan Rome' (p. 296). An example might clarify Keith's approach. In the Aeneid Mercury tells Aeneas that Jupiter has commanded him to resume his mission to found the city of Rome. Aeneas at once obeys. In Tibullus 3.14 Sulpicia must spend her birthday away from Rome without her lover, Cerinthus (presumably at the wish of Messalla who acts nimium . . . mei studiose 'too zealously on my behalf'). She demurs. What one misses here is Keith's inference from this analogy, which is not immediately drawn (p. 302). Later (p. 303) she argues that this counts as a 'female lover abandoning her male beloved' and as a 'success' in 'frustrating her uncle's plans for her birthday' (p. 304). The reader is left wondering whether after all Sulpicia's poems 'are of interest only because the author is female.'[[5]]

Altogether, however, this work remains a valuable resource to scholars and students of the history of Roman sexualities and to other researchers working in other periods, since it presents the issues and arguments to the reader at a level that is comprehensible, illuminating, and for the most part thought-provoking.


[[1]] Scholia Reviews regrets the late appearance of this review. It is our general policy to discuss new books within three months of publication.

[[2]] Michel Foucault (tr. Robert Hurley), The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge; Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure; Vol. 3: The Care of the Self (Harmondsworth 1986).

[[3]] William P. Craig, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity (New York 1999) has challenged the notion of anachronism by deliberately making use of some of these terms.

[[4]] D. Konstan, Sexual Symmetry: The Representation of Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres (Princeton 1994).

[[5]] S. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (New York 1975) 173.