Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 50.

Marilynn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture: Ancient Cultures Series. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Pp. xxvi + 343, incl. 33 black-and- white illustrations and 4 maps. ISBN 0-631-23234-6. UKú16.99.

Susan Haskins,
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.

In this book Skinner attempts to reconcile her own earlier ideas with those of Foucault, Winkler, Halperin, and Richlin.[[1]] At the same time she tries to undo the work of some of these earlier authors who, on the one hand, have conflated ancient Greek and Roman cultures and drawn over-generalised conclusions, or who, on the other, have focused on a small area that has not lent itself at all to generalisation. The result is the first attempt to give a complete overview of ancient sexuality.

In the introduction, 'Why Ancient Sexuality? Issues and Approaches' (pp. 1-20), Skinner starts with an overview of theoretical approaches which have made sexuality such a contentious topic. She chooses to use the constructionist approach made popular on this subject by K. J. Dover[[2]] and Foucault as opposed to an essentialist approach.

In the rest of the book, Skinner limits (or perhaps more accurately expands) her project to seven periods of antiquity, tracing the early history of the construction of sexuality from Aphrodite and Eros, through the pederastic notions of the Greek elite and then the change from state to individual in the Hellenistic period and the anxiety of the Roman period. Her argument for viewing the sexuality of each of these different time periods as unique and separate entities, with different and distinctive constructions of sexuality, not to be conflated, is persuasive. Through each time period she traces the changes in the construction of such ancient societal constants as male and female homoerotic relations and marriage. Unlike her earlier work,[[1]] she uses not only literary evidence but also archaeological evidence, ranging from pottery to philosophy, love poetry, theatre, and many other texts. However, she usually chooses one type of evidence per chapter and bases her conclusions mainly on that evidence. Considering the amount of evidence and the large time frame she is working within, this is perhaps a logical approach.

In Chapter 1, 'The Homeric Age: Epic Sexuality' (pp. 21-44), she discusses sexuality as it is depicted in the oral tradition of Homer and Hesiod's works, particularly the emphasis on Aphrodite and Eros as the personification and image of love. She also mentions the discussion centred on the sexuality of Achilles. Skinner believes there was no direct evidence in the Homeric texts to suggest that Achilles was homosexual and that instead, the Greeks of the Archaic Age chose to interpret his relationship with Patroklos as homosexual because of their own pederastic culture. This culture is introduced in Chapter 2, 'The Archaic Age: Symposium and Initiation' (pp. 45-78). Through love elegy, Skinner examines the sexuality of the Greek elite, and the boy-love that formed such an integral part of the symposium.

In Chapter 3, 'Late Archaic Athens: More than Meets the Eye' (pp. 79-111), and Chapter 4, 'Classical Athens: The Politics of Sex' (pp. 112-47), Skinner tries to avoid the criticisms that have been levelled against other authors who have taken the evidence of Athens and generalised their conclusions to apply to all of Greece, by stating in her chapter titles that she is only investigating Athens. However, she also includes evidence from Sparta and she has a tendency, in spite of her titles, to use this evidence from Sparta and Athens as the evidence for all of Greece. In these chapters Skinner introduces the sexuality of the polis and the solid citizen, as opposed to that of the elite, through images from pottery and drama.

Skinner then turns the attention of two of her chapters onto the Hellenistic period: Chapter 5, 'The Hellenistic Period I: Turning Inwards' (pp. 148-70) and Chapter 6, 'The Hellenistic Period II: The Feminine Mystique' (pp. 171-91). Here she traces the change from concern for the state to concern for the individual, as well as the gradual disappearance of pederasty as a social institution and the resulting increase in interest in female erotica. The evidence of medicine and philosophy shows a new concern for the health and happiness of the individual, and Hellenistic poetry shows a new interest in subjective, individual experiences, including those of women, rather than in moralistic tales.

Skinner's last four chapters are devoted to Roman culture, a subject on which she is already published.[[1]] Here she takes into account the way different political systems would have affected sexuality. In her analysis she distinguishes between Republican and Augustan Rome on the one hand, and the Imperial period on the other. However, work on Augustan marriage and adultery legislation suggests that another useful break could have been made between the Republican and Augustan periods.

Chapter 7, 'Republican and Augustan Rome I: Noble Romans and Degenerate Greeks' (pp. 192-211), and Chapter 8, 'Republican and Augustan Rome II: The Soft Embrace of Venus' (pp. 212-39), cover the periods of the Roman Republic and early Empire under Augustus. For her sections on the Roman period her evidence is more eclectic. She uses comedy, satire, love poetry, epic, rhetoric, and history. In the Rome of the Republic and Augustus, Skinner shows that a system of sexual dominance existed within society, intimately intertwined with the social hierarchy. Each person had a status within Roman society that conferred greater or less power and an integral part of that power was sexual. Another aspect of this hierarchy of dominance was aggression against inferiors. In a society in which sexuality was a public power factor and violence was commonplace, the two were often combined as a form of entertainment. However, this system of dominance had a negative side, even for the elite. In Chapter 8, Skinner examines the corresponding constant pressure on men to be thought tough, manly and dominant, as exemplified by their sexual behaviour. Fear of being thought soft or sexually passive, which could ruin a man's reputation for life, led Roman authors to use sexual congress as a metaphor for fears about these hierarchical tensions.

In Chapter 9, 'Imperial Rome I: Desire Under Pressure' (pp. 240-54), and Chapter 10, 'Imperial Rome II: On the Margins of Empire' (pp. 255-82), Skinner examines the Empire of the first and second centuries AD, ending just before the advent of Constantine and Imperial Christianity, which she acknowledges as a turning point in discussions on ancient sexuality. In Chapter 9, she shows, using philosophy, history, and satire, that the change in political structure from the power of the senators to the complete authority of the emperor made Roman men feel anxiety over the precariousness of their position and led to literature reflecting this anxiety through the medium of offensive and fearsome sexual imagery. In Chapter 10 she exhibits the new emphasis on family and the reproductive power of women evident in the images on monuments and statuary. She also moves briefly outside the boundaries of Rome to show the anxiety of those in the provinces of the empire as exemplified in ancient novels.[[3]]

Skinner has a tendency to use American idioms and examples which are not universal, and so add little to the text. I also feel that there is an overemphasis on homoerotic relations. The importance of her project is outlined in her introduction by a discussion of contemporary court trials on gay issues which have looked to ancient notions of sexuality to prove their points, an aspect brought up again in her afterword. Although she is using homoerotic sexuality as a constant to draw her argument together, I feel she becomes sidetracked by the proliferation of evidence for homosexual relations in early Greek literature and archaeology, and so fails to give the same attention to the other constants she is tracking, such as marriage and prostitution. She traces homoerotic relations throughout the periods she is studying in detail, even when she admits that the society itself marginalized such relations (pp. 171-75, 197). Far more space is devoted to both male and female homoerotic relations in the period of the height of the heterosexual ideal than to female heterosexuality in the period when the pederastic ideal was at its height.

On the other hand, this analysis of female homoerotic relations is one of the most comprehensive attempts to discover female sexuality in antiquity that has yet been published. In addition, this book is not only an overview of sexuality but also an introduction to all forms of interpersonal relations, as Skinner uses the social and political structures of the time to account for differing notions of sexuality across time periods. Nevertheless, the scope and content of this book make it obvious that it is not meant to be an in-depth analysis of ancient sexuality, but is instead an overview and general introduction to the subject, meant as much for the novice reader on ancient sexuality as for those entering into analyses of their own. Skinner herself admits that this is not a radically new approach to ancient sexuality but states that instead she is compiling, and engaging with, the conclusions of other authors (p. xiii). It is obvious from the range of sources she uses that Skinner has fulfilled her own mandate in this regard. As a general introduction to the topic this work is highly successful in that it gives a thorough overview of current literature while encouraging further reading and discussion.[[4]] Unlike Foucault,[[5]] who centred his studies on philosophical texts and male sexuality, Skinner makes use of far more wide-ranging evidence and draws conclusions about women. Furthermore, this book gives the topic of ancient sexuality the coverage and depth of analysis that Foucault did not. However, it is in no way a criticism of or addition to his work. Instead, it is a parallel work meant to give a Classicist's view of the history of sexuality and as such is a much more useful and appropriate to the field of Classics. On the whole this is a most successful addition to the work on ancient sexuality and comes at a time when sexuality is becoming such a popular research topic.


[[1]] M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure trans. R. Hurley, (London 1985); M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol. 3: The Care of the Self trans. R. Hurley (London 1986); J. J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire (London and New York 1990); D. M. Halperin, J. J. Winkler and F. I. Zeitlin, (edd.) Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (Princeton and Oxford 1990); A. Richlin, The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humour (New Haven and London 1983); J. P. Hallett and M. B. Skinner(edd.) Roman Sexualities (Princeton 1997).

[[2]] K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (London 1978).

[[3]] Skinner's analysis of the ancient novels is very rudimentary. This area is covered in detail by D. Konstan, Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres (Princeton 1994); S. Goldhill, Foucault's Virginity: Ancient Erotic fiction and the History of Sexuality (Cambridge 1995); K. Haynes, Fashioning the Feminine in the Greek Novel (London and New York 2003).

[[4]] Further reading which complements Skinner is a recent eclectic collection of ancient sources on sexuality by M. Johnson and T. Ryan, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: A Sourcebook (London and New York 2005).

[[5]] These criticisms of Foucault are made by many authors including, A. Richlin, The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humour Revised edition (New York and Oxford 1992) xiv-xvi and Goldhill [3] xii, 100, 110.