GREEK AND ROMAN SEXUALITY: A NEW LOOK AT THE ANCIENT SOURCES
Marguerite Johnson and Terry Ryan (edd.), Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: A Sourcebook. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. Pp. xxvi + 244, incl. 3 indices, glossary, bibliography, and 11 color plates. ISBN 0-415-17331-0. UK£18.99.
André F. Basson,
Brock University (St. Catharines, Canada) /
University at Buffalo (SUNY)
Any book that aims to provide a selection of sources on sexuality in Greek and Roman antiquity faces an almost Herculean task, both in terms of the sheer number -- literary as well as non-literary -- left to us by the ancients, and in terms of the almost endless variety. This is not surprising, since sexuality is such an integral part of human existence, and was perhaps even more so in the ancient world. It pervaded every aspect of life and had many facets.
With the exception of a relatively small number of non- literary sources and a few texts not easily accessible, the vast majority of texts selected by Johnson and Ryan are from the better known authors in the classical canon. Furthermore, in their choice of a number of sources, the authors have clearly accepted a very wide working definition of sexuality. However, the authors do not explain their selection criteria, except to state that their aim was ‘to provide documents that will serve as illustrations of specific aspects of sexual life in Greece and Rome’ (p. xix). One also looks in vain for some coherent organizing principle not imposed from the outside by the authors, but which is organically appropriate to the topic. Sometimes the titles of the subcategories introduced by the authors oversimplify the content of the sources they are intended to define, or are misleading.
In an introduction, the authors offer a ‘socio-sexual background’ to the subject. Given the popular misunderstanding of Greek and Roman society as one of unbridled licentiousness, Johnson and Ryan insist that in Greece sexual conduct was strictly codified, albeit differently from ours. Furthermore, it is a well-known fact, as they do not fail to point out, that the prevailing view of Greek sexuality that has come down to us was shaped by males, and mostly aristocratic males at that. It was a world in which the male, by mere virtue of being male, always played the leading role. What will be regarded as double standards today, was viewed differently then. Thus, while fidelity in marriage was demanded of the female, it was only expected of the male. Johnson and Ryan also refer briefly to two other areas of popular misunderstanding regarding ancient sexuality: male same-sex relations and rape. With regard to the former, Johnson and Ryan mention the importance of age and the notions of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ partner. Relationships between an older male who would assume the active role and a younger male between the ages twelve and seventeen who would be the passive partner were acceptable, provided these rules were strictly maintained. Apart from the erotic aspect, same- sex relations between males in Greek antiquity also served an educational purpose. Notably at Athens, the older man would educate his younger partner in subjects such as philosophy and the responsibilities of a citizen. For same-sex relations between females, the literary sources are not as many, being limited to Sappho and passages from Plato, Asclepiades, and Lucian.
One of the areas in which the ancient understanding of sexuality differed most markedly from the modern was in regard to marriage. While the idea of marrying for love was not entirely absent among the ancient Greeks, it was not -- if the sources are to be believed -- the primary reason. The role of women in marriage was to be a dutiful wife, bear children (preferably males), and manage the household.
Ryan and Johnson further observe that in ancient Greece there were areas in the life of the male where the presence of eros was considered to have a destabilizing effect. As a result, the rules that determined the Greek male’s sexual conduct towards his spouse was quite different from those that applied in the slave-quarters. What was allowed in the latter was not allowed in the former. Personal desire was expected to take a back seat when it came to the interests of the polis. This explains why Athenian lawmakers saw adultery not in the first place as a moral transgression but as inimical to the public order. It is noteworthy that when it comes to sexuality in ancient Greece, generalizations are not possible, as Ryan and Johnson clearly demonstrate when they briefly compare Athens and Sparta.
With regard to sexual behavior at Rome, Ryan and Johnson remark that there are similarities to that of the Greeks, but also significant differences. Roman source material is mostly aristocratic in origin. One area of sexual behavior in which the two cultures were very similar relates to the purpose of marriage. As in Greece, the Roman marriage was primarily regarded as fulfilling a social purpose -- to produce heirs and good citizens. No wonder then that the sexual freedom of the Roman matrona was limited to the chaste relationship with her husband, while for freeborn Roman males, on the other hand, it seems sex outside marriage was not considered illicit. In other areas of private life, the Roman matrona enjoyed a measure of freedom unknown to her Greek counterpart. Part of the reason has to do with the influence of Hellenistic culture that so pervaded the Roman world when Rome’s power began to expand beyond Italy’s borders into the rest of the Mediterranean.
The disruptive influence of social upheaval during the most part of the first century B.C.E. did not leave the institution of marriage unaffected, especially among the upper classes. As the role of marriage in the brokering of political alliances increased, so did the status of aristocratic women. Roman literature from the period records numerous examples of women from noble families at Rome indulging in marital infidelity and sexual license. This phenomenon was probably another result of the greater measure of independence these women came to enjoy at the time.
However, the authors are careful not to draw overhasty conclusions from the information provided by the predominantly male literary sources. Rather than accepting that sexual license was endemic among upper class women during the first century, they prefer to believe that the high incidence of references to female promiscuity is at least partly a reflection of increasing male insecurity in the face of what was perceived as growing sexual freedom especially among women of the nobility. As proof of the negative perception among males of female attitudes towards sex, Johnson and Ryan cite Augustus’ moral reforms, notably the Lex Julia de adulteriis.
With regard to Roman views on same-sex relationships, the authors comment that at Rome the prevailing culture was in some respects significantly different from what was regarded as acceptable or even encouraged in Greece. For freeborn Roman males, most types of Greek same-sex relationships would have been taboo except in cases where the passive partner was not freeborn or did not have Roman citizenship. From the relatively little information on female same-sex relationships at Rome, it seems that it, too, was quite different from what was acceptable practice in Greece, notably with regard to the initiation schools, or thiasoi, equivalents of which did not exist at Rome.
The introduction concludes with a review of two modern theories that, in the authors’ view, have made the most significant contribution to the study of ancient sexuality, namely feminist theory and Foucauldian theory. While feminist scholarship has beyond any doubt greatly enhanced our understanding of the status and role of women in ancient Greco-Roman society, in a few cases, Johnson and Ryan point out, some measure of bias has led to conclusions that are unsustainable.
In some regards, Foucault’s theories of sexuality have been even more revolutionary. Noteworthy is his view that modern (post-nineteenth century) approaches to sexuality were, for the most part, quite foreign to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Not surprisingly, Foucault’s theories have not gone unchallenged. Especially feminist scholars have taken Foucault and his successors to task on a number of issues, notably their almost exclusive emphasis on male sexuality (especially in Foucault’s work), their neglect of sexuality in the Roman world, and finally the argument that homosexuality and heterosexuality are modern, Western categories not found anywhere in Greco-Roman antiquity.
The major part of the book (pp. 18-199) is devoted to the authors’ selection of sources, according to the following categories: ‘The Divine Sphere’; ‘Beauty’; ‘Marriage’; ‘Prostitution’; ‘Same-Sex Relationships’; ‘Sex and Violence’; ‘Anxiety and Repulsion’; ‘Aids and Handbooks’. Each selection of sources is arranged according to a number of subcategories and prefaced by an introduction. Each source is accompanied by copious notes.
Given the nature of the subject matter, any categorization of ancient sources on sexuality can hardly avoid appearing to be arbitrary to some extent, especially in cases where the material overlaps. For example, the first piece in Chapter 1, ‘The Divine Sphere’ (pp. 18-38), is taken from Homer’s Iliad, but since it deals with an aspect of the marriage of Zeus and Hera (Hera’s efforts to use sex to take Zeus’ mind off the war), it could just as well have been placed in the next chapter (‘Marriage’). However, this is perhaps of minor concern.
In the introductory notes to the first chapter, the authors state that the sources they have selected for the category ‘The Divine Sphere’ reveal that ‘when it comes to sexuality, [the gods] are not so much figures of worship as characters in works of art that encapsulate and symbolize psychological and emotional conditions’ (p. 18). While it is understandable why the authors have chosen a passage from Homer to ‘set the scene’ as far as Greek conceptions of sexuality are concerned, the choice of the Augustan poet Ovid to do the same for Rome is rather an odd choice, except for the fact that his poetry does serve to illustrate ‘the continuing influence of Greek mythology and symbolism in Roman epic’ (ibid.). But Roman epic is not the subject of the book, ancient sexuality is. While genre is indeed the golden thread that links Ovid with Homer, when it comes to sexuality almost a thousand years separate them. To what extent then can the Ovid text be said to ‘set the scene’ for the Roman perspective on sexuality in the realm of the divine? The remaining subcategories in Chapter 1 deal with the Greek gods associated with love, and their Roman counterparts: Aphrodite and Venus, and Eros and Amor.
The relationship between beauty and sexuality does not receive the attention it perhaps merits in the introduction to Chapter 2, ‘Beauty’ (pp. 39-60). There is a reference to the fear amongst ancient Greek and Roman males of the uncontrollable desire that can be aroused in them by women of extraordinary beauty. The link between beauty and sexual desire is by no means unique to ancient Greek and Roman society. What is perhaps unusual is the fear of the male members of these societies of this desire as something beyond their control. More germane to the topic are those elements of both male and female beauty the ancient Greeks and Romans found particularly erotic. Yet, a number of texts dealing with beauty in Chapter 2 have little or no bearing on ancient conceptions of sexuality. Some of the texts deal with the idealization of beauty which is quite far removed from its role in creating desire. Many of the texts in this chapter seem to recycle the same conceptions of beauty with the result that to the non-specialist reader the general impression is one of repetition. It would have been helpful if the authors had pointed out the unique contribution of each to the ancient conception of the erotic value of beauty. Other texts (for example, Apuleius Metamorphoses 4.28) give only a very vague and general description of beauty and consequently do not contribute much to a better understanding of ancient sexuality. However, the authors have selected a number of texts that do provide interesting perspectives on the role of beauty in ancient Greek and Roman conceptions of sexuality, such as those that describe the features of the human body ancient society found particularly erotic.
The place of marriage in ancient Greek and Roman conceptions of sexuality is the subject of Chapter 3, ‘Marriage’ (pp. 61-87). In their introduction to this chapter, the authors observe that ‘Marriage is the principal vehicle for exploration of male-female relationships in antiquity’ (p. 61). While in some of the sources presented by the authors, marriage is dealt with in general terms (for example, the clearly misogynistic passages from Hesiod and Semonides), the sexual aspect of marriage in Greco-Roman antiquity features more explicitly, albeit very briefly, in others, such as the three poems by Sappho, Theocritus, and Catullus respectively (which the literary tradition has often identified as epithalamia) and a few brief passages taken from Plutarch, Seneca the Elder, and Martial. The chapter concludes with a number of epigraphical and literary sources (both Greek and Latin) that evoke the heartache and distress caused by separation from the beloved, either through death or travel. None of these texts deal specifically with sexuality, but rather, as Johnson and Ryan point out in their introduction, all of them illustrate the ‘emotional bonds between husband and wife’ (p. 61).
It is really only from Chapter 4, ‘Prostitution’ (pp. 88- 109), onwards that the book fulfills the expectations raised by its title. While the authors make some valuable observations regarding Roman views on prostitution and the role of the practice in Roman public and private life, they seem to have less to say about the way prostitution was perceived in ancient Greece, except that since adultery was prohibited by law, ‘an Athenian citizen had to relieve his extramarital desires among prostitutes’ and that investing in a brothel was considered an acceptable business venture (p. 88). The sources Johnson and Ryan have assembled in this chapter cover almost every aspect of prostitution in antiquity, ranging from the character and qualities that were prized in hetairai, prostitutes, and kept women, the various kinds of sexual pleasures preferred by Greek and Roman males, and their fantasies, to the exploitation of the ageing whore, temple prostitutes, and male prostitution. Included in the chapter are a number of Pompeian graffiti which the authors have deemed fit to place in two separate categories according to whether they concern female or male prostitutes.
Chapter 5 (pp. 110-35) is devoted to sources on same-sex relationships. It is well known that, unlike the custom at Rome where it was definitely illegal (especially in cases where one of the partners was a freeborn youth), in Greek society, for the most part, relationships between freeborn males carried no opprobrium provided they adhered to certain specific codified patterns. However, when it came to same-sex relationships between females, the Greeks as well as the Romans disapproved, although there were notable exceptions. The source material in Chapter 5 provides some valuable perspectives on almost every aspect of relationships between members of the same sex in Greece and at Rome in antiquity. Not only were the ancient Greeks and Romans interested in the aetiology of these relationships (Plato, Pseudo-Aristotle, and Athenaeus), they also debated in detail the merits of same-sex pleasure (mainly between an older male and a youth) as opposed to the heterosexual kind (Ovid, Plutarch, Straton, Achilles Tatius). The unique role of male same-sex love in a number of highly militarized ancient Greek societies is briefly demonstrated by two authors, Aelian and Athenaeus. Some space is also given to sources that deal with same-sex love between women. Here Sappho (Fragments 49, 94, and 96) is certainly the most obvious choice, complemented by a selection of two passages drawn from the poetry of Erinna and the CIL respectively. The chapter concludes with a few sources that continue the topic of female same-sex love, but from the highly disapproving viewpoint of males (Anacreon, Asclepiades, Martial, and Lucian).
With regard to violent sex, the topic of Chapter 6, ‘Sex and Violence’ (pp. 136-52), the authors note that the use of violence to satisfy sexual needs is commonplace in the myths and legends of ancient Greece and Rome (p. 136), but was often placed in a context that left no doubt as to the dire consequences of such behaviour for the perpetrator. As in other areas of sexual practice, the distinction between what was acceptable and what was forbidden usually coincided with that between freeborn and slave. While ancient society was willing to tolerate using a slave to gratify one’s lust, it did not extend the same sanction to sex with freeborn males or females.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of an act of sexual violence committed against a freeborn woman in Greek literature is the rape of Cassandra by Ajax during the sack of Troy. In the non-Homeric tradition which is also reflected in the first text, Alcaeus Fragment 298.4-24 (pp. 137f.), Ajax violated Cassandra in the temple of Athena, at the very feet of the goddess’ statue. His deed was all the more horrific in that it transgressed established norms of conduct not only on the human but also on the divine level. Ovid’s account in Metamorphoses 6.455-562 of the rape of Philomela by Tereus, her brother-in-law, brings to the topic the idea that lust, when given free rein, can give rise to all kinds of violent and barbaric passions.
But what was the official stance on sexual violence? The first few texts presented by the book concern Athenian law. They offer, according to Johnson and Ryan, rather ambiguous testimony on the subject and leave one in some doubt as to the extent to which rape was considered a serious crime. None of the sources cited deal with Roman legal practice in this regard. On the other hand, there appears to have been no ambiguity in ancient Greek and Roman approval of rape as an acceptable form of punishment, especially if the person for whom it was intended had no claims to citizenship. However, it seems forcing the (female) partner through violent means, if necessary, to submit to intercourse for no other reason than to satisfy male fantasies, was not unusual either. Ovid’s Ars Amatoria 1.663-80 provides clear evidence for this. While there is no mention of sexual violence in the Archilochus fragment (196a), quoted on pp. 147f., it does contain a very brief allusion to the partner’s initial unwillingness to engage in sex, at lines 22-23 (and not lines 15-16, as pointed out by the authors in their introduction). Given its often violent nature in antiquity, it is not unusual to find sport used as a metaphor for expressing the association of sex with violence, at least from the male point of view. At lines 894-904 of Aristophanes’ play, Peace, for example, Trygaeus imagines sex with Theoria in terms of a number of sporting events.
According to the authors, the sources selected in Chapter 7, ‘Anxiety and Repulsion’ (pp. 153-73), reflect the various ways in which Greek and Roman males tried to compensate for the feelings of anxiety they experienced as a result of their changing roles in society. As far as ancient Greece is concerned, Johnson and Ryan do not specify what caused the erosion of ‘codes of correct behaviour’ (p. 153) to which men reacted in this way, nor indicate when it occurred. For Rome, there seems to be general agreement that the period of civil strife and unrest, coupled with military adventures outside Italy, especially during the first half of the first century B.C.E., saw (aristocratic) women becoming more assertive, both in the home and in public life. Examples of the male reaction varied from fear of sexual impotence (Philodemus, Ovid, and Petronius) to disgust caused by the physical qualities or sexual preferences of the partner (Lucilius, Horace, Martial, Rufinus, Vergilian Appendix). In some sources (Aristophanes, Catullus, Martial, Hipponax, the Greek Anthology, Juvenal), men and women whose sexuality transgressed the accepted norms of sexual behavior, served not only as a focal point for satire and ridicule, but may also have enabled the poet and his audience to reaffirm their society’s traditional norms.
The source material assembled in Chapter 8, ‘Aids and Manuals’ (pp. 174-99) explores the role of sex toys and sex manuals in ancient Greek and Roman society. In regard to the latter, the authors distinguish between, on the one hand, material that took a mere intellectual interest in sexuality and sought to find a scientific explanation for the origin of the human sex drive (Lucretius), and, on the other hand, practical handbooks aimed at enhancing the sexual pleasure of their readers (Athenaeus, Priapea, Martial). Not surprisingly, Ovid is well represented in this chapter and even merits a section devoted exclusively to extracts from his Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris. While the authors further note (p. 175) that pottery and literature in ancient Greece frequently mention the use of sex toys (‘dildos’), they provide only two literary sources, namely from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Herodas’ Mime respectively. Johnson and Ryan are silent about the use of such devices in the Roman world, but they have included two sources from Latin literature (Propertius and Suetonius) which both deal with another form of sex-aid -- the portrayal of erotic scenes on the walls of some Roman households.
While the specialist in the area of ancient sexuality will probably already be familiar with, and have a good understanding of, the vast majority of texts assembled by Johnson and Ryan, their book will still serve as a valuable aid to classical scholars and students who are new to the field and who are looking for an introduction via the primary sources. By providing these texts in translation, the authors have made this fascinating subject even more accessible to non-Classicists. Throughout their commentary on the texts, they have retained the original Greek or Latin form of certain key words, each of which is listed in a glossary of terms (pp. 206-14), accompanied by a translation and, in some cases, a brief explanation as well. This is complemented by a glossary of authors (pp. 200-5), which would almost be essential for someone with little or no training in Classics.