Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.10

Dominic Montserrat, Sex and Society in Graeco-Roman Egypt. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1996. Pp. xix, 238; $76.50. ISBN 0-7103-0530-3.

Reviewed by Maryline Parca, Department of the Classics, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

This volume is a welcome addition to the already substantial bibliography devoted to sex and gender in classical antiquity. Its singularity lies in its focus on Egypt,1 the "jewel in the crown" of Hellenistic and Roman colonial expansion, yet a scholarly realm -- Egyptology aside -- mostly visited by papyrologists, epigraphists, ancient historians, and demographers. The strength and appeal of the book rest in its breadth. Informed by current theoretical work (and debate) in gender studies, Dominic Montserrat thinks of sexuality "in terms of a complex of reactions, interpretations, definitions, prohibitions and norms that is created and maintained by a given culture, and, just as importantly, something that can only be understood in relation to the entire anatomy of the society under scrutiny" (p. 13). Of particular importance to the author are the coexistence and interplay in Egypt of cultures (indigenous, Greek, and Roman) whose attitudes to sex and sexuality were markedly different, and his reflection is guided by the possibility that boundaries between the various ethnic and cultural groups were effected and maintained through the conscious manipulation of private life.  

The body of the book, in nine chapters, is prefaced by practical notes on the conventions used in the text (pp. xv-xix): they concern Egyptian chronology from the pre-Ptolemaic period to the Arab conquest; the various calendars used in Egypt and their Julian equivalents; weights, measures and currency; the transliteration of names; some of the editorial conventions used by editors of papyri (wherein a reference to E. G. Turner, Greek Papyri. An Introduction [Oxford 1980, 2nd. ed.] pp. 187-188 would have been in order); and translations of titles of ancient works. The volume ends with an extensive bibliography (pp. 225-232), an index of ancient literary and documentary sources (pp. 233-236), and a general index (pp. 237-238) where topics treated in the book intermingle oddly with personal names, ancient and modern (among the latter we find Mae West, whose alleged use of honey as contraceptive is mentioned on p. 200, but neither Simone de Beauvoir [quoted on p. 160] nor 'distinguished scholar' Claire Préaux [quoted on pp. 7 and 11]). The book also boasts a set of twenty-five handsome plates and no fewer than sixteen figures interspersed throughout the text.  

Erasmus Darwin's labored verses on the sex life of Papyra (sic) open the first chapter, "Fragments for a Sexual History of Graeco-Roman Egypt" (pp. 1-25), the purpose of which is to establish papyrus as a crucial and plentiful source of information on ancient private lives. In this introductory section, however, M. duly outlines the particular problems inherent in papyrological texts. Their often damaged physical condition and their rapid cursive handwritings make them difficult to read and interpret. The data inferred from allusive references in private letters (which M. terms a 'misnomer') or from formal documents filed with the authorities is rarely explicit about, let alone concerned with, sexual matters, though helpful information sometimes turns up in unsuspected contexts (e.g., magical spells and recipes). And, finally, the randomness of their survival and recovery explains why the bulk of extant papyrus texts document provincial life in the towns and villages of Middle and Upper Egypt (a comparable uneven distribution in time and place obtains for the Demotic texts as well). A helpful contrast is also drawn between the nature of the evidence available from the Pharaonic period (mostly archeological, from funerary or religious contexts, and concerned with the urban élite) and that from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods when literary testimonies and provincial papyri constitute the backbone of the documentation, with few fleshy bits of material culture attached to it.  

To the author, Egypt is a palimpsest bearing the entwined stamps of Greek traditions and Egyptian customs and the later imprint of Roman institutions, practices and attitudes. The salutary premise of his investigation is that between the third century BCE and the third century CE "there existed a pluralist society in Egypt which at various times and places could include Greek, Roman and Egyptian elements" (p. 16). The notion of sexuality in Graeco-Roman Egypt therefore does not admit a single definition. The archetypal analogy of the flood of the Nile impregnating the land of Egypt central to the Egyptians' view of their world did coexist with Greek and Roman ideas about sex and sexual behavior (those idiosyncratically marked by a precise taxonomy of roles according of gender), and contact with the indigenous culture did not fail to modify Greek and Roman definitions and practices. In addition to the issues of diversity and complexity which he carefully outlines, M. calls attention to a third dimension, arguably the most crucial one as it is part of the fabric of ancient society, that "sexuality in the ancient world was a definition of public status rather than private self" (p. 19).  

In the second chapter, "The Social Body" (pp. 26-60), M. probes the theoretical suggestion that the individual human body is a metaphor for society. Using the corroborative evidence provided by the markedly different attitudes which Egyptians and Greeks had toward the body (for example, the Egyptians favored physical purity and the Greeks physical training), he explores the possibility that in Graeco-Roman Egypt the body "could be seen as one of the clearest indices of cultural affiliation" (p. 26). The body was 'acculturated' at various critical stages of physical development and change (typically birth, puberty, menstruation and pregnancy) and the data available on the rites attending those moments is carefully reviewed. The evidence for ceremonies surrounding pregnancy and birth is scarse and problematic; that available on the rites of passage marking puberty is plentiful for boys (circumcision among Egyptians, a public status declaration among the hellenized urban élite, with, sometimes, the shearing of hair and, often, festivities) and it is rather equivocal for girls (the truthfulness of the literary tradition about the excision of Egyptian girls is questioned and M. adduces the silence of the gynecological texts of the Dynastic period as strongest evidence against such routine operation). M. wishes to see a link between the therapeuteria mentioned in a few papyri and a ritual observance possibly related to menarche, and he notes the evidence about menstrual taboos (such as seclusion) is only speculative.  

M. also considers death and burial as moments of particular preoccupation with the physical body and discusses how the so-called "Fayum" mummy portraits and the stone carvings adorning niches of tombs (both iconographic types of Roman date) place a strong emphasis on the sexual status of the deceased. Finally, M. discusses the abundant information on bodies available in documentary papyri, only to conclude that it is less revealing than expected. General descriptions of people's bodies are very few and those that exist usually concern the physical appearance of slaves (whose somatic features set them apart from the freeborn) or that of victims of violence. Facial features are usually emphasized, with the rest of the body ignored unless it bears scars, and a progressive schematization takes hold between the Ptolemaic texts and those of Roman date when descriptions become impressionistic sketches of human types.  

In the third chapter, "The Sensual Body" (pp. 61-79), approaches to sex in Egyptian and Greek thought are contrasted and similarities -- such as the belief that women's destiny (and health) lies in procreation -- are outlined. The notion that the human body is simultaneously physically given and culturally formed leads to an excursus into the ways people changed their bodies in temporary and permanent ways. While women favored the temporary metamorphosis provided by dyes, ointments and perfumes, men turned to depilation and shaving and, among the irreversible physical changes performed to decorate the body or mark its particular status, tattooing, piercing and branding were procedures undergone by some individuals. Tattooing, which had a long tradition in Egypt, especially among women, for aesthetic (erotic) and religious (apotropaic) reasons, became, together with branding, a mark of barbarism and servitude in the Greek and Roman periods. The piercing of ears, so common among women, also connoted slavish and foreign origin as well as effeminacy to the Greeks when they saw it practiced by men, some of whom, perhaps, followed local custom (as is documented in the Thebaid).  

M.'s goal in the fourth chapter, "Marriage, Morality, and Divorce" (pp. 80-105), is to sketch the "sexual actuality of being a married person" in a society where the marital practices naturally grew out of the confluence between Greek and indigenous forms of marriage. Again, the papyri are crucially, though selectively, informative: marriage contracts outline the partners' moral duties towards one another, divorce documents reveal breaches of those ideals of conduct, and census returns intimate how couples and families occupied domestic space. Here as elsewhere, M. cautiously juggles "hot potatoes" such as the question of sex before marriage, marriage as a forum for eroticism, or the quality of the emotional relationship derived from marriage: only educated guesses are offered. Next, several pages are devoted to consanguineous marriage, a regular practice in Roman Egypt among urban élite and humble villagers alike, and from the various explanations given of the phenomenon M. favors Brent Shaw's view of endogamy as culturally specific and thus meant "to maintain critical ethnic-political distinctions" in the group that practiced it.  

First marriages were usually arranged and cohabitation constituted sufficient proof of wedlock. Neither validating document nor marriage contract was felt necessary (though the élite might more readily have one drafted), but wedding preparations (complete with invitation cards and gifts of flowers) were the object of much attention. In Roman Egypt as in classical Athens,2 the funeral of the unmarried was seen as a perverted wedding ceremony, and to die unwed was somehow to die unfulfilled. Because divorce agreements essentially address economic concerns, they say little of the reasons why people ceased to cohabit, though lassitude rather than barrenness or the inability to bear male children seems often to have prompted separation. Adulterous relationships, by their very nature, rarely come up in papyri (M. discusses the few documentary attestations of the term moichos), and though sex outside marriage surely happened its occurrence may have varied according to financial status and geographical location.  

The fifth chapter, "Sex for Sale" (pp. 106-135), opens with a caveat: papyri do not corroborate the prevalent literary picture (from Herodas to Athanasius) of Egypt as land of licentiousness, and the documentary evidence is, once again, scanty, chronologically disparate and geographically diffuse. M. therefore pieces together a likely picture of prostitution in Egypt by supplementing the documentary data with non-papyrological texts, and he does so with due attention to chronological continuum (e.g., he surveys the long list of legendary whores working in Egypt, from Rhodopis to the harlot-saints) and comparative anthropological material. The fact that prostitution was a "learnable skill" (technê) leads to a discussion of "sex manuals" (among which that of the celebrated Philaenis of Samos), and the ambivalent nature of the prostitute, with whom intercourse is simultaneously pleasurable and ominously non-reproductive, is appropriately emphasized.  

Some prostitutes were itinerant workers, following the crowds attending festivals, others worked in the brothels and seedy quarters of large urban centers, and most were under the control of a pimp (the pornoboskos or whore-herder). Nothing more can be said of the actual daily lives of these women, and neither the physical appearance of brothels nor that of its employees is known. M. declares the evidence for cultic prostitution equivocal and discusses the direct taxation of women working as prostitutes as a Roman innovation without a Ptolemaic precedent. Prostitutes sometimes met with physical abuse (Herodas 2) and even foul play, as in BGU IV 1024 (a record of various court proceedings copied in the 4th century CE) in which the mother of a prostitute asks for compensation following her daughter's murder at the hands of a client with political clout.  

"Homosexuality" is treated in Chapter 6 (pp. 136-162). M. takes as his point of departure P. Oxy. XLII 3070, perhaps a letter of the first century C.E., in which Apion and Epimas express, rather crudely, their lust for Epaphroditus. The desired sexual domination of a social subordinate conveyed by the message constitutes, according to M., an eloquent expression of the "construction and practice of male homosexuality in Graeco-Roman Egypt" (p. 137). No mention is made of the tentative nature of the traditional interpretation of the piece as a "proposition" nor are other possible readings entertained. C. Gallavotti, for example, has interpreted the text as a note of abuse and adduced the metrical features and the structure of the text, together with the comparative evidence of graffiti and other forms of popular expression, in support of his view ("P. Oxy. 3070 e un graffito di Stabia," Museum Criticum 13-14 [1978-1979] pp. 366-368). M. next briefly summarizes the debate between the "constructionist" and the "essentialist" views on sexual identity and proposes to examine the Egyptian material within the controversy.  

The scanty evidence from the Pharaonic period presents homosexuality as socially problematic since the life-giving power of sperm was wasted in non-reproductive intercourse; it also shows no particular concern for the dichotomy between active and passive roles so central to Greek thought and suggests that relationships between coeval males were not prohibited. Explicit information on same sex relationships in documentary texts of the Greek and Roman periods is equally limited and, except for two Callimachean epigrams, most of the discussion of 'city homosexual life' centers around magico-mystic texts such as the Cyranides (a probable Alexandrian product of the 1st or 2nd c. C.E.) and the polemical writings of Clement of Alexandria. M. next discusses homosexual practice in towns and villages in light of a few graffiti, some epitaphs and a marriage contract, and the chapter closes with a brief survey of texts in which sexual relationships between women are evidenced, unsurprisingly conceptualized in the terms of power and control familiar from heterosexual liaisons. Considered within the nature/culture debate, the combined evidence of Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, literary and documentary data is, in the end, declared ambiguous.  

In chapter 7, "Festivals of Licence" (pp. 163-179), M. probes the communal experiences of religious observance as a locus for "sexual release within the parameters of cultic action." The prejudiced pronouncements of Greek and Roman authors on the licentious behavior of Egyptian worshippers notwithstanding, M. proposes to examine the possibility that, given the centrality of the sexual act in the Egyptian Weltanschauung, "festivals were the times when people most keenly experienced themselves as sexual beings." Some state and private cults seem to have acknowledged and exalted women's sexual power -- the cult of Apis at Saqqara, the Bubasteia in honor of Bastet, and the Adonia all present female sexuality as a positive force in the cosmic order -- and there also exists some evidence of cultic activities in honor of phallic gods. The chapter concludes with a section on festival-goers (principally of the late Roman period), whose letters talk of the preparations, travel, and entertainment that were piece and parcel of religious gatherings.  

"Sex Magic" (pp. 180-209) is treated in chapter 8. M. first brushes a fast sketch of the entrenched belief in magic in Egypt, the emergence of a "curriculum of occult sciences" there in the Graeco-Roman period, its widespread diffusion (from Nubia to Britain), and the long currency of such arcana (down to the Napoleonic 'Book of Fate'). He points to the irrelevance of the distinction between religion and magic to the Egyptians, for whom "magic in all its forms played a part in sustaining the moral system and social codes" (p. 185) and was thought to enable the individual to maintain the status quo. He also criticizes J.J. Winkler for divorcing the magical papyri from their indigenous context and conceptualizing them in Greek social and intellectual terms. While the introductory section includes a welcome bibliographical update on the sortes Astrampsychi (n. 8 p. 183), this reader would note the glaring omission of the work by Christopher Faraone and Roy Kotansky on both magic in general and erotic magic in particular (their bibliographies, up to 1994, are conveniently gathered in W.M. Brashear's [equally ignored] annotated bibliography on the Greek Magical Papyri in ANRW II, 18.2 [Berlin 1995], cols. 3603-3683).  

The section on erotic magic proper opens with a brief survey of the history, date and provenance of the long magical papyri (once the likely property of a priestly practitioner) and describes some specialized spells such as the agogê (love spell of attraction) and the katadesmos (binding spell inspiring love and total surrender to the enchanter). M. next discusses the quasi-medical prescriptions for aphrodisiacs and contraceptives, which naturally recur in magical spells concerned with successful sex, and he also considers amulets, some of which were meant to be merely apotropaic while others were thought to effect a specific result. The chapter ends with several pages on astrology (the Pharaonic background, the Mesopotamian elements and the Hellenistic formulation) and its emphasis on the notion of cosmic sympathy so crucial to human affairs.  

In the last chapter, "The Culture of Sex" (pp. 210-224), M. considers the erotic elements in the material culture of Graeco-Roman Egypt. Leaving aside the question of deciding whether categories such as "pornography" (for which there is no word in Greek) and "erotica" can adequately describe such visual arts (p. 211), he examines representations of physical love. Papyri bearing preliminary sketches for wall paintings or woven hangings, mosaic floors, little objects of stone, wooden effigies, and terracotta figurines are examined and possible meanings are proposed, cautiously.  

In sum, this book constitutes a valuable contribution to the study of private life in an area of the ancient world known for its complex social and cultural fabric. It fulfills the promise of its title and does not attempt to deliver more than the evidence allows. Among its many qualities I would highlight the fact that each topic is placed in a broad context, with attention both to Pharaonic precedents and to Greek classical practice from which a 'Graeco-Roman" form may have developed, and that the material is described and discussed without privileging theoretical approaches over more traditional interpretive strategies. M.'s knack for the "analogie juste" makes his volume a pleasure to read.  

No review can be wholly positive, and this reader grew annoyed with the many typographical errors which mar a book otherwise handsomely produced and illustrated. The following list, gleaned from the text alone, is not comprehensive: p. xvii line 22: read Julian (not Julain); p. 56 line 10: read sôma (not soma); p. 72 line 3: read sôphrosynê (not sôphronsynê); p. 76 line 24: read Sextus Empiricus (not Empiricius); p. 84 subtitle: read le (lyrisme); p. 87 line 20: read epithalamiums or -mia (not epithalamies); p. 88 line 7: read phylassontes (not phyllasontes); p. 95 line 9: read may (not my); p. 97 line 29: read partner (not partern); p. 100 line 8: read daughters; p. 106 line 1: read Athanasius (not Anthanasius); p. 106 first §: read nec plus ultra; p. 110 line 25: read who (not whom); p. 117 line 6: read papyri (not papryi); p. 124 n. 48: read discussion; p. 128 line 17: read Dodecaschoenus; p. 130 n. 68: read Empiricus; p. 131 penult. line: read sobriquets; p. 134 line 11: read comparison (not compassion); p. 156 line 14: read festival (nor restival); p. 170 line 8: read euergetai (not euergetoi); p. 190 line 22: read hour (not house); p. 191 line 18: read katadesmoi; p. 192 line 6: read them (not him); p. 200 line 15: read 1920's (not 1970's). Not to be forgiven, however, is M.'s Latin dedication (Postremo has litteras ad memoriam J.P.S., qui me impellit hanc opusculum conficere, dedicati sunt, p. xiii), a sentence so error ridden that no classicist (alive or dead) can read it without wincing.  


1. The abundant and excellent recent work on Egypt, Ptolemaic and Roman, notwithstanding.

2. On the classical antecedents of the "bride of the Nile," see R. Rehm, Marriage to Death: The Conflation of Wedding and Funeral Rituals in Greek Tragedy (Princeton 1994).