Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.32

James I. Porter (ed.), Constructions of the Classical Body.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1999.  Pp. 397.  ISBN 0-472-10908-1.  $54.50.  

Reviewed by A.A. Donohue, Bryn Mawr College (
Word count: 2077 words

The human body is now firmly established in the humanities as a useful focus for investigating questions ranging from individual experience to the collective phenomena of social structure and cultural change. The volume under review is a solid addition to the scholarship on the conceptions of the body in classical antiquity. The essays furnish a thought-provoking survey of developments over the past decade; six of the sixteen are reprints or reworkings of publications going back as far as 1990, while several represent work in progress. The editor's statement that the classical formation of the Western concept of the body has been "little discussed" (2-3) is belied by the sophistication of the essays and the scope of the documentation. The collection joins other current work in demonstrating that the subjects and approaches pioneered in the late 1960s and 1970s are fulfilling their promise, contributing significantly to a wide variety of fundamental issues in classical studies and, in many cases, shifting the basis of discussion.

The topics are eclectic, spanning the Greek world and the Roman, from Archaic times to the present. The focus is overwhelmingly literary. The only essay devoted exclusively to ancient art is John Henderson's "Smashing Bodies: The Corinthian Tydeus and Ismene Amphora (Louvre E640)," which details the inability of modern scholarship to interpret any aspect of the vase correctly. The catalogue of failure includes, without special comment (38), a description of the siren flanked by two sphinxes on side B, quoted from the list of vases in the Louvre given at the website of the Perseus Project, as "three sphinxes"; although a correct identification can be found in the full catalog entry at the site, the presence of erroneous information in ostensibly authoritative sources is a growing problem, posing special hazards in the case of interdisciplinary work.

Leslie Kurke ("Pindar and the Prostitutes, or Reading Ancient 'Pornography'") maintains her interpretation of the significance of the "prostitute" in terms of "economic, social, and political power" (102), acknowledging but dismissing (117, ns. 2 and 3) the problems that arise from using one term to cover the two distinct ancient categories of porne and hetaira and from the debated historicity of sacred prostitution. One may ask the extent to which detailed interpretations of literary texts can succeed when our understanding of the conditions in which the texts arose is seriously incomplete. For example, the general non-participation of women in "the act of animal sacrifice" (109) carries a particular significance in the context of the consensus views of "blood-sacrifice" (120, n. 21, citing Detienne), but those views have been shown to be flawed (S. Peirce, "Death, Revelry, and Thysia," Classical Antiquity 12.2, 1993, 219-266). The question of how it is possible to produce meaningful cultural analysis from badly fragmented evidence confronts the reader throughout the volume, often when the issues are most interesting. The existence of an "aristocratic" model of the body, for instance, is widely recognized; S.C. Humphreys ("From a Grin to a Death: The Body in the Greek Discovery of Politics") asks (127), "[W]hat attempts were made to develop more democratic conceptions of the body?" She offers a context for the fifth-century treatment of Persian prisoners and the bones of heroes and fallen warriors in an analysis largely structured by "model[s] of social process" (136). The processes and models pale in interest, for instance, beside Aeschylus' brutal evocation of the urns of soldiers' ashes that are the currency of Ares the money-changer (134-135, using a free version of Agamemnon 438-447); yet we are still unsure of the meaning, and even the tone of the "Eurymedon" scene on the oinochoe (not pelike) Hamburg 1981.173 (130 and 131, fig. 10: the nude male does not advance "with spear"; in some photographs, a reflection just beyond the left hand mimics a painted vertical line, but the empty field is confirmed by the detail of the area in the publication cited, AthMitt 90, 1975, pl. 25.3).

Fans of the scratch-and-sniff Smelly Old History: Greek Grime and Roman Aromas (an aspect of antiquity unforgettably realized in the inhalable displays of Roman-era life at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden) will perhaps be disappointed by David S. Potter's "Odor and Power in the Roman Empire," which, after some promising remarks on urban stench, focusses instead on incense and perfumes. His wry discussion places scents in a wide-ranging context of social and economic practices, public and private, including issues of class distinctions and of the moral ideologies that have emerged as crucial in the Roman view of the world. His point that "social distinction in the ancient world could be measured in terms of an individual's ability to control the actions of his or her body" (170-171) is also demonstrated in Carlin A. Barton's "The Roman Blush: The Delicate Matter of Self-Control," which makes use of a wide variety of approaches, including ethnography, sociology, and psychology, to investigate the Roman concepts of shame and honor in explicit contrast to "late twentieth-century Euro-American culture" (218). The blush emerges as an indicator of the individual's relation to society. Most intriguing is the phenomenon of the "deliberate" version of this ostensibly involuntary act (222-223); dissimulation, ancient and modern alike, is a special problem within the larger question of the treacherous relationship between form and content. A related set of issues is explored by Eric Downing in "Anti-Pygmalion: The Praeceptor in Ars Amatoria, Book 3." Ovid executes Pygmalion's project in reverse; the gendered "artifaction of the woman" exploits the capacity of art to form, transform, counterfeit, and conceal as part of a "metamorphic process" (245). Art is only one of the frames within which ancient ideas about the body were formulated. Helen King ("Chronic Pain and the Creation of Narrative") shows the power of medical discourses to structure cultural experience on both the personal and the collective level. Her discussion demonstrates how it is possible for pain and suffering not simply to be endured, but actually to be given something more than negative meaning within a coherent vision of human life. She argues that the Hippocratic texts and the account of Aelius Aristeides functioned as means to transcend the materiality of the body, bringing it into connection with the divine. There is a hint here of the post-Holocaust hope that narrative can give meaning to the incomprehensible; the ancient stories may, to that extent, shed light on the rise of personal narratives in the attempts of contemporary societies to cope with diseases like cancer and AIDS.

Robert Lamberton's "Sweet Honey in the Rock: Pleasure, Embodiment, and Metaphor in Late-Antique Platonism" finds in Porphyry's account of Plotinus the idea of shame reconceived in terms of the "central mystery of the relationship of spirit to matter" (323). The issue of embodiment lies at the core of a metaphorical complex that is significant, in the end, less for its specific content than for its interpretive capacity; Porphyry's treatise on the Homeric Cave of the Nymphs signals new possibilities for understanding and expressing experience. Ralph Hexter surveys mediaeval treatments of "Ovid's Body," many of them fantastic and hugely entertaining to the modern reader, all of them vigorous reworkings of the biography of the poet of love and exile in accordance with the concerns of the time. Mediaeval liberties of this kind provide a distinguished pedigree for a group of modern, no less remarkable appropriations of the classical body. Maria Wyke ("Herculean Muscle!: The Classicizing Rhetoric of Bodybuilding"; first published in 1997) investigates the rhetoric and ideology of the "muscled male body" (357) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is not the case that "[s]carcely any scholarly attention has been paid" (355) to the subject; for example, George L. Hersey's The Evolution of Allure. Sexual Selection from the Medici Venus to the Incredible Hulk (1996) and (especially) Kenneth R. Dutton's The Perfectible Body. The Western Ideal of Male Physical Development (1995) may be cited as serious considerations of the phenomenon. The particular strength of Wyke's essay is her treatment of cinema, which played a decisive role in the emergence of the classical-modern muscleman from niche-audience closets into mainstream popular culture. It is a safe bet that the end of the recent Hercules series on television does not portend any serious disruption in the supply of such figures.

Interest in the ancient construction of the body reflects contemporary concerns, and it is this confrontation that raises the most complex and urgent issues. The temptation to see the body as a diachronic constant is strong, but the conceptions of antiquity are often so incompatible with our own that it seems impossible to bridge the gap; ancient societies are emphatically not to be confused with modern, but the position of classical antiquity as the basis of Western tradition means that Greece and Rome cannot be treated with complete neutrality. Froma I. Zeitlin ("Reflections on Erotic Desire in Archaic and Classical Greece") rightly points to the equivocal consequences of the "cultural prestige" (51) of Greece. The use of classical culture to repress or to liberate involves not simply the end-product models, but equally the claims made for the interpretive methods that generate them. Does psychoanalysis, for example, offer universal insights, or, despite its claims, is it merely another cultural artifact that generates its own evidence? Giulia Sissa ("Sexual Bodybuilding: Aeschines against Timarchus") challenges Foucault's denial that a concept of sexual identity existed in antiquity, examining the development of his ideas with special attention to his sometimes questionable reading of psychoanalytic theory. Her treatment of Aeschines' Against Timarchus, showing that "Athens is certainly not San Francisco" (164), is a useful corrective to many neo-Winckelmannian constructions of a never-never (or always-anything) sexual antiquity. Anne Carson's "Dirt and Desire: The Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity" revisits the governing conception of woman as in every respect "penetrable, porous, mutable, and subject to defilement all the time" (87), perhaps the clearest example anywhere of the naturalization of social norms. To modern eyes the formulation signals male insecurity, but can it really be correct, as Zeitlin suggests in regard to female sexuality (58-59), that such "justification for placing [women] under masculine social control also, paradoxically perhaps, gives women a greater control over men"? The Greek view is very like the assertion of the enormous, inherent female power to inflame men that is used to justify the Islamic veiling of women and its extreme enforcement through isolation, punishment, and death, practices that leave little room for mitigating reinterpretations.

Related issues are raised by three treatments of state-sanctioned violence in Rome. In her unflinching examination of Roman proscription, Amy Richlin ("Cicero's Head") calls for our direct engagement, placing the political savagery of the late Republic and its literary sequelae in the context of the post-Holocaust duty to remember. Her question before the heads on the rostra (192) is urgent: "How does a culture begin doing this to itself?" Catharine Edwards ("The Suffering Body: Philosophy and Pain in Seneca's Letters") attempts to determine the younger Seneca's attitude to the brutality of Roman culture, suggesting that philosophical consolation, rather than sensationalism, social criticism, or complicity, provides the appropriate interpretive frame for his treatment of violence. Complicity, however, functions on a higher level than that of the individual; it is a comprehensive system. Maud W. Gleason ("Truth Contests and Talking Corpses") offers a compelling analysis of the assertion of Roman political authority through violence, concluding that "the Roman state used torture not in order to learn truth but to teach terror" (305). Brutality was at the heart of Roman social experience from childhood on; it was the essence of paideia1 and the core of the judicial system, a pervasive display of coercion that so drained its spectators of the capacity for empathy with the victims that complicity was inevitable. The comprehensive Roman model has lost little of its power in the United States, founded partly on Roman ideals. The subjection of children to schools that increasingly resemble prisons, the ideologically driven criminalization of ever-wider categories of behavior, the proliferation of real-life television shows displaying the violent infliction of law and order on the least powerful members of society -- all these developments find analogies in the Roman system, and together they answer Richlin's question. The level of engagement invited by these essays is appropriate because classical antiquity retains its power to shape and justify the present. The history that will someday be written of the human body will reflect the classical past and our interpretations of it; this volume demonstrates the seriousness of our responsibility.


1.   Cf. George Orwell, "Such, Such Were the Joys" (1947, 1952), repr. in S. Orwell and I. Angus, edd., The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell IV. In Front of Your Nose. 1945-1950 (New York, 1968) 338: "Indeed, I doubt whether classical education ever has been or can be successfully carried on without corporal punishment."

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