Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.04.18

Werner Krenkel, Naturalia non turpia. Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece and Rome. Schriften zur antiken Kultur- und Sexualwissenschaft. Herausgegeben von Wolfgang Bernard und Christiane Reitz. Spudasmata, 113.   Hildesheim:  Olms, 2006.  Pp. 560; ills. 12.  ISBN 978-3-487-13272-3.  €78.00.  

Reviewed by Michael Fontaine, Cornell University (
Word count: 1250 words

This is a really excellent book and anyone interested in sexual life in antiquity should get a copy at once. The volume, which commemorates the 80th birthday of Werner Krenkel, collects 23 of Krenkel's papers, selected by Krenkel himself, that were originally published between 1963 and 2000, most of them in out-of-the-way journals. Although half a dozen miscellaneous, ephemeral, and technical papers (on Nonius, harvest laborers, the biography of Lucilius, and Varro's Menippean Satires, and that sort of thing) are thrown in for lagniappe, the crown jewels of the collection, as the book's title rightly highlights,1 are those papers strictly concerned with sexuality and reproduction, all of which originally appeared in the 1970s and 1980s.

All of the papers (18 in German, 5 in English) are original philological research articles and are highly informative. The topics discussed by Krenkel cover a very large area, including (in German) separate discussions of ancient pornography, abortion, exhibitionism, scopophilia, masturbation, libido, sex and political biography, "tribads" (i.e. lesbians in the modern sense of the word), transvestism, pueri meritorii in Rome, and more. Topics discussed in Krenkel's fluent, frank, and hip English include fellatio and irrumatio, the finer points of erotic "tonguing," and political uses of sexual allegations. In a very intriguing article (also in English) on hyperthermia in ancient Rome, Krenkel suggests that the frequent hot baths to which some Roman men during the Empire became practically addicted (as he shows) will have of necessity caused a decrease in the birth rate, and perhaps thereby contributed in some degree to the decline of the Empire itself. There is, therefore, a lot of material packed into these 550 pages; I only regret that Krenkel's two important papers on the figurae Veneris (sexual positions) from the 1985 and 1987 issues of the WZ Rostock have not been included.2

Krenkel sets about the theme of each article in a methodical and almost scientific way, and maintains a dispassionate tone throughout his discussion. Each article begins with the definition and etymology of his proposed topic, and then proceeds through the Greek and Roman testimonia that describe or exemplify it. In many cases Krenkel relates these testimonia to the writings of A. Kinsey on sexual behavior. One of his largest foci is sexual and reproductive vocabulary in Greek and Latin, and Krenkel goes on to consider single words relating to a sexual activity (for which he has evidently mined, though not always with attribution, Vorberg's Glossarium Eroticum). But what is perhaps at least as valuable as the lexicographical work is that Krenkel selects from the ancient literature anecdotes and episodes that demonstrate the activity. Thus, for instance, in his discussion of exhibitionism in ancient Greece and Rome he successfully juxtaposes a number of curious accounts about Pisistratus, Augustus, Timarchus, Eumolpus, and so on--that is to say, considering both fact and fiction, genre, tone, and possible biasses a writer may have. Krenkel does this with an authoritative but not overbearing command of the material, all illustrated with generous quotations from the original texts either in the original language or in translation. He is especially good with epigraphic evidence, and he occasionally discusses archaeological evidence, vase illustrations, and other specimens of the plastic arts. Almost nothing from Graeco-Roman antiquity escapes Krenkel's net.

One demerit of the volume is that no effort has been expended in updating the articles, which are reprinted as they originally appeared. A note in the preface maintains that references have been updated where possible, but in a brief check I did not notice much evidence of that; fragments, for instance, are mostly cited from older editions even when newer and perhaps better ones have since appeared, and some papers are still cited as forthcoming although they appeared many years ago. Obviously a great deal of important work has been and continues to be carried out on sexual behaviors, attendant social relations, and the Greek and Latin vocabularies used to describe them since these articles were written (which often, though perhaps not enough, rely on Krenkel's work), and it would be silly to maintain that Krenkel should have brought all of the material up to date, especially where matters of interpretation or opinion are concerned. Still, however, one can find errors of fact that should not have been allowed to remain in a reprint. Let me single out a few examples.

Regarding the toponymic Greek verb lesbiazein "to perform fellatio," Krenkel is misled (p. 207) by the prejudice, as old as Hesychius, that the verb etymologically means "to act like a woman from Lesbos," while the ancient testimonia rather indicate that the euphemism rather means to act like "a person (i.e. either man or woman, indiscriminately) from Lesbos."3 A small point, true, but perhaps one that may throw light both of the verb itself as well as potential biasses in the glosses of Hesychius. On the next page, Krenkel also incorrectly states that the Greek verb phoinikizein (etymologically, "to act like a Phoenician") also means "to perform fellatio," when it actually means "to perform cunnilingus."4 Again, a point like this matters, not only for lexicographers who collect such things, but because it bears on the interpretation of literary texts; thus, for instance, when we find that a prostitute in Plautus' Pseudolus is named "Phoenicium," (Phoinik-ion) her name does not really imply "Miss Suckly" (as once suggested by W. M. Calder III in CP 70 [1975] p. 147, and quoted with approval by Krenkel p. 208 n. 8), and thereby indicate that fellatio is the special services which she performs for her clients; Plautus is rather openly and constantly advertising the predilections of her rival clients Calidorus (cf. his snivelling in Scene 1) and the Macedonian soldier ("dentatus" [!], v. 1040), and the privileges for which they are all too happy to pay her. (One could perhaps compare the famous fresco from the apodyterium of the terme suburbane in Pompeii, reproduced as fig. 14 in Antonio Varone's Erotica Pompeiana [Rome, 1994], p. 207.)

Again, on strict matters of interpretation Krenkel occasionally goes astray, although here there is naturally more room for disagreement. At one point, for instance, he remarks in passing that Sceparnio in Rudens is a "clever slave," which really isn't accurate; Sceparnio is an agroikos, a clownish rustic or buffoon, closer to the truculent slave in Truculentus or even a Grumio in Mostellaria than a Pseudolus or Tranio. This small point again matters because it might shade how we interpret double entendre that we think we may perceive in his words - and that matters especially since, in my estimation, a number of Krenkel's remarks about double entendre in Roman comedy that appear in his chapter on scopophilia must be treated with caution, since he occasionally relies too much on and adopts with insufficient skepticism some of the fanciful (to put it charitably) interpretations of Ludwig Gurlitt (Erotica Plautina, Munich 1921).

There are doubtless other mistakes or imprecisions here and there; but I have singled these out only because they stood out sharply to me. I want to emphasize that I am nit-picking at a couple of pages of Krenkel's work in pursuit of my own parochial interests and that these few lapses or differences of opinion by no means vitiate his important work in general. On the contrary; his work is a testament to unprejudiced examination of sensitive matters, to rational discourse, and to solid, careful philology.

I salute the author for these valuable contributions and the editors and press for making them conveniently available again.


1.   The maxim of the book's title, naturalia non (sunt) turpia "What is natural is not dirty," is not in this form classical, but cf. Servius on Virgil's Georgics 3.96 turpis non est quia per naturam venit. The maxim is discussed by Renzo Tosi, Dizionario delle sentenze latine e greche. 10,000 citazioni dall' antichità al rinascimento nell' originale e in traduzione con commento storico letterarto e filologico (Biblioteca universale Rizzoli: Milano, 12th ed. 1997), Sect. 119 = p. 54.
2.   These articles are found in fasc. 4, 50-57, and fasc. 6, 49-56, respectively. A few comments about the form of the book can be registered here. Original pagination is unfortunately not indicated. The Greek typeset is so wispy that one almost needs a magnifying glass for help. Typos intrude here and there throughout the book, especially in the English and occasionally in the Greek, but none is seriously detrimental to understanding. On the credit side, there is a nice analytical index rerum at the end, along with 12 reasonably clear photographs of Greek vases. There is no general bibliography. The pages of my review copy appear to have suffered some damage from humidity but I do not know whether this is true of all copies of the book.
3.   That in popular usage the word refers to inhabitants both male and female of Lesbos is proved by scholium V on Aristophanes Ran. 1308, scholia V and R on Aristophanes Vesp. 1346, and Photius Lex. I p. 381 and Suda III p. 252.15, both s.v. lesbisai; cf. also Theopompus fr. 36 K.-A. (On these and other testimonia, see especially H. D. Jocelyn, "A Greek indecency and its students: laikazein," PCPhS n.s. 26 (1980): 12-66, esp. p. 48 n. 66; on p. 207 Krenkel refers to this 27-year old paper as forthcoming). Other citations are ambiguous; Heyschius alone restricts the practice to women performing fellatio (cf. II p. 586 s.v. lesbiazein and II p. 586 lesbisai). These glosses are merely evincing, it would seem, a confusion arising from the ambiguous etymology of the terms lesbizein and lesbiazein. Both verbs can be derived either (1) from the national stem Lesb-ios/-ia/-ion, with the suffixes -izein or -iazein "to manifest the salient characteristics of group x," or (2) from the female ethnic forms Lesbis and Lesbias, both meaning "girl of Lesbos," respectively. While strict philology should support the former interpretation, given the nature of the activity itself (fellatio) we can hardly preclude the possibility of contamination of these forms.
4.   This is correctly stated in the supplement to LSJ s.v.; the evidence can be studied in B. M. Goebel's Ethnica (Warsaw, 1915) p. 86 or in Kroll's article "Lesbische Liebe" in Pauly Wissowa vol. 12 p. 2100.

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