Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.46

Alastair J. L. Blanshard, Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity. Classical Receptions.   Chichester/Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.  Pp. xvi, 219.  ISBN 9781405122917.  $119.95.  

Reviewed by Toni Badnall, Corpus Christi College, Oxford (


This book opens, not with any reference to either vice or love, but with a dictionary definition of the word ‘factoid’: “Something that becomes accepted as fact, although it is not (or may not) be true; spec. an assumption or speculation reported and repeated so often that it is popularly considered true; a simulated or imagined fact” (xi). The ‘factoid’ underpins Blanshard’s volume, which is less about the sex lives of the Greeks and Romans than about the erotic desires that have been projected onto classical antiquity – how the ancient world has been idealised, vilified and fetishised by multiple audiences as the West has manipulated its vocabulary and imagery in an attempt to articulate the discourse of sexuality across a variety of periods. This book is about the sex both ancient and modern writers and artists imagined the Greeks and Romans had, rather than actual lovemaking practices. It shows throughout how the ancient world has become a ‘factoid’ in discussions of sex.

Blanshard’s survey of these discussions is wide-ranging and well-informed. The author aims to contribute to the conversation about the role of sex and sexuality in Western culture (xii), and one can see from his work how discussions of sex have had an impact on and been influenced by references to the classical past as well as their contemporary context. But it is in the field of reception studies that this book is most welcome, for although we possess excellent examinations of ancient sexualities and a variety of studies on the reception of particular genres, texts and authors in particular milieux (e.g. Dover 1978, Foucault 1976-84, Goldhill 1995, Hallett & Skinner 1997, McClure 2002, Langlands 2006), there has hitherto been no attempt to construct an over-arching narrative of the history of ‘ancient’ sexuality. Blanshard’s narrative stretches from the homoerotic poetry of Rufinus in sixth-century Constantinople, to the (often eroticised) sword-and-sandal cinema of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. If detailed discussion has in some places been sacrificed to breadth, the scope of the project is nonetheless commendable.

Critics may find fault with the structure of the book, which is divided into two parts: on ‘Roman vice’ and ‘Greek love’. The first part focalises sex through the (often erroneous) idea of the Roman orgy, and the second through the lens of male homoerotic desire made paradigmatic by Plato. In Part I, Blanshard concentrates on a number of snapshots of classical reception, juxtaposed with ancient antecedents, to emphasise the shock-factor of this aspect of ancient sexuality and its effect on later audiences. Part II represents the longue durée of ‘Greek love’; the lasting love-affair of the West with the chaste, self-improving erôs advocated by the Phaedrus and Symposium and its existence in continual tension with ideas of sodomy and sin.

The placement of the Roman material before the Greek is less problematic than the fact that in focusing so closely on ‘alternative’ sexualities, discussion of ‘normative’ practices, and the ancient works audiences have used to construct these, is elided. One notable example is Blanshard’s discussion of Plutarch’s Amatorius (115-6, 122). Blanshard gives a good account of how ‘Platonic’ pederasty is set against marital love in this dialogue, but by presenting this treatise as a contribution to the idea of Greek love he elides the fact that Plutarch himself seems to promote heterosexual relations and moral improvement in marriage. The same is true of many of the later debates that are mentioned by Blanshard (122-3) as well as that in Achilles Tatius 2.35-8, which is not. The opportunity to see particular ancient models used for opposite ends is one of the most striking features of Blanshard’s book, and could be made more of in sections like this one. Critics must, however, acknowledge that any detailed discussion of the other side of the story would considerably increase the scale of the work. Blanshard sets out to make his work “general and accessible”, to specialist and non-specialist audiences (xvi), and the structure facilitates such accessibility.

The projection of Rome as the home of the orgy is related to its position in ancient and modern thought as a ‘pornotopia’ (p.3, on Nisbet 2009:150), and the introduction to Part I asks how that status was achieved: what aspects of Roman antiquity helped secure its position in the West’s sexual fantasies? The subsequent chapters in this section each explore one element of this fetishisation.

Chapter 2, “Naked Bodies” opens the discussion with attitudes towards ‘classical’ nude statuary in nineteenth-century America – the orgy is thus far absent. Greenough’s ‘pagan’ George Washington is contrasted with Powers’ ‘Christianised’ Greek Slave, to reveal that no matter what iconography is used and what response elicited, sex is never very far away from such depictions. Blanshard then traces a brief history of male and female nude statues in Greece and Rome. Ovid’s story of Pygmalion concludes the section, a story that brings out the potentially dangerous effects of naturalistic depiction in art. Blanshard argues that it was the erotic effects that troubled the audiences of neoclassical statuary in the nineteenth century.

Blanshard remains in this period – which is key for the book – in chapter 3, “Obscene Texts”. Here Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Juvenal’s Sixth Satire form the subject of discussion. This chapter focuses more on one individual’s reception of antiquity, and the text which captivated him, than on society’s reaction to classicism. We see through Juvenal how the image of a sexually permissive Rome came into being, but Blanshard points out that such discourses are part of a flouting of contemporary morality by the poets, rather than a direct reflection of reality (45): Beardsley is employing the factoid of the Roman pornotopia.

Chapter 4, “Erotic rites” moves on to the orgy proper, and the tension between the phallocentricism of nineteenth-century sexological tracts such as Forberg’s De figuris Veneris and the orgiastic illustrations by Paul Avril that accompanied its French translation. This is one of the weaker chapters of the book. Blanshard states that the ancients would have been surprised by the notion that sex was at the centre of orgia (57), and locates these notions in comic exaggerations and paranoid fantasies of women’s activity (58). More could, however, be said about the development of such concerns and their relationship to reality, as well as the discourses that arose around mystery religions in general, especially those which made a claim to egalitarianism (see e.g. Versnel 1990:102-31, Parker 1996:152-98). By making use of Greek material culture, such as the Pedieus Painter’s kylix, it might have been possible to develop a more nuanced view of group sex in the ancient world. The chapter becomes a narrative of pagan and Christian accusation and counter-accusation, a dichotomy which forms another major theme of this work.

Chapter 5, “Imperial Biography”, examines the role of sexuality in constructing narratives about the Imperial family. Cinema’s fascination with the excesses of Nero and their implications for the Empire is well-documented, but the lives of the empresses receive the most attention. The chapter dwells fulsomely on Cleopatra and her status as a symbol of transgressive female sexuality from the Renaissance onwards – she too is a factoid. A double standard is noted in the interpretation of male and female codes of behaviour: whereas the supposedly voracious sexual appetites of royal women stand for the degeneration of the state, those of male rulers could be used to signify their assimilation to the divine. The same actions could be used to castigate an emperor or praise him, a symptom of the ambiguous status of these discourses through the ages.

Ambiguity is the order of the day in Part II, which takes its cue from the Wilde trial and locates the formation of nineteenth-century male homosexual discourse in the culture of ancient Greece, particularly the texts of Plato. Its introduction stresses the critical moment provided by the nineteenth century for such a formulation, when law, public morality, and the status and nature of the homosexual were being thrashed out in courtroom drama (93), and this era is never far from view in this section.

Chapter 7, “Greece”, straightforwardly distinguishes pederasty as practiced by the Greeks from Platonic love, and sets out the discourses on erôs formulated in the Phaedrus and Symposium. It is clear that Platonic love is radically different from contemporary practice, but one is left with the question: how did the love articulated in these treatises emerge as the factoid of Greek love, and constantly come to underwrite homoerotic discourse for the next two and a half millennia?

Chapter 8, “Rome and the West”, presents Greek love as an erôs that came to transcend one’s own ethnicity (110) when it was assimilated into the indigenous homosexual discourse of Rome. The ‘pederasty vs. marriage’ debates of Plutarch and Pseudo-Lucian are held to contribute to this discourse, but under the influence of Christianity it took on notions of sin, uncleanliness and illegality (119), and these elements characterise medieval writing on the subject. Blanshard suggests that Christian writers such as Clement of Alexandria were responsible for problematising same-sex relations (117), but it should be noted that such problems were already an inherent part of the discourse (even in Plato: Phdr. 235e-236a, Symp.181d-e), and a discussion of Augustan marriage legislation and its effect on ‘timeless’ Greek love would also have been welcome in this section.

Moving on from the medieval period, chapter 9, “Renaissance and Enlightenment”, is perhaps the most fascinating. It relates a Florentine academic debate between Platonist Basilios Bessarion and Aristotelian George of Trebizond, in which the status of Greek love and Plato himself is at stake. Though Bessarion’s student Ficino appears to have carried the day in providing an exegetical and allegorical interpretation for Greek love (128), and such elevating erôs for beautiful boys is everywhere in the artwork of the Renaissance, an ambivalent attitude towards homosexuality remains characteristic of the work of Voltaire and Enlightenment authors. The adoption of “heroic” Greek love (140) in the face of discourse on sodomy becomes the marker of a romantic counter-culture, while the use of such a model by Joachim Winckelmann comes to be an essential part of the critical vocabulary of art history and to form a bridge between this era and the nineteenth century.

This century, looking back both to the Renaissance (as the foundational period for European culture) and to Plato (for a model of Greek love) is the focus of the final chapter, “Nineteenth century and beyond”. Here Jowett’s reforms of the Oxford Greats syllabus to include Plato (but pass over its homoerotic aspects) is in tension with the activities of his ‘Uranian circles’ of students, and the role of Hellenism as an educative force again comes under fire from moralistic critics. It is regrettable that the parallel of ‘Sapphic love’ is dealt with only briefly at the end of this chapter, serving as the ground for, on the one hand, the erotic self-identification of figures such as Queen Christina of Sweden; and on the other the accusation of tribadism (like that of sodomy in the Wilde trial) overshadowing the trial of the notorious Marie Antoinette. The ghastly description of the fate of the French queen’s intimate, the Princesse de Lamballe, is a poignant reminder of what may be at stake when classical paradigms are manipulated for political ends.

This book is enjoyable and informative. There is some stilted sentence structure (esp. 65: “His relationship with the latter ending in allegations...” and similar throughout). The text-boxes in each chapter add to its accessibility to a general readership, but also offer some interpretation of their particular focal points. It would be of especial interest to students of reception studies and the history of sexuality, but there is also much material that is useful to the classical scholar.

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