Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.28

Mark Golden, Peter Toohey (ed.), A Cultural History of Sexuality, Volume 1: A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Classical World.   Oxford/New York:  Berg, 2011.  Pp. xiv, 342.  ISBN 9781847888006.  $550.00 (six-volume series).  

Reviewed by Marilyn B. Skinner, University of Arizona (

This is the initial volume of a six-part series surveying “changes in sexual attitudes and behavior throughout history” (vii) from antiquity to the present—though the series, as the separate titles indicate, is Eurocentric and deals almost exclusively with the Western world. Julie Peakman, the series editor, informs us that each volume follows the same basic structure and employs the same key headings: heterosexuality, homosexuality, sexual variations, religion and the law, medicine and disease, popular beliefs and culture, prostitution, and erotica. That uniformity would allow someone interested in a particular topic, say “homosexuality,” to follow its development diachronically through major historical periods.

Immediately a student of ancient sexuality spots a problem. Since Foucault, most agree that sexuality in antiquity was organized differently than it is in the contemporary West. Even someone hostile to the Dover-Foucault “penetration model” has to concede that classification of activities according to the sex of the partner, “heterosexual” versus “homosexual,” makes little sense when speaking of a society that groups boys and women together as legitimate objects of penetration. Comparison with another six-volume series in the same Berg Cultural Studies catalog, A Cultural History of the Human Body (2010), reinforces my point. Although cultures modify particular features like hair or skin ornamentation, the form of the human body remains the same across races and ethnicities. Because authors can take that corporeal substrate for granted, shifts in notional construction of the body over time can be addressed using the same set of rubrics. This is not true of an abstract concept like sexuality, where even the most fundamental postulate, the existence of a biologically determined physical drive, is itself disputed. By imposing one set of headings upon all the volumes in the series, this history of sexuality implicitly posits an essentialist morphology. It begs the very question it should set out to answer.

The contributors to the present volume are all well-known for their expertise on ancient sexuality. Several warn that the categories they use are inadequate. Thus Holt Parker begins his essay “Sex, Popular Beliefs, and Culture” by observing: “In some ways this chapter ought to be blank. We scan the records of antiquity in vain for traces of a distinct, autonomous area of sexual beliefs, practices, or classifications we can label ‘popular’” (125). Similarly, John R. Clarke, writing on “Erotica,” questions the applicability of that term: the formation of “secret museum” collections shows that it is a modern invention superimposed upon an array of objects originally intended for diverse purposes, none necessarily obscene or pornographic (170–2).

Difficulties might have been tempered if the volume editors, Mark Golden and Peter Toohey, had written a theoretical introduction walking readers through the essential differences between ancient and modern constructions of sex. Unfortunately, their chapter is basically descriptive and oversimplifies complex issues. Using the Deception of Zeus in Iliad 14 as a paradigm, they start out with an upbeat presentation of ancient attitudes toward sex: though regarded as a powerful force, it is largely a positive, albeit tricky, experience and “a lot of fun” (2). That characterization seems overly reductionist; perhaps Golden and Toohey are trying too hard to make undergraduate readers more comfortable with the ancient world. Next, they warn that some ostensible similarities between ancient culture and ours may be deceptive, but do not set their examples within any larger frame. Connections between desire and danger are only briefly noted. In probably the most informative section of the chapter, the editors then locate sexuality upon several hierarchical grids—politics, gender, age, and status. They finish by surveying links between sexuality and humor. We are given, in effect, a number of snapshots but no clue to overall context. Further explanation is left to individual contributors. Consequently, we do not encounter any assessment of essentialist and cultural-constructionist approaches to ancient sexuality until Clarke’s contribution (169–70), which is far too late1.

In the second chapter, Susan Lape gamely struggles with the task of summarizing heterosexuality in antiquity. She acknowledges that this was not a category of self-identity in the classical world (nor an indigenous category of behavior, one might add), emphasizing that heterosexuality was, on the other hand, embedded in other social groupings, such as kinship, that it helped to constitute (17). Had she focused throughout on the theme of heterosexuality within marriage and its corollary, the production of children, this would have been a better contribution. Instead, though, Lape digresses into prostitution, rape, medicine, and the Augustan legislation. All of these issues are germane to promoting and policing heterosexuality, but they are also handled by other authors in the volume.

Here and elsewhere, then, the editors permit too much overlap, even when the material is being approached from different perspectives. After Lape has spent seven pages (28–35) on the Augustan marriage laws, Esther Eidinow cannot say much more (99–101). Both Eidenow (91) and Alison Glazebrook (156) examine the same passage in Diniarchus, one in the context of rape or hybris and the other in that of prostitution. Likewise, Glazebrook (152) and Clarke (180–1) discuss the lupinar at Pompeii, the former concentrating on its location and architecture, the latter on its paintings. Each of those twofold accounts would work better as a unit. Lape (19–20) draws a real economic and behavioral division between the hetaira and the porne, while Glazebrook (147–8) thinks the difference in terminology simply one of tone. Cross-references are needed. After submitting initial drafts, contributors should have been asked to prune repeated information.

Next, Daniel Ogden provides a systematic and evenhanded treatment of homosexuality. For Greek males, he begins with the Dover-Foucault model of Athenian pederastic culture, describes evidential anomalies and scholarly challenges, and ends by noting that in other Greek communities the usual model involved bonding between fellow-soldiers. He employs erastês-erômenos terminology for such couples, which is probably correct, but does not consider the possibility of coeval pairs beyond noting that, to serve in the army, both partners had to be adults. Treatment of Greek female homoeroticism predictably centers on Alcman and Sappho. Ogden differentiates Roman male ideology from Greek chiefly by its greater ambivalence about pederasty and its tendency to use explicit language of penetration in verbal abuse. Lastly, he analyzes the stereotype of the tribas and contrasts it with two instances of curse tablets expressing female desire for another woman. My only reservation is that this otherwise praiseworthy essay does not engage with James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love (2007). Ogden explains that his chapter was written prior to publication of Davidson’s work, but it is appearing in print fully four years later. Surely a sentence or two could have been inserted at copyedit stage?

Chapters by Eidinow on religion and law, Helen King on medicine, and Glazebrook on prostitution offer specialist overviews of more restricted topics. Eidinow’s study complements that of Lape in providing a more detailed account of why Greek and Roman societies regulated sexual behavior and what sanctions they applied. She argues that laws in both Greece and Rome gradually move away from disciplining the individual body toward a more far-reaching concern with safeguarding the population as a whole through regulation of the effects of biological processes (89, 103–6). King examines a number of interconnected medical issues: sex as recommended therapy for females; the function of sex in keeping bodily fluids and temperatures in balance; Hippocratic theories of female seed; therapeutic masturbation; sexual disorders in women and men; aphrodisiacs and abortifacients; desire and lovesickness. As one might expect, hers is a marvelously learned and sophisticated analysis. In Hellenic studies, Glazebrook argues, preoccupation with the glamorous figure of the hetaira and the scandal of sacred prostitution has distracted scholars from the Realia of prostitutes’ lives, which she seeks to recover. Scarcity of evidence forces her to generalize from few examples: Neaira turns up repeatedly. All three of these chapters are informative, though, and they nicely situate their topics within the broader cultural picture.

This leaves three chapters for marginalized areas: John Younger on sexual variations; Parker on popular beliefs; and Clarke on erotica. I remarked above that Parker and Clarke find their assignments limiting if not misleading. Both therefore redefine the subject. Parker demonstrates that the term “popular culture,” originating as it does with the Industrial Revolution, is not applicable to precapitalist societies because it presupposes modern class structures. Citing Bourdieu, he redefines “popular culture” as “the productions of those without cultural capital” (128) and thus unauthorized to speak. He then identifies three levels of discourse: unauthorized utterance; authorized utterance seeking a wide audience; and elites speaking to elites. Examples indicate that “the public ideology of sex was remarkably similar across all three levels of discourse”—in other words, there was no distinct sphere of sexual understanding among the common people. Clarke restricts the category of “erotica” to visual representations, but still musters enough data to establish his thesis: labeling ancient artifacts “pornographic” takes them at face value and evaluates them by contemporary standards of morality. Representations of copulation, of sexually aroused pygmies or hunchbacks, or of the oversized, disembodied phallus must be viewed as expressions of an ancient sensibility that turned to such images for apotropaic protection or amusement.

In contrast, Younger’s chapter, which he subtitles “Sexual Peculiarities of the Ancient Greeks and Romans,” is chiefly a catalogue of odd anecdotal items, often without explanatory context and with very little regard for Greek or Roman cultural specificity. He confides at the outset that he will “leave it to the reader to identify the peculiar,” which invites ill-informed speculation. Sometimes it appears that Younger has not consulted the most recent or reliable accounts. For example, he paraphrases ancient sources on temple prostitution at titillating length, only to hint, finally, that they may not after all be factual (58–9). Nowhere does he cite Budin, who debunks the myth thoroughly. (Glazebook, on the contrary, is refreshingly skeptical.) Discussing Cicero’s use of sexual innuendo, he makes the orator accuse “Sextus Clodius” of performing cunnilingus “on menstruating women.” First, only one woman was (allegedly) involved, Publius Clodius’ sister Clodia Metelli, and, second, Shackleton Bailey proved fifty years ago that the man’s gentile name was “Cloelius,” not “Clodius”2. Quibbling aside, I am concerned about scholarly responsibility to students. Those of us who teach undergraduate courses in ancient sexuality and gender have enough of a job correcting erroneous and sensationalist impressions conveyed by the media; our own colleagues shouldn’t be adding to the burden.

Summing up, I find this book disappointing. The contributors are not to blame; for the most part, they produce sound, even elegant, digests of current scholarship. However, the framework imposed upon the series is incompatible with the sexual protocols of antiquity; someone should have advised the series editor of that fact. I must also fault the volume editors, who did not supply the preliminary explanations required or exert enough control to insure tight coherence and lack of redundancy. I have only glanced at the other volumes in this series and do not have enough knowledge of later historical periods to evaluate their contents properly. But in an era of shrinking library budgets, just one volume as weak as this should be enough to discourage institutions from purchasing the set.

Table of Contents

1. “Introduction”: Mark Golden and Peter Toohey
2. “Heterosexuality”: Susan Lape
3. “Homosexuality”: Daniel Ogden
4. “Sexual Variations: Sexual Peculiarities of the Ancient Greeks and Romans”: John Younger
5. “Sex, Religion, and the Law”: Esther Eidinow
6. “Sex, Medicine, and Disease”: Helen King
7. “Sex, Popular Beliefs, and Culture”: Holt Parker
8. “Prostitution”: Allison Glazebrook
9. “Erotica: Visual Representation of Greek and Roman Sexual Culture”: John R. Clarke


1.   Peakman’s opening essay in the volume she herself edited, A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Enlightenment, offers a far more workable model for an introductory chapter, since it carefully situates each of the eight subtopics within the context of eighteenth-century European thought, drawing informative cross-cultural parallels with non-European societies such as Japan.
2.   D. R. Shackleton Bailey, “Sex. Clodius—Sex. Cloelius,” CQ n.s. 10 (1960) 41–42.

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