Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.09.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.09.06

Thomas K. Hubbard (ed.), A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Literature and culture.   Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.  Pp. xxvii, 651.  ISBN 9781405195720.  $195.00.  

Reviewed by Alexandra Eppinger, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz (


The latest addition to the Blackwell Companion to the Ancient World-series, A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, provides a timely and extensive survey of phenomena pertaining to sexuality in ancient Greece and Rome (without, however, defining “sexuality” in the context of Classics1). The intention as stated in the editor’s foreword is to synthesize the work that has been done on Graeco-Roman sexualities over the past quarter century by collecting 37 essays by international scholars on a wide range of topics within the field, thereby opening up new lines of research for future scholarship. However, it is important to emphasize, as Hubbard himself does, that the papers are primarily concerned with sexuality, not with issues of gender (though gender is touched upon in several essays where necessary, as, for example, in chapters 1 and 9). Therefore, anything that would have been classified as gender-deviant according to ancient norms is mentioned only rarely and in passing; accordingly, there are no chapters on, for example, cinaedi, eunuchs or hermaphrodites.

Greece and Rome are not dealt with separately; rather, each chapter covers both cultures, as far as the subject matter allows, aiming at delineating continuities and differences and thereby offering valuable opportunities for comparison between the Greek and Roman perspective on things, though the room given to Greece and Rome respectively is sometimes unequal. Thomas Hubbard, for example, regrettably only devotes less than one page to Rome in his contribution on peer homosexuality, without taking into account the work Craig Williams has done on the subject (p. 146).2

The range of topics covered is impressive, as even a casual look into the Table of Contents will reveal. However, it might have been useful for the reader to group chapters dealing with similar subjects (such as, e.g., “Literature”) together under one heading, thus subdividing the mass of material into several larger sections. The chapters are arranged in a mixture of chronological and thematic grouping. Chapters 19-23, for example, cover sexuality in different genres of poetry, while the last four chapters (34-37) deal chronologically with the early modern era, Romanticism, the late 19th/early 20th century and our own times, without any real thematic cohesion.

The scope of source material analysed is vast, with some essays exclusively dealing with literary texts or works of art, and others incorporating different kinds of evidence; accordingly, the range of methodological approaches is equally broad, varying from the philological to the art historical. There are interesting paragraphs on matters other than sexuality proper: Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell’s paper on “Desirability and the Body” (chapter 3), for example, deals less with sexuality than ancient ideals of the body and theories of vision, thereby providing a valuable background for other papers.

Each chapter starts with a short introduction to the subject, describing problems of evidence, interpretation and/or modern scholarship, and concludes with a Guide to further Reading and a list—of varying length and comprehensiveness —of up-to-date References, primarily in English, which offer the reader a helpful starting point for further inquiries. Regrettably, not every paper provides a conclusion, or even some concluding remarks; several essays (e.g. chapters 8, 11, 15, 28) end rather abruptly where a short summary would have been desirable.

Since BMCR space constraints make it impossible to do justice to all papers, most of which are highly interesting and thought-provoking, the reviewer will only consider some contributions that are of particular interest to her.

In what she herself recognizes as a “politically generous gesture”, the book opens with Marilyn Skinner providing a succinct survey of feminist theory on ancient sexualities, with the aim of overcoming the “sexuality wars of the 1990’s” between “feminists and Foucauldians”, as this clash of scholarly stances is commonly presented (p. 1). Mark Masterson goes on to outline the ongoing need to study ancient masculinity, emphasizing the necessity of recognizing that presenting the norms of ancient masculinity leaves half of the work undone: considering and speculating on deviations from these norms (“dissidence”) is just as important (p. 17). Kirk Ormand presents a useful summing-up of the influence that Foucault’s History of Sexuality has had on the field of Classics, outlining his main arguments as well as scholarly, mainly feminist criticism of the Foucauldian approach, and focusing on refuting the ideas put forward in James Davidson’s 2007 book The Greeks and Greek Love.

Thomas McGinn’s essay on prostitution provides a valuable overview of current discussions on the subject, developing his own arguments at the same time as commenting on some of the views currently held by other scholars, namely Edward Cohen (who offers a highly interesting chapter on the erotic experience of slaves, emphasizing the role of prostitution, in chapter 11 of the present volume), whose arguments for the acceptance and free practice of prostitution without social stigmatization in Athens he carefully scrutinises. The paragraph on Athens is therefore of particular value to anyone taking an interest in prostitution and the ways it was integrated into Athenian society and economy, with McGinn focusing on laws concerning prostitution in its social context. One point where he differs from Cohen is that he can see no proof for the assertion, based on the ability to make agreements, that “a prostitute often enjoyed esteem as a practitioner of a ‘liberal profession’” (p. 88). Rather, he argues that contracts between prostitutes and their clients were designed to protect the clients, who might still be liable on a charge of hybris if their actions exceeded the limits set down in the contract.

In his paper on sexuality in military contexts, David Leitao offers a broad overview of the problems and opportunities faced by Greek and Roman soldiers where sexuality was concerned. He starts with two paragraphs contrasting the soldier’s situation at home, where his sexual behaviour coincided with that of his civilian compatriots, with his service abroad, where soldiers would not have brought wives or girlfriends along, but would have relied on their male and female slaves as well as camp followers and local women to satisfy their urges. Leitao contrasts the Greek military experience, where the sources offer hints of paederastic relationships between soldiers (though there is no proof for sex between adults), with Rome, where the literary evidence highlights the “anxiety about the bodily integrity of any soldier, particularly the young one” (p. 235), which, if compromised, might endanger the military readiness. Leitao disagrees with Richlin and Williams in that he sees no evidence for “pathics” (cinaedi ) serving in the Roman army, owing to the fact that a Roman soldier must be inviolate, and argues convincingly that a cinaedus / impudicus would have been considered unfit for military service, which is not to say that sex between soldiers did not, in fact, occur in the Roman army. Leitao concludes with a few remarks on the problematisation of the sexual use of prisoners of war in antiquity: while the Greeks, employing a double standard, disapproved of the sexual mistreatment of Greek captives by “barbarians”, the sexual use of captives by Greeks was, from the days of Homer onwards, generally accepted. The Romans did not condone sexual violence against citizens in a civil war setting, but neither did they approve of sexually mistreating provincials, which might lead to political instability as in the case of the daughters of Boudicca.

Joseph Roisman’s chapter on ethnosexuality analyses Greek and Roman preconceptions of other people’s sexual mores and conduct, for which the state of the evidence is less than satisfactory. Emphasizing the danger of “cherry picking” from the sources—something to be kept in mind for many areas of ancient sexuality—Roisman cites the almost complete lack of artistic evidence and the limited reliability of written accounts, which are rarely based on autopsy; neither Greek nor Roman writers seem to have had an active interest in “alien” sexuality. Roisman also, importantly, warns against the common practise of overburdening the ancient evidence with modern theory, which, at least in the case of ethnosexuality, is shown to be problematic, because it is inconsistent with the evidence (Roisman cites the alleged “continuum” of “barbarian promiscuity” in Herodotus: p. 400). Among the alien practices as depicted in the sources, Roisman describes the sharing of women and public sex, as, supposedly, practised by the Etruscans, and the stereotype of the lustful barbarian, especially beloved of Roman writers. The important conclusion is that, though biased, ancient authors also were often non-judgemental about alien sexual practices, and indeed provide us with sometimes accurate information on foreign sexuality.

The collection concludes with four contributions on later appropriations of ancient sexual topoi, dealing with many sources that are likely to prove new to the average classicist (e.g. Uranian poetry in chapter 35). While Alastair Blanshard surveys the time from the Renaissance to the early 19th century (chapter 34), Michael Kaylor analyses the 19th century’s Romantics and Uranians. His incorporation of ancient sources, however, is problematic, since he appears to ignore the underlying discourses, for example citing Elagabal’s practise “of a stylized group-sex that outrivaled Tiberius’ exploits on Capri” and promotion of “what is today termed ‘gay marriage’” (p. 595) without qualifications. The penultimate chapter deals with the first homophile publications in Germany in the later 19th and early 20th century, which routinely used classical texts as a means of legitimization. The Companion closes with Monica Cyrino’s entertaining analysis of the presentation of sex in historical films and television, with a special focus on the classics of the genre like Spartacus with its infamous “oysters and snails” scene, and the recent television series Rome and Spartacus with their explicit depictions of “deviances” such as sex in front of other people and even incest – the constant being, according to Cyrino, the corruption of the Roman power elite.

There are a number of typos (p. 407: Orisnes; p. 415: Geschicte; Gesclechterrollen), word omissions (p. 54: but in order realize; p. 465: Alciphron has courtesan Lamia address; p. 575: Geschichte der Kunst Altertums), or superfluous words (p. 49: Augustus of the Prima Porta [the place name is spelled, inconsistently, Primaporta on p. 455]; p. 410: another story…involves of the Carthaginian Sophonisba), but they do not adversely affect understanding. More serious are baffling errors like claiming C. Marius as a dictator (p. 25), which he never was, and identifying the well-known sarcophagus of L. Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, bearing the inscriptions CIL I2 6-7, as a “stele” (p. 22). Where necessary, illustrations have been included to facilitate understanding, though the quality of some of them leaves something to be desired: some images are too dark (p. 133 fig. 8.3) or small (p. 251 fig. 15.2 a-b) to make out details. However, museums and inventory numbers are given in the captions, so looking them up, if necessary, should not pose a major problem. There is an Index of Ancient Works Cited, which will prove useful for people checking if a particular text they are interested in is covered in one of the chapters of the book, as well as a shorter General Index covering the central matters.

Thanks to its wide scope, the collection of papers is guaranteed to appeal to beginners in the field of ancient sexuality as well as to specialists, who will find many details which are new to them. The Companion should also prove useful in teaching courses on issues of ancient sex and sexuality, since it assembles up-to-date, authoritative, well-written treatments of key aspects by noted experts. Its particular value lies in the diversity of the evidence presented and the breadth of the questions asked of the sources.


1.   On the problem of defining “sexuality” see D. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and other essays in Greek Love, New York – London 1990, 24-27.
2.   See C.A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality, Oxford 2 2010, 84-93.

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