Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.01.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.01.26

Daniel Orrells, Sex: Antiquity and its Legacy. Ancients and moderns.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015.  Pp. x, 246.  ISBN 9780195380934.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Rosario Moreno Soldevila, Universidad Pablo de Olavide de Sevilla (


Despite its straightforward title, this book is not about ancient sex or sexual ideas and practices and their influence in modern society, but rather about language: it explores how the Latin language and ancient texts came to be crucial for the development of a scientific approach to sex and, ultimately, of sexology as a medical/psychiatric science. Orrells offers a clear introduction on what the reader should and should not expect from this work: taking Foucault’s Histoire de la sexualité as a starting point, the author clarifies that he will neither argue against the idea of a historical continuity between ancient and contemporary notions about sex nor offer a history of the classical tradition in broad terms; instead, he will examine “how the appropriation of certain classical texts facilitated and helped to authorise the modern medical systematisation of sexuality” (p. 8). Orrells invites the reader to travel from Antonio Beccadelli’s Hermaphroditus in the fifteenth century to Freud’s classical mythology of sexual desire, dwelling on six moments of this fascinating history.

The first part of the book (Chapters I-III) addresses the questions of how Latin became “the authoritative language of the science of sex” and how the Latin sexual vocabulary helped to develop sexology as a science. Chapter I (“Sex, Latin and Renaissance Humanism: ‘A Precious Stone in a Pile of Dung’”) tackles Beccadelli’s motivations for writing Hermaphroditus, a collection of erotic epigrams inspired by Martial and Catullus, and the reactions of his contemporaries to such a controversial and provocative work, which explored the difficulties and complexities of reading and writing epigrams about sex in Latin.

While this chapter deals with male authority, the following one (chapter II: “The Satyra Sotadica and the Erotics of Latinity”) starts by describing both male concerns about women interpreting ancient texts and the questioning of male-centered humanism in sixteenth century Europe. This was the breeding ground for Nicolas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica de Arcanis Amoris et Veneris, a seventeenth-century sexual-fantasy dialogue in which an educated woman, Tullia, instructs her cousin Octavia in the arts of sex. Chorier’s dialogue addressed male concerns about women’s instruction in classical texts, further dwelling on the idea of Latin as an authoritative language for knowing and writing about sex. The name of one of the protagonists recalls Tullia D’Aragona, author of the Dialogue on the Infinity of Love, published in 1547, but this is not the only way in which Chorier plays with the ideas of authority, sex and gender: the Satyra Sotadica appeared as a Latin translation by a Dutch scholar of a Spanish dialogue written by the sixteenth-century Spanish humanist Luisa Sigea, another woman; but both the translation and the original are Chorier’s invention, a trompe l’oeil pointing at the relevance of Latin as the language for sex, as well as the concept of authority, and male concerns about women’s classical education and their consequent empowerment. This chapter aptly analyses the re-use of classical texts (Virgil, Ovid, Ausonius) in the dialogue; yet curiously it fails to explain its title, an allusion to the Alexandrinian poet Sotades of Maroneia,1, “an obscure figure who is credited with the invention of cinaedic poetry, mime-like verses written for performance in the persona of an effeminate homosexual.” He was also, in Kathryn Gutzwiller's words, the first to compose poetry of literary quality in the so-called sotadean metre, a line-by-line ionic verse used for scurrilous mockery”.2 In his epigram 2.86, Martial defends the simplicity of his poetry, stating that he does not write Sotadean verses that can be read backwards (2.86.2 nec retro lego Sotadem cinaedum), the implication being that lines of this kind acquired an erotic meaning when read backwards. The title of Chorier’s dialogue itself—together with Martial’s intertext—provides the framework for the fictitious Tullia’s reinterpreting of classical texts: in the same way as the Sotadem cinaedum acquires a sexual meaning when read backwards, “[when] read by Women, the Latin language incites—creates—sexual desire” (Orrells, p. 60).

Both Beccadelli’s and Chorier’s works converged into Forberg’s famous 1824 edition of the Hermaphroditus and his explanatory essay known as De figuris Veneris, in which he extensively quotes from ancient and modern writers and works including the Satyra Sotadica. This is the link between Chapters I and II and Chapter III (“Sexual Enlightenment? From Archaeology to Science”), which begins by surveying eighteenth-century interest in ancient phallic worship as well as in collecting erotica and anthologizing Latin epigrams, which paved the way for the creation of “a fully institutionalised Sexualwissenschaft, the scientific study of sex” (p. 73). In his essay, “Forberg organised the references to sex scattered across ancient and early-modern Greek and Latin texts”, turning “the language of Latin epigram into something approaching a lexicon for clarifying sexual practice” (p. 80). His work influenced other scientists, such as the medical historian Julius Rosembaum, who in 1839 published his work Die Lustseuche im Alterthume, a work on the classical origins of venereal diseases. As opposed to Forberg’s scientific approach, Rosembaum’s taxonomy aimed at “frightening its readers from sexual contact” (p. 84). The final step of the story of the nineteenth-century creation of a scientific language and taxonomy of sex based on the Latin language is the publication of Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886. The work, written in Latin, analyses sexual perversions with a technical approach, but it also includes extensive autobiographical accounts written by correspondents, conveniently translated into Latin, a combination that accounts for the blurring of linguistic registers: that is, the incongruous mixing of technical terms and slang. This, together with the evolution of the author towards the “perverts” he intended to cure, and his progressively more compassionate approach in each subsequent edition, eventually deprives Kraft-Ebbing’s Latin of “an aura of scientific professionalism”: his Latin rather reflects the uncertainties of the fin de siècle (p. 97).

The second part of the book turns to Greece, starting with the figure of John Addington Symonds (a contemporary of Kraft-Ebbing’s), who focused on Greek love between men as a way to gain insight into his own feelings and to reflect on the necessity of a more understanding science of sex (Chapter IV: “Sexology, Historicism and Ancient Greece”). Chapter V (“From the Tribad to Sappho") relates to the first chapters, which dealt with the access of women to knowledge as something to be feared in the Renaissance and the seventeenth century. At the end of the nineteenth century, the entrance of women to universities was not well received by men, especially in the field of classical scholarship. This chapter deals with female same-sex sexuality in antiquity and its reception, together with the issues of women in higher education and their access to Greek culture, since “knowing about same-sex sexuality intersected with the theme of women’s access to knowledge” (p. 134). Against the image of the “tribad” as a degenerate inversion of male sexuality, the nineteenth century constructed a pious version of Sappho, and even male writers appropriated her voice. Conversely, the chapter is rounded off with the story of two women, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who adopted the voice of Sappho in their poetry written under a male pseudonym. Bradley and Cooper were aunt and niece, lovers and classicists: in their work they questioned the male appropriation of Sappho’s voice and reflected on the varied and complex nature of female homosexuality. The final chapter is devoted to Freud (“Freud’s Classical Mythology”). According to Orrells, this final section resumes three topics already discussed in previous chapters: 1) the questioning of whether the historical discourse was the best way to understand sexuality (Freud resorts to “prehistory”, using the metaphor of “excavation”, taken from archaeology); 2) the collection and anthologizing of sexual pleasures, dealt with in chapter III; 3) the battle of the sexes for authority in sexual desire, here in the form of the battle with the “phallic mother”.

The book is completed with a “Further reading” section and “Notes”, as well as a useful “Index”. The editing has been careful and typos are seldom spotted.3 In sum, this is a very illustrative and coherent work, which focuses on the centrality of Latin and Greek texts in the creation of a scientific language of sex, but also explores the tensions between all these—sometimes discordant—voices. The train of thought might be at times slippery for the uninformed reader, since the topics discussed require a sound knowledge of the texts and ideas of sex in Antiquity, as well as of (early) modern intellectual history.4 Orrells tries, therefore, to find a balance in order to cater for a wide readership, offering as many explanations as required, translations, biographical and historical information, and summaries, as well as signposting the links between the different parts of his book and, hence, of the authors, works, and ideas discussed within. This tendency to recapitulation and repetition can be burdensome at some points, often hindering fluent reading, but it clearly serves the purpose of gently guiding the general reader through the maze of ideas the book unravels. All in all, Sex: Antiquity and its Legacy is an informative and worthwhile read, full of insight and acuity.5


1.   A. J. L. Blanshard, “The Early Modern Erotic Imagination”, in T. J. Hubbard (ed.) A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, Chichester, 2014, p. 569.
2.   K. J. Gutzwiller, A Guide to Hellenistic Literature, Oxford, 2007, p. 135.
3.   Foucuault (p. 3), ancent (p. 110).
4.   The wide variety of materials used leads the author to occasional inaccuracies: for instance, the suggestion that Martial could freely lampoon real people during the Saturnalia is both inaccurate and simplistic (p. 77). Also, the word tribas does not appear in the second century CE, as Orrells states (p. 130, p. 140), but rather in the first century, since Martial uses the term in Book VII of his Epigrams.
5.   Thanks are due to Daniel Nisa for revising the English version of this review and to the Spanish MICINN (FFI2014-56798-P) for its financial support.

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