Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.07.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.07.19

Alex C. Purves (ed.), Touch and the Ancient Senses. The senses in antiquity.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2017.  Pp. 230.  ISBN 9781844658725.  $39.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kenneth Silverman, University of Florida, Gainesville (

[Authors and chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.]

There is a growing interest in classical studies in the topic of sense experience, partly due to a broader effort in the humanities to interact with neuroscience and the study of consciousness. Touch and the Ancient Senses provides a useful introduction to this changing area of the field. This is the fifth volume in the Senses in Antiquity series, which devotes an installment to each of the five senses1 as well as one to "synaesthesia." The contributors present a synthesis of a great variety of sources in both the humanities and the sciences, represented in a bibliography spanning over three centuries of scholarship, criticism and research. There are eleven chapters by different authors and an introduction by Alex Purves, on topics including literary studies, art history and criticism, philosophy, theology and history of medicine. Perhaps the only shortcoming of this volume is that it could have devoted more attention to reconstructing physical experiences in antiquity—e.g., the texture of the fabrics people wore, of the materials they used on a daily basis, etc. Instead, the emphasis of the contributions is usually more on literary analysis. Nevertheless, this study is often fascinating and it contains many seeds for further discussion.

The first two chapters concern Homer and tragedy. "Hands Know the Truth: Touch in Euryclea’s Recognition of Odysseus," by Silvia Montiglio, offers subtle insights into the famous passage in Odyssey 19 where Odysseus’ elderly nurse discovers his identity while trying to bathe him. There is a close, visceral sympathy between Odysseus and the woman who nursed him as a child, represented in the moment where she touches the scar and immediately experiences the shock of recognition. Montiglio closes the chapter with Pacuvius’ treatment of this scene and an interesting point about how epic narrative techniques are different from those of drama. On stage, it becomes more important to describe tactile details, since while the audience can see Odysseus with Euryclea, they cannot feel what she is feeling. In the following chapter, "Touch, Proximity, and the Aesthetics of Pain," Nancy Worman builds on a similar observation in her reading of passages from Sophocles,2 although she steers the analysis into more complicated and challenging territory. Some of her commentary concerns a kind of strange male exhibitionism in tragedy, where the hero indulges in showing off his own or another’s wounded body, while the female characters want to "recoil"3 from it.

The next two chapters are devoted to Aristotle and Lucretius, respectively—an interesting pairing, since there are both great differences and important areas of agreement between Aristotelian and Epicurean psychology.4 Rebecca Goldner’s "Aristotle and the Priority of Touch" addresses the philosopher’s difficulty accounting for touch: both in identifying its organ (flesh, or something else?) and its medium, and in noticing that it does not correspond to one category of sensible qualities.5 Whereas Goldner’s chapter reviews several of Aristotle’s texts, David Sedley’s "The Duality of Touch" focuses on a single passage of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura Book 2, and one sentence especially (tactus enim, tactus, pro divum numina sancta, / corporis est sensus [2.434-5]). Sedley interprets these verses in the context of a Hellenistic debate about the existence of two modes of touch—an "outer" one, resulting from external stimuli, and an "inner" one, resulting in an awareness of one’s perceptual states. He argues that Lucretius’ passage implies a similar distinction (in part by suggesting that the second tactus is genitive), although he also notes that "inner touch" had a more limited definition for the Epicureans than for the Cyrenaics. The chapter is valuable for its philological insights, especially in noticing that this line (tactus enim, tactus...) may be a direct translation of a sentence of Epicurus (since such exclamatory oaths as pro numina divum were a quirk of Epicurus’ style). It is useful to keep in mind that some of the ambiguities of Lucretius’ language (e.g., recognizing a genitive in a phrase like omnis natura) would become more recognizable in light of the Epicurean original (hē tou pantos phusis).6

The next two chapters concern art history and eighteenth century aesthetic philosophy. Verity Platt and Michael Squire ("Getting to Grips with Classical Art: Rethinking the Haptics of Graeco-Roman Visual Culture," ch. 5) meditate on a series of art objects alongside examples from literature (particularly Ovid’s Pygmalion story and Poseidippus’ lapidary poems). There is a useful discussion of carved gemstones, which more than any other art object have to be handled to be appreciated,7 and which gave the philosophers one of their most important metaphors—the sensory "impression."8 Helen Slaney’s "In the Body of the Beholder: Herder’s Aesthetics and Classical Sculpture," on the role of classical sculpture in German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder’s aesthetic writings, is fascinating, especially in making connections to neuroscience and developmental psychology. Slaney focuses on an Enlightenment era debate over how our minds recognize beauty, and whether that ability is innate. Herder argued that our impression of beauty in sculpture depends on tactile memories that have gathered since infancy. Because the impression is so sudden, and apparently so visual, we fail to notice9 that it is in fact a complicated experience, composed of our knowledge of what such surfaces feel like and our desire to touch them. Herder’s ideas remains relevant to areas of neuroscience (for instance, to motor theories of perception), and Slaney engages with this connection.

The following two chapters return to ancient Roman perspectives, focusing on the relationship of touch to the sacred and (especially) the profane. Jack Lennon’s "The Contaminating Touch in the Roman World" concerns Roman social, religious and sexual taboos and customs arising from the fear of contamination. There is a valuable discussion here of workers associated with pollution—where they could live, what color clothes they had to wear—providing detail for aspects of daily life that would be hard to find in literary sources.10 One area not addressed, which would have been welcome in this context (in light of Rebecca Flemming’s chapter), is how ancient medical writers viewed these various forms of "pollution." Lennon focuses rather on how these customs enforced social order and divisions, but there would have also been public health concerns behind them. The following chapter, "The Touch of Poetry in the Carmina Priapea," by Elizabeth Young, is an imaginative essay, which provides an exception to my criticism above (in paragraph 1) in its discussion of how literary epigrams evoke the sensory experience of reading inscriptions in their original context (whether on statues or tombstones, or in sanctuaries and shrines).11 This volume would have benefited from more of this level of interpretation. Aside from that, Young uses the Carmina Priapea to explore several "paradoxes"12 of reading: e.g., that reading stimulates the sensory regions of our brain and takes us part of the way to really feeling what the language describes, while at the same time we are not really having those experiences; also, the idea that the reader surrenders his or her body as the "corporeal ground that animates the poem," almost like a kind of a possession (or perhaps, like running a piece of software).

Giulia Sissa ("In Touch, In Love: Apuleius on the Aesthetic Impasse of a Platonic Psyche," ch. 8) reads Apuleius’ "Cupid and Psyche" in the context of both Platonic and Aristotelian aesthetic philosophy. Sissa offers a rich and original interpretation, which is impressive for a story that has been combed for centuries in search of an allegorical meaning. There are two key contributions here. The first is an appreciation of "Cupid and Psyche" not in terms of Plato’s metaphysics (as the story has traditionally been read, with Psyche’s passion representing the soul’s striving for the form of beauty) but rather in terms of his earthly philosophy of sensation and erotic desire. As a result, there is little room left for a noble or rarefied moral: the upshot is "hedonistic," and Sissa argues that this narrative of erotic love should be read on its own terms. This a useful distinction, which does not deprive the story of its philosophical subtext. Sissa’s second main contribution is to consider the story also in terms of Aristotle’s psychology. From an Aristotelian perspective, Psyche lacks the faculty of "common sense" (koinē aisthēsis), i.e., the ability of the different senses to collaborate among themselves to reach an accurate interpretation of the external world. Psyche cannot put together the evidence of touch, hearing, and smell to offset her sisters’ ruse that her unseen lover is in fact a hideous serpent. Here Sissa misses an interesting angle, by arguing that such deception can "only happen in a Platonic scenario."13 This is not quite true, at least without a qualification. Sissa cites several of Aristotle’s psychological works but not On Dreams, which explains in detail how dreams and hallucinations impede the mind’s ability to use one sense as a check against another. Aristotle says that, when awake and fully alert, we are much less likely to be deceived this way; when asleep or otherwise under the influence (including of heightened emotional states,14 as Psyche clearly is), we are vulnerable to the sort of mistake Psyche makes. In addition, this is a fairy tale, and we cannot expect too much in the way of everyday logic.15 These are small criticisms, however. The reader is grateful to Sissa for opening up these new interpretive possibilities.

The final two chapters address theology and medicine. Catherine Conybeare’s "Noli me tangere: the Theology of Touch," focuses on Avitus’ anatomically detailed treatment of Genesis 2 and on Augustine’s reading of the noli me tangere passage in John 20:17 (when the resurrected Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene). Her study identifies a tension in early Christian thinking about the sense of touch: on the one hand, it is the one sense closest to the nature of the soul itself (since it is not localized in any part of the body); on the other hand, it is also the sense most connected to our earthly and "fallen" natures. Yet this tension will be resolved in paradise. Aristotle’s difficulty in accounting for touch resonates with these Christian interpretations, as well as with the medical history covered in the following chapter by Rebecca Flemming. Flemming demonstrates how this problem "defied" even the efforts of Galen, who was the "medical system-builder extraordinaire, vocal proponent of categorical consistency, of correct division in all things."16 Although each chapter in this volume comes from a different contributor (or pair of contributors), the resulting collection has an elegant overall structure, with Aristotle’s problem as a thread running from the first sentence of Alex Purves’ introduction to the last sentence of the final chapter. This is an appropriate frame for a topic that puzzled philosophers and physicians throughout antiquity.

Authors and titles

Introduction: What and Where is Touch?, Alex Purves
1. Hands Know the Truth: Touch in Euryclea’s Recognition of Odysseus, Silvia Montiglio
2. Touching, Proximity, and the Aesthetics of Pain in Sophocles, Nancy Worman
3. Aristotle and the Priority of Touch, Rebecca Steiner Goldner
4. The Duality of Touch, David Sedley
5. Getting to Grips with Classical Art: Rethinking the Haptics of Graeco-Roman Visual Culture, Verity Platt and Michael Squire
6. In the Body of the Beholder: Herder’s Aesthetics and Classical Sculpture, Helen Slaney
7. The Contaminating Touch in the Roman World, Jack Lennon
8. The Touch of Poetry in the Carmina Priapea, Elizabeth Young
9. In Touch, In Love: Apuleius on the Aesthetic Impasse of a Platonic Psyche, Giulia Sissa
10. Noli me tangere: the Theology of Touch, Catherine Conybeare
11. Losing Touch: Impaired Sensation in Greek Medical Writings, Rebecca Flemming


1.   The sixth volume on sound (ed. by Shane Butler and Sarah Nooter) is forthcoming.
2.   e.g., Oedipus can touch but not see, while we (the audience) can see but not touch.
3.   p. 42.
4.   For instance, Aristotle’s and Lucretius’ (De Rerum Natura 4.733-1022) treatments of the psychology of dreaming are similar in many ways.
5.   "Unlike the single object of perception (to idion aisthēton) that is...particular to each of the other senses (such as sound is to hearing or vision is to sight) there are several kinds of objects of touch, and they belong not to one pair of contraries, but to many—hot/cold, dry/moist, hard/soft (p. 58)."
6.   For this example, see p. 72.
7.   As Platt and Squire say, p. 100.
8.   p. 102.
9.   Due to a process Herder called Verkürzung (p. 109).
10.   Lennon cites the "famous law code found at Puteoli" (p. 129).
11.   "In such a multi-sensory reading environment, the consumption of poetry becomes an all-over bodily affair, accompanied by the smell of smoke, the sound of nearby crowds or the brightness and heat of the Italian sun (p. 145)."
12.   Young uses the term "haptic paradox" on p. 138.
13.   p. 166.
14.   See On Dreams, 460b.
15.   Sissa approaches this point ("we are in a world full of metamorphoses") on p. 165.
16.   p. 191. ​

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