BMCR 1991.01.08

One Hundred Years of Homosexuality

, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: and Other Essays on Greek Love. New Ancient World Series. London: Routledge, 1990. x, 230 pages. ISBN 9780415900973.

This stimulating and exasperating book stands among the new Foucauldian analyses of gender in ancient Greek cultures: Before Sexuality, which Halperin co-edited with Froma Zeitlin and the late John Winkler; Winkler’s Constraints of Desire, with which Halperin’s book shows close ties; and the spring 1990 issue of differences co-edited by David Konstan and Martha Nussbaum. Indeed one of Halperin’s essays from the book reappears in the differences issue and one in Before Sexuality (and of the six essays in the book, five have appeared from one to three times elsewhere). It is useful to have them together.

The first three essays deal with Foucauldian theory as it applies to the study of homosexuality in ancient Greece. The first provides Halperin’s own synthesis, the second is a useful interview with Halperin on the topic of social constructionism (but cf. John Boswell in the differences issue), the third is a review essay on Harald Patzer’s and Foucault’s respective works on Greek male homosexuality. The second three essays have less in common: one on “Heroes and their Pals” (well formulated and useful), one on male prostitution in 5th century B. C. Athens (extremely useful despite repetition and lapses into male bias), and one on the gender of Diotima in Plato’s Symposium.

The book is predicated on the Foucauldian belief that “homosexuality and heterosexuality … are modern, Western, bourgeois productions. Nothing resembling them can be found in classical antiquity” (7). This is simply untrue, and can only be maintained by deliberately ignoring ample ancient evidence—which, however, both Foucault and his followers are quite willing to do. They tend to leave Rome out of “antiquity” altogether, leapfrogging from 5th c. B. C. Athens to the Second Sophistic; a discussion of Athens (29) shifts into claims about “ancient Mediterranean culture” (30), and Artemidorus is then read back into Athens (39). They likewise leave out women; “homosexuality” in Halperin’s book means male homosexuality, as “sexuality” in Foucault means “male sexuality.” But the most glaring omission, despite protestations of solidarity with feminist goals, is of the mass of feminist work that has been done on these topics in the last decade. This would have been a more balanced and better informed book had that omission been remedied.

Halperin’s estimate that Foucault’s History of Sexuality may be “the most important contribution to the history of Western morality since the publication … of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals” (62) cannot be shared by anyone who knows much about Greek and Roman sexual practices. Although Halperin decries what he calls “Foucault-bashing” by “lesser intellectuals” (6), it is hard to deny that the volumes on sexuality, Foucault’s last work, present a highly misleading picture of pre-modern realities. This shows up most in the omission from volume three of any consciousness of Roman history before the principate, in a blurring of Greek and Roman cultures, and indeed in the scanty use of sources in Latin altogether. Furthermore, Foucault defined his project as having to do with men, not women, and so women show up in these volumes only as objects; Foucault’s text replicates the structures of those he is analyzing. This is the text that elicits such enthusiasm from Halperin.

The reason for the endorsement of Foucault as a model is that Foucault claims the cultural specificity of forms of erotic life (8). This enables the argument that the modern Western homosexual-heterosexual dichotomy does not apply to other cultures, each of which would generate its own sexual system. The epistemological headache brought on by this argument has generated its own huge bibliography; meanwhile, back at Greece and Rome, the argument demands, for Halperin, a lot of fancy footwork around the stereotyped character of the cinaedus or mollis. As described, for example, by medical writers like Caelius Aurelianus, the stereotype may sound homosexual, but no, this is “sex-role reversal, or gender-deviance,” since (so Halperin claims) there is nothing inherently problematic about male-male sexual relations in Caelius’s culture (23). Later, summarizing Foucault on Greek sexuality, Halperin says, apparently agreeing: “No moral value, either positive or negative, attaches to certain kinds of caresses, sexual postures, or modes of copulation” (69—an opinion shared, interestingly, by Halperin’s less constructionist foe, Boswell).

While no one would dispute that Greek, Roman, and American sexual systems are not exactly congruent, enormous amounts of evidence are available to show that relationships between adult males were certainly problematical in Roman culture, and in Greek cultures; that the maleness of the parties was very much an issue; and that plenty of moral value attached to certain modes of copulation. For Athens, compare Jeffrey Henderson, The Maculate Muse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975): 209: “Of a ll the types of homosexual humor in comedy by far the most common is the abuse of pathics,” and the discussion that follows (through page 215). For Rome, I cite Juvenal’s second Satire as only one among numerous examples, and the discussion of the os impurum in my The Garden of Priapus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), passim. The only reason that I can see for this strained reading of the cinaedus is a desire to see in Greece and Rome a better time, when there was no homophobia.

All in all this book is important for the student of ancient sexuality, and especially useful for the orientation it provides to current critical debates. The notes and bibliography build a helpful bridge to non-classical work on homosexuality; the particularly extensive notes to the chapter on Diotima show Halperin is capable of integrating feminist work. But Classics as a field is too small to accommodate the kind of theoretical fragmentation this book and its companions represent, since theory itself is so sparsely used within the field; I hope the trend can be reversed.