BMCR 2005.09.82

Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture

, Sexuality in Greek and Roman culture. Ancient cultures. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. xxvi, 343 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0631232338. $29.95 (pb).

1 Responses

More than twenty years of researching and teaching sex and gender in antiquity, on both Greek and Roman topics, makes Marilyn Skinner an ideal candidate to write the first textbook-style survey of the subject. Her engaging and frank Preface includes a short autobiographical account of how “two generations’ worth of hindsight” supplement scholarly credentials, instilling a desire “to arouse in younger persons the same impulse to think alternatively, especially about their own intimate experiences” (xiii). This is the first of many moments in the book where the author foregrounds the personal and contemporary relevance of the study of ancient sexuality.

Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture surveys in less than 300 pages the role of sex and gender from Homer to imperial Rome of the late second century CE, judiciously assessing along the way influential scholarship (Skinner explicitly states that she will be concentrating on the past ten to fifteen years). The author aims at two readerships: “to help undergraduates engage with ancient sexuality in all its otherness,” and “for the general reader, who may have heard rumors about exciting new questions being broached in a proverbially conservative discipline” (xii). It is especially challenging to write this type of work for sexuality since, in addition to presenting a disparate array of primary evidence, the author must also summarize often complex or highly theoretical scholarly debates without being overly technical, boring, or irrelevant. Skinner has succeeded in her aims, producing not only an accessible textbook and a reliable survey for general audiences but also a helpful work of reference for specialists. It is only to be hoped that, despite the ever-growing bibliography, the text will remain useful for many future teachers and students. I already look forward to the possibility of future editions.

It is not surprising to find an author using a Preface to assert the relevance of her topic to the life of a modern student, but Skinner also re-asserts this on nearly every other page with parallels that are thought-provoking and, teachers hope, bound to stimulate in-class discussion. The first example occurs in the first paragraph of the Introduction (1-20). Following the enticingly ambiguous opening sentence “Lawyers have little time for Platonic love,” Skinner describes the 1993 case of Evans v. Romer, a suit before a Colorado district court disputing whether an individual’s sexual orientation can have protected status under the U.S. Constitution. Attorneys summoned Plato as an expert witness to support the contention that “moral condemnation of homosexual activity … was clearly articulated by the founders of the Western tradition of rational philosophy” (1). A wrangling over Platonic exegesis ensued, including the nuances of Plato’s vocabulary; although it is unclear what role philology had in the court’s decision, Skinner nevertheless makes cogent her claim that studying ancient sexual values “is not a frivolous undertaking but a matter of genuine practical concern” (3; an even more impressive example of ancient sexuality setting legal precedent, this time in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, is discussed in the Afterword [286-8]). A definition of the term “sexuality” (“the meanings placed upon human sexual physiology, sexual sensations, and sexual behavior within a particular community,” 3) leads into a summary of how the topic has grown as an academic concern in recent decades. Included is an explanation of the penetration model, as formulated by Dover in Greek Homosexuality, a review of the influence of Foucault’s History of Sexuality volumes, and a discussion of the stakes involved in the debate between essentialism and constructionism. Skinner’s experience in navigating through these contentious theoretical issues with fairness and discretion is on display here.1 She concludes the chapter by anticipating the book’s main points. First, she invites the reader/student to conduct a “constructionist thought experiment” (12) as she guides us through the nature of Athenian pederasty and discusses how the ancient practice too had ethical constraints, although delineated differently from those of 21st-century Americans. By page 16, then, students have been encouraged to confront and understand some of the knottiest issues of the semester. Attention then shifts to a brief preview of how Romans construct sexuality differently, in particular in the ways that sexual hierarchies can be read as a reflection of social hierarchies. The book, it becomes clear, is about far more than sex; it will consider how “ancient sexual behaviors were socially determined responses to the overall cultural environment” (20). This is, in other words, a book about Greek and Roman (and, we are encouraged to ponder, contemporary) civilization, viewed through the lens of sexuality.

The book’s main argument follows the seemingly inevitable course of chronology, beginning with “The Homeric Age: Epic Sexuality” (21-44). Points of stress are familiar from a standard myth course. A discussion of the mythical and Near-Eastern origins of Aphrodite notes how the Greeks tended to dissociate her from war and fertility, emphasizing instead her erotic aspects, in particular the use of sexual allure to deceive. A review of the nature of the archaic god Eros and the creation of Pandora leads to a discussion of mortal women in Hesiod and the Hippocratic corpus. Highlights from Homer include Helen, the seduction of Zeus, and Penelope, closing with “Achilles in the closet?,” where the typically careful answer is that Achilles’ passion “goes far beyond the emotional attachments other males in the epics feel” (43). With a few exceptions (e.g., the interpretations of φιλομμηδέα at Hesiod, Theog. 200, and of ἐμήσατο at Op. 95), Skinner’s exegesis consistently spells out controversies when they arise, and occasional clues are given to teachers concerning what the students are expected to know (the Hymn to Aphrodite, for example, is clearly summarized, whereas a good familiarity with the Odyssey seems assumed).

The absence of any explicit reference to pederasty in the epics contrasts with Chapter 2 (“The Archaic Age: Symposium and Initiation,” 45-78), where same-sex love becomes a dominant theme. Skinner begins by reviewing possible explanations for why the aristocratic symposium became a site in which “eroticism became politicized” (48), particularly in terms of male homoerotic behavior. Male poets, furthermore, adopt two modes of address in this context, as one superior to the beloved and as a “helpless target of repeated violence by Eros” (55). For Sappho, by contrast, Skinner demonstrates ways in which this relationship with the beloved and the divine seems not to be adversarial. The chapter ends by assessing scholarly explanations of the historical origins of same-sex eroticism, both male and female. These sections are a model of the balance for which a textbook discussion should aim; for boy-love, the two principal theories of potential origin — pederasty arose either from well-established institutionalized rituals such as those attested for Sparta and Crete, or as a result of various factors affecting post-Homeric Greek society — are supplemented by intriguing contemporary parallels that students will understand. In the discussion of female homoeroticism, the possible traces in our sources are again assessed, using Alcman’s Partheneion as the principal point of reference. Skinner concludes these hypothesis-filled discussions by addressing directly the students’ inevitable “So what?”: “much theorizing has been grounded on uncertain information. Nevertheless, it is better to recognize the limits of our understanding than to approach the poetry of that time carrying the baggage of questionable assumptions” (78).

Just as each of the first two chapters had a dominant motif (Ch. 1, the power of sexual desire, Ch. 2, the origins of pederasty), so too Chapter 3 concentrates on one theme: the chronological shifts in the ways in which sexual desire is represented on vase painting (“Late Archaic Athens: More than Meets the Eye,” 79-111). Most of the material falls between 575-450, with black-figure tending toward the comic or obscene, and red-figure toward the psychologically intense. The chapter considers in particular the orthodox depictions (and deviations therefrom) of male courting scenes, in which suitor and beloved are never coevals, the beloved is passive or resistant, and anal intercourse is not represented. A consideration of scenes depicting hetaerae and other women in sympotic and domestic settings closes the chapter. Of special interest is the different emphases observable as the fifth-century progresses: the eromenos becomes younger and the setting moves indoors; women after 450 BC principally occupy domestic scenes, with increasing prominence of weddings. Skinner again equitably considers the various scholarly explanations.

In light of the abundant source material, “Classical Athens: The Politics of Sex” (112-47) restricts its focus to the ways in which Athenian democracy contributed to the articulation of sexual identity among citizens, paying special attention to class and to surveillance of individual behavior. It is not possible to summarize this rich chapter, which reviews contested concepts ( kinaidos) and controversial texts (Aristophanes; Plato, Symposium; Lysias, Murder of Eratosthenes) that bear on Athenian sexuality. The chapter is in fact the most open-ended of the book, as indicated by the provocative sentence with which it ends: “Whether [the relationship between Athenian democracy and sexuality] affords a good model, in terms of either parallels or contrasts, for understanding present-day Western sexual ideology should be one of the key discussion topics in a course in ancient sexuality” (147). That should occupy a couple of discussion sessions.

Chapters 6 and 7 (“Turning Inwards,” 148-70, and “Feminine Mystique,” 171-91) treat the Hellenistic period, focusing on how a changing political climate contributed to a “more pronounced heterosexual ethos” (151). Menander’s comedies, among other texts, attest to the attention now given to a romantic love centered on the home. Concurrently, medical writers begin to construct women as “failed men,” a move that, Skinner argues, now ironically gives women the theoretical ability to aspire to male virtues, such as self-mastery. The many philosophical schools arising during this period also contribute to the valorization of marriage, monogamy, and procreation, in part through a growing problematization of uncontrolled eros. As if emphasizing the virtues of domesticated eros, the hetaera becomes an object of literary speculation and scholarly activity, a woman whose flouting of convention renders her a figure of fascination. Chapter 7 examines how this rise of romantic love prompts an exploration of the psychology of individual emotions (epigram; Theocritus’ Simaetha; Apollonius’ Medea) and a new appreciation of the feminine as an object of desire in Hellenistic art (Aphrodite of Cnidus). The discussion of Apollonius is especially insightful, although from a pedagogical perspective I wonder if the conclusion drawn — “Whether, in the absence of other frameworks, eros is an adequate tool for forging the bonds of community is therefore one of the fundamental questions the Argonautica asks” (185) — would have much meaning to a student after a two-page summary of the epic’s main points.

With Chapters 8 and 9 (“Noble Romans and Degenerate Greeks,” 192-211; “The Soft Embrace of Venus,” 212-39), our attention (and the paradigm) shifts to Rome of the Republican and Augustan age. Welcome to sexuality as technology of power. From Plautus, literary texts mirror the “conceptual framework of sexual relations” found in Greece until the Hellenistic period, i.e., a schema of dominance and submission prevails. Since Roman society, however, is far more socially stratified, relationships are determined not by age differential, but by class and rank. The dominant Roman vir, in other words, occupies not a biological category but describes “adult freeborn citizen males in good standing and positioned at the top of the hierarchy” (195). These two chapters elucidate this dynamic at work in such varied aspects of Roman society as patronage, pederasty, gladiatorial contests, and the social status of the effeminate male. The reader is continually alerted to differences from Greek conceptions: for example, since it was illegal to penetrate sexually a freeborn male youth, pederasty was unthinkable as a civic institution. Freeborn Roman women present a particular problem since their passive sexual status conflicts with potentially empowering elements of their social position. In response to women’s increased financial opportunities (as reflected in the rise of marriages sine manu), adultery moves from being a domestic to a state concern, with strict legal penalties for matronae. Chapter 9 concentrates on how sexual mores, in particular male sexual passivity, are treated in literature. Since this chapter contains close readings of a number of complex poetic texts, it would, I think, require particular care to translate effectively into the classroom. Skinner compares the use of literary obscenity in Plautus and Catullus to demonstrate that sexual invective does not simply demean the object of insult but “grapples with recurrent anxieties surrounding the speaker’s or the audience’s own social standing” (218). The discussion continues with the ways in which the elegists (including Sulpicia) invert the gender roles expected in Roman society. The chapter closes by considering the dual function of Venus in Lucretius and Vergil, in whose epics the goddess acts as both nurturer of the Roman state and disrupter of rational emotion.

The final two chapters treat imperial Rome. Chapter 9 (“Imperial Rome I: Desire under Pressure,” 240-54) tests Foucault’s thesis that shifting government into the hands of an autocrat caused anxieties among the Roman elite, prompting in particular “misgivings about the proper place of sex in the physical regimen” (246). One of the results of this shift in perspective is a growing suspicion about the effeminate male, causing Latin authors to reassert their own masculinity by “de-gendering” others. This trope is especially prevalent in satire’s stance toward its three common targets: women, non-Romans, and freedmen. Chapter 10 (“Imperial Rome II: On the Margins of Empire,” 255-82) is the least cohesive of the book, as it brings the analysis of the Roman world up to the late second century CE by covering a wide range of miscellaneous material. The chapter opens with a discussion of the various interpretations one can give to sensuality and sexuality in Roman art. Discussion moves from the Tellus frieze on the Ara Pacis (“female sensuality … properly put to use in generation and nurturing,” 257), to mortal women depicted as goddesses, to phalli, to the apotropaic use of material objects, to art as sign of status and luxury or simply for decoration. An analysis of epigraphic material demonstrates the desirability of marriage throughout the period. Since this corpus provides no clear evidence for same-sex unions, Skinner contrasts the remarkably well-attested evidence for the cult of Antinous, boy beloved of the emperor Hadrian. This possible “religious endorsement of a traditional Greek civic lifestyle” was not to carry the day, however, as marriage becomes preferred for the symmetrical equivalence possible between the two lovers, in affection and action (271-2). This new valorization of “sexual symmetry” is supported through an analysis of extant Greek and Roman novels.

A brief Afterword (“The Use of Antiquity” 283-9) traces the future of sexual rigor in Christian asceticism, with its pursuit of virginity and ultimate criminalization of male homoerotic activity. We end in the 21st century, with speculations about how the ancients would have felt about current controversies over gay marriage.

The book is well-designed; illustrations are clear and helpful, and the text contains few inaccuracies, only two of which are serious: Map 4 (with an eclectic assortment of toponyms and tribe designations — “Armoricanians”?) implies that Trajan was responsible for the expanse of an empire that reached beyond Scandinavia and the Caspian Sea, conquests that were subsequently “abandoned by Hadrian”; page 80 contains a surprising misstatement about the red-figure technique.

I would like to conclude with comments on the work’s suitability as a textbook, though I have not been able to test it in the classroom. As I have indicated occasionally above, this book expects some previous familiarity with Greek and Roman culture (e.g., a basic understanding of the plot of the Odyssey, familiarity with Catullus and Roman spectacle), but careful preparation by an instructor could remedy this if necessary. The writing style and level of argument are sophisticated, but Skinner always remains aware of her audience: most chapters begin and end by re-orienting the reader with what has preceded and anticipating what is to come. Although Skinner does not offer many hints of how precisely to use her book in the classroom — in particular how to ground her discussion in a clearly defined corpus of texts that students could be expected to master in a semester — she does acknowledge in the Preface (xii) that instructors may wish to use a sourcebook and supplement her text with background reading in social and political history. Fortunately, a collection of syllabi at Diotima can offer invaluable help for the first-time teacher,2 and a number of recent texts could provide convenient source material.3 Teachers will of course also wish to supplement with their own favorite texts (or takes) on ancient sexuality (I found oratory and historiography to be particularly underrepresented). With Skinner’s laudable effort, it is now significantly easier to design a course that will introduce students to the most basic subjects of the classical world — myth, art, history, word study — via the exciting and controversial study of sexuality.

[[For a response to this review by Terrence Lockyer, please see BMCR 2005.10.23.]]


1. See especially “Zeus and Leda: The Sexuality Wars in Contemporary Classical Scholarship,” first published in Thamyris 3.1 (1996) 103-23 and now available at the Diotima website.

2. See too the general discussion of L. McClure, “Teaching a Course on Gender in the Classical World,” Classical Journal 92 (1997) 259-70, who offers a syllabus arranged topically rather than chronologically. For a Romanist, it is always sobering to see a book arranged chronologically, meaning that the Roman material is covered (or, more often than not, truncated) at the busy end of semester.

3. L. McClure, ed., Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World: Readings and Sources (Oxford: Blackwell 2002) contains a collection of secondary readings keyed to a small selection of primary sources; M. Johnson and T. Ryan, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature (New York: Routledge 2005) provides a wide selection of primary texts. A useful complement to the Routledge collection remains M. Lefkowitz and M. Fant, eds., Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Reader in Translation, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Duckworth 1992); see too T. Hubbard, ed., Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents (Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press 2003) and J. G. Younger, Sex in the Ancient World from A to Z (New York: Routledge 2005).