BMCR 2005.10.42

Venus. A Biography

, Venus : a biography. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2005. 158 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0892368241 $19.95 (pb).

This ‘biography’ of Venus is intended to appeal to a general readership and therefore seeks to raise eyebrows. Venus is of course the ancient paradigm of female physical beauty and a figure closely associated with sexual intercourse (in Latin, venus“is” sex) and this book portrays the goddess informally, even suggestively. The format is a story made of stories, an assembly of narratives either about Venus (Aphrodite, Inanna) or connected to her. As a sequel to Dalby’s earlier work on Bacchus,1 it follows the same hybrid model, collecting sources for a deity’s myths, threading them into a loose narrative through the conceit of the ‘mythical biography’, and adapting them in an occasionally novelistic manner. Unfortunately, this informality is a weakness as well as a strength: from a political point of view, Venus is dangerous territory, and perhaps Dalby takes too many things lightly.

As in all of his books, the author bundles together a large mass of material, spanning classical antiquity and pulling in odd strands from Akkadian inscriptions to Shakespeare, but dwelling mainly on the most popular stories.2 This is made to equate to a ‘life’ of Venus by arrangement into the following seven chapters: The Birth of Venus, Marriage and Adultery, The Children of Venus, The Story of Adonis, The Events on Mount Ida, The Fall of Troy and the Origin of Rome, and a conclusion furnishing extra historical information, The Goddess of Love. Besides the index, the endpapers constitute ‘Life Notes’, a recap and supplement of basic Olympian lore and genealogy with a statement of policy regarding Greek proper names; ‘Sources’ by chapter, with line references etc. where appropriate; and ‘Further Reading’, a brief bibliography of primary and secondary sources on love-goddess myth, divided by civilization (modern, Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman). These materials, in lieu of footnotes or endnotes, seem well-tailored for a mainstream audience. The partial dramatisation of mythical stories, and the eclecticism of the sources used, may make this book unsuitable for undergraduate reading lists. Conversely, academics whose research interests include the contemporary reception of classics in popular culture, or the role of gender in the history of classical studies, may find it especially noteworthy as documenting a modern attitude of partial complicity in (or at least uncritical acceptance of) aspects of the male construction of femininity.

This book is published by the J. Paul Getty Museum and designed to be accessible to the general public. The cover bears a large portrait-style detail from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and the summary on the back is more provocative than informative: ‘The life story of the irresistibly beautiful love-goddess — sensual, sexy and seductive — as never told before’.3 Dalby’s brand of informality will not be to everyone’s taste. The roll call of the gods on pp.14-15 is a striking example, delivering its information in the following style:

‘Artemis, twin sister of Apollo, daughter of Zeus and goddess of the hunt, often has no time to change for dinner after a long day’s chase. She tosses her bow and quiver into the corner and throws herself on to the couch, a little sweaty perhaps, her perfect skin glowing from its contact with the cool air of Earth, the red border of her short tunic flapping provocatively about her thighs’.

A description of the chaste goddess Artemis involving words such as ‘sweaty’ and ‘thighs’ is obviously the product of a personal imaginative engagement with Olympian religion — one that misjudges the sensibilities of most modern readers and misrepresents those of most other classical scholars.

The ‘mythical biography’ is a new variant on an established trend of semi-academic writing. There are other books on classical subjects which occupy this middle ground between fiction and scholarship, some ‘popular histories’ that synthesise historical source material into a plausible continuous narrative (such as Tom Holland’s latest book Persian Fire). Dalby likewise assembles the source material used by classical scholars, though his novelistic leanings are of course based on a non-historical figure. The result is a very individual slant on classical mythology, which does nothing to extricate itself from the strategies of objectification imposed on women in antiquity. Consider this extract from p.31:

‘Venus took off her earrings, her long robe, her sandals — there are many Greek and Roman statues and figurines of Aphrodite or Venus taking off her sandals. She reached behind her head to unclasp her jewelled circlet, allowing her long hair to swirl free about her shoulders. Then she took off the embroidered band that she wore next to her skin. Ares watched.’

Notwithstanding the book’s dubious goal of titillation, the referencing of sources, where required, is meticulous. Furthermore, the production values of the book are high,4 and, aside from a bizarre glitch in the index,5 it is almost devoid of errors. In practical terms, it is a reliable introduction to the principal Venus myths. As mythography, it attempts to balance the goal of informing with that of entertaining, but its idea of entertainment will be difficult to ignore for those who disagree with it.

The obvious potential for parody and anachronism creeps in here and there. Hera says Hephaistos shouldn’t come to Olympos because ‘he couldn’t manage the stairs’; Proserpina offers Psyche foie gras; and Hermes tells Paris that his Judgement of the goddesses will be easy if he’s ever judged cattle shows (pp. 23, 57, 86 & 92). This kind of ‘irreverence’, like the description of Artemis quoted above, is part of an informal persona assumed by Dalby. This authorial voice comes and goes, and the ‘biographer’ conceit is suspended more and more. The narrative outfits itself enticingly as a story with a sympathetic, sensuous and adventurous female protagonist, yet this is put aside and revealed to be merely a costume. The colours underneath are those of the philologist and cultural historian, who acknowledges that we are talking about a patchwork, stitched together out of a disparate range of sources. In fact this may be what forces the ‘biographer’ after two chapters to lay aside the persona he himself creates for Venus, as his loyal use of the ancient literary sources gives the name Venus an increasingly schizophrenic personality. The promiscuous and politic debutante of the first chapter contrasts with the sadistic and egotistic villain of Chapter 3, and neither sounds like Sappho’s potential fairy godmother in Chapter 7 (p.119). Admittedly, this is a caricature of a painstaking and in many respects ingenious concatenation of myths. Nonetheless, by the final page the fiction has melted away, leaving only a faint haze of sentimentality around the information.

In summary, this book is a flawed success. The way the materials are gathered and arranged as efficiently as possible and the creative elements are apt in principle as a means of engaging a wide readership. However, these creative elements on the one had lead to inconsistency and on the other are effected through a persona which is so ‘tongue-in-cheek’ as to appear sexist. Those who see this assessment as over-sensitive will probably enjoy Dalby’s ‘biography’ of Venus, but others may feel that it lacks acknowledgement of the issues of gender politics inevitably surrounding the goddess not only in ancient times, but in our own. A shame, since it exhibits the same relish for the details of ancient culture that colours all of this author’s works.


1. Review by R. Marquedant at BMCR 2004.09.13.

2. Very occasionally, Dalby’s other research interests (e.g. food and luxury products of various eras and cultures), outside classics ‘proper’ and perhaps faintly gratuitous, can be spotted: French gourmet vocabulary (p. 57), and the translation of Apuleius’ balsama as ‘perfume, redolent of the balsam of Mecca’ (pp. 59-60). He remarks parenthetically that Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis was dedicated to the Earl of Monmouth (p. 74), whose relevance I must confess not to understand.

3. Tapping into popular romantic notions about Classical culture, based largely on its reception from the Renaissance onward, seems to be the motivation behind choosing the Roman name ‘Venus’ over the Greek Aphrodite (or, we learn, the Sumerian Inanna). Botticelli painted Venus, not Aphrodite. Otherwise, as explained on pp. 132-3, Dalby retains the original spelling of Latin and transliterated Greek proper names, except in 35 cases where English alterations have become standard. The ‘biographer’ prefers the Greek names even in two cases where his source is explicitly Ovid (Hermaphroditos (a.k.a. Hermaphroditus), pp.44-45 and Smyrna (a.k.a. Myrrha), pp.69-71), which perhaps betrays his tacit neutrality over the question of which of two differing sources might be the more ‘authentic’.

4. Though it is a little bold of the press to label the book ‘With decorative line artwork throughout’, since this implies some form of illustration inside. The ‘artwork’ actually consists of one approximately 4 x 1/4in design of a trumpeting Cupid and myrtle-branches, and a second, more detailed 1.5 x 3/4in device of roses surrounding a heart-shape (used between paragraphs, like the curling leaves favoured by the University of Michigan Press), the former printed 22 times and the latter 37 times.

5. The basis of the general index was created by a computer, which led to the unfortunate presence of an entry for the indefinite pronoun ‘An’, which is promoted to the status of proper noun by the three pages upon which it occurs at the start of a sentence.