BMCR 2006.02.05

Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature. A Sourcebook

, , Sexuality in Greek and Roman society and literature : a sourcebook. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. 1 online resource (xxvi, 244 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780203645826 $39.99 (pb).

Courses in Greek and Roman sexuality continue to proliferate and so too resources for teaching them. The last few years have seen an excellent master narrative,1 and two collections of scholarship.2 But instructors who prefer to stress the ancient evidence have had to rely on sourcebooks which (valuable as they are) may prove to be too broad3 or too narrow.4 They will be grateful for Johnson’s (J.) and Ryan’s (R.) work, and they won’t be alone.

After an introduction (“A socio-sexual background to Greece and Rome,” 1-17) foregrounding discussions of feminism and Foucault, J. and R. organize their texts into eight chapters: “The divine sphere” (1-38), “Beauty” (39-60), “Marriage” (61-87), “Prostitution” (88-109), “Same-sex relationships” (110-135), “Sex and violence” (136-152), “Anxiety and repulsion” (153-173), “Aids and handbooks” (174-199). Each begins with a helpful introduction and presents its material, translated from Greek and Latin, under thematic subheads and in roughly chronological order from Homer to the second century CE (when Christian influences begin to make themselves felt). The 160 texts themselves, numbered sequentially throughout, are identified by ancient author and work, and provided with titles and short prefaces to set their literary and historical contexts (especially important for excerpts from longer works). They are then followed by explanatory notes which include numerous cross-references to other selections and, at times, material for specialists as well as students. (Note for example the discussion of the text of Aristophanes, Clouds 1019 at 53 n. 4.) The authors also provide eleven illustrations, glossaries of ancient authors and of Greek and Latin terms, source and subject indexes, and a bibliography including items as recent as 2002 and, in one instance, 2003.

The poets of the Greek Anthology, with 22 texts, are the authors drawn upon most frequently. Sappho and CIL come next with 21 each — sexuality makes the strangest bedfellows of all. Ovid yields 19 (11 from the Ars Amatoria), Martial 17. The chances of scholars agreeing on what to include, in this area more than most, are about equal to that of George W. Bush marrying Little Richard. I at least missed more on the anatomy and physiology of sex from the medical writers (a strength of Lefkowitz and Fant). On the other hand, J. and R. print six texts omitted from Hubbard’s collection on homosexuality.

It is possible to quibble with editorial decisions too. I found the use of regular numerals within parentheses (instead of superscripts) to mark footnotes confusing and the practice of numbering each set of footnotes separately makes index entries ambiguous. Most flaws, however, are in execution rather than design. Some of the book’s strengths and weaknesses are revealed in the first two passages, the “deception of Zeus” from Iliad 14 and Arachne’s depiction of “divine lusts” in Ovid, Met. 6.103-128. The translations of these texts are readable and accurate,5 the notes packed with information (on myth in particular), the collocation reminds the reader that goddesses (like Hera) are no less willing to use trickery and transformation in sexual contexts than the gods Arachne wove. A closer look, however, shows some shortcomings.

A note comments on “laughter-loving” Aphrodite without remarking that the word means “genital-loving” a few pages later at Hesiod, Theogony 200 (26). An article on incest is falsely fathered on Martin Goodman (here the authors have been misled by the latest edition of the OCD). Antiope, Nycteidan in the translation of Ovid, is said to be Nicteus’s daughter in a note. Such slips and inconsistencies are not infrequent.6 More important, the authors say nothing about the comedic tone of “the deception of Zeus,” though they are generally very perceptive in pointing out examples of wit and humour in other selections (e.g., 28 n. 4, 96 n. 5, 159 n. 3). In another example of questionable judgement, Catullus 85 is included in the chapter on “the divine sphere” (37). Though Amor appears in the headnote, there is no reference to him (or to any other god) in the text. On the contrary, the final word excrucior — translated loosely as “I’m in agony” — presents the poet literally at cross-purposes, painfully suspended between love and hate. He has been degraded to the status of a crucified slave rather than defeated by a divinity’s power. Some significant statements of fact are likewise unreliable: prostitution was not illegal for freeborn Athenian males, the Roman pater familias did not always have his wife in his potestas during the Early and Middle Republic (6). And where do “modern statistical studies” give an average age of marriage for men of 33 (63 n. 1) and why is this relevant to Hesiod?

But to raise such quibbles and queries is merely to suggest that instructors will want to use this sourcebook (like any other teaching aid) with caution. Certainly they will want to use it.


1. M.B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture (Oxford 2005).

2. L.K. McClure, ed., Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World: Readings and Sources (Oxford 2002); M. Golden and P. Toohey, eds., Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome (Edinburgh 2003).

3. M.R. Lefkowitz and M.B. Fant, eds., Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. A Sourcebook in Translation (Third edition, Baltimore 2005).

4. T.K. Hubbard, ed., Homosexuality in Greece and Rome. A Sourcebook of Basic Documents (Berkeley and Los Angeles 2003).

5. North American students will need to cope with Demeter as the mother of the corn at Met. 6.118 — fortunately, the Greeks and Romans did not have lorries or lifts. Otherwise, I could carp only at the importation of the idea that Hera alone possesses the ambrosial olive oil into Il. 14.172 and note the doublet “having come journeyed down” at 14.298.

6. A sampling: the illustrations are printed between 158 and 159, not 118 and 119 (xvii). There is a garbled translation at 15 n. 64 (on 16), a garbled reference at 16 n. 67. The preface and notes on Straton, Greek Anthology 12.4 aren’t borne out by the text (123). It’s Apollodorus’s Chronika which was in verse (200). Though J. and R. take pains to provide the transliterated Greek and the Latin forms for important terms, their practice is not always perfect. Parts of speech don’t always correspond, the glossaries contain several errors or inconsistencies related to number and gender and to confusion between Greek and Latin. Here and elsewhere we find forms such as paidikai (for paidika, 115 n. 8), gynaikai (207), paiderastoi (208), pornesion (241). Ancient authors assume hybrid disguises such as Claudius Aelian and Decimus Junius Juvenal. The subject index contains just one citation for “penis” (fittingly followed by “penis lack”), none for “breast.” Those searching for Catullus’s Clodia will find her under “Lesbia” and “Metelli,” and S.M. Burstein under “Burnstein,” For Golden 1985 the journal should be L’antiquité classique, for Pomeroy 1990 the date should be 1977.