BMCR 2006.03.23

Sex in the Ancient World: From A to Z

, Sex in the ancient world from A to Z. The ancient world from A to Z. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. 1 online resource (xvii, 217 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations.. ISBN 0203338073 $79.00.

Published as the third volume in Routledge’s new series, The Ancient World from A to Z, Younger’s book deals with Greek and Roman attitudes and practices relating to love, sex and sexuality generally from 1000 BCE to 300 CE.

As the title implies, the book takes the form of an encyclopedia, organised alphabetically and preceded by a useful short introduction on theory and modern scholarship. The volume ends with a bibliography, extensive lists of ancient sources and artworks cited, and an index. Several black-and-white illustrations, apparently the author’s own, nicely complement the text. They are, however, of uneven quality, with several too small, too dark or not sharp enough.

The main advantage of this work is that it concisely but comprehensively deals with both Greek and Roman material in an easy to use format. There is a wealth of information to be found under the individual entries which are readable and wide ranging. Students and scholars consulting the book will obtain an overall, if summary, picture of the subject. However, readers may find a problem with the intermixing of Greek and Roman material in some entries, to the extent that sometimes it is not clear if the information applies to one culture or the other, or both.

Several important topics, such as cinaedi, paederastia, pornography, and prostitution, are dealt with in a sensitive, balanced and authoritative manner, incorporating the latest scholarship. Frequent cross-references and bibliographical notes guide the reader to make multiple associations and obtain additional information ( though they also cause some repetition). References given under individual entries, however, cannot always be assumed to include the most recent publications on the topic. Under Beauty contests (18) Crowther’s 1985 article is cited but not his more recent ‘ Euexia, eutaxia, philoponia : Three Contests of the Greek Gymnasium’, ZPE 85 (1991) 301-304. And there is certainly post-1986 literature on Aristogeiton and Harmodius (12). The bibliography at the end is rich but not comprehensive since some of the most recent publications are not included.1

It is understandable that the choice of entries in an encyclopedia would vary from author to author. Still, I found the rationale behind the selection of some entries unclear. Why, for example, are there entries for all other gods except Ares, even though he was involved in an adulterous affair with Aphrodite? (Her husband, Hephaestus, on the other hand, does have his own entry.) And what is the reason for an entry Body Functions, with Ejaculation and Erections as sub-entries along with Constipation, Excretions, Farts and Urination? Since the last four are really irrelevant here, it would make more sense to concentrate on Ejaculation and Erection by granting them separate entries. Such arrangements mean that readers should not just rely on individual entries but work closely with the index in case they miss some important topics.2

I also wondered why the author decided to use plural entries (e.g., cinaedi, gymnasia) rather than the singular terms. Moreover, the text accompanying some entries, does not justify their inclusion in the encyclopedia (e.g., Sabinus and Empona, Water, Gods and Goddesses, Jewelry). The odd entry Reciprocal Position for Oral-genital Intercourse (“69”), would better fit under Oral-genital Sex.

There are a few entries or references that I felt could have been included: for example, there is no mention of the fascinating and mind-boggling phallus bird (under Phalloi); and Pelop’s winged chariot is not mentioned as a gift of Poseidon even though there is a reference to Pelop’s being the god’s erômenos (93).

But the major shortcomings of the work are the uneven quality of the entries and the frequent errors, inaccuracies and inconsistencies, giving the impression that many entries were drafted by Younger’s students.3 Nothing wrong, of course, with collaborating with students, as long as the supervisor carefully coordinates, checks, and edits the individual entries to guarantee consistency, coherence and reliability in the final outcome. I am afraid this has not been the case here.

To begin with, quite a few significant statements of fact are inaccurate, unreliable or misleading: abortions for women citizens were not avoided but rather performed in secret (1); at the Arkteia garments were not thrown into the stream (13); Eos, not Tithonos himself, asked Zeus to grant him immortality (45); cookies in the shape of genitals were not made during the Adonia festival (50); wives did not wear their hair short but gathered up (54); marriage was not forbidden between uncles and their nieces, as the institution of the epiklêros shows (60, 74); Achilles did not rape Troilos to death (134, 137). I would also take issue with the statement that the erastês was perhaps the boy’s maternal uncle (91) and that a pallakê was a prostitute (106-7). And surely, Menelaos’ change of mind not to kill Helen after having seen her breasts is not a good example to illustrate that “the female breast is an emblem of motherhood” (25).

There are some errors in the references to the visual sources: woman-woman cunnilingus is not depicted on 291 IIII [sic] but on 291 VII (38); Pl. 42 shows the statue of Augustus not Nero; “Priapea (53)” (19) is not a reference to a depiction (as the bold number implies) but to the numbered poem in the collection of the poems to Priapus.

There are also several spelling and grammatical mistakes, especially in Greek (e.g., Aegispotomoi for Aigospotamoi 5; erasteis for erastai 13) and some inconsistencies (e.g., boys began military training between 14-16 years old 31 and at age 12 79; Circe is Medea’s aunt 32 and her cousin 78; Lembesi 2001 91 but Lempesi 2000 in the bibliography).4

Several transliterated Greek terms are wrongly accented (e.g., balanón for bálanon 127)5 and there are inconsistencies in spelling (e.g., Cos 133 but Kos 104; Doricha 111 but Dorikha 113).

Cases of bad grammar (e.g., “It is widely believed that, while still married, she had an affair with the poet CATULLUS and to have been his ‘Lesbia’…,” 34), wrong word choice (e.g., “A few woman poets write…,” 57) and tense switching (e.g., “…offerings were made …the basilínna sacrifices…the god came to her…,” 10) suggest even more strongly that student writing has not been checked and corrected.

All that being said, the book is still a useful reference resource for love and sexuality in the Classical world, a subject that keeps growing in popularity. The entries are a good starting point for students and scholars coming to the field with little or no previous knowledge or looking for a quick guide to specific unfamiliar topics. Succinct, easy to use, but very expensive, Younger’s book will find its place in the reference section of libraries rather than in students’ or even scholars’ private book collections.


1. E.g., B.S. Thornton, Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality (Boulder 1997); C. Calame, The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece (Princeton 1999); D.H. Garrison, Sexual Culture in Ancient Greece (Norman 2000); T.K. Hubbard (ed.), Greek Love Reconsidered (New York 2000); M.C. Nussbaum & J. Sihvola (eds.), The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome (Chicago 2002); M. Golden & P. Toohey (eds), Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome (Edinburgh 2003). To these add the recent publications of M. Johnson & T. Ryan, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: A Sourcebook (London 2005) and M.B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture (Oxford 2005), which of course could not have been included.

2. A spot check in the index showed no reference to tintinnabula or Hero(n)das. Under Leukothoe there were references also to Ino-Leukothea who was a different character.

3. Editorial note: In preparing this review for publication, the editors of BMCR asked Professor Salapata for evidence to support her suggestion that entries had been drafted by Younger’s students. She directed us to comments Professor Younger had made in an on-line description for a 2003 course on Gender and Sexuality. On that site, Professor Younger wrote: “Since I am writing a book for Routledge Press, Encyclopedia of Sexuality in the Ancient World, I shall need help, especially with Roman topics. Consequently, I shall want from each student a set of encyclopedia-style (brief and factual) entries (no more than 1 or 1 and a half pages each) on topics either drawn from a list of suggestions or relevant to the student’s own interests.”

4. Others I noticed: gymnopaídia (4) but elsewhere gymnopaidía; habrosinê for habrosynê (8); Domodocus for Demodocus (11); Cybale for Cybele (16); balnea but in the next line balneae (17); Surburban for Suburban (19); Antiphannes for Antiphanes (26); psímthion for psimythion (36); desderium for desiderium (40); Stampoulides for Stampolides (45); Rhadymanthus for Rhadamanthus (48); Erechthonius for Erichthonius (55); Hilairia for Helaira (69); inyx for iynx (72); proíka for proíx (74); loutróphoros for loutrophóroi (75); Parastateis for Parastatai (91); Garaistos for Geraistos (93); extravagence for extravagance (94); Nickophanes for Nikophanes (103); nysteía for nêsteía (132); Tiberias for Tiberius (137); Leuothea for Leukothea (133); Lekcothoe for Leucothoe (137); Hurwitt for Hurwit (151); Panathaia for Panathenaia (157); Athenian Adonis for Athenian Adonia (159); Boscotrecasa for Boscotrecase (202).

5. Further cases of wrong accent: mázos for mazós (6); arkteuésthai for arkteúesthai (13); mástoi for mastoí (25); ándron for andrón (129); olísbos for ólisbos (41); erótes for érotes (45); gynaikománes for gynaikomaneîs (57); kárpo for karpô (75); oskhé for óskhe (89); kleínos for kleinós (91); megalomísthoi for megalómisthoi (111); erótikaí for erotikaí (144).