BMCR 2011.01.19

Bodies and Boundaries in Graeco-Roman Antiquity

, , Bodies and Boundaries in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2009. viii, 317. ISBN 9783110212525. $155.00.


Table of Contents

[Authors, titles, and sections are listed at the end of the review.]

I requested this volume for review because of the words “bodies” and “boundaries” in the title, assuming that I would receive a collection of essays on embodiment and liminality that would employ these urgent postmodern critical categories as a framework through which to view ancient Greek and Roman society and culture. While some of the individual essays fulfilled my expectations, the collection as a whole falls short. Left with the impression that the volume lacked theoretical sophistication, I used the search feature of Google Books to count the instances of the key theoretical terms, “embodiment” (occurs five times, plus “embody,” 4, and “embodies,” 2) and “liminality” (occurs not at all, although “liminal” occurs twice). By contrast, the words “body” or “bodies” and “boundary” or “boundaries” occur 196 times and 89 times, respectively. These lexical observations, of course, do not in and of themselves demonstrate that the volume is theoretically lacking; but they confirm my impression that, with occasional exceptions, these essays only minimally engage with a large and important body of critical theory developed over the past several decades at the intersection of feminism, gender studies, queer theory, transgender theory, critical race theory, and postcolonial studies, among other fields.

This collection grew out of a conference at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2006. In their preface, the editors state that the volume “examines the ways in which bodies, lived and imagined, were implicated in issues of cosmic order and social organization in classical antiquity.” (v) That characterization is strictly accurate, since the essays deal with issues such as the social construction of divinity, humanity, and bestiality, and the performativity of social statuses such as ruler and ruled or slave and free. Too often, however, the essays in practice turn out to be merely informative, providing well documented research into aspects of social history and material culture, but seldom rising to the level of critical analysis suggested by the editors’ description of their project.

In a brief introduction, Gloria Ferrari locates the book within discourses of embodiment and performativity that grow out of feminism, queer theory, and cultural studies under the influence of anthropologists such as Marcel Mauss and Erving Goffman, and of more recent work by Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva. What often seems lacking in the essays, however, are clear indications of the specific ideological or political commitments that characterize the “post-Foucauldian perspective” that Ferrari cites as a formative influence on the book. Most of the theorists cited by Ferrari have sought to historicize socially constructed notions of embodiment and to denaturalize masculinist, patriarchal, and heteronormative conceptions of the sexed and gendered body. While many of the essays allude, to a greater or lesser extent, to this postmodern critique of embodiment, one only occasionally finds within these pages the spirit of resistance to the unjust and oppressive regulation of normative bodies and boundaries that characterizes much of the work by which the volume claims to be informed.

The best contributions do in fact rise to the standard of theoretically informed critical analysis that the volume’s title, preface, and introduction promise. The very best, I would argue, is Judith Perkins’ essay on the relationship between the material turn in the Christian discourse on embodiment and the evolving class stratification of the Roman criminal justice system. Perkins analyzes early patristic literature to show that Christian resurrection discourse of the second century C.E. increasingly turned from the notion of a transcendent, spiritual body to that of a material, abject body that would be resurrected and judged when the heavenly court convened at the time of the second coming. This material turn in Christian resurrection discourse, Perkins argues, paralleled a broader cultural discourse about justice and human embodiment. The early imperial centuries saw the emergence of a judicial distinction between groups of higher and lower social status ( honestiores and humiliores respectively) in the context of a newly emerging system of differential criminal penalties according to social status. Christian eschatology refigures this paradigm in terms of the final judgment of a material resurrected body, thereby resisting, discursively at least, the social stratification that defined some bodies as subject to humiliation and brutality while exempting other bodies from such punishments. Perkins’ is the only essay in the volume that makes reference to Julia Kristeva’s 1982 study of abjection, Powers of Horror, one of the most important texts in the postmodern discourse of embodiment and liminality. Moreover, Perkins’ is one of few essays in the volume that suggests engagement with the values of resistance to the unjust state regulation of bodies implied in much of the postmodern discourse of embodiment and liminality. “Christian resurrection discourse,” she writes, “projects a social body with porous boundaries, a paradigmatic open body that contests the increasing importance of hierarchy in imperial society.” (255)

Another contribution that stands out for its clearly stated, well argued, and politically engaged thesis is that of Judith P. Hallett. Hallett argues that Ovid’s narrative of Pygmalion and his statue at Metamorphoses 10.238-97 both evokes and responds to the amatory verse of his contemporary, Sulpicia. Hallett assumes that Sulpicia is the author of all eleven of the elegies about her in the sequence preserved as elegies 8 to 18 in Book 3 of Tibullus. Building on previous work by Alison Sharrock, Hallett employs intertextual analysis to argue that Ovid identifies Sulpicia more with Pygmalion’s statue than with the artist himself, attempting to regulate the image of Sulpicia as poet and lover and resisting Sulpicia’s own efforts to transcend literary and physical boundaries. Hallett considers numerous intertextual references to conclude that, by refashioning Sulpicia in the image of Pygmalion’s statue, Ovid discursively defines Sulpicia “as a female body and as a work, not a worker, of art.” (123) Hallett argues easily and comfortably an explicitly feminist thesis; her stance is particularly welcome in a volume of essays based on a theoretical tradition pioneered and persistently enriched by feminist scholars, critics, and intellectuals.

Other contributions are interesting, if more informative than truly analytical or critical. In this category I would note particularly the essays of Kathrin Schade, co-editor Mireille M. Lee, and Lauren Hackworth Petersen. Schade focuses on the portrayal of clarissimae feminae, pious Roman women of the aristocratic elite, in a range of visual media from the fourth and fifth centuries C.E., arguing that the sensual image of these woman in late antiquity derives from the pagan tradition. Lee considers a range of textual, visual, and archaeological evidence to argue that Greek practices of body modification contributed to the social construction of gender, status, and ethnicity. Peterson examines literary and visual evidence to explore the inscription of social identity on Roman bodies through clothing and adornment, arguing that the social construction of the freedman body served to define elite identity by marking and enforcing boundaries among free, freed, and slave bodies. These essays would have been even more compelling if their authors had made connections between the cultural regulation of bodies and the policing of social boundaries in Greco-Roman antiquity on the one hand, and the contemporary imperative to resist unjust hierarchies of embodiment and rigid enforcement of boundaries between sexes, genders, races, classes, and other markers of privileged or marginal status on the other.

Particularly disappointing was the contribution by co-editor Thorsten Fögen, who discusses a range of texts on non-verbal communications and body language from the first centuries B.C. and C.E., with particular emphasis on Cicero and Quintilian. In a section entitled “the fear of mollitia,” he contends that “Roman writers on rhetoric emphatically warn against the dangers of effeminacy in an orator.” (34) Characterizing this devaluation of the feminine as a “fear,” however, suggests a connection with modern discourses of homophobia and gynophobia that Fögen does not explicitly argue for. In his concluding section, he asserts that physical difference from a normative masculine ideal is devalued in Roman rhetorical discourse. (38) Fögen declines to comment, however, on the justice of this observed fact of Roman life. Some may object that it exceeds the proper boundaries of academic discourse to comment on the justice of aspects of ancient society and culture. I would argue, on the contrary, that we classicists have overcorrected our earlier tendency to adduce normative moral standards from the texts we study. Now, we tend to strive for a tone of objective scholarly detachment when it comes to social and cultural practices that had either painful or pleasurable consequences for real people living real lives. I suspect that Fögen personally opposes the stigmatization and marginalization of men who fail to meet a normative masculine ideal, at least in the context of contemporary Anglo-European society. I would urge him to state any such objection clearly and explicitly in his academic writing on classical antiquity. If we pass up the opportunity to comment on the injustice of particular social and cultural behaviors and attitudes in antiquity, we run the risk of suggesting that such practices are just and acceptable in modernity. With his brief discussion of evidence, and far-reaching claims about the dominant discourse on deviant gender identity, it is not clear what Fögen adds to more expansive, better documented studies on the same topic by Bartsch, Gleason, Gunderson, Richlin, Williams, or others.1

I eagerly approached Donald Lateiner’s essay, an analysis of instances of transsexualism and transvestism in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Lateiner argues that these willful reconstructions of selfhood test the permeable boundaries of anatomical sex and socially constructed gender. He considers the cases of Tiresias, Sithon, Hermaphroditus, Mestra, Iphis, Caenis, and the Coronids to demonstrate that while women choose to become men to gain access to male privilege, men become women against their will, losing status, strength, and privilege. He then considers instances of transvestism as a means of manipulating the outward appearance of gender identity to conceal or deceive others regarding one’s true sex. Lateiner concludes that Ovid “presents gender as generally constant” (149), noting that transvestites are always ultimately unmasked, and that transsexuals tend to retain their original gender identity despite their assumption of the opposite anatomical sex. While I am sure that Lateiner is aware of the large body of transgender theory and criticism that emerged beginning in the 1990s, he does not situate his own study of transsexual and transvestite phenomena in Ovid in the context of contemporary transgender discourse. Given that the transgender movement is such a central part of the larger discourse of embodiment and liminality, this omission is of particular concern.

Embodiment and liminality are important concepts in the postmodern discourses of dominance, deviance, power, and self-determination, among others. The essays in this volume, well researched and well documented, offer a useful point of entry for classicists into debates that have profound implications for issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and social status. It is exciting to see classicists engaging this body of thought. My hope is that future efforts will retain the commitment to social justice out of which these discourses developed.

1. Editors’ Preface, Thorsten Fögen and Mireille M. Lee
2. Introduction, Gloria Ferrari
3. The Body in Antiquity: A Very Select Bibliography, Thorsten Fögen
II. The Body in Performance
4. Sermo corporis: Ancient Reflections on gestus, vultus and vox, Thorsten Fögen
5. Bodies and Topographies in Ancient Stylistic Theory, Nancy Worman
6. Paying Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Disclosing and Withholding the Imperial Presence in Justinianic Constantinople, Charles Pazdernïk
III. The Erotic Body
7. Man as Monster: Eros and Hubris in Plato’s Symposium, Peter von Möllendorff
8. Corpus erat. Sulpicia’s Elegiac Text and Body in Ovid’s Pygmalion Narrative (Metamorphoses 10.238-297), Judith P. Hallett
9. Transsexuals and Transvestites in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Donald Lateiner
IV. The Dressed Body
10. Body-Modification in Classical Greece, Mireille M. Lee
11. ‘Clothes Make the Man’: Dressing the Roman Freedman Body, Lauren Hackworth Petersen
V. Pagan and Christian Bodies
12. The Female Body in Late Antiquity: Between Virtue, Taboo and Eroticism, Kathrin Schade
13. Early Christian and Judicial Bodies, Judith Perkins
VI. Animal Bodies and Human Bodies
14. Shifting Species: Animal and Human Bodies in Attic Vase Painting in the 6th and 5th Centuries B.C., Annetta Alexandridis
15. Exemplary Animals: Greek Animal Statues and Human Portraiture, Catherine M. Keesling


1. See, for example, S. Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian, Cambridge, MA 1994; M. Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome, Princeton 1995; E. Gunderson, Staging Masculinity: The Rhetoric of Performance in the Roman World, Ann Arbor 2000; A. Richlin, The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor, New York 1992; and C. Williams, Roman Homosexuality, New York 2010.