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Ancient Evenings

Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World

By Giulia Sissa

Translated by George Staunton

(Yale University Press, 224 pp., $38)

Perhaps the most interesting finding of the two Kinsey reports on sexual behavior published in 1948 and 1953, and thus early harbingers of the mid-century revolution, was the enormous gap it revealed between accepted social and religious norms and what actually went on behind closed doors. There was much talk of hypocrisy, but this missed the point. As Aristotle stressed long ago, the powerful (and intensely enjoyable) spontaneous sexual impulse was there to ensure the continuation of mankind, just as in most other creatures, especially fellow mammals. What he did not point out were the endless variations on the procreative objective that some of these mammals, mankind most noticeably, managed to discover in their pursuit of pleasure, by way of the sexual imagination; and, countering this, the enormous edifice of social rules and often bizarre myths with which human authority, through the ages, has sought to discipline desire, or, when this proved impossible, to ensure that its less civic forms, however vigorous, remained out of sight, forbidden, officially unthinkable.

From antiquity until very recent times, this contrapuntal system, with all its frustrations, was kept firmly in place, and served a kind of social purpose. What shocked the public about the Kinsey reports was their reminder of what the system was there to do--promote a socially acceptable myth; and of the gap between the myth itself and the facts that underlay it. What caused increasing anger was the realization--something that Carol Groneman's heavily documented study Nymphomania: A History reveals in scarifying detail--of how deeply these fundamental myths about sex were generated by, and were the instruments of, those in authority, be they statesmen, educators, religious leaders, or lawyers. Century after century, fluctuating cultural norms of sex have been proclaimed and, where publicly flouted, enforced, by ruling bodies. Century after century, clandestine delightful activity has blithely or guiltily ignored them.

The vigorous exposure, during the last half-century, of every conceivable form of sexual activity has transformed Western society. The love that once dared not speak its name began to trumpet even louder than its straight competitor. It took AIDS to put an effective brake on the Swinging Seventies, and the new freedoms, even so, were what continued to get most coverage. Comparatively few of our innumerable writers on sex and the sexual revolution promote the views of the (mostly) silent majority, and those that do are regularly targeted as sexist troglodytes, or worse.

Yet just how widespread, even today, are those freedoms? The truth is that the sex in the news, the noisy and glamorous and politically incendiary stuff, has always belonged to various sub-cultures, some more celebrated than others. This meant that it applied, in the last resort, to a surprisingly small percentage of the population. A solid majority remained, and remains, as respectable and conformist--perhaps with the occasional unpublicized slip-up--as even those public watchdogs Thomas Bowdler (the expurgator of Shakespeare) and Mrs. Grundy could have wished for. Respectability may be dull, but it still has the votes.

There is also an unspoken class factor involved. Mrs. Grundy never had more vociferous public supporters than the working and (in particular) the genteel lower-middle classes, for whom normality has always been a powerful watchword, and who have always been ready to shy contemptuous brickbats at any thesis or creative work, from Freud's to Picasso's, that challenged it. The idea that even licit sex was something unclean and not to be discussed, except in dirty jokes, was and, surprisingly, remains extraordinarily widespread. Tolerance for deviation from the alleged sexual norm has advanced indeed--but not all that far, as we have been unpleasantly reminded by the passing of Proposition 8 in California. All the money that the Mormons poured into support of this attack on same-sex marriage would have been for naught if there were not a solid core of voters hospitable to their arguments.

It is, then, of some interest to find a virtually identical scenario in the ancient world. This curious coincidence has long been obscured by scholars who generally concentrate on the literate upper classes (the source, in Greece and Rome, of most of the evidence), and even there have their own preferred agenda to promote, most notably in connection with Athens's aristocratic tradition of idealized cultural pederasty. We are by now all too familiar with the arguments promoting not only Athens, but ancient Greece generally, as uniquely supportive of homoerotic relationships. The claims of Michel Foucault and Kenneth Dover in favor of macho penetrationism--the superior male sexually dominating the weaker vessels of either gender--as the linchpin of Greco-Roman erotic morality, not to mention James Davidson's objection to this "sodomania," as he called it, for concentrating on the sexual act to the exclusion of love, are all played out against an assumption of overall Hellenic homoeroticism. And they regularly generalize from the evidence of intellectually and culturally limited groups--as does Giulia Sissa, whose new book seeks to restore some heterosexual balance to this emotional picture.

In fact, there is evidence hinting at the existence of a silent Greek majority uncommonly like the one still around today: no accident that the Greek term for the genitalia, aidoia, means, literally, the "shameful parts." At Athens, except for the licensed ribaldry of Old Comedy, all drama (the only surviving literary document directed at a mass audience) was as sexually prudish as any Victorian could have wished: when Euripides made Phaedra proposition her stepson Hippolytus onstage, the outcry was such that he had to re-write the play. Also, for a supposedly homoerotic culture, the almost total absence of this motif, as opposed to the prevalence of marital relations, good or bad, in fifth-century tragedy, is remarkable. Even in comedy we find weddings as a regular happy ending, while some of the most vigorous satire is directed, with crude venom, against sodomized politicians and philosophical hot air. It is often remarked that the plot of Aristophanes's Lysistrata--a sex strike by wives to stop their husbands' warmongering--is unreal because of all the other sexual outlets, from boys to whores, easily available; but the critics never seem to have considered that enough of the audience may have been sufficiently respectable to make the idea at least plausible.

The history of sexual habits and mores in antiquity is, in essence, restricted to that of the educated upper classes whose views on the subject have been preserved, whether in their writings or on the surviving illustrated ceramic ware that they bought. There are exceptions, of course: gravestones inscribed with loving marital epitaphs and, later, little commissioned quatrains to favorite children, servants, and pets, which hint at an ordinary recognizable world going on quite apart from that of the literate, propertied, and slave-owning upper crust--poets, playwrights, philosophers, historians, government officials, memoirists, and, eventually, theologians. But it is these, like it or not, for whose erotic evolution and culturally elitist theories we have the evidence, and who supply the highly cerebral nexus of Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World.

That evolution extends from Homer's civilized aristocratic women of a bygone age, by way of post-Dark Age sour misogyny, to a post-Solonian enskyment of handsome ephebes, followed by the Hellenistic reversion to individualism in marriage, and, finally, the Roman obsession with male aggressiveness and warm baths, which in turn loses out to Christian monasticism, holy dirt, and an obsession with virginity. This saga is played out to the accompaniment of nervous-nellie Pandora legends, philosophical pussyfooting about the ideals of male adolescence, and bizarre medical notions, from the Hippocratics to Galen, about human anatomy and the biological relationship of female to male, some of which make the Adam's rib theory look sensible by comparison. Though modern scholars are too polite to say so, much of the ancient world's take on sex is not only primitive (that taboo term) but, in contemporary terms, sublimely silly.

Giulia Sissa is too earnest to see the funny side of much that she describes. Her approach to this tradition is intellectually conventional, in that her dominant interest is in analyzing what theorists and writers thought was going on, rather than aiming for the historical actuality (sometimes, indeed, she treats the two as identical); but she is at the same time robustly opposed to much current conventional wisdom. In particular she objects to the phallic reductionism preached by Foucault and documented by Dover. Like Davidson, she sees this emphasis on the mechanics of erect sex as excluding a wide range of erotic emotions, above all that sensuality which she describes as "anguish and delight, want and anticipation, attraction and seduction, rapture and strategy. " Or, in sum, love as opposed to sex.

In sharp contrast to Davidson, however, Sissa sees femininity as the stimulant source for all of these longings and relations--primarily in the female (she quotes Lucretius on "the woman who emanates love from her entire body," toto iactans e corpore amorem), but also in the cinaedus, "the male with an effeminate, languorous and loose-limbed body." For her, the "pure virility" of primitive man needs a healthy additive of femininity to become civilized, to reach that point in human relationships where the ideal is a "longing for reciprocity rather than unilateral possession." No surprise that one of her star witnesses is that subversively un-Roman poet Ovid.

No surprise, also, that so dedicated an intellectual analyst should show such indifference concerning the historical background, the historical causes, of those vast changes in social attitude that she encounters as she progresses through the centuries. Sometimes, too, she seems a little lacking in plain common sense. Her opening chapter, on "Desire," offers striking examples of this. Sissa is very comfortable with the sophisticated sensibilities of Penelope in the later books of the Odyssey (without ever seeing them as evidence for a highly developed Bronze Age culture preserved, as it were, in literary aspic); but her interpretation of what is actually happening can take one aback. What, precisely, is Penelope's attraction for the suitors who are eating her out of house and home? It's sex, says Sissa, who takes their expressed determination in this matter very literally, and notes that the lucky winner will remove his prize elsewhere, and not move in. But wait. Penelope has a son who is not far short of being their coeval, and she is certainly old enough to be the mother of most of them. They go weak at the knees for her? In fact they have sex with her maids. The Freudian implications are plain, but as an explanation for the suitors' behavior they run a very poor second to the status and the power to be gained by marrying the king's (presumed) widow.

Sissa also insists that although Penelope's love for Odysseus (always, irritatingly, referred to in this Greek context by his Romanized name, Ulysses) still endures, "she has now set out upon a route that leads to another bed," and that the test of the bow is a sign of this. But she hasn't, and it isn't. Penelope's delicate fencing with the ragged stranger (who is of course Odysseus himself), and the goose-dream of the eagle-as-avenger that she imparts to him, along with the proposed bow-test, makes it clear that she is pretty sure she has recognized her longed-for husband and is shrewdly establishing a situation in which he will not only win the contest (no one else can string his bow) but also rid her, without being asked, of the horde of freeloading males who are making her life a misery. At the same time Sissa claims that Odysseus "is not interested in [Calypso's] love." Tsk, tsk. Two lines before the passage she cites comes the deadly little phrase showing that in fact, after a liaison with the complaisant nymph lasting some years, he has become bored with her. You have to watch Sissa: this supposed lack of interest is then picked up and used as an argument elsewhere.

For Sissa, it seems clear, text (not to mention the spin that she can impart to it) is what matters, but context, especially where historical reality is concerned, remains a vulgar irrelevance. From Homer she moves on to a scrutiny of Hesiod. Woman has suddenly become a nagging, greedy, demanding golddigger, somehow responsible for all "sorrows, unrest, anguish, work and worries," and for tempting hapless men to ruin by making them feel, for the first time, that they lack something, and thereby encouraging them not to stick with the new ethic of being content with one's lot. That this metamorphosis may have had something to do with the collapse of the Bronze Age civilization recalled in the Odyssey, and the horrendous social disintegration, long familiar to archaeologists, brought in with the Dark Age that followed, can hardly have escaped Sissa's notice; but all we hear, as a gloss on the text, is that "ethical thought appears to lose that Homeric trust in the possibility of experiencing the sensation of plenitude and of not lacking something." Well, yes.

With a casual couple of words on Solon and Herodotus (were they too mundane?) Sissa jumps forward, with evident relief, to Plato, noting in the interim period the development of the philosophical assertion that human desires and appetites are, by definition, insatiable (and targeting in this context the word aplestia, which literally means "unfillability"). Again, there is no attempt to explain the phenomenon, in social or any other terms. Also sprach Plato, and this must suffice. But what did lead to this hysterical extension of the Delphic maxim "nothing in excess," to Plato's notion that the appetitive part of the soul is like "a gluttonous beast chained to the body's feeding trough"? I suspect it was the rapidly growing capacity for abstraction, which in turn sharpened intellectual distaste for the coarser realities of life. Desire came to be seen (at least by the philosophical elite) as an indiscriminate killjoy, and ideas as the sole source of pure and lasting pleasure. The ordinary Athenian, as is all too clear from Aristophanes's comedies, had less rarefied goals, but he rates low, if at all, in Plato's and Sissa's order of things.

After invoking the notion of Heraclitean flux to prove that in the Platonic view of things "erotic desire is modeled on the digestion of food and reduced to an uninterrupted flow," Sissa winds up with a slap at Foucault for underestimating the ontological factor in Greek ethics, and moves briskly on to Pleasure. Here she abandons any attempt to discuss the phenomenon in evolutionary, much less historical, terms: in the first two pages her witnesses include Hesiod, Homer, Plato, Aristophanes, Aristotle, and Pompeian frescoes. A famous fourth-century court case alleging sexual misconduct, Aeschines's prosecution of Timarchus, is then tied in with Plato's Symposium to take a retrospective look at Alcibiades, Socrates, and the Athenian aristocratic idealization of handsome ephebes, the pursuit of eros kalos, "beautiful love," that in theory rises above sex. Sissa also throws in a decidedly Hellenistic interpretation of pleasure as "the extinction of pain and an end to unease."

This scattershot and chronologically loose use of evidence can be stimulating, but it remains historically questionable. Sissa is right to emphasize the exaggerations of philosophers and rhetoricians when asserting individual freedom in the Athenian democracy, but she blurs the full ethical evolution with her olla podrida of evidence culled from different centuries; and her preoccupation with ideas rather than facts often leads her to conflate the two when dealing with public affairs. If she knows that the Athenian democracy remained for the most part in the hands of a few old families, it is not something she chooses to mention, and she appears to believe (though in this she is not alone) that Alcibiades, the quintessential example of the all-hat-and-no-cattle self-promoter, had "great skills as a general." Who, as Byron asked, remembers what battles he won? But the upshot of the discussion is, once again, that eros orthos, just love or upright love (did Sissa remember that orthos can also mean "erect"?) should transcend mere sex.

What, then, is to become of sensuality, not least when the pre-Pandoran myth is of a golden age unencumbered with women or intercourse (a mode of reproduction that has always had its critics)? Plato, as Sissa points out, in one of his more exotic myths, imagined that "the penis and the womb introduced the mindlessness and the beastly nature of the appetitive part of the soul into human anatomy," men having previously had neither a penis nor a woman to put a penis in, a state that is conducive (according to Plato) to natural bliss. The penis was to prove a tyrannical and recalcitrant beast, impervious to reason. (Augustine, eagerly picking up on Plato centuries later, thought an erection was the mark of Original Sin.) After all this, Aristotle's biological common sense--his view of the sexual drive as guarantee of natural procreation, with the penis a kind of spontaneous ideal slave--comes as welcome relief. Moralists, alas, preferred Plato.

Aristotle was also less bizarre in his assessment of female biology. Though he did argue that the humid secretion generated during a woman's arousal was largely restricted to blondes, this was sane in comparison with the Hippocratic theory, which not only regarded this secretion as a spermatic ejaculation vital for procreation, but also believed that the neck of the uterus and the vagina were a penis and foreskin turned inside out. Where this left the clitoris (which both Greeks and Romans knew about) is anyone's guess, and Sissa, whether out of modesty or because her sources are silent on the subject, never mentions it.

Having thus set the scene to her own satisfaction, Sissa moves on to a somewhat idiosyncratic survey of social relationships, her generalizations happily unhampered by any strong concern with historical change or evolution. Marriage was "a euphoric event" in which the bride had "an erection, albeit an internal and invisible one." This may be thought silly, but (as so often with Sissa) it is not half as silly as some of the ancient beliefs that she parades--in this case the firm medical conviction, from Hippocrates to Galen, that there was no such part of the female anatomy as the membrane known as the hymen. Sissa suggests this was because the idea offended the theoretical concept of the female apparatus as an open container. Surely it indicates instead that actual birthing and obstetrics were restricted to female midwives, who, being lower class and women, were ignored by the medical theorists. What, then, about the Roman mythological wedding addressee, Hymenaeus? Probably "based on a lexical coincidence."

Much more sensible are Sissa's sections on children (evidence ranging from Sophocles's Oedipus to briefs by the fourth-century inheritance lawyer Isaeus), and the legalities of individuals in their communities, with females always at a disadvantage ("at any age, a woman was a statutory minor"). Sissa cannot resist a section on sex in tragedy, though her claim that tragic plots always "conjure up the image of intense erotic passions" is overdoing it a bit: what about Aeschylus's Persians or Phrynichus's Capture of Miletus? Her questions take one aback. What, she asks, "if Penelope were to act like Clytemnestra; what if Clytemnestra had emulated Penelope?" To which the obvious answer would seem to be: no Oresteia and a very different ending (though no less mayhem) in the Odyssey. But Sissa has a less prosaic conclusion: "The bed, which is never put on view, is the real stage." Why, I wonder, did we never think of that?

By far the most interesting part of Sissa's survey describes the progression in Roman literature from sexuality to sensuality. It does not start well. Lucretius, presented with Epicurus's denial of "insatiable desire," reverts to Plato's notion that the pleasure in sexual passion is illusory, even pathological. But then, presto, here comes sophisticated Ovid, claiming that the solution is the shaping of love through art (arte regendus amor). His famous Art of Love cultivates a nice balance between masculine hardness and feminine softness. He is also, as a master of metamorphosis, inclined to believe that the adolescent, the boy with feminine limbs (puer membris muliebribus), is a kind of chrysalis, whose maturing into a tough and hairy male actually represents a change of gender, thus validating the Roman penetrationist's code. The crude pursuit of promiscuity--the Lucretian Venus vulgivaga, who sounds like an energetic Russian tart--is to be tamed and civilized by art and faithfulness (fides). To explain the passive queen, such as Juvenal's Virro, Sissa reminds us of the ancient medical theory that sodomy, by channeling semen into the anal region, creates "an insatiable and feminine sensuality."

And at last we are delivered to Jesus, if you will pardon the expression. Finally Sissa offers up a lively sketch of how this world of phallic high jinks, philosophical puritanism, and hot/cold moist/dry sensuality was received by early Christianity. Better to marry than to burn, said Paul: or as Sissa nicely puts it, "philosophy and family were two orders of incompatible commitments." Sexual desire became seen as a punishment for Original Sin. Virginity was the ideal; the bride of Christ could concentrate wholly on her heavenly spouse. Wealth and family were a pale second-best, and sex, even if sanctioned in marriage, though not technically an evil, was time wasted on the flesh rather than devoted to God. "Attention to God is erotic time. Virginity is a passion." In this sense, early Christian marriage seems more designed for the avoidance of fornication than for the traditional objective of being fruitful and multiplying. Plato would have found this line of thought quite congenial.

But the ideal of contemplative virginity raises an obvious problem, of which Sissa is well aware: if the ideal were to be achieved, where, then, would future generations of worshippers be found? "This fervour could have relegated early Christianity to the marginality of a fundamentalist sect incapable of regeneration." The ethical compromises that Sissa describes cannot conceal the contempt for ordinary people implicit in the theory, and visible, century after century, in all such concepts. For the theorists there is always a despised silent majority, from the landless men whom Cleisthenes, as a last desperate political measure, enfranchised, to the tiers etat of Plato's Republic. Tradesmen and artisans were beyond the pale: in Thebes they had to have abandoned their callings for ten years before they could run for office. Scientists from Euclid to Archimedes were united in their contempt for applied rather than theoretical science.

Paul and all the Christian apologists knew perfectly well that they could rely on a majority of ordinary people, operating by their supposedly vulgar and inferior creative instincts, to keep the world safe for a privileged clique of God-directed virgins. And so we are back to where we began: the ancient sex for which we have the evidence belongs to a literate upper-class minority cult, indifferent and sometimes even hostile to the mass of the population. Unfortunately, it is this minority with which Giulia Sissa and many other intellectuals are exclusively aligned.

Peter Green is currently Whichard Distinguished Visiting Professor at East Carolina University and the author most recently of The Hellenistic Age: A Short History (Modern Library).

By Peter Green