Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Barbara Feichtinger (ed.), Gender studies in den Altertumswissenschaften: Aspekte von Macht und Erotik in der Antike. IPHIS - Beiträge zur altertumswissenschaftlichen Genderforschung, Bd 4. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2010. Pp. 264. ISBN 9783868212723. €29.50 (pb).

Reviewed by Maria Gerolemou, University of Cyprus (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This fourth volume in the Iphis series comprises the acta of the German conference on Gender Studies in classics held at the University of Konstanz at 12-13 July, 2007 ("Gender Studies in den Altertumswissenschaften: Eros und Aphrodite. Von der Macht der Erotik und der Erotik der Macht"). The different discussions, each with its own bibliography (except Feichtingers), assembled in this volume focus on eros as a metaphor for politics in terms of gender from philological, historical and archaeological points of view. The final product provides a fresh study comparing several related classical situations with modern facts. For instance, Feichtinger in her essay introduces Sarkozy and Bruni as a modern example of the power of eros in politics, or Kreilinger in her article on Greek religion shows that Japanese Shinto religion can be regarded as a contemporary combination of erotic and religion, or Chitta's article about marriage alliances in ancient Rome draws a parallel to Maria Stuart as a modern example of this political strategy. Through this effective comparison of modern and ancient paradigms the collection offers a valuable contribution to current research, although sometimes there are topical overlaps (after Schmitzer's essay on Augustan marriage/alliances, Carina Chitta cannot say much more). Unfortunately, the book in general lacks a theoretical basis or approach. Thus, without a theorization of the eros concept,1 the book gives the impression that it treats the subject under consideration casually, that is, it deals with eros as a transcendant experience without either asking specific questions or providing clear answers.

The introduction by Barbara Feichtinger, with the intricate title "Pro prooemio: Von Augustus bis Nicolas Sarkozy: Nach{t}gedanken zu Eros als patriarchale Macht", suggests a general frame for the eleven articles that follow. Her main argument consists of the assumption that eros is, in a way, powerful because it has a subversive potential. This supposition is in opposition to traditional perspectives, in which abusing or disclaiming eros eventually constitutes controlling social mechanisms. For example, in the Ancient Greek world, women essentially were forced to sell their sexuality in matrimony, losing their power of reproductive choice in return for status at the side of their husband. Furthermore, the betrothal of the woman actually took place between the father of the bride and the groom; thus, women were, in essence, objectified in the wedding-contract. The more prestigious the bride (noble, wealthy and beautiful), and the greater the expense and effort to get her, the greater the public prestige of the groom (that is, the perception of his virility and, thus, political power). This social mechanism could change, however, if eros no longer worked as a culturally sanctioned device in order to affirm paternalism. If lived and experienced as a passion, and that is the other side of the coin, it could also be anarchical, uneconomic, private, and/or irrational and thus destroy the social and political order.

For example, a passionate free citizen lover could be a slave to his slave girl. Similar is the threatening role of eros in politics. The political man desires political power as a man who is in love, and he is able to violate norms in order to get it; likely, a man truly in love with a woman might be seen as unreliable for leadership (cf. also homosexuals). In the end, though, the unpredictable eros could be tamed. For instance, the exposure of the intimacy and wildness of the sexual act and erotic practice in literature as well as in cult practices aims at its canonization and control (until Christianity, where sexuality and eros are conceived anew).

In the following, an overview of the subsequent eleven papers in the volume is presented.

Georg Wöhrle, in his essay "Der heimlicher Beobachter oder die Macht des Erzählers über den indiskreten Blick," demonstrates how eros can function as a narrative strategy which captivates the imagination of the reader. Here, the intimacy of the sexual act, projected onto literature, is threatened by the secret observer (reader, narrator, general recipient) who thus violates the social norm of intimacy. The first paradigm considered is from the Iliad Dios apate scene (14. 159ff.), where Hypnos is described by the authorial narrator as the secret observer. The second example is the story of Aphrodite and Ares on Ida told by the singer Demodocus, an intradiegetic narrator. Here, all-seeing Helios is the witness of the amorous adventure of Aphrodite and Ares. In both paradigms the secret nature of the observer is specifically emphasized and works as a communicator of the intimacy of the scene and as a metaphor for voyeurism. The third example is the story of the wife of King Candaules in the beginning of Herodotus' first book, wherein the secret observer is Gyges (and with him the reader) and also Candaules (in thoughts). Two further paradigms from the Hellenistic era indicate what a secret observer is to expect from his secret activity, namely, punishment (Gyges in the fragmentary Gyges-drama, Teiresias in Callimachus' Hymn 5 On the bath of Pallas).

Karen Pieperbrink in "Eros und Polis im Athen des 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr." deals mainly with the question of to what extent the private sphere of eros is connected with the public field of politics, and how this changes through the years of Athenian democracy. In the 4th century the best citizen was not a lover of the city as in the 5th century erastes (cf. Thucydides' Hist. Epitaphios 2.43.1), but rather the one who acted with sophrosyne (in the 5th century a synonym for passivity, unmanliness, pro-Spartan attitude, in the 4th a positive notion displaying a balance between private and public life of the state with self-restraint). However, eros vanishes not totally as we now find the sophron eros. This development can be observed in the courts of law, wherein eros as excuse to act against the law was no longer considered a legitimate defense (examples are Lysia's Against Simon, Aeschines' Against Timarchus).

Helmut Seng's paper "Tyrannenlust" begins by demonstrating how, in the 9th book of Plato's Politeia, the term tyrannis is related to the reign of eros (the tyrant is a person in love). The tyrant's whole activity points to satisfying his power-eros through the exploitation of his male and, especially, female submissives. Seng then turns to other texts to confirm his view of a Platonic theory of erotic tyranny. He demonstrates that Polybius' Cycle of governments (Hist. 6. 3-10), Cicero's De re publica and Sallust's Catiline all discuss this sexual infringement by the tyrant and the various reactions to it.

Ulla Kreilinger in "Aischrologie, Iambik und anstößige Bilder auf attischer Keramik" and Maria Genimmata in her paper "Der Umgang athenischer Mädchen mit der Sexualität im Spiegel der Arkteia in Brauron" both illustrate how sexuality and erotic practice can be integrated into cult practices and thus be controlled. In this sense, participation in cult practices serves as a means of both patterned evasion and as an excuse to indulge in the otherwise forbidden. Kreillinger parallels the sexuality which still exists in the feasts of the polytheistic Shinto religion with the sexuality displayed on Attic ceramic vases in order to demonstrate the everlasting restricting function of religion towards sexuality and eros (cf. the cult of phallus also in iambic poetry). Thus, the association of women with sex symbols (phalloi) or words (aischrology) on the vases is not necessarily a kind of pornography, but it could merely be part of a cult practice. Gennimata reaches similar conclusions examining the role of Athenian girls in the cult of Artemis in Bauron, wherein girls were prepared for the role of mother and for the sexual role as wife. So, the sexually focused cult in Greece ironically confined female sexual lust to the narrow zone of marriage.

Claudia Lang-Auinger in her article "Aphrodite und Eros im Spiegel späthellenistisch-frühkaiserzeitlicher Wohnausstattung" analyses why terracotta representations of Aphrodite and Eros were placed in the houses of the later Hellenistic and early Imperial era. It seems that the usually naked Aphrodite symbolized the more powerful social status of women which resulted from changes in the gender norms during this period, namely the acquisition of political and economical rights. This cross of genders is displayed also in the alteration of house designing (Hausbauänderungen, p. 126), although the presence of mimos -figures in the ensembles served to minimize or to make fun of the new power of women.

Martina Hirschberger, in "Die Macht der Ohnmächtigen: Strategien sexueller Bewahrung im griechischen Liebesroman (Chariton, Xenophon Ephesios, Heliodor)", shows how eros in the imperial upper-class is presented in the Hellenistic novel. She states that eros appears not as a wild or self-indulgent tyrant, but as connubial harmony guided by sophrosyne with the inherent desires always under control. The lovers who often became slaves or captives had to fight against superior powers, which typically resembled uncontrolled sexual desires, in order to keep their sexual integrity untouched and, thus, also their identity as members of the social elite (p. 146).

Ulrich Schmitzer in "Julia – die Ohnmacht der Erotik" analyses the erotic power discourse related to emperor Augustus' daughter Julia, a femme fatale. The road to the throne would be passed through a woman; her hand in marriage, body and her ability to reproduce were seen as the means to alliance (Heiratsallianzen). By maintaining numerous lovers, however, Julia refused to submit her body to the power plays of Augustus and his court. Similarly, Carina Chitta in her paper "[...] tu felix Iulia nube [...] – Die Liebe zur Macht im iulisch-claudischen Kaiserhaus" examines the ways in which marriage and politics were interwoven in early imperial Rome.

Gesine Manuwald in "Die trauernde Gattin und die ängstliche Geliebte: Octavia und Poppaea in der pseudo- senecanischen Octavia" argues that in the story of Nero in the pseudo-Senecan tragedy «Octavia» the role of the hegemon, i.e. a cruel tyrant abusing his power, guides the relationship of Nero and his mistress Poppaea and eventually the murder of his wife Octavia. The special emphasis on the parallels of transgressed erotic with transgressed political power is similar to the analysis of Helmut Seng considered above. In Seng's argument, however, the tyrant is, in a way, constitutively governed by extreme eros.

Jula Wildberger in "Male Youths as Objects of Desire in Latin Literature: Some Antinomies in the Priapic Model of Roman Sexuality", elucidates the paradoxes of the priapic model (of dominant penetrator and passive penetrated) and how constitutive they are for the construction of homosexual or heterosexual maleness in the republic and early imperial Rome. This author also evaluates the priapic dilemma, i.e. the male difficulty of the erect penis functioning as a mentula in the hands of a woman or man inferior in status (a penetrated man), a fact that could threaten his patriarchal authority. According to this essay, the most important avoidance strategy toward the priapic dilemma is to see maleness not idealized through the naked male body, but though the heroic body and its virtues (through asexual virtues).

In summary, the somewhat loose argumentation of the collection and the absence of a concrete concept upon which to establish a theoretical basis for the analysis of the interaction of eros, gender and power can be seen as problematic. On the other hand, this is an interesting book with many useful insights which address a wide range of issues surrounding the topic while it invites a reconsideration of the paradoxical deconstructive/constructive power of eros in every aspect of the social life in Antiquity.


1.   For example Wohl V., Love among the Ruins, The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens, 2002, esp. p. 12-20.

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