Monday, December 15, 2014


Marília P.​ Futre Pinheiro, Marilyn B. Skinner, Froma I. Zeitlin (ed.), Narrating Desire: Eros, Sex, and Gender in the Ancient Novel. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 14. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2012. Pp. xi, 289. ISBN 9783110281828. $154.00.

Reviewed by Anna Foka, University of Umeå​ (

Version at BMCR home site


[The editors apologize for the delay in publication of this review.]

The ancient novel has never been examined to the same extent as Classical Greek or Golden Age Latin literature and this collection, edited by three accomplished gender scholars, is a great addition both because of its field and of its perspective, that of gender studies. The volume overall holds great interest to scholars and students of gender, emotions, and sexuality in antiquity. The editors go beyond the Greek novel, to include Byzantine and Roman samples of the genre with a specific focus on narratives and representations of love, desire and gender.

The volume comprises fourteen essays originally presented at the Fourth International Conference on the Ancient Novel in Lisbon in July 2008. The design of the book is helpful for research on the topic, with a composite bibliography, a separate Subject Index and an Index Locorum.

Individual contributions are grouped thematically rather than chronologically, and seek to explore the concepts of erôs, sex and gender under four larger themes in line with trends in current gender and sexuality studies research: 1) gender and the use of space, 2) male identity and gendered ambiguities, 3) female sexuality and eroticism, 4) sexual identity and gender transformations. One of the major novelties of the volume is that contributions seek to destabilize any fixed, binary opposition of masculine and feminine in the ancient world, and the book aims to bring out more interesting, transgressive concepts, like 'gendered ambiguities, hybrid identities, and role reversals' (p. 3).

In his introductory essay Jean Alvares, employs Lacanian theory to discuss desire in the Greek novel and so sets the ground for theoretical questions regarding the larger subject of erôs in the Greek novel. The author brings up formulations of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, the Law of Father and Configurations of the Real to explain the inner dynamics of desire in the Greek novel. Going beyond previous scholars of Roman elegy who employed Lacan, Alvares skillfully helps his reader observe new connections and opens valuable avenues of interpretation, especially concerning desire. He boldly states that romances are to seen largely as complex 'dramas of desire' and not as love stories. Though it limits itself to only one current trend Alvares' theoretical focus sets the ground for further explorations.

The second section, 'Gender and Organizing Space', offers a variety of approaches which go beyond earlier studies of space in the novel in analyzing the intertwining arrangements of space and gender. The first essay, by Elena Redondo Moyano, investigates the plots of five, entirely preserved Greek novels of 'love and adventures' (29), Chaireas and Callirhoe, the Ephesiaka, Leukippe and Clitophon, Daphnis and Chloe, and the Aithiopika. Redondo Moyano specifically treats concepts of macrospace (wider, public) and microspace (individual, private). She suggests that within the eastern cities of the Roman Empire, this conservative erotic ideology found in the said novels served specific practical needs of Hellenistic cities' elite communities. Redondo Moyano first discusses the cultural/intellectual and geographical framework of these texts and then examines what she considers 'the adventures', events the heroes have to endure to live up to the ideal of chaste love. She sharply observes that these adventures take place in imaginary spaces located in cities familiar from the literature available to the philhellenic educated upper class to which the protagonists belong. She then examines the roles of couples within microspaces; in a somewhat shorter section of her essay she observes how their sexual roles, post-adventure, become normalized as they are legalized. In the conclusion Redondo Moyano brings up the Greek perception of space (as similar to the home city) and the practical importance of marriages between members of the same culture and social class as indicative of the Greek polis ideology, which is transmitted mainly through the adventures experienced in the macrospace. She juxtaposes this with concepts of microspace, where one observes in the interaction between the young couple that traditional role models 'are transmitted whereby male authority is always reasserted' (47) and concludes that gender symmetry as a concept has clear limits and is often harnessed to the same social goals that the accepted values sought to achieve.

In the next essay Donald Lateiner delves into Aithiopica and Historia Apollonii to discuss gendered behaviors in deviant, threatening situations, namely violations of space and territorial intrusions. For Lateiner, the gendered spaces of the ancient novel echo the gendered ideologies and expectations of their readership. Lateiner skillfully shows how in both novels, although females have fewer place-making opportunities, most of them transgress their gendered, immobilizing boundaries and manage to produce space for themselves in a man's world, thus employing what Lateiner names 'cognitive geography', space as humans perceive it (74). For Lateiner both novels focus on the fractures of the family, specifically the intergenerational relations between fathers and daughters. Within the study of male space-controllers, Lateiner cleverly concludes that the manipulation of 'adventure time' by intelligent (female) characters eventually results in an elevation of their status even while it dramatically limits their mobility.

Anthony Littlewood focuses on the rather neglected genre of Byzantine literature by looking at the early fourteenth century novel Kallimachos and Chrysorrhöe by Manuel Philes. The essay discusses desire, love and romance in relation to vegetal-inspired allegory, but does not connect these to gender theory. Instead, Littlewood concentrates on the symbolic use of landscapes and gardens as aesthetic indicators of romance conventions. Littlewood highlights the importance of vegetal and aqueous symbolism for a Byzantine romance and even compares them with their biblical parallels.

The third section, 'Male Identity and Gendered Ambiguities', has four essays. Meriel Jones focuses on the performance of paideia in Chariton's Dionysios as an element that denotes private and public masculinity. Jones' excellently structured and well-argued essay begins with a coherent outline of the ancient construction of paideia as an element of masculinity, performed in both the public and private sphere. Jones skillfully helps explain why a successful performance is based upon fragile impressions of gender, and analyses the tension between masculine ideals and reality. According to Jones, Dionysus perfectly exemplifies the importance of both public and private paideia but also the impossibility of complete attainment of ideas of masculinity. The freshness of this essay is its focus on gender ambiguity in relation to paideia in both public and private realms.

The next three essays, deal with Achilles Tatius. Building upon previous studies on Achilles Tatius, especially concerning the body and its boundaries as well as questions of gender identity, Froma Zeitlin discusses partheneia and gendered ambiguities. Taking partheneia as the point of contestation, Zeitlin proves with brevity that masculine and feminine roles are more ambiguous and go beyond older binary interpretations, first in terms of social roles within the novel and more specifically in constructions of independent selfhood in conditions of contact and separation. An appendix contains examples of modes of communication that can be useful for the study of emotion in the novel.

Romain Brethes concentrates on Achilles Tatius' novel Leucippe and Cleitophon, specifically the sexual identity of the novel's male main character, the definition of the masculine self and the destabilization of firm boundaries of gender representations. Brethes looks beyond parody and pastiche as well as traditional attacks on masculinity found in courtroom oratory and instead focuses on the sexual phraseology found in the novel, where binary female and male representations become irrelevant.

Daniel King deals with the same novel as Brethes, but concentrates on female subjectivity. King builds upon earlier studies downplaying female empowerment that combine Christian martyr-stories and Leukippe's control of the body to discuss the masculine domination of the narrative. King finds a more positive story about female empowerment and agency and not only highlights the well-established idea of the centrality of the body in the Greek novel but also raises questions about how readers bring alternative narratives and focalizations which question the androcentric reading of the text.

Section four, 'Female Sexuality and Eroticism in the Greek Novel', offers two very interesting essays. Saundra Schwartz concentrates on the first two books of Heliodorus Aethiopica and looks at the four variations of the topos of a husband confronting his wife and a moichos in the bedroom and combines these with data from Roman juridicial procedures regarding adultery. She focuses on the conventions that connect private and public space and deconstructs the links between action and consequence, bedroom and courtroom, with clarity and crispness.

Melissa Funke's chapter challenges Apollodorus' ([Demothenes] Against Neaira 59.122) three distinct female categories: mistresses, concubines and wives via a comparative study that compares Chloe's character in Longus' Daphnis and Chloe with courtesans in Alciphron's letters. This excellent contribution examines these characters' function as literary creations of the second sophistic and concludes that there is agency in Longus' Chloe, just like Alciphron's courtesans. Most importantly, Funke reshapes ancient female sexuality by means of three new indexes: consent, visual initiation of desire, and acts related to desire. These could be applicable in other genres as well.

The last section of the book contains four essays on sexual identity and gender transformations, and concentrates on Petronius and Apuleius. Marilyn Skinner examines Petronius' Satyricon in terms of both historical context and character analysis, arguing that the comic character Fortunata gains the audience's sympathy despite being humiliated; instead, she is in fact constantly at risk of losing her social position because of her husband's preoccupation with his self-image. Skinner employs legal and epigraphical evidence for the actual circumstances of women of her calibre (non elite) noting specifically the limits placed by gender upon her efforts to advance herself. The essay concludes with the very precise argument that pervasive anxieties over class mobility might have induced the refined audience of Petronius to empathize with Fortunata.

Judith Hallett engages in the theme of impotence in Ovid's (Amores 3.7) and Encolpius (Satyricon 126 ff.). Through intertextual parallels and insightful, elaborate comparisons, Hallett demonstrates Petronius' imitation of Ovid as well as the latter's parody of Catullus. Hallett concludes that 'in the section of Encolpius' impotence in Satyricon, Petronius portrays Encolpius as responding to Ovid in Amores 3.7 in the realms of both phallic and literary performance' (222) thus offering a new image of the dynamics between different Roman literary texts.

John Makowski concentrates on Petronius' Satyricon building upon current studies of gender and sexuality, particularly male-male sexuality. He deals with the way Encolpius' literary pretensions and their resulting fabrication of his narrative world, constructed on epic and tragic formulae, affect Giton's gender roles. He also treats the text as a subtextual allusion to Nero's performance of male and female characters on the Roman stage.

Last, Anna McCullough's contribution focuses on gender transformations in Apuleius' Metamorphoses. McCullough makes the interesting point that female gender transformation is considered a positive behavior (portraying a variety of manly virtues) as opposed to men's rather superficial transformation that refers to cross-dressing and effeminate behavior.

The volume successfully applies a variety of disciplines to interpret the theme desire in the ancient novel. Since this is an edited collection of essays concentrating on desire, one might naturally expect to see more scholarship on the large subject of emotions in antiquity, specifically eros and desire and its variety of definitions. The volume, however, seems to limit itself to sexuality in the ancient novel. Still, it deals with a wide range of different themes in their original concepts, as well as employing a variety of approaches such as queer/feminist studies, gender identity, masculinity and masculine identity, the rhetoric of space and psychoanalysis. It further elevates the ancient novel as a literary topos in the form of a love story where cross-cultural interaction is reflected in the religious, social and political interactions of both genders in the early Imperial period. Not restricted to those interested in ancient novel, it can be a useful handbook for students and researchers of the ancient world, emotions in history and literature as well as scholars of gender/queer studies.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.