Sunday, March 13, 2016


Ruby Blondell, Kirk Ormand (ed.), Ancient Sex: New Essays. Classical memories/modern identities. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 342. ISBN 9780814212837. $97.95. ISBN 9780814293881. CD $14.95.

Reviewed by Carol Atack, University of Warwick (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The snappy title sets out exactly how this edited volume aims to distinguish itself from a recent flurry of volumes in this important field.1 Two features are notable; the seven contributions are full-scale research essays, rather than the summaries of sub-fields or of previous scholarly work that Hubbard and Masterson et al delivered so usefully in their respective volumes, and they are almost all new publications. Their authors engage in close readings of texts along with careful documentation and analysis of material sources from the Greek and Roman worlds, reaching an extreme with Holt Parker's 120-page re-evaluation of the depiction of sex in Athenian vase painting.

The editors further set out their stall with their introduction, 'One Hundred and Twenty Five Years of Homosexuality', which surveys developments in scholarship in the study of ancient sex and gender since the landmark year of 1990, when a trio of publications defined the post-Foucauldian terrain on which debate on this topic would largely be conducted (following David Halperin's identification of 'One Hundred Years of Homosexuality').2 This concern with revisiting the Foucauldian heritage is both a strength and a weakness of the volume, dominating its theoretical perspective. There is no doubt that an update is required; arguably the ground has shifted more in these last crucial 25 years. There are new questions to ask ancient texts and new methodologies with which to frame them, and the editors promise to move the debate further ahead.

Nevertheless, they do so largely within a framework that is occasionally content to finalise that earlier Foucauldian project rather than to explore entirely new horizons. Welcome results, however, include an emphasis on women as the object of study and as desiring female agents, particularly evident in Deborah Kamen and Sarah Levin-Richardson's chapter 'Lusty Ladies in the Roman Imaginary', which undertakes a detailed survey of ancient language for women as sexual actors (fututrix, tribas, fellatrix) drawn from literary and epigraphical sources including Martial and Pompeian graffiti to revise 'the conceptual map of Roman sexuality' (p. 249). Their detailed exegesis of these sources provides a rich resource on Roman thought on women and shows that women should not be excluded from analysis due to lack of evidence.

The deconstruction of received ideas and the careful analysis of the role of reception in constructing them drives other contributions. Bryan Burns's closing essay, 'Sculpting Antinous', expands from a focus on Roman statues identified with this 'elusive figure' through their beauty and posture (p.305) to explore the continuing reinvention of a beautiful youth, 'resculpted to suit each generation' in both scholarly and literary discourse.

Kate Gilhuly's 'Lesbians are not from Lesbos' excavates the 'evolution of the discursive identity of Lesbos' (p. 173), the process by which 'Lesbian' has become a synonym for the same-sex acts and identities of women. Gilhuly shows how this relationship is more complex than earlier identifications have suggested. Lesbos is not simply a geographical place, but a conceptual one associated with new music, where transgressive new musical styles and transgressive female behaviours are conflated. The identification of the Lesbian becomes a literary construct, emerging from the musician/courtesan of comedy and responses to Sappho. Gilhuly weaves together evidence from comedy (Dardanis the auletris from Aristophanes' Wasps, Mousike in Pherecrates' Cheiron) and philosophy, and shows how Plato genders musical modes (Republic 2.398e-99a; she could have added Laws 7.802de, which makes this argument much more explicit). She argues that lesbiazein connotes musical as much as sexual activity. (Sandra Boehringer, p. 263, for her part, further notes Lucian's contributions to this earlier linkage). This powerful mixture is finally developed in the Latin reception of Sappho, where the literarity of lyric poetry is the perfect growth medium for linking poet, metre and the transgression of sexual norms. This powerful essay reminds us to read sources with careful attention to their own artifice and construction.

This awareness of figuration, and the importance of non-literal readings of texts and material objects becomes a common thread uniting several contributions, beyond any consensus on the need for new and more subtle responses to and debate about ancient evidence. Nancy Worman's essay, 'What is Greek love for?', exemplifies the benefit of this approach, delivering a 'deflationary thesis' in which the 'literary depictions of classical Greek sexual practices' are shown to be 'largely metaphorical' (p.208). Worman argues persuasively that this reading adds support to the Foucauldian move to downplay the centrality of sexual identity in constructing personal identity in the ancient world. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu and Judith Butler, she reassesses the use of the body in the assessment of political performance by Athenian orators, and particularly the impact of apparently sexual slurs such as katapugōn, euruprōktos and kinaidos (already organised into a trinity by Davidson, responding to the earlier exploration of these terms by Winkler and Dover, in his controversial Greek Love).3 Worman shows how these terms exemplify the way that political behaviour is both policed and critiqued through the use of sexual slander. Where Dover and Winkler sought to extrapolate actual behaviour from these terms, and Davidson sought to desexualise them, Worman in revising her own earlier views on abusive language offers a criticism of attempts to recover ancient sexual behaviour from rhetorical texts. She develops a persuasive account of the use of sexual language in the assessment of political behaviour among Athenian citizens, providing a route out of now stagnant debates .

Holt Parker's exploration of the depiction of sex in Athenian vase painting, 'Vaseworld' dominates the collection, and follows a similar deflationary line. His lengthy and detailed survey challenges previous treatments of this topic for the common assumption that vase paintings can be treated as documentary evidence, with an easily determinable division between 'mythical' and 'real' scenes, in Boardman's distinction, that depict real-life sex acts (pp. 26-31). In one key example, Parker explores whether the intercrural (here 'interfemoral') intercourse of vase paintings is a depiction of a real-life sexual practice, or an artistic convention that obscures real practices. Arguing that interpreting vase paintings requires awareness of artistic conventions (even those of individual painters), Parker engagingly likens the world depicted on vases to the 'floating world' of Japanese wood-block prints, and also the cinematic imaginary of the 1930s US Hays Code on the (non-)depiction of sexual activity on screen, whose visual conventions were easily decoded by cinema-goers.

Although the editors hail his rebuttal of the mythical/real divide as a novelty, Parker shows that his analysis builds on a range of existing deconstructions of the Greek imaginary. In a sense, the domination of the 'Dover-Foucault' model of active-passive relationships, and naïve critiques of it, has obscured other theoretical insights, such as those arising from the more Lacan-influenced perspectives of the Paris School and the sensitive readings of material culture it produced. 4 Through a detailed exploration of the primary evidence, written and visual, along with its analysis by Beazley (with his categorisation of postures and gestures), and responses to Dover, Parker concludes that the centrality of human representation to vase painting means that we might be able to infer Athenian praxis from it, if we proceed with caution.

Perhaps the most telling of Parker's case-studies is the investigation of 'courtship' and gift-exchange in pederastic scenes (pp. 69-79). The idea of reciprocity in pederastic relationships, in the form of a range of gifts offered and accepted in return for physical favours, is well-embedded in the literature, but literal readings of these scenes, in which apparently live animals are brandished by lovers, are problematic. Common-sense suggests that large cats are not appropriate presents in a domestic context (reading Xenophon's hunting manual provides a further reminder that these are fantasy scenes). Parker helpfully suggests that the hares and animals provide decorative interest and fill the space, embodying the metaphorical link between erotic pursuit and hunting that runs through Platonic dialogue.

As a final touch, Parker offers a deflationary view of the depiction of peer and reversed-age relationships in vase paintings (pp. 97-102). He argues that the same 'up-down' hand gesture that since Beazley has been interpreted as pederastic, is for the artist known as 'the Affecter' 'simply the primary way that [he] fills up space' (p. 102), and thus has no erotic import. Parker's careful and detailed survey of the visual evidence provides a much-needed refinement of older accounts, and correction of some mistaken interpretations, but may go too far in eliminating meaning from these often puzzling images.

Julia Shapiro challenges another received idea, that, in the Athenian democracy at least, pederasty was an elite practice. Responding to Thomas Hubbard's 1998 article (persistently cited as 1999 in the footnotes), she usefully elucidates some common ground in the ways in which both philosophical and rhetorical texts evaluate the performance of pederasty, and while she is right to caution against the simplistic application of mass versus elite analyses to ancient sex, her elision of class differences in the practice of and response to pederasty is less persuasive.

The mapping of the active-passive opposition on to that of male-female is challenged by Sandra Boehringer's exemplary analysis of Lucian's puzzling and complex Dialogue of the Courtesans 5, in which a woman recounts her seduction by another woman, Megilla, and her perception of Megilla's masculine identity. This short text has in the past functioned as a litmus test for analysts of ancient sexuality; Boehringer, for her part, shows the limitations of literalist readings (Dover, Winkler), with their curious reliance on interpreting Megilla's 'device' as a dildo rather than a metaphor for literary activity (pp. 271-2). For Boehringer, we learn more from this text about 'Lucian's metadiscursivity' (p. 280), and particularly about his intertextual relationship with Plato, than we do about ancient women and their sexual desires and behaviours; she concludes that it is barely possible to treat the characters as women. Whereas Parker's reading of vases largely deflated previous assumptions, Boehringer's textual analysis opens new possibilities and acknowledges the playful use of analogy and metaphor. Here the possibilities of new models of gender fluidity and intersexed identities contribute to an essay that fulfils the aim of moving the debate forward.

David Halperin's epilogue, 'Not Fade Away', provides a summary and critique of the essays, from a stance that occasionally falls short of the magisterial. Halperin identifies a larger dispute between humanism and the new historicism, perhaps explaining why the anti-theoretical Davidson has emerged as the whipping boy for the various post-Foucauldian classicists of this volume (notably pp. 6-7, 318-9).

But in completing the response to Foucault, this volume generally postpones the incorporation of other, newer thinking on sexuality and gender. These new essays struggle to escape the debates of the previous quarter century. While Judith Butler is occasionally mentioned (notably by Worman), along with performativity, neither merits an index entry. Boehringer alludes to the influence of queer theories and other work on fluid sexual identities in current readings of Lucian (pp. 261-2), but does not engage with them directly. Only Halperin's epilogue makes an explicit engagement with new theory, with its brief invocation of ideas of 'queer temporality' (pp. 322-3), although this concept appears, in this brief presentation, simply to enable modern homosexuals to identify with those who cannot be identified as ancient homosexuals in Foucauldian constructionist models; that is, alterity can be overcome at the cost of anachronism.

Finally, the availability in this volume in electronic form (although on CD, rather than as a downloadable e-book) at a price accessible to individual as well as institutional purchasers is to be commended.

Table of Contents

Vaseworld: depiction and description of sex at Athens / Holt N. Parker
Lesbians are not from Lesbos / Kate Gilhuly
Pederasty and the popular audience / Julia Shapiro
What is "Greek sex" for? / Nancy Worman
Lusty ladies in the Roman imaginary / Deborah Kamen and Sarah Levin-Richardson
The illusion of sexual identity in Lucian's dialogues of the Courtesans 5 / Sandra Boehringer
Sculpting Antinous: creations of the ideal companion / Bryan E. Burns
Epilogue: Not fade away / David M. Halperin


1.   Hubbard, T.K. (ed.), (2014), A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell); Masterson, M., Rabinowitz, N.S., and Robson, J. (eds.) (2015), Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World (New York: Routledge).
2.   Halperin, D.M. (1990) One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: and other essays on Greek love (London: Routledge); Halperin, D.M., Winkler, J.J., and Zeitlin, F.I. (eds.) (1990), Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (Princeton: Princeton University Press); Winkler, J.J. (1990) The Constraints of Desire (London: Routledge).
3.   Davidson, J.N. (2007) The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), cf. Dover, K.J. (1978) Greek Homosexuality (London: Duckworth).
4.   Bérard, C. (ed.), (1989), A City of Images: Iconography and Society in Ancient Greece (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

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