Thursday, July 14, 2016


Mark Masterson, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, James Robson (ed.), Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World. Rewriting antiquity. London; New York: Routledge, 2015. Pp. xx, 567. ISBN 9780415519410. $205.00.

Reviewed by F. Mira Green, University of Washington (

Version at BMCR home site


[Before I begin, I would like to apologize for the lateness of this review.]

The topic of sex has been recently getting a lot of action (ahem) in scholarship about the ancient world. Since the 1990s, many have turned their attention to questions about sex and sexuality in antiquity; this year alone has had a least three studies (including the one under review) on sex or sexual labor.1 In the introduction to their edited volume, Mark Masterson, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, and James Robson observe that the study of gender and sex in the ancient world has entered a retrospective stage. They outline three major movements that mark the development of scholarship on the study of gender and sexuality in the past decades: the first movement (roughly 1978-1984) was a period when scholars began to recover historical women and engaged in feminist critique of male authors; the second phase (1990-1993) saw a joining of scholarship on gender and sexuality; and finally, the third (or current) one is often marked by the compiling, summarizing, and reflecting on past efforts of gender studies (4-6). The editors offer some caution about this trend and point to one of the main objectives of their volume: "Taking stock is always a good idea, but there is also a need for new work...We must always revisit and renegotiate our relationship with the past" (6-7). With this aim, the editors of and contributors to this volume offer insightful and sometimes unexpected conversations that take place between current and past scholarship, and provide opportunities to explore the trajectories that scholarship on sex, sexuality, and gender in antiquity might now take.

The volume is divided geographically/culturally into three broad categories (Ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome) and within these the chapters follow a more or less chronological order. Although the editors in their introduction clearly lay out their organizational principles in each section, I want to focus here on themes that I saw develop across their cultural and temporal categories. Each section is by no means a mirror of the next, yet there are frequent echoes that allow for the nuances of an issue to be explored according to cultural particularities as well as each author's specific aims. Because of the number of contributors and the many levels on which the essays in this collection interrelate, I cannot mention each work or the multilayered ways in which they connect. Nevertheless, my hope is that the themes I note here will provide a helpful overview.

One theme picks up on threads of scholarship that focus specifically on the recovery of women in antiquity, raising the question of male authorship about women and how modern studies have affected current interpretations of them. Susan Ackerman's chapter engages the topic of women's reproductive magic in ancient Israel, exploring both the rituals and how biblical authors described them (15-25). She contends that male writers intentionally attempted to downplay these women's work and significance in society (24-5). Edward M. Harris considers women's consent in sexual situations based on his reading of a selection of Athenian texts (298-314); he asserts that male authors indicate that a women's consent was considered, that women who said yes as compared to those who said no were represented differently, and that women who were victims of sexual violence were depicted to evoke sympathy (299). Barbara Gold's essay on the martyr Perpetua (482-99) engages the question of whether historical women like Perpetua can truly be recovered from male authors' interpretation of women's stories. Although she hopefully ends her essay with the claim that Perpetua's voice "continues to be strong and clear" (494), Gold exposes the ambiguity surrounding her because of how ancient male authors shaped her story and constructed her subjectivity (493). Throughout all of these articles, the authors directly engage other scholars' works in order to provide historiographical context for the necessity of rethinking the issues they explore. Thus, these articles both 'take stock' and push for new interpretations of women's role in Ancient Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman societies, demonstrating that work focused on recovering historical women and on careful critiques of male authorship continues to be fruitful.

In a slightly different manner, three chapters attempt to recover women in spheres of modern scholarship that remain predominantly focused on men or men's experience. Specifically, these contributions look at rape and sexual assault within the context of civil conflict, war, and peacetime. Through an innovative and provocative comparison to the 1994 Rwanda genocide (50-66), Elna K. Solvang investigates biblical accounts of Absalom's actions against King David's concubines and argues that Absalom chose to use rape as a strategy to achieve his political ambitions (64). Continuing the exploration of the use of martial rape, but this time as a top-down strategy within Greek armies, Kathy L. Gaca uses the Homeric epics and Greek drama to explore the effects that populace-ravaging warfare had on survivors (278-97). By doing so, she makes an elegant and compelling argument for scholarship that studies warfare in an inclusive fashion (281). Considering sexual assault fantasies in Aristophanes' comedies, James Robson explores the tension between Aristophanes' use of uninhibited sex as a metaphor for peace on the one hand and, on the other, his use of rape as a form of overreaching aggression (315-331). He argues that the exuberance and humor of Aristophanes' works alongside his energetic and witty writing has led many to overlook the problematic nature of the fantasies found in his peace-plays (325). Taken together, these three articles offer a thoughtful study of how martial conflict and its aftermath overlap with studies of women in antiquity, noting that women (regardless of status) faced sexual vulnerability and violence in these situations.

Several contributions reexamine the relationship between gender and sexuality. Stephanie Lynn Budin considers the gendering of fertility and reproduction in various societies in the Ancient Near East, and asserts that most notions of fertility involve male agents, but reproduction involves both male and female (30-49). Claude Calame's essay investigates how gender identities and erotic relationships are represented in Greek melic poetry, focusing specifically on the figure of Helen, to argue that these helped form social and gender relations (198-213). Hunter H. Gardner explores the threatening representations of female sexuality within Apuleius' Metamorphoses, relying on Barbara Creed's concept of the 'monstrous-feminine' (393-409). Many contributors specifically take up the question of ancient authors' representation of manhood/manliness. Judith Hallett uses Suetonius' depiction of Tiberius' erectile dysfunction to consider the difficulties Roman political and military leaders faced in proving themselves to be Roman men, thereby complicating understandings of Roman manhood (408-422). Deborah Kamen and Sarah Levin-Richardson revisit the concept of penetrated males in Roman sexuality, noting that in addition to the axis of penetrator/penetrated, Roman authors also suggest that a secondary 'axis of agency' was considered in sexual acts; they argue that this secondary axis needs to be taken into account in interpretations of penetrated males (449-60). Mark Masterson's paper uses the De Physiognomonia to explore late-ancient ideas of elite manhood and its connection to late-Platonic philosophy (536-51). Additionally, others explore the relationship of gender and sexuality to other axes of differences, such as age and status. Looking at Akkadian and Sumerian texts, Gwendolyn Leick considers Mesopotamian attitudes towards sex and age and observes that—while there were no initiation rituals for men or women to mark entry into adulthood—sexual relationships between older men and their younger partners was accepted, but treatment of older women's sexuality was much more ambiguous (80-96). Allison Glazebrook explores the juxtaposition of hetairai with erōmenoi (boy beloveds) in Greek sympotic poetry and imagery on pottery (157-78). She argues that the body and position of the prostitute were constructed as opposite to the erōmenos in various ways that offered education on sexual ethics in symposia, but simultaneously indicates the fuzzy line between the two as objects of desire. Again, the opportunity to explore these issues cross-culturally and diachronically provides instructional and provocative comparisons, while each author's engagement with past scholarship demonstrates new insights that emerge through rethinking the relationship between sex, sexuality, and gender in antiquity.

The final theme I mention here focuses on same-sex sexual activity. While the issue of same-sex sexuality is addressed in many of the chapters throughout this work, there are a few whose particular aim is to examine the topic. Alastair Blanshard reconsiders representation of male same-sex 'orgy' scenes on Greek pottery through the social-constructionist model represented in the works of Gagnon and Simon, which was developed prior to Foucault (99-114). Andrew Lear reexamines Foucault's claim that pederasty was 'problematized' in Greek culture and argues for a more nuanced view based on diachronic study of textual and material evidence (115-36). Through a thoughtful and careful psychoanalytical approach, Matthew Fox offers a rereading of Ovid's depiction of Orpheus's bisexuality (335-51); he argues that the text connects grief, mourning, and subjectivity to poetry and demonstrates that sex cannot be separated from conceptions of the narrative, images of the body, and the emotional world of the reader (348). Investigating how nineteenth and twentieth century scholars discuss boy- and child-love in Rome, Amy Richlin offers a rereading of the evidence and argues that pre-pubescent slave boys were used for sex, while free boys of similar ages were also seen as desirable (352-73). These essays and many others in this volume engage the topic of same-sex sexuality through the rereading of literature and images. Doing so also allows many authors to reexamine the prominent role that Foucault, Dover, and others played in shaping modern interpretations of same-sex relations in antiquity.

Lastly, I would like point out a couple of chapters that stood out to me. First, Roland Boer's chapter on horse-kissing and beastly emissions cleverly pulls the reader in with his humor and delight in the subject matter. His argument moves from the question of concerns about pollution to a more interesting one about what constitutes family in various societies of the Ancient Near East (67-79). It was a pleasure to read. Additionally, I found Monica S. Cyrino's exploration of love and bondage in Euripides' Hippolytus to be so elegantly written that I often reread sentences aloud in order to appreciate her writing style fully (231-44).

Again, sadly, I cannot address all the contributors' work, but I hope that this brief overview suggests the richness of the collection. Overall, it offers thoughtful reflections on how current scholarship on gender and sexuality in antiquity got to where it is today and provides new avenues of inquiry. I have two main criticisms, but I hope that they will be seen to stem from a desire to respond to the editors' call for new work. First, the volume is weighted heavily towards Greece and Rome, as well as prioritizing textual analysis over material culture. 2 In fact, the Ancient Near East gets only five chapters out of 30 and there are only six or seven essays that consider material evidence alongside textual. Moreover, these are primarily clustered in the section on Greece (an obvious exception is Kelly Olson's work on the toga and pallium, which challenges assumptions about male clothing in the Roman world (422-48)). Because of the program of the book and the cross- and intercultural comparisons it encourages, I found myself wanting more opportunities to consider the issues addressed throughout the work within a broader historical, social, cultural, and material context. However, one could say that the desire to have more contributions than what the authors already cover indicates the strength of this work.


1.   Blondell, R., Ormand K. (ed.), (2015) Ancient Sex: New Essays. Classical Memories/ Modern Identities. Columbus: Ohio State University Press); Hubbard, T.K. (ed.), (2014), A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell). Also Helios 42.1 (Spring 2015) was dedicated to articles on sexual labor in the Greco-Roman World.
2.   See Osborne, R. (2011), The History Written on the Classical Greek Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 17.

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