on 29 October 2010
"When it comes to the topic of sex, the combination of illicit thrills, prurient fascination, and a desire for the personal and the private means that critical faculties get all too often thrown out the window and we find ourselves unable to resist a juicy story, no matter how improbably." Thus writes Alastair J. L. Blanshard, who has maintained his critical faculties sufficiently to bring out an unlikely sex book about the role that sex played in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, and what we have been making of those Greeks and Romans ever since. _Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity_ (Wiley - Blackwell) is fun because of all the juicy stories, and Blanshard, a senior lecturer in Classics & Ancient History at the University of Sydney, has latched onto a topic that those who have otherwise no interest in classical history might find themselves enjoying. One of his themes here is that for their own purposes, people have changed and misinterpreted the legends about ancient sexuality, and his book is an engaging corrective.
For instance, Blanshard sets out to examine why it is that there is such a strong certainty that those ancient Romans were up to such a high degree of naughtiness. He says that "even the most cursory survey of catalogs of pornographic film titles will reveal no end of classically-themed erotica," and his own cursory survey includes _Serenity's Roman Orgy_ (2001) and _Caligula and His Boys_ (2003). (Blanshard's book is probably the only one I have read that jumbles references to porn titles on one hand and Suetonius, Aristotle, and so on, on the other.) Blanshard's chapter on orgies is an eye-opener. Everyone knows how those Romans had orgies complete with grapes, and everyone is just wrong. There is scant evidence that there was ever such a thing. "The Romans never routinely engaged in sexual orgies and would have been appalled that we thought that they did." Any references to orgies indicate one-off affairs rather than patterns of behavior. It is amusing that Blanshard gives an example of how Marcus Minucius Felix in the third century AD shows how the pagans described orgy activities of those demented Christians. When it came time for the Christians to take their revenge on the pagans, accusing them of orgies was just the thing, a concupiscent way of getting revenge and telling naughty stories, too. The other main theme in Blanshard's book is the difficulty of understanding homosexuality by trying to look at "Greek Love." The Greeks did have a tradition of discoursing about male - male relationships that would make such relationships seem a marker of Greek culture, but Blanshard says, "The notion that homosexuality was in some senses intrinsically Hellenic would have come as a surprise to the Greeks." Greek love was a cultural manifestation that we have difficulty in understanding, and can be interpreted in many ways. Blanshard traces its historical interpretations. There wasn't much made of it in medieval times because people were busy talking about the horrors of sodomy, and that so settled the question that it silenced any other discussion of male - male sexual relations. Blanshard traces how Plato's teachings about Greek love were rediscovered in the Renaissance, with a vital discussion between two particular intellectuals highlighting them and bringing Plato's other writings to the fore. The vehemence of the discussion is amazing, with one side seeing Plato as the source of all Christian heresies. In the Enlightenment, a stock figure for satire was the humanist teacher who uses instruction in the classics as a cover for seducing students, with pornographic novels showing masters giving hands-on instruction to demonstrate the Latin words for "underneath," "backwards," and so on. Blanshard includes an account of Sapphic love, and the use of ideas about Sappho (about whom there is almost nothing known for certain) to denigrate Marie Antoinette, an example of male anxiety being assuaged by derogation.
Blanshard has given a broad picture of ideas of sexuality in the ancient world, but also a history of how those ideas have affected us even to the present; his epilogue has two professors arguing about Plato in a Colorado courtroom in 1993. Blanshard's book is obviously the production of an academic, but the heavily-referenced pages offer surprise, not stuffiness. In a box about Ganymede, Blanshard explains that you can find a modern porn version of the erotic encounters of that desirable youth with Zeus, Hermes, Ares, and Apollo, with illustrations that "suggest that Ares would not have looked out of place in a San Francisco leather bar." Another box has an extended evaluation of the 1979 film _Caligula_, Penthouse's $17 million entry into art porn, about which Blanshard sniffs, "There is a problem in equating ancient Rome with nothing but sex." There was more than sex going on in the ancient world, but the sex that was there, and the ideas about it, Blanshard shows, are still on our minds a couple of millennia later.