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Classics in discussion

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Sex in the Ancient World

11:58, Wed 21 Oct 2009

James Davidson and Dan Orrells discuss the nature and impact of Greek love.

‘Now sex. Sex, sex, sex. Where were we?’ This is a memorable line from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Sex produced us; it surrounds us, lures us, tempts us; it intrigues and entertains us, yet also abashes and disconcerts us. Few topics have enthralled and enticed scholars more than sex, but few topics are also seen with more suspicion and reservation. Think of the public school master played by John Cleese in the sketch just mentioned: he has to teach sex to a class of bored boys. He makes a mockery of the whole thing, because his dry detachment and scientific descriptions clash with the content of such a hot and emotional subject.
Sexuality as well as sex and gender are now firmly part of academic discourses in the humanities. Classics in particular has a lot to contribute, since so many things sexual seem to originate in Graeco-Roman antiquity. After all, Lesbian love, homosexuality, and the Oedipus complex all go back to parts of the Greek past. And sex is a Latin word.
But how did the Greeks conceive of love, lust, and sexual longings? Did homosexuality play a prominent part in classical societies? And how did Greek ideas about sex and gender impact on modern times?