Love and Sex in the Ancient World
LOVE AND SEX IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
Two audio podcasts from the Department of Classics and Ancient History
Sexuality, as well as sex and gender, are now firmly part of academic discourses in the humanities, but few topics are as disconcerting or as difficult to regard with detachment. To mark Valentine’s Day four scholars from the Department of Classics and Ancient History discuss love, longing and lament in Roman elegiac poetry, and Ancient Greek attitudes to lust and sexuality.
Roman Elegy: Pain is so Close to Pleasure
Love, longing and loneliness: these feelings found a lyric outlet in Roman elegy. In this poetic form the dropouts and outcasts of society gave voice to their excruciating torment of not having, or of no longer having, the person they love and desire. In this podcast, Dr Ian Fielding discusses elegiac poetry about passion, pain and pleasure.
The genre, he says, also contains some rather unexpected advice on such subjects as where to meet girls, how to seduce them and how to enjoy with them “Aphrodite’s sweet ecstasy”. But why did the Romans turn to elegy and how did elegiac poets succeed in fascinating generations of readers?
“At the most basic level we have to remember than an elegy is a poem written in elegiac couplets, these self-contained units of two lines, one longer line followed by a shorter line,” explains Fielding. Elegy is not completely synonymous with love; it’s more like a poetry of unfulfilled desire – desiring what you can’t have or even what part of you doesn’t want.
Catullus was the first major elegiac poet, but elegies began earlier in Rome, inherited from the Greek poets. The earliest appearance of the form in Latin literature is usually as poems or inscriptions on tombstones or to commemorate the dead. The form moved on to be used by Ovid in The Art of Love where he advises on how to talk to women and how to please them sexually. Before long, however, under the power of the Roman Emperor, it was no longer safe to be a dissenting elegiac voice.
Later, as the Goths sacked the city of Rome and its empire sank into insignificance, elegiac poetry resumed its traditional function, lamenting the loss of the old order.
Sex in the Ancient World
“Classics 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,” says Dr Peter E Pormann when introducing his fellow academics Professor James Davidson and Dr Dan Orrells.
“But did homosexuality play a prominent part in classical societies? And how did Greek ideas about sex and gender impact on modern times?” The history of sexuality of the Ancient World has had an important influence on the development of modern ideas about sexuality. Sexuality is just a part of the history of long-ago people and it’s interesting in itself as a part of their culture.
How did the Greeks perceive sexuality? What they did in bed may be similar to what people do now, but the way they conceptualised it would have been very different. For example, in the Ancient Greek world, and to a certain extent in the Roman world, it was perfectly acceptable for an adult male to have some sort of sexual relations with another male who might have been a lot younger than him. The idealistic spin on this was that it was an institutional relationship in which the older man introduces the younger man into the adult world.
Women, however, were for procreation and were not supposed to be seen in public. Broadly speaking they were divided into three categories: concubines/wives or whores. There is however, evidence of erotic poetry written between women, such as by Sappho.
Dr Ian Fielding is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Classics at the University of Warwick, where he convenes the Latin Literary Texts module. He received his PhD at Warwick in 2011, having written his thesis under the supervision of Professor Andrew Laird on Latin elegy in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. In 2008/09 he was a Graduate Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he worked with Professor Carole Newlands.
Professor James Davidson works on Greek social and cultural history and historiography. He has written articles on Polybius, Greek public bars and Dido and child-sacrifice. His first book, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens was published in 1997. He has published The Greeks and Greek Love for Weidenfeld and is currently working on a translation of some Attic speeches for Penguin Classics.
Dr Daniel Orrells is an Associate Professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. His research specifically focuses on the intellectual and cultural reception of classical antiquity from the 18th century to the present. He has published a book examining the significance of ancient sexuality for modern German and British historiography and fiction, and has edited a volume on modern black-Atlantic receptions of the ancient world. He has also published articles on the impact of classical antiquity on a number of German and French intellectuals (Winckelmann, Freud and Derrida); and on 19th-century classical scholarship (Walter Headlam).