Bisexuality In The Ancient World

  • Bisexuality In The Ancient World
    Eva Cantarella - Yale University Press, 1992 - xii +284 pp. - £19.95/$27.50
  • Introducing New Gods: The Politics Of Athenian Religion
    Robert Garland – Duckworth, 1991 - xv +234 pp. - £29.95
  • Emperors And Gladiators
    Thomas Wiedemann – Routledge, 1992 - xvii +198 pp. - £35
  • Talking To Virgil: A Miscellany
    T.P. Wiseman - University of Exeter Press, 1992 - xii +242 pp. – £12.95

Eva Cantarella's Bisexuality in the Ancient World, attractively translated by Cormac O Cuilleanain, was first published in Italian in 1988, entitled Secundo Natura. Professor of Roman Law at the University of Milan, she has written other books on sexual topics, including Pandora's Children (1987). Here, drawing on the ancient sources (inscriptions, poetry, philosophical and legal literature, all translated), she gives an explicit account of homosexuality in the ancient world from Homeric Greece to imperial and Christian Rome and shows how it was often combined with heterosexuality.

Following the French anthropological school Cantarella sees the origins of Greek homosexuality in a rite de passage, paralleled in other tribal societies, which survived in the Greek polis. In Athens this consisted in the sexual subjection of a boy to a young adult male, both citizens, in a romantic and educational relationship which might last for several years, after which the boy would take over the adult sexual role in a similar relationship before marriage, not before thirty, to a girl of around fourteen. Cantarella challenges the older view that pederasty in classical Greece was a. substitute for heterosexuality in the absence of available women except for hetairai and perhaps the flute-girls in the symposia which wealthier Athenians attended. But the late age of marriage for men must surely have lent encouragement to the pursuit of boys. Probably, though Cantarella does not say so, neither pederasty nor adult homosexuality were common among poorer Athenians in rural Attica. Effeminate men are often guyed in Aristophanes' comedies and to raise a laugh this attitude must have been shared by his audience.

On loving sexual relationships between women there is much less evidence and Cantarella is more speculative. But as Sappho's erotic poems show, they existed in early aristocratic thiasoi in Mytilene, possibly between the girls under her charge as well as between herself and them. But although she recognises that Sappho's role was to train the girls both emotionally and intellectually Cantarella. is less convincing in denying that the thiasoi were generally, like the boys' initiation period, a recognised stage on the route to marriage.

In Rome things were predictably more strictly regulated by law, and Cantarella's account is soundly based on legal evidence and on the poets. Homosexual intercourse with freeborn boys was forbidden by the Lex Scatinia, probably of the late 3rd century BC, which remained in force, though not generally enforced, in imperial times. In the late Republic, under Greek cultural influence, homosexuality was permitted and was regular with slaves, especially young boys. The poets (notably Catullus, Tibullus and Martial) show that educated and married Romans regarded boys as sexual alternatives to women. The active role was condoned since it showed virility, though Caesar, from whom no woman was said to be safe, even got away with a passive relationship with Nicomedes the king of Bithynia. All female homosexuality was condemned (by male sources) as lewd and 'against nature'. Eventually, under the influence of Judaism and Christianity, all forms of homosexuality were made illegal in the Theodosian and Justinian law-codes. Cantarella has produced a wealth of original sources, many not easily accessible in translation, to show that in the pre-Christian empire, as in Greece, homosexuality in various forms was more general and far more commonly combined with heterosexuality than in modern Western society.

Robert Garland's Introducing New Gods is a fresh contribution to the study of Athenian religion. Athenians did not worship the twelve gods of the Olympian pantheon as though they were a group tableau. Garland shows how, why and when cults of new gods and heroes were introduced from the eighth century BC down to the trial of Socrates in 399. 'The Athenian, like every other Greek pantheon, was in a state of permanent flux' (p.1). In the mid-fifth century there were at least forty 'Other Gods' supported financially by the state in addition to Athena Polias, the chief state cult, and Demeter and Kore (Persephone), the two goddesses of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The eponymous heroes of the ten tribes, the cults of the 140 or so local demes, the sixty-odd gene (clans) and the phratries (brotherhoods related to them) made up a bewildering number. Garland shows that it was only in special circumstances that new cults could be added and examines several divinities for whose introduction into Attica historical contexts can be found in epigraphical, literary and archaeological sources.

These include Pan after the battle of Marathon, in gratitude for the victory, Themistocles' cult of Artemis of the Best Counsel, to commemorate his own advice which caused the Athenians to fight the Persians at sea and win at Salamis, the return of the bones of Theseus by Cimon, the political enemy of Themistocles, (no doubt to claim some credit for his part in inaugurating Athens' control of the Delian confederacy), and the cult of the healing god Asclepios in 421 after the plague and ten years of war. In a different kind of study Garland examines the trial of Socrates and his private daimon, the spirit from which he claimed guidance. By exposing him to the charge of neglecting the state gods this claim was largely responsible for his death sentence which in Garland's view was passed on genuine religious grounds and not because of his friendship with oligarchs as has recently been argued. In the last chapter, on the mythical aetiology of Athenian cults, Garland introduces a large technical subject which I feel needs fuller treatment than he has space for. There are some good plates, excellent notes, bibliographies and indices and a useful chronology of Athenian religious events.

Wiedemann's book was joint winner of the Routledge Ancient History Prize for 1991. Gladiatorial shows (munera), originally part of the funeral offerings to distinguished members of the Replican nobility, are an unacceptable facet of Roman civilisation mentioned but not much discussed by recent historians. This gap Wiedemann fills with a comprehensive account of the institution from the earliest known combats at a funeral in 264 BC until its final abolition in AD 404. Along with new material, he offers an original analysis of the reasons for the institution and for its demise. From the privately financed munera of the Republic, which won political support for those who put on the shows, he traces the regularisation of the practice from Augustus onwards, when they were divorced from funerals and only the emperors or their representatives were allowed to stage them. Their new purpose was then to reflect the 'virtue', of the emperor, for virtus (valour) was what gladiators were trained to exhibit.

Wiedemann suggests that emperors granted the people's wishes as to the fate of a defeated gladiator (indicated by 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' or a similar sign) to confer a kind of legitimacy on their rule by showing their willingness to share their absolute power of life and death with the people. But in fact they were granting no real power to the people, though they might risk becoming unpopular if they ignored them.

The shows exemplified Roman military virtue, hardening young Romans to face the horrors of fighting, for which the gladiatorial schools were a training, and enabled them to come to terms with death. The status of gladiators in society was marginal: the majority were slaves, often, like Spartacus, ex-captives, but tombstone nomenclature reveals that a surprising number were Roman citizens, fallen into debt perhaps, or suited by character and experience to a warlike profession, like modern mercenaries. There were some advantages: their chances of mortality would not necessarily be much less than that of their contemporaries. Death anyway was quick and clean, without torture or crucifixion which were normal for slave criminals. Some married or co-habited, had families, survived into retirement and acquired wealth through rewards for valour. Some women even became gladiators (fig. 16 in the book, one of an excellent selection of plates, shows a pair who were reprieved). Appropriately, executions were held in the amphitheatres, sometimes in the intervals between gladiatorial combats. Low-born and servile criminals were torn to pieces by wild animals, including, of course, the Christian martyrs who were condemned 'ad bestias'.

The suppression of gladiator shows came about in Wiedemann's view not through Stoic or Christian humanitarianism but because the freeing of a gladiator symbolised a return from death, a 'resurrection' which was seen by the now Christian government as a rival to the Christian doctrine of resurrection. On the other hand, one might suspect that the precarious future of a defeated gladiator may not have been strong enough to rival the eternal life after death promised by Christianity. This was taken very literally by early Christians, and by removing fear of death would have made the gloomy symbolism of the gladiators irrelevant and in this way possibly contributed to their decline. At any rate, Wiedemann shows, Easter and Christmas, which fell at roughly the same seasons as the gladiator shows, seem to have replaced them.

Talking to Virgil is a miscellany of papers by Peter Wiseman, Professor of Classics at the University of Exeter, written over the past dozen years on subjects with classical connections. It takes its title from the sympathetic essay on the gifted but eccentric Virgilian scholar Jackson Knight, who also taught at Exeter. They range widely and include two of modern literary interest, 'Mortal Trash' (on Gerard Manley Hopkins) and 'The Centaur's Hoof (on the many classical asides and allusions in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time). 'Killing Caligula' reminds us that Josephus is the best source for the murder of the emperor Gaius and the accession of Claudius. 'Julius Caesar and the Mappa Mundi', which first appeared in History Today, ingeniously traces the thirteenth-century Hereford map through a lost medieval source to ancient cosmographers and ultimately to the map made by Agrippa for Augustus, which relied on Caesar's survey. His three surveyors' names appear in the inscription round the edge of the mappa, and are shown in one of several interesting plates, especially those illustrating 'A Roman Villa'. This is a fascinating study of the great sixteenth-century Villa Montal-to-Negroni (built on the site of the Augustan gardens of Lollius and demolished in the 1860s to make way for the first Termini railway station), and its nineteenth-century inhabitants, the American sculptor Thomas Crawford and his family. They were visited by his wife's sister Julia Ward Howe, who later wrote the words of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and by Henry James. Wiseman's appetite for uncovering connections of this kind is most rewarding.

  • Barbara Mitchell is an Emeritus Fellow, St. Anne’s College, Oxford.
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