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Published in 2014, with 30 academic papers, and at 588 pages, Sex in Antiquity is a major collection of new ideas by respected scholars. It's striking that it has only garnered 2 reviews so far in academic journals. It doesn't even have any reviews on Amazon! The reviews it has had have been very positive. I am not an expert in history and so my main interest in the book is philosophical. History and philosophy are often interconnected, and at least since Foucault's work on sexuality, they are especially close in the examination of sexuality. This volume is striking in its embrace of a good deal of modern theory, including work in feminism and queer studies, but also for being readable. While some papers refer to theorist Judith Butler, for example, none of them present the challenges of comprehension that Butler's work poses. These chapters are by people mainly employed in departments of classics and history, and all have published in ancient studies. The chapters have copious footnotes and bibliographies as one would expect. There are also a number of black and white illustrations, mostly of art from pots and walls and some statues. It would have been better if they had been in full color, but presumably that would make the book even more expensive.
There are three sections. The first, a short one, is on the Near East, and then the other two are on Greece and Rome. The papers mostly address issues of normativity, power, and categories of gender and sexuality. They are often illuminating for modern debate. We are particularly focused on how to think about being gay or straight, bisexual or pansexual, male, female, non-binary, consent, assault, pressure to have sex, modesty, the legalization of sex work, and of course trans rights. Sexuality in the ancient world is fascinating because it was not influenced by the anti-sexual ideology of Christianity, and it was a time when people seemed to view sex as far less shameful. But it was still loaded with meanings, and there were many ideals for how people should behave in marriage, and about virginity. Many of the chapters address the difficult topic of the engagement of young people in sexual activity with adults in the ancient world, asking to what extent if any there were rules about how young they could be, which young people could be involved, whether their willingness was any factor at all in the activity. There are related questions addressed in the book about prostitutes and wives. Many papers address male-male sexual activity: it has been a standard interpretation of ancient sexual practices that the male is expected to be agent of sex and cannot be passive, so men can have sex with boys or male slaves, but they cannot have sex with equal men. Some of the papers explore the boundaries of this idea, and to what extent it is possible for there to be sexual love between two men of equal status. None of the papers take a strong moralizing tone, but there are questions about how much we should respect Ancient Greece as the foundation of Western Civilization, as it used to be thought of, and still is, to an extent. It is clear that the ancient world was patriarchal and brutal, and even if there were elements of democracy, most of the population was exploited and excluded from power. They may have produced great achievements in city building, architecture, technology, literature and poetry, philosophy, and art, but insofar as these cultural elements not only reflect but also promote a fundamentally hierarchical view of people, can we admire them? In a parallel way, is there anything to admire or learn from in the ancient practices of sexuality?
A prospective reader will probably do best just to look at the table of contents for this book. It's a big book, awkward to hold in one's hands or on a table, at least in the paperback version, and might be easier to read in hardback or in ebook. It is instructive to compare this book with the companion volume Women in Antiquity, both in Routledge's Rewriting Antiquity series. This later volume has nine different sections, with not just Greece and Rome, but also Mesopotamia, Egypt, Hittites, Cyprus, the Levant and Carthage, Etruria and the Italian Archipelago, and finally an odds and ends section. It has a greater geographical range and greater specificity. One might wish this for a study of ancient sexuality too, but who knows what challenges the editors of Sex in Antiquity faced in putting together the book they did. It may also be that most readers are focused on ancient Greece and Rome, so a wider range would have less appeal for them. This is an excellent resource not only for researchers in history, social sciences, and philosophy, but also for teachers of courses in ancient civilization, providing information that could enrich more traditional approaches.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.