Sex and Sexuality in Classical Athens, by James Robson

Barbara Graziosi discovers what went on in the bedroom in ancient Greece

January 30, 2014

In a funeral oration delivered by Pericles in 430BC, and reported by Thucydides, there is a memorable description of classical Athens. It was a democracy, we are told, because power was in the hands of “the whole people” (ie, all adult Athenian men). In private matters, disputes were settled according to the law. In public affairs, citizens contributed according to their talents: what counted was ability, not wealth or social class.

The speech is impressive, but one sentence seems alarming: “We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbour if he enjoys himself as he pleases, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though inflicting no real harm, still hurt people’s feelings.” What a man did at home was his own business. Sexually abusing one’s wife, for example, was not only legal but – Pericles seemed to imply – just fine.

Given the value placed on privacy, finding out about sex and sexuality in classical Athens seems difficult. Undaunted, James Robson sets out to discover “what led one individual to have sex (or want to have sex, or not want to have sex) with another”, asking “Who? With whom? How come?”

He deftly collects a vast range of evidence in answer to his nosy questions. The Athenians, it turns out, were not quite as discreet as Pericles may have wished. The first part of the book, “Debates”, considers marriage and domestic life, same-sex relationships, prostitution, laws about adultery and (what we now call) rape, and finally sexual attractiveness. The second half, “Documents”, sets out the ancient sources discussed under “Debates”.

In acknowledging some of the limitations of our knowledge, Robson shows how difficult it is to map our categories, language and experiences on to classical Athenian society. However, most of the debates he identifies concern matters of fact: what “the market for homoerotic vases” was, the going fees for acts of prostitution “depending on what exactly was on offer from whom”, “the extent to which Athenian housewives used make‑up”.

Precisely because it is so detailed, his account is riveting: we find out a surprising amount about eye contact, for example, and discover that the beauty of men and women was praised in similar terms. Small and firm breasts were appreciated, as were small male genitalia (a large penis was associated with infertility).

The weakest part of the book concerns marriage, and this is not just a reflection of our lack of evidence. Robson wonders, for example, why girls married at around 15 while bridegrooms were in their thirties: he quotes explanations offered by other scholars (eg, husbands’ desire to exercise control, and the premium placed on female virginity upon marriage) and then suggests that perhaps people “simply followed the established traditions of their society”, which explains nothing.

Surely high infant mortality and frequent death in childbirth (mentioned elsewhere in the book) are relevant: it was important to establish early which women gave birth with relative ease, and ensure that their childbearing years were fully exploited. Conversely, as the Athenians waged war almost every year, many young men died in battle; and it was important that fathers survived. Arrangements for widows and orphans were rather ad hoc, and sometimes involved public expense, so it made sense for men to start a family when they had already survived several wars.

The selection of documents here is ample and well presented. It cannot, of course, be exhaustive (there is no reference to my opening passage from Thucydides, for example), but readers will be inspired by this book to discover further sources, and learn even more about sex.

Sex and Sexuality in Classical Athens

By James Robson
Edinburgh University Press, 336pp, £80.00 and £24.99
ISBN 9780748634132 and 4149
Published 31 October 2013

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