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Dear All,

This site is now closed.

I’ve switched all the reviews over to the CLASSICS FOR ALL main site.

It has been a blast.

John

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ANCIENT OBSCENITIES: THEIR NATURE AND USE IN THE ANCIENT GREEK AND ROMAN WORLDS

Ed. by Dorota Dutsch and Ann Suter

Michigan (2015) h/b 356pp £90.95 (ISBN 9780472119646)

This collection of twelve essays grew out of a conference at Ann Arbor in 2008 and certainly makes for interesting and surprisingly varied reading. Caveat lector—the writers are not shy about translating the ancient obscenities into their modern (American) equivalents and the book is not for the faint-hearted. The essays cover obvious literary sources (Hipponax, Aristophanes, Juvenal, the carmina priapea) along with far less obvious literary sources (Herodotus, the Attic orators and Plautus) as well as the graffiti and the imagery of Priapus in Pompeii and the female exhibitionism known as the anasyrma.

There are certainly some odd choices here. Looking for filth in the orators is a bit like looking for it in The Church Times, and the only surprise is that anyone is surprised at its scarcity. Jess Miner homes in on ps-Demosthenes’ attack on Neaera, but the key obscenity she needs for her case – that Neara made her living ‘from three holes’ (Demosthenes 59.108) – is a disputed reading and one not universally accepted. She does remind us, however, that the lawcourts imposed a certain decorum on their speakers and this says something about the ancient attitude towards obscenity and the orators’ skilful use of euphemism and innuendo.

In the case of the chapter on Herodotus, the title of the paper (ou kata nomon) refers of course to Pisistratus’ refusal to give Megacles any grandchildren and the sexual practice was probably Onan’s method of coitus interruptus rather than any more sophisticated vices. Lateiner tells us here (p. 121) that the ‘litotic euphemism’ implies ‘various conceivable sexual diversions’ and thinks presumably that Herodotus is implying more than he says for prurient reasons. ‘Conceivable’ is perhaps not the mot juste here—that was the whole point—and anyway the interesting thing about this episode is not the anatomical detail (which Herodotus does not explain) but the political attitude of these men and the dynastic end-result. Lateiner struggles to find obscenity in the father of history and ends up widening the definition of obscenity to include accounts of cannibalism, Periander’s necrophilia, the voyeurism of Gyges forced to spy on Kandaules’ wife, incestuous dreaming and torture such as Xerxes impaling Sataspes. Here again, however, Herodotus’ racy stories are told not primarily with a view to titillate but to tell the whole truth, ‘wonders’ and all. Herodotus tells us of the odd ways in which the Egyptians urinate not as a form of obscene narrative but perhaps to underline his recurring theme of the different nomoi obtaining in different lands. It is hard to see these as ‘obscene incidents’. There is far more obvious obscenity in the fragments of Hipponax and Kirk Ormand illustrates the poet’s use of filth in every sense—sexual and scatological—in this outrageous poetry. It is not everyone who can make Archilochus look tame, but Hipponax manages it and Ormand does the filth full justice.

There are also some surprising omissions here. Horace’s Epodes and Satires Book 1 would have made a far better case-study than Plautus—where the ‘obscenity’ amounts to no more than suggestively bawdy stage business—and Catullus is only examined as a subject of expurgation in the final chapter. The chapter on Aristophanes is interesting on the putative origins of aischrologia in ritual, but less good at examining what the comic poet does with it to win the prize in front of the public. The obscenity in the early plays Acharnians and Knights, for instance, would have been eloquent testimony to the use of obscenity in the Greek world in the early years of the Peloponnesian War.

Juvenal inspires what is possibly the best chapter in the book. Michael Broder here proposes a ‘camp’ interpretation of Satires 2, 6, and 9 and airs the whole debate of how the persona behind the ranting satire is a construct with no necessary connection to any consistent moral attitude. Clearly Juvenal has a constant theme of the topsy-turvy world where men behave like women (2) and women behave like men (6) and Broder brings this out well: poem 9 further shows that in the hands of the unscrupulous omnisexual Naevius there is even a living to be made out of Roman sexual shenanigans. Deviance of behaviour is something which the satirist describes, although he does so without using primary obscenities most of the time, and the way he uses elevated language to discuss the least elevated of subjects is part of his fascination. Many of us still think that the real target of his satire is the deliberate (self-) deception which accompanies deviance rather than the deviance itself—and his real object is the literary game which the poet plays with his audience. Broder argues that the real heroes of these three poems are the deviant men and women whom the persona mocks, and that his ‘camp’ reading ‘allows the postmodern, deviant-friendly reader to let go of his or her nose and take a nice deep whiff of Juvenal’s obscenely comic mockery’.

The final chapter looks at the rehabilitation of the obscene in editions and translations of the classics, a chapter which takes one back in time to the old Loeb editions of (say) Petronius where the filthy passages were left untranslated, Latin text facing Latin text, or where the Sixteen Satires of Juvenal became the Thirteen Satires, and where a Fordyce would omit several poems of Catullus altogether. The new rash of ‘unexpurgated’ translations was clearly designed to be elegant and racy rather than simply obscene, and the chapter is an interesting piece of intellectual and social history.

This is obviously something of a motley collection and readers will find some articles more engaging than others; and the topics are to varying degrees concerned with the title of the book. The opening piece on the anasyrma, for instance—an act in which women flashed their genitalia at others—was enlightening, but felt like something of a false start in a book concerned with obscenity, as the ancient descriptions of the act make it sound more like exuberant (often drink-fuelled) behaviour rather than any stylized or obviously ritual. True, it started with a servant Baubo flashing her bits at the goddess Demeter to cheer her up after the loss of Persephone—not the most obvious method of grief-counselling—but it seems to have worked and started something of a trend. There are chapters where the writers of these pieces perhaps try too hard to squeeze significance out of (e.g.) the light verse which is the Carmina Priapea, or the versified banter which accompanied a triumphant Caesar; and the scatological graffiti come as nothing especially revealing about the lives of the good citizens of Pompeii.

What is most interesting about obscenity is why and how people feel both the need to depict sexual and scatological matters in art and literature, and why the same people also feel the need to censor it—and how different societies operate with different ideas of what constitutes obscenity anyway. The range and the diversity of the chapters collected here confirm—if nothing else—the book’s opening statement that the only consensus in the modern debate about obscenity is that ‘consensus about what constitutes obscenity is hardly possible’ (p.1).

There is, then, no party line in this book, each contributor offering his/her own definition and then applying it to the material; the range of definitions is wide and often seems to be made to suit the material in question. The book is generally well proof-read (although Paetus in chapter 8 (p.177) becomes Petus in chapter 9 (p.207)) and is illustrated with some (relatively tasteful) black-and-white images. I doubt that school librarians will be stocking it—but then that is all part of the point of the book’s argument about the curious place of this material in society and culture.

John Godwin

 

PORTRAITS OF THE VESTAL VIRGINS, PRIESTESSES OF ANCIENT ROME

By Molly M. Lindner

Michigan (2015) h/b 318pp £95.95 (ISBN 9780472118953)

Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, was one of Rome’s most ancient and venerable deities.  Her annual festival, the Vestalia, was held in June.  The priestesses who ministered to Vesta were six ‘Vestal Virgins’.  These were patrician ladies of fine physique, who had been chosen by the Senate.  When appointed, the Vestals were aged between 6 and 10.  To modern eyes that seems a bit young for making career choices.

The Vestals served for at least 30 years and usually longer. They lived together in a special house and their main job was to keep a sacred fire burning on the hearth.  The Chief Vestal (Virgo Vestalis Maxima) was in charge. The Pontifex Maximus had overall control of the college of Vestal Virgins.  After 12 BC that meant the Emperor.

The Vestals had a prominent role in ceremonies to honour Vesta. There was much burning of incense, so that pleasant smells wafted up to heaven.  The goddess also required sacrifices.  Some of these were a bit gory: for example, killing a pregnant cow, extracting the foetuses and then burning them.

In this delightful book Molly Lindner pulls together both literary and archaeological sources to tell the ‘story’ of the Vestals. Contrary to their modern image, they did not live like Catholic nuns.  They played an active part in public life and enjoyed high status.  They had retinues of clients and much business to attend to, both religious and secular.  The great and the good, including the Emperor and senators, were regular visitors to their residence.

The sumptuous house in which these ladies lived underwent many changes over the centuries, especially after the great fire of AD 64. It included a central courtyard in which the statues of prominent Vestals stood.  The remains of the house and many of the statues or their bases came to light during excavations in the 1880s.

The Vestals were presented as exemplars of feminine virtues: in particular inviolability (sanctitas), modesty (pudicitia) and piety in the performance of rituals (pietas).   Any misbehaviour had dire consequences.  If a Vestal let the fire go out, she was beaten.  If she lost her virginity, the punishment was execution by being buried alive.  Mere suspicion of sexual misbehaviour could be fatal for the virgins—Domitian executed four of them on dubious grounds.  Modern notions of employees’ rights and due process had no place in the ancient world.

The centrepiece of the book is chapter 6, the ‘catalogue’ of the sixteen Vestals whose statues (or at least the heads) survive. Eleven come from the second century and five from the early third century.  They range from Chief Vestals to more junior members of the college.  The girl at number 8 in the catalogue seems to be aged about fifteen.  The distinctive feature of all of them is the magnificent headdress.

Professor Lindner gives a fascinating account of the headdresses. For this she draws on Virgil, Ovid, Lucretius and imperial relief sculptures, as well as the sixteen statue heads.  The headdress had three elements:

  • Infulae—strands of wool wrapped around the head in parallel rows, covering the braided hair;
  • Vittae—long strands of wool that hung over the shoulders and back;
  • Suffibula—rectangular fabric, worn over the infulae and vittae when the virgin was sacrificing.

These ladies must have caused quite a sensation, as they passed through the city displaying their fabulous hair-dos. Luckily, whenever the Vestals were out and about, lictors accompanied them ready to beat off any plebs who came too close.

All great institutions must come to an end. The rise of Christianity meant no more public funding for the college of Vestal Virgins.  Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan, took particular exception to the privileges and wealth enjoyed by these ladies.  By the end of the fourth century the Vestal Virgins were disbanded.

This book combines some serious scholarship with much human interest. I commend it to all who enjoy the classics.                                                                                                                                         Rupert Jackson