LOVE IN THE RUINS
"Captive greece," the roman poet horace once wrote, referring rather enviously to the country Rome had made into a mere province, "took her savage victor captive, and brought the arts into rustic Latium." Augustus's favorite poet, like other ancient Romans, clearly struggled with a serious case of culture envy. The same, alas, might be said of Latin scholars.
For several decades now, Hellenists have been bringing to the study of ancient Greek civilization insights gleaned from cultural studies, feminist theory, and, especially, the structuralism-inspired "French school" led by Jean-Pierre Vernant at the Collège de France. The results-ideology-driven and jargon-filled excesses aside-have spectacularly enriched our understanding of everything from Aeschylus to drinking cups.
Until lately, however, Roman studies has by and large refused to wake up and smell the café crème. The almost simultaneous appearance this spring of John R. Clarke's Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.--A.D. 250 (California)-which fuses an old fashioned art-historical meticulousness with an up-to-the-minute sensitivity to nuances of sex, class, and commerce-and of Roman Sexualities (Princeton)-a grab bag of theory-inflected but philologically well-grounded essays-suggests that, not for the first time, the Romans are finally catching up to the Greeks.
Looking at Lovemaking is by far the more reader friendly of the two volumes. Beautifully designed and carrying a blurb from the gay novelist Edmund White, the book seems intended for coffee tables in Westchester as well as bookshelves in Widener Library. And why not? The rich color plates, accompanied by helpful architectural drawings and crisp black-and-white photographs, are great to look at, featuring not only the well-known erotic frescoes from Pompeii but everything from crude provincial terra-cottas to objects of high artistry like the silver Warren Cup, a breathtaking Augustan relic of elite provenance.
On the face of it, these varied artifacts would seem to suggest that, sexually speaking, there's nothing really new under the sun. An occasional "two women copulating" or "threesome of two men and a woman" aside, most of the plates show the kind of "male-female couple on bed" stuff that's likely to put the average reader in a wistful, plus ça change mood, one for which the ability to decline fellatrix properly is hardly necessary. And gay men who have had occasion to raise a skeptical eyebrow at the (in?)famous conclusion of Sir Kenneth Dover's magisterial Greek Homosexuality (1978)-that Greek male-male sex typically culminated in nothing more than "intercrural" (i.e., between-the-thighs) intercourse-will be relieved to find the good ol' fashioned kind depicted with refreshing bluntness by the no-nonsense Romans. (The Warren Cup shows a youth "easing himself onto his partner's penis while holding on to a strap"-a characteristically poker-faced description on Clarke's part.)
Although it's always nice to have a lofty excuse to look at dirty pictures, readers who do only that will be missing out on what makes Clarke's book noteworthy. A professor of art history at the University of Texas at Austin and the incoming president of the College Art Association, Clarke eschews present-day assumptions about sex in order to recover the meanings his erotic images may have had in the Roman world, "a world," he writes, "before Christianity, before the Puritan ethic, before the association of shame and guilt with sexual acts." Although this may be a bit too generous (there's plenty of evidence that the ancients could be as uptight about sex as anyone else), Clarke's efforts to situate his artworks in their original contexts yield provocative results. It's only after you see the Pompeian frescoes in their architectural settings, as Clarke demonstrates, that it occurs to you to ask what it was like "visiting someone's house and seeing fresco paintings depicting sexual activity on the walls of the best room." Clarke's answers to this and many other questions are unexpected. The Roman world, he concludes, was one in which pictures of cunnilingus or threesomes on the living-room wall, far from being "pornographic," were symbols of "luxury, pleasure, and high status" and stood as visual emblems of a society in which "sexual pleasure and its representation stood for positive social and cultural values."
If Clarke's analysis seems to bear out his claim that "the Romans are not at all like us in their sexuality," so do the texts explored in Roman Sexualities, edited by University of Maryland's Judith P. Hallett and University of Arizona's Marilyn B. Skinner. Although it rightly acknowledges its indebtedness to Hellenists like John Winkler, David M. Halperin, and Froma I. Zeitlin, whose 1990 collection Before Sexuality (Princeton) did much to legitimize the study of ancient, primarily Greek sexuality on this side of the Champs-Élysées, the Hallett-Skinner volume does much to justify the deletion of the hyphen in Greco-Roman, and lives up to its promise to "demonstrate that Roman constructions of sex should constitute a discrete research area within the general field of ancient sexuality."
The book begins, on a note of appropriate gravitas, with an examination of what made a man manly in ancient Rome. (The answer: basically, not getting fucked by another man.) After this first essay, the book's rhetoric ascends into a theory-scented empyrean. In "The Teretogenic Grid," University of Cincinnati's Holt N. Parker argues that sex acts per se were stripped of moral meaning in Rome; it was, rather, the "persona" one adopted while engaging in these acts that suggested any moral coloration. "Roman sexuality was a structuralist's dream," Parker asserts, and like all good structuralists, he's got a chart to prove it: His comes complete with an x-axis dedicated to orifices ("Vagina-Anus-Mouth") and a y-axis that consists of persons and attitudes (Male/Female, Active/Passive). On the grid itself, you'll find vocabulary you never saw in Latin 202: cunnilinctor, fellatrix, fututor, et (as they say) cetera. My college Latin professor genteelly translated irrumator, which appears in Catullus 16-and was conspicuously absent from our Learner's Dictionary-as "bastard." Who knew it really stood for someone who belonged at the intersection of Person: Active-Male and Orifice: Mouth?
Occasional flights of stylistic self-indulgence aside (and who can resist an article with subheadings like "The Ontological Status of Cunnilingus"?), these essays answer questions that probably never crossed your mind as you watched Ben Hur. One contribution sheds light on why "overeating, naked dancing, [and] telling jokes [were] three activities guaranteed to curtail any young Roman's political aspirations." (Not, as it turns out, simply because the decadent dinners at which these things were likely to happen were redolent of the suspect culture of the Greek East, but because in Roman thinking any one brand of morally suspect behavior was likely to implicate you in any other. So telling jokes at soirées implied you were sexually deviant.)
USC feminist scholar Amy Richlin's deliciously titled "Pliny's Brassiere" ("I find that headaches are relieved by tying a woman's brassiere on my head," the naturalist once asserted) begins perilously, with a gratuitous reference to Our Bodies, Ourselves. But, because Richlin focuses on Pliny-who hated the Greek-dominated medical establishment-the essay ends up a useful survey of popular, specifically Roman attitudes toward women's bodies. (The final section is called "Beyond Lingerie": One wonders why there aren't more classics majors these days.)
It's a pity that, in volumes dedicated to sweeping the cobwebs of straitlaced patriarchy from frequently ribald and always revealing classical texts, some rather Victorian conventions persist. One in particular deserves to go the way of Pompeii. The strangulated faux modesty of acknowledgments that conclude with "The strengths of the argument, such as they are, are due to others; its flaws remain my sole responsibility"-a staple of classics publications-is as pinched and unconvincing as Pliny's ad hoc headwrap. Isn't it time to burn that bra?