Foucault’s Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality 
by Simon Goldhill.
Cambridge, 194 pp., £30, January 1995, 0 521 47372 1
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An unusual feature of the topography of ancient Athens was the strange half-statues, which the Athenians called Hermeses and we call herms: a representation of the god of travel, trickery and luck, abbreviated to a pillar, a head and a penis. They were to be seen all over the city, on street-corners, at cross-roads, by doors and gates, and midway on roads from the country into town, providing points of reference in a city with few street-names and little interest in town-planning. On the eve of ventures or on receipt of gains, Hermes attracted ‘pleases’ and ‘thank-yous’ in the form of cakes and flowers, his penis conveniently erect for hanging gifts on. In 415, however, during preparations for a great voyage of conquest into the western Mediterranean, the Athenians woke up to discover their lucky herms vandalised: disfigured and (perhaps) unmembered. Panicked and outraged, they set up an inquisition to find the culprits. Informers were forthcoming and a list of ‘Hermokopidai’ was drawn up, the majority of whom did not hang around long enough to test the equity of Athenian justice but abandoned their property to the public auctioneers, who catalogued it carefully and inscribed it on stone for the benefit of posterity. The expedition itself went ahead as planned. It was a disaster.

What possessed the ‘herm-bashers’ that night remains obscure. Traditional opinion divides between jinx and high-jinks, between an oligarchic conspiracy to scupper the fortunes of the democracy and a drunken prank at a spectacularly ill-judged moment in Athenian imperial history. In 1985, however, Eva Keuls published a book which opened up a new line of inquiry. The Hermokopidai were innocent, she suggested. The real culprits were the women of Athens, striking a blow against phallocracy by hitting Athenian men where it hurt.

The penis was everywhere in the ancient world. Apart from the herms, there were giant ceremonial dildoes carried in procession for Dionysus, satyriassic satyrs on vases and in plays, priapic actors in comedy and naked men in gymnasia or in stone. Priapus himself arrived rather later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods: a fertility god of orchards and gardens, he sometimes doubled as a guardian, threatening scrumpers with impalement on his elephantine organ. This array of virilia bore many symbolic associations. Big ones seem most often to have indicated obscenity and buffoonery, lust, luck and fertility; others were used to mark senility (when pendulous), otherness (when circumcised) and self-control. They were a symbol as much for women as for men and figured in a number of women-only festivals in the form of phallic costumes and phallic cakes. Some care was taken to distinguish different kinds of penis in art, and a strong contrast seems always to have been drawn between the gross members of satyrs and comic actors in Dionysus’ entourage and the very modest manhood of heroic and civic ideal. Sometimes the phallus seems even to have a life of its own. It appears as a bird, with eyes and wings, or with four legs and a tail as a phallus-centaur. Disembodied and re-embodied in this way, it had little to do with what most Greek men found between their legs.

Phallic symbolism in Greece seems, therefore, to have been particularly rich and complex, but in recent years there has been a strong tendency to reduce all these penises, big ones, small ones, wooden ones, leather ones, the attached and the unattached, the flightless and the fully fledged, to one function only: masculine power. According to David Halperin, one of the most sophisticated members of this school of thought, ‘the symbolic language of democracy proclaimed on behalf of each citizen, “I, too, have a phallus.” ’ The herms are Hermes no longer, but a symbol of the patriarch, not well-wishers on the way, but grim and threatening guardians of the door, like Priapus, but without his sense of humour. The ideogram of an oppressive, dystopian system, the ubiquitous penis is seen to represent the ubiquity of male power: an attack on this sign, such as the vandalism of 415, looks very much like a revolt of phallocracy’s oppressed.

When it was first published, Keuls’s suggestion seemed to belong to the fringes of ancient studies; recently reissued, her book now nestles comfortably in the mainstream, a graphic indication of the direction the current has taken over the past ten years. Her title, The Reign of the Phallus, might stand as a summary of new thinking on ancient gender. Blended with Beauvoir’s Other, Freud and Foucault, the phallus has come to be seen as the key to a whole society, lying at the centre of a nexus of sex and power. ‘Sex was phallic action,’ claims Halperin, ‘it revolved around who had the phallus, was defined by what was done with the phallus, and was polarised by the distribution of phallic pleasure.’ Sex was a chronic, traumatic, political event. Far from bringing people together it kept them apart, dividing those penetrating from those penetrated, while at the same time erasing distinctions on either side of the phallic equation. Penetration, moreover, meant power. Those who had the phallus and used it were the dominant citizen males. Those who had been born without one or who had lost theirs somewhere along the way were the disenfranchised Other: women, slaves, foreigners and men who enjoyed getting shafted. Sex made everyone either active or passive, a plus or a minus; it was a zero-sum game.

It has been claimed that phallicism was not merely characteristic of sex in the ancient world (as it has been thought characteristic of sex today) but actually constituted a sexuality. In fact, there was no such thing as sexuality in antiquity, only ‘a more generalised ethos of penetration and domination’. Phallicism thus presented historians with a real-life example to support Foucault’s theory of radical discontinuity in the history of desire. The ‘problem’ of Greek homosexuality was a problem no more. So long as they were on the positive end of the penetrating penis, the Greeks did not care about the gender of the person on the other.

This view of ancient sexuality has been enormously influential over the past decade, especially among non-classicists, who seem prepared to accept uncritically claims about the ancient world that would, if made about more proximate cultures, attract much closer scrutiny. The theory’s ready acceptance is perhaps one of the main grounds for scepticism, since it convinces not by means of an avalanche of indisputable ancient material, but by fitting in neatly with contemporary concerns. Penetration is a peculiarly modern obsession, and non-penetrative intercourse our peculiar holy grail. This makes the ancient phallocracy look suspiciously like a genealogical exercise, an archaeology of the truth of Western patriarchy in a time before it had gone under cover. Future historians will have little difficulty in demonstrating a connection in the 20th century between sex, aggression and power. The more adventurous among them might adduce the homosexual rape scene in Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain, or the addition to military slang of the verb ‘to scud’, glossed by one reporter during the Gulf War as ‘to make love unfeelingly’, but these are only the more exotic reaches of a quotidian discourse constituted in a whole range of expletives from ‘up yours’ to ‘get screwed.’

Such language is conspicuous in ancient Greece by its absence, forcing the historians of phallocracy to turn to images instead. But these images are silent and it is by no means straightforward to make them speak without ventriloquising. Anything which strays from the missionary position, for instance, is looked at with suspicion as being close to S&M: ‘the rear-entry stance allows the painter to show women being used impersonally, as mere sexual tools whose response and emotional reaction is of no concern to their male lovers.’ The foundations of the theory of ancient phallocracy, as well as the impressionable, fly-by-wire approach to sexual imagery, have their origins not, surprisingly, in some post-Foucauldian constructionist treatise, but in a ten-page section on ‘Dominant and Subordinate Roles’ in Kenneth Dover’s normally sober work on Greek homosexuality. Here, at the point where it was perhaps most needed, Dover abandons his painstaking philology, turning instead to pornographic vase-paintings elucidated with the help of anthropology and zoology. He notes that Italians refer to a defeated football team as inculato and observes that it is an insult in Norse sagas to describe someone as ‘used like a wife’. Most of his evidence, however, comes from analogies in the animal kingdom, although the animals generally seem more sophisticated than Homo sapiens about sexual symbolism: ‘Karlen observes that humans, unlike many animal species which have ritualised homosexual “submission”, can complete a genital act “in expressing a power relationship”. John Boorman’s film Deliverance makes striking use of this theme in depicting the maltreatment of urban “trespassers” by rustic hunters.’

It is this modern view of penetration, universalised by human-zoo logic, that makes the ancient phallocracy convincing. The idea that the ithyphallic herm is an aggressive proprietorial marker is cogent not because of any compelling ancient evidence, but because of an implicit or explicit analogy with the territorial displays of apes (‘I have myself seen this reaction,’ says Dover). Even Foucault, who would not normally allow a monkey within a hundred miles of his philosophy, is quite happy to refer to Dover’s bestiary as evidence for ancient attitudes to penetration. His followers have tended to follow suit, producing a curious blend of primatology and psychoanalysis, treating the penis as a transcendental signifier and reading the meanings of making love without reference to cultural conventions. A theory which claims to challenge universalising notions of sexuality depends on universalising interpretations of sex.

As Simon Goldhill shows in his subtle and complex new book, Foucault’s Virginity, antiquity was not immune to the argument from nature, although there it turns up in strange and unexpected guises that might not be familiar to modern sociobiologists. In a neglected work of Plutarch, for instance, we find Gryllus the pig, a victim of Circe’s magic, refusing to be turned back into a man and reasoning against Odysseus for the moral superiority of unreasoning beasts. In a novel of Achilles Tatius, the hero Cleitophon demonstrates the power of love by citing the viper who lays aside his poison to mate with the eel, the male palm tree which wilts if planted too far from the female and the love of the magnet for iron – not so much sociobiology perhaps as sociobotany or sociophysics.

Ancient romances, like Cleitophon and Leucippe, form the main focus of Goldhill’s work, taking precedence over the philosophical rulebooks and homilies favoured by Foucault and Peter Brown in their researches on sexuality. This deliberate prioritising of the erotic genre over the philosophical is celebrated by a striking image on the cover: Aristotle, on all fours, ridden by the hetaera Phyllis brandishing a whip. Considered morally dubious in the last century and literarily deficient in our own, the Erotikoi Logoi have not until recently received the attention due to the first European novels. They are set in a world of happy and unhappy accidents that makes Serendip look like Eastbourne on a dull afternoon, telling tales of star-crossed lovers, their sexual experimentations, their separations, violations, last-minute salvations, abductions, seductions and deaths ... apparently. These ludicrous novels provide an appropriate site for Goldhill to make his revolutionary claim that sex in the ancient world, penetration even, may well have been bound up with power and a whole host of other things, but it belonged first and foremost to the realm of play. Here, sexual rules are not simply obeyed or broken, but teased and negotiated; nature and her norms are refracted through layers of irony and humour.

After more than ten years of binary oppositions, overbroad generalisations and rigid schemas, Goldhill’s close readings are a relief. He brings to the study of ancient sexuality a sensitivity to nuance, an appreciation of complexity and, above all, a respect for contexts, both textual and historical. While some treat the ancient phallocracy as an unchanging system throughout antiquity and even beyond, Goldhill is aware that the novels come from a period which both Foucault and Peter Brown have identified as a crucial one in the history of sexuality, a transitional period in the first centuries of our era which culminated in the primacy of Christian ethics. In three chapters he examines how the ancient novels reflect the period’s changing attitudes to homosexuality, the symmetry of the sexes and virginity, thus giving historical specificity to the idea of penetration and bodily integrity. But he is anxious that the novels be seen as more than simply windows on a sexual world, or litmus tests of sexual attitudes. They are themselves artefacts of the history of desire, intertwining text and sex to draw out the narrativity of desire, or the eroticism of fictions. Cleitophon’s eels and palm-trees, for instance, form part of a rhetorical set-piece expounded within earshot of Leucippe, the target of his affections. By demonstrating the power of love in this rather stiff and artificial speech, he can expect to make her feel its force more passionately. Similarly, in the most famous of the novels, Chloe only begins to fall in love with Daphnis when she describes him. Merely seeing him was not enough: it was necessary for her to rehearse his beauty in words. The novels are full of these powerful, love-activating texts within texts, producing a kind of reflection en abîme which is now a familiar trope of literary criticism but which seems also to be a genuine characteristic of Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic literature, smudging the boundary between reader and read and providing a kind of self-advertisement for the sexual power of literature. We know of at least one ancient doctor who prescribed erotic novels as a cure for impotence.

One sometimes suspects that Goldhill, like other subtle critics, is so sensitive to irony that he has begun to perfect imperfect texts, using his ingenuity to uncover coherence where there is none. Ancient books, scrolled fore and aft and almost always read aloud, were like fairy-tale bridges that materialise underfoot and disappear in the reader’s wake, moving on forgetfully from what has gone before and and not altogether certain of what is coming next. All narratives may be linear, but ancient novels are more linear than others and less accountable to standards of consistency and control based on the attentive reading allowed by the more manageable three-dimensional leafed codex. The occasional critical overshoot, however, is a price worth paying for Goldhill’s detailed demonstration of the novels’ narrative intricacy, and for his making available to the historian of sexuality such rich seams of new and fascinating material.

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Vol. 17 No. 21 · 2 November 1995

In his review of Simon Goldhill’s Foucault’s Virginity, James Davidson (LRB, 19 October) takes Kenneth Dover to task for insufficient sobriety in the section of his study of Greek homosexuality entitled ‘Dominant and Subordinate Roles’: ‘Dover abandons his painstaking philology, turning instead to pornographic vase paintings elucidated with the help of anthropology and zoology.’ (Post-Modernist classics seems to abominate analogy.) Earlier in the review Davidson renders himself liable to a similar charge by claiming that ‘historians of phallocracy’ are forced to turn to images because abusive sexual language ‘is conspicuous by its absence in ancient Greek’. This is a staggering mis-statement which a glance at the index of Dover’s book would be sufficient to refute. The Greek for ‘get stuffed’ is ou (ouchi) laikasei, which literally means ‘accept a cock down your throat’. There are plenty of instances in the ancient Greek world of sexual language being used aggressively and self-assertively, with the implication that the act denoted has humiliated or will humiliate the object of the abuse. There is a large amount of evidence for this in the form of abusive graffiti. Does Davidson think that the person or persons who incised the following onto a pillar in Karnak intended to remind Ptolemy of some pleasurable casual sex he had recently enjoyed? ‘Ptolemy – they fuck him in the street. Ptolemy the son of Abdaios – they buggered him in the same street.’ What was the intention of the men who inscribed walls in, respectively, Gela, Thasus and Ostia with the words ‘the writer will bugger the reader,’ ‘I have buggered the passer-by,’ ‘I bugger all those who write on the wall’? How are we to explain the type of graffito laying claim to possession of an object and warning off potential thieves (‘whoever steals Olympas’ bowl will be buggered’) except in terms of self-assertive male aggression and of the assumption that penetration is a humiliation for a man? While I agree with Davidson (and Goldhill) that Greek sexuality is a complex matter and that many of those who write on it tend towards heavy-handedness, and while I am far from happy about concepts (or indeed words) like ‘phallocracy’, I cannot see how it can be gainsaid that in the ancient Greek world the phallus was on occasions thought of as a weapon rather than a generative organ or an instrument of pleasure.

D.M. Bain
University of Manchester

Vol. 17 No. 23 · 30 November 1995

In the course of taking James Davidson to task for thinking that the ancient Greeks did not share our present use of phallocratic expletives (Letters, 2 November), D.M. Bain quotes some abusive graffiti and the Greek equivalent of the nicety ‘accept a cock down your throat.’ Now one understands why Liddell and Scott evaded a literal translation, calling it simply a ‘vulgar form of execration’, and also why Michael Heseltine, when confronted with the same expression in Petronius, lets the cold go to the devil and nowhere else in his Loeb translation of 1913. But an interesting question remains. Why is it that such phallocratic expletives can never be traced to the ancient Greeks? They all seem to belong to a period of Romanised Greeks and Graecised Romans who lived much later and compensated for their distance from the ancient Greeks with what one could call experimental sensationalism in sexualibus, a field then as widely exploited by (quasi) literary means as it is again nowadays.

J.R. Evenhuis

Vol. 18 No. 1 · 4 January 1996

I am relieved that an authority on ancient sexual images like Robert Sutton and an expert on sexual graffiti like David Bain have between them been able to come up with only such meagre and familiar evidence for the connection between power and penetration in classical Athens (Letters, 14 December 1995). The well-known vase that is supposed to commemorate the victory at the river Eurymedon in southern Turkey crops up so repetitively in accounts of sex and power at Athens that I am becoming convinced it is the only evidence there is. It is nevertheless not very good evidence. It does not in fact depict penetration at all, but someone, ‘Eurymedon’ (?), bent over, waiting to be serviced by a strange running figure on the other side of the vase. It seems, therefore, to indicate sexual incontinence rather than domination, like the Sicilian tyrant, Agathocles, who behaved like a common prostitute ‘putting his rear parts in front of anyone who wanted’. The gap between them cannot simply be ignored. The most that could confidently be adduced is not therefore Dover’s ‘We’ve buggered the Persians,’ but ‘Any minute now we will be buggering the Persians’ – an unaccountable postponement of the moment of triumph. But even this is wrong. Eurymedon is the site of the battle. What’s the point of buggering the battlefield? Especially when the site in question is a river and a god? All these objections, I should point out, and others on a more technical level were well made by Gloria Ferrari Pinney in 1984. She concluded that ‘the case for the patriotic interpretation’ was ‘weak’. I suppose ‘wide-ruling’ (eurumedon) might allude to ‘wide-arsed’ (euruproktos), but it must be one of the most obscure jokes in ancient literature, like expecting readers to discover in Biggles a reference to Big Fairy, for instance. Eurymedon is a normal Greek name borne by a number of people in literature and life. The vase could refer to any of them.

I was aware also of the evidence from graffiti. I make three points: 1. As J.R. Levenhuis notes, few examples are classical or from Greece. 2. The Greeks certainly considered touching the genitals with the mouth revolting, but it seems extraordinary to see this as a problem of penetration rather than of dirt and pollution – the most execrable act, after all, was cunnilingus. 3. If the buggered reader is insulted it is because he is used casually and anonymously for sex, like a prostitute; the reader of David Bain’s cup is threatened with buggery only as a substitute if the writer is frustrated in his lust for lovely Phryna.

Dover declared a long time ago that there was ‘abundant evidence’ for a distinction between dominant and subordinate sexual roles in classical Athens. As far as I can tell this evidence has never been produced, Norse sagas notwithstanding. Nevertheless the claims about these links continue to grow. Since then it has been suggested that in the ancient world the emphasis on power in penetration was so overwhelming that it eclipsed all other possibilities for ancient sexuality. If this is remotely true it should not be so hard to find a few unequivocal examples. On the other hand, no one disputes evidence that points in the opposite direction, the very strong indications, for instance, that the Greeks, unlike us, considered womanisers (who are on the positive end of the penetrating penis) womanish, that notches on the bed-post had a negative effect on an Athenian’s sense of masculine prowess. There is a real problem here for the phallocratic theory that Foucault’s notion of ‘passivity with regard to pleasures’ does nothing to resolve. I am prepared to accept that among the many classical views of sex there were some that pictured penetration as power, but I would like to see some more convincing evidence first, and I would need a great deal of persuading that this could be described as the dominant perspective, let alone an alternative to sexuality.

This debate needs, I think, to be put in perspective. Let us remind ourselves what the classicists’ doubtful allusions are up against. Apart from the banal use of swear-words, ‘up yours’, ‘get screwed’ etc which distinguish modern society most noticeably, I quote at random some of the more striking examples of our nasty view of sex for which I cannot recall any classical Greek analogy. There is, for instance, Oliver Reed, who remarked on television some years ago that ‘the thing women will never forgive is that men fuck them.’ There is also the man who assisted in Lorca’s fusillation and later boasted in the local café that he had put ‘two bullets into his arse for being a queer’. Then, courtesy of the local video shop, there is Bruce Willis in Die Hard, describing a conspicuous set-back for the authorities as being ‘buttfucked on national TV’. Of course sex meshed with power at many points in classical Greece, but the relationship between them is rather more complex than this ‘zero-sum game’ of who fucks who over.

James Davidson
London NW3

Vol. 17 No. 24 · 14 December 1995

James Davidson (LRB, 19 October) claims that aggressive sexual slang is ‘conspicuous in ancient Greece by its absence’, overlooking the strong sexual and scatological invective of Aristophanes and the other poets of Old Comedy. Vase paintings even break their usual muteness on this issue to speak directly on a vase portraying a Persian archer bending over as a Greek approaches from behind holding his erect penis in hand, penetration clearly in mind; its inscription ‘Eyrymedon eimi’ (‘I am Eurymedon’) makes a coarse play of the name of the river Eurymedon, site of a contemporary Greek naval victory, as well as the words ‘Euryproktos’ (‘wide-arsed’) and ‘Medos’ (‘Mede’, a synonym for ‘Persian’, which also has a homonym meaning ‘genitals’). It is fully analogous to the modern sexual ‘to scud’, which Davidson mentions.

Robert Sutton
Indiana University-Purdue University,

I must correct the implication behind the question posed by J.R. Evenhuis: ‘Why is it that such phallocentric expletives can never be traced back to the ancient Greeks?’ (Letters, 30 November). It is simply not the case that such expressions are uttered only by Romanised Greeks or Graecised Romans. Laikazo is at home in Aristophanes and one of the epigraphic examples of buggering the reader I adduced in my previous letter dates from the early fifth century.

D.M. Bain
Manchester University

Vol. 18 No. 2 · 25 January 1996

James Davidson (Letters, 4 January) does well, I reckon, to show just how open to over-interpretation that saucy Greek vase is – ‘well-known’ to those in the know incidentally, but not to anyone else: an illustration would have been a help. There’s still one feature of the ambiguous scene on the vase that Davidson has failed to explain, however: why is the ‘strange figure’ presumed to be approaching bent on buggery running? Was buggery an act thought by the Greeks to be more attractive or incisive when attended by a certain urgency? Or is the scene as shown perhaps a joke? I find it comic; did they?

Neil Forster
London N1

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