Old Flames

Peter Parsons

  • The Latin Sexual Vocabulary by J.N. Adams
    Duckworth, 272 pp, £24.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1648 X
  • Ovid: The Erotic Poems translated by Peter Green
    Penguin, 450 pp, £2.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 14 044360 6
  • Women’s Life in Greece and Rome by Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant
    Duckworth, 294 pp, £24.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1434 7
  • Heroines and Hysterics by Mary Lefkowitz
    Duckworth, 96 pp, £8.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1518 1

Time and philology turn dirt into dust. Housman had to veil Latin obscenity in Latin obscurity; Paul Brandt chose to publish under the speaking pseudonym of ‘Hans Licht’; Hopfner’s monumental Sexualleben was left a torso by a pupil less pious than pudibund. But nowadays, whatever a Latinist always wanted to know, he has no further need to ask: it is in print, sanitary and systematic. By 1984 the snigger will be an endangered species. J.N. Adams’s Vocabulary is a milestone in the brave new frankness. It is also a sterling scholarly achievement by a distinguished philologist: shrewd, learned, concise and rigorous. It contributes something to the study of poetry. (Catullus mourned his sparrow: avian or anatomical? Catullus’s Lesbia ‘peeled’ her lovers: how, exactly?) It contributes something to literary history: that cheerful faker, the Augustan History of the Roman emperors, is shown to have a penchant for the archaically risqué. Above all, it makes possible the serious study of categories: slangy against folksy, vulgar against obscene, social taboo against literary taste, nonce-formation against archetypal image.

Time has not done much for sex. In most ways, we have improved on the ancient world (the past is not just another country – it is an underdeveloped one): we eat better, travel faster and live twice as long. But we have not managed anything new with two organs in three dimensions. The Roman vocabulary may therefore strike the English reader with a sense of déjà foutu. They had available, as we do, three levels of language: basic obscenities (five- and six-letter words); euphemisms and metaphors; medical terminology. The obscenities comprehend the obvious: one member, two modes and three orifices; the conjugation of copulation was completer than ours, with six separate verbs (three for the active, three for the passive partner). The euphemisms look equally familiar: ‘member’ and ‘tool’, ‘lap’ and ‘portal’, ‘love’ and ‘plough’. Cultural change has shifted the emphasis from, say, agriculture to machinery: the gun, as Adams remarks, has made a more potent image than the sword. (Nonetheless, there is something here for the Viennese Delegation: Latin, too, has the devouring vulva, the cyclops-eyed and seminally-weeping phallus.) It is the medical language that rings most odd, as amateur and unformed as its writers. Thus Celsus, the dilettante whom the Middle Ages dignified into a doctor, found Latin filthy, and created his own grecising jargon of male ‘stalk’ and female ‘nature’. Modern medicine has done much more for the language, to meet its own needs (what should we do without fellatio?); Latin vulgarity ages into scientific neutrality.

The Romans left little direct comment on these matters. Varro notes ‘be with’ as more decent than ‘sleep with’ (euphemism euphemised). Cicero notes that the euphemisms of the last generation – penis (literally ‘tail’) and testis (literally ‘witness’) – are the indecencies of his own; he believes in calling a spade a spade (Stoic doctrine – no word can be immoral, if the act is not), but chooses not to call it anything. The rest is inference. For literary usage, we can read literature (or the 5 per cent of it that survives). For the usages of speech, we rely on contemporary trivia and philological longevity. Colloquial Latin shows up in the graffiti which Vesuvius baked on the walls of Pompeii, in the lead bullets that the defenders of Perusia aimed (with suitable inscriptions) at the privities of Antony and Octavian, in the lead tablets on which amateur magicians communicated their wishes and curses, in earthy terms, to the powers of darkness. Vulgar Latin suffered functional filtration; the fittest survived into the Romance languages, the classy and the jaded fell away. Thus the demotic mentula and the politer penis did not stay the course: but virga (‘rod’) lives on as French verge, caraculum (‘stake’) as Spanish carajo. All in all, the evidence for speech is much thinner than the evidence for books: consequently, social proprieties are much harder to define than literary proprieties.

Literature follows rules of genre. The primary obscenities occur in epigram; in farce and mime (but not in comedy); in early satire, but not later (Horace dropped them after his first book). The epigram shows the process. The Greek model was generally pure in word, if not in thought. It was Catullus, apparently, who crossed literary motifs with popular patter, to produce a sort of graffito-as-art (in one poem he even rallies his verses like a mob of street urchins). The right to dirt descended with the form to Martial; it took the prissy Pliny to abstain from naughty words in composing the naughty verses that he felt (in emulation of so many Eminent Persons) he owed his image. Elsewhere, art, dignity and tradition go against. Love elegy, always more concerned with poses than postures, confined itself to metaphor. (Even Ovid. Peter Green’s new version, recommended for its lively and understanding commentary, coarsens the language of the text, as it coarsens style and fabric; Poundian huff-and-puff blows elegance out of the window.) In oratory, statesman charges statesman with the standard perversions, but only in decorous paraphrase. Juvenal’s satire, which wears the mask of public conscience, cannot use gutter language to reproach gutter doings; and in any case, sophisticated rhetoric can create more picturesque disgust. Similarly with the novel: Petronius and Apuleius both maintain, in this narrow sense, verbal decency for indecent descriptions: cool ingenuousness in the one, and slangy euphuism in the other, do much better as foils.

Less can be said about social levels, especially in a society where verbal and visual obscenity has its place in religion. Children must not hear obscene things (childhood equals innocence – an unrealistic view, Ariès has suggested, which it needed Classical influence to revive in the 17th century): but, to promote fertility or repel the evil eye, obscene verses will be sung at weddings, winged phalli will dot well-to-do drawing-rooms like so many putti-in-reverse. This at least may not matter – it is words that count, not parts. We do get a glimpse of nursery talk (little girls have a ‘pig’, porcus), and of fashionable chatter (young men like ‘a bit of fun’, deliciae). Low persons use Greek slang (Adams suggests it was a brothel dialect), ‘the birdy’, ‘the good soil’, ‘opening up’. Epitoechographers (as writers of graffiti are Classically called) have a special stock of fruity adverbs like inclinabiliter (bougrement in its unweakened sense). The nicer sort favour metaphors of fighting, rowing and ploughing, which describe private pleasures in terms of public obligations – sometimes, at least, with deliberate irony.

The language could be used for love, or lust (Martial thinks dirty words as titillating as dirty deeds). But there were other more erotic discourses. Common speech said much through diminutives; these verbal nymphets suited lovers like Plautus’s Calidorus, who had enjoyed papillarum horridularum oppressiunculae, ‘gentle-squeezings of slightly-erected nipples’. High poetry inherited from Greek a special jargon, physical but not carnal, formal but not (as Racine’s use of it shows) passionless – Love as fire, wound, sickness, poison. It inherited, too, the parapsychological intercourse of looks and hearts – ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’, ‘Her lips suck forth my soul, see where it flies.’ ‘Old flame’ is the last remnant of those grand conceits.

The language could also be used for contempt or humour. Men humiliate men by assailing their virility, women by ignoring their femininity. Serious Romans regarded homosexuality as the vice grecque, and indeed its Latin vocabulary is largely Greek: unserious Romans were more tolerant, but only of the active male – passivity was, as usual, the last insult. So some obscenities weaken into swearwords, abusive or jocular, but only some (‘bugger you’ is common in Latin, ‘fuck you’ rare); Adams notes that it is these which exhaust themselves and drop out of the language. In Mr Sammler’s Rome, much is said about the well-hung, nothing about the well-stacked (or the well-ballasted – admirers of the nice piece of ass must look back further for a precedent, to the Greek cult of Aphrodite-with-the-beautiful-bottom). Women may appear psychologically dominant in love poetry, but at other levels the physicalities tend to be complacent (‘pleasure’, ‘satisfy’) or violent (‘bang’, ‘grind’, ‘cut’, ‘knead’). This is a male view, and we have only male authorities.

Indeed, of women’s writing in Latin, almost nothing survives. We can read the poems of Sulpicia, but the letters of Cornelia, the epigrams of Cornificia, and the memoirs of Agrippina the younger have gone for good. The same is true of the ancient world in general. That emerges clearly from Mary Lefkowitz’s and Maureen Fant’s spirited anthology. Women’s Life is the title – a feminist would prefer Men on Women’s Life. It is rare to hear a woman speak; rarer still for her to speak as a woman. Beyond that, there are all the usual difficulties of ancient social history. The evidence is scanty and fragmented, disparate in origin and socially biased (fishwives rarely leave messages for posterity). If you find one fact, is it typical or exceptional? If you read one view, is it personal or general?

Scientific history has been tried. You can separate out distinct strands: facts, myths, theorists, human beings. There were facts of life (girl babies were often abandoned, as useless mouths; women died in childbirth or, after serial pregnancies, in their forties); facts of law (can you own property? do you need a dowry? who chooses your husband? when can he divorce you?); facts social, economic and religious (it is women who mourn the dead, women who hold certain jobs; some cults can be served only by women, others exist for women only). At the other pole was myth, inherited and intellectualised. There is the stereotype of the good housewife. ‘Her mind and her work as good as my wife’s’, says Agamemnon in the manly world of Homer. ‘She kept the house and worked in wool,’ says a famous Roman epitaph. There is the stereotype of the weaker vessel: Pandora let the evil out of the bag; when women get together, they must have a mind to drink or sex (so the husbands in Aristophanes, and their blood brother, King Pentheus in the Bacchae); ‘she had her face made up, although her brother was not yet a month dead’ (so the cuckold in Lysias). There is the long-enduring stereotype of the shrew, after Hipponax: ‘You get two good days from a woman: the day you marry her, the day you bury her.’ Misogyny became a standard joke, the ‘Characters of Women’ a standard declamation from Semonides to Juvenal. Egyptian schoolboys practised penmanship on ‘Diogenes saw one woman taking advice from another. He said: “Look, an adder borrowing poison from a viper.” ’ Scientists and philosophers could not escape these imaginative limits. The doctors propagated the theory of female ejaculation and the wandering womb. Plato wanted an equal role for women – allowing for their inferiority in all things. Aristotle, as always a backer of the actual, thought the male fitter to command than the female. Against this background stand a few prominent figures or individual utterances – Sappho the poetess, Philaenis the grande cocotte, Cornelia mother of the Gracchi, St Perpetua the martyr. But if there is a history to be written of the career woman in Antiquity, we lack the means to write it.

Deconstruction is the best course, and the editors of Women’s Life were surely right to follow it. The texts, well and widely chosen, and newly translated, are grouped under topics, and, with brief explanations, left to speak for themselves; poets and lawyers rub shoulders with inscriptions and papyri. The modern reader can enter the ancient world through this book; for the bewilderment of sources corresponds to the bewilderment of pressures – roles, jokes, old saws and new creeds – under which Greek and Roman women lived.

Heroines and Hysterics collects essays and reviews by Mary Lefkowitz. Some of them supplement Women’s Life, all centre firmly but not shrilly on the role and image of woman, from the puberty dances of Alcman’s Sparta to Tree Day at Wellesley College. Individual pieces say interesting things about the abuse of irony and biography in criticism, about the plot of Sappho’s ‘jealousy’ poem, the language, of Io’s transformation in Aeschylus, Cicero’s Pro Caelio in the tradition of invective. The ensemble traces patterns and parallels. Women need sex: ancient doctors and modern therapists alike attribute all their illnesses to frustration. Women must marry: modern fiction follows ancient myth – those that marry end as non-persons, those that don’t end as freaks or disasters. Women were housebound: Christian martyrdom served, like Bacchie ecstasy, as a bid for freedom. Women were helpless: that gives them a firm footing in Greek epic, where their weakness makes them a good foil, and in Greek tragedy, where their weakness makes them natural victims; but you are not to assume that their own poetry was the artless outpouring of weakness. Scholars ought to write for a public, and this is how it ought to be done. The book of course offers an antidote to the chauvinism which Greek theories state and Latin vocabulary assumes; more than that, its crisp style, wry vision and sharp intelligence make it a real pleasure to read.