As the Church of England discusses the issue of women bishops, some traditionalists have warned that the church shouldn’t accept such female leadership just to placate an egalitarian society, while many other commentators have criticized the church’s refusal to get with the times, as it were.
This debate is not particularly modern. The nature of the leadership roles that women should take in the church (or if they should take them at all) has been been a subject of debate right back to the earliest Church Fathers. So too has the appeal to popular opinion. But ironically, in the earliest centuries of Christianity, the argument was the reverse. While now people might argue that the church risks being mocked as archaically patriarchal, in the late 2nd/early 3rd century AD, the Didascalia Apostolorum (a treatise spuriously purporting to have been written by the Apostles at the Council of Jerusalem) warned that:
For when the Gentiles who are being instructed hear the word of God not fittingly spoken, as it ought to be, unto edification of eternal life—and all the more in that it is spoken to them by a woman—how that our Lord clothed Himself in a body, and concerning the passion of Christ: they will mock and scoff, instead of applauding the word of doctrine; and she shall incur a heavy judgement for sin.
Even two millennia ago, women and leadership was an issue with which the church struggled to generate good PR.
Lizards drowned in wine. White lead. Touching heels to buttocks. Iron slag. Cold drinks. Potter’s clay. Wine. Asparagus necklaces. Herbs. A cat’s liver worn around the left ankle. Cedar gum. Jumping up and down.
All of these were contraceptive methods employed in the ancient world. This list, while hardly exhaustive, perhaps goes some way to explaining the widespread discussion of the legality, ethics and methods of abortion in the ancient world. Abortion was widely acknowledged, discussed and (as far as we can tell) employed, but it was far from unproblematic. Philosophers and physicians debated whether the foetus should be considered human, or at what point it became one, and at what point and in what circumstances after birth it became problematic to expose an infant [ie. abandon it and leave it to die, a common practice in the ancient world].
The Stoics – the dominant philosophical school amongst the Roman elite – claimed that a foetus resembled a plant, and that it could only be considered an animal once it had been born and began to breathe. Plato echoed this view, claiming that humanity began with breath, and in the ideal society that he lays out in “The Republic”, the population is in part controlled by eugenic abortion. The Digest of Justinian, a Roman legal code, stated that the act of abortion in itself could not be considered criminal as the foetus was not an independent person. Aristotle, in debating the issue, noted:
“on the grounds of an excess in the number of children, if the established customs of the state forbid this (for in our state population has a limit), no child is to be exposed, but when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation.”
“Before sense and life has begun” was generally considered to be 40 days – a definition which carried on well into even the Christian period as the idea of a point of ‘ensoulment’. Aristotle himself suggested that male fetuses became human at around 40 days, and female ones at around 90.
It is an often-repeated ‘fact’ that the Hippocratic Oath explicitly banned administering abortions:
“Neither will I give a woman means to procure an abortion.”
However, the oath in fact only refers to administering abortifacient pessaries. A possible reason for this prohibition might well be found in the long descriptions of medical procedures for dealing with the internal harm caused by many such pessaries in the Hippocratic corpus. Oral or surgical solutions seem to have been preferred.
The physician Soranus distinguished deliberate from spontaneous abortion, and abortion from contraception (although in more popular literature there seems to be little distinction between contraception and early abortion). He only accepted abortion if a woman’s life was in danger, but detailed a variety of methods, including jumping, riding, carrying heavy objects, diuretics, hot baths and special “abortion wine” during the first months, and bleeding and pessaries subsequently. The physicians Galen and Dioscorides mention many plant products used either orally or vaginally to provoke abortions, in addition to surgical methods, but like Soranus, they have strong reservations about performing any of the procedures that they detail. The church father Tertullian, while railing against abortion, gives a description of the surgical implements employed in what sounds remarkably like a modern D&C:
Accordingly, among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all, and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fetus is extracted..
However, in an age before an understanding of sanitation, such surgical abortions were almost certainly extremely risky. The naturalist Pliny lists abortifacient draughts, alongside poisons, as ‘women’s things’ which he will not discuss, highlighting a pervasive association in the ancient world between women and poison.
As the lumping together of women, abortion and poison might suggest, the general characterisation of women in the ancient world with regard to abortion was not in any way a positive one. Women terminating their pregnancies were generally characterised as at best vain and selfish. The philosopher Favorinus claimed that:
“[there are women] who strive by evil devices to cause abortion of the fetus itself which they have conceived, in order that their beauty may not be spoiled by the weight of the burden they bear and by the labour of parturition.”
The poet Ovid dedicates an entire poem to haranguing his mistress as she lies ill after a botched abortion:
What good does it do for girls to be exempt from combat, freed from all the dangers that our soldiers face, if they will suffer self-inflicted wounds far from the front lines, and blindly brandish arms against their own bodies? The woman who first took aim at her helpless fetus should have died by her own javelin. Can it be possible that, simply to avoid a few stretch-marks, you’d make your womb a bloody battleground? What if our forebears had forborne to bear? Without willing mothers the world would be unpopulated – again someone would have to seed the empty earth with flung stones. Priam’s palace wouldn’t have been sacked if sea-goddess Thetis had refused to shoulder (so to speak) her load; if Ilia, her belly swollen big, had terminated her twins in utero, who would have founded the City that was bound to rule the world? If Venus, in her audacity, had aborted fetal Aeneas the Caesars never would have graced our land. Even you (though you were meant to be born a beauty) would have died if your mother had attempted what you’ve tried. I myself (though personally I plan to die of love) would not have seen the light of day, had mother killed me. Let the swelling grapes grow sweet and purple on the vine, leave the unripe apple on the tree. All things will come to fruition in their season; let grow what has been planted; a life is worth the wait. How can you pierce your own flesh with weapons, feed deadly toxins to babies still unborn? The world condemns the woman of Colchis, spattered with the blood of her young sons, and mourns for Procne’s victim, poor Itys. Horrible mothers! But at least a kind of dreadful logic moved them to spill, from their sons’ throats, their husbands’ blood – Tell me, in your case, where’s the Tereus or Jason that could compel you to move your outraged hand against yourself? The fierce Armenian tigress in her lair, the savage lioness show more consideration for their young. What wild animals won’t do, young ladies will – but often the girl who tries it kills herself as well. She dies, and is carried out to the pyre, her hair all loose, and everyone who sees cries, “Serves her right!” What am I saying? Let my words be carried off by the winds, let all ill omens vanish – let her live, benevolent gods, let just this one sin go unpunished – but let her have it, if she tries again.
Aside from the fact that rhetoric in this area has not greatly changed in the last 2,000 years, the characterisation of women as very much at fault with regard to abortion is made clear.
In the legal sphere, abortion does appear as a potentially criminal action, though not of the sort that certain types of American politician might advocate. Abortion within marriage, if not the wish of the father, is seen as a property crime, endangering the entire edifice of elite wealth transmission. The 4th century BC Athenian orator Lysias describes abortion as a crime against the father, detailing the case of a husband who took his wife to court for depriving him of an heir by abortion. The 1st century BC orator and politician Cicero refers to a case of a woman sentenced to death in Miletus (a city in the Greek Near East) for having aborted her pregnancy after being bribed by those who stood to inherit her husband’s estate if he died without an heir. In doing so she had
“destroyed the hope of the father, the memory of his name, the supply of his race, the heir of his family, a citizen intended for the use of the republic.”
Legislation against abortion was first introduced in the 3rd century AD by the emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla, in which abortion was characterised as a crime against the father, punishable by temporary exile. According to Stoic philosophers like Musonius Rufus, abortion was problematic because of its repercussions against the family and against ‘nature’, but not against the foetus.
This emphasis on the father’s will goes some way to explaining why in many cases abortion seems to be considered more problematic than infanticide. In the Roman world, custom dictated that when a child was born it was placed on the floor before the father, who would either acknowledge it by picking it up or leave it, indicating that it should be exposed. In some cases, this practice aligned with the socially acceptable rationales for abortion: Plutarch, a Greek commentator on the Romans, rather chillingly noted in this respect that “the poor do not bring up children.” Tacitus, a Roman historian and ethnographer, remarked incredulously that the Jews did not practice infanticide, because they believed children to be immediately ensouled.
Pagan challenges specifically on religious grounds do not seem to been pronounced, at least in the recorded popular discourse that has survived to the modern day. Christian sources, however, generally expressed a vehement opposition to abortion. Tertullain claimed that
“the substance of both body and soul […] are conceived, and formed…perfectly simultaneously”
However, there does not seem to have been an initial consensus on this. St. Augustine adhered to the pagan understanding of conception, suggesting that the foetus did not gain a soul until 40 days gestation. St. Jerome, too, questioned the point at which a foetus became human, though he was strongly opposed to abortion as a general principle.
Clement of Alexandria, writing in the second century AD, employed rhetoric that would not seem out of place in modern ‘pro life’ literature:
Our whole life can go on in observation of the laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our desires from the beginning and if we do not kill, by various means of a perverse art, the human offspring, born according to the designs of divine providence; for these women who, in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings.
The Christian lawyer Minucius Felix described abortion as infanticide committed before birth, illustrating how Christianity also adopted the Jewish prohibitions on infanticide that had so perplexed Tacitus, but with a much broader definition. A blanket prohibition on abortion and infanticide would come to be one of the hallmarks of Christian teaching about reproduction.
As with almost all areas in the study of the ancient world, we have no recorded women’s voices. Or voices from outside of a specific socio-economic class. Would a man further down in society have agreed with the characterisation of the poor with regard to family limitation? Would he have had the same views about how his wife or partner’s actions reflected upon him, given that he may have lacked the sort of resources that such legislation was designed to protect? What did women themselves make of abortion? Would Ovid’s mistress have agreed with his assumption that she only sought to avoid stretch marks? Or would she have recognised more complex motivations? Did the diversity of early Christianity include opinions different to those of the orthodoxy that later emerged? As with so many areas of ancient intimate life, we simply do not know.
The late 1st century poet Ovid is often described as a love poet. His most famous collections of poetry include the Amores, poems describing his own erotic adventures with his mistress Corinna and a variety of others, and the Ars Amatoria, a handbook for finding and conducting love affairs. Ovid begins his Amores by suggesting that he had originally thought to write about “heavy fighting and violent war” (1.2), before being mercilessly attacked by Cupid, and forced instead to write love poetry. This initial entanglement of love poetry with thoughts and actions of violence is an appropriate beginning to the Amores and particularly emblematic of the portrayal of love in the poetry of Ovid. His depiction of relationships is infused with violent imagery, and the depiction of or apology for violent actions. Even otherwise unoffensive poems are suffused with images of war, robbery, hunting or wounds. In some respects, this is not surprising. The process of falling in and being in love is sometimes characterized by an alarming lack of physical and emotional control, so the idea of a deity forcefully causing that state, or the use of strong physical and emotive imagery to describe the feeling might seem a valid response, especially in a culture which fetishized empowered masculinity. Given that male sexuality was thought to be characterized by emotional control (especially in the Stoic milieu of the educated upper echelons of Rome) and physical domination, there was a great concern on the part of the love poets to prove that they were still ‘proper men’, for all their focus on poetry and amor. The violent martial and hunting imagery of Ovid in some respects fits into the same category as Catullus 16. However, it is also somewhat misleading for us to always describe the subject matter of Ovid’s poems as ‘love’, encompassing as they do a variety of feelings, the vast majority of which are lust. Not only that, but if Ovid can be said to consistently love anyone in his poems, it is himself. The women seem primarily to be a vehicle for him to glorify himself, his emotional turmoil, his cleverness, his poetic skill. The inevitable result of this objectification is the use of violence to enforce a certain masculine and poetic identity.
In establishing his poetic project in the Amores, Ovid’s depiction of becoming an erotic poet is full of violent imagery. In Amores 1.2, he writes of having Cupid’s arrow stuck in his heart, in his “conquered breast”, and he decides to capitulate, rather than go down fighting – all as if he is a wounded soldier in a hopeless battle. He then describes Cupid as a triumphant general with himself, wounded and chained, in the victory procession. In the following poem, he describes himself as having been “plundered” by the girl who is the object of his affections – it is as if he is a prisoner of war, or a corpse being robbed on a battlefield. The image of war continues throughout his poetry. The Ars Amatoria note that “love is a kind of warfare.” In Amores 1.6, his attempts to drunkenly enter his mistress’ house are compared pathetically to an invading army, and in 1.9, he again links the soldier and the lover at the door, saying “this one lays siege to strong cities, that one his harsh friend’s entrance: one breaks down gates, the other doors”. Cupid is the general, and every lover bears arms for him – indeed, Ovid takes pains to point out that the stage of life appropriate for making war is also appropriate for making love. By book II of the Amores, when he has succeeded in gaining entrance to Corinna’s house, he compares himself to a triumphant general, cataloguing the wars fought because of women, and pointing out that even animals will fight over a female. However, not all of his military references are as bathetic as this triumphant recruitment paean for Cupid. For in the next two poems, he relates that his mistress is very ill following a botched abortion. After expressing worry about her health and praying to manifold gods for her recovery (via an oddly cheerful paternity query), his tone switches to one of rage, asking: “where’s the joy in a girl being free from fighting wars, unwilling to follow the army and their shields, if without battle she suffers wounds from her own weapons, and arms unsure hands to her own doom? Whoever first taught the destruction of a tender foetus, deserved to die by her own warlike methods.” (Amores 2.14) While certainly not the last person in history to describe abortion using military metaphors, the use of war-images here, in light of their previous employment, is interesting – if Ovid’s erotic adventures are a military campaign waged in the name of Cupid, is abortion the collateral damage? Stranger still, despite his concern to illustrate his mistress’ abortion as an act of violence commensurate to warfare, the two poems chronicling it have very little to do either with the woman he supposedly loves, their potential child, or indeed, anything apart from bathos and poetic artifice. Mythical mothers and poetic archetypes such as Armenian tigresses receive for more attention, before a typically Ovidian bathetic reversal, in which he cheekily commands the gods not to enact the punishments he has been calling down. If this is warfare, it seems more ‘shock and awe’ than the pursuit of concrete military objectives.
Hunting too features in Ovid’s descriptions of love. The procuress in Amores 1.8 advocates conducting multiple love affairs on the basis that “the wolf eats best that preys on the whole flock.” The conduct of his love affaires is described as being like a hunter: “the hunter chases what runs: leaves what he’s captured and often searches for another quarry.” In the Ars Amatoria, he explicitly refers to the man seeking women as a hunter, asking “why enumerate every female meeting place fit for the hunter?” In the early Roman empire hunting was not only a popular elite pastime, but quite an artificial one, taking place on game reserves on estates – to which Ovid likens the leisure centres of Rome. Hunting expresses the wildness and unpredictability of love, but also exemplifies the artificial, narcissistic leisure-activity into which Ovid transforms it in his poetry.
Rape is also a pervasive obsession of Ovid’s. A recurring feature of his long poetic work The Metamorphoses, it also receives discussion in the Amores and Ars Amatoria. Gazing at his mistress in the arms of her husband at dinner, Ovid claims that he “cease[s] to wonder that the Centaurs full of wine snatched up lovely Hippodamia in their arms.” – centaurs, in ancient mythology, are notorious for their acts of mass drunken rape. In Ars Amatoria 1.4, he advocates the theatre as a place to pick up women on the basis of the rape of the Sabine women – the foundational act in which the men of Rome ensured the survival of their nascent city by kidnapping the neighbouring women – having occurred in a make-shift theatre in the days of Romulus. Most of the poem is not devoted to how to meet women at the theatre, but to long description of the rape, with the women described as lambs fleeing wolves and doves fleeing eagles, their expressions of fear eroticized as they are carried away, and ending with “Romulus, alone, knew what was fitting for soldiers: I’ll be a soldier, if you give me what suits me.” That Ovid seems to so enjoy this description could be excused, as the mythical incident has a great deal of dramatic potential, if it were not for the section later in the Ars Amatoria where Ovid claims that “though she might not give, take what isn’t given. Perhaps she’ll struggle, and then say ‘you’re wicked’: struggling she still wants, herself, to be conquered.” Ovid then makes it clear that he is not just referring to some kind of perverse coquettishness:
“though you call it force: it’s force that pleases girls: what delights is often to have given what they wanted, against their will. She who is taken in love’s sudden onslaught is pleased, and finds wickedness is a tribute. And she who might have been forced, and escapes unscathed, will be saddened, though her face pretends delight. Phoebe was taken by force: force was offered her sister: and both, when raped, were pleased with those who raped them.”
According to Ovid, therefore, all women secretly want sex, whether they consent to it or not. That this assertion appears in a didactic discussion on how to conduct romances would seem to be the ultimate disturbing entanglement of violence with the erotic, but also the ultimate condemnation of Ovid’s erotic narcissism. Violence features so heavily in his erotic poetry in part because his poetry is focused around himself and his own erotic experience. Anything which does not conveniently fit into this must be objectified, forced to fit. One can play at being the moping lover if that suits one’s poetic intentions, but if all else fails, the amator does not have to be so unmanly as to slink away and write emotional poetry about his failures – for all his poetic fripperies, he can still enact an acceptable Roman manhood by, quite literally, forcing the situation.
Sex and relationships are often figured violently. Amores 1.7, in which he documents his response to hitting his mistress in a fit of anger, trivializes relationship violence, running a hyperbolic mythical gamut of disheveled ravished heroines and mock apology. While Ovid is happy to poach other men’s women (and women in his poetry are always the possessions of others), his reaction to seeing ‘his own’ woman being poached is to instantly consider violence: “it was as if I wanted to tear her hair, all done up as it was, and tear her tender cheeks, with anger, in my passion.” He is ultimately dissuaded from attacking her by her good looks – the poem seems to reduce her to an object for him to react to physically, emotionally and poetically. While him enacting or considering enacting such violence against her is considered legitimate and treated at length, her own threats against him are condescendingly condemned – he complains that his mistress is never happy, claiming: “if I praise someone, you try to tear my hair out.” Violence is used to express a lack of erotic agency. In Amores 2.9b, he addresses Cupid, saying: “Pierce me, boy! I’m offered naked to your weapons: this is your power, this is what your strength does.”, but in the Ars Amatoria, he says “the more he pierces me, the more violently he burns me, so much the fitter am I to avenge the wounds.” It is perhaps significant that while the Amores is an exploration of the experience of the amator, the Ars Amatoria purports to be a manual for success as one, granting the amator more agency.
Ovid finds it difficult to describe relationships and love affairs without resorting to violence and violent imagery. By evoking the violence of war, he tries to make his emotional disorientation and seeming lack of agency acceptable within the sexual parameters of the Roman man; with hunting, he makes his pursuit of love an acceptable activity, and with rape and relationship violence, he confirms to the reader that the ultimate reason for this continual, inextricable link between ‘love’ and violence is a desire for self-promotion, both poetically and erotically.
Women: Jesus loves you. But he might be rather cross with you if you don’t adhere to certain models. There’s the Titus 2 woman, who stays at home, subject to her husband, lest by not doing so she put others off Christianity entirely. Then there’s the 1 Timothy woman:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
St. Paul even has something to say to the Corinthians on the subject:
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Or does he? The ideas found in the likes of the letters to the Corinthians, Timothy, and Titus, have come to underpin an understanding of Christian womanhood from the Church Fathers, to Knox’s writings on the “Monstrous Regimen of Women,” to modern proponents of so-called “Biblical Womanhood,” to the on-going debates about whether women can be priests or bishops. However, they may not have been written by St. Paul – indeed, there is a growing scholarly consensus that they were not. For example, the letters to Timothy describe church offices in a way that is more characteristic of the developed church hierarchies of the 2nd century AD than of the time of St. Paul. Questions have been raised about the authenticity of the style and vocabulary of the letters to Timothy and Titus (though the volume of text is perhaps not sufficient for such analyses), and the passage in 1 Corinthians 14 is often believed to be an interpolation – especially as it contradicts Paul’s instructions to women in the rest of the letter. Instead, composition dates in the late 1st century or early 2nd century AD has been suggested. This is interesting, as the more putatively-Pauline corpus of letters are generally much more friendly and inclusive with regard to women, discussing their role in prayer and prophecy, and addressing and commending female church leaders and officials. The Acts of the Apostles, perhaps the earliest record we have of the early church (it was most likely written before the gospels), also refers to women such as Prisca and Lydia, who take leadership roles, run businesses, and make important financial contributions. Sadly, there either never existed, or does not survive, any significant body of writing from this very earliest period of the church. Instead, we find a great proliferation of writing from the 2nd century AD onwards which seems to share the aims of these passages: there are spurious apostolic guides to Christian living such as the Constitution of the Holy Apostles or the Didascalia Apostolorum, which stress that women should cover their heads, not take part in church leadership or ritual, and that female behaviour is directly connected to pagan opinion about Christianity: “for pagans laugh to hear women teaching” warns one. This idea is not the sole preserve of pseudo-apostolic texts. In 248AD the Christian apologist Origen wrote a treatise in reply to the polemic of a pagan philosopher, Celsus, against Christianity, in which he responds to his criticisms. Strikingly, one is the suggestion that Christianity is a religion that only attracts foolish women, children and slaves:
This statement also is untrue, that it isonly foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the divine word wish to make converts.Such indeed does the Gospel invite, in order to make them better; but it invites also others who are very different from these…
In effect, the very earliest Christians were an apocalyptic cult. While salvation cults were popular in the period, with new imported gods like Mithras, Cybele and Isis attracting large followings, and even Judaism attracting interested ‘god-fearers’, Christianity was considered rather odd. Indeed, to appreciate the full strangeness of Christianity’s ascendancy to a 1st century AD Roman, imagine if you went 2,000 years into the future and discovered that Heaven’s Gate had become a major world religion. The earliest Christians not only followed a peasant from the awkward, boring end of the empire, but one who had died in a shameful manner reserved for criminals and slaves. They were believed to be potentially cannibalistic and incestuous, and obsessively fixated on violent death through martyrdom. They thought that Christ would return within their lifetimes, rendering earthly status and roles void of importance. However, as Christians realised that they were working with a much longer apocalyptic framework, they became more culturally accommodating: to survive and proselytise, they needed to allay the fears of their pagan neighbours that not only were they not an apocalyptical cannibal cult, but that those joining them did not have to worry about losing their status, lifestyle or women. Thus, we find awkward segues from the likes of Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
To Clement of Alexandria’s commentary on it with regard to the negation of gender:
Those whose life is common have common graces and a common salvation… ‘for in this world,’ he [Luke 20:34] says, ‘they marry and are given in marriage’, in which alone the female is distinguished from the male, ‘but in that world [heaven] it is so no more.’
Biologically, philosophically, intellectually and religiously, people in the ancient world considered women to be different (and generally inferior) to men. A message that suggested they might, in some circumstances, not be was just too problematic – hence the need to suggest that the differences only applied in the hereafter. Women, and their role in the church, were a PR liability for those who wished to gain more pagan converts to the growing faith.
Such feelings were all the more pressing as Christianity developed, because there were many groups in which women were playing prominent roles. The church historian Eusebius writes about the Montanists, a sect who believed in continuing prophetic revelation, and their female priests. Epiphanius, cataloguing heresies, writes of women in Arabia who “bake cakes for Mary” and “function as priests for women.” He also gives more details about the Montanists, saying that:
They acknowledge the sister of Moses as a prophetess as support for their practice of appointing women to the clergy.
The Montanists also apparently attributed a “special grace” to Eve:
Because she first ate of the tree of knowledge.
For them, the negation of gender in Galatians 3:28 seems to have been taken rather more literally. Epiphanius says:
Women among them are bishops, presbyters and the rest, as if there were no difference of nature. ‘For in Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female.’…Women among them are ordained to the episcopacy because of Eve.
A popular text of the 2nd century AD was the story of the (possibly apocryphal) St. Thecla, who featured in The Acts of Paul and Thecla, in which the young noblewoman is so overcome by Paul’s sermons on virginity that she runs away from her family and fiancé to join him, dressed as a man. When apprehended, a miraculous storm saves her from being burnt at the stake, and she continues to travel with Paul, spreading the gospel. When a nobleman tries to rape her, she fights him off and is put on trial for injuring him, ultimately being sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts – however, the female beasts miraculously defend her from the male ones. During this dramatic encounter, she baptises herself in a pond full of seals. This story seems to have been both incredibly popular and incredibly problematic. Tertullian, the first of the church fathers to write in Latin, deals with the issues it raises at length, noting that the story of Thecla was being used in discourse to justify allowing women to baptise, before strongly asserting that
It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church [1 Cor 14], but neither is it permitted to her to teach nor to baptise, nor to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, nor to say in any sacerdotal office.
Perhaps even more interestingly, 1 Timothy seems to explicitly respond to the story of Thecla, rebutting the asceticism and dietary rules that it supports, denying the possibility of women taking roles beyond the Greco-Roman norm, and even describing an incident from the Acts without reference to Thecla at all, naming the very men who inform Thecla’s fiancé of her conversion as men who cause difficulties for Paul. The letter also includes a warning not to listen to “old wives tales.” Whether Thecla existed is less important than the fact that her story is evidence of the clearly fraught debate about women’s role in the church.
While the side advocating Greco-Roman norms for women seems to have triumphed in the textual record at this early stage (1 Corinthians 14, for example, bears a remarkable resemblance to the speech of the moralist Cato about women’s political involvement in Livy’s History of Rome: “‘What sort of practice is this, of running out into the streets and blocking the roads and speaking to other women’s husbands? Could you not have made the same requests, each of your own husband, at home?”), we can find evidence of women continuing to take much more diverse roles in the church until considerably later. We continue to find deaconesses, like Phoebe, and – especially crucial in the light of arguments that ‘deaconess’ was a lesser role – women described as deacons, well into the 5th century. One, notably, while described as a deacon, also has many of the characteristics of the virtuous widow of 1 Timothy – as if seeking to integrate the differing traditions and to be a ‘good Christian woman’ in many ways. A letter is preserved from 494AD from Pope Gelasius to three churches in Southern Italy and Sicily:
Nevertheless, we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars and to take part in all matters delegated to the male sex, to which they do not belong.
We also have an account of Atto of Vercelli, an early medieval bishop, who was questioned by a monk about the appearance of seemingly female titles like “presbytera” (‘priestess’) and “deacona” (‘deaconess’). Atto uses the example of Phoebe to suggest that women were origionally ordained:
For just as those women called presbyterae had assumed the duty of preaching, offering and instructing, in the same way clearly the deaconesses had assumed the duty of ministering and baptising, a practice which today is not at all in use.
Funerary monuments attest such female ‘presbyterae’, and one noted (if controversial) 9th century AD mosaic even seems to commemorate a female bishop: Episcopa Theodora, who appears alongside Mary and two female saints. Her title, a feminisation of the Latin “episcopus”, has been defaced, casting some doubt on the suggestion that “episcopa” innocently refers to a bishop’s wife in an age before clerical celibacy.
Such references are far outweighed by the growth of more orthodox structures for women, such as orders for widows and virgins. Virgins, too, initially proved problematic grounds for the integration of Christianity and Greco-Roman society, as adult, un-married women were not a cognitive category in a society where infanticide rendered ‘excess’ women a rarity. However, these orders were seen as a more controlled way for women who did not wish to enter into conventional structures to be contained, and many of these early proto-nuns exercised great influence.
All of this having been said, it is difficult to say with any certainty what the role of women in early Christianity was meant to be, or indeed, whether it was meant to be anything beyond what people made it. I do not purport to offer any conclusive image of “early Christian womanhood”, but simply to suggest that whatever it was, it was considerably more complex than it is often considered to be – something with wide-ranging implications. There are some using 1 Timothy to justify domestic violence and rape. Anders Breivik’s idea of ‘white, Christian Europe’ involves obedient, breeding women. Or, less histrionically, those arguing that priests have always and can always only be male show us that this is not just an issue of historical niceties. This leaves aside entirely the implications for those within the Christian faith for how women have been, and should be able to be, allowed to relate to God.
For the ancients, men and women seemed to be separate species. At times, this idea was taken quite literally: from Hesiod, who claimed that woman sprang from a separate act of creation: Pandora, with her box of woes – to Plato who, behind pretensions of equality, ranks women as the second order of creation: lesser than men, but somewhat superior to birds. For others, women were a regrettable deviation from the typical human design: Aristotle called them a “natural deformity” from the basic pattern of maleness and the medical writer Galen called them a less perfect specimen. These views were entrenched in the medical theories of the day, in which women were seen as congenitally disordered and at risk of health issues which (surprise, surprise) could only be ameliorated by getting married and having lots of babies…
‘She’s just being hysterical’ is a phrase often used to justify the dismissal of women seen to be acting irrationally. The word ‘hysterical’ stems from the Greek hystera, meaning womb. Greek medicine believed the womb to be a sentient being, capable of having desires and thirsts, and of responding to smells. In the Timaeus, Plato suggests that the gods created the human desire for sexual intercourse by making the penis and uterus sentient entities. Like animals, these could be domesticated in some situations, but might also be wild and unpredictable, driven by desires. The uterus, if unoccupied, might wander around the body. In part, this belief in the wandering uterus was underpinned by the belief that the male body formed the basic template of humanity, and that its internal layout was the default – the female body was an aberration. As such, they thought the womb had no fixed place, unlike the penis, and therefore could not be tamed in the same way. Indeed, the simplest of actions could, it seemed, dislodge it. The book On the Diseases of Women warns that an overly forceful sneeze could displace the uterus, and that if a women was to overly physically exert herself, she would dry out her womb and cause it to go wandering in search of moisture. Like a skittish animal, it had to be lured and goaded back into place, with foul smells placed near the nose, and sweet ones near the vagina. This wandering could, it was believed, cause severe health problems for affected women, with the uterus impinging on the liver or lungs and impairing their function.
Such loosening and wandering might also take place because the female body suffered from the problem of not being able to process moisture as well as the male. The socially acceptable arrangements of marriage and childbearing were considered the best cures. If a womb was not anchored by a pregnancy or kept regularly moistened by sexual intercourse, it would wander. Thus, women not in a position to regularly be having sexual intercourse and becoming pregnant – young girls, widows, etc. – are characterised in the Hippocratic corpus as at an increased risk of illness. On the Diseases of Young Women suggests that before menstruation, excess blood might overflow from the already-full uterus and accumulate in the body, putting pressure on organs and endangering the girl’s health, making her feel suffocated and suicidal. The cure is sex, which will open up her tubing. By the time of later writers, such as Soranus, menstruation is seen as a sign that the womb is ready to carry out its function, and intercourse should not be practiced until then. However, pooling blood was still seen as a problem in young women, and stories abound of teen suicide sprees caused by lack of early marriage. Menstruation and childbirth were seen as opening up the connective channels of the female body, and rendering her flesh more absorbent, so that she could better manage her excess fluid. Although children seem to have been barely differentiated on the basis of sex in medical theory, puberty was a strongly defining moment, with the physical changes of the girl into a woman manifesting the true nature of her flesh, which took on its spongy characteristics, soaking up the blood that her body produced from the food she ate, preventing her from being overwhelmed by menses. Diseases of Women describes a woman’s flesh as being like waterlogged wool. The female breasts, like her menstruation, were a manifestation of this soggy inferiority: women’s inferior flesh could sag much more than men’s, and collect more blood – as blood pooling in the breast was believed to cause madness, this was another instance where female psychological inferiority was believed to be biologically predicated. The Hippocratics believed that food was processed by the body and turned into different products that were either consumed or excreted – into the latter category fell menstrual blood and semen. The male body was seen to be better at processing what it consumed – semen was the rarefied end product, while menses were surplus, a waste product that was soaked up from the stomach through the flesh and into the womb. If there was an excess of it, it would linger in the woman’s flesh where, like an improperly wrung dish sponge, it would fester. At the mercy of the strange, passionate creature that was her uterus, the woman was not fully in control of her mental faculties, and might at any time need the restraint of her husband or the assistance of a doctor. Making all women’s ailments pathologically related to their sex allowed for a medicalization of women that entrenched their social position. While advice about sexual intercourse for women is seen as an essential element of their overall bodily health, for men, such advice often merely appears in dietetic treatises alongside information on diet and exercise – a way of maintaining balance, but not the way – and one that could most often be administered by the man himself.
While the Hippocratic corpus claims that doctors must vigilantly be aware of the different ways that illnesses will manifest in men and women, Aristotle notes a variety of physiological differences. For example, he suggests that men have more sutures in their skull because their bigger brains require more ventilation, and that men and women have a different number of teeth. Women’s lack of body hair is explained by claiming that secondary hair growth is prompted by seminal fluids, which are agitated by the heat of the body at puberty. As women’s bodies were not considered to be as hot, they could not agitate seminal fluid in the same way, and thus it pooled around the genital region, while men became hairy all over. However, he also conflates elements of the anatomy, presumably on the assumption that the male pattern was the default, leading him to make no distinction, for example, between the vagina and the urethra!
The Hippocratic corpus generally goes to great lengths to look at the difference that various conditions might make to treatment, so perhaps the differentiation of men and women is not so surprising. In fact, when they are examined, a great deal more care is taken outside of the gynaecological works to differentiate patients by age, body-type and underlying health complaints than by gender. The book Airs, Waters, Places takes it for granted that men and women have different responses to disease-causing environmental factors. However, elsewhere, we find the assumption that certain elements of disease progress identically: the book Prognosis makes this blanket statement, but also notes that fevers progressed the same in men and women – even though this might seem to run contrary to the understanding that the Greeks had of the different temperatures of the male and female body. However, overall, the difference between men and women was considered to be so significant that if they were not taken into account, women’s lives might be put at risk. In On the Diseases of Women, the writers suggests that the doctor must carefully examine each case in a woman, and not just assume that it is the same as in men, for this puts women’s lives at risk. This differentiation may seem bizarre, but even if they pathologised the female condition, they Hippocratics did bestow to medical theory the professionalization of medicine for distinctly female issues relating to conception, menstruation, and childbirth, however backward many of their opinions may now seem.
As time progressed, there were some improvements in understanding. In the Hippocratic corpus, the woman and her womb are believed to be utterly passive in the process of birth. Rather, the birth and its painful pangs were thought to be caused by the thrashings of the infant trying to get out after its food supply ran out! However, by the Roman period, in part because of the practice of dissection, the process of birth was better understood, and in the writings of the physician Galen, we find an understanding of the uterus as being active in the process of birth. Blood also begins to feature less strongly – although it is still present. Post-Hippocratic Greek medical theory was not in any way dramatically revisionist, but a patchwork built up over Hippocratic underpinnings. Medical theory advanced with social change. In Euripides’ Medea, the titular protagonist bemoans the fact that women cannot say ‘no’ to marriage. In light of Greek medical thought, we see that one reason for this was that the social role of the woman was seen as necessary to maintain her health. By the time we get to the likes of later physicians and writers like Soranus or Galen, while many of the underlying Hippocratic ideas about the female body still remain, a woman’s sexual life is no longer construed as utterly inseparable from her general well-being. By the 1stAD, women, and especially women from the higher social echelons, had a great deal more freedom in their social and romantic dealings. Family size seems to have shrunk, women were more educated and, stemming from some cult practices, some women were even enacting voluntary celibacy. Sexual moderation or non-participation, which had always been a viable option for men, was now becoming viable for women too. As women began to gain more male opportunities, medical theory seems to have adapted. This is not to say that medical theory was substantially readapted – women were still primarily considered to be “a creature of excess”, who might dry up her womb make herself irrational if she deviated too strongly from the path of wife and mother.
The appearance of sexual abstention as an option for women appears most markedly in Christianity, where early ascetics rejected sex and family life to work towards the second coming of Christ. Before the creation of more ordered structures for such virgins or widows, we find well-educated women who, thanks to recent reforms of inheritance law, commanded their own resources, refusing to lose either their freedom or resources by marrying and instead forming proto-convents with other like-minded women, endowing churches, and corresponding with some of the foremost theological minds of the day. Women who were not tied into some kind of social construct of marriage, family and childbirth did not quite make sense in the ancient world: even the Christians themselves frequently either described such individuals as being in some way rendered male – the Gnostics believed that Jesus had rendered Mary Magdalene male, and there are many stories of desert ascetics dressed as and living as men – or they struggled to fit them into acceptable conceptual categories: before convents, many dedicated virgins lived with holy men – an arrangement that their pagan neighbours often regarded with great suspicion. For several centuries, the church argued about whether virgins were even “women” at all, for the letters of the New Testament which lay down proscriptions for women do so using the word gyne which, while meaning “(adult) woman” has the sense of “wife”. Like the suicidal teens of Greek medical theory, Christian virgins were a strange intermediate category that made society in some way uncomfortable. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that we slowly find virgins adopting the marks of married women: rings, veils, and the idea of some kind of (albeit non-sexual) spousehood. Sexual and social control were ultimately linked, and as people in the ancient world understood it, the very fabric of the female body necessitated such control.
“No civilization that tolerated homosexuality has survived.”
So claimed the notorious televangelist Pat Robertson, referring to the supposed homosexual predilections of ancient Greece and Rome. But the Romans might well have agreed with the televangelist: they explicitly banned gay marriage, specifying the death penalty for two men attempting to enter into a union, and the idea of two people of the same gender in a relationship elicited feelings of disgust. However, the Romans and Pat Robertson would not see eye to eye, for our modern idea of homosexuality – and indeed, of heterosexuality – may not have made a great deal of sense to the Romans. Sex between men was considered perfectly acceptable in certain situations (women were not considered to have an active sexuality, and thus references to what we would call lesbianism are few and far between, and unremittingly negative), but the gradations of acceptability relied upon circumstances that make little sense to us in the 21st century. For the Romans, sexuality was not necessarily about gender – and indeed, gender was not necessarily about sex – both were flexible categories dependent on power, status and conceptions of masculinity: a phallocentric view of sexuality where, for certain categories of men, penetration was seen as normative and being penetrated deviant. As with many areas in the study of the personal lives of people in the ancient world, we are restricted to a few artefacts, such as the first century AD Warren Cup, pictured above, and to the literary accounts of a small aristocratic class, whose views may have differed greatly to the general population. However, from the glimpses that we can catch, the Romans (or at least those whose writing has been preserved) seem to have had a very different idea of sexuality to our own.
There is one notable literary reference to female homosexuality, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where we see a girl called Iphis, smitten with desire for another girl. However, this is ultimately condemned. Within the sphere of men, however, we find many homoerotic pairings. There are the typically-Greek pairings of Apollo and Hyacinth and of Zeus and Ganymede. Outside of myth, Ovid describes both poetry and his own sexual preferences in terms that allow for homoeroticism: in his book “The Art of Love”, he says that he prefers sex with women to sex with boys (women are apparently more responsive), and in “The Amores” he says that the appropriate subject for love poetry is either a boy or a woman. Martial claims that anal intercourse with boys was more pleasurable than with women. Lucretius, writing on love, says that both boys and women can stir up desire in a man. Of course, given the creation of personas in Latin literature, we cannot know whether Ovid is actually expressing his own sexual preferences. The same might be said of Catullus, who explicitly notes the dichotomy between poetic sexual bravado and actual sex life in poem 16. This poem provides a startling view of the seemingly-contradictory (to modern sensibilities) nature of the Roman understanding of sexuality:
I will bugger you and face-fuck you,
Pussy Aurelius and poofter Furius,
Because you think that because my little poems
Are sensitive, I must be indecent.
The true poet should be chaste, yes
But his verses needn’t be.
In point of fact, these have wit and charm,
Even if they are sensitive and a little shameless,
And can arouse an itch,
I don’t mean in boys, but in those hairy old men,
The ones who can’t get it up.
Because you’ve read of my thousand
Kisses you doubt my virility?
I’ll bugger you and fuck your faces.
However, whether these poets were or were not engaging in the acts they claim in their poetry, it was clearly not implausible for them to express them, even if they were fictional. Ancient historians describing the love-lives of the Roman emperors feature boys as well as women: Augustus kept good-looking young male slaves for his personal pleasure, although he was also a famous womanizer, as did Trajan (who we fined condemned for having an affair with his niece, but not for any homoerotic activity). Suetonius reports that the emperor Vitellius had an affair with a slave who he subsequently honoured as a freedman. Domitian was said to have a favourite eunuch called Earinos, who Martial praises and, revealingly, compares to Ganymede. Propertius justifies sexual indulgence with both genders by referencing the conquests of Jupiter: Io, Semele and Ganymede. Perhaps the most famous example of Roman homoeroticism would be the relationship between the emperor Hadrian and the handsome young Bithynian Antinous. The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous is criticised by the ancient historians, but not for the reasons that the modern reader, imbued with modern notions of homosexuality, might expect. Hadrian is criticised for the intensity of his relationship with Antinous: weeping like a woman at his death, naming an Egyptian city after him, erecting statues of him across the empire, and ultimately making him a god. Emperors are certainly criticised for their deviant sexual behaviour, but when the criticisms of Hadrian are compared to the diatribes directed towards emperors practicing morally outrageous behaviours like incest, oral sex, or being penetrated, it becomes apparent that Hadrian is being criticised for over-indulgence. Of course, Antinous was not a freeborn Roman citizen, and Hadrian clearly the lover rather than the beloved. As such, it escaped criticism of the sort applied to the likes of the political rebel Catiline’s affairs with his young aristocratic male followers. Overall, it is clear that there was a milieu of acceptability for homoerotic acts – but what was this?
The Romans seem to have ascribed to a “Priapic model of masculinity” – a hyper-masculine, phallocentric identity in which the only permissible sexual act for a proper man was to penetrate either a man or a woman. However, who could be penetrated and by whom seems to have been fairly strictly delineated. Freeborn men and women were off-limits. Sexuality was bound up with other social categories. Language defined not only masculinity but also sexual activity – the words for active penetration, and for being penetrated, conflate the passive sexual role of women and boys, while the word for a ‘proper’ man, “vir”, applies both to a man of status (slaves and low status men are not “viri” but “homines” – males – or even “pueri” – boys) and to a man who takes the active sexual role. The latter is emphasised by a description by Seneca of the castration of a slave: “he will never be a man [“vir”], so that he may be able to endure penetration by a man [“vir”] for a long time.” Given that not all males are men, as it were, some are acceptably penetratable, despite a general ideology of phallocentricism. A slave was not a person, but a piece of property, and much as it was not a moral concern what a man did with his chair or plate or sandal, nor was it a moral concern what he did with his slave. A freedman too might have certain obligations. The hierarchy of impenetrability is summed up by the lawyer Haterius, defending a freed slave accused of sexual impropriety: “a lack of chastity in a freeborn man is a matter of reproach, in a slave a matter of necessity, in a freedman, a matter of duty.” This semi-conflation of status, sexuality and gender could at times create problematic ambiguities: what about a young citizen man, not yet a “vir”, but soon to become one? Unlike the ancient Greeks, the Romans did not practice institutionalised educational pederasty, but both societies shared anxieties about how to reconcile homoerotic practices with cultural anxieties about the freeborn male and penetration. Essentially, viri, potential-viri, and their dependents were off-limits – anyone else, however, was fair game for penetration. Viri did not penetrate each other, and those who did were described scathingly: Ovid writes of men seeking men as “scarcely men at all” and Sallust of “men who take it like women.” It is such a dichotomy that allows Catullus to simultaneously write love poetry to a boy, while ridiculing men for being passives, and similarly, why the poet Tibullus can attempt to win back his youthful male lover by suggesting that he is dangerously close to the unacceptable-for-homoeroticism transition from boy to young man.
How did the Romans themselves construe these gradations of acceptable and unacceptable? One confusing category by which to understand the Roman’s idea of what was problematic in sexual behaviour is stuprum. Loosely, stuprum means both the act of and the disgrace stemming from sexual behaviour that violated traditional standards of propriety. This seems to correlate not with gender, but social status, encompassing sexual relations with freeborn Romans of either gender – the symbolic ornamentation of freeborn boys and women (the bulla, an amulet, and stola, a special over-dress) were designed to safeguard their chastity, and the jurist Ulpian said that the only people permissible to use for sex were “those against whom stuprum is not committed.” It is condemnation of stuprum that lies beneath the accusations levelled at emperors for homoerotic liasons, not the fact that they were homoerotic in nature. Indeed, the only suggestion that such acts might be different to acts involving women appears in a discussion of rape cases, where it is noted that men (in light, one would imagine, of the phallocentric conceptualization of their sexuality) might be more embarrassed to admit to being raped. The Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus condemned homoerotic acts as unnatural, but claimed that adultery – an act of stuprum too – was far worse, and that any sex between a man and a woman not explicitly intended to conceive children was shameful. Legally, the same laws seem to have applied to stuprum, whether it involved men or women – the Romans were more concerned with the implications that a sexual act had with regard to social status than with regard to gender.
Although who one might engage in a homoerotic act with, under what circumstances, and in what way were strictly limited, some degree of ‘bisexuality’ seems to have been taken for granted for Roman men. Indeed, the Roman seem to have lacked the conceptual framework to describe someone as what we would now consider to be ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’. For example, Suetonius seems bemused by what to a modern reader might seem the heterosexual predilictions of the emperor Claudius, describing his “extravagant desire for women,” and adding that he had “no experience with men whatsoever.” This qualifier only makes sense in a context where it is not taken for granted that most people will be attracted to only one gender – periphrasis is required to explain the nature of this anomaly. Similarly, Pliny describes how the genitals of a female hyena will stimulate a desire for women, even in men who “hate intercourse with women”, which seems similar to the terminology used in other cultures, such as the “woman-haters” of 17th century Japan, who expressed a predilection for boys. This expression of sexual preference in terms of what is declined, rather than what is sought, again suggests that the Romans did not conceptualise strict categories of sexual preference, but based classification on rather different criteria. Without realising this, it is all too easy to interpret Roman evidence in light of our own classifications, for example, assuming that the term cinaedus refers to a homosexual, rather than to a man who did not adhere to the general conception of masculinity, and was therefore considered likely to not adhere to it in sexual terms as well as in general effeminacy. In fact, a cinaedus, a sort of Roman meterosexual, was considered just as likely to seduce your wife as to sleep with your son. In both cases, it was his refusal to adhere to acceptable standards of masculinity that was the problem, not his sexual orientation. Indeed, the only context in which sexual orientation seems to have bothered the Romans was the fact of having one at all, like Claudius. It is in the same context that a man accused of effeminacy might try to acquit himself by implying that he had engaged in sexual relations with his accusers’ sons – although stuprum, it would constitute a demonstration of phallocentric masculinity.
However, there is still one curious area of evidence which may suggest that despite the ideas so far put forward about Roman conceptions of homoeroticism, there may have existed something more broadly like our own definition of homosexuality. Not only, of course, that those described by perplexed commentators as hating the opposite gender may not have so-expressed their own sexuality, but also the presence of several descriptions of marriages between men. The emperors Nero and Elagabalus are both described as having married other men – Nero on at least two occasions, wearing a veil and receiving a dowry on one occasion, and the often-married Elagabalus as having a favourite husband. However, in both of these instances, the marriages are described as part of a catalogue of sexual excesses and broadly condemned. Beyond the predictable depiction of unpopular emperors as sexually-depraved, the Codex Theodosianus prescribes the death penalty for men who “marry in the manner of women”, suggesting the presence of some kind of social phenomenon against which to legislate. Juvenal decries marriage between men, but his grounds appear to be that the marriages are pointless because two men cannot reproduce – this tells us a great deal about Roman views about marriage, but not much about the motivations of the men nevertheless marrying (if indeed they are marrying, for we find no evidence of men living together in the manner of a male and female couple).Broadly, the objections to the idea of two men marrying seem to have more to do with Roman conceptions of masculinity (which problematized the sexual passivity of a man to another man of equal status – Juvenal, for example, seems to find the status of the two grooms more problematic than their marriage) than with a fundamental problem with homoerotic acts. Indeed, the fact that these descriptions always take pains to identify one of the pair as the ‘bride’ also highlight how both marriage and sexuality were conceptualised. The problem is that all of our evidence comes from men writing in public to other men, in a cultural milieu with very specific ideas of acceptable masculinity. The feelings and practices that may have lain beneath these ideas are uncertain, making it difficult, if not impossible, to ever really know how the Romans actually conceptualised homosexuality, let alone how those that we would now identify as gay or lesbian actually functioned in society. The survival of collections of popular sayings suggest that the acceptance of even socially-codified vir/non-vir relationships was a feature only of elite culture, regarded my most people as a peculiar excess of rich people and foreigners. The average Roman in the street in the first century AD might have been rather inclined to agree with Pat Robertson, were he not a representative of a cult that in the first century AD was regarded as a sort of cannibalistic, orgiastic version of the Moonies. Indeed, to the average Roman, the later Christian redefinitions of heterosexual sexuality, encompassing continence and virginity, were probably considered much more radical than anything that St. Paul had to say about homosexuality (although it has been somewhat controversially argued that gay marriage was feature of Christian liturgy until comparatively recently.)
It would seem, then, that to enter into some kind of understanding of Roman sexual behaviours, especially homoerotic sexual behaviours, we must reorient our conceptual framework for sexuality. In the Roman world, the model of masculinity was not some kind of muscle-bound action-hero, but the virile god Priapus, who threatened wrong-doers, male and female, with violent anal violation with his supersized phallus. A man was a pervert for being the receiving partner of a man of a lower or similar social status, but not for engaging in a sexual act that we would now consider paedophilia or rape. Our evidence is so scanty: even seemingly intimate poems were designed for public consumption, and we have no diaries, nor personal accounts of how any actual Romans really understood or privately acted on their own sexuality. With what seems to be a radically different set of cultural tools for understanding one’s own sexuality, how were they actually employed by people trying to conceptualise their own desires? The closest to a personal expression we can find is in folk magic, where spells scratched on lead tablets show men seeking men and women seeking women. But we have no indication of the age or status of these people or, beyond an excitation of desire, what they sought to achieve through such magic. Essentially, reconstructing Roman sexuality is a process akin to trying to reconstruct modern sexuality from a 1950s medical textbook, a few articles by Ted Haggard, and the graffiti from the wall of a gay nightclub – we would certainly learn something about modern categories and perceptions, but they would hardly reflect the reality of broader societal views and the lives and loves of many actual people.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ τεῦξε καλὸν κακὸν ἀντ᾽ ἀγαθοῖο.
ἐξάγαγ᾽, ἔνθα περ ἄλλοι ἔσαν θεοὶ ἠδ᾽ ἄνθρωποι,
κόσμῳ ἀγαλλομένην γλαυκώπιδος ὀβριμοπάτρης.
θαῦμα δ᾽ ἔχ᾽ ἀθανάτους τε θεοὺς θνητούς τ᾽ ἀνθρώπους,
ὡς εἶδον δόλον αἰπύν, ἀμήχανον ἀνθρώποισιν.
ἐκ τῆς γὰρ γένος ἐστὶ γυναικῶν θηλυτεράων,
τῆς γὰρ ὀλώιόν ἐστι γένος καὶ φῦλα γυναικῶν,
πῆμα μέγ᾽ αἳ θνητοῖσι μετ᾽ ἀνδράσι ναιετάουσιν.
But when he had made the beautiful evil to be the price for the blessing, he brought her out, delighting in the finery which the bright-eyed daughter of a mighty father had given her, to the place where the other gods and men were. And wonder took hold of the deathless gods and mortal men when they saw that which was sheer guile, not to be withstood by men. For from her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble.
– Hesiod, Theogony 585-592
There is a school of thought that suggests that feminists should not be interested in classics. In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy recounts how her university’s English department refused to even offer a basic course in classical literature, one that could inform students about the references being made to the classics by the authors they were studying, lest this somehow validate the study of “Dead White Men.”
There is no denying that women are practically non-existant in the surviving literature of the ancient world, and that only tantalising glimpses of them can be caught in the archaeological record. Worse still, the literature that describes this male view of women is almost unrelentingly ‘misogynist’, as we would see it. The title of this blog comes from the ‘misogynist’ writings of one of these ‘dead white men,’ Hesiod. It’s from the Greek καλός κακός (‘kalos kakos’), a phrase which is surprisingly difficult to effectively translate. The most basic translation of καλός is ‘good’, and of κακός is ‘bad’, although the translations can extend to any of the variety of the moral ramifications of these words. Hugh Evelyn-White translated it as “the beautiful evil”. This paradox is the description of the first woman, Pandora, in Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem describing the births of the gods of the Greek pantheon and some of the earliest foundation and creation myths. A longer version of the story is given in his other major poem, Works and Days. The story is that the giant Prometheus creates humanity from clay, and gets the gods to breathe life into them. However, he is so distressed to see his creations suffering on the dark, cold earth, that he goes up to the home of the gods on Olympus and steals fire for them. As punishment, Promethus himself is chained to a mountainside and every day an eagle comes and eats his liver. But humanity is punished too. Zeus, the king of the gods, has the gods work together to create the first woman. She is given perfect good looks, insatiable curiosity, and a box that she is ordered never to open. She is then given to Prometheus’ brother, Epimethius, as his wife. Eventually, Pandora succumbs to her divinely-ordained insecurities and opens the box. Inside it are all the evils which were previously unknown to mankind. Humanity is only saved from utter ruin by the fact that Zeus had also placed hope in the bottom of the box. From Pandora onwards, humanity is afflicted by evil, but is also dependent upon her female descendants to reproduce the species. As Hesiod describes it, all subsequent women are tainted by Pandora.
This idea of women as something κακός, the root (quite literally) of all evil, the source of all problems, but also as something καλός, necessary for the continuation of the species, pervades ancient thought. And if there is one reason why feminists should be concerned with studying the millenia-old writings of ‘dead white men’, it is this: while the Greeks and Romans may not have a monopoly on misogyny, their ideas formed the foundations of Western culture, and their influences can be felt even further afield. Most of us may no longer study classics, but we live in an intellectual climate built upon centuries where education consisted of little else. Classics has formed a constant intellectual battleground, used to provide exemplars for society for centuries, used to justify, used to underpin. Our literature is full of it, as is our art. Freud named psychological complexes from it. MPs call for its reintroduction to our national curriculum. The earliest Christians lived in a world dominated by these ideas, and their effect can be clearly seen in the pastoral letters and in the writings of the church fathers. That the two main traditions which inform our intellectual culture have foundation myths in which the insatiable curiosity of a woman transgresses (male) boundaries and unleashes evil into the world illustrates just how deep society’s image of the καλός κακός woman runs.
I’m a woman, a feminist and a classicist. And even though I live in the 21st century, I am still painfully aware that there are people who consider me a καλός κακός. Once, at a party in my first year of university, a boy cornered me and drunkenly informed me that it was a travesty that I was allowed to go to university at all. As the possessor of a womb, I was clearly wasting government money, as despite my expensive education, I would obviously just go off and use it (the womb, that is). Women at the moment are suffering the brunt of the cuts of the current (mostly privately and classically educated) government, as if they and their society-dissolving wiles were somehow more responsible for the situation that we find ourselves in than bankers and politicians. Both here and in America, far too many politicians seek to chase women back into the kitchen and the bedroom in the name of Christianity or society’s supposedly Christian-derived ethics – yet ‘Christian femininity’ owes far more to the pagan Romans than to anything Jesus said or did. I could not be the feminist that I am without being the classicist that I am, for as I see it, we have not yet got over Hesiod’s 8th century BC gripes about women as inherently problematic, however much we might wish to see ourselves as divested of such primitivism. That is what I want to explore with this blog.