Saturday, July 26, 2008

What the Lord Gibbon, the Lord Taketh Away

Funny that, traditionally, wingnuts have attacked liberals for allegedly doing the things that "made the Roman Empire fall," implying that the cultural influence of lefty sexual libertines will make the American Empire fall in the same fashion. But which side is really like the Roman "degenerates" of yore? From Sexualia, an awesome overview of the history of human sexuality, come these quotes:

Pps 220-221:
At the end of the Republic in the first century B.C. and under the emperors from Augustus... onwards, a burgeoning literature contains much discussion of licentiousness and shows an increasing preoccupation with forms of sexuality outside the monogamous heterosexual model. Even before this, the expansion of Roman dominion had led to an increasing cultural influence from Greece (which Rome had conquered) as well as from Egypt and Persia. All these exotic "oriental" regions were portrayed as centers of decadence and vice, in contrast to the supposed purity and austerity of traditional Roman values. In particular, pederasty was presented as a Greek custom and passive male homosexual behavior as a Greek vice.

Roman law in all periods shows a great concern with adultery. The moralist Cato congratulated a young man whom he saw coming out of a brothel because it kept him away from other men's wives (although seeing him again a few days later, he added "But I only advised you to visit the brothel, not to live there!"). Various punishments were prescribed at various times for women and their male lovers, including the homosexual rape of the latter by the aggrieved husband or his slaves, or the thrusting of a mullet up their anus...

The preoccupation with adultery was built on the ancient Roman perception of a link between marital breakdown and political decay. Especially condemned were sexual relations between high-status women and low-status men such as slaves, since this threatened the entire social structure and called the position of elite men into question. Despite the examples of victims like Lucretia, our (almost entirely male) sources see uncontrolled female sexuality as a metaphor for political and social breakdown, especially among the upper classes of senators and knights. Men making speeches regularly linked political opponents with notoriously immoral women. These were not merely courtesans, but often their opponents' own wives and sisters. Such rhetoric played on the deeply-rooted sense of the threat posed by female immorality to the stability of the state, in order to imply that their opponents were less than men because they were unable to control their women....

The Republic broke down after a generation of civil war and the victor, Augustus, gave himself the newly-invented title of imperator (commander). As part of a wider drive to assert his control over every aspect of Roman life, he intiated a large-scale program of political and moral reform. Declaring that religion and public morals were both in decline, he restored temples and commissioned authors like Livy to write down early morality tales, such as the rape of Lucretia, for the edification of modern readers. He tightened state control over domestic morality, portraying himself as a "universal father," so that the whole state effectively became his household.

Adultery became closely assimilated to treason against the state, with similar vocabulary and legal procedures. It was thus clearly a dangerous accusation which could be used effectively to ruin opponents. Various laws passed under Augustus prescribed that a father should kill his daughter as well as her lover if he discovered her committing adultery and required a husband who knew of his wife's adultery to divorce her within three days or himself be accused of complicity in the act. Women convicted of adultery could be forced to wear the clothing of a meretrix (prostitute). Informers could be rewarded and slaves could be tortured to force them to give evidence, a procedure which was normally reserved for crimes of utmost seriousness.

Other factors also lay behind Ausgustus's laws. The marriage and birth rates among the upper class of senators had been falling for some time, and Augustus enacted a system of penalties for those who remained unmarried and of rewards for those who produced children...

Now to go back to the Greeks (pps 190-193):

[Homer's epic poems] portray a world of heroic kings and warriors in which sexuality is focused on male-female relations, often with considerable tenderness. [But b]y the 6th and 5th centuries... literary evidence as well as the iconography of painted pottery suggests a tighter, harsher tone in male-female relations, with elaborate and socially institutionalized forms of male homosexuality. This largely corresponds to an expansive militarism among competing city-states. In the Hellenistic period from the 4th century onwards, as the city-states became absorbed into the empires, first of Alexander the Great and then of Rome, life became more bourgeois and the emphasis shifted again to heterosexual relations, including those of the married couple. Whereas much 5th-century art is blatantly sexist, portraying women as sex objects, a great deal of Hellenistic and Roman art suggests more mutual... enjoyment between men and women. It was probably also aimed at a female audience.

The Romans dated the founding of their city by Romulus to 753 B.C. As they expanded they came into increasing contact with the Greek world, which they absorbed into their growing empire in the second century B.C. The Roman attitude to Greece was always ambivalent, and an alternative legend has it that Rome was founded by Aeneas, a refugee from Troy and thus an enemy of the Greeks. Having conquered Greece by military means, the Romans found themselves nevertheless conquered by Greece in a cultural sense. From the second century B.C. onwards Greek ideas, philosophy, literary forms and gods steadily gained in status among the educated classes. This provoked repeated purist backlashes in favor of wholesome Italian customs against what were seen as decadent and licentious Greek practices.

Both Greek and Roman society were sharply differentiated by gender, class and legal status. Freeborn citizens were distinguished from slaves and foreigners, rich from poor, and male from female, and very different sexual behavior was expected from each of these. Indeed, one's sexual behavior was part of what defined one's social status, and there were often severe punishments for behaving inappropriately. Though there was a steady concern with male and female procreative powers, the main categories of sexual behavior throughout Greek and Roman history were not so much male and female as active and passive, penetrator and penetrated. The dichotomy of penetrator and penetrated was linked to a sharply divided evaluation of power. Penetration through any orifice, whether vagina, anus or mouth, made the penetrator masterful and in control and the penetrated person weak or subservient. A male who allowed himself to be penetrated was supposed to be of a lower class than the penetrator. If he was from an upper class then it was considered that he was defiling himself. This feeling was at its most intense in the context of oral sex. Many poems and graffiti testify to this, and furthermore Latin vocabulary even distinguished the humiliating fellatio, the sucking of someone's penis, from the aggressive irrumatio, the thrusting of one's penis into another person's mouth. Male thieves and trespassers were sometimes punished by being raped anally or orally, and the widespread use of phallic boundary stones and gateposts as aggressive markers or territory embodied the implicit threat of this. In Athens, male adulterers could have a horseradish thrust up their rectum, perhaps symbolizing the penis of the outraged husband.

Implicit misogyny is inherent in these values. Since, owing to their anatomical structure, women can only be penetrated but never the penetrator, they are explicitly or implicitly given a subservient status. At the same time however, women were often seen as inherently lustful and their desires as dangerous for men. Evidence from this period tends to reveal strong male anxieties about controlling women's sexuality and ensuring their fidelity, while at the same time not being bound by such restrictions themselves.

Since the object of a penetrating male could equally well be a woman or another man, the categories of heterosexual and homosexual were not so clearly distinguished as they are in the modern world and the bisexual tone of much ancient literature does not seem to have been felt as anomalous. There are many similarities in the ways in which boys and women are described and desired by men. But there are some important differences, including, in Greek culture at least, the repeated assertion that boys are generally more desirable than women and that the desirable stage of their lives is much more fleeting. The 8th-century poet Hesiod advised that taking a partner was desirable if only to provide for old age, but that even the rare man who found a sensible wife would experience more evil than good. He also said that it was better to buy a woman than to marry her, because then it was easier to make her follow the plough.


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