Their Nature and Use in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds – Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2024)

BMCR 2017.05.46

Dorota Dutsch, Ann Suter, Ancient Obscenities: Their Nature and Use in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015. 356. ISBN 9780472119646. $90.00 (hb).


This fine collection of twelve studies, which originated in the 2008 Feminism and Classics Conference at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, joins a spate of recent work seeking to build on the advances made since the mid-1970s in our understanding of sex and gender in the ancient world.1 A cohesive ensemble it was not intended to be: the editors’ use of plural “obscenities,” accepting that currently “consensus about what constitutes obscenity is hardly possible” (1), aims rather to “understand and theorize the more abstract concept ‘obscenity’ through various of its individual manifestations” (2). The collection is accordingly more of a sampler, a broad and disparate range of material (language, texts, art, and material culture) in which the contributors articulate their own definitions and employ critical methods drawn not only from philology and literary criticism but also anthropology (especially Douglas), ethnography of speaking, linguistics, narratology (especially Bakhtin), psychoanalysis, sociology, and queer, speech act, and social performance theories: Part 1 (chapters 2–6) focuses on Greece (129 pp.), Part 2 (chapters 7–11) on Rome (127 pp.), and Part 3 (chapters 12–13) on Ancient Obscenities and Modern Perceptions (63 pp.). Although the contributors are aware of one another and some studies can be read together (e.g. those on Greek ritual and cults), for the most part they go their own ways: each chapter has its own endnotes and bibliography, the editors’ Introduction (Ch. 1) describes but does not synthesize the contributions, and a skimpy index gives little idea of the volume’s wealth of topics and interesting detail.

Despite the variety of these “obscenities,” however, the editors confine their definition within the usual parameters of “sexual and scatological references,” although they are aware of the broader scope and ambivalence of the obscene as “a blot marked against the background of acceptable behavior or language” generally (4). The contributors follow suit except for Lateiner, whose bold and innovative study incorporates cross-cultural perspectives that support (a) more spacious definition(s) and invites further investigation beyond the familiar terrain of genitals and excrement. Meanwhile, each of these studies is of high scholarly quality and makes an original contribution.

2. Ann Suter, “The Anasyrma : Baubo, Medusa, and the Gendering of Obscenity” (pp. 21–43), surveys the anasyrma gesture and the related gorgoneion, finds them distinct from other forms of genital exhibition, charged with a distinct and more powerful meaning and effect than male self–exposure, and as striking female onlookers beneficently or protectively but males maleficently or destructively: an instance of the anthropological idea that obscenities when in a sacred context are neither good nor bad, and “derive their power from their undifferentiated connection to the sacred” (33).

3. Kirk Ormand, “Toward Iambic Obscenity” (pp. 44–70), develops on work by Christopher Brown, Ralph Rosen, and Christopher Carey to evaluate Hipponax’s obscenity as “a particular form of personal attack” (44) in the context of aitia for iambs: they contain “implicit interpretations of iambic poetry, especially the poetry of Hipponax” (45), that parody the kind of “social and often religious rectitude” that motivated Archilochus and Semonides “in order to launch scurrilous attacks” as from a “morally deficient speaker” (47). Thus fr. 183 Gerber (Hipponax’s meeting with Iambe) can be seen not as an aition for iambos but as a parody of the aition involving Demeter, and as containing similarities to (and perhaps borrowings from) aspects of self-portrayal in Sappho.

4. Ralph Rosen, “Aischrology in Old Comedy and the Question of ‘Ritual Obscenity’” (71–90), offers a way out of the persistent but unproven assumption that for aischrologia there was (or must have been) “a diachronic evolution from ritual to comedy,” or at least “some kind of practical influence, however indeterminate, on the way obscenity was deployed in Old Comedy” (72–3), by looking at the poets’ obscenity instead as “a phenomenon of literary mimesis …deployed synchronically, with an eye on topical edginess and conscious of their localized audience in the ‘here and now’” (74). The focus is on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Dicaeopolis’ phallic procession in Acharnians 241–79, and the parodos of Frogs (316–459), which seem to show that the ritual and comic forms had distinct dynamics and functions (one religious, the other secular) and that if there was a direction of influence it was likelier comic aischrologia that inspired ritual. Some considerations for fine-tuning: dichotomies remain unclear since comedy was itself a ritual, and in Athens performed for a god who was also honored in other ritual contexts; and its obscenity (not a uniform feature even in Aristophanes) vanishes in step with the genre’s detachment from its original festive environment(s).

5. Donald Lateiner, “ Ou kata Nomon : Obscene Acts and Objects in Herodotus’ Histories ” (91–124), a tour de force by a veteran Herodotean, surveys the historian’s depiction of the “varying borders for permissible behaviors ( nomoi)” (92) that are transgressed, often in obscene ways (more broadly defined than elsewhere in the volume) and often by non-Greeks, in order to shock, amaze, titillate, and even edify his audience. The responses vary in light of the local nomoi and the perspective of a given audience, and we can recognize a typology of literary functions of the obscene with four categories: obscene epichoric nomoi, ritual obscenity, obscenity as a secular tool of abuse and humiliation, and developed obscene anecdotes (100).

6. Jess Miner, “Risk and reward: Obscenity in the Law Courts at Athens” (125–52), explores “what would have constituted obscenity in the courts and to observe its rhetorical function in a range of cases” (145 n. 5) in light of approaches like her own that view oratory as performance culture (she is author of a fine 2006 dissertation on Athenian forensic invective) as well as more the philological approach of e.g. Nancy Worman2 that traces the influence of the iambic mode on various genres over time. Orators using obscenity – here not primary obscenies but vulgar “near-obscenities” – took a risk but stood to gain a reward if the audience reacted as intended.

7. Frances Hickson Hahn, “Triumphal Ambivalence: The Obscene Songs” (153–174), investigates the carnivalesque pattern of simultaneous elevation and degradation in the triumph: should it be explained as ritual/apotropaic or (a more recent tendency) sociological, or both? Hahn discusses the songs for Caesar’s triumph of 46 recorded by Suetonius Jul. 49–50, 80, aligns them with Bakhtin’s notion of joyous (not satirical) debasem*nt in popular humor, and stresses the presence of praise and exaltation as well, though the question of the force of tradition is not pursued as frontally as by Rosen in Ch. 4.

8. Seth Jeppesen, “Obscenity and Performance on the Plautine Stage” (175–198), takes a performance-critical approach à la Slater3 to supplement recent studies by Fontaine4 and Marshall5: “although no patently obscene words are uttered, obscene gestures and actions could be portrayed on stage,” a freedom he attributes à la Bakhtin to “ritual license” (176, cf. 190–91); it includes embedded and hidden stage directions, and there are several indications that performers may have worn the comic phallus. If so, this kind of verbal and visual indecency must have been a matter of authorial choice or current fashion, since it was evidently present no longer in Greek New Comedy or in the plays of Terence.

9. Barbara Kellum, “Weighing In: The Priapus Painting at the House of the Vettii, Pompeii” (199–224), offers a fascinating socio- economic reading of the complex and unusually resplendent first-century CE Priapus painted on the front entryway of the house of the prosperous freedmen Vettii, whose story and status, money and therefore manliness, it stunningly and wittily conveyed.

10. Sarah Levin-Richardson, “Bodily Waste and Boundaries in Pompeiian Graffiti” (225–54), uses scatological Pompeiian graffiti (of which there is no previous study) “to explore Roman conceptualizations of bodily waste and especially the ways in which it might have been considered obscene” (225), arguing that they jibe with “ancient discourses of gender and the body, relationships among individuals and between groups, and local and imperial politics” and served both to “police behavior…while simultaneously “proliferating obscene content and concepts in the public sphere” (226). Levin-Richardson provides an extremely interesting and useful catalogue and map. There is plenty of the obscene here, and a broad spectrum of boundary transgressions.

11. Elizabeth Young, “ Dicere Latine : The Art of Speaking Crudely in the Carmina Priapea ” (255–82), views the Priapus of these poems as “obscenity personified” and his garden as representing “the bounded space of the Latin epigram itself” (256). She focuses on those moments of “linguistic deterioration” when Priapus’ utterances “come apart at the seams” and on the resulting “tension between linguistic form and shapelessness probe both universal and particularly Roman concerns over the role language plays in affirming human identity” as well as resolving the paradox of native vulgar crudity combined with elite (Hellenizing) literary value by amalgamating them rather than (like Horace, in e.g. Epode 2.1) separating them (256–7). Carmina Priapea 3, 6, 7, 54, 67 are cases in point.

12. Michael Broder, “The Most Obscene Satires: A Queer/Camp Approach to Juvenal 2, 6, and 9” (283–309), brilliantly and effectively allies queer theory with camp, “a mode of discourse that ironizes the scandalous representation of sex and gender deviance, resulting in a deliberately perverse transvaluation of sexual scandal into an expression of solidarity with deviant forms of existence” (283), as a critical approach to Juvenal’s satires. Such a reading of Latin texts is rare – Broder can only cite Cecil Wooten’s “Petronius and ‘Camp’” ( Helios 11 [1984] 133–39) – but it works well on these notorious poems about effeminates, slu*ts, and the sexual handyman Naevolus: whereas straight moralists accept the poems’ misogyny and hom*ophobia, and feminist and gay responses are resistant, the camp posture renders the poems’ irony as “undermin[ing] any pretense to morally earnest ridicule” (286), while the queer view identifies the satirist’s “subversion of moral seriousness and normative sex, gender, and kinship categories” (288) by exposing their inherent instability and supporting alternative ones. Broder’s study both advances our understanding of these texts and is highly recommended for anyone wishing to gain familiarity with queer and camp approaches generally.

13. Deborah Roberts, “Translating the Forbidden: The Unexpurgated Edition and the Reception of Ancient Obscenity” (310–350), explores a topic of growing interest (and provides a valuable bibliography) by focusing on definitions of and barriers to “the forbidden.” After a general survey, Roberts focuses on five unexpurgated translations published between 1868 and 1929, two of Martial and three of Catullus, that illustrate the diversity of practices and approaches to unexpurgation that allow her to “demonstrate how translation, context, paratext, and illustration work together to create the reader’s experience in English translation of the ancient obscene” (314), and that “help us see that what bowdlerization may reduce to one thing translation reveals as many things” (335).


1. Notably the collections by Blondell, R. and Ormand K. (ed.), Ancient Sex: New Essays. Classical memories/modern identities. (Ohio State University Press: Columbus, 2015); Hubbard, T. K. (ed.), A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities (Wiley Blackwell: Malden, MA, 2014); and Masterson, M., Rabinowitz, N. S., and Robson, J. (eds.), Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World (Routledge: New York, 2015).

2. Abusive Mouths in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 2008).

3. Niall Slater, Plautus in Performance (1985, rev. ed. Routledge: New York, 2000).

4. Michael Fontaine, Funny Words (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2010).

5. C. W. Marshall, Stagecraft and Performance (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2006).

Their Nature and Use in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds – Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2024)


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