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Impearls: Sex in Antiquity II - Moral hypochondria

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Earthdate 2005-11-05

Sex in Antiquity II – Moral hypochondria   by Peter Brown

Resuming Impearls' look commencing last year with regard to attitudes in classical antiquity concerning sex, Peter Brown writing in his chapter “Late Antiquity” in A History of Private Life, Volume I, considers the ideal of deportment amongst elites versus common folk in classical Greco-Roman society. 1

What could almost be called “moral hypochondria” formed a firm barrier between the elites and their inferiors.  The harmonious person, groomed by long education and shaped by the constant pressure of his peers, was thought to live at risk.  He was exposed to the ever-present threat of “moral contagion” from anomalous emotions and actions, inappropriate to his own public status though acceptable in the uncultivated society of his inferiors.  I use “hypochondria” advisedly, for this was the age of great doctors — most notably, the doctor Galen (a.d. 129-199) — whose works circulated widely among the wellborn.

A specific body image, formed from a conglomeration of notions inherited from the long past of Greek medicine and moral philosophy, was the physiological anchor of the moral codes of the wellborn.  In this model personal health and public deportment converged with the utmost ease.  In it the body is represented as a delicately maintained balance of complementary humors, whose health was upset by excessive losses of needful resources or by excessive coagulations of detrimental surpluses.  The emotions that were held to disrupt or deplete the carefully balanced deportment of the well-groomed man could be traced in large part to the effects of such imbalances.  The body, therefore, was regarded as the most sensitive and visible gauge of correct deportment; and the harmonious control of the body, through traditional Greek methods of exercise, diet, and bathing, was the most intimate guarantor of the maintenance of correct deportment.

The status-based, inward-looking quality of a morality rooted in an upper-class need to demonstrate social distance by means of an exceptional code of deportment is immediately apparent in the moral concerns of the Antonine age.  Relations with social inferiors and sexual relations, for example, are regulated in terms of an exacting code of public deportment.  To beat a slave in a fit of rage was condemned.  This was not because of any very acute sense that an act of inhumanity against a fellow human being had been committed, but because the outburst represented a collapse of the harmonious image of the self of the wellborn man, and had caused him to behave in a manner as uncontrolled as a slave.

Similar concerns determined attitudes toward sexual relations.  Homosexual and heterosexual love were not distinguished.  What was perceived as an underlying continuity between the two was the fact of physical pleasure.  Sexual pleasure as such posed no problem to the upper-class moralist.  What was judged, and judged harshly, was the effect of such pleasure on the public deportment and social relations of the male.  Any shame that might be attached to a homosexual relationship resided solely in the moral contagion that might cause a man of the upper class to submit himself, either physically (by adopting a passive position in lovemaking) or morally, to an inferior of either sex.  The relations of men and women were subject to the same strictures.  Inversions of true hierarchy through oral sexuality with a female partner were the most condemned and, not surprisingly, the most titillating, forms of collapse before the moral contagion of an inferior, the woman.  Fear of effeminacy and of emotional dependence, fears based on a need to maintain a public image as an effective upper-class male, rather than any qualms about sexuality itself, determined the moral codes upon which most notables conducted their sexual life.

The fear of social subservience to an inferior was subtly buttressed by physiological anxiety.  A man was a man because he moved effectively in the public world.  He did this because his fetus had “cooked” more thoroughly than had a woman's in the hot womb; his body, therefore, was a reservoir of the precious “heats” on which male energy depended.  Although the difference between men and women might be securely fixed, in the case of the woman by the low ceiling of her heat and the consequent frailty of her temperament, there was no such security for the active man.  His heat could be lost.  Excessive sexual discharge might “cool” his temperament; such a drain on his resources would be betrayed with merciless precision in a loss of momentum on the public stage.  That orotund voice of the public man that Quintilian and his contemporaries so dearly loved to hear echoing through the noisy public spaces of the city was the fine fruit of a masculinity carefully preserved by “abstinence from sex.”  The very real puritanism of the traditional moralities of the upper classes of the Greek and Roman worlds rested heavily on those who subscribed to them.  Such puritanism did not rest on sexuality; it rested on sexuality as a possible source of moral contagion.  For sexual indulgence could erode, through the effeminacy that could result from excessive sexual pleasure with partners of either sex, the unchallenged superiority of the wellborn.

Hence the unquestioning particularity of the sexual codes of the age.  They did not apply to everyone.  The notables might tend to subject themselves and their families to a code of dour masculine puritanism, closer to that still current in Islamic countries than to the puritanism of modern northern Europe.  Yet, having drawn the carapace of deportment around themselves, they found themselves all the more free to exhibit the other side of their public selves: their popularitas.  In their relations, as givers of the good things of urban life, to their inferiors, they lavished on those assumed to have cruder pleasures than themselves a succession of displays, amenities, and paintings that flatly contradicted, in their cruelty and frank obscenity, the orderly self-control these men had arrogated to themselves as the badge of their own superior status in the city.  Highly cultivated aristocrats patronized the appalling bloodshed of the gladiatorial games in the Greek cities of the Antonine age.  Nor did the rise of Christianity greatly change this aspect of their public life.  If a modern reader remembers anything about the emperor Justinian, it is likely to be Procopius' portrait of the youthful career of his wife, Theodora: a striptease dancer in the public theater of Constantinople, geese used to peck grain from her private parts in front of an audience of thousands of citizens.  What is important to bear in mind is the venomous precision of this sketch.  Here was a woman of the people, to whom upper-class codes of moral restraint did not apply.  Theodora is the exact inversion of the respectable upper-class wives (soberly shrouded and even secluded in Constantinople, by that time).  Yet as notables, the husbands of such respectable lades had for centuries donated just such performances, to the everlasting glory of themselves and of their city.

Nor is there anything surprising in the long survival of indifference to nudity in the Roman public life.  This was not a society bound together by the implicit democracy of sexual shame.  Athletic nudity remained a mark of status for the wellborn.  The essential role of the public baths as the joining point of civic life ensured that nudity among one's peers and in front of one's inferiors was a daily experience.  The codes of deportment, as we have seen, reached down into the body itself; as a result, the clothes of the upper classes of the Antonine age, though expensive, lacked the ceremonial magnificence of later ages.  How a man carried himself, in the nude or otherwise, was the true mark of his status — a mark all the more convincing because understated.  As for women, the social shame of exposure to the wrong person, rather than the fact of exposure itself, was the principal anxiety.  Nudity before one's slaves was as morally insignificant as nudity before animals; and the physical exposure of the women of the lower classes was yet another token of their disorderly inferiority to the powerful.


Reference

1 Peter Brown, “Late Antiquity,” Chapter 2 of: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, edited by Paul Veyne, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, volume I of: A History of Private Life, the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1987; pp. 241-246.  Originally published as De l'Empire romain à l'an mil, volume I of: Histoire de la vie Privée, Editions du Seuil, 1985.


UPDATE:  2009-09-08 17:50 UT:  Sex in Antiquity III – the Wages of Adultery” was posted on 2009-09-06.  See also the earlier posted “Sex in Antiquity I.”


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