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  • Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome
  • Craig Williams
Rebecca Langlands . Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. viii, 399. $99.00. ISBN 0-521-85943-3.

Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome is a detailed study of pudicitia which begins with the untranslatability of the Latin term. As Langlands rightly observes, neither "chastity" nor phrases like "sexual purity" or "sexual integrity" will do; pudicitia is so firmly anchored in a unique linguistic and conceptual system that it may be best, whenever possible, to avoid translating the word. Instead we can consider the entire range of its usage with attention to recurring preoccupations or significant silences, and try to perceive its place within larger conceptual systems. That is Langlands' project, and for that very reason her book fills a noticeable gap in the scholarship. Among the book's other strengths are its focus on women—most prominently Lucretia—as moral subjects in the Latin textual tradition, its discussion of the cult of Pudicitia, and its extended readings of Valerius Maximus.

Although the book begins by claiming that its focus on the Latin term pudicitia "obtains a certain freedom from contemporary preoccupations, since there is no equivalent for the term in the English language" (9), traces of those preoccupations do nonetheless color some of its readings. For example, Langlands claims that Valerius Maximus' general severity "does not sit easily, for the modern reader," with his narratives of "having sex with children" (Val. Max. 9.12.8, pp. 11–12). Behind "sex with children" lies Valerius' puerilis Venus, but the English phrase reveals more about contemporary debates on pedophilia than about the linguistic and cultural background to the Latin expression. Like puellae, pueri are not only "children": they may be youthful sexual partners or slaves, male objects of penetrative desire of practically any age. We might compare Valerius Maximus' puerilis Venus with Martial's joking reference to one traditional punishment of an adulterer as supplicium puerile (2.60.2): not "punishment fit for children," but "punishment fit for pueri" (anal penetration; for the specific association of pueri with this act, compare the description of anal intercourse with a woman as puerile istud at Mart. 9.67.3 and puerile corollarium at Apul. Met. 3.20). Likewise, although Langlands identifies as modern the importance of consent, her reading of Valerius Maximus 6.1.10 is informed by precisely that concept: "If [the boy] has consented to sexual intercourse, especially persistently, his integrity is destroyed, he has become a prostitute and rendered himself no longer under the protection of either law or virtue: to collude in sex is to lose one's all-important free status" (165). But neither consent nor collusion was the problem: the issue was that a freeborn male had sold his body. He did not, moreover, "lose his free status" by doing so; rather, if caught, he could certainly be stigmatized and might forfeit certain rights, but he was hardly stripped of his citizenship or assigned servile status.

Conspicuous by its absence from most of the book is any reference to a penetrative role in sexual acts. This is quite deliberate: "Sexual morality," Langlands writes, "is not and was not always about penetration, and moral [End Page 341] agents are not and were not always phallic men" (7). Langlands' attempt to see beyond the male desiring subject is welcome and important and yields some interesting readings. Yet by actively disregarding the axis of penetration, these readings sometimes flatten out the sharp specificity of imputing impudicitia to a man: the direct implication that he has been penetrated. Langlands cites a sententia quoted by Seneca the Elder as an illustration of the usual association of pudicitia with the freeborn (22), but does not point out that the sentence was a key element in the defense of a freedman accused of having been his former master's concubine (concubinus) or that Seneca quotes it in order to show how poorly chosen words can bring both advocate and defendant into disrepute. The remark, he notes, gave rise to jokes about "doing one's duty," and for a time people even referred to impudici et obsceni (the phrase suggests men who play...


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pp. 341-342
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