- Controlling Desires: Sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome
Kirk Ormand aims to provide a readable introduction to the study of sexuality in the Greek and Roman worlds of a sort that might suit either students with little or no experience of the ancient world or interested amateurs. In this he is largely successful. The style is accessible, and the coverage of material is expansive, verging occasionally, perhaps, on the prolix. The author avowedly concentrates for the most part in presenting readers with the views of others to whose works readers are directed in the restricted but adequate pages of notes and bibliography.
As the title declares, the author is above all a disciple of Foucault, and the philosopher’s principal theme of self-control before sexual desire is ever present. The Romans themselves get more attention than they might normally be expected to get in general or in survey books on ancient sexuality [End Page 179] as a whole. They make up fully half the volume and, perhaps it could be said, the more engaging half. Teachers of courses on ancient sexuality may wish to consider the book for their reading lists. It does, in any case, offer material to which critical responses can be readily formulated.
It may well remain pedagogically useful to have the Foucauldian line articulated in this way for a broad audience, but it is something of a pity that its problems—indeed its obsolescence—could not be acknowledged. It cannot be said that Ormand has come to terms with James Davidson’s eviscerations of Foucault’s work.1 Foucault now stands revealed as offering an unacceptably lopsided model of ancient Greek homosexuality in particular. This model was based upon a partial misunderstanding of Kenneth Dover’s model (though the debt owed, even if reduced by misinterpretation, was never acknowledged to the extent that it should have been). But then Dover’s original model in turn was shaped by a series of curious decisions on the great philologist’s part seemingly arrived at without the incisive clarity of thought that normally characterized his work. Davidson’s own work evidently constitutes an intellectual mountain Ormand is unwilling to carry his readers over. His cheap dismissal (“In my view Davidson ignores a good deal of evidence, particularly that of Aristophanic comedy, in order to make his argument” [271n10]) is inappropriately leveled at a scholar whose knowledge of the comic fragments is probably second only to that of Rudolf Kassel and Colin Austin. However, better such a devotion to Foucault than to John J. Winkler’s bizarre and long-discredited ideas about the purpose of erotic-attraction spells (110). The mantra “there is no evidence for” is used too often, seemingly as a shorthand for dismissing subjects the author has no wish to discuss. It is not fair to assert, for example, that there is no evidence for Sappho’s school (38).
Perhaps Ormand has a partial defense in his pedagogical aspiration to give an account of the subject as traditionally conceived, but his book, in common with most modern writing on ancient sexuality, is all but blind to two fundamental considerations. The first is that the history of heterosexual relationships—their problematization and their representation—must first and foremost be considered a footnote to the history of reproduction. Babies are always going to be more important to a society than kicks. How quickly the advent of the pill has made us forget this simple truth. The second is that, Athens apart, male homosexual relationships and thinking thereon in the ancient Greek world were primarily associated with military organization, as the lucid evidence for such places as Sparta, Thebes, and Crete makes clear. When Ormand declares that, so far as the Greek classical period is concerned, he is going to focus his attention exclusively on Athens (46), [End Page 180] readers are doubly let down, first, because they are given no impression of the culture of male homosexual relations that was actually the one typical in the classical period, and second, because they are given...