The More Things Change: Sexuality in the Ancient World


Published Apr 1, 2009 8:00 AM

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To the citizens of the ancient civilizations that gave birth to ours, sensuality and sexuality were an integral part of society. The Greeks and Romans were certainly no strangers to plain old fun, but they also believed sexuality played a vital role in almost every aspect of their lives.

"A major question people asked [in the ancient world] was 'What is the significance of sex?,' " says UCLA Professor of Political Science and Classics Giulia Sissa, an internationally recognized scholar and author whose most recent work is Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World, published in 2008 by Yale University Press. "Think of all the different places in which sex was a question: family, kinship, law, poetry, theater, philosophy, politics! ... The ancients were surrounded by representations of naked bodies everywhere. They were constantly engaging in that behavior, and why not? Even their religion was constantly talking about sex. Zeus was the womanizer of womanizers — and a lover of boys."

By the first century, though, things began to change. "For the early Christians, chastity and virginity were very important theologically and emotioally," Sissa explains. Not that sex was essentially bad — the original sin was pride, not lust, after all — but because it distracted from devotion to God: "They had a theological reason to control sexuality because they thought the Final Judgment was coming very quickly." And the ancients also had a divide, but for them, it was more sexism than sexuality. "Women were not really part of the game," Sissa says.

"The idea that, fundamentally, sex is good for you is very American, post-Kinsey Report." But she adds that the point of her new book is that even in the ancient world, "Women are constantly trying to seduce men. If not, we wouldn't have tragedy. And very little comedy or poetry."