Bisexuality in the Ancient World

Eva Cantarella; Translated by Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin

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Bisexuality was intrinsic to the cultures of the ancient world. In both Greece and Rome, sexual relationships between men were acknowledged, tolerated, and widely celebrated in literature and art. For the Greeks and Romans, homosexuality was not an exclusive choice, but alternative to and sometimes simultaneous with the love of a woman.

Drawing on the full range of sources—from legal texts, inscriptions, and medical documents to poetry and philosophical literature—Eva Cantarella reconstructs the bisexual cultures of Athens and Rome and compares them. She explores the psychological, social, and cultural mechanisms that determined male sexual choice and considers the extent to which that choice was free, directed, or coerced. She analyzes the link between social class and homosexuality, and assesses the impact of homosexual relations on heterosexual ones.

In Greece the relationship between men and young boys was deemed the noblest of associations, a means of education and spiritual exaltation. Though highly regulated and never left to individual spontaneity, such relationships were, Cantarella reveals, more than pedagogic and platonic: they were fully carnal. In Imperial Rome, however, the sexual ethic mirrored the political, males being cruelly domineering in love as in war. The critical sexual distinction was that between active and passive, the victims commonly being slaves or defeated enemies, rather than young Roman freemen.

Cantarella explains how the etiquette of bisexuality was corrupted over time and how homosexuality came to be regarded as an unnatural act when it was influenced by the pagan and Judeo-Christian traditions. With chapters on love between women and the response of women to male homosexuality, the book represents a full, readable, and thought-provoking history of bisexuality in the classical age.

Eva Cantarella is professor of Roman law and ancient Greek law at the University of Milan.

"Offers a valuable, close-in reassessment of intricate evidence, freshly researched, readable, and open-minded."—Alan Sinfield, Gay Times

"This is a stimulating essay."—Choice

"[Cantarella] sweeps aside, with a huge thwack of her broom, all the homophobic detritus left lying around by easily shocked academics over the years."—Allan Keill-Griffin, Northern Star

"A sexological tour de force. . . . A book that requires a place in every reference library. Among students and professionals with even a minimum of sexological curiosity, it will strike a new spark of enlightenment."—John Money, Ph.D., Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease

"An important study that is destined to take its place next to the classic works of Foucault and Pomeroy. . . . Cantarella draws upon a full range of sources that are now quarried by the social historian: legal texts, inscriptions, medical documents, poetry, and philosophical literature. . . . Ultimately the history of how men and women interacted with each other is based on the realia of everyday life, and here Cantarella is in firm command."—Alan Mendelson, History: Reviews of New Books

"This work . . . demonstrates yet again the remarkable plasticity of human sexual behavior and the complex interaction between psychosexual factors and cultural trends. . . . Cantarella's work, based on classical sources, points up the multiplicity of possible social and cultural solutions to the underlying problem of bisexual trends in men. . . . [It] shows us that every society struggles to formulate ways in which to order the complexity of human sexuality and thus places our current American efforts within a far larger perspective of human history."—Jessica P. Byrne, M.D., Psychoanalytic Books: A Quarterly Journal of Reviews

"Eva Cantarella's cultural history of bisexuality in the ancient world . . . is an intriguing and accessible study that draws upon a wide range of primary texts and sources. . . . A fascinating account of the multi-layered nature of bisexuality in ancient times."—Paul Johnson, Pink Paper

"This updated translation of Eva Cantarella's Secondo Natura is remarkable for its breadth of vision. . . . Ambitious, learned, and thought-provoking. . . . The author displays an impressive command of a wide range of primary and secondary sources, and writes with blessed clarity."—Charles C. Chiasson, Southern Humanities Review

"This is a book I recommend for all students of sexology. Thanks to the author's writing style and the translator's command of both the original Italian and English, the book is, with some exceptions, not only interesting, but easy to read. Most important, however, the book is a treasure trove of both major areas of information that sexologists would do well to master and trivia that they might enjoy knowing. . . . The read is a good intellectual exercise."—Milton Diamond, Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality

"A synoptic treatment that encompasses both male and female homosexuality and simultaneously relates the phenomenon to larger issues like family, marriage, and social control. Scholarly yet accessible, the book packs a wealth of material into a compact volume. . . . Cantarella presents the ancient evidence in a straightforward fashion, draws insightful comparisons between heterosexuality and homosexuality, and elucidates the larger cultural context of erotic experience. With its wide scope the book speaks to the classicist, the layman with an interest in antiquity, the student of sexuality, and even to the unabashed seeker of piquant anecdotes."—John F. Makowski, Classical Journal

"A sane and sophisticated analysis of the sexual mores of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Her research is firmly based in the ancient literary, artistic, and archaeological sources and shows a sound grasp of modern scholarly literature. . . . Easily the best book on the topic."—John Buckler, Historian

"Cogent, lucid, and well-organized. . . . Full of information and sound thinking about sexuality. . . . A valuable contribution to scholarship about sexual orientation."—Richard C. Friedman, Psychoanalytic Quarterly

"Fascinating. . . . This analysis of sexual mores in the classical world is deeply convincing. . . . Brilliant."—Independent on Sunday

ISBN: 9780300059243
Publication Date: January 26, 1994
296 pages, 6 1/4 x 9 1/2