The body in antiquity
The body in antiquity

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The body in antiquity

3 ‘Cultural scripts’

In many ways, the body is an unusual subject. We all have bodies, and biologically and physiologically they are more or less the same as the bodies of ancient Greeks and Romans, so anything to do with bodies is always going to be very familiar and personal to us. At the same time, the ancient world involved cultures that were in many ways different from our own. Engaging with ancient bodies draws into contrast something that is true of all studies of the ancient world: the constant tension between familiarity and distance. Historically, western culture has identified very strongly with the Graeco-Roman world. It is often seen as the ancestor of our own western culture, and has been appropriated as the origin of much that is familiar to us now, including science, philosophy, democracy, art and architecture, poetry and drama. But other aspects of the classical world have not been greeted with the same enthusiasm. From polytheism and animal sacrifice to gladiatorial combat, and from infanticide to slavery, some features of Greek and Roman society have come to be regarded as alien, and if we choose to focus on these then the Greeks and Romans may look to the modern viewer more like a dangerous ‘Other’ than our honoured ancestors (Cartledge, 1993).

It is important, then, to maintain an objective standpoint on all matters concerning the Graeco-Roman world. The societies of Greece and Rome must be seen as cultures in their own right, with their own systems of beliefs, values and ideas influencing the way they did things. In this way we can see the cultural beliefs and practices behind the things we do with our bodies as ‘cultural scripts’. This is a term that comes from linguistics and has a very specific meaning in that discipline, but here we mean something very similar to Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’. However, it is different in the sense that it can be conscious as opposed to simply an automatic way of doing things that we take for granted. It is important to be aware of habitus or cultural scripts when looking at the body, as beliefs and ideas have an especially profound effect on what humans do with their bodies. For example, in ancient Rome, mosaics of phalluses could sometimes be found at the entrance to Roman buildings and children often wore amulets in the shape of phalluses around their necks. The cultural script underlying this is that phallic symbols were thought to ward off evil. In a modern context this would be considered obscene in the case of the entrance decoration and inappropriate in the case of the children. This is not because we have more respectable house entrances or a more protective attitude to our children, but because we have a different cultural script underlying our use of the phallic symbol.

Described image
Figure 5 Amulet in the shape of a phallus, Roman, bronze. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Siena. Photo: Bridgeman Images.

Finding out more

When we see the stately marble statues of Romans and Greeks, it is hard to imagine that obscenity in many ways played a more central and acceptable role in many forms of public life than it does for us today. For a humorous (and somewhat adult-themed – beware!) insight into this, listen to the audio ‘The art of insult’.

(please note that this audio contains language that some students may find offensive)

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Transcript: The art of insult

‘The art of insult’ audio

It’s worth pointing out as we begin that five hundred years ago epithets like the dreaded ‘F’ word, ‘C’ word and the rest were not as unspeakable as they are today.
Remember Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale? Our ancestors were far more easy-going than we are about so-called foul language. Way back in Ancient Rome the poet Catullus was dishing out invective for popular consumption parts of which have been deemed unsuitable in 1991 for broadcast on good old Radio Four.
And apart from its endemic entertainment value, verbal abuse had a respectable place in ancient society in both Greece and Rome. Learning how to insult your opponents was part of formal rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking. There were handbooks which laid out the best lines of attack. You could get at someone by insulting their ancestors, their military record or, above all, their sexual habits, not very different in fact from the way the tabloid so-called newspapers operate today although done with rather more intelligence and style.
Richard Hunter is a lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge.
Richard Hunter
There were handbooks that people read and wrote and these handbooks told you both how to say some nice things about people and also how to say nasty things about people. I think it’s always important to remember that in a law court speech or when you were addressing the assembly in Athens or something you weren’t particularly interested in the truth. You were simply interested in persuading people. And if you could suggest that your opponent had all kinds of unpleasant sexual habits you weren’t particularly interested in sexual habits per se but you were interested in what those sexual habits might suggest about them in the rest of their life that for example they weren’t a fit political leader or that they very clearly did steal your money because the sort of person who would do this in bed is the sort of person who would take your money.
Speaker reading quotation
As soon as he was past boyhood he settled down in the Piraeus and the establishment of Euthydicus, the physician, pretending to be a student of medicine, but in fact deliberately offering himself for sale as the event proved. The names of the merchants or other foreigners or of our own citizens who enjoyed the person of Timarchus in those days, I will pass over willingly but no one may say that I am over-particular to state every petty detail. But in whose houses he has lived to the shame of his own body and of the city, earning wages by precisely that thing which the law forbids under penalty of losing the privilege of public speech, of this I will speak.
There is a handbook of rhetoric here from the fourth century BC which says that you should use irony and avoid scoffing at the person you are insulting. Well some of the stuff that we’ve got is very direct. I mean how did this all fit together?
Richard Hunter
Yeah there’s two kinds of traditions. One is a tradition which is an educated culture tradition which discusses how you insult people in a kind of theoretical way and that tradition constantly distinguishes between what you might call cultivated insult, in which you don’t actually call a spade a spade but you rely upon irony, innuendo, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, know what I mean? Whereas there is another kind of insult which used the calling a spade a spade, the use for example of – of the equivalent of what we would call four letter words, which is thought to be below the wit of the urbane man. Of course when it actually comes down to it those two different types of abuse tend to get mixed up and you know and practice is never really quite like theory.
Speaker reading quotation
What do you want woman best fit for black elephants?
Why do you send me gifts, why letters I who am of no firm use nor of unrefined nostril.
Indeed I alone can sniff out more sagely whether an octopus or a heavy goat lurks in hairy armpits than can a keen dog sniff out where the boar hides.
What a sweat on her shrivelled limbs. What a bad smell grows everywhere when after my cock is limp she hurries to quiet her unconquered lust. Nor does her wet powder stick now. Her blush painted on with crocodile dung now being in heat she breaks the taut bed and the covers.
A little ancient misogyny from the poet Horace first century BC.
I think if Horace had been alive today he’d have been in a heavy metal band. Unpleasant sex and body smells appear to be the main preoccupation of poets of this era and their woman folk were not always exactly eulogised.
Richard Hunter
One of the interesting and I suppose mildly depressing things about ancient abusive poetry is that a lot of the themes and motifs in it just continue and continue I mean as long as you read ancient abusive poetry there are smelly armpits. There's a particular horror as expressed in abusive poetry of oral sex. The notion of the unclean mouth crops up time and time again.
Speaker reading quotation
I thought, so help me god, it made no difference whether I smelt Aemilius’ mouth or arsehole, one being no cleaner – the other no filthier. But in fact the arsehole’s cleaner and kinder. It has no teeth. The mouth has teeth half a yard long and gums like an ancient wagon chassis.
A poem by Catullus from Northern Italy mid first century BC.
If you think that’s nasty the next part of the poem’s currently deemed too risqué even to be broadcast on public radio. People certainly seem to have become easier to offend as the years have rolled by.
In the street culture of ancient Greece and Rome the art of insult also flourished according to Richard Hunter. Surviving rock carvings and graffiti from places like Pompeii include obscenities rivalling anything you would find scrawled on a wall in a public toilet today.
And hurling verbal abuse seems to have been the ancients’ idea of a good time, not just in earnest at their enemies but also as an elaborate game as part of festivals and ceremonies.
Richard Hunter
We know of certain types of festival where abuse played a part. For example we know that in a great procession that went from Athens … the initiary procession to Eleusis for the rites of the Earth Mother Demeter that there was a part of the procession where the participants were subjected to abuse. We know that scoffing and jesting was a standard part of Greek weddings. There are quite a lot of literary representations of a stage of the wedding where the bride and groom would have been shut in together and the guests or chorus or whatever would stand outside the wedding chamber and you would make jokes about the size of the groom’s equipment and so forth.
And as we see that the ancient Mediterranean was the cradle of one of the great pass-times of civilised western society – the art of verbal abuse.
End transcript: The art of insult
The art of insult
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