In Clio's bedroom

Sex in history, history in sex

Ancient Egyptian painting

Historians are now posing questions that once they were too shy to ask, but suggests classicist Dr James Davidson they may be missing the jokes

It would be fair to say that, after the sexual revolution of the Sixties, sex became something of a hot topic among historians.

Sorting through the underwear
Clio, the muse of history, woke up to find scholars wandering through her private apartments, breaking down her bedroom door, sorting through her underwear drawer, pulling back the bedclothes and taking a magnifying glass to her sheets, and bombarding her with impertinent questions that historians of a previous generation had been too shy to ask.

Suddenly scholars of ancient history were queuing up to ask librarians for the keys to their secret cabinets of indecent books, and importuning museums for access to their more private holdings. Those 'dirty bits' in ancient documents that Victorian editors had left in Latin or simply left out were reinserted and translated into English. It was no longer necessary to have had an Oxbridge education to learn what the Roman emperor Tiberius (reigned AD 14-37) got up to on the island of Capri, or what exactly it was that Catullus threatened to do to 'Furius' and 'Aurelius' in the last decades BC.

Now cherubic Eros, the winged Cupid of Greek mythology, was revealed to be no innocent child, no god of affectionate words and holding hands, but something rather more adult: the god of sexual desire. From his vantage-point in Piccadilly Circus, Eros sported a definite leer.

Off the shelf
The sexual revolution in ancient studies was really a case of sharing with the general public knowledge that the experts had previously kept to themselves. The colourful sexual lives of men and women in relatively recent times came as more of a surprise.

Secret sexual diaries were decoded in England. Scandalous court cases were unearthed in the archives of quiet provincial towns in France. In Italy, police records were taken off the shelf and thoroughly re-examined with a more worldly eye.

The biography of the long-forgotten 19th-century hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin was brought to public attention by French philosopher Michel Foucault in 1979 and published in paperback the following year. Seventeenth-century lesbian nuns were 'outed' in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the medieval historian John Boswell claimed to have discovered that same-sex marriages had been performed in Christian churches right through the Middle Ages. And a scholarly edition was prepared of the 18th-century pornography that had been so energetically covered up by the censors of the last kings of France.

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