In Clio's bedroom
Sex in history, history in sex
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
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.