Sunday, January 06, 2008

Changing one's mind

Happy 2008 to anyone still actually reading this. I realize it's been over a month since I last posted here. If I was the sort of person who made New Year's resolutions, then I'd probably promise to make more posts this year. But don't hold your breath.

I got pointed to a webpage where 165 people were asked the question, "What have you changed your mind about? Why?" The contributors are mostly scientists of one description or another, though there's a piece by James O'Donnell that explains why he no longer cheers for the Romans, which I recommend. Reading all the contributions, I found myself thinking about what I've changed my mind about over the years. I certainly believe that the ability to change one's mind in the face of new evidence, or new interpretations of old evidence, is an important characteristic of an honest thinker.

Like O'Donnell, I have changed my mind about the Romans, and especially about the Empire. Once I believed that Augustus was a great man, who rescued Roman civilization from the chaos of the Late Republic, but no longer. Certainly I still believe that he was a highly effective ruler in terms of what he sought to achieve, and for some people life was better after he came to power - provincials undoubtedly appreciated the end of the licensed extortion and asset-stripping that characterized most provincial administration under the Late Republic. But it shouldn't be forgotten that what Augustus introduced was a military dictatorship, an inherently corrupt form of government. The likes of Caligula, Nero and Commodus were inevitable products of the system, not aberrations. And all emperors, even the 'good' ones like Augustus and Trajan, curtailed individual rights and suppressed, often ruthlessly, freedom of thought and expression. Just ask Ovid.

What else? There was certainly a time when, had you told me that there was a difference between sex and gender, I'd have looked at you as if you were mad. But then I didn't know any people who had refused to allow the sex they were born into to determine how they would behave. This year I wrote a short paper for my students explaining exactly why the two aren't identical, and why biological sex doesn't necessarily dictate gender roles (in which I used Ovid's myth of Iphis and Ianthe, just before I found out that Ali Smith had written a Canongate Myth volume around the same legend); that paper is now going to be available to all the students on the course throughout the country.

One thing I've really come to comprehend better this year, and emphasize more to students, is that there's no such thing as 'Roman attitudes'. Where once I would happily have said 'the Romans believed ...', and at the most pointed out that this meant élite male Romans, now I underline that one would have been every bit as likely to find a range of different opinions if one conducted a straw poll in the Roman Forum as if one did the same on Oxford Street. Take, for instance, Roman attitudes to sex. The HBO/BBC Rome series (of which I got the complete boxed set for Christmas, which means I really ought to get around to watching it some time) presented a Roman society in which people were happily having sex all the time. Just before the series aired Tom Holland wrote in The Times criticizing this - the Romans weren't so liberal at all, but rather prudish. I blogged that at the time, saying that I thought Holland overstated and oversimplified the case, and pointing to Ovid as an example of a different attitude to sex (basically, in the Amores and Ars Amatoria, the message is if the opportunity comes along, take it, and here's how one maximizes those opportunities). Holland's not wrong to say that Romans held the opinions he ascribes to them. What is wrong is the implication that this is how all Romans thought. Ovid and Cicero did not think the same about sex, anymore than Juvenal and Hadrian thought the same about Greeks. All one can do is point to general trends of thought, whilst highlighting that these were not universal. Which is actually quite liberating for a teacher - asked to reconcile two apparently contradictory attitudes found in ancient writers, one can simply respond "those two people didn't think the same on the subject."

But sometimes you have to rethink those prevailing opinions. For about a decade, I have believed, and been telling people, that in the ancient world sex was not generally considered a participatory act between equals, but something done by the powerful to the powerless, e.g. men to women, adults to younger men, free men to slaves. With a single article, James Davidson has blown that out of the water. The key quotation is "the ancient Greeks talked of sex not as an act of aggression, but rather as a 'conjoining' or 'commingling'". That sent me to the dictionaries, and indeed, one common, perhaps the most common, Greek word for sexual activity is συμμείγνυμι (summeignumi). The sun- prefix definitely implies doing something in equal co-operation with someone else, as does the fact that the common form is in the middle voice, rather than the active (doing something) or passive (having something done to one). This immediately put Davidson's book, The Greeks And Greek Love on the list of books I must read soon. So far I've got no further than an introductory "Note on transcription and pronunciation" (which features one brilliant comment: "Anxious readers may be comforted by the fact that pronouncing ancient Greek properly is extremely difficult, so nobody ever bothers"), but I am looking forward to it (there's a favourable review by Oliver Taplin in The Guardian).* I may not be wholly prepared to give up the idea that sex was sometimes in the ancient world an expression of power - after all, it remains so often enough today. But I can no longer say that the Greeks had no concept of sex as an act of equals, since such a concept was hardwired into their language.

You may now all speculate why most of the examples I've used relate to sex.

* I have to take issue with Taplin on one point. Criticizing Davidson's reading of a homosexual affair into Homer's portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus, he says, "there is no call to bring sex into it; and to do so Davidson has to turn a blind eye to the night in book nine where they both bed down with women." Taplin may be right about the first point - there's certainly nothing explicit in the Iliad - but, as I wrote in a piece for CA News back in 2005, their sleeping with women is irrelevant unless one assumes that heterosexual activity a priori rules out the same individuals engaging in homosexual relations. Whilst conservative thinkers have believed, and still do believe this, an open-minded glance at the history of human sexuality quickly shows that it's nonsense.

1 comment:

Tamaranth said...

I would not presume to comment on your fascination with sex! But I admire your changes of mind -- and am more interested than ever in reading the Davidson book.

(That comment in the Guardian review did irritate me. I can think of several reasons why Achilles / Patroclus might sleep with females once in a while, perhaps most pertinently as a way of demonstrating power. Or novelty value. I can't remember the relevant section of the Iliad well enough. But I *was* entertained by Taplin's comments on spunk.)