Classics Sexuality
Allison Glazebrook
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0220


While ancient sexuality has long been a topic of interest, it is only since the 1970s that it has become recognized as a field worthy of critical study. There are two main approaches to studies of ancient sexuality: essentialist and constructionist. The common foci are (1) the dynamic of the sexual relationship, that is, whether or not a partner is dominant or submissive. In this classification, the free adult male is normally the active dominant one whereas the free female, slave, and child are submissive and passive; (2) the relationship of the individual to desire, in particular, whether or not an individual exhibits moderation or excess, or put another way, whether or not an individual can practice self-mastery with regard to the sexual drive. The free adult male was expected to exhibit such self-control whereas free women and slaves were not. Many scholars reject these models as irrelevant to female sexuality, especially homoerotic relationships between women. Some scholars even reject them in the case of same-sex relations between males. The main critique of ancient sexuality studies is its privileging of male sexuality and the pederastic relationship. An important debate is whether or not “sexuality” and its associated terminology of “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” have relevance for the ancient context. An important outgrowth of ancient sexuality studies is interest in the body. Only in the last fifteen years has ancient prostitution become a focus. Slavery and sexuality and the archaeology of sexuality are new areas of research as well. Important influences on ancient sexuality studies are feminist theory, gay and lesbian studies, queer theory, gender theory, cultural anthropology, and Foucault’s History of Sexuality. It is important to study ancient sexuality in context as much as possible and not apply modern values to the material.

General Overviews

Comprehensive overviews of Greco-Roman sexuality are a recent phenomenon. Skinner 2005 and Ormand 2008 are excellent starting places. Skinner 2005 organizes chapters chronologically with two on the Hellenistic period, frequently given less coverage in ancient sexuality studies. Ormand 2008 is organized both chronologically and thematically. Golden and Toohey 2011 is organized thematically and thus useful if one is interested in a specific topic. Dover 1973 is still a useful introduction for ancient Greece. Licht (first published in 1931) is useful for its compilation of references but offers little analysis or contextualization. Carson 1986, Cantarella 1992, and Calame 1999 are broad in scope but with a specific focus and perspective.

  • Calame, Claude. 1999. The poetics of eros in ancient Greece. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Detailed analysis of eros (sexual desire) and Eros, the god, in literature, iconography, and a variety of contexts: symposium, polis, household, theater. Eros as central to social relations; a positive force for reproducing good citizens. Anthropological approach focusing on institutions (in contrast to Foucault). Updated from the original. Originally published as I Greci el l’eros: Simboli, practiche e luoghi (Rome: Giuseppe Laterza & Figli, 1992).

  • Cantarella, Eva. 1992. Bisexuality in the ancient World. Translated by Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Argues bisexuality was common for men, but not generally accepted for women, despite its practice. Interested in the question of choice in sexual relationships and the impact of same-sex relations on the marital relationship. Explores differences in attitudes and practices between Greek and Roman same-sex relations. English translation of Secondo natura: La bisessualità nel mondo antico (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1988).

  • Carson, Ann. 1986. Eros the bittersweet. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Taking Sappho as the starting place, explores erotic desire in Greek literature, culture, and thinking. Takes both a literary and philosophical approach.

  • Dover, Kenneth J. 1973. Classical Greek attitudes to sexual behavior. Arethusa 6:59–73.

    Seminal essay on Athenian sexuality. Republished in Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome. Edited by Mark Golden and Peter Toohey, 114–128 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003). And in Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World. Edited by Laura K. McClure, 19–33 (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002).

  • Golden, M., and P. Toohey, eds. 2011. A cultural history of sexuality. Vol. 1. In the classical world (800 BCE–350 CE). Oxford: Berg.

    Part of a six-volume series. Thematically organized overview of Greco-Roman sexuality. Chapters authored by current experts. Topics include heterosexuality, homosexuality, deviancy, prostitution, sexual behavior and the law, sexuality and medicine, sex in popular culture and in visual culture. Accessible to non-experts.

  • Licht, Hans. 1994. Sexual life in ancient Greece. Translated by J. H. Freese. London: Constable.

    Paul Hans Brandt writing under a pseudonym. Topics include marriage, the body, sex in religion and at festivals, sex as portrayed in the theater, erotica, masturbation, prostitution, and deviancy. First comprehensive study of homoeroticism. Useful for its ancient references and summary of the sources. Interpretative commentary is outdated and often literal. First published by Routledge, 1931. Originally published as Sittengeschichte Griechenlands (Dresden and Zurich: Paul Aretz, 1926).

  • Ormand, Kirk. 2008. Controlling desires: Sexuality in ancient Greece and Rome. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    Survey of sexual practices and categories from Homer to the 2nd century CE, drawing on literary, philosophical, and legal texts. Outlines scholarly controversies. Directed at students and laypeople. Includes ample translations of primary sources. Abridged form of “Impossible Lesbians in Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005) appears as chapter 12.

  • Skinner, Marilyn B. 2005. Sexuality in Greek and Roman culture. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Comprehensive chronological survey of sexual values and practices from Archaic Greece to late imperial Rome. Includes up-to-date synthesis and critique of current research and approaches. Highlights differences between Greek and Roman sexuality. Secondary interest in how ancient concepts shape modern Western attitudes. Appropriate for upper level undergraduate or graduate students.

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