Sex Manuals, Ancient World

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Sex Manuals, Ancient World

Evidence of the existence of this literary genre (as distinct from other forms of licentious literature) relies almost entirely on quotes found in repertories or encyclopedias (Athenaeus, second to third century ce; the Byzantine Suda, tenth century ce) or in parodies (most notably in Ovid's Ars Amatoria). The only surviving textual fragment was found in an Oxyrhynchus papyrus (early second century ce) and published by Edgar Lobel in 1972 (see Cataudella 1973). This fragment, highly damaged, contains the introduction to a work (Peri Aphrodision, i.e., "On the Things of Aphrodite") attributed to Philaenis (fourth century bce). According to the Suda the originator of the genre was a woman, Astyanassa, a maid of Helen of Troy who wrote a treatise on sexual positions. As in the case of this mythical inventor, sources attribute almost all of the ancient manuals on sexual schemata to female writers, usually slaves or hetaerae who wrote drawing on personal experience. This feminine authorship is almost certainly a (slanderous) fictional cliché. In the case of the scholar and philosopher Pamphile of Epidaurus (first century ce), the hypothesis, quoted in the Suda, that her treatise (titled, traditionally, Peri Aphrodision) might have been authored by her father or her husband shows how problematic (either for the scandalous nature of the work or for the erudition that writing per se required) was the notion of a woman author who was not even a prostitute.

Scholars have suggested a close relationship between sex manuals and other "technical" books such as cookbooks, medical treatises, and other scientific works. Their appearance coincides with an era (between the end of classical Greece and the beginning of the Hellenistic age) when the episteme becomes dominated by a compulsory taxonomic attitude, stemming from the canonization of Aristotelian philosophy, and by the proliferation of systematic treatises on rhetoric. As Holt N. Parker (1992) points out, "the scientific classification extended not only to the parts of speech but also the figures of speech, the Skhêmata (Latin figurae), a word ambiguous between the positioning of words in a sentence and the positioning of bodies in a bed" (p. 101). In general, sex manuals were regarded as obscene not because of their sexual content but rather because they were perceived as advocating immoderate indulgence in luxury and pleasure (thus incurring the same condemnation levied against gourmet cookbooks). Uncontrollable appetites were considered inherently feminine, hence the feminine "authorship" ascribed to these works.

Ovid's reuse of sex-manual literature occurs in Book III (lines 769-788) of the Ars Amatoria, the one addressed to women (specifically, haeterae). Given the lack of more direct ones, this parody is a particularly valuable source. The author gives advice on eight different positions, all pertaining to the female body, clearly implying that the woman, not the man, is the raw material of the Ars (see Myerowitz 1985). According to modern feminist theorists, it is this objectification of the female body that makes these manuals intrinsically "pornographic" (a notion that in post-Foucauldian scholarship has become acceptable, though with varying terminology, also in reference to the ancient world. See Richlin 1992, pp. xi-xxii). Particularly noteworthy is that these manuals dealt only with heterosexual intercourse (and, possibly, the preliminaries of seduction), clearly aiming at enforcing a strictly hetereorotic normativity. In Parker's (1992) words, they "make their appearance at the time of a fundamental shift in Greek society from a predominantly aristocratic and homoerotic code to a bourgeois and heteroerotic code" (p. 104).


Cataudella, Quintino. 1973. "Recupero di un'antica scrittrice greca." Giornale italiano di filologia 4(25): 253-263.

Myerowitz, Molly. 1985. Ovid's Games of Love. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Parker, Holt N. 1992. "Love's Body Anatomized: The Ancient Erotic Handbooks and the Rhetoric of Sexuality." In Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, ed. Amy Richlin. New York: Oxford University Press.

Richlin, Amy. 1983. The Garden of Priapus. Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor. New York: Oxford University Press.

Richlin, Amy. 1992. "Introduction." In Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, ed. Amy Richlin. New York: Oxford University Press.

                                        Paolo Fasoli