Aspects of Eros: The Roehampton panel for FIEC 2019

In an earlier posting to this blog, I put up a notice about the CA/FIEC congress – a major event in the world of Classics. The 2019 congress starts very soon, and, on Saturday, the Roehampton panel will take place: on a theme – eros – that draws together one of our areas of common research.

The panellists are, in order of their presentations: José Magalhães (Impact Officer who has just completed a PhD on para-philia in ancient Greece), Marco Fantuzzi (Professor of Classics), Shushma Malik (Lecturer in Classics) and Helen Slaney (Research Bids Manager and deep classicist). The panel will be chaired by our Head of Classics, Fiona McHardy. The overall rationale of the panel is below, followed by each panellist’s title and abstract.


The Roehampton panel considers depictions of ancient sex, seduction, desire, and love, both from antiquity and later periods. We begin with mythology, where sex and seduction not only took place between humans, but between humans and gods, and humans (usually women) and animals. Magalhães interrogates the varying nuances between these different scenarios, principally the stories of Pasiphae, Leda and Europa in both literary and material sources. From the gods of mythology to the singers and shepherds of Theocritus’ Idylls, Fantuzzi explores the nature of eros required for a happy-ending love story. Desperation and desolation, Fantuzzi argues, are not necessarily antithetical to a happy ending, as Idyll 27 shows. More joyful, however, about desire and antiquity is the eighteenth-century poet Goethe. In the first of two reception papers, Slaney considers the advice offered by Goethe’s Amor: that pursuit of sexual pleasure will allow the past to come alive, thus making the past itself the subject of reciprocal desire. But, such desire can be dangerous in the hands of a woman, as shown by Malik in the final paper of the panel. By exploring the depictions of the ‘Modern Messalinas’ Marie Antoinette and Mata Hari in the political and popular press, Malik argues that the archetypal Julio-Claudian seductress is as ‘tarred’ by the brush of her later counterparts as they were by her. In sum this panel offers four case studies with which to think about the problematics of ancient sex and love, and how the past can become an emblem of desire or of disgust.

José Magalhães, Pasiphae’s Interspecies Eros

Sex between animals, or animal-shaped figures, and humans is a common topic in Greek mythology. In this paper, I will focus particularly on three of these encounters, namely those involving Leda, Europa and Pasiphae. Although they share several common traits, there is one fundamental difference that separates the first two from Pasiphae, namely that Leda and Europa engage in intercourse with an animal-shaped Zeus while Pasiphae, through divinely-inspired lust, copulates with an actual bull. This is a key factor to consider when exploring these three mythological figures since it becomes clear that, when analysing the several accounts of these myths, they are considered under very different lights by the ancient sources. In this paper, I will explore why these mythological figures were treated differently, analysing both literary and iconographic sources, while also exploring the social value that these myths carried

Marco Fantuzzi, Sex but Family: Strategies of Cultural Justification of Happy Ending Love

Idyll 27 is the most accomplished happy ending love story in the Corpus Theocriteum. This poem explores an erotic atmosphere which is opposite to the bleack atmosphere of desperate desolation that characterizes the love songs in Theocritus’ poems, with the single exception of Id. 6. Id. 27 expands to the whole narrative the irenic relation of reciprocal love between the two singers Daphnis and Comatas, of Id. 6, while the dialogic masquerade between them appears to re-invent as a happy ending story the desperate love of the Cyclops for Galatea in Id. 11. Both poems would commit themselves to presenting a Daphnis who acts as a strategist of love in contrast with the tragic end of the prototypal Daphnis whose love pains according to Id. 1 and the ancient commentators would have provided the protypal theme of pre-Theocritean bucolic poetry. Therefore both Id. 6 and Id. 27 appear to react to the prevailingly negative and desperate eros of Theocritus’ characters (and of most characters of erotic poetry of the archaic, classical, and Hellenistic times), and to pursue an idea of eros which may be in tune, and not in contrast with the shepherds’ profession. Id. 27, in particular, appears to develop an erotodidascalic, almost Menandrean discourse which – well beyond the bucolic dimension – presents love and sex as structured according to standard male vs female norms of behaviour and language and, as thus, prefacing the socially established perspective of happily/ruly procreation and family. That erotodidascalic dimension of Id. 27 is investigated in parallel with the strikingly similar illustrations of male/female language of wooing and seduction in the “Homeric” Hymn to Aphrodite.

Shushma Malik, Sex, sedition, and Modern Messalinas

Few women in history have been held up as symbols of sexual deviance to a greater extent than Messalina. Juvenal labels her the meretrix Augusta (prostitute empress) and Tacitus accuses her of pursuing incognitas libidines (untried lusts). It is hardly surprising, then, that centuries after the empress’ death, Marie Antoinette was dubbed La Messaline Moderne by the popular press (1780s) and the notorious and enigmatic ‘spy’ Mata Hari was condemned as a ‘sort of Messalina’ by the French prosecutor during her trial for treason (1917).  While all three women were vilified for their promiscuity, the problematics of their alleged sexual relationships were different. With Messalina, the danger lay in her sex outside marriage. This was compounded by her weak-willed husband whose ear she too often had. But sex outside of marriage was only the beginning for Marie Antoinette. Her role as seductress extended to her own son, the dauphin. With Mata Hari, her outright refusal to continue in the role of wife and mother made her capacity to influence high-ranking men through sex all the more corrupt. Tying all three women together with the moniker Messalina applies a temporal and spatial universality to the threat of sexually predatory women. Conversely, however, these Modern Messalina’s also add credence to the accounts of Tacitus and Juvenal, who had correctly recognised their own generation’s femme fatale. Thus, as the image of Messalina shapes the conception of her modern counterparts, so too do Marie Antoinette and Mata Hari shape Messalina in the modern age.

Helen Slaney, Pleasure as a paradigm of reception in Goethe’s Roman Elegies

“Live joyfully,” (Lebe glücklich), the god Amor instructs Goethe’s amator, “and the past will come back to life in you.” Glück is used throughout the Römische Elegien (1795) as a synonym for pleasure, particularly sexual consummation. By applying the mask of elegy to the persona of a modern poet-lover, Goethe establishes a relationship to Roman antiquity predicated on reciprocated desire. The amator functions both as a living realization of Augustan elegy – an extended role-play, of sorts – and at the same time as a cultivated riposte. His lover “Faustina” stands in for an eroticized fascination with early imperial Rome, but unlike the lost beloved city of Ovid’s Tristia, Goethe’s Rome is instead a pleasure repeatedly regained.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *