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I’m A Female Classicist, Get Me Out Of Here!: How To Survive The NSFW Side of Classics

Classics contains a lot of NSFW content, from the vast quantities of phallic ornaments, to the brothel at Pompeii. One thing is certain, people have had and always will have a fascination with sex. Indeed, the very nature of the taboo is often what makes it so interesting. However, navigating said content in an academic context can prove to be interesting to say the least.

There seem to be two main ways of dealing with it. Either you go full hog and shamelessly face it head on, or you try a more refined approach and do your best to avoid being explicit as much as possible. Personally, I’m a fan of the former. There’s no need to be crass, but sometimes you just have to call it like it is. One of my favourite lecturers once described Cicero as Caesar and Pompey’s “little bitch” and it’s safe to say that’s not a lecture I’m going to forget. Critics might say that’s unnecessary or uncouth, but it is also an accurate description of Cicero’s relationship to Pompey and Caesar in 56 BC as he owed them big time for bringing him back from exile – not that Cicero paid much mind to them at this stage as he was still “coked off his tits on his own arrogance” (yes, another quote from that lecture). Sure, there are more polite ways of phrasing these things, but where’s the fun in that? What’s more, each and every first year in the room was hanging off said lecturer’s every word. You could have heard a pin drop. How often does that happen? 

I don’t envy a tutor’s job in having to navigate the more risqué side of Classics, it must be said. One of mine had to face the prospect of giving a lecture on Book 1, Chapter 16 of Seneca’s Natural Questions. It’s honestly too explicit to describe here, so I can only suggest that you click on the link and read it for yourself but let’s just say it involves some interesting uses of mirrors. How do you analyse that text out loud in front of a room of students and keep a straight face? 

Mind you, it’s not always fun sitting in the student’s seat either. I was once told that there was no need to be coy when trying to explain why doing a handstand in front of your future father-in-law in a chiton was an issue (see Herodotus 6.126-30 for the full story). Apparently, the answer “Well, he would have flashed Cleisthenes” doesn’t paint a clear enough picture. The other guaranteed awkward moment is when you have to play ‘Spot the Satyr’ by identifying them by their large erections on a Greek pot. It does get better the more you practice, and once you get to know your tutors better as human beings – but as someone who goes bright red very easily, it’s a dangerous game. 

Part of me wishes that someone had given me a survival manual to such tutorials, but the other part of me loves that my degree requires academic discussion of truly terrible phallic humour. To prove that I’m not making it up here’s an example from Aristophanes’ Frogs

Dionysus: As I was saying, I was on the ship one day – I was reading the Andromeda at the time – when I felt this sudden urge, you wouldn’t believe how strong…

Heracles: A big urge?

Dionysus: Yes, Molon’s size.

Heracles: For a woman? 

Dionysus: No, no.

Heracles: A boy?

Dionysus: Certainly not!

Heracles: A man, then?

Dionysus: Please!

Heracles: You did say Cleisthenes was a friend of yours.

Aristophanes, Affleck, Judith, Letchford, Clive, and Easterling, P. E. Aristophanes Frogs. Cambridge, 2014. Print. Cambridge Translations from Greek Drama.

Classicists haven’t always been so stoic when faced with scandalous material, however. Catullus 16 is so explicit that a full English translation was not published until the late twentieth century. Here is a short article that gives the low down on why exactly that is.

But, as is quoted at the bottom of that article “Obscenity, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.” What makes us blush to high heaven was not necessarily so mortifying to Catullus’ contemporaries. Sex, and indeed different kinds of sex, was viewed very differently to how it is now – we mustn’t forget that when dealing with this literature. We must grin and bear it and do our best not to turn scarlet in the process. 

This article is admittedly rather tongue in cheek and we Classicists are expected to maintain some level of decorum and maturity, but it is also important to have a sense of humour. Thankfully I’ve been lucky in both my tutors and tute partners. You know they’re a good bunch when you can bring up Madonna’s gold cone bra and obscure Shakespeare references in almost the same breath, with both going down equally well. For me, that touches on what Classics is all about; studying culture in all its forms, whether they be high or low brow (categories I disagree with on principle but let’s not get into that now). We’d be doing a very bad job if we didn’t explore all aspects of the ancient world, including the sordid bits, and all ideally without taking ourselves too seriously. 

Alannah Burdess

Alannah Burdess is going in to her second year, studying Classics at Trinity College. She writes a weekly column inspired by the anecdotes she tells in tutorials to procrastinate actual academic work.