Classically Inclined

August 7, 2012

The sex lives of Homeric heroines

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:31 am
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The subject of this post is an offshoot from the paper I gave at Feminism and Classics VI. Some of you may remember the translation of poem 68 in the Priapea that I posted just before I left for the conference. This poem really jumped out at me for a number of reasons, but the main one was that the last few lines dedicate a lot of space to praising Penelope, the heroine of the Odyssey, best known for her fidelity to her absent husband – and also express Priapus’ conviction that he would have been able to “please” her if he had existed when she was around.

This passage highlights a bit of a trend I’ve been noticing in Latin poetry of the Augustan period and later, which is a mild obsession with the sex lives of Homeric heroines. When I was teaching the Ars Amatoria last term, I found some of the imagery very striking, particularly in book three, where the praeceptor/teacher-narrator of the poem addresses his female readers. The final section of the book explicitly addresses sexual positions, and advises that each woman should pick the position which shows off her best physical attributes. In describing the woman-on-top position, the praeceptor says that women who are tall should not attempt it; as a supporting proof, he comments that Andromache was so tall that she never sat astride her ‘horse’.

In response to Ovid, Martial adds his own twist to the motif in a poem that complains about his wife’s lack of interest in sex:

You don’t deem the work of movement suitable, nor to help with the voice,
nor with the fingers, as if you were preparing incense and wine:
the Phyrgian slaves masturbated behind the doors,
as often as the wife sat on the Hectorean horse,
and although Ulysses was snoring, modest Penelope was
always accustomed to have her hand in that place. (Martial 11.104.11-16.)

As Hinds notes, Martial deliberately contradicts Ovid here – one poet says she never took the woman-on-top position, the other claims that she was always doing it. But in Martial’s version, Penelope has to resort to masturbation, like the slaves who have to satisfy themselves that way (whereas presumably Martial’s wife is not willing to attempt to help her husband out in his hopeless quest to turn her on).  According to this poem, Penelope’s sex life appears not to have improved after her husband returned home – hence, perhaps, Priapus’ offer to please her in poem 68, if this tradition was well-established in earlier epigrammatic practice.

I’m wondering just how broadly spread these allusions to what Homeric heroines get up to in the bedroom are – if you have any favourites, do pass them on in comments!


Hinds, Stephen. 1998. Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

I should note that I know there’s some argument over whether the Martial quotation above refers to Penelope touching herself or holding on to Odysseus’ member even whilst he’s asleep; the Latin is ambiguous. However, given the set of images and their associations, I’m inclined to follow the former interpretation, which is the one  given by Hinds, where I first found these passages discussed in tandem.

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