Werner Krenkel: Naturalia non turpia

WERNER KRENKEL, Naturalia non turpia. Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece and Rome. Schriften zur antiken Kultur- und Sexualwissenschaft. Edited by Wolfgang Bernard and Christiane Reitz. Spudasmata 113.
Hildesheim: Olms, 2006. Pp. viii + 559. ISBN 10: 3-487-13272-9; ISBN 13: 978-3-487- 13272-3; ISBN 0548-9705.

Review published in Mouseion Series III vol. 7 (2007) no. 3, 277-82


The Latin title recalls a Cynic adage (see p. 107). The book reproduces, in chronological order, 23 papers in German and English by the celebrated philologist from the former German Democratic Republic on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. (A Festschrift had already been presented on his seventieth birthday: Satura lanx, Festschrift fuer Werner A. Krenkel zum 70. Geburtstag, Spudasmata, Olms 1996.) The English title is somewhat misleading, as several papers do not concern sex or gender. However, Krenkel himself selected the papers, and all are worth reading.

English-speaking students of ancient sexuality who know Krenkel for his work on oral sex—which has served as a major resource for ancient sexual vocabulary—will be acquainted with his distinctive style of scholarship. On 233, referring to Suetonius, Krenkel writes: Er breitet seine Fakten ohne Reflexionen vor dem Leser aus und ueberlaesst ihm ihre ... Deutung. ... aus der Freude am Detail und am einzelnen Beleg ... mit groesster Akribie alle Steinchen, helle und dunkle, sammelt, sie in Kaestchen ordnet und stapelt. This could so easily be said of Krenkel himself that one may be tempted to imagine that he wrote it tongue-in-cheek. Of course, it would not be entirely fair, since the pointed reflections which do occasionally season his smorgasbord of citations can be perceptive. Krenkel’s virtuosity as a philological detective should also be mentioned; he often finds clues for assessing evidence in other material far removed from the topic under discussion.

Krenkel seems uninterested in some of the issues discussed in America after Foucault, although he is aware of them. At times he strikes a note which some may regard as “essentialist.” He defines tribads straightforwardly as weibliche Homosexuellen, and asserts that although the word “transvestism” is modern, die Sache selbst existed as “Die Neigung, sich wie das andere Geschlecht zu kleiden” (465). Sometimes, too, he teases by merely alluding to a controversy. Thus, after presenting extensive evidence on women’s use of dildos followed by a complete translation of Herondas 6, he cautions fleetingly that males’ fantasies might colour such reports (446). Krenkel does reveal a modern orientation, but it is informed by medicine and psychology rather than philosophy, and he likes to highlight parallels, rather than differences, between ancient and modern sexuality. To this end, he often cites modern authorities, particularly Kinsey, and the parallels shown are intriguing. (Kinsey’s remarks usually comprise footnotes, which merit the reader’s attention.)

In response to the comparison with Suetonius, Krenkel might cite his own view of the ancillary role of philology: Der Philologe kann neue Fragen an die alten Texte herantragen. Manchmal geben sie Antwort, manchmal nicht. Er hat zu sammeln, zu sichten und zu uebersetzen. Er kann hoffen, dass durch seine Arbeit moderne Untersuchungen der Soziologie, Psychologie, Medizin und anderer Disziplinen—vielleicht— um den Bereich der Antike erweitert werden ... diese Form der Aufbereitung erleichtert—hoffentlich—die Benutzung des Materials bei klaerenden modernen Forschungen (135). This modest dedication has yielded sumptuous fruit, from which a banquet is served in the present volume: exhaustive source material on the subjects treated, helpful lists of special terminology, and intriguing details on everything from abortifacients to obscenely shaped bread.

The feast is not laid out for convenient sampling. There is no obvious principle determining whether Krenkel quotes his texts in the original language. Even some texts which involve linguistic difficulties or controversy appear only in translation. Cicero’s letter to Paetus on obscene language and double entendres is quoted only in German, with cumbersome explanations of the puns (119ff.). A far more serious obstacle is the inadequate index, where even valuable terminology lists are not always readily found. (In fairness, a complete index of Krenkel’s work would be daunting.) Krenkel’s investigation of silphium, known to some classicists only as a culinary herb, is impressive. Why, he asks, did Caesar rob the treasury of this herb along with precious metals? Krenkel shows that the herb was expensive because it was also an important drug used in family planning. Women took it every month to trigger menstruation. His first discussion of this topic is in paper 22, but there is a significant supplement in paper 23; yet neither silphium nor its substitute asa foetida nor even “Familien-Planung” appears in the index. The only sure alternative is to study the entire volume. Fortunately, this will be a rewarding project for any classicist interested in ancient sexuality, and an excellent way for graduate students to practise their German.

Turning to the papers:

1. Idem in eodem bei Nonius (1963, in German): Writing his lexicon, Nonius cites his sources moving forwards, not backwards, through their text.

2. Zu den Tageloehnern bei der Ernte in Rom (1965): Conditions of free labourers in the Roman Republic and Empire. Although the subject, and the emphatic assertion of the failure of the slave economy at the end of the paper, may reflect its composition under the GDR, it is still highly informative.

3. Zur Prosopographie der antiken Pornographie (1970): Athenaeus’ list of pornographoi comprises chiefly painters and biographers of courtesans. There was no real concept of pornography.

4. Erotica I. Der Abortus in der Antike (1971): A rich compilation of information on abortion and miscarriage, with details of rituals, drugs, surgery and other procedures. This paper is as valuable for students of ancient medicine as Krenkel’s more recent work is for sexuality.

5. Zur Biographie des Lucilius (1972): Another misleading title; the entire paper is concerned exclusively with determining the year of Lucilius’ birth, which Krenkel fixes at 180 BC.

6. Hyperthermia in Ancient Rome (1975, in English): The fashion for overheated baths may have led to reduced fertility as well as to an effeminate rhetorical trend in the early Roman Empire.

7. Cursores maiores minoresque (1976, in English): On foot-races.

8. Exhibitionismus in der Antike and 9. Skopophilie in der Antike, on exhibitionism and voyeurism respectively, were originally published together in 1977. The topics are broadly defined to include graffiti, mirrored sex chambers etc. Material is collected from poetry, myth, statuary, and letters. Some texts are quoted at length, mostly in German.

10. Der Sexualtrieb: seine Bewertung in Griechenland und Rom (1978): Misleading title. Not only sexual pleasure, but pleasure in general, and the attitudes of philosophers toward it are surveyed. A more specific study of eros might have avoided the inclusion of familiar standard material. Misinterpretations (e.g. of Epicureanism) by hostile critics (e.g. Christians), Seneca’s ranting, inscriptions, comedy, and poems from the Latin Anthology all seem to be quoted uncritically; but Krenkel’s aim is not an accurate reconstruction of philosophers’ doctrines so much as a survey of their popular image and of public opinion. Taken this way, it is an original and valuable paper.

11. Masturbation in der Antike (1979): “Masturbation” includes dildos. Herondas’ sixth sketch is quoted in full (in German) and 17 illustrations are described.

12. Fellatio and Irrumatio (1980, in English): Greek terminology is collected on 207 and Latin on 208. In regard to the frequent references to oral sex, e.g. in Martial, Krenkel quotes Kinsey: “It is difficult to know whether such representations record the usual, or whether they record the unusual and therefore the repressed desires of a culture.” The essay concludes with a useful series of inscriptions.

13. Sex und politische Biographie (1980): Krenkel traces the Roman obsession with sexual political scandal from the Republic to Elagabalus, but chiefly in the Historia Augusta. He finds a graded scale of disapprobation from near approval for heterosexual fornication to strong disapproval for fellatio and prostitution. Krenkel returns to this subject in paper 21; and papers 17 and 22 also concern Roman politics.

14. Tonguing (1981, in English): This paper concerns oral sex generally and cunnilingus, but also bestiality, and social aspects: e.g. since a cunnilinctor “served” the female, this act was associated with gold-diggers (legacy-hunters). There are lengthy quotations in English and a list of inscriptions (298).

15. Libido im Griechischen und Lateinischen (1982): This paper focuses chiefly on the terminology, first Greek and then Latin.

16. Me tua forma capit (1984, in German): The title is Ovidian, the subject the role of sight in arousal. Krenkel stresses the importance of visual stimulus for the ancients, and the fact that the evidence attests an exclusively male point of view. Although no mention is made of “the gaze,” enthusiasts of this modern concept may be interested in this paper. After treating the aesthetic principles, Krenkel examines art, cosmetics, plastic surgery, false teeth, wigs, hair styles and dye, and depilation. A discussion of breast terminology on 352 and one for the buttocks on 360 are not in the index.

17. Officium procreandi—die erste Buergerpflicht (1988): Although Augustus’ marriage laws were invasive and offensive to Roman family values, legal steps to promote population growth extended from 131 BC to later emperors. Krenkel links the declining citizen populations to Rome’s incessant warfare, citing evidence that even the child welfare programs of Nerva and Trajan were aimed at breeding manpower for the military.

18. Pueri meritorii Romani (1987, in German): These were male prostitutes. Krenkel shows that in spite of legal restrictions, many freeborn boys accepted loss of their privileges to become prostitutes. He can not imagine their motives, but suggests financial necessity. (It does not occur to him that some may have enjoyed it.)

19. Tribaden (1989): As usual, the ancient evidence is thoroughly scanned without discussing modern controversies very deeply. There are tentative suggestions that Sappho’s female sexuality may have been limited to kisses and embraces and that the evidence on dildos may involve male fantasies. Krenkel does, however, believe that women’s religious festivals involved sex.

20. Transvestismus in der Antike (1990): Because he believes that psychology has not yet resolved the roots of transvestism, Krenkel aims only to collect the evidence. However, he does offer some sound generalizations. A mix of gender features was experienced as sexually attractive. Male transvestites were associated with pathici. Topics include tyrants’ affairs, Nero and Sporus, Elagabalus, and the customary rant from Seneca.

21. Sexual Allegations for Political Ends (1990, in English): Accusing opponents of sex during their youth was as common in Roman politics as kissing babies in America. Krenkel had a sustained interest in the subject, and this late paper is a masterly discussion from a ripened cynical perspective. Krenkel reveals Cicero’s politically motivated reversals and cites Quintilian’s comment that the goal of rhetoric is to win, not to secure a clear conscience.

22. Caesar und der Mimus des Laberius (1994): Offended by a mime composed by Laberius, Caesar compelled the author to risk his equestrian status by going onstage. Krenkel investigates the fragments to identify the offense. The mime title Laserpiciarius suggests Caesar’s theft of silphium from the treasury. 23. Varro: Menippeische Satiren (2000): Misleading title. This is not about Varro’s satires. Rather it is a series of brief investigations taking fragments from Varro as their points of departure and leading sometimes to textual emendations, but always to miscellaneous unrelated topics. Each investigation is a philological tour de force with a surprising conclusion. The paper is an exhibition of Krenkel’s virtuosity as a sort of philological Sherlock Holmes.

For such a dense, multilingual text, there are few typographical errors. They are more frequent in the English papers.

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