Zoe Morris was a final-year student in the School of Classics, when she wrote this piece. She was taking a new Honours module entitled ‘Classics in the Modern World: interventions and applications’, which explores how we can draw on our study of Greco-Roman antiquity to help address contemporary issues like ‘fake news’, anti-immigration narratives, misogyny, racism and even climate change. In this blog, she discusses what we can learn from Helen Morales’ book Antigone Rising and the ways in which it brings ancient models of gender and sexuality into dialogue with modern experiences.
A tongue fat from swelling. A fine flame coursing down through your limbs. Ringing in your ears and a fuzzy darkness blinding your eyes. As an undergraduate Classics student who has studied Latin for more than half of my life, I instantly recognise these words as expressions and symptoms of ancient love. More specifically, I associate this combination of amatory tropes with Catullus expressing his romantic feelings towards his girlfriend, Lesbia. As a student, why was I routinely invited to explore Catullus’ heterosexual poem and not Sappho’s original masterpiece expressing same-sex female love? Why did my GCSE syllabus move from Catullus’ musings (read: whinging) about Lesbia only to examine his epyllion on Theseus and Ariadne, rather than poetry about his same-sex relationship with Juventius?
The sheer lack of attention granted to varieties of gender and sexuality that do not conform to normative binaries in Classics unfortunately extends much further than the 2014 GCSE curriculum. Scholars have historically channelled their efforts into making phallocentric assumptions about the representation of penis sizes on Greek sculpture, rather than researching why ancient representations of nude females have no genitalia at all. Similarly, despite scholars’ ability to discern that Sappho was definitely female (insofar as one can conclude anything with absolute certainty from antiquity), there are still those who prefer to see her as a mere persona adopted by a male poet, or as a schoolteacher who educated young girls in preparation for eventual marriage, and ownership, by men. In my opinion, the very fact that Sappho’s poetic expression of homosexual love can be applied seamlessly by Catullus to a heterosexual relationship is liberating insofar as it blurs superficial boundaries of conventional love; Sappho’s overt queerness must be celebrated and not explained away.
This frustrating precedent of exclusion and censorship is what makes Helen Morales’ new book, Antigone Rising, so exciting. The very fact that Morales has published her book with a whole chapter dedicated to ‘transmythology’ proves that progress has been made since the publication of Kenneth Dover’s book, Greek Homosexuality (1978). This involved the accompanying photos of same-sex relationships being hand-delivered to the printer for fear of the post being intercepted under a section of the Post Office Act (1953) which banned sending ‘indecent or obscene prints’ by mail.
Morales’ book not only demonstrates that the Classical canon can be read in dialogue with LGBTQ+ culture; it also acknowledges the challenges of doing this. The process of drawing LGBTQ+ meaning from Classical texts can be neatly summarised by Donna Zuckerberg’s experience as a feminist tackling the ancient works, which ‘can be a bit like trying to use a normal pair of scissors when you are left-handed: they were designed with somebody else in mind’ – something that, as a left-handed feminist, I relate to all too well.[i] Yet, Morales rises to this challenge and sets a future agenda for the study of classical myth on account of its foundational role in constructing gay and lesbian identities: ‘to investigate whether it can play a similar role for trans, intersex, and gender nonbinary identities and lives’.[ii] Morales’ book offers interpretations of the fluidity of Teiresias’ gender transitions, the innate sense that Caenis always knew he was a man, Caeneus, and the lesbian love of Iphis and Ianthe, all of which could be easily incorporated into a classroom. These are not stories that should be at risk of censorship, as in former times, but stories that everyone should have access to.[iii] They are stories with the potential to ‘provide inspiration and affirmation for transgender and gender-queer people today’, both by utilising antiquity to legitimate their own identity and to promote a culture of inclusivity in which LGBTQ+ individuals feel accepted.[iv]
As Morales’ book shows, ‘Applied Classics’ in the context of gender and sexuality has the power to transform individuals’ lives by offering empowering icons in a history of othering and shame, and by providing a legacy for those who have been ostracised from society. However, we must be aware that it also has the capacity to be exclusionary. We need only look inward and trace the ways in which scholars have side-lined ‘Romosexuality’ (the Roman depictions of homosexuality which encompassed ‘a much queerer and more varied set of erotic possibilities’) in favour of idealised Greek homosexuality. It was politically expedient for Oscar Wilde, for example, to disassociate from Roman ‘grittier, dirtier’ vices while appealing to the idealised vision of Greek love in defending himself against the charges of being a ‘sodomite’. This indicates that, historically, Applied Classics has been used in order to legitimise very precise versions of homosexuality using the more limited narratives of Greek homosexuality.
Beyond this potential for exclusionary narratives, there are also limitations to the impact that Applied Classics can have, particularly if we remain mindful of the Eurocentric pedestal that ancient Greece and Rome derive their authority from. In Africa, for example, at least thirty-two countries still criminalise gay sex. British colonisation must be held accountable for its role in exporting homophobic laws to many African countries which, prior to colonial rule, embraced and respected homosexuality. For many Africans who had their identities stripped by the British, Western impositions are (rightly) viewed with suspicion and scepticism, so another Western imposition to change anti-LGBTQ laws would not be productive. That is not to say that Morales’ process of reframing engrained cultural narratives to shift perception of marginalised groups could never be effective beyond Europe, North America and Australasia, but rather that a culturally appropriate model must be used.
Throughout Antigone Rising, Morales’ authorial voice is generally very self-conscious and self-aware; a necessary approach, I believe, for handling sensitive topics. In writing this piece, I am acutely aware of my own positionality and I do hope that my tone has echoed the exploratory nature of Morales’, rather than the authoritative ruminations of some more traditional Classicists. As a cis bisexual woman, Morales perceives herself as the digestive biscuit in the selection box of sexual definitions.[v] Does that leave me, a cis heterosexual white woman, as the rich tea biscuit, or should I even place myself in the same selection box?
[i] Zuckerberg, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age, Cambridge (2018), 30.
[ii] Morales, Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths, London (2020), 126.
[iii] Ingleheart, Masculine Plural: Queer Classics, Sex, and Education, Oxford (2018), 298.
[iv] Morales (2020), 122.
[v] Ibid., 123.
(Originally published on the School of Classics blog, 16 April 2021)