The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens

The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens


By (author) Eva C. Keuls

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  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Format: Paperback | 477 pages
  • Dimensions: 150mm x 226mm x 28mm | 885g
  • Publication date: 27 April 1993
  • Publication City/Country: Berkerley
  • ISBN 10: 0520079299
  • ISBN 13: 9780520079298
  • Illustrations note: 345 b&w illustrations
  • Sales rank: 689,847

Product description

At once daring and authoritative, this book offers a profusely illustrated history of sexual politics in ancient Athens. The phallus was pictured everywhere in ancient Athens: painted on vases, sculpted in marble, held aloft in gigantic form in public processions, and shown in stage comedies. This obsession with the phallus dominated almost every aspect of public life, influencing law, myth, and customs, affecting family life, the status of women, even foreign policy. This is the first book to draw together all the elements that made up the 'reign of the phallus' - men's blatant claim to general dominance, the myths of rape and conquest of women, and the reduction of sex to a game of dominance and submission, both of women by men and of men by men. In her elegant and lucid text Eva Keuls not only examines the ideology and practices that underlay the reign of the phallus, but also uncovers an intense counter-movement - the earliest expressions of feminism and antimilitarism. Complementing the text are 345 reproductions of Athenian vase paintings. Some have been reproduced in a larger format and gathered in an appendix for easy reference and closer study. These revealing illustrations are a vivid demonstration that classical Athens was more sexually polarized and repressive of women than any other culture in Western history.

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Author information

Eva C. Keuls is Classics Professor at the University of Minnesota, the author of many scholarly articles, and a recognized authority on both Greek literature and vase painting. She is a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Review quote

"This book is well written and intended for a wide audience; both the professional scholar and the general reader will find it provocative and diverting."--Sarah B. Pomeroy, "Classical World

Editorial reviews

A "gallop through the iconography of glorified aggression": a lively review that's a bit too fast and furious. Keuls (Classics, U. of Minnesota) writes very well in a popular vein, summarizing huge amounts of pictorial, literary, and historical material about the dreadful condition of women in Athens, particularly from 480 to 430 B.C. Athenian women had no political rights, got no formal education, were married very young in a virtual sales transaction, couldn't own property, were closely guarded at home, were often disdained by their husbands in favor of young boys or prostitutes, were belittled by misogynists from Hipponax to Aristotle - and found omnipresent reminders of their subjection in the phallic processions of the Greater Dionysia, the endless phallic jokes of Old Comedy, and the herms (statues of Hermes consisting of a head mounted on a post with a stylized erection). All this is bad enough, but Keuls makes things worse. She sees the whole city of Athens as divided into two antagonistic sexual spheres, "enclosed inner spaces" (the uterine prison of the women's quarters) and "colonaded semi-open areas" (the realm of phallic columns and male freedom). Marriage in Athens was horror pure and simple. But what about those tender, even heart-breaking funerary steles of young wives? "The pious inference that monuments, even those erected by husbands, imply good marriages is to be rejected as wishful and naive." What about the powerful feminist message in Alcestis or Hippolytus? Keuls ignores it. In a culminating flight of fancy she speculates that the famous mutilation of the herms in 415 B.C., on the eve of the Sicilian Expedition, was the work of female conspirators, free to roam the city during the festival of the Adonis. Keuls' imagination tends to run away with her, and she may mislead unsophisticated readers. But she's not a bitter ideologist; she's fair-minded and occasionally even funny. She's especially knowledgeable about vase-painting, but she draws on a wonderful variety of sources. A slightly wacky, but much-needed and quite stimulating, effort to demythologize "the glory that was Greece." (Kirkus Reviews)