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This dynamic collection of essays by international film scholars and classicists addresses the provocative representation of sexuality in the ancient world on screen. A critical reader on approaches used to examine sexuality in classical settings, contributors use case studies from films and television series spanning from the 1920s to the present.




Introduction Screening Love and Sex in the Ancient World

Love and sex attracted the earliest filmmakers to screen the mythology, literature, and history of the ancient world. Images and narratives of torrid romance, provocative sexualities, and erotic excess have been a mainstay of screen depictions of ancient Greece and Rome since the beginning of cinema in the early twentieth century. Vibrant scenes of baths, orgies, and brothels were first borrowed from nineteenth-century paintings, photographic tableaux vivants, and stage plays, and given new life in the nascent medium of film, and then they were later reanimated on ancient-themed television series. By seizing the opportunity to exhibit scantily clad dancing girls and bare-chested muscle men mingling with pagan abandon at bacchanals, banquets, and gladiator games, cinematic entrepreneurs are able to satisfy both their artistic and commercial senses. Characters, themes, and plots centered on romance and sexuality continue to appear in the most recent recreations of antiquity in blockbuster movies and on premium cable television.
Monica S. Cyrino

Screening Love and Sex in Ancient Myth and Literature


Chapter 1. G. W. Pabst’s Hesiodic Myth of Sex in Die Büchse der Pandora (1929)

G. W. Pabst’s late silent era masterpiece depicts Louise Brooks as Lulu, a beautiful young woman whose unfettered sexuality leads to the ruin of those men and women who fall under her erotic sway.1 She is described as “Pandora” by the prosecutor at her husband’s murder trial and is condemned by the court, made an outlaw of the legal system in all its patriarchic glory. In critical work on Pabst’s film, many scholars have drawn a connection between Lulu and the Pandora of Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days 2 to elucidate the film’s mythological background. Karin Littau (1995), Laura Mulvey (1996), and Maree Macmillan (2010) trace Lulu back to the mythological figure of Pandora to analyze how a figure associated with agricultural fertility— Pandora the “all giver”—becomes a femme fatale who takes men’s goods and in return provides only evils—Pandora the “all given.”3 The precise emphasis on fertility in the Pandora myth, however, has not been sufficiently read into Pabst’s film or Frank Wedekind’s earlier play Pandora’s Box, which Pabst drew on.
Lorenzo F. Garcia

Chapter 2. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Pandora and Prometheus in Robert Aldrich’s Cinematic Subversion of Spillane
In this chapter I explore aspects of baneful women, fallible men, and the mutual manipulation involved in gift giving with the Prometheus paradigm in mind. Elements within the myths of Pandora and Prometheus will be brought into constant interplay to enrich an appreciation of Robert Aldrich’s movie, but also to rethink the attributes of these mythical figures in their classical context. A. I. Bezzerides produced a culturally allusive screenplay that by the film’s finale was directly invoking classical and biblical characters, particularly the direct reference to a destructive Pandora about to unleash a monstrous power (spoiler warning!), as curious and acquisitive Gabrielle embraces and then opens the atomic box at the end of the film.1
Paula James

Chapter 3. Perversions of the Phaeacians

The Gothic Odyssey of Angels & Insects (1996)
As a traveler’s yarn of adventure and tale of yearning for home, Homer’s Odyssey has inspired artists for three thousand years.1 In Books 6 through 13, Odysseus stands at a crossroads: one path continues homeward to Ithaca, the other to settlement abroad with the Phaeacians, a wealthy but isolated people of divine descent. After many brushes with captivity and death since departing Troy, Odysseus could abort his perilous journey by marrying the princess Nausicaa and receiving a share of island paradise from her father. In choosing homecoming, Odysseus avoids the moral failure of abandoning return and—even more problematic—perverting the cultural tradition underlying Homeric epic, which requires his homecoming.2 If this man does not return to Ithaca, he would not be Odysseus—but what man would not have been tempted?
Meredith Safran

Chapter 4. Woman Trouble

True Love and Homecoming in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (2006)
A meditation on the notion of return, Pedro Almodóvar’s 2006 Volver focuses on the modern experience of love, memory, and identity in a manner that is at once indebted to the past and resolutely contemporary. Some films represent the ancient world directly, drawing on historical or literary sources, but many that focus on contemporary narratives can be shown to be inspired—directly or not—by ancient myths whose history is so influential that they pervade many of our notions about the human experience. In particular, insofar as Homer’s poem is the foundational text in Western culture of the very idea of homecoming—or nostos, to use the ancient Greek term—the treatment of the homecoming theme in Almodóvar’s film parallels, and significantly diverges from, that of the Odyssey. Like the Odyssey, Volver places love and family at the center of its narrative, but, unlike its ancient predecessor, which tells the story of a husband’s return to his wife after a long separation, Almodóvar’s vision of nostos privileges family ties over romantic love and presents the bond between husbands and wives as an obstacle to the characters’ homecoming. Volver thus offers a resolutely original and feminist perspective on love and homecoming that centers on the relationships between mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends.1
Corinne Pache

Chapter 5. Sappho and Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005)

The New World (2005), Terrence Malick’s fourth film, retells the story of the seventeenth century Powhatan woman, Pocahontas, and her involvement with the Jamestown colony.1 It features prominently the ahistorical love affair with John Smith that has become a staple of the Pocahontas myth tradition.2 Although viewers have found allusions to the epic poetry of Homer and Vergil in The New World, the presence and purpose of Sappho’s erotic verse remains unexplored.3 As we shall see, The New World is very much rooted in a male-centered, classical epic tradition, yet in two scenes central to her relationship with Smith, Pocahontas delivers lines from Sappho in her own voice and as her own sentiment.4 The normative reflex of epic is to relegate a woman in Pocahontas’s position either to the role of victim, however sympathetic, or possession. Malick uses Sappho to develop a model of female amatory consciousness that is necessary for Pocahontas’s evolution into the protagonist.
Seán Easton

Chapter 6. Soul Fuck

Possession and the Female Body in Antiquity and in Cinema
The genesis for this chapter came about while I was watching Paranormal Activity (2009), a film that focuses on Katie, a woman tormented since childhood by an evil spirit.1 When Katie moves in with her boyfriend, Micah, he enthusiastically sets up a video camera to record the supernatural activity. Later, while doing some research on the Internet, Micah comes across the case of Diane, a woman whose circumstances from childhood eerily mirror Katie’s. While showing her the graphic footage, Micah explains to Katie that after the evil spirit took full possession of Diane’s body, an attempted exorcism failed, and Diane ultimately died from blood loss after gnawing off her own arm. As the film progresses, Katie too is gradually possessed by the demon, which takes more and more control until in the end, she stabs Micah to death off-camera.
Kirsten Day

Chapter 7. Ancient Allusions and Modern Anxieties in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

While there is a rich literary and pictorial tradition of the Rape of the Sabine Women, the only song about it may be “Those Sobbin’ Women” from MGM’s 1954 musical comedy, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. For Hollywood in the 1950s, movies about Rome were generally either quasireligious epics set in and against the ancient city, such as Quo Vadis (1951) or Ben Hur (1959), or romances employing the modern city as a charming backdrop, such as Roman Holiday (1953) or Three Coins in a Fountain (1954). Seven Brides, on the other hand, involves neither ancient Christians nor postwar jetsetters but rather a group of lonesome homesteaders living nowhere near Italy but instead in the “God-fearing territory” of 1850s Oregon. Some of the preconceptions in the film, and particularly this song, in fact, may be brought into sharper focus by a consideration of the times of the Pax Romana under the emperor Augustus. Behind the invocation of the ancient Roman story can be found deeper insecurities about the genders in the period of the Pax Americana.
Christopher M. McDonough

Screening Love and Sex in Ancient History


Chapter 8. Gorgo at the Limits of Liberation in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007)

The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta has been and continues to be notorious for the position of women in its society.1 Ancient accounts state that Spartan women were treated and acted differently than Greek women in neighboring areas. In Athens, for instance, women were expected to stay in their homes, away from the public sphere their husbands would encounter daily.2 By contrast, young Spartan women had to be outdoors, since they were required to be educated in dancing, music, and athletics, among other pursuits.3 The modern West has often regarded Spartan women as protofeminists, unusual in the ancient world for their “freedom” and shining exceptions to wide-spread Greek misogyny. Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007), a film that depicts the battle of Thermopylae and the Spartans’ role in it, is no exception to this, but it portrays Gorgo, the Spartan queen, in ways that make her liberation problematic.
Vincent Tomasso

Chapter 9. Oliver Stone’s Unmanning of Alexander the Great in Alexander (2004)

When the film Gladiator hit the big screen in 2000, its financial success began a revival of the sword-and-sandals epic that had been defunct since the last major classical-era film, Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), spurring production of stories ranging from the fall of Troy to the battle of Thermopylae to the conquests of Alexander the Great.1 While Gladiator, Troy (2004), and 300 (2007) tend to share a common patriarchal characterization of the male protagonist as a hero who is strong, active, and above all, heterosexual, Oliver Stone’s film Alexander (2004) presents the Macedonian general as excessively emotional, under the sway of his overbearing mother, and, unlike the male leads in the other films, sexually ambiguous: bisexual if not homosexual. Ancient epic films, in general, often use the male lead to represent a powerful standard of masculinity through the main characters’ familial and/or sexual relationships, their agency, moral fortitude, and the “safe” hetero-sexualizing of their bodies.
Jerry B. Pierce

Chapter 10. The Order of Orgies

Sex and the Cinematic Roman
When the movie Gladiator (2000) was released, critics, scholars, and general audience members alike quickly noted a specific absence in the film: the Roman orgy. John Simon titled his review, “What, No Orgy?”1 Another critic, Andrew Sarris, likewise emphasized the absence of orgies in his title: “Russell Crowe in a Toga, but not a Single Orgy.”2 Other viewers praised director Ridley Scott precisely “for not turning Gladiator into another cheap sexploitation epic of Roman imperial orgies.”3 Scott himself rather laconically defended his choice of not including orgies: “I didn’t want any orgies because orgies are boring.”4
Stacie Raucci

Chapter 11. Partnership and Love in Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010)

In the first season of Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010), the viewer is presented with a new version of Spartacus, the hero of the slave rebellion in 73 B.C., an updated revision of the 1960 Stanley Kubrick epic, and one that follows in the footsteps of major twenty-first century productions, both big and small screen, such as the Gladiator (2000) and HBO-BBC’s Rome (2005–7).1 During the 13 episodes of the first season, we witness Spartacus’s transformation from a Thracian nomad to a leader in a revolution against his master and lanista, Quintus Lentulus Batiatus. The evolution of Spartacus’s heroism, however, is dramatic and undergoes all the phases expected in the making of a hero in a sword-and-sandal historical series: excessive hope for a reunion with his wife, Sura; followed by shock, grief, anger, thirst for revenge; and finally the much longed-for and expected action of breaking out from the ludus. In a way, in this preparatory season, we are invited to watch the creation of Spartacus and look deeply into the process of hero-making, as it is fitting for an ordeal that lasted three long years (73–71 B.C.) and passed through many stages that are not often discernible within the boundaries of a three-hour big screen movie.2
Antony Augoustakis

Chapter 12. Objects of Desire

Female Gazes and Male Bodies in Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010)
Despite initial expectations, the Starz 2010–11 original television series Spartacus offers a remarkably female-positive portrayal of sexual relations and an intriguing inversion of normative cinematic representations of erotic relationships. The series thus presents a sharp contrast with the sexualized objectification of women present in many earlier television series and films about the ancient world or other contemporaneous television costume dramas. Through its female characters’ sexual dominance and agency, Spartacus explores the nature of social hierarchies and the corruption of slave-owning societies.
Anise K. Strong

Chapter 13. Glenn Close Channels Theda Bara in Maxie (1985)

A Chapter in the Social History of the Snake Bra
Maxie (1985) is a lightweight comedy that was clearly designed to exploit the extraordinary range of Glenn Close.1 She had been in films for ten years and had impressed audiences with The World According to Garp (1982), The Big Chill (1983), and The Natural (1984), but it would be her next film, Fatal Attraction (1987), which would make her a star. Maxie called for her to play a dual role: Jan, a mousy and repressed church secretary who unintentionally starts channeling the spirit of a 1920s flapper, and Maxie, the very spirit of a silent film actress who died on the way to a breakout screen test. Jan’s husband, Nick (Mandy Patinkin), summons Maxie’s spirit after they rent her old apartment, discover her lipstick graffiti behind the old wallpaper, and learn about her from her former song and dance partner. Since Nick is an ardent lover of silent film, he arranges to watch her only existing scene.
Gregory N. Daugherty

Chapter 14. Virility and Licentiousness in Rome’s Mark Antony (2005–7)

From the moment of his suicide in Alexandria in August of 30 B.C., the culturally reimagined body of Marcus Antonius has been available, essentially without challenge, as a site for the interrogation and negotiation of issues of masculinity and gender performativity. This is a cultural function afforded to it first by virtue of the semantics of Roman political propaganda and second because the ideological bent of historiography is dictated by the outcome of struggle, and Antonius lost.
Rachael Kelly

Chapter 15. Love, Rebellion, and Cleavage

Boadicea’s Hammered Breastplate in The Viking Queen (1967)
Hammer Studios, perhaps best known for its wildly successful, low-budget horror movies of the 1950s and 1960s, released a number of revisionist presentations of the past, including She (1965), One Million Years B.C. (1967), and Prehistoric Women (1967). These alternative histories were visions of female domination: titillating, but not directly threatening, located as they were in a distant past or a “forgotten” corner of the earth. The female leadership featured in these productions was also flawed in certain key ways, be it by fatal misunderstanding of authority, transgression of human limitations, or the pursuit of “forbidden” pleasures, “forbidden” power. The Viking Queen (1967) follows in this tradition, drawing on the Romano-British past to reshape events of the Boudiccan Revolt of A.D. 61. In this retelling, however, male structures of power are problematized; the rebel queen is a model of duty and moral insight, guided by selfless love for her people and her family and deferring romantic happiness. Even so, the strength of her family ties and her sense of community responsibility, features traditionally gendered as female, inevitably doom the queen to death and (cinematic) historical failure.
Alison Futrell

Chapter 16. Subverting Sex and Love in Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora (2009)

The Hollywood film epic has typically, and usually unapologetically, been a male genre. Particularly in the 1950s, cinematic narratives of Greece and Rome concerned themselves above all with the heroic exploits of soldiers, gladiators, and slaves, with female costars generally consigned to supporting, stereotypical roles as winsome Christian maidens or dangerous femmes fatales. With its twenty-first-century rebirth, it might have seemed that the ancient world epic had finally caught up with the feminist movement: 300 (2007), for example, attempted to depict Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, as a “political and sexual equal” to her husband, Leonidas.1 But in most recent films (and arguably in 300, too, with its glorification of the warrior), the presentation of gender remains unbalanced. Centurion (2010) may include women among its band of Picts, but, as barbarians, they remain dangerous “others,” suspected of witchcraft (Arianne) or even denied the right of speech (the mute Etain). The Eagle (2011) does not include even one female character in its principal cast. Of course, the ancient world, in very general terms, was hardly renowned for “equal opportunities,” but it would be misleading to argue that these films simply offer a picture of antiquity “as it really was” and must therefore be acquitted of charges of gender bias.
Joanna Paul


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