Thursday, May 18, 2006

Matthew B. Roller - Horizontal Women: Posture and Sex in the Roman Convivium - American Journal of Philology 124:3


American Journal of Philology 124:3: "Contrary to the view that "respectable" women dined seated until the Augustan era, I argue that a women (of any status) could always dine reclining alongside a man, and that this signifies a licit sexual connection. The sitting posture, seen mostly in sub-elite visual representations, introduces further complexities of practice and ideology. In general, postures attributed to women function more as indicators of sexual mores than as direct representations of social practice?."

"...To begin with the earliest Roman literature, several Plautine dramas (late third to early second century B.C.E.) contain convivial scenes in which high-status males dine and drink while reclining in one another's company and alongside courtesans. The convivium is thus a place where such males enjoy a nexus of pleasures: wine, food, companionship, and the prospect (at least) of sex. 8 These convivial pleasures persist in the late republic as well.

Cicero, early in his treatise on the ideal orator (De Or. 1.27), contrasts such pleasures with more serious activities and concerns (i.e., negotia). He relates that, when he was a young man, the senior senator and orator Cotta regaled him with a story from Cotta's own youth. Cotta said that he himself had participated one day in a gloomy and difficult discussion with certain eminences grises regarding the condition of the state. Following this discussion, however, when the party repaired to the dining couches, the host Crassus dispelled the prevailing gloom with his humanity, urbanity, and pleasantness. Cotta contrasts these moods as follows: "in the company of these men the day seemed to have been spent in the senate-house, while the dinner party seemed to have been spent at [a suburban villa in] Tusculum." 9 That is, the grave affairs of state (negotia), which filled the day's conversation, stereotypically occupied the curia at the political heart of the Roman republican forum, while the pleasurable, cheerful fellowship of the evening convivium (otium) better suited a country villa. Cicero himself, says Plutarch (Cic. 8.4), almost never reclined for dinner before sundown, pleading a bad stomach and also his ascholia (i.e., negotia) as keeping him away. Julius Caesar, a busy man, rather eccentrically combined business with pleasure: Plutarch remarks upon the fact that he regularly dealt with his correspondence while reclining at dinner. 10



Moving onward, Horace contrasts otium and negotium, though not necessarily in these terms, in some of his dinner-invitation poems (e.g., Carm. 2.11, 3.8, 3.29), for he dangles before his addressee?in each case, a magistrate busy with public affairs?the enticements of companionship, sex, and especially wine, requesting that he seize these pleasures and yield for the evening his anxious cares on behalf of the state. 11 Likewise, one declamation in the elder Seneca's collection (Cont. 9.2) posits that a provincial governor executed a criminal in the midst of a convivium at a prostitute's request. Many of the declaimers who handle this theme explore the shocking collapse of the otium/negotium distinction that this situation envisions. For judicial matters, such as punishing criminals, belong in the forum, not the dining room; they should be done by daylight, not at night, and so on. 12 The younger Seneca, in Ep. 71.21, contrasts "lying in a convivium" with "lying on the rack" (i.e., for torture). The former, he acknowledges, is pleasant while the latter is unpleasant, yet the two kinds of reclining are indifferent in regard to Stoic moral value. Finally, Martial (Epig. 14.135) gives voice to an outfit of dining-clothes (cenatoria), which primly defines its proper realm by contrast with "serious" business: "neither the forum nor going to bail are familiar to us: our job is to recline on embroidered couches." 13 These passages are purely illustrative, and by no means exhaustive; they merely show how elite Romans consistently slotted conviviality into the category of otium and regarded it as encompassing a variety of specific pleasures: wine, food, conversation, companionship, sex. They also show how such Romans distinguished conviviality broadly, and the reclining posture that symbolizes it, from activities they perceived as serious or mundane (i.e. negotia), or unpleasant."

"...The next body of evidence dates from the late republic. In this period, too, we find women of diverse social and sexual statuses reclining alongside elite males at convivia. Certainly women of low status figure among these. In his second Catilinarian oration (Cat. 2.10), delivered in 63 B.C.E., Cicero invokes the specter of a debauched convivium in which wine-soaked, gluttonous, perfume-drenched followers of Catiline, exhausted by their illicit sexual exertions, embrace "shameless women" as they recline, plotting murder and fiery destruction for the city. Similarly, in a letter of 46 B.C.E., Cicero describes a convivium at the house of Volumnius Eutrapelus in Rome, attended by a number of male aristocrats, in which the actress and courtesan Cytheris was also present and reclining to dine: infra Eutrapelum Cytheris accubuit. . . non me hercule suspicatus sum illam adfore (Fam. 9.26.2). Bradley (1998, 47) explains that Cytheris reclined because "[s]he was an actress, and for a woman of her profession, or that of a meretrix, the conventions of respectable society did not apply," where by "conventions of respectable society," he presumably means the "strict protocol" (mentioned in the same paragraph), whereby the dutiful, subordinate wife sat while her husband reclined. Cytheris was assuredly not married to Eutrapelus but was his freedwoman and was almost certainly his sexual partner at one time or another. 46<>Att. 5.1), Cicero describes the rudeness of Atticus' sister Pomponia to her husband Quintus Cicero, Marcus' brother, during a day the three spent together while traveling. First, Marcus reports, she harshly rejected Quintus' suggestion that the three collectively host a dinner. Then she refused to join the Cicero brothers and their guests as they reclined for a meal and rejected food that Quintus sent her from the table. Finally, to cap it all, she refused to sleep with Quintus. 47 Marcus makes clear that at every stage Pomponia behaved unreasonably, unsociably, and undutifully. He faults her, then, not merely for refusing to recline with Quintus among the dinner company and then refusing to retire to bed with him. By commenting also on the harshness of her words and on her rejection of food sent her from the table, Marcus seems to invoke a larger social expectation or norm that wives (at least elite ones) were equal partners with their husbands in the pleasure and leisure of the convivium. They should enjoy the same nourishment (hence the gesture of sending food), the same company and conversation, and presumably the same sexual titillation (hence the expectation of retiring to bed together) that normatively characterize the convivial experience for reclining men. These are precisely the expectations that Plautus' Alcmena invoked in conversation with her own spouse. 48 This Plautine and Ciceronian evidence begins to suggest a pattern. Since, in all these passages, the woman who reclines (or is expected to recline) alongside a man on a dining couch is known or likely to be sexually attached to him, it is tempting to propose that the converse is true: namely, a man and woman who recline together on the same couch in a convivial setting thereby signal their sexual connection, regardless of the woman's status. Such a partnership presents itself as "licit"?i.e., involving a man and women who can have sex without stuprum. "Licit" relationships range from marriage proper to quasi-marital relationships (concubinatus or contubernium), to the sexual use of one's own or others' slaves, to prostitution. 49 Conversely, it is a grave transgression if a couple who cannot have licit sex reclines together to dine, for their posture and juxtaposition would be taken to imply that they do, nevertheless, have sex and so are guilty of stuprum. 50< This interpretation is incompatible with the scholarly communis opinio (itself an interpretation of Varro and Valerius) that "respectable" women dined seated in the republican period. I suggest, rather, that any women not precluded under the rubric of stuprum, including both "respectable" ones (i.e., wives) and "non-respectable" ones (e.g., prostitutes), could and did dine reclining alongside their male sexual partners, thereby visibly affirming the existence and social legitimacy of that partnership. Nevertheless, crucial differences remain between women at the high and low ends of this social spectrum. Slave prostitutes, for instance, being inherently instrumental to the pleasure of the privileged, reclining males, can only have reclined on the males' sufferance and only if they thereby made an especially significant contribution to the males' convivial pleasure (e.g., by charging up the erotic atmosphere or providing entertainment). Presumably they could be reduced to standing in service, or be required to do something entirely else, at any time. At the other social extreme, elite wives, in reclining alongside their husbands in convivia, thereby participated substantially or fully in the leisure and various pleasures of the event. They benefited from the slaves' attention no less than their husbands; they shared the same food, drink, entertainment, and erotic subjectivity as their husbands; and?on the evidence of Pomponia?they substantially controlled their own level of engagement, far from being automatically subject to their husbands' commands or wishes. What modes of participation might have been available to a socially intermediate figure like Cytheris?neither a slave nor a wife, but a freedwoman who socialized at the highest levels of elite male society?is less clear, though we catch sight of her reclining alongside her patron and (probable) sexual partner, apparently participating fully.

Representations of women's conviviality become more plentiful in Augustan and imperial texts. These representations confirm that a woman's dining posture?at least in elite male company?expresses her sexuality, but they show considerable ambivalence about the consequences of such expression. Especially striking are several tableaux in Ovid's elegiac poetry where the male lover, reclining in a convivium, observes his beloved reclining on another couch with another man and plots to seduce her. In Amores 1.4, the woman in question is explicitly described as reclining alongside a man, the image of her "warm[ing] the breast of another, placed close below him" (alteriusque sinus apte subiecta fovebis? v. 5), and the other gestures of intimacy that the poet-lover observes or fears that the two may exchange (vv. 4-6, 15-16, 29-30, 33-44) suggest that readers would understand this couple as reclining in close physical contact, with the man at the head of the couch and the woman slightly toward the foot, her back against his chest. That is, he reclines above her (in the high position on the couch) and she below him (in the low position). Clearly, this positioning facilitates physical contact, among other things. 51The lover, for his part, proposes a set of signals that he and his beloved might exchange, across the distance that separates them, to signify their attraction and perhaps set up a tryst. A similar tableau in the Heroides (16.217-58) depicts a banquet in Sparta in which the hosts, Helen and Menelaus, recline together on a couch exchanging various physical intimacies, while Paris, their guest, watches enviously from another couch. Here, too, the sexually charged atmosphere made possible by mixed-sex reclining on a dining couch is vividly portrayed. 52In a third passage, Ars Amatoria 1.565-608, Ovid presents these same convivial practices and social dynamics in a didactic mode: he advises his reader how to proceed if, at a convivium, he should notice an attractive woman reclining on another couch alongside another man."

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