Why other histories matter

brothel fresco
Photo Lupinare III (cc) Nick in exsilio.

I have an interest in ancient pros­ti­tu­tion. It’s not what I’d call a guilty pleas­ure, because when you read about the miser­able lives the women had it’s hardly pleas­ure, but there is plenty of guilt. I don’t find ancient pros­ti­tu­tion sala­cious but given the expli­cit art, I can see how people would think it is and this trig­gers the feel­ing of being a dirty old man. Yet more and more I think to under­stand how ancient cit­ies worked you need to know about the seedy under­belly of the city. For every poet whose frag­ments sur­vive and whose words are pored over by philo­lo­gists, thou­sands of pros­ti­tutes died after miser­able lives missed only by their friends. I wouldn’t say that the study of poetic frag­ments is wrong or inher­ently inferior to the study of the ancient under­classes, but I think for the sake of hon­esty about the clas­sical world someone needs to tell these stories.

Someone who’s just done this recently is N.S. Gill. She’s pos­ted Firebaugh’s notes on Roman pros­ti­tu­tion. In some ways it’s depress­ing the notes are still rel­ev­ant enough to be worth post­ing. The lan­guage is dated. Well, no even that might not be true either des­pite Firebaugh refer­ring to ‘har­lots’. Even more depress­ing is how little atti­tudes to pros­ti­tu­tion have shif­ted since ancient times. For instance who becomes a prostitute?

According to the Romans it would seem that they were women who were mak­ing a delib­er­ate choice.

If the girl was young and appar­ently respect­able, the offi­cial sought to influ­ence her to change her mind; fail­ing in this, he issued her a license (licen­tia stupri), ascer­tained the price she inten­ded exact­ing for her favors, and entered her name in his roll. Once entered there, the name could never be removed, but must remain for all time an insur­mount­able bar to repent­ance and respectability.

I sus­pect it was a choice, but the choice was between pros­ti­tu­tion and star­va­tion. It is also a stain on the woman’s char­ac­ter, not the client’s. In mod­ern terms it’s been noted that crim­inal fines for pros­ti­tu­tion can actu­ally lead a woman back onto the streets in order to pay it off. Again it’s the woman’s choice. The notion of the will­ing pros­ti­tute serves the need of the cli­ents who could either be wish­ing for a will­ing part­ner, or else wish to feel mor­ally jus­ti­fied in their actions.

It’s not a choice any­one would want to forced to make. The Constitution of the Athenians gives a pretty grim pic­ture of where flute-girls, not the low­est pros­ti­tutes, fit­ted in the import­ance of the city.

[T]en men are elec­ted by lot as … City Controllers, five of whom hold office in Peiraeus and five in the city; it is they who super­vise the flute-girls and harp-girls and lyre-girls to pre­vent their receiv­ing fees of more than two drach­mas, and if sev­eral per­sons want to take the same girl these offi­cials cast lots between them and hire her out to the win­ner. And they keep watch to pre­vent any scav­enger from depos­it­ing ordure within a mile and a quarter of the wall; and they pre­vent the con­struc­tion of build­ings encroach­ing on and bal­conies over­hanging the roads, of over­head con­duits with an over­flow into the road, and of win­dows open­ing out­ward on to the road; and they remove for burial the bod­ies of per­sons who die on the roads, hav­ing pub­lic slaves for this service.

I can­not believe any­one would want to be classed along­side dung and corpses. Life for the typ­ical pros­ti­tute must have been miser­able. It might explain why people have tra­di­tion­ally over­looked ancient pros­ti­tutes when writ­ing his­tor­ies, but it doesn’t explain why they are import­ant. Being poor merely makes you poor rather than inher­ently more worthy than the rich.

Another reason for ignor­ing pros­ti­tutes and the rest of the under­class is they have been con­sidered invis­ible. Could it be they are leav­ing traces, but it’s we in the cur­rent era who choose not to see them? A recent thesis by Clare Kelly-Blazeby could turn upside down a lot of assump­tions about the ancient city.

She’s been look­ing for archae­olo­gical evid­ence of tav­ernas. You wouldn’t think drink­ing would be dif­fi­cult to find in the ancient world. The texts have many ref­er­ences to the masses get­ting drunk in their bru­tish way. Yet whenever drink­ing assemblages have been found it’s been inter­preted as archae­olo­gical evid­ence of the sym­posium. The sym­posium is the drink­ing party of the élite. It’s the set­ting for many debates and the sort of his­tory which you can see chan­ging the world.

On top of that it’s very archae­olo­gic­ally vis­ible. Not only are there the cups and bowls there’s also the lay­out of the sym­po­sion, the room where the sym­posium was held. It con­veni­ently has couches arranged around the walls, head to foot so every­one reclines on their left side. Kelly-Blazeby has found that many assemblages of drink­ing cups are not asso­ci­ated with sym­po­sions, but ordin­ary look­ing houses. Even today archi­tec­tur­ally Greek tav­ernas can look the same as ordin­ary houses. After re-thinking what a tav­erna of the sort would look like, she’s rad­ic­ally altered how we see the urban eco­nomy and town plan. It also means we need to re-think what we mean by élite, which in some cit­ies may be a lot smal­ler and more élite than pre­vi­ously acknowledged.

Sometimes look­ing at unfash­ion­able his­tor­ies can mean that more his­tory is being writ­ten. Yet some­times, like in the case of Gender History, or Crime or Class it not only makes more his­tory it also makes the sub­jects of tra­di­tional his­tor­ies richer and more vibrant. This is why I’ve found Mercurius Rusticus’s sum­mer strop both fas­cin­at­ing and pitiable.

Given two sexes and a vivid ima­gin­a­tion regard­ing sexual taboos seems to be a con­stant of human his­tory I think it’s a con­stant issue which needs to be tackled. I don’t think gender dif­fer­ences can be seen every­where in the his­tor­ical record, but it is wor­ry­ing if people can’t even see there is a ques­tion. If they can’t see these issue in the past, then why think they’re equipped to be able to see them in present?

Why male archaeologists don’t get feminism


Sharon makes a point about bal­ance meta­phors in the com­ments to yesterday’s post which I agree with. This is one reason why I omit­ted a sec­tion from the sec­tion from Paul Bahn’s Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, because it’s really unrep­res­ent­at­ive of the book. It is a good book. I would be quite will­ing to believe that Al-Qaeda inser­ted the fol­low­ing sec­tion into the text to dis­credit him.

It is utterly laud­able to wish to do away with the sex­ism inher­ent in much tra­di­tional archae­ology, to make people more aware of the pres­ence and import­ance of women in past soci­et­ies, and to pro­duce stud­ies focus­ing on women in dif­fer­ent peri­ods. However, in swinging away from past andro­centrism, the pen­du­lum is in danger of going to the other extreme; sex­ism rubs both ways. As Albert Camus once wrote, ‘the slave begins by demand­ing justice and ends by want­ing to wear a crown. He must dom­in­ate in his turn.’

Or at least I would if he hadn’t expressed the same opin­ion in his 1992 paper Bores, Bluffers and Wankas: Some Thoughts on Archaeology and Humour in the Archaeological Review from Cambridge.
Continue read­ing

Gender, Archaeology and Gender Archaeology


History Carnival ButtonI’ve writ­ten this as Natalie Bennett has been ask­ing for fem­in­ist con­tri­bu­tions for the History Carnival. It’s one of the com­ments I feel slightly guilty about as I write it. One reason is that I’m not really sure what fem­in­ism is. It’s a handy tag for a vari­ety move­ments and philo­sophies which per­haps share little other than a con­cious thought of females in their con­struc­tion. On the other hand I have an idea of what it isn’t. ‘Feminism’ cer­tainly isn’t inter­changable with the word ‘gender’.

This is where I think the archae­olo­gist Paul Bahn goes wrong. I like the book Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Bahn a lot. I also think that Paul Bahn is a good writer and an inter­est­ing archae­olo­gist. But I struggle with his views on Gender Archaeology. The fol­low­ing is part of a sec­tion on a wider range of archae­olo­gical the­ory. It picks up from a bit where he says why Gender Archaeology arose.

The expli­cit emphasis now being placed on gender stud­ies is there­fore wel­come not only for its attempt to cre­ate a much greater aware­ness of the need to extend gender equal­ity into all aspects of con­tem­por­ary life, includ­ing aca­demia, but also for the sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tion that it is mak­ing to our under­stand­ing of how ancient soci­et­ies may have worked. However, what is called ‘Gender Archaeology’ is actu­ally fem­in­ist archae­ology — sis­ters are doing it for themselves.

The avowed aim is to focus on gender (in the sense of social and cul­tural, rather than bio­lo­gical, dis­tinc­tions between the sexes) in the archae­olo­gical record. But des­pite assur­ances to the con­trary it is clear that the major aim is not so much to reclaim women and men in non-sexist ways in pre­his­tory, as to make women vis­ible in the past. A per­fectly laud­able aim, and one that is highly fash­ion­able at present, with books pro­lif­er­at­ing on Women in Prehistory, in Ancient Egypt, in the Roman period, in the Viking period, or any other era. Part of the ‘fem­in­ist’ approach to the past, whose goal is to shed new light on hitherto neg­lected aspects of the archae­olo­gical record, this phe­nomenon is accom­pan­ied by an ever-increasing num­ber of con­fer­ences around the world, usu­ally organ­ized by or star­ring the same cast of char­ac­ters. Although billed as con­cern­ing ‘gender in archae­ology’, these events con­cen­trate over­whelm­ingly on the female gender, and are atten­ded by a host of female archae­olo­gists, plus a few brave males who per­haps aspire to polit­ical cor­rect­ness. The very word ‘gender’, there­fore, is in ser­i­ous danger of being hijacked, like the word ‘gay’ before it.

The proper anti­dote to male chau­vin­ism about the past is an egal­it­arian and neut­ral archae­ology, not a fem­in­ist archae­ology. If, as the pro­ponents claim, they are not simply try­ing to make women vis­ible in the archae­olo­gical record, is a ‘fem­in­ist archae­ology’ needed at all? There is still a long way to go, but the real way for­ward is a bal­anced, non-sexist archae­ology rather than a fem­in­ist kind, which is just the flip-side of the tra­di­tional coin.

Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Bahn. pages 83–5 and 87

Continue read­ing