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New Times / Art

The following article was posted on February 13th, 2013, in the New Times - Volume 27, Issue 29 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [] - Volume 27, Issue 29

A love affair with antiquity

Vicki Leon's The Joy of Sexus tells of lovemaking in the ancient world


Suffering from overwhelming horniness? Try drinking male urine! But make sure that a lizard has drowned in it first.

The Joy of Sexus author Vicki Leon traveled extensively and took up odd jobs in several countries throughout the Mediterranean before she began writing about the ancient world. Here, she’s pictured on a trip to India. “I immediately noticed that the horn players were using a ‘cornu,’ the ancient Roman horn that was played in the gladiatorial arena as well as in military settings,” Leon writes of this photograph. “So there I am, squinting in the early morning sun and thrilled with finding yet another clue to the antiquity I so love.”

At least, that’s what the ancient Greeks and Romans recommended, as detailed in the new book The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love, and Longing in the Ancient World, the latest from local author Vicki Leon. For such an erotic-sounding topic, The Joy of Sexus is startlingly grotesque, comical, and bizarre, leading one to the conclusion that when it comes to understanding human sexuality, we’ve always been a little lost.

Leon, author of Working IX to V, which chronicled the working lives of the ancients, has produced a comprehensive and detailed book on ancient sex—not merely the physical act, but the mythology, politics, art, and culture surrounding it.

Not that the ancient approach to sex itself couldn’t have been an entire book on its own: from aphrodisiacs (nettle oil, apparently, applied directly to the penis) and anti-aphrodisiacs (a hippo’s forehead, attached to the woman’s groin) to birth control (suffice to say, it keeps getting weirder), the ancient Greeks and Romans seemed to approach copulation armed with a variety of absurd ideas and equally absurd concoctions. Some of these were quite contradictory: Lettuce was considered an aphrodisiac by the ancient Egyptians, through the Greeks and Romans held the opposite view.

But still more fascinating are the ways in which ancient views on sexuality manifested themselves in the culture at large. In pre-Christian times, for example, masturbation wasn’t the embarrassing, taboo topic it remains, to some degree, today—in fact, it was perceived as practically godlike. Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile flooded annually, for instance, because the god Hapy ejaculated into it. Greek mythology has the god Hermes, in an act of kindness, teaching masturbation to the goat-god Pan, who then goes on to teach it to some shepherds, thus imparting this divine gift to mankind.

Such myths can only come from a culture in which pleasuring oneself is generally approved of. It’s an idea with the potential to severely freak out the average American reader, yet in doing so it also calls into question our own views on this long shunned and forbidden topic, and on sexuality in general.

Get Vicki Leon’s The Joy of Sexus for $17 (paperback) from or

In fact, the ancient Greeks’ comparative flexibility with regard to sexuality is a matter of perhaps equal controversy by today’s standards. As The Joy of Sexus tells it, labels such as heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual didn’t yet exist in ancient times: Men could have intimate relationships with members of either sex without feeling the need to identify themselves as “gay” or “straight.” (Women, however, didn’t enjoy the same kind of freedom, as intimacy between women was often seen as threatening, repulsive, or, to a phallus-oriented culture, just plain confusing—after all, without a penis involved somehow, what could they possibly find to do?).

The ancient Greeks’ tolerance of male homosexuality also came with some practices sure to be illegal in today’s world, such as older men taking teen boys as lovers. This relationship, which ended when the teen reached adulthood, was seen as bonding or mentoring, in ways sexual and otherwise.

Leon’s research is extensive, largely derived from archeological finds ranging from to-do lists scrawled on papyrus to ancient graffiti, yet also informed by many years spent living in the Mediterranean. Her writing style is irreverent and often clever, if occasionally veering into silliness: Alkibiades of Athens is described as the city’s “number-one hottie;” Servilia Caepionis, Julius Caesar’s lover, is “history’s first cougar;” and opportunities to make reference to “titillating tales” or “penetrating news” are gleefully taken. The subject matter is, on its own, endlessly interesting, and doesn’t necessarily need winky puns or excessive alliteration to draw the reader in. If anything, the book’s jocular slanginess and references to pop culture may shorten its shelf life. Still, it’s funny, for the moment.

The Joy of Sexus is organized into sections based on topic, rather than chronology. Thus, several historical figures—Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, Helen of Troy, and Alexander the Great among them—crop up several times throughout the book, and are explored in different lights.

A major part of the book is dedicated to the mighty affairs of princes and emperors. There’s the story of Alexander the Great and his lover, Hephaestion, as well as that of Pericles, a brilliant general who, after passing a law stipulating that Athenians could only wed other Athenians, fell in love with a Persian woman whom he could never marry—and who was thus slandered throughout Athens. The mythology surrounding Helen of Troy is reexamined, although without shining much new light on the fabled figure. Then there’s the touching story of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who made his lover Antinoos into a god (emperors could do that) after Antinoos mysteriously disappeared.

In brief, easily digestible sections, The Joy of Sexus provides a glimpse into ancient life through one of humanity’s biggest themes. It’s a fascinating and rather voyeuristic look into Eros’ alternatively beautiful and calamitous handiwork— which in turn provokes reflection on the myths and mores of modern love.

Arts Editor Anna Weltner never realized there were so many uses for hippo testicles. Contact her at