Book Report: TransAntiquity

Published September 26, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

I should be reading the next of the ten gazillion (seemingly) library books I have out for this semester’s research project, but I’m going to write this report on the first one instead, in the hopes that discussing it will help me to process the information and figure out exactly what my topic question is.

So, as you can see, the title of this book is “TransAntiquity:  Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dynamics in the Ancient World,” a title which is actually a bit misleading, as the modern concept of transgender is, well, modern, only a few decades old.  So this is more an approach from the modern perspective, with full understanding (and acceptance) of transgender.  (And this is, of course, the kind of book you don’t want to buy:  it’s priced for library purchases, not individual purchases, over $100 a copy.)

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I didn’t actually read this book cover-to-cover.  I’m researching a paper that’s going to be on the definitions of gender (and behavior towards transgressors of those definitions) in ancient Greece and Rome, and so I skipped over two of the essays in this book, because they really did not apply:  one was about Pharaonic Egypt, and the other was about a period I’d more consider to be the early Middle Ages than late Antiquity (y’know, post-600 AD) so it was actually concerned with Christianity’s reaction to gender transgressions, which is a completely different topic.  (Technically, one of the ones I did read also included a lot of discussion of early Christianity, but it also talked about pre-Christian Rome.  Plus…well, I’ll get to it in turn, and you’ll see why I had to read it.)

I’m going to talk about each essay in turn, but I’ll address the book as a whole first, briefly.  This grew out of an academic workshop held at the University of Pisa, and most of the contributors work at universities in Italy and Germany, with a few UK universities thrown into the mix as well.  Consequently, the authors and editors pretty much assume that if you’re reading the book, you must speak all the major European languages, and they don’t translate their French, Italian and German quotes.   (And I always seemed to be reading it in a time and place where I couldn’t just use Google Translate to get a rough idea of what was being said; all I could do was guess based on cognates and my rusty-to-the-point-of-not-really-existing Latin and German skills.)  The constant reminders that I’m just an ignorant American were kind of painful.  (I do want to learn other languages!  I just suck at them.  And have too much else going on in my life to take proper lessons.)

Anyway, as scholars of the ancient world, the authors are hampered by the existing evidence, and can only address what information survives, so behavior that would actually be identified as trans by modern standards is conspicuously absent for the vast majority of the book, because there just isn’t much surviving data to support a discussion.  There’s a lot of talk about cross-dressing, and about men who were labelled as effeminate, and some discussion of women who were labelled as masculine, and what function those labels served in their society.  So it was really useful to my project, but might not be so useful to other research endeavors.

Okay, so now I want to talk a little about each essay, to give an idea what’s in the book.  (Also to help me process the information properly.  What can I say?  I think better via fingers on a keyboard.  That’s just the messed up way my brain is wired.)

The first essay is  “‘Between the human and the divine’  Cross-dressing and transgender dynamics in the Greco-Roman World” by Filippo Carlà-Uhink.  I don’t want to go too much into the logic of any of these essays, because then what would be the point in anyone else reading them, but the basic argument here is that the ability to change sexes was viewed as divine in the ancient world.  The Greek and Roman gods didn’t change their sex very often (sometimes Zeus/Jupiter did in getting close enough to a virginal girl he wanted to seduce) but it happened in some of the “Eastern” cultures they came into contact with.  More importantly, some non-Greco-Roman rulers presented an androgynous image of themselves to the world, and the theory of this essay is that they did so to heighten their image of divinity; this self-presentation of ruler as divine (or at least semi-divine) was picked up on and emulated (sometimes) by Alexander the Great, by some of the Hellenistic monarchs who followed him, and then by some of the Roman emperors.  It makes a lot of sense to me, and explains how some of the stories about the more extreme behavior from the “insane tyrant” emperors might have happened.  (For example, Nero’s (not officially recognized) marriages to other men, which were never so much same-sex as pretending-one-of-them-wasn’t-a-man.)

“Cross-dressing in Rome between norm and practice” by Andrea Raggi is an analysis of the legal sanctions against men wearing women’s clothing in ancient Rome, focused mostly on the late Republic and the early Empire.  It’s an interesting essay, if a little disturbing sometimes.  (Apparently, in Rome, the victim was always held responsible for the rape, so long as s/he was wearing women’s garb at the time.)

“The patrician, the general and the emperor in women’s clothes:  Examples of cross-dressing in Late Republican and Early Imperial Rome” by Domitilla Campanile focuses on three major tales of men dressing as women.  Two of the examples come from the poisonous tongue of Cicero, but the first one — Clodius Pulcher dressing up as a woman in order to infiltrate a women-only religious ceremony in order to get it on with Julius Caesar’s wife (seriously) — is actually documented elsewhere as well, and as far as we can tell really did happen.  The one aimed at Marc Antony likely didn’t, because Cicero was a…okay, not going there.  I’ll just leave it at “I hate Cicero” and move on.  The third example, of course, was Nero.  Nero — like Elagabalus and other unpopular emperors — was the subject of vicious written attacks following his death, so we can never be 100% sure how much of the things he was accused of were actually things he did.  (For example, the famous story that he killed his wife Poppaea has been discredited.)



Okay, you know what?  If I keep trying to do this, I’m gonna fall asleep and/or this post won’t go up for like a week.

So, I’m just gonna address the last two essays, which are about the presentation of mythical cross-dressing.  The first of them being about Achilles’ time on Scyros, and the other about the time Heracles dressed as a woman while he was enslaved to Omphale as a punishment.  The latter, of course, is the one I was talking about before, where the essay also spent a long time talking about early Christian era stuff, specifically how early Christian writers used Heracles’ (or rather Hercules’) cross-dressing as a way of turning people against the pagan religions.

Anyway, to sum up, while this is definitely not a book for everyone, it’s a very interesting academic work, and if you’re into deep analyses of aspects of ancient culture — and can find it in your local university’s library — you might want to check it out.

So, this isn’t technically a Banned Books Week post, as to the best of my knowledge this book has never been banned or even challenged, but it’s focused on the kinds of subjects that get books banned and/or challenged.  Also it discusses some frequently banned/challenged/censored works like The Golden Ass and The Satyricon, both of which are very hard to find in an uncensored, translated version even now.

And more importantly, I totally forgot to prepare for Banned Book Week, so if I don’t make this into a BBW post, then I might not have one at all.  I mean, I have started reading one of last year’s ten most banned/challenged books, but I may not finish it this week, because I need to be spending my available time reading for class, not for myself.  If I don’t finish it within the week, I’ll put up a post on as much of it as I have time to get through.  (Yeah…I suck…)

“Bloggers of the Last Minute” banner courtesy of Eclectic Alli.

3 comments on “Book Report: TransAntiquity

    • I’m hoping it will be! 🙂 The reading for it will definitely be interesting, at least. 😀 The trick is trying to find a way to narrow down the topic without narrowing it too much; I don’t have the freedom to do just a simple literature review, so I have to formulate a question, which is always so much tougher, especially in the early stages of the research. I think I’ve gotten a decent angle on it, though. I’ll probably post about it later in the semester, as I get more and more obsessive. 😛


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