Unlucky in Love? Be grateful you're not an Ancient Roman

23 Feb 2015

UQ’s own Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History, Professor Alastair Blanshard, offers some advice to the singletons out there. Head for the funeral parlour, not the nightclub.

If you think your love life has hit a rough patch, spare a thought for the Greeks and Romans. “Every lover is a soldier,” quipped the Roman poet Ovid - and he was right. Hooking up with the well brought-up young women of antiquity required the skills of a Navy SEAL.
We like to think of Rome as the home of the orgy, but in fact this image of a swinging, free-love playground couldn’t be further from the truth. Romans regarded female chastity as one of the highest virtues. Similarly, Greek fathers liked to boast that their daughters had never seen a man apart from their male relatives. Every father and brother regarded guarding the virtue of the women under their roof as a point of pride. They weren’t about to let any young man near them. Getting close to one of these women required skill and cunning. No respectable woman walked the streets unchaperoned. With no nightclubs to assist in the mingling of sexes, the young men of Athens and Rome needed to be more resourceful. Sometimes they even called upon the supernatural for help. It is no accident that love spells are amongst the some of the most common magical artefacts that we’ve uncovered in our excavations.
Instead of bars, funerals became pick-up places. After all, where else were women allowed out of the house with sufficient freedom to permit men to make their move? We have plenty of stories about famous seducers hanging around the cemeteries of Athens waiting for the opening that a funeral could give them.
Still, some things remain the same.  Race Day then and now is a perennial favourite for those looking for the man or woman of their dreams. In Rome, it was one of the few places where the different sexes sat side-by-side. In his infamous series of verses on the art of seduction, Ovid praised the potential that the chariot-races gave the would-be lover.  Ingratiate yourself by offering her your cushion, he advises, and even better don’t miss an opportunity to offer to ‘pat her down’ as the chariots race past and cover the crowd with dust. Plenty of chances there for the surreptitious grope.
Of course, lovers needed to be careful about their wandering hands. Husbands, fathers, and brothers could enact terrible vengeance on lovers that went too far with their women. In Athens, seducers caught in the act were liable to the most grotesque physical punishments. We have stories about seducers having all their hair shaved off or being violated by vegetables. Read some of these accounts and you’ll never look at a radish in quite the same way.
Click here to listen to Professor Alastair Blanshard featured on ABC Radio's Conversations with Richard Fidler.