Nomos Vs. Phusis in the Bedroom

Yesterday, Erik posted that famous passage from Herodotus where Peisistratos runs afoul of the tyrant of Megara, Megacles, when “because he did not want to have children by his new wife, he was having sex with her not in the customary manner” οὐ βουλόμενός οἱ γενέσθαι ἐκ τῆς νεογάμου γυναικὸς τέκνα ἐμίσγετό οἱ οὐ κατὰ νόμον.

As you can probably imagine, there have been many discussions about what his means (e.g. should the negator go with the verb and not the prepositional phrase and mean “he did not have sex with her, as is customary” rather than “he did not have sex with her in the customary fashion?”) A passage from  Diodorus Siculus which Cassie Garrison brought to my attention made me think about this again.

When Kallion, who seems to have been intersex, reaches adulthood, their sexual origins present a particular challenge (D. S. 32.11)

When she reached maturity, she was married to a certain citizen. For two years she lived with her husband, and since she could not endure feminine intercourse, she was forced to submit to unnatural embraces.

εἰς δὲ τὴν ἀκμὴν τῆς ἡλικίας παραγενομένη συνῳκίσθη τινὶ τῶν πολιτῶν. διετῆ μὲν οὖν χρόνον συνεβίωσε τἀνδρί, τὴν μὲν γυναικείαν ἐπιπλοκὴν οὐκ ἐπιδεχομένη, τὴν δὲ παρὰ φύσιν ὁμιλίαν ὑπομένειν ἀναγκαζομένη.

Here, we have an interesting comparison. The passage from Diodorus is clearly interpreted as referring to anal sex whereas there is debate about the Herodotean reference. One act being referred to as “against nature” (phusis) may make us rethink what it means for the other to merely be against custom (nomos), although I expect what both are really about is that intercourse with women was expected to be procreative. the assertion that something is “by nature” is  rhetorical and based on cultural perspectives. What is considered natural is often so in order to affirm what is customary.

In the Herodotean passage, the marriage is an arrangement between noble families from different cities and children were an expectation of this type of arrangement. Hence, engaging in intentionally non-procreative activity would be against custom. In the second passage, Diodorus Siculus is emphasizing the fact that Kallion is not a woman, who, by nature should be able to produce children through sex (from Diodorus’ perspective).

This does not of course mean that we are positive about Peisistratos’ marital activities. We could still be talking intercrural sex vel. sim….

Image result for pisistratus

Unnatural or uncustomary?

2 responses

  1. I *initially* read Herodotus to mean that Peisistratus was engaging in anal sex, but then realized that there may be more going on here (as you note). So, I went to How and Wells, who make no comment on the passage at all, which I took as a suggestion that they interpreted it as something “indecent” rather than as a sign of true scholarly befuddlement on their part!

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