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One of the less expected treatises included in Plutarch's Moralia consists of the nine books of `Table-talk' or topics suitable for discussion by the participants at the strictly male and private drinking party or symposium (612C ff.). But even when the association of symposium and the erotic is acknowledged or we note the interest of ancient philosophers in the general area of eugenics (e.g., Arist. Pol. 1334629 ff. and Plutarch on the Spartan marriage, Lyc. 15.3-9) or we identify the type of prejudice which later led Christians to believe that a child conceived on a Sunday will be a leper or epileptic, the sixth question analysed in Book 3, `the right time to make love' (653B ff.), is perhaps considerably more surprising. The conclusion eventually reached, however, will occasion no alarm: the right time for men and women to sleep together would appear to be at night when it is dark (cf. 654D-E) - after all, we are busy and preoccupied throughout the day and are not animals like the cock eager for sex first thing in the morning. But in the evening we are relaxed and at our ease, and so the time is right provided, of course, we have neither eaten nor drunk to excess. This is hardly a conclusion, however, to be warmly welcomed by the sexually liberated for whom intercourse is there to be enjoyed wherever, and at whatever time of night or day, excitement mounts. But when it comes to sex, Plutarch is no revolutionary keen to experiment. In fact he clearly shares the long-established and common Greek prejudice whereby sexual activities are thought something essentially `dirty', forced upon man by a combination of biological necessity and an inability to resist feminine wiles, and something, therefore, to be experienced rather than enjoyed, not spontaneously but at a set and regular time, in total privacy and without excessive passion. In his account of the symposium in which the Seven Wise Men participated, Plutarch has Cleodorus deliver the opinion that the most just pleasure for the body is that derived from food and drink, as is proved by a common and open participation in the symposium. Compare sex - this is performed at night and shrouded in great darkness, since we regard the sharing of such a pleasure to be shameless and animal-like (158F). Apparently Cleodorus would have us believe that sex is to be endured as much as it is to be a source of pleasure - as it still is to be endured today among the Sarakatsan shepherds of contemporary Greece for whom `it must be performed in the utmost secrecy, without speech, and the woman must remain motionless and passive. It is thought shameful for a husband to gaze on his wife's body.'(2)
Such a description of the sexual mores of the Sarakatsan shepherds, and especially the final remark, that it is thought shameful for a husband to gaze on his wife's body, makes one think at once of a reference made by Plutarch to female nudity and the sense of shame it caused. The reference is to be found in his story about the young women of Miletus, included in his collection of tales about valiant women (249B-D; see also Fr. 175). Here we learn that these women, for some unknown reason, started to hang themselves and could not be deterred from suicide until a proposal was advanced that women who hanged themselves should be carried out for burial through a public place, the agora or market (cf. 291F for the agora as the place where the `guilty' are exposed), in the nude. The effect was immediate: the disgrace which would now follow their deaths soon put an end to the spate of suicides, for Greek women were required to be decorous in death and certainly not to be conveyed naked where all might see them - so much so that, for example, in Euripides' Hecuba Talthybius the herald reports how, when Polyxena was slaughtered, this woman `even in death had the great foresight to fall decently, concealing what ought to be concealed from the eyes of males' (568-70).(3) We might think such a comment incongruous, even absurd, but not an ancient Greek: thus, in his biography of Cleomenes, Plutarch is careful to describe how the wife of Panteus did her best to lay out her executed companions and only then did she let down her own garment and gallantly died needing no one to cover her up after death (Cleom. 38.5-6; cf. also 253E and Agis 20.4). According to the Moralia, the most serious consequences followed the death of the virgin Helvia who was struck by lightning when riding a horse and subsequently found naked, her tunic having been pulled up as if on purpose from her `privy parts' (284A-C). An exception, as so often, is offered by Sparta, an exception to test the rule that the female body was viewed with horror, since Spartan girls, like the young men of that state, paraded in the nude and with the young men looking on (Lye. 14.2 and 15.1; see also Comp. Lyc. and Num. 3.3-4 and 227E), but there was nothing, we are assured, disgraceful in this particular display of the female body (cf. 14.4). A visitor to Greece today, especially to Athens or some other major centre, may well be surprised by the contrast in dress between the young and obviously unmarried woman and the mature matron, a difference also marked in ancient Sparta where girls went unveiled in public but married women veiled, the former in order to find husbands and the latter to keep husbands (232C). In spite of draped female but nude male statues, even naked men are not acceptable when there are women present to see them: among the many concessions recorded by Plutarch as allowed the Sabine women by their Roman captors was included a provision that no man be seen naked by them (Rom. 20.3; see also on male nudity Dio 35.4, Cat. Ma. 20.5-6, and Aem. 31.6), and that a male body when it is that of an old man and, furthermore, befouled with slime should be exposed without any form of covering is a deep humiliation (cf. Mar. 38.2). And what is it that ought not to be on view? The answer is supplied by an anecdote about Philip of Macedon preserved by Plutarch: once, while prisoners were being sold off, Philip was sitting with his tunic pulled up `in an unseemly manner'; one of the prisoners asked to be spared as a friend of Philip's father and when Philip proceeded to question him, requested a private word with the king and then told Philip to pull his clothes down for, by sitting this way, he was exposing himself, and this piece of advice won the captive his freedom (178C-D). One is immediately reminded of the approval of the youths of yesteryear voiced by the Just Argument in Aristophanes' Clouds: they used to sit modestly exposing nothing and when they got up, they took care to leave behind no impression of their genitals to excite their lovers (973-6).
The strength of the pollution associated with women's sexual organs is revealed by Bellerophon's retreat because of aischyne ('shame') back to the sea when approached by women who were exposing themselves (248B). Is it also significant that men, but not women, are liable to search (cf. 248F)? Plutarch's contemporary and fellow Greek, Dio Chrysostom, in illustrating the good order and sobriety (sophrosyne) for which the city of Tarsus and its citizens were celebrated in earlier days, points out that many traces of such behaviour still survive and cites one example, the clothing adopted by women: apparently the women of Tarsus wore clothes of such a kind that no one saw any single part of them, any part of their face or the rest of their body, nor did the women themselves see anything `off the road', and there is no suggestion that this was an `oriental' rather than a Greek mode of attire (33.48). And in considering this a Greek style I have in mind a statement made by a pupil of Aristotle and an author who had no mean influence on Plutarch, Dicaearchus of Messana, a statement that the women of Thebes veiled their heads in such a way that only their eyes were visible, the rest of the face being covered.(4) Equally Greek, I would suggest, is the best-known story related by any Greek about the sense of shame aroused if a man saw a woman naked. I refer to Herodotus' story of king Candaules, a monarch so smitten by his wife's beauty that he insisted that his bodyguard Gyges conceal himself so as to be able to see the queen in the nude. The story is too well known to demand more than the briefest of summaries: Gyges protested but was forced to agree; he saw the queen naked but she also saw him; she thereupon gave Gyges a choice - kill Candaules, become king in his place, and marry her or die -and Gyges preferred to live. Ironically, the queen repeated her husband's trick of concealing Gyges and in the same place, thereby securing her revenge (1.8-12).
As Gyges said, `a woman sheds her modesty when she sheds her clothes' (1.8.3). But we have yet to consider what evidence there is for Plutarch's attitude to sex in the discussion of the fight time for intercourse from the third book of …