Classical orgies are a myth of our own making

30 May 2006

Orgy scenes, such as the one depicted in Roses of Heliogabalus by Alma Tadema, did not exist, according to Dr Alastair Blanshard.
Orgy scenes, such as the one depicted in Roses of Heliogabalus by Alma Tadema, did not exist, according to Dr Alastair Blanshard.

A University researcher has dispelled a myth which has validated the saucy exploits of libertines for centuries: the widespread existence of the Roman orgy.According to Alastair Blanshard, a Greek history researcher from the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, there was no such thing.

"I'm sorry if there are any suburban swingers out there, but whatever you're doing, it's certainly not classical," Dr Blanshard told the audience at a public lecture in the Nicholson Museum.

Dr Blanshard is studying how modern culture imagines antiquity, and how it perpetuates stories about the sex lives of ancient civilisations. He began unearthing whatever evidence he could find of illicit affairs, juicy encounters and frenzied group sex in classical Greece and Imperial Rome.

The search has been entertaining but disappointing. "It's fun to look high and low, but evidence that orgies took place is difficult to find," he said.

In Greece and Rome, there were elaborate, drunken feasts, but sexual encounters and affairs were private and removed and not the orgiastic events contemporary culture has come to accept as historically true.

Films such as Caligula - "the only serious film ever co-financed by Penthouse Magazine" - shows a sequence of spectacular orgies, but has little historical veracity, argued Dr Blanshard.

The origins of the Greek and Roman orgy myth are partly grounded in the way in which Christianity set itself up in opposition to the sexual impropriety of the ancient gods, according to Dr Blanshard.

For instance, while Hercules - who is regularly condemned by moralists for his enormous sexual appetite - did deflower all 50 of King Thespius's daughters in one night, "that was no orgy", argued Dr Blanshard.

"The feat was engineered by Thespius himself who sent daughter after daughter into Hercules's bed to be impregnated by good, heroic stock. It is said Hercules never realised it wasn't the same woman."

There are other reasons why the classical world has been invoked both as the home of sexual freedom and as a haven for sexual perversity, he said. The widespread display of genitals and the "ubiquity of the phallus" in ancient material are seen as intensely sexual in modern contexts but were de-eroticised in those times, according to Dr Blanshard.

Modern libertines are also to blame, with many liberals using the Roman orgy myth to validate their practices. Oscar Wilde, for example, gave "classical gloss" to his encounters with boys. "He thought 'I'm doing what Socrates did'. He was classicising his 'free love' community," said Dr Blanshard.

Lecherous satyrs, with huge phalluses groping in unrestrained revelry, appear in the iconography of drinking cups and other pottery. Again, these are not celebrations of sexual liberation, explained Dr Blanshard. Instead, they serve as a warning to the drinker about the violent ramifications of alcohol-fuelled behaviour.

"They tell us, 'by all means, have an orgy. Just don't expect it to be pretty'," he said.

One of the by-products of working on pornography, Dr Blanshard said, is that he has been excised from his mother's Christmas newsletters.

"I'm no longer mentioned in them. She tells her friends that Alastair is doing nothing at the moment."

Contact: Kate Rossmanith

Phone: 02 9351 3168