The erotic lives of gladiators, or why pomegranate juice is the opposite of fresh lettuce.
“Self-respect … it’s the secret of good sex,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. And yet since time immemorial, humans have engaged in all kinds of practices of questionable dignity as we’ve indulged the mesmerism of our own procreation, from the first ejaculation in the fossil record to the cultural history of judging desire to the seemingly counterintuitive question of how to think more (meaning better) about sex. But beyond mere biology, the history of sex has always been paralleled by a kind of mythology defining our beliefs about eroticism and propelling our compulsion to control copulation in all of its dimensions. That’s precisely what Vicki León explores in The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love, and Longing in the Ancient World (public library) — a fascinating journey to the intersection of science and superstition, exhuming antiquity’s curious beliefs about and practices of such facets of fornication as medicine and matrimony, bisexuality and gender-bending, adultery and pornography.
Among the most intriguing aspects of ancient love was the desire to control desire — in both directions of the dial — enlisting various alleged aphrodisiacs and anti-aphrodisiacs:
When it came to intimacy readiness, Greek and Roman lovers were perennially inventive. They set store by a wide spectrum of aphrodisiacs, some still in hopeful use today, including raw oysters, the fleshy symbol of the goddess Aphrodite (Venus among the Romans). Aphrodite emerged from the foamy crest of ocean waves, which the Greeks saw as a type of marine semen. … These pioneers on the frontiers of sexual virility wandered far beyond oysters, however. Pomegranate juice from Aphrodite’s favorite tree, mixed with wine, scored high with ancient Egyptians and other males in the Middle East. So did lettuce. Although toxic, mandrake root was an evergreen. So was opium as a wine additive.
Many ardent souls preferred lotions applied directly to the male organ — one provocative but now-mysterious favorite was called “the deadly carrot.” Some approaches, however, such as the honey-pepper mix, the tissue-irritating nettle oil, and the cantharides beetle (Spanish fly), gave painful new meaning to the expression “All fired ready to go.”
Other aids to Venus were added to wine, a social lubricant that provided a one-two punch: among them, gentian and a red-leafed root in the orchid family called satyrion, named for the randy prowess of the mythical satyrs. Roman emperor Tiberius, on the other hand, swore by another exotic tuber called skirret.
But that ancient libido had a flipside and often had to be reined in with different concoctions:
Consuming cress, purslane, cannabis seeds, nasturtium flowers, or the ashes of the chaste tree would do the trick. So would that horrific, erection-withering substance, fresh lettuce. In order to maintain sexual vigor, Greek and Roman male diners were careful to combine lettuce with aphrodisiacally active arugula to neutralize it. Or just avoid lettuce like the plague. (On the other hand, lettuce was considered highly lascivious among the Egyptians…)
Mouse dung, applied as a liniment, was a favorite anti-aphrodisiac. So was rue boiled with rose oil and aloes. Drinking wine in which a mullet fish had drowned and sipping male urine in which a lizard had expired both had their loyal adherents.
Nevertheless, taming truly terrific potency required strong measures, like nymphaea, an herb guaranteed to “relax” the phallus for a few days. One writer even boasted that it would “take away desire and even sex dreams for forty days!”
The Joy of Sexus goes on to explore ancient attitudes toward and rites of everything from mystery cults to masturbation to marriage. Complement it with Pixar’s Ancient Book of Sex and Science and the fascinating history of the first sexual revolution.