The Collection and Reception of Sexual Antiquities in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century
Grove, Jennifer Ellen
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Reason for embargo
I intend to publish sections of the thesis as chapters in forthcoming collections.
Sexually themed objects from ancient Greece and Rome have been present in debates about our relationship with the past and with sexuality since they were first brought to modern attention in large numbers in the Enlightenment period. However, modern engagement with this type of material has very often been characterised as problematic. This thesis pushes beyond the story of reactionary censorship of ancient depictions of sex to demonstrate how these images were meaningfully engaged with across intellectual life in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain and America. It makes a significant and timely contribution to our existing knowledge of a key historical period for the development of the modern understanding of sexuality and cultural representations of it, and the central role that antiquity played in negotiating this fundamental aspect of modernity. Crucially, this work demonstrates how sexual antiquities functioned as symbols of pre-Christian sexual, social and political mores, with which to think through, and to challenge, contemporary cultural constructions around sexuality, religion, gender roles and the development of culture itself. It presents evidence of the widespread and prolific acquisition of sexually themed artefacts throughout private and institutional collecting culture. This deliberate seeking out of ancient images of sex is shown to have been motivated by debates on the universal human connection between sex and religion, as part of wider constructions of notions such as ‘culture’ and ‘primitivism’, with Classical material maintaining a central position in these ideas, despite research into increasingly diverse cultures, past and present. The purposeful engagement with sexual imagery from antiquity is also revealed as having acted as a valuable new source of knowledge about ancient sexual life between men which gave new impetus to the negotiation, defence, celebration and promotion of homoerotic desire in contemporary turn of the twentieth century, Western society.
PhD in Classics