May 15, 2008

Sex BC (rewrite)

The History Channel has finally broadcast the "Sex BC" mini-series in prime time. Last year, on its first outing, it was buried in the wee hours, probably due to its subject matter, but there's really nothing that would frighten the horses.
It has only three parts dealing respectively with prehistory, Egypt and the Classical period. It's actually quite informative and well presented but throughout you feel this frisson when archaeologists start to speculate - due to the lack of any written material - what all the stuff they have found (large-breasted figurines, wooden dildoes by the box full, graphical and hieroglyphic pornography in scrolls and on the walls everywhere, threesome burials with ritualistic mutilations etc) actually means to an audience steeped in 2000 years of Christianity or 1300 years of Islamism.
A delicious irony is that Egyptology was a favourite pastime of some Victorians who couldn't get all that salacious material fast enough to the vaults of the British Museum to be locked away forever, if it was up to them. And what a contrast too between the sex-everywhere ancient Egyptians and the contemporary repressed Islamic society that inhabits the Nile Delta today. Monotheism has a lot to answer for, and you can't but think that a lot of world trouble would be helped by relieving all that sexual frustration by and repressive submission to religious regimes.
The final installment on the subject of the Classics, from which we libertines and secularists can still learn a great deal sexually, was a very satisfying one because the sex in that historical period was treated as an evolving subject, not as static given. It thankfully covered a much broader range of subjects than the cliche Greek pederasty so beloved by Victorian and modern outrage, but there was some tut-tutting in the programme when it described the symposium culture, where citizens brought their sons who had reached puberty for introduction into civil society - a "coming out" truer to its concept than the modern day versions.
But luckily it also told me a lot I didn't learn in my high school classical education: how did the Greek city states manage such effective fighting forces in their athletically-trained, sexually-competitive youths? How did they breed such good soldiers? (I think a marriage ban before the age of 30 for males would still make sense today) How much was all this vaunted libertine civilisation only an upper-class, male citizen preserve and why does it still fascinate or morally outrage some of us?
A slave economy helped enormously, of course, with women and children as chattels too. The Greek city state and its culture and social organisation was obviously a product of its economic basis. The loyal (sexual) bond between its (citizen) men was a powerful social glue where being a coward on the battlefield in view of your lover was a huge dishonour. This alien (for our modern armies) concept is completely absent in practically every Hollywood sandals and swords movies, the truly atrocious "300" a good example (including the depiction of Spartans fighting in leather jockstraps). Contrast also with Alexander, whose conquering feats a few centuries alter had more to do with a Freudian proving himself to his father - a type of psychological behaviour predating monotheistic submission to the God instead of fighting for your Polis.

Channel 4, which commissioned the series, has a great background article on the issue of sex in history.

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