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Monday, June 18, 2012

The Destructive Nature of Eros

So the topic of sex and gender and erotic sicknesses continues as I work through a semester's worth of explicit material. I hope you are enjoying this textual romp through the world of ancient sex and erotica. As always, Ancient Digger intends to share all facets of history, even though the topics may border on the obscene, according to many.

Eros is the son of Aphrodite who essentially meddles in the affairs of gods and mortals, causing bonds of love to form, often illicitly. In early Greek art, Eros is depicted as a adult male with sexual prowess, but becomes cupid, the blindfolded and childlike boy who flies around, shooting his arrows at unsuspecting individuals destined for love. Eros draws one thing to another by attraction or even gravity. Hesiod explained that Eros existed long before the goddess of love, Aphrodite. According to many philosophers, Eros was an awe-inspiring universal force.

Eros is the fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves later the limbs and overcomes the mind, and counsels of all gods and all men within them. Pre-Socratic philosophers believed Eros was a natural force responsible for creation. It wasn’t just good or bad, but destructive. Eros was vital because it operated as a social concept, yet it had moral implications. It was hard to control because in many cases, individuals would become slaves to it.

This destructive force was the root of the evil. However, while the destructive impulses are thus being satisfied, such satisfaction cannot stabilize their energy in the service of Eros. Their destructive force must drive them beyond this servitude and sublimation, for their aim is, not matter, not nature, not any object, but life itself1 . Greek literature depicts the forces of eros as frightening, socially destructive and physically, emotionally and mentally debilitating. In this sense, the separation of the wife and children from the sexual activities of the slave-quarters, the brothels and the male drinking parties or symposia, ensured that the oikos and its most important members were protected from the potentially damaging forces of uninhibited sexual expression2 .

The numerous examples of the destructive force of eros are not always mythological or legendary in orientation. Eros reaches into the minds of some of the most famous and notorious of emperors and also notable philosophers and writers, who sought to tell tales of legend, though the stories almost always embraced some truth. Eros could be accessed through the eyes, or “the gaze”, as 19th century scholars called it. The ancients could be seen as passive victims who allowed objects to intrude upon them. This could be artistic objects, theatrical events, or even natural elements.

The fact was that looking at things that were attractive and desirable was dangerous; therefore the act of looking could invoke emotion, arousal, lust, and desire. Eros was driven by men. Men would compel an object of desire to submit to them. In this aspect, eros is cured by reciprocity. If the object would not submit, spells would sometimes be utilized. These spells would be inflicted at night in isolation using agents that were not commonly acquirable. You had to put in the effort in order for the spells to take hold.

One spell was used to induce dreams of a desired object. The person, most likely a woman, would go through a suffering and longing process for the person they wanted. There was a certain degree of violence in this because control and victimization are inverted throughout the dream, and one cannot control their actions and impulses in their dreams. Using magic the man would get control. The same spell was not invoked on men because men tend to dream while they are awake-they daydream. Therefore a spell of desire would have to be altered somewhat if the woman was in control.

It is clear that eros drove women to madness, but men were just as vulnerable to the power of eros. A prime example would be Nero. Nero was free with his mind, money, and body. He had issues with boundaries and he was addicted to eros. This addiction ran much deeper than just for carnal pleasure, however. Nero was also addicted to the theater, where themes of the real world were often inverted to create an imaginary one. Nero lived his life in excess, violating customary expressions of pleasure to the point he forgoes imperial responsibilities. He embraces popularity and the love of the populace. The love of the people is where eros goes wrong. The people loved him so much that they created a monster and his general obsessions were driven by his libido and desire. Libido without restraint becomes worse. He is the very opposite of an epicurean, who typically partakes in simple pleasures, yet they also abstain from bodily desires such as sex and appetites verging on denial.

The Rape of Lucretia is another excellent example of eros gone wrong, as it pertains to the hyper sexuality of man. Lucretia, an object of desire put forth by her own husband, is the ultimate undertaking of any man looking to overcome the innocence of a pious woman. When the men arrived, they were all impressed by Lucretia's chaste honor, but it was Tarquinius who was “seized by the desire (hyper sexuality) to violate Lucretia's chastity, seduced both by her beauty and by her exemplary virtue”3 . He threatened her with death, raped her, and he left, having taken away her honor. Her beauty and virtue not only drove Tarquinius to desire her, but it created an innate violence in a powerful man, put into a position where he could control submission. It was no different than war, as men seek honor on the field, they seek the same type of acknowledgement in the bedroom.

The History of Appius and Virginia by Livy is another key example of a virtuous woman who tempts, unintentionally, man’s desire to the point of violence. Appius Claudius lusts after the daughter of a centurion, Virginia. Virginia was already promised to Lucius Icilius, a former tribune of the plebs, and when she rejected Claudius, he gave instructions to Marcus Claudius, one of his clients, that he should claim the young woman as his slave, and not submit to any demand which should be made, of her being left at liberty until the decision of the suit, thinking that the absence of the damsel's father afforded the fittest opportunity for the injury which be meditated4.

After Marcus Claudius had successfully abducted her, the decemviri, led by Appius Claudius himself, demanded he bring the case to court. Virginia’s father Verginius was recalled from the field to defend his daughter, and Icilius, after threats of violence, succeeded in having Virginia returned to her house while the court waited for her father to appear. When Verginius finally arrived, his supporters left the forum so not to cause further violence. Questioning whether her virtue would be preserved if he acted in haste, Verginius grabbed a knife and stabbed Virginia. Verginius and Icilius were arrested, and their followers returned to attack the lictors and destroy their fasces. This led to the overthrow of the decemviri and the re-establishment of the Roman Republic4 .

The very last place we would expect the humiliation of women to occur would be in the Symposium, but the presence of the hetaerai may have only fueled the natural hunger of man’s desire to dominate the opposite sex. Hetaerai were the only women who actively took part in the symposium where their opinion was welcomed and respected by men. They drank and partied, but the drinking usually took a completely different turn near the end of the evening. The Symposium is a social function for young men to integrate into their status group, and as part of this, the men engage in ritualized violence with the hetaerai as a rite of passage. Men would force them to have anal sex and beat them with a staff, rod or shoe. Hetaerai were essentially integrated into a ritual for the sake of man’s inability to restrain his primal urges.

Eros is instilled with a deep-seated tension that manifests itself in various guises, which, however, have a common structure based on the fact that eros is a striving for the reversal of eros, and that therefore the existence of eros is incompatible with its telos. The highest goal of eros is the destruction of eros, the transformation of the lovers into an existence that no longer needs eros. According to Diotomo’s speech at the Symposium, Eros is “a great spirit (daimon)” that is situated between mortals and gods, and oscillates between the two; it is by virtue of its origin an intermediate being, that nevertheless strives towards the better5.

You may also like

The Sickness of Eros
Ancient Sex and Love Magic
Ovid's Art of Love 
Erotic Art and Roman Sexuality
Eroticism, Eros, and Sex in Pompeii


  1. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: a philosophical inquiry into fraud, (Abingdon: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1956), 86.
  2. Terry Ryan, and Marguerite Johnson, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature, (New York: Routledge, 2005), 3-4.
  3. "Tite-Live: Histoire Romaine," 1, Vol. 1, ed. Jean Bayet and Gaston Baillet (Paris: Societé d'Édition "les belles-lettres, 1995).
  4. Livy. The History of Appius and Virginia, History of Rome. English Translation by Rev. Canon Roberts. New York. E. P. Dutton and Co, New York, 1912.
  5. Benjamin Jowett, trans., Plato’s Symposium, (Penguin Books Limited, London, 1956).


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