Sexing the World: Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex in Ancient Rome

Princeton University Press
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From the moment a child in ancient Rome began to speak Latin, the surrounding world became populated with objects possessing grammatical gender—masculine eyes (oculi), feminine trees (arbores), neuter bodies (corpora). Sexing the World surveys the many ways in which grammatical gender enabled Latin speakers to organize aspects of their society into sexual categories, and how this identification of grammatical gender with biological sex affected Roman perceptions of Latin poetry, divine power, and the human hermaphrodite.

Beginning with the ancient grammarians, Anthony Corbeill examines how these scholars used the gender of nouns to identify the sex of the object being signified, regardless of whether that object was animate or inanimate. This informed the Roman poets who, for a time, changed at whim the grammatical gender for words as seemingly lifeless as "dust" (pulvis) or "tree bark" (cortex). Corbeill then applies the idea of fluid grammatical gender to the basic tenets of Roman religion and state politics. He looks at how the ancients tended to construct Rome's earliest divinities as related male and female pairs, a tendency that waned in later periods. An analogous change characterized the dual-sexed hermaphrodite, whose sacred and political significance declined as the republican government became an autocracy. Throughout, Corbeill shows that the fluid boundaries of sex and gender became increasingly fixed into opposing and exclusive categories.

Sexing the World contributes to our understanding of the power of language to shape human perception.

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About the author

Anthony Corbeill is professor of classics at the University of Kansas and the author of Controlling Laughter: Political Humor in the Late Roman Republic and Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome (both Princeton).
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Jan 18, 2015
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Pages
216
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ISBN
9781400852468
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Ancient / General
History / Ancient / Rome
Language Arts & Disciplines / Linguistics / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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Although numerous scholars have studied Late Republican humor, this is the first book to examine its social and political context. Anthony Corbeill maintains that political abuse exercised real powers of persuasion over Roman audiences and he demonstrates how public humor both creates and enforces a society's norms.

Previous scholarship has offered two explanations for why abusive language proliferated in Roman oratory. The first asserts that public rhetoric, filled with extravagant lies, was unconstrained by strictures of propriety. The second contends that invective represents an artifice borrowed from the Greeks. After a fresh reading of all extant literary works from the period, Corbeill concludes that the topics exploited in political invective arise from biases already present in Roman society. The author assesses evidence outside political discourse—from prayer ritual to philosophical speculation to physiognomic texts—in order to locate independently the biases in Roman society that enabled an orator's jokes to persuade. Within each instance of abusive humor—a name pun, for example, or the mockery of a physical deformity—resided values and preconceptions that were essential to the way a Roman citizen of the Late Republic defined himself in relation to his community.

Originally published in 1996.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Bodily gesture. A Roman worshipper spins in a circle in front of a temple. Faced with death, a Roman woman tears her hair and beats her breasts. Enthusiastic spectators at a gladiatorial event gesticulate with thumbs. Examining the tantalizing glimpses of ancient bodies offered by surviving Roman sculptures, paintings, and literary texts, Anthony Corbeill analyzes the role of gesture in medical and religious ritual, in the gladiatorial arena, in mourning practice, in aristocratic competition of the late Republic, and in the court of the emperor Tiberius. Adopting approaches from anthropology, gender studies, and ecological theory, Nature Embodied offers both a series of case studies and an overarching narrative of the role and meanings of gesture in ancient Rome.

Arguing that bodily movement grew out of the relationship between Romans and their natural, social, and spiritual environment, the book explores the ways in which an originally harmonious relationship between nature and the body was manipulated as Rome became socially and politically complex. By the time that Tacitus was writing about the reign of Tiberius, the emergence of a new political order had prompted an increasingly inscrutable equation between truth and the body--and something vital in the once harmonizing relationship between bodies and the world beyond them had been lost.



Nature Embodied makes an important contribution to an expanding field of research by offering a new theoretical model for the study of gesture in classical times.

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