COOL CLASSES: “Sex and Power in the Ancient World”

This classics course explores the sexual culture of ancient Greece with a focus on primary materials.

Class name: “Sex and Power in the Ancient World”

Taught by: Assistant Professor of Classics Matthew Farmer


Here’s what Farmer has to say about his course:

“Sex and Power in the Ancient World” is a course about the sexual culture of ancient Greece. We focus on primary materials. By reading poetry, plays, philosophy, and oratory, and examining vase paintings and sculpture, we hope to reconstruct the rules, values, and ideas that governed Greek sexual behavior. We are particularly focused on places where sexuality intersects with power: How does conforming to one’s gender expectations shape one’s access to political offices? How do marginalized people in Greek society, especially women, slaves, and foreigners, have sexuality used against them to exclude them from power? Are these marginalized people able to use their sexuality to exert some agency in their society? How are sexual relationships of all kinds configured as places to exercise or acquire power?

Beyond simply gaining some familiarity with an inherently interesting aspect of a historical culture, I hope that by studying the sexuality of the Greeks my students will be led to think more deeply about the place of sexuality in our own culture. In many ways Greek sexuality is strikingly different from our own: examining another culture’s sexuality can help us understand how some aspects of our own sexuality can seem inevitable, natural, or universal, but are in fact socially constructed and contingent on the particular circumstances of our society. I hope that in some ways they will see themselves reflected in the ancient Greeks, and in other ways begin to understand the long history of sexuality’s role in giving some people access to power, and excluding others from it.

I first taught this course at the University of Missouri, where I worked before I came to Haverford. I developed the course there in response to student demand and enthusiasm. In my “Greek Civilization” survey course, I always included a unit on sexuality, and it was consistently the thing students wanted to learn more about and spend more time with. I, myself, come to the study of the history of sexuality somewhat sideways: my research is on ancient Greek comedy, and it’s often the comic or less serious art forms (then as now) that have the freedom to discuss things that are otherwise felt to be vulgar, obscene, private, or inappropriate. So, the texts I’m already spending my time with happen to be among the most valuable pieces of evidence for reconstructing the sexual culture and ideology of the Greeks. Finally, this is a moment in our contemporary society when the intersection between sexuality and power has become a very prominent and deeply problematic aspect of our culture; studying that same intersection in a very different context can, I find, shed a lot of light on dynamics in our own politics that may otherwise seem to lack a history.



See what other courses the Department of Classics is offering this semester.

Cool Classes is a recurring series on the Haverblog that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience. 

Photo: A terracotta vase, circa 490 BC, signed by Hieron as potter and attributed to Makron as painter.