"Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality" is a controversial book that lays bare the meanings Greeks gave to sex. Contrary to the romantic idealization of sex dominating our culture, the Greeks saw eros as a powerful force of nature, potentially dangerous, and in need of control by society: Eros the Destroyer, not Cupid the Insipid, fired the Greek imagination.The destructiveness of eros can be seen in Greek imagery and metaphor, and in the Greeks' attitudes toward women and homosexuals. Images of love as fire, disease, storms, insanity, and violence--Top 40 song cliches for us--locate eros among the unpredictable and deadly forces of nature. The beautiful Aphrodite embodies the alluring danger of sex, while femmes fatales like Pandora and Helen represent the risky charms of female sexuality. And homosexuality typifies for the Greeks the frightening power of an indiscriminate appetite that threatens the stability of culture itself.In "Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality, " Bruce Thornton offers a uniquely sweeping and comprehensive account of ancient sexuality free of currently fashionable theoretical jargon and pretentions. In its conclusions the book challenges the distortions of much recent scholarship on Greek sexuality. And throughout it links the wary attitudes of the Greeks to our present-day concerns about love, sex, and family. What we see, finally, are the origins of some of our own views as well as a vision of sexuality that is perhaps more honest and mature than our own dangerous illusions.
A potentially interesting study of ancient Greek sexuality sinks in the rough seas of antifeminist diatribe. At first Thornton (Classics/Calif. State Univ., Fresno) is merely pedantic, offering a welter of examples to support his point that the Greeks believed eros, or sexual desire, was a powerful, dangerous force of nature. He becomes almost interesting in noting that our sentimental "dead metaphors" of love as fire, disease, and insanity originated in vivid Greek images (and fears) of the destructive power of eros. However, once Thornton starts trying to show that Greek hatred of women was an expression of a legitimate fear of eros, he reveals himself to be less an objective scholar than an apologist for Greek misogyny. He snipes at the "cheap moral superiority" of "our smug twentieth century" in refusing to recognize that "the power of women was the power of eros." His arguments would be offensive were they not so silly: In proposing Marilyn Monroe as the image of the "sexually powerful woman" in opposition to the models in Victoria's Secret catalogs with their "boyish hips," he seems to be elevating a personal preference into an intellectual analysis of sexual imagery in the late 20th century. After similarly confused explorations of Greek marriage, homosexuality, and philosophy, Thornton concludes that the Greeks were wiser than we in distrusting eros and trying to control it through such rational institutions as patriarchy. With a breathtaking lack of supporting material, he asserts that our deviation from their ideas about sex is responsible for contemporary "illegitimacy . . . crime, random violence, poverty, and social barbarism." This book loses sight of its valid points in a fumbling attempt to imitate the contrarian Camille Paglia (whom Thornton cites as a "model"). And when he fingers eros as the true culprit in Susan Smith's drowning of her two children, he leaves the reader wondering whether he, and his Greeks, are incapable of attributing to women other passions (e.g., maternal) than sexual ones. (Kirkus Reviews)