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The Senses in Antiquity

A new (essential) collection from Routledge

Academic publishing is a pricey industry for consumers, which is why it is nice to find a collection of books well-worth their price.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

When an individual sets out to purchase a scholarly book, that is one published by an academic publishing house, it can be a shock to discover the price. Unless they are determined to acquire a copy of the book, or have a large disposable income, most general readers are probably deterred. Even as a professional in the field, I sometimes shudder when I see my Amazon basket’s total. But, as someone who spends much of their disposable income on books, I am obviously willing to do it.

Recently, however, Routledge has unveiled a collection of previously published volumes bundled together that will appeal to general readers and scholars alike (I think). This includes six volumes on the senses in antiquity, which retails for $180 USD, which is just a bit more than a single hardback from the same publisher. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a copy of this set, and I believe that it is a positive sign of the direction that academic publishers can go.

As these are now being sold as one unit, for a price that I find totally agreeable, I thought it best to review them all in one article. The one downside is that I do not have space to discuss every single chapter, and have highlighted those that stuck out to me as interesting; that is not to say, however, that those not discussed at length were not worthy, as I found none of the analyses to be boring, stiff, or poorly written. My selections are mostly based on personal interests. I also decided to read the individual volumes in their original order of publication.

Synaesthesia – simultaneously experienced essays

The first volume I took up was Shane Butler and Alex Purves (eds.) Synaethesia and the Ancient Senses, published first in 2013.Show It was originally published by Acumen, the fate of which publisher I do not know. For those unfamiliar with the term, synaesthesia today usually describes a condition where in someone “regularly experience[s] one kind of sensory stimulus simultaneously as another” (p. 1). But, as the editors point out in their introduction, this is a modern clinical concept, and not well-represented in the ancient evidence. The chapters in their collection, rather, look at its literary meaning, primarily at metaphors that use one type of sense impression to describe another. In general, though, the essays seem to play with this term fluidly, leading to an interesting mix of discussions. Although I do not know if the series was planned yet, it is fitting that it opens with a book on this topic.

I was first drawn to Alex Purves’ chapter, “Haptic Herodotus” (p. 27-41). Here, the author looks at how the so-called Father of History used touch and how that sense shaped his knowledge and writing. The focus here is in the tactile nature of the stories of Smerdis the Persian imposter (Hdt. 3.69) and of Rhampsinitus and the thief of his treasury (Hdt. 2.121). In both of these stories, women use their sense of touch to expose a criminal in the dark, at times when their other senses were muted. Purves also shows that throughout Herodotus, we find the use of the haptic sense as a means of communicating information. Though it was perhaps not the most commonly exploited sensory descriptor, he rightly points that his paper has called “our attention to the importance of reading Herodotus through the senses” (p. 40).

We are guided through the sensations of death by Brian Walters, who himself is led by Lucan and Lucretius.Show “Reading death and the senses in Lucan and Lucretius”, pp. 115-125. The brutal death of Marius Gratidianus serves as our entrepôt to this discussion. His tedious dismemberment began with his hands and only ended when his eyes were finally gouged out (Lucan 2.173-185). Walters points out that this horrible murder is not about “what happens to the senses while dying; instead, the senses become the field on which life’s final moments…. are acted out” (p. 118). Likewise, Lucretius creates a dichotomy between the sensorial limbs of a living person and those which have been severed, which are portrayed as insensate. Throughout this chapter, the author emphasizes the difference between death and life in terms of sense, showing that we as readers are affected sensorially by those experiencing death, who are affected so to a lesser extent. Walters also highlights the intertextuality of his sources, showing their relations to earlier authors such as Ennius.

The other chapters of this volume are all similarly interesting in their subjects and approaches. In many ways, they pre-empt the future books in this series, as a broad range of sensory experiences are explored.

Sniffing out antiquity

Originally published in 2015, Mark Bradley’s (ed.) Smell and the Ancient Senses was the next on my reading pile. I was initially struck by the variety of approaches taken, ranging from Laurence Totelin’s “Smell as sign and cure in ancient medicine” (pp. 17-29), to David Potter’s “The scent of Roman dining” (pp. 120-132); and I found myself chuckling at the clever title of Shane Butler’s contribution, “Making scents of poetry” (pp. 74-89).

I was initially drawn to Laurence Totelin’s chapter – which I must admit was probably fuelled by the fact that I actually know her – and was not disappointed. She discusses the sense of smell in ancient medical texts, including theories on how we as humans smelled things (such as the author of Places in Man who believed smells reached our brain through the nostrils and that a “soft area, like sponges” allowed them to be sensed). Amongst the maladies for which scent was considered important in diagnosing were those of the womb. A treatment for a womb which had risen in the body – described in the Hippocratic Corpus (De mulierum affectibus 2.127) – was to apply “ill-smelling substances… to the mouth to repel it [from the top of the body] and sweet-smelling ones to the genitals to attract it back to its normal place” (p. 27).

Two related chapters were also very enlightening, and should be read by all authors of historical fiction writing about the ancient world. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow’s “Roman urban smells: the archaeological evidence” and Neville Morley’s “Urban smells and Roman noses” run concurrently as a two-piece tour de force. In the first, Koloski-Ostrow looks to the archaeology of Roman cities to identify their smells, asks if they played a role in the social organization of those cities, and whether or not they affected the physical layout of them. Through a survey of the evidence, she is eventually able to conclude that Roman officials zoned by “how the areas of a city smelled” and that smells could drive certain types of districts in and out of popular favour. Morley takes a more literary approach, powerfully opening his chapter with a quote from Patrick Süskind’s Das Parfum, which evokes the hypothesized stinkyness (taken to an extreme) of past human experiences. While his discussion agrees with the previous chapter – as well as other modern commentators – he notices something peculiar throughout the Roman sources: the Romans “apparently failed to notice” that their cities stank, or perhaps they simply did not regularly comment on it (p. 116).

Seeing – with your eyes

My third venture into the realm of ancient senses was thanks to Michael Squire’s (ed.) Sight and the Ancient Senses (2016). This is the heftiest of the volumes in this series, clocking in at 313 pages, reflecting (as the editor notes) that sight was “the sense that Graeco-Roman antiquity theorized above all others” (p. 1).

The first two chapters go straight to the origin of this in the Greek philosophical traditions. Andrea Nightingale’s “Sight and the philosophy of vision in Classical Greece” will be of significant interest for even readers with only a casual interest in the ancient Mediterranean world, as she covers theories from Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle – three well-known thinkers. I am otherwise not well-acquainted with their ideas on how we as humans see, but they are very interesting. Plato, for instance, believed that the human eye had a light within which was projected upon the world (as we stare), which mingled with daylight, the two of which then coalesce and is observable to the viewer’s soul.Show This is based in the ontological dualism of body and soul found in Plato. As Nightingale points out, this means that sight is not a passive human trait, but is an interactive activity between people and our surroundings.

Jane Heath’s contribution looks at the role of sight in early Christianity, and practitioners’ attitudes to seeing. She situates her chapter within the origin of the faith immediately, astutely pointing out that the resurrection of Jesus Christ – the focus of Christian belief – “is not just the event but also the sight” which defined it (p. 220). As Heath points out, throughout the definitive books of the New Testament, seeing is an important element of faith, with the sight of events and persons (and divine being) being the cornerstone of many of its stories.

Can’t touch… something?

Touch is a powerful sense, even when considered alongside its kin. A finger run down the spine, or a pair of lips on the neck, can evoke sensual responses strong enough to drive a person mad; whilst a nail through the foot will cause crippling pain. For Aristotle, it was a defining sense, and that a lack of touch equates to a lack of life, as we are told by Rebecca Steiner Goldner (p. 50). Her essay, “Aristotle and the priority of touch,” demonstrates how essential haptic sensation was to the philosopher’s conception of what it was to be alive.

It is a characteristic contribution in Alex Purves’ (ed.) Touch and the Ancient Senses. As with the volumes already reviewed, the chapters in this book transcend traditional boundaries within Classics and readers interested in any part of the ancient world will find helpful discussions.

Even for the archaeologist or art historian, there is a powerful essay by Verity Platt and Michael Squire which explores how ancient peoples experienced art (what we consider antiquities) in a different way than we do. Many of the objects that modern museums and scholars covet were originally intended to be touched, whether for cult purposes, worn as clothing or jewellery, or used in a practical way. For modern audiences, there is a barrier between us and artefacts. While this is practical – and necessary – it means that we experience them in a fundamentally different way than the peoples by whose cultures they were created. They prove their point with a number of case studies, which – like ancient art – can only be truly appreciated through first-hand experience.

Yuck, that’s awful!

Contrary to this subsection’s title, Kelli C. Rudolph’s (ed.) Taste and the Ancient Senses is a delightful collection. As an unabashed hedonist with a penchant for delicate drinks and inspiring foods I was extremely eager to read this volume; of course, I was a bit disappointed that it appeared as number five according to my self-imposed schedule. But, just as staring at a roast as it rests, waiting to be sliced, enhances your hunger – and probably the meat’s taste – so too did seeing this on my “to-read shelf” every day.

A few of the chapters caught my eyes immediately, with them certainly casting a light brightly enough to prove Plato’s point (above). The first of these was Laura M. Banducci’s “Tastes of Roman Italy: Early Roman expansion and taste articulation.” Her intriguing approach to looking at the spread of Rome and its culture provides a unique perspective on this phenomenon. This is made even more interesting by the situation of the discussion within Roman Italy as a landscape.Show Landscape theory and approaches have been common, and successful, in recent decades. Using a plethora of Republican-era literary sources (as well as evidence of food-preparation implements), Banducci successfully argues that taste – and its refinement – were an important part of the creation of “Roman” identity. Its impact may have influenced certain behaviours. For instance, urban pig-keeping is noted, both because the animals could be raised in city settings and because of an existing Roman taste for pork (pp. 128-129).

I would feel as though I betrayed a good friend if I did not also highlight Thibaut Boulay’s “Tastes of wine: Sensorial wine analysis in ancient Greece.” His coverage of Greek wine tasting – and the language surrounding it – is thorough, and striking in its similarity to that of our own period. For the ancients, at least as noted by Galen, the quality of wine should be judged by five markers: its look, taste, consistency, smell, and strength. These criteria are remarkable for their contemporary relatability, but also because they span the senses. It makes me think that taste – and all of our senses – are interdependent, and influenced by one another.

A deafening success

At long last, I reached the sixth and final book covered by this review. Bells rang, though out of solace rather than celebration, as I have enjoyed very much reading them. Shane Butler and Sarah Nooter’s (eds.) Sound and the Ancient Senses rounds out the collection.

The sounds of the ancient world are not a new consideration, even for me as *primarily* a historian of warfare. Immediately I thought of a line from Tyrtaeus, of “brazen helmets” clanging “beneath the battering of rocks” in the heat of battle (frg. 19 West). The cacophony of war does not, unfortunately, make an appearance in this particular book, though its contents do not otherwise disappoint.

Amongst the many important questions addressed is whether or not we as a modern audience can truly hear the sounds of the ancient world, asked and answered by Armand D’Angour. By exploring Greek music – its rhythm, melody, and voice – he is able to bridge the gap between we and they of millennia ago. None of these as performed in ancient Greece would be too out of place in the ages since, and D’Angour suggests that we as moderns could also enjoy “the sublime effect of the song” as heard back then. Readers can also be their own judge, thanks to Prof. D’Angour’s efforts involving a number of collaborators at Jesus College, Oxford, who have posted an amazing video found on YouTube.

Sensational overload

Reviewing the six volumes included in this set from Routledge has been a delight. Unfortunately, I was unable in this space to fully describe each book and its contents (as I have done in other reviews). However, I can sum these up in one word: essential. Every single essay contributes significantly to our perception of the ancient world. Before encountering these books, I thought that I had a good understanding of the Greek, Roman, Etruscan, and Carthaginian worlds; after all, I have dedicated my life to their study. But, I never rigorously considered the sensory aspect of this profession.

After reading through all six volumes of The Senses in Antiquity, this will not be the case. I have a new appreciation for how these very basic – very human – elements of the world contribute to our experiences, and thus to the experiences of the texts I read, and the artefacts I study. No student of antiquity, whether classicist, ancient historian, or archaeologist, can truly appreciate the ancient world without careful study of the essays in this series. I believe that at least a curated selection of them should adorn every syllabus, undergraduate and graduate.

In fact, throughout reading these books I was struck by how important the inclusion of sensory elements is for teaching the ancient world. The sterile, somewhat brief, accounts given in survey courses, especially, could be improved by the inclusion of readings from these volumes. I think this is especially true when discussing ancient cities and urbanism, in which case chapters such as Koloski-Ostrow’s and Neville Morley’s will add needed depth to an otherwise cursory examination. Thus, this set should be seen as a powerful teaching tool, accessible to even the smallest university’s library.

At $180 USD as the recommend retail price, I doubt that any other book bundle will help readers connect better to the Greeks and the Romans. But, this raises a thought in my head: why can’t academic publishers readily offer sets of books for similar prices? Yes, when purchased together The Senses in Antiquity are paperbacks, and some people do prioritize hardbacks; but, imagine the knowledge that could be spread if scholarly volumes could be more widely purchased at an average of $30 USD each!