Tuesday, July 27, 2010

When it comes to sex, pleasure and celebrity, modern Britons are so similar to the Romans - shame we don't have their sense of duty

We like to think we are the first generation to be truly modern. We pride ourselves on always ' moving forward'. Any fashion more than ten years old is dismissed or patronised as 'retro'. Yet are we really as original as we think? Is it possible that in many important ways we are moving not forwards but back, and back a long, long way?

Yes, the habits and attitudes of people in Britain today are very different from those of our grandparents, let alone those of the Victorians. But if we look a great deal further back, we may hear some strange and surprising echoes of the modern age.

For what is truly astonishing is how much our society resembles the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, in recreation, sex, food, religion and other areas of our daily existence.

Without our being the least aware of it, the ways in which we conduct our rich and varied lives correspond, almost eerily so, to the ways in which the Greeks and Romans lived theirs.

Whether we are eating or drinking, relaxing or making love, our habits and our thoughts so often recall theirs. It is as if we have been on a long round trip. We have sailed from the harbour and seen the glimmering, misty, limitless sea and now, after 2,000 years, we are back at the jetty from where we embarked.

A modern Briton would probably feel alienated if transported back in time to the late Victorian age, with its all-pervasive Christian ethics, sexual restraints, ethnic homogeneity, disapproval of self-indulgence, and obsession with respectability.

'The Romans devoted more resources to bathhouses than to palaces or temples, just as spas have become more popular in our society than churches'

Yet the same time traveller would be far more at ease if taken back much further to the teeming, voluble world of ancient Rome, where pleasure-seeking was not tainted by sin, where the noisy streets were filled with a mass of migrant cultures, where paganism and astrology prevailed, where the human body was pampered rather than treated as a source of embarrassment.

The parallels between the classical world and our own post-Christian society, with the self - rather than God - at its centre, can be seen all around us. Even our fixation with shallow celebrities could be found in Rome.

We now have a new class of stars who have become famous simply for being famous, as exemplified by Jade Goody, a dental nurse with a saucy tongue and a rough wit, whose only real achievement was to come fourth in one series of Big Brother. Yet she exerted such a hold over the British public that her tragic early death from cancer last year prompted saturation media coverage and tributes from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister.

This mass mawkishness was very like the canonisation in the Roman Empire of Antinous, an obscure page from the province of Bithynia on the Black Sea, whose youthful good looks prompted the Emperor Hadrian to fall deeply in love with him - which led Antinous to become the Jade Goody of his day.

Utterly heart-broken when Antinous drowned in the River Nile in AD 130, Hadrian ordered that his beloved late companion be proclaimed a god. The Roman authorities carried out his wishes with alacrity. Within a couple of years, there was scarcely a city that had not built a temple to Antinous, put up statues to him or issued coins and medallions in his memory. As the cult spread, followers throughout the Empire attributed miracles to the departed imperial paramour.

Another ancient form of worship, the cult of the body, would strike a chord with many modern Britons. The two institutions that were central to classical culture were the public baths and the gym, just as the spa and the health club are so important to ours.

The Romans devoted more resources to bathhouses than to palaces or temples, just as spas have become more popular in our society than churches.

Today every country-house hotel, every beauty salon, every leisure centre now has a spa attached offering every kind of massage and therapy, from mud wraps to body scrubs, something the average Roman would have understood perfectly.

Where Christianity once taught that pampering was a form of sinful vanity, now the body has become a god whose every whim must be humoured.

The same is true of workouts, either in gyms or with personal trainers, a profession that barely existed 20 years ago. There are now estimated to be 5,700 public and private gyms in Britain, and we have to go back to the Greeks and Romans to find this level of frequency and intensity of physical training. Galen, the great Greek physician of the second century AD, prescribed specific exercises to strengthen the legs, arms and trunk, just like those taught by modern fitness trainers.

Yet there was a startling paradox about this obsession with the body, one that we would instantly recognise. Under the Empire, ordinary Romans were notorious couch potatoes, just as Britons today - despite all the aerobics classes - spend record amounts of time in front of the TV.

The ancient Romans flocked to the circus for all-day-long spectaculars. The only exercise they took was the early start to secure a decent seat. Crowds of 400,000 sat there from dawn to dusk, watching gladiators, chariot races and the butchery of large mammals, as utterly absorbed and inert as addicts of modern reality TV.

It is the same contradiction that can be seen in our hosting of the next Olympic Games in 2012, an event that is itself a throwback to ancient Greece. Never has so much money been spent by the Government on sport, yet never have there been greater concerns about obesity.

But perhaps the link between ancient and modern can be seen most clearly in the arena of sexual relationships. Recent decades have brought a revolution in British attitudes towards sex.

Where once we lived in a country that was renowned for its moderation, even prudishness, today we are far less inhibited. The new orthodoxy holds that passion should be enjoyed guilt-free rather than weighed down by the teachings of religious killjoys.

A modern-minded person now takes it for granted that between freely consenting adults, there must be no legal prohibitions of any sort. This mood of openness means that most newspapers and magazines have sexual advice columns, often remarkable for their range and candour. Even the august Times, which thundered during the Profumo scandal of 1963 that an affair between a call-girl and the War Minister certainly was 'a moral issue', now carries a frank section on sexual dilemmas, covering everything from female orgasms to sado-masochism.

Sex products, once hidden from public view, now represent just another branch of retail therapy. Problematic aspects of sexual relations have been removed from the hands of priests and novelists and relocated to the cool, non-judgemental atmosphere of the medical surgery or the counselling room.

The prime duty of individuals is to be true to their feelings, for 'living a lie' is now the most serious offence against the modern gospel of the self.

There need be no sense of shame if one changes partners, even abruptly, or revels in physical encounters just for their own sake.

This outlook has given rise to the modern phenomenon of the No-Strings-Attached (NSA) liaisons, which can now be easily pursued via the internet. One typical NSA website, called lovinglinks.com, claims to have no fewer than 23,000 subscribers, all of them allegedly married men and women looking purely for sexual enjoyment.

Until recently, all this would have been unthinkable in respectable British society. Yet the pragmatic, guilt-free approach is exactly in tune with the sexual mores of the ancient world. The Greeks generally regarded sex as similar to eating or drinking, pleasures to be healthily enjoyed. The same was largely true of Rome. As in our own time, there were few taboos between adults, though children were to be protected from exploitation. The poet Catullus, for instance, advocated sex with women or with boys, whichever his readers fancied at the time, because there was no such thing as right and wrong in this context.

In the same way Lucretius recommended regular one-night stands as a way of avoiding the tortures of suppressed lust. Indeed, he was an enthusiast of the No-Strings-Attached relationship and warned of the dangers of falling in love: 'To avoid the passion of love is not to deprive oneself of the joys of Venus but on the contrary to savour their delights without undergoing their exactions,' he wrote.

But how did we return full-circle to the past, adopting this relaxed, downbeat, low-expectation view of our sexual mores? I believe there are four principal forces which, linked together since the Sixties, acted as a battering ram against the demanding code of sexual morality that had prevailed since the rise of Christianity in the first Millennium.

The first was what might be termed the 'kindness revolution'. Over the centuries, the Christian doctrines on sex had hardened into a set of rules and punishments which operated with cruelty against those who strayed beyond the rigid moral boundaries, such as single mothers, homosexuals or female adulterers.

But as more humanitarian values spread through society after World War II, it came to seem increasingly intolerable and intrusive that the state and churches should presume to regulate sexual behaviour.

Second, there was the growing influence of science. Studies of the sexual behaviour of the birds and the bees show that sexual behaviour which had been labelled deviant, unnatural or immoral was commonplace in nature.

The American entomologist Alfred Kinsey switched in the Thirties from the study of Gall wasps to the study of human sexual behaviour, and his researches demonstrated that supposedly unnatural behaviour was pretty common among humans, too. The fact that Kinsey himself was a neurotic, bisexual sado-masochist who skewed his findings to fit his own desires did not lessen his role in the sexual rebellion.

Third, sex education in schools, working hand-in-hand with technological advances in contraception such as the Pill, aimed to make sex a natural, routine part of life.

It was claimed that, with deeper understanding of the mechanics of sex, young people would become more responsible. It has hardly worked out like that. Teenage pregnancy, lone parenthood, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases are all at record levels, but that has only intensified the calls for more sex education and more contraception.

Fourth, greater freedom of speech, including less censorship in everything from literature to films, helped to break down the habitual British embarrassment about sex.

We are now surrounded by explicit sexual imagery and language in a way that would have been unbelievable in the Britain of the Fifties.

As Christianity with its stern moral injunctions and its insistence on self-denial continues to fade from modern minds, so we seem to draw closer to the habits and attitudes of the ancient world with its easy acceptance of the pleasures of the senses.

But there was a crucial difference between the ancient world and modern Britain. At the peak of their grandeur, the civic culture of Athens and Rome was deeply patriotic.

The first duty of every Roman was to do his bit for the city. Roman citizens were licensed to enjoy all those delicious freedoms and material pleasures only within an overarching framework of self-restraint and patriotic service, both civil and military.

They were well aware that the survival and greatness of the city depended on nobody but themselves. When the empire began to crumble under later emperors, they blamed other people, of course - the barbarians nibbling at the frontiers, the immigrants who had failed to learn Roman ways (although both barbarians and immigrants were only too eager to become proper Romans) - but they blamed themselves, too.

They invented a new word 'romanitas' to describe all the virtues they thought they were losing.

In contemplating the agonisingly slow decline and fall of the great city, we too may want to ask the question: have we in our day regained the old liberties but lost the old vision?


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