I Like Big Butts: On The Ideal Woman in Antiquity
We’ve discussed some constructions of women in antiquity previously on the blog. Specifically, we looked at how Platonic, Hermetic, Gnostic, and even Kabbalistic texts painted a picture of womanhood that was far from complimentary. Given this dicey outlook on femininity, it would be fair to consider if there was anything at all that the ancients found valuable in a woman.
There is. It’s her butt.
To be specific, it appears that ancient writers prized a large, round derrière. The converse, not so much.
Now, I take no issue with this. In fact, as someone who has been endowed with a rather ample backside, the only way it could get better is if the perfect woman also had a lazy eye and spoke with a Chicago accent. Obviously, these fellows had their priorities in order.
Hesiod, for one, knew the appeal of a lady with a big butt, connecting it directly to one’s sexual allure. However, even a plump booty couldn’t save a woman from her most basic problem: That she was a woman and full of lies.
“Do not let a woman with a sexy rump deceive you with wheedling and coaxing words; she is after your barn. The man who trusts a woman trusts deceivers.” (In Pomeroy, 48)
But why the “sexy rump?” It went beyond personal preference—the larger the cushion, the sweeter the pushin’, if you know what I mean. This physical attribute was prized for a very practical reason that had to do with the perils of childbirth in antiquity. Keep in mind that modern birth control was still a couple of millennia in the making. Without access to the things we take for granted, the Greeks practiced anal sex as a contraceptive technique (Pomeroy, 49).
But I digress. Was there anything wrong with a small ass? Well, yeah. It was small.
Heck, even the Romans liked a sizable behind.
Like, Hesiod, the Roman poet Juvenal also outlined the woes women bring in a poem titled simply “On Women.” Every imaginable personality flaw is cataloged in this work, reiterating classical tropes about the female nature. Women are sexually licentious, “simple-minded” and concerned with superficial matters. In comparing various types of women unfavorably with animals, he makes the connection we saw earlier between desirability and butt-size:
Another one is from the monkey. In this case Zeus has outdone himself
In giving husbands the worst kind of evil.
She has the ugliest face imaginable; and such a woman
Is the laughingstock throughout the town for everyone.
Her body moves awkwardly all the way up to its short neck;
She hardly has an ass and her legs are skinny. What a poor wretch is the husband
Who has to put his arms around such a mess!
For Zeus designed this as the greatest of all evils:
Women. Even if in some way they seem to be a help;
To their husbands especially they are a source of evil.
(In Pomeroy, 51)
Juvenal concludes that the only woman worthy of praise is one who is obedient, refrains from talking about sex, and bears her husband a “distinguished group of children.” Also, we can infer from his disparaging remarks about the “monkey” woman that a round behind is a plus, even if it won’t eradicate the evil that women bring to the men around them.
Ironically, in Juvenal’s poem, woman is created by Zeus. One may ask: What kind of god would punish the male species as depicted here? In other words, this whole mess is Zeus’ fault! Perhaps it was a literary device, or just a practical necessity that the chief deity, being male, be responsible for the human race.
Our take away here is two-fold: The ancients didn’t really think much of women. In fact, they were quite awful creatures. However, if you were a man in antiquity, and you couldn’t avoid dealing with one, best choose a woman with a nice, large ass.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. Schocken. 1995.
Photo by Giulio Menna.