doctors, novels, sex

Filthy Philaenis: the first sex manual?

Back in 1994, I published a chapter on the ancient world for a collection called Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science, edited by Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich. My research for that was my first encounter with Philaenis and her sex manual. I already knew that there were some very explicit images, as well as some pretty racy stories, around in the ancient world; the fourth-century CE medical writer Theodorus Priscianus advised men to read ‘tales of love’ to cure impotence (Euporista 2.11.34); stories ‘which stimulate lust’. But sex manuals? I hadn’t heard of those.

Symposium scene at an attic red figure tondo of a kylix Yale University.jpg

Public Domain,

This is one of those stories about the classical world which starts with assumptions, and ends with them being shaken up as the result of one simple discovery. Before the 1970s, what did we know about the book associated with Philaenis, or – as she was labelled by John Whitehorne in 1990 – ‘filthy Philaenis’? You’ve got to love that alliteration…

First, the person. There are various people called ‘Philaenis’ in ancient sources, and some such references specifically mention a book, but that doesn’t mean that every time the name turns up it’s the same Philaenis. Maybe it was just a common name, although there is disagreement about whether it was a ‘prostitute name’; it relates to philos, one of the Greek words for ‘love’, although it doesn’t usually mean That Sort of Love. One of Martial’s epigrams (2.33) includes a Philaenis who is bald, one-eyed and red; that is, she looks like a penis. In other epigrams, the name is that of a prostitute or of a tribas (that’s untranslatable), who among other things ‘buggers boys’. Other ancient sources too make her a model of disruptive sexuality, of various kinds. That tradition continued beyond antiquity: John Donne’s poem Sapho to Philaenis (1633) ignores the restrictions of time (Sappho probably lived in the sixth century BCE: Philaenis in the fourth) to imagine a lesbian relationship between them. Sappho asks what’s wrong with this, because:

Hand to strange hand, lippe to lippe none denies;
Why should they brest to brest, or thighs to thighs?

How about the infamous book? Was it really written by a woman, or was ‘Philaenis’ a nom-de-plume for one or more men? In other historical periods, writing as a woman was a way of appealing to the curiosity of a male reader, and attributing information on sex to a woman supported the idea that sex was somehow ‘women’s business’. When, in the sixteenth century, Thomas Heywood labelled Philaenis a ‘strumpet’ or ‘wanton’, he also claimed that she was the author of ‘certain books of venereal copulation’. We get more idea of what the contents of these books was supposed to be from ancient sources which present Philaenis as a sort of role model: one of the poems in the first century CE Carmina Priapea mentions someone who tries ‘all the positions Philaenis describes’. 

So what about those positions? They make me think of I Modi, the illustrated guide to sexual positions associated with the sixteenth-century poet and satirist Pietro Aretino. He offered pictures and poems for sixteen sexual positions, modelled by couples from the ancient world such as Venus and Mars. There was plenty of interest in positions in the ancient world, too. A prostitute called Cyrene was, apparently, known as ’12 positions’ because that’s how many she had on the menu. ‘Aretino’s Positions’ later became a byword for eroticism, mentioned in many publications from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. However, the message was often a political or satirical one, suggesting that the Italians were morally depraved and ‘we’ weren’t.

For early Christian writers, ‘Philaenis’ stood for all the things that they thought were wrong with pagan sexuality and, specifically, with the ancient Greeks. In the late second century CE, the Christian writer Clement of Alexandria mentioned paintings based on the positions in the book, which required anyone imitating them to have the strength of Heracles.

Following all these ancient and subsequent sources, classical scholars assumed that the Philaenis book was simply a list of positions, possibly illustrated. Then, in the 1970s, the first evidence of what this lost book really contained appeared, in the form of some papyrus fragments from the second century CE; here they are in the originals, and full translations of all three can be found here. But the content wasn’t quite what people had expected! It was far more prosaic, far more tame. Instead of a list of athletic sexual positions, it included a warning not to comb your hair because it will make you look too obviously keen (this gives a whole new perspective on Boris Johnson’s hair).  There was some basic advice on seduction – tell her she’s ‘godlike’ – and on kissing. Recalling John Donne’s Sapho to Philaenis, it’s fascinating that this reference to being ‘godlike’ recalls Sappho’s fragment 31, which opens ‘He seems to me like a god…’, perhaps contrasting the calm godlike demeanour of the man who sits across from the girl Sappho loves, with Sappho’s own emotional response.

The ancient work most like this rediscovered Philaenis is Ovid’s Art of Love, which starts from how and where to find a likely girlfriend – the circus is a good place, because by sitting next to her you can press your leg against hers while making her feel comfortable by adjusting her cushions and fanning her if it’s hot. Where Philaenis only seems to address men who want to persuade a woman into bed, in the final book of Art of Love Ovid speaks to the women who, he says, ‘are begging me for lessons’. He advises them on which positions will show off their best features and not to open their mouths when laughing if their teeth are bad. Finding these tiny hints of what was included in ‘Philaenis’ gave support to the theory that Ovid was sending up the established genre of the sexual advice book.

Maybe there are other papyrus fragments out there which haven’t yet been identified as the later chapters of Philaenis? Perhaps these are where the lists of positions feature; or, perhaps, those were never in the original version? Further chapters of Philaenis, on any topic at all, would certainly be at the top of my list of ‘Most exciting future finds of lost texts’!


To find out more:

Harriette Andreadis, Sappho in Early Modern England (University of Chicago Press, 2001)

Sandra Boehringer, ‘What is named by the name “Philaenis”? Gender, function and authority of an antonomastic figure’, in Mark Masterson, Nancy Rabinowitz and J. E. Robson (eds), Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World (Routledge, 2014), pp. 374-393

Sandra Boehringer, ‘Not a freak but a Jack-in-the-box: Philaenis in Martial, Epigram VII, 67′, Archimède 5, 2018

Helen King, ‘Sowing the field: Greek and Roman sexology’ in Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich (eds), Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: the History of Attitudes to Sexuality (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 29–46

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