Nov 012020

The lecture at our AGM this year was given by Dr. Alan Greaves of the University of Liverpool. His talk was quite interactive, and also included some material that we don’t have permission to share on this website, but Dr. Greaves has given us permission to share the substance of his talk here.

The focus of the lecture was statues, something that is very topical in Bristol right now. In particular, Dr. Greaves looked at one particular statue that is now in the World Museum in Liverpool. It is titled “Sleeping Venus”, and if you click through to the Museum’s website you will see a fairly typical Roman statue of a near-naked woman reclining, apparently asleep.

The statue came to the Museum from the estate of Henry Blundell, a wealthy art collector who lived around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Blundell records that this particular piece required extensive restoration before he was able to put it on display at his mansion, Ince Blundell Hall. It is the nature of this “restoration” that is of interest to us.

We know what the statue originally looked like because the statue was sketched by Blundell’s friend, Charles Townley. That sketch is part of a collection of that is now in the British Museum. Here it is.

The “restoration”, it seems, involved more taking away than repairing. The three child figures, one of whom was apparently suckling at the reclining figure’s breast, have been cut away and the statue repaired so that their removal is not obvious. A careful look at the Townley sketch also reveals a set of male genitals nestling between the thighs of the adult figure. These too have been removed. The crotch is now entirely smooth.

The original statue, therefore, was not of Venus, but of her child, Hermaphrodit(us/e), who is both male and female. This god was well known in the Roman world, and many statues of them exist. There is a very famous one in the Louvre in Paris. No one is entirely sure what these statues meant to the Romans. Modern historians, who are often as perturbed by such figures as Blundell, tend to assume that they were some sort of crude joke. However, one of the functions of the god appears to be to watch over (heterosexual) marriage, in which a man and a woman join together as one.

What we can say about the statue is that Blundell’s alterations have erased its original nature and function. It was acceptable in Georgian times to have a statue of a near-naked woman in your house or garden. It was not acceptable to show her breast-feeding, and it was absolutely not acceptable for her (him? them?) to have a penis.

The alterations also erase another facet of ancient life. A small percentage of human babies are born with ambiguous genitalia, or other features which cause them to not fit neatly into our categories of boy and girl. These days we call such people intersex. There are over 100 different known medical variations of the more common body types. For many decades it has been commonplace for such babies to be operated on while very young to make them appear less different. Such operations can lead to life-long medical problems. The fact that this has been done is generally kept highly secret, with only the doctors and parents knowing it has happened. This could not happen in ancient times. They didn’t have maternity hospitals, or sophisticated plastic surgery techniques.

In the more brutal ancient societies such as Sparta, and Rome in its early days, a baby who looked unusual in some way might well be killed. But by the time of the Empire social attitudes in Rome seem to have softened. One intersex person, a man called Favorinus, became a famous philosopher and a favourite of the Emperor Hadrian, despite having apparently never gone through male puberty. That’s an amazing achievement in a society as patriarchal as Rome.

The modern intersex rights movement is fighting to ban all surgery on infants. For more information see