Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Sexing the World

Sexing the World: Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex in Ancient Rome

Anthony Corbeill
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 216
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Sexing the World
    Book Description:

    From the moment a child in ancient Rome began to speak Latin, the surrounding world became populated with objects possessing grammatical gender-masculine eyes (oculi), feminine trees (arbores), neuter bodies (corpora).Sexing the Worldsurveys the many ways in which grammatical gender enabled Latin speakers to organize aspects of their society into sexual categories, and how this identification of grammatical gender with biological sex affected Roman perceptions of Latin poetry, divine power, and the human hermaphrodite.

    Beginning with the ancient grammarians, Anthony Corbeill examines how these scholars used the gender of nouns to identify the sex of the object being signified, regardless of whether that object was animate or inanimate. This informed the Roman poets who, for a time, changed at whim the grammatical gender for words as seemingly lifeless as "dust" (pulvis) or "tree bark" (cortex). Corbeill then applies the idea of fluid grammatical gender to the basic tenets of Roman religion and state politics. He looks at how the ancients tended to construct Rome's earliest divinities as related male and female pairs, a tendency that waned in later periods. An analogous change characterized the dual-sexed hermaphrodite, whose sacred and political significance declined as the republican government became an autocracy. Throughout, Corbeill shows that the fluid boundaries of sex and gender became increasingly fixed into opposing and exclusive categories.

    Sexing the Worldcontributes to our understanding of the power of language to shape human perception.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5246-8
    Subjects: History, Linguistics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Latin Grammatical Gender is Not Arbitrary
    (pp. 1-11)

    To a speaker of Latin, the table at which I sit (mensa) is feminine, the cup from which I drink (poculum) neuter, and the eyes with which I see (oculi) masculine. Every aspect of an ancient Roman’s life was populated with nouns that possessed at least one of these three genders. This linguistic phenomenon, of course, hardly characterizes Latin alone. Grammatical gender is in fact so widespread that it takes the satire of a Mark Twain to remind us of the inherent oddness of these categories. In explicitly drawing attention to a turnip’s presumed sex, Twain questions the logic—and...

  5. Chapter 1 Roman Scholars on Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex
    (pp. 12-40)

    Sterne offers here a transparent play on the relationship between grammatical gender and biological sex. Names of countries, regularly gendered feminine in the Romance languages, accordingly take on the features of females in both visual representations and the imaginings of native speakers. Just as it would have been unthinkable for a Roman artist to portray the personified cityRomaas a man, so too does Francis’s minister identify the king’s proposal to make Switzerland a godfather as grammatically impossible. Two assumptions underlying this exchange will inform the following chapter: first, that to equate biological sex with grammatical gender marks a...

  6. Chapter 2 Roman Poets on Grammatical Gender
    (pp. 41-71)

    The previous chapter illustrated how inherent aspects of the Latin language during the classical period, particularly the absence of a definite article to accompany nouns, contributed to the perception that grammatical gender in the earliest stages of the language must have been fluid, a perception that did not exist in the Greek tradition. In turn, the Roman grammarians busied themselves with cataloging each attested variation in gender, and developed a set of criteria to determine whether in any particular instance the literary source for the variation simply offered a dubious deviation from the normal gender—and could thereby be ignored...

  7. Chapter 3 Poetic Play with Sex and Gender
    (pp. 72-103)

    The previous chapter focused primarily on reconstructing how ancient grammarians and commentators made sense of the practice of the poets who had preceded them. I posited that these scholars deemed select poets to possess both the ability and the authority to speak a special language, a possession that afforded them access to the earliest stages of Latin or its imagined ancestor. My principal interest lies in how this poetic language treated the phenomenon of grammatical gender. Since this poetic knowledge was seen to hark back to the earliest stages of culture, the ways in which poets manipulated gender often could...

  8. Chapter 4 Androgynous Gods in Archaic Rome
    (pp. 104-142)

    In the midst of a reasoned dispute over the superiority of monotheism to polytheism, the fourth-century Christian apologist Arnobius uses Cicero as an authority to deny that divinities possess sexual characteristics. As a supplement to Cicero’s arguments, Arnobius confronts the masculine grammatical gender of deus (“God”):

    ac ne tamen et nobis inconsideratus aliquis calumniam moveat, tamquam deum quem colimus marem esse credamus, ea scilicet causa, quod eum cum loquimur pronuntiamus genere masculino, intellegat non sexum sed usu et familiaritate sermonis appellationem eius et significantiam promi. non enim deus mas est, sed nomen eius generis masculini est, quod idem vos dicere...

  9. Chapter 5 The Prodigious Hermaphrodite
    (pp. 143-170)

    I begin with a joke that exploits the relationship that has been driving the preceding argument of this book: the consistent play in Latin between human sexuality and the grammatical rules that describe the gender of nouns. As discussed in chapter 1, in the second century AD a discourse on Latin grammar by a visibly addled scholar could command attention from members of the Roman elite awaiting an audience with the emperor (Gell. 4.1). Throughout the subsequent centuries, public demonstrations on grammar by a professional teacher continue to be of interest—and even in demand—on what may strike us...

  10. Abbreviations
    (pp. 171-172)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 173-188)
  12. Index Locorum
    (pp. 189-198)
  13. General Index
    (pp. 199-204)