More Desire and Interpretation

HoopoeI suspect I’ve found another example of the role of desire in interpretation: the alleged prevalence of promiscuity and prostitution in first-century Corinth. At this point, the prevailing sense among classical historians (as far as I can tell) favours the view that interpreters of the relevant texts should acknowledge that the oft-cited instance of the Temple of Aphrodite and the thousand sacred prostitutes has no relevance for interpreting the culture of the first-century city. I’m satisfied by the research that questions the basis for the story in the first place — but even if one grants the existence of prominent sacred prostitution in Corinth in the centuries before the Romans razed the city in 146 BCE, surely 150-plus years of passing time would render the past city’s reputation moot. Or do people conventionally think of cities based on their reputation from several centuries ago? (This would make the reputation of many US cities complicated, since they will only have developed as such within the window between the destruction of Corinth and its renascence under Roman rule.

The story lasts because it gives people a chance to leer retrospectively at the goings-on in Corinth, not because there’s any significant evidence that Corinth was a more lascivious city than any other centre of trade. Scholars and their audiences alike want to think about a sexually outrageous Corinth, and that’s the strength of the story’s persistence. Evidence is a side issue.

[I grant that I haven’t subjected the topic to exacting study, and I don’t have time right now. I’m putting “Corinth: Sin City” on my research list, though. Maybe I’ll learn that I’m wrong, in which case I’ll be sure to write about it here.]

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