What a fantastic debate! The motion reached down the body of Classical literature and pulled at its very heart; how do we read these Classical texts now? Can we even read them now? Should we even bother? Hot on the heels of the recent Students Guild #NeverOK campaign, with a promotional YouTube video with 8500 views, the Classics Society has proven its engagement and thrown the question back 2000 years. Did the ancients have a concept of Sexual Harassment? How did it come across in its literature? The proposition was made up of Emily Lawry, Alexander Roberts, Polly Bowden and Dr Sebastian Matzner, opposed by Julius Guthrie, Helena Leslie , Alice Woods and Dr Sharon Marshall. The debate was kindly chaired by Lewis Saffin, the Chairman of the University of Exeter’s Debating Society.

After a conscience vote, with the options to side with the proposition, opposition, or abstain, the format of the debate was that each team took turns with one speaker; each student spoke for 5 minutes, alternating between proposition and opposition, followed by the longer 8 minute speeches from the two lecturers. This was followed by an exchange of questions from the two teams, with questions from the floor continuing until a final, deciding vote. What followed was exemplary debate, rhetorical flourish, and mentions of the more expected Ovid and Menander to Aboriginal dream custom and Oscar Wilde.

Emily opened the debate, and customary to the role of the first speaker, defined the terms of the discussion. Emily argued that Sexual Harassment is quite difficult to define, but that ‘actions or words of sexual abuse aimed at a partner who is unwilling’ would be a good start. Emily also drew a distinction between morality and academic conduct; the debate should not be about what’s morally wrong (everyone in the room agreed that Sexual Harassment is wrong), but how we make effective criticism of the ancient texts, and be good Classicists. Instead, Emily introduced one of the core themes of the proposition’s argument; that we should try to discover and understand the ancient texts and contexts first, and separate our own views, which are only relevant in another type of conversation.

Julius’ rebuttal was that, actually, our views can be a great way to understand more of what’s going on in these texts. Julius drew our attention to the fact that the majority of Classical literature was written by middle aged men, and so women are often glossed over as part of the narrative, or looked at in a satirical or comic way. Our modern viewpoints allow us to understand what’s poorly or, indeed, un-explained, by the author. A case in point is the Roman festival of Bona Dea, or the Thesmophoria in Athens; both were women-only events, and men therefore could only talk about it in terms of ‘the other’, often through sex.

Alexander took the reins of the proposition’s case, and spurred it on, arguing several points as he went. Firstly, Alexander reminded us that other disciplines, such as anthropology, are very critical and careful about applying modern/western ideas to other times and cultures, and we should do the same; especially when our world is so different from the Greek and Roman, in term of religion, social structure, justice, morality, and more. Such a difference comes out in an idealised relationship; in Athens, for example, there existed the ‘erastes’ (lover) and ‘eromonos’ (beloved) relationship, with an older man and a younger boy, great then, less so now. With such differences in mind we should not apply our own views, as this transplants alien concepts onto the ancients who did not have them. Instead of making the mistake that the Victorians made – censoring highly sexual parts of the texts, such as Lysistrata – we should strive to understand them on our own terms, and embrace the comedy of drag in the Lysistrata, not use them as a value to understand our own.

Helena’s response was a powerful reminder of the context of the ancient literature, with an emphasis on the emotion of the women. Responding to an earlier point, Helena suggested that we could use our views on Sexual Harassment to reconstruct a picture for those who are voiceless through the texts. Helena reminded us of the historical details concerning these matters, such as the Athenian Draconian homicide law, with the result that in a situation of rape, the rapist could be killed for the defilation of another man’s property, in this case, his wife or daughter. Helena coupled this with emphasis on emotions; she read out a section of Menander’s Epitrepontes, where one girl describes another being raped, with detail of the raped woman’s psychological state; tearful, afraid and defiled. Helena finished by arguing that, thus, in antiquity there were clear limits which could be ignored, and we should therefore apply our views *as well as* being able to appreciate the ancient authors academically for their merits, an important part of the opposition’s case.

Polly countered by arguing that we can’t learn anything from the ancient literature if we start to condemn the it; to do so is not productive in a social or academic way. This is not to say that we should ignore the horrible content highlighted by Helena – this would make us less culturally developed. Polly restated and developed the argument first made by Alexander, that we should be factual and objective with the texts, and save the moral debate for another level, one not encroaching on the text. As she put it, women didn’t have the chance to talk; who are we to fill in the gaps and say what they would have thought? Such an exercise can only ever tell us about ourselves, rather than the ancients.

Alice transferred the debate to a new area by comparing the problematic ancient poets to problematic modern examples; Catullus, in particular his infamous 16th poem, to Dapper Laughs (the comedian featured on ITV, whose comments that a women in the audience was ‘gagging for rape’ lead to the axing of his show, and the actor abandoning the character). Alice applied this idea of a persona to the poets, a fascinating move, asking us to question whether we should judge the authors for ideas they may not represent. We can still therefore apply our modern views but avoid criticising the authors specifically.

Next arose the sterling Sebastian, new to the department, who gave a speech that will have set him firmly in the minds of those who attended. Sebastian summarised some of the most important arguments that his team had made; we should understand our own position on Sexual Harassment first, which is difficult enough, before applying it to an ancient contexts, which we should reserve for critical analysis. The opposition, he argued, were conflating the two; all this achieves is to push our modern views, as an example of ‘political opportunism’, which should not ‘challenge academic integrity’. This turns antiquity into a mirror image of ourselves. We must instead strive to understand our own critical position, and make it free from prejudice; the other approach would at best distort our encounters with the past, at worst censor it. Sound scholarship, which can inform moral debates, was key instead. Sebastian reminded us that the statement they were debating was about literature, not laws or culture, and that the opposition had failed to see this. Firmly with his tongue in his cheek, Sebastian quoted Oscar Wilde’s famous comment about the pitfalls of misappropriating literature; ‘Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming’. Instead, we should appreciate literature on its own terms, not apply self-congratulatory ideas about our own superior modern ethical advancements on the primitive ancients.

Not letting her colleague have the last word, Sharon Marshall argued in response that we can have a problem with the texts, but also treat them with the appropriate types of academic criticism. The approach outlined by the proposition, she argued, is untenable in a teaching forum. Backed up by statistics, Sharon showed that in a standard classroom many of those present will have been the victim of Sexual Harassment or Abuse, which means that we have to acknowledge it and treat it accordingly. She quoted how one student, not of hers, described the Philomela scene in Ovid, in which Philomela is raped and has her tongue cut out, as terrifying to read, as it was like ‘being raped again’. Sharon furthered this argument by showing how Propertius, for example, was aware of how sometimes words can be just as or more effective than deeds in producing a response. Sharon also furthered Helena’s point about emotion; our understanding of the issue allows us to appreciate the snippets of the voiceless that we do sometimes get in antiquity, thus benefitting the application of modern views. Ultimately, Sharon argued, it’s impossible for us as readers of the text to remove ourselves from our historical context, in the way that the proposition suggested, and that we can use the ancient texts as a way to understand our own views.

After a round of testing questions, the final vote was taken by Lewis: the opposition carried the day, with 23 votes to 18.

Ultimately, this debate took on many issues important to Classicists. In one way, it was a battle of methodology; do we follow a historicist line, and try to focus mostly on understanding the texts in their contexts, or do we also apply a more postmodern framework, and apply modern ways of reading to these texts, to discover more lucrative ways of reading them? Another issue concerns the relevance of Classics; can debates centred around these debates shed light on and help us understand our own ideas? The answer to the latter is a resounding yes – as Sharon’s speech in particular made clear. As to the methodology, the debate will rage on, but ultimately both approaches are beneficial to Classics in different ways. We should also take a moment to remember that the views expressed by the debaters do not necessarily reflect their personal views, as Sebastian pointed out was the case for him.

Overall, it was a great debate, a lot of fun for everyone involved, as well as being genuinely thought provoking; the organisers and speakers are to be congratulated.


The debate was kindly written up by Tom McConnell, CLAH SSLC 3rd Year Representative, and Classics and Ancient History Editor for The Undergraduate Journal.

The Undergraduate are accepting submissions from all Exeter undergraduate students until December 12th. More information can be found here:



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