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Chione's Bikini: Affectation or Normal Bathing Attire?

  • Patricia Watson (a1)

Narrat te, Chione, rumor numquam esse fututam

atque nihil cunno purius esse tuo.

Tecta tamen non hac, qua debes, parte lavaris:

si pudor est, transfer subligar in faciem.

Martial, Ep. 3.87

Rumour has it, Chione, that you have never been fucked and that nothing is purer than your cunt. But when you take a bath you don't cover yourself in the place you should: if you have any modesty, transfer your loincloth to your face.

The epigram is an amusing attack on a meretrix (‘prostitute’), with the ironic sobriquet Chione (‘Snow White’) who, though technically a virgin, in fact specialises in fellatio. To make the point that it is Chione's mouth, rather than her cunnus (‘cunt’), which is impure, Martial suggests that when bathing she should modestly cover that part which in her case is put to sexual use, that is, her mouth, by transferring her subligar (lit. ‘loin-cloth’) from her bottom half to her face. Although the meaning is clear and the piece looks uncomplicated enough, a discussion of the precise way in which the humour works, and second, of the underlying social customs, offers unexpected rewards.

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1 Fellatrices were routinely despised and ridiculed in Greece and Rome: see Krenkel, W.A., ‘Fellatio and Irrumatio’, Wiss. Zeitschr. Univ. Rostock 29.5 (1980) 7787.

2 For the subligar, see Goldman, N., ‘Reconstructing Roman Clothing’, in Sebesta, J.L. and Bonfante, L. (eds), The World of Roman Costarne (Madison, Wisconsin 1994) 213-37, at 233.

3 See Sullivan, J.P., Martial: The Unexpected Classic (Cambridge 1991) 222–4.

4 E.g. Glycera (cf. Hor. Od. 1.19). Several appear in Martial's 11th book, e.g. Phyllis, Glycera, Leda, Aegle, Thais, and, in epigram 60, Phlogis and Chione: cf. Kay, N.M. (ed.), Martial Book XI: A Commentary (London 1985) on 11.60.1. For Chione, cf. also Juv. 3.136, probably derived from Martial 3.30.4: unde vires Chiones?, ‘where can you get the money to be Chione's lover?’. See Courtney, E. (ed.), A Commentary on the Satires of Juvenal (London 1980) ad loc. Claudius’ wife, Messalina, practised as a meretrix, ‘prostitute’, under the pseudonym Lycisca (Juv. 6.123).

5 The paradox that a meretrix has a cunnus purus, ‘pure cunt’, might be reinforced by the name ‘Snow White’. Although the application of such a name to a meretrix would primarily suggest a fair complexion rather than virginity (cf. Mart. 3.34.2, with L.C. and Watson, P.A. (eds), Martial: Select Epigrams [Cambridge 2003] 324), the frequent association of the colour with ritual purity (cf. Radke, G., Die Bedeutung der weissen und der schwarzen Farbe in Kult und Brauch der Griechen und Römer [Jena 1936]) might invite the false expectation that Chione's name will prove inappropriate, as in 3.34 where she is nigra, ‘dark-skinned’.

6 For cycles in Martial see e.g. Merli, E., ‘Epigrammenzyklen und “serielle Lekture” in den Büchern Martials. Überlegungen und Beispiele’, in Grewing, F. (ed.), Toto Notus in Orbe: Perspektiven der Martial-Interprétation (Stuttgart 1998) 139–56.

7 Cf. CIL 4.1854 Caliste, devora, ‘Calistus, eat <me>; and 5396 Cossuti felá, ‘Cossutius, suck <me>’; Adams, J.N., The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (London 1982) 128.

8 Exactly how is debatable: Bailey, D.R. Shackleton, Martial, Epigrams (Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge MA/London 1993) ad loc., suggests that she can injure by kissing her lovers, thereby subjecting them to her os impurum, ‘impure mouth’ (cf. 2.23 where the kisses of the /e//atorPostumus are said to be able to avenge themselves) or (less probably) by using the same bath. Fusi, A. (ed.), M. Valerii Martialis Epigrammaton liber tertius (Hildesheim 2006) ad loc., citing Verdiere, ACD 5 (1969) 106, suggests that she bites the lover while fellating him (comparing Lucret. 4.1080 ff.).

9 E.g. 1.29, 90; 2.82; 4.16, 69; 6.66; 7.62, 90; 11.21, 102. In a few cases where a rumour is false, something more damning is usually revealed: e.g. 2.72 where the rumour that Postumus had his ears boxed (os … percisum) like a stage character is rejected, but it is suggested that the words might be true in a different sense (i.e. that he was irrumated). Cf. 2.40, 56; 10.40; 11.92. On rumour as a common theme in Martial, see Greenwood, M.A.P., ‘Martial, Gossip, and the Language of Rumour’, in Grewing, (n. 6) 278314.

10 For other cases where a rumour is true but with an added twist, cf. 1.90, 11.21 and 102.

11 Cf. 9.67 where the girl obliges with various types of sex, both oral and genital.

12 Note that the Chione poem is placed immediately after the poem in which the poet addresses his reader, commenting on her enthusiasm for this partem lascivi libelli (86.1), ‘part of my wanton little book’.

13 Cf. Watson, P., ‘The Originality of Martial's Language’, Gioita 78 (2002) 222-57, at 228–31.

14 E.g. 6.66 (a girl is kissed to prove that she is pura [i.e. that she doesn't have an os impurum]), 9.67.7 mihi pura fuit, i.e. she did not perform fellatio on me. For the os impurum cf. e.g. Adams (n. 7) 199, Williams, C.A. (ed.), Martial Epigrams Book Two (Oxford 2004) on 2.50.

15 Balsdon, J.P.V.D., Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome (London 1969) 268.

16 Cf. Goldman (n. 2) 233, Yegiil, F.K., Baths and Bathing (Cambridge MA 1992) 34, Nielsen, I., Thermae et Balnea (Aarhus 1990) 141.

17 Nielsen (n. 16) 141 thinks that only virtuous women wore a bathing costume, but cites Chione as proof, forgetting that this is a prostitute's name. Chione's wearing of a costume does suggest that it is a symbol of virtue, but in her case this is hypocritical: see discussion below.

18 AA 3.639-40 cum custode foris tunicas servante puellae / celent furtivos balnea multa iocos?, ‘when, while the guardian watches over the girl's clothing outside, the numerous baths conceal furtive sport?’: ostensibly the puellae ase meretrices, but if matronae, ‘married women’, are implictly included in the addressees of the Ars, then perhaps those intent on adultery also engaged in the practice. Gibson, R.K. (ed.), Ovid Ars Amatoria Book 3 (Cambridge 2003) ad loc., while accepting that mixed bathing was probably available, suggests that the passage might refer to men penetrating a women-only bathing session, since in the immediately preceding section Bona Dea turns a blind eye to lovers meeting in her temple (normally a place for females only).

19 On the question, see Ward, R.B., ‘Women in Roman Baths’, Harvard Theological Review 85 (1992) 125–47. He uses evidence from Martial among others to show that mixed bathing was common among all classes, but the matronae in Martial who indulge in it (see below) do so in an erotic context, and I don't think he has proved that respectable women regularly engaged in mixed bathing at this period, though the evidence he adduces from Christian writers certainly suggests that mixed nude bathing was the norm a century later. Cf. Fagan, G., Bathing in Public in the Roman World (Ann Arbor, Michigan 1999) 27; also Busch, S., Versus Balnearum. Die antike Dichtung über Bäder und Baden im römischen Reich (Stuttgart/Leipzig 1999) 487-502, esp. 490 ff., Merten, E.W., Bäder und Badegeptlogen-heiten in der Darstellung der Historia Augusta (Bonn 1983) 79100, McGinn, T.A.J., The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World (Ann Arbor, Michigan 2004) 23–6.

20 Given the number of small private baths in Rome as opposed to the public ones, it is not impossible that some of these were for women only. Cf. Ward (n. 19) 147.

21 This has been inferred from the fact that, in contrast to older baths, establishments under the Empire did not have separate men's and women's sections. See Weber, M., Antike Badekultur (Munich 1996) 155–6, Ward (n. 19) 141 n. 72 with bibliography there cited. Ward 140-2, however, would question the assumption.

22 For men bathing naked, see e.g. Martial 1.23, with Howell, P.A. (ed.), A Commentary on Book One of the Epigrams of Martial (London 1980) ad loc., and Citroni, M. (ed.), M. Valerli Martialis Epigrammaton Líber I (Firenze 1975) ad loc., Mart. 7.35.5, 9.33, Nielsen (n. 16) 140-1.

23 The status of these women is unclear. Martial uses the name Galla of both matronae (e.g. 4.58,9.78) and meretrices (e.g. 3.54, 9.4).

24 Nude bathing is also attested at Mart. 14.60, though it is not made clear what type of woman is referred to or whether she is bathing in a mixed or segregated context.

25 Another possibility is that she conceals herself as a form of enticement, as in the story (Athen. 590 f) about the Greek hetaira Phryne, famed for her beauty, who wore a tunic in public and never even attended the public baths, presumably so that the hiding of her charms would increase her allure.

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