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The Erotics of Lettuce? Sexual Knowledge in Columella Book 10

Katharine von Stackelberg

This paper considers Columella’s presentation of the hortus in De re rustica 10 as a gendered space and a space of sexual knowledge. Columella’s work on agriculture has been the focus of renewed interest not only for its value as a source of information on ancient farming, but as a literary text (e.g. Gowers 2000; Henderson 2002; Doody 2007; Cowan 2009). John Henderson has described Book 10 as a ‘seminal’ account of ancient garden practice (2004:13), a pun that astutely conveys its presentation of two kinds of interrelated knowledge: horticultural and sexual. In Columella’s poem, cultivation of the garden is presented as a year-long coitus of Man and Earth, starting with the penetration/rape of the earth in winter (67-70), her fertilization followed by an allegorized orgy of growth (105-109, 140-144, 161-229), the seduction of nymphs and flowers in spring and climaxing with an erect and burgeoning harvest at Bacchus’ autumn festival (369-393). Yet, although the cultural equivalency of garden to woman’s body in classical literature is both widespread and longstanding, Columella’s imbrication of horticultural and sexual knowledge is fraught with anxiety. Though she is presented in the beneficial role of pregnant or nursing mother (e.g. gravida 141; maternum arvum 146, mitissima genetrix fetus 161) the garden also has the potential to be an ‘unfaithful’, barren or diseased partner (329-367).

Within this schema, a close study of the instructions concerning what plants to sow in the garden (103-114) compared with a subsequent description of those same plants in bloom (160-199) provides some clues as to the source of this anxiety. Both passages focus on the same elements – Priapus, Venus, and lettuce – but with a shifting emphasis on their sexual and erotic powers. Applying John Clarke’s distinction between sexual and erotic imagery (1998: 12-13), one can see that Columella’s hortus is predominately presented as a sexual space, but one where the normative order of gender politics is destabilized by moments of erotic potential. The presentation of the garden as both fertile space and site of sexual anxiety therefore serves two functions. On one level the garden serves as metatext for Columella’s literary anxiety about measuring up to Virgil’s challenge in writing a garden poem (Georgics 4.147-148) and to a less explicit degree his debt to Ovid’s elegiac subversion of the didactic form, especially Ars amatoria 3 (Kennedy 2000). On another level, though Columella’s lettuces may not have the satirical edge of Varro’s farming handbook, his allegory of gardening reflects contemporary tensions produced by the renegotiation of gender relationships in the 1st century CE (Kronenberg 2009).

Proposed duration: 20 minutes

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Women, Sex, and Power

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