For any student of Latin, the classification of nouns by gender is an inescapable feature of the language, which is generally treated as a purely grammatical phenomenon. But, as Anthony Corbeill shrewdly recognizes, it can be hard not to think of grammatical gender as indicating a natural relationship between the meanings of words and biological difference. In Sexing the World: Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex in Ancient Rome (Princeton 2015), Corbeill offers a learned, meticulously researched, and intellectually adventurous account of how the Romans found meaning in the gendering of Latin nouns. He begins where one might predict, with the grammarians and their attempts to explain both the assignment of genders to nouns and the many instances in which those genders are variable, uncertain, or disregarded. From there he moves to a group of poets – up to, but not after, Vergil – to whom the grammarians attributed unique insights and a key role in fixing the originally fluid genders of words, and who themselves often liked to play creatively with grammatical gender. The scope of the inquiry then opens up in further, unexpected directions as Corbeill uncovers a comparable trajectory from fluidity to fixity in the realm of religion, where a large array of initially androgynous divinities gradually assumed stable genders, and in the interpretation of biological anomalies, where the indeterminate figure of the hermaphrodite underwent a shift from alarming yet numinous portent to mere anatomical oddity.
The result of this wonderfully circuitous investigation is a far-reaching and richly revealing portrait of the “self-reinforcing circuit” through which the Romans used grammatical gender to deepen and naturalize the heterosexual divide that they saw reflected not only in their language but in the world at large. Corbeill’s achievement rests on a rare and impressive combination of qualities, encompassing precise mastery of a staggering number of often-obscure sources; sensitivity to poetic effects registered in fine close readings of Catullus and Vergil; expertise in cognitive science and linguistics; curiosity about many unfamiliar corners of Roman culture; willingness to think boldly and speculatively about broad cultural trends; and a gift for lucid, witty, and concise exposition. The Goodwin Award Committee is pleased to honor this highly distinctive, accomplished, and stimulating example of outstanding classical scholarship.