The Birds, the Bees, & the Body Parts
When it came to intimacy readiness, Greek and Roman lovers were perennially inventive. They set store by a wide spectrum of aphrodisiacs, some still in hopeful use today, including raw oysters, the fleshy symbol of the goddess Aphrodite (Venus among the Romans). Aphrodite emerged from the foamy crest of ocean waves, which the Greeks saw as a type of marine semen. Some adventurous thinkers also believed that women discharged semen—but naturally the male variety was the only starter that counted.
These pioneers on the frontiers of sexual virility wandered far beyond oysters, however. Pomegranate juice from Aphrodite’s favorite tree, mixed with wine, scored high with ancient Egyptians and other males in the Middle East. So did lettuce. Although toxic, mandrake root was an evergreen. So was opium as a wine additive.
Many ardent souls preferred lotions applied directly to the male organ—one provocative but now-mysterious favorite was called “the deadly carrot.” Some approaches, however, such as the honey-pepper mix, the tissue-irritating nettle oil, and the cantharides beetle (Spanish fly), gave painful new meaning to the expression “All fired up and ready to go.”
An everyday erotic helper was olive oil, with or without additives such as coriander. It was invariably slathered on before lovemaking. Greek wives kept an earthenware container of it by the bed, since they were expected to personally anoint their husbands’ members.
As an aphrodisiac, the pomegranate wine cooler had an enthusiastic following around the ancient world.
The medicine cabinet of the average Roman male held an array of herbal plants and potions, an aromatic ointment made from spikenard being very popular. Other aids to Venus were added to wine, a social lubricant that provided a one-two punch: among them, gentian and a red-leafed root in the orchid family called satyrion, named for the randy prowess of the mythical satyrs. Roman emperor Tiberius, on the other hand, swore by another exotic tuber called skirret.
Some aphrodisiacs (including the roots of mandrake and satyrion) were thought powerful enough to work by being handheld, although that might have presented its own problems in the boudoir. Other potency objects, from red coral to wormwood, could simply be placed under the bed to be efficacious.
The “like attracts like” theory of sympathetic magic played a big part. Men routinely wore amulets resembling male and female genitalia. Beyond the items to be worn, ingested, held, or rubbed on, women and men alike had steadfast belief in the power of love potions and binding spells. Such spells got extra vigor by using nail clippings, hair, or excretions of one sort or another from the beloved, the object of desire, or the one who’d done the dumping.
Given the staggering variety of nostrums, modern readers may long to know: Did any of these measures actually put steel into the male organ, and/ or make the ladies more inclined?
Like our verbally aroused websites and spam e-mails today, there were testimonials and stories aplenty; then as now, evidence was more anecdotal than scientific. In imperial Roman times, however, at least one court trial did revolve around apparent aphrodisiac success.
The defendant? Apuleius of Madauros, today remembered chiefly as the author of The Golden Ass. A glib orator, Apuleius was quite a successful social climber from a more modest family background than his girlfriend, Pudentilla, a wealthy widow. In A.D. 158 he was sued by her irate family for seducing her into marriage. How did he do it? According to his own defense speech, which has survived the millennia, he merely fed her a splendid dinner of oysters, sea urchins, cuttlefish, and lobster. An aphrodisiac blue-plate special, loaded with zinc—maybe Apuleius was onto something.