Odour, perfume, and the female body in ancient Rome

Lawrence, Thea (2019) Odour, perfume, and the female body in ancient Rome. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Abstract

This thesis examines the representation of the scented female body in the literary culture of late Republican and early Imperial Rome. Recent years have seen increasing scholarly interest in odour and olfaction in antiquity, building on anthropological and sociological research on the cultural relativism of olfactory perception and its associations and interpretations. Through its connections to sexuality, bodily fluids, and corporeal corruption, odour provides a fascinating lens through which to scrutinise the ancient female body.

To this end, this thesis draws together the fields of sensory studies, the body in antiquity, and ancient gender and sexuality, in order to facilitate the first holistic examination of the ways in which scent was used as a means to categorise and evaluate the character, behaviour, and morality of women in ancient Rome. After an analysis of ancient medical associations surrounding odour and the female body, the thesis examines the key properties and thematic concerns of perfumes, first across a range of Roman texts and then in the detailed assessment of perfumes by Pliny the Elder. It then demonstrates that female odour and perfume were deeply embedded in mythical traditions that were richly adapted by Roman poets and themselves extended to embrace female figures that populated the urban environment of Imperial Rome.

It argues that the relationship between the female body and odour was frequently employed as a means of reasserting Roman hierarchies of gender and power. However, it also argues that the odour of the female body was powerful. Odour invaded, captivated and polluted the bodies it touched, and it was also the sense that best correlates to the traditional ambiguities, dangers, and wiles with which women were associated. The sensory manipulation enabled by perfume stoked these ambiguities and anxieties, permitting women a level of control over the ancient sensorium, potentially deceiving discerning male noses and thus disrupting the very hierarchies which characterised women as socially and biologically inferior.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Bradley, Mark
Harlow, Mary
Keywords: ancient Rome, classics, women, gender, sex, senses, smell, odour, perfume, literature, medicine, myth
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GT Manners and customs
H Social sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of Humanities
Item ID: 59467
Depositing User: Lawrence, Thea
Date Deposited: 26 Apr 2022 09:45
Last Modified: 26 Apr 2022 09:46
URI: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/59467

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