Recently by Tony Perrottet:

While Abraham Lincoln has stolen the limelight with rumors about his furtive sex life, some historians have proclaimed that America’s first gay president was really his predecessor, the now-obscure James Buchanan. (He was the 15th president, serving from 1857 to 1861). Buchanan is the only bachelor to ever have held America’s top office, and his private life raised many eyebrows while he was alive.

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.

You might think a 2,300-year-old sex scandal would eventually lose some of its bite. But when it comes to paragons of masculinity such as world conqueror Alexander the Great, it doesn’t. With his 2004 film Alexander, writer-director Oliver Stone outraged stiff-necked military types with his depiction of the macho Macedonian king, history’s most brilliant warrior, flirting with his boyfriends up and down the Khyber Pass. In between gore-splattered battles, Alexander (played by Colin Farrell) flounces about in makeup at drunken Babylonian banquets, shoots suggestive glances to his male entourage, and indulges in a passionate kiss with one of his officers — all the sort of behavior that would be frowned upon in the U.S. military today, for example. But according to Paul Cartledge, professor of Classics at Cambridge University, the film is actually very coy about Alexander’s busy homoerotic life: There is no real doubt that he took a… More…

Strong women rulers have always suffered violent attacks on their sexuality. To the Romans, Cleopatra was the lascivious “harlot queen,” a woman “whom her own slaves would grind.” In the Middle Ages, Isabel of England got the same treatment from her enemies, as did Catherine of Medici and Anne of Austria. Even Elizabeth I of England, the Virgin Queen who masterfully remained above the male fantasy mill, could not stem all rumors of her “uncontrollable female desires” and was thought to have been behind the riding-accident death of her longtime friend Robert Dudley’s wife.

   

But perhaps the most tragic victim was Marie Antoinette. From early in her rule, the Austrian-born queen inspired in her French subjects the most virulent misogyny. The market was flooded with whole libraries of violent pornography that depicted her as a wasteful… More…

Since the 1960s, the history of sex has transformed from sleazy sideline to respectable subject of academic study. The following is a timeline of the lesser-known scholarly discoveries that inform our erotic thinking today.

   

c. 1700: Sex “invented.”

“Some time in the 18th century, sex as we know it was invented,” writes Berkeley historian Thomas W. Laqueur. Before that time, Laqueur argues, most anatomists accepted the ancient idea expressed by the Greek doctor Galen that there was really only one gender: Women’s sexual organs were essentially the same as men’s, except they were inverted due to a lack of “vital heat.” The vagina was matched by penis, the ovaries by the testicles (“stones of women”), the labia by the foreskin, the uterus by the scrotum. This appealed to classical notions of cosmic harmony, and allowed doctors… More…

Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s wife Libby may have erected an impressive obelisk headstone for him at the military’s West Point Cemetery in New York, but it is very unlikely that the remains buried below are his. After the battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 — where Custer and 209 of his men were famously killed — a full three days passed before an army burial detail arrived. What they found was not a pretty sight — “a sickening, ghastly field” as General Edward S. Godfrey put it. Family members had removed the bodies of the Indian dead after the battle, but the Seventh cavalrymen had been stripped, scalped, pin-cushioned with arrows, and mutilated by Indian women venting their anger at the army, while the fly-covered corpses were bloated and blackened from three days under the summer Montana sun. Custer was one of the few who had… More…

The Empire may have been built by men and women trying to escape Britain’s terrible weather — or even, as Cecil Rhodes once said, to avoid the lamentable cuisine — but it was kept fully staffed by refugees from the conservative sexual code. Accounts of life in colonial Bombay, for example, read as if the entire subcontinent was managed as a sleazy gentleman’s club, with enterprising local agents procuring a series of “native wives” and “colored sisters” to warm the bed of every newly-arrived heterosexual army officer and bureaucrat. Gay men, meanwhile, quickly became addicted to the freedom in the colonies, which lured writers such as E. M. Forster and Somerset Maugham.

   

These impulses were certainly not just British. In French slang, faire passer son brevet colonial — “to give a man the test for his… More…

The Catholic Church has long enjoyed involving itself in the most intimate details of the conjugal bedroom, although its motives took a radical turn in the Middle Ages.  Early thinkers often looked on sex-free marriages as the Christian ideal, celebrating the saintly couples who abandoned the pleasures of the flesh and lived like sterile hermits. But after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, theologians decided that procreation was the sacred purpose of all conjugal unions. While divorce was still impossible without a special papal dispensation, Church lawyers became open to legal annulments of if one spouse was unable to carry out their holy marital duty. Courts needed to be au fait with the minutia of male performance, so in 1570 the Spanish intellectual Diego de Covarrubias y Leyva wrote the learned text De Frigidis et Maleficiatis to help distinguish the five categories of impotence that might affect the bonds… More…

In these troubled economic times, real estate is a subject of more obsessive interest than usual at dinner parties from Manhattan to Milwaukee. Perhaps it’s time for us to take a longer-range view of the housing market and its endless cycles of boom and bust: Whether you’re a humble tenant or shark-like developer, it should be possible to get a little perspective by examining the great deals of the past.

 

1. The Antique Homemaker

1 BR “Fixer-Upper” in Ancient Babylon: The world’s oldest rental lease is a clay tablet dated to around 2000 B.C., wherein a certain Akhibe leased a house from Mashqu for one shekel of silver a year — about 0.4 ounces. (Prices don’t quite translate, since that amount of silver is only US$7 today). Rental properties at the time were intimate, one-story mud brick affairs…. More…

“Lord, give me chastity and self-control — but not yet.” — Prayer of the young Saint Augustine, c.380 A.D.

 

 

The scandals may be coming thick and strong from the Vatican at the moment, but the Church has always waged a losing battle with its own vice-ridden staff. The problem was that transgressions from official policy often began at the top. Fellow priests put one of the first popes, Sixtus III (432-40), on trial for seducing a nun. He was acquitted after quoting from Christ in his defense: “Let you who are without sin cast the first stone.” In the centuries to follow, political skullduggery and a corrupt election process thrust one improbable candidate after another into the position as god-fearing believers looked on in impotent horror. In fact, so many Vicars of Christ have been denounced as… More…

Some Republicans have been distressed in recent years to hear that the icon of their party, Abraham Lincoln, may have been playing for the other team. It had been whispered for years that Lincoln was gay, and there is no doubt that some of his behavior would point that way today — most notably, for four years he shared a bed with his friend Joshua Speed. The intense relationship began in 1837, when a 28-year-old Lincoln — then a tall, calloused-hand frontiersman with mournful eyes — turned up at Speed’s general store in Springfield, Illinois, hoping to make it as a lawyer. Lincoln couldn’t afford the bed on sale, so Speed immediately offered to share his own mattress upstairs. From that day on, the pair became passionate and all-but-inseparable friends. When Speed finally did move out of the mattress to be married, Lincoln was shattered, sinking into such a black… More…