Classical Osculation

Well now that we’re past that Lupercalia unpleasantness, we can concentrate on other aspects of this Valentine’s Day (or Valentines Day, if you prefer) … seems that amicus noster Don Lateiner was amongst a pile of folks from various disciplines holding press conferences/having interviews about the origins of kissing. Most of the coverage seems to focus on the ‘scientific side’, but we’ll privilege Classics as we begin with the National Geographic excerpts:

In fact, most kissing in that period was to express deference and not romance, Donald Lateiner, a humanities-classics professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, said today during a press conference in Chicago.

Men kissed men on the cheek as a social greeting, while subjects of a king “abased” themselves by kissing the ground in front of him.

And people who wanted to curry favor with someone of higher status would “kiss up” the person’s hands, shoulders, and head—in that order.

The Art of Kissing

Poems, novels, and all kinds of art helped Lateiner parse out the history of the kiss. (Read more about Valentine’s Day history.)

For instance, many Tuscan and Roman ladies’ mirror cases sported erotic scenes “from the world of myth, [or] sometimes from the world of daily life,” Lateiner said.

But on Athenian vases and Pompeian frescoes, romantic smooching is quite rare, he noted.

Instead “there’s a whole lot of sex.”

This may be because artists of the era preferred to depict full bodies, and a “Hollywood close-up” of people kissing would be too small a detail to feature.

Elsewhere … in the Chicago Tribune:

“There’s also political, power and social kissing all throughout antiquity … The Greeks seem to have kissed less than the Romans, not that I have the videotape or Kinsey Institute of Rome to reference … We see the escalation of osculation through the art we find.”

… and at Wired:

“Many kisses, particularly in the Roman novels, are slobbery … Every time that the past is excavated at Pompeii, there is good a chance there will be some additional data on sexual customs, if not kissing.”

… at Live Science:

“I have also found that there was an ‘escalation of osculation’ in the first century C.E. (A.D.) … There was also a kissing disease outbreak, what seems to be Mentagra [a pimply inflammation of the hair follicles, usually in the beard].”

cf. Ohio Wesleyan’s press release:

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