The history of the body is a discipline which emerged in the 1980s; it questions the extent to which the body is “natural,” and asks whether all societies have experienced the body in the same way. Recent developments include approaching the body by studying its parts––examining changing understandings and representations of one specific body part across time––or looking at the experience of the body by its “users.” The combined classical and Christian heritage of western civilization has assigned the body a subordinate place in its value systems, but dichotomies such as mind/body and soul/body are by no means universal. The subject is associated in particular with the work of Michel Foucault, although his studies of the classical world have been criticized for relying unduly on élite philosophical texts, neglecting Rome, and ignoring female sexuality. In a widely challenged book, Thomas Laqueur presented the period before the 18th century as dominated by the “one-sex body,” in which the female and male genitalia were seen as the same organs, but positioned either inside or outside.
Heliodorus was the author of the Aethiopica, the latest and longest Greek novel to survive from antiquity. In his work, Heliodorus claims to be a Phoenician from Emesa, but there are good reasons against treating this as an authoritative autobiographical statement. The Aethiopica tells the adventures of Charicleia, the white daughter of the black queen and king of Ethiopia. Her mother abandons her, and she is brought up by foster-fathers in Ethiopia and Delphi. There she falls in love with the young Greek Theagenes, with whom she travels via Egypt to Ethiopia. They are almost sacrificed to the local gods, but Charicleia’s parents eventually recognise her. The protagonists become priests and marry. The novel is a narratologically ambitious work that draws on the structure of the Odyssey (in mediis rebus beginning, embedded heterodiegetic narratives) and takes these devices to a whole new level. A wide range of topics play important roles in the Aethiopica, such as religion, multiculturalism, identity, and epistemology.