Getting to the bottom of things

Aphrodite of Syracuse

Despite (or because of?) their brevity ancient epigrams pose countless hermeneutical challenges, and every so often their points seem to have eluded modern scholars. Sometimes it takes a lot of puzzling over a poem to extricate its meaning, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, the revelation might come all of a sudden – and from an unexpected source. So, here’s the story: I recently received a message from a German journalist asking about the word “gelasinoi” (dimples) in an epigram by Rufinus, on which I had worked several years ago. The poem features a contest between three girls, who ask the speaker to judge the beauty of their bottoms:

I judged the bottoms of three girls; for they themselves chose me, showing me the naked flash of their limbs. Dainty dimples marked the first, and it was glowing with white softness; the second’s snowy skin blushed, when it was spread ruddier than the crimson rose; the third resembled a calm sea, furrowed by a silent wave, the delicate flesh spontaneously undulating. If Paris who judged the goddesses had seen three such, he would not have wished to look again on the former ones. (AP 5.35, adapted from Paton)

As it happens, the epistolographer Alciphron describes a similar contest between two hetairai, one of whom is likewise praised for her gelasinoi (4.14.6), and Ps-Lucian in the Erotes evokes the “sweet smile” that seals the loins of Praxiteles’ Cnidian Aphrodite.

Velazquez, Venus at her mirror

Admittedly, I had never given much thought to the precise meaning of “gelasinoi” in this context, and Page’s ad loc explanation that Rufinus, like Alciphron, uses the word “dimple” here of the bottom is not particularly helpful. However, reading Alex Schulz’s article on the “Speculum Veneris”, which was published in a medical journal (, I realized that Rufinus & Co. refer to a specific anatomical feature, the so-called “dimples of Venus” (“Michaelis-Raute” in German), which are to be found not on, but above the bottom, as can be seen very clearly on the attached images. To my knowledge this observation has not yet been made in Classical scholarship, though maybe it is just my own obtuseness that kept me from understanding this reference. At any rate, I found this revelation quite exciting – unfortunately it does not happen every day that the explanation of an obscure passage simply ends up in one’s mailbox… So back to puzzling over the texts.