Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then another thousand, then a second hundred, then yet another thousand, then another hundred. Then when we have made up many thousands, we will confuse our counting, that we may not know the reckoning, nor any malicious person blight them with the evil eye, when he knows our kisses are so many. Catullus
Catullus was one of the great Roman love poets, and his series of poems to his mistress Lesbia are justly amongst the most famous in the world. This passage is interesting though because it throws into sharp relief the importance of the kiss in the ancient world to their conceptions of how love was expressed. A recent article in Leeds International Classical Studies by Richard Hawley (PDF) deals with the subject of the way that kisses are described by classical authors in more detail and what Hawley describes is interesting because it demonstrates firstly the ways that kissing has changed its function since antiquity and the ways in which kissing changed its function within antiquity.
A kiss has always been a symbol of erotic desire. What we see though in the sources is an evolution and a distinction from modern erotic desire. Kisses in early antiquity, amongst the drinking parties held in Athens in the 5th Century BC and frequented by Socrates and Alciabedes, were often between equals: Socrates warns one kisser about the danger of kisses as a prelude to love instead of a part of love. By kissing the idea is that one might fall in love with the recipient of your kisses. By the Hellenistic period, the expression of kissing in poetry and in philosophy has become much more erotic- erotic fulfilment arises from the participation in a successful kiss. In Roman times this erotic kissing is no longer an expression of same sex relationships- but of male desire for women, the kiss becomes something you do to your girlfriend not your boyfriend. From Socrates's fears about the effect of kissing a boy on his friends to Catullus's evocation of lying in bed with Lesbia kissing her repeatedly as part of an erotic performance is actually quite a distance.
It also symbolises though another crucial difference and distinction. A kiss was a mark of power in the ancient world- erotic power. To French kiss someone, insert your tongue in their mouth as you kiss, was seen as a type of domination. Older lovers would french kiss their boyfriends. Women would be kissed by men. Women who kissed men were looked down on- its no surprise that the Greek word for prostitute derives from the Greek word for kiss. And there were different words for the erotic dominatory French kiss than for the kiss shared between equals and lovers. By the time of Ovid, a kiss is used as part of Ovid's lover's ensemble of force to conquer women into granting sex. Kisses here are almost blandishments to rape. What one sees in Augustan Rome therefore is a much more imperial style of sexual relationship where say in Ovid the domination of a woman is actively praised as the end for which the lover seeks.
This trend is mirrored in the way that kisses are used in non-sexual connotations as well. Again its worth thinking about vocabulary- whereas we have one word for kiss, the Greeks and the Romans had a couple- and they had words which denoted the social kiss, the kiss of greeting. Mostly such kisses were exchanged within family groups- you would kiss in greeting your brother, sister or particularly mother. Children were often kissed, by holding them by their ears and kissing their faces. Kissing outside the family seems to have grown and extended during the Roman Empire- kissing non-relations or non-friends was seen by many Greeks as something that Persians did. There are wonderful stories in Xenophon about lustful Persian governors kissing boys that they fancied in order to savour the sexual pleasure. During the Roman empire, kissing became more of a universal phenomenon.
That was backed by a second trend. We have noted before that kissing is used as a mark of domination- the conquest of another's mouth by one's tongue so to speak. Social kissing though could also be a mark of domination. The Greeks noticed that Persians kissed the floor in front of their kings. Refusal to let someone kiss your face, instead letting them kiss your hands was a sign of submission. Priam does it to Achilles when seeking the body of his son Hector. Universal kissing of feet or carpet in front of someone was seen as a mark of power, or imperium, and consequently as the shades of the Republic were abandoned in Rome such kissing becomes more important. We see it in the age of Diocletian for example, where imperial dignatories would kiss the floor in front of Emperor.
A kiss for the ancient world was therefore never just a kiss- it always meant something more. Its interesting to try to imagine the way that manners have changed over the years- the subtle languages of signs by which we orientate ourselves. By examining the Greek and Roman kiss I think we can see how much the way that humans behave within groups has changed- and changes even between eras of the past- its an interesting study and one can only hope that Richard Hawley succeeds in his ambition of completing further work.