Consider the Anus Radish: Etymologies, Adultery, and the Defense of the Microhistory

Isidore was a learned scholar and the Bishop of the Spanish city of Seville from 600-636 CE. Thousands of manuscripts containing his Etymologiae (“The Etymologies,” also called the Origines, “The Origins”) survive today; the only work to surpass it in terms of extant manuscript copies in Western Europe is the Bible (Throop 2005: xii). The sheer number of copies of the Etymologiae that survive is a testament not only to the fact it was used as a foundational school text during the Middle Ages, but to the late Roman and medieval belief that the etymology of words––a form of what we might call today microhistory––is fundamental to unlocking the order and creation of human knowledge within the universe.

“Blue Root” herb, Italy, 15th century CE, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, Rare Book & Manuscript Library (@upennmanuscripts), LJS 419, fol. 42r (Image from “Discarding Images“).

In his first book, Isidore noted (1.29):

Etymologia est origo vocabulorumHanc Aristoteles σύμβολον, Cicero adnotationem nominavit…Omnis enim rei inspectio etymologia cognita planior est.

Etymology is the origin words…Aristotle called this practice σύμβολον, whereas Cicero called it adnotatioFor the inspection of anything is clearer with the etymology having been understood.

Of particular interest is Isidore’s notation within the etymology of the word “radish” (from the Greek word ῥαφανίς and the Latin rādīx, meaning “root”) that those who soaked their hands in radish seed juice could then handle snakes with impunity or perhaps use it to whiten ivory (17.10.10). I mean, I always suggest reading Isidore, but can’t always recommend listening to his suggestions.

In any case, I tweeted out my own etymological note that the words “radish” and “radical” have the same root, even if  the word “radical” has come to mean something altogether different since the surfing lingo of the 1980s and then its popular usage by certain mutated turtle ninjas. 

As I began to ponder the use and abuse of the ancient radish, it was Roman legal scholar Paul du Plessis who wrote to let me know of the legal connections between radishes, anuses, and adultery in Greco-Roman antiquity.  While there is debate over the actual application of the punishment, it appears that Athenian adulterers may have been punished with “Rhaphanidosis” in the Agora by having radishes or fish shoved up their assholes and then having their pubic hair depilated by hot ash.

Modern knowledge and discussion of the supposed punishment is based largely on a comedic passage within Artistophanes’ Clouds (1083-104) and subsequent scholia addressing the passage, all of which are helpfully translated and discussed over at Sententiae Antiquae: 

Just Argument: “What if he should have a radish shoved up his ass because he trusted you and then have hot ashes rip off his hair? What argument will he be able to offer to prevent himself from having a gaping-anus?”

Δίκαιος Λόγος: τί δ᾽ ἢν ῥαφανιδωθῇ πιθόμενός σοι τέφρᾳ τε τιλθῇ,
ἕξει τινὰ γνώμην λέγειν τὸ μὴ εὐρύπρωκτος εἶναι;

The goal of the insertion of the radish––which at that time was likely larger; more like a carrot rather than the smaller, rounded radish of today––was as O’Bryhim (2017: 326) posits, in order to give the offender the condition of a εὐρύπρωκτος (a “large anus”). This transformed the anal cavity into a vagina. I am convinced by O’Bryhim’s argument that the punishment then feminized the adulterer and allowed the prosecutor (often the husband) to reassert his masculinity over the adulterer by giving the cuckolding offender a vaginal cavity. 

But there is the question of sources. Can we really use a comedic mention in order to reveal applied law in the 5thC BCE? Why do the oratorical treatises not confirm Aristophanes? In her work on public punishment in Athens, Danielle S. Allen notes that while citizen bodies in ancient Athens were generally legally protected, adulterers in particular were corporally vulnerable to abuse. They could be killed on the spot if caught in the act. If brought to trial and convicted, they could be humiliated by the prosecuting party. And while oratorical treatises don’t discuss the “radishing” of adulterers directly, they generally did not discuss many non-capital crimes or licentious topics. The omission of “radishing” in oratory is then likely due to genre rather than an Aristophanic fiction.

Fresco from the thermopolium (“hot bar”) at Ostia showing eggs, olives, and the hot radishes available to customers. Regio I – Insula II – Caseggiato del Termopolio (“The House of the Bar”), Detail of the painting on the east wall of room 6, Ostia Antica, Italy (Image and partial caption by Carole Raddato via her Flickr page under a CC-BY-SA 2.0).

If we turn to the Romans, there is some poetic evidence that Romans inherited or at least had knowledge of the use of the Athenian vegetable punishment inflicted on adulterers. In Catullus 15, the poet notes:

percurrent raphanique mugilesque.
both radishes and mullets will run you through

Juvenal (Sat. 10.314-317) also remarks on the insertion of a mullet into the anus of an adulterer as a punishment beyond even the bounds of law.

ut in laqueos numquam incidat. exigit autem
interdum ille dolor plus quam lex ulla dolori              
concessit: necat hic ferro, secat ille cruentis
uerberibus, quosdam moechos et mugilis intrat.

And sometimes the husband’s wrath exacts greater penalties than any law allows: one lover is slain by the sword, another bleeds under the lash; some undergo the punishment of the mullet (trans. Ramsay).

As many modern commentators on the passage note: These are meant as pseudo-phallic insertions into an anus in order to impose a feminine humiliation on the adulterer. Perhaps proof positive that toxic masculinity comes in many disturbing forms––including anal radishes. Even if epigraphic and legal evidence for the practice don’t seem to exist, it appears that satirists and comedians were aware of its existence.

Where does all this rather arcane exploration of the phallic insertion of ancient radishes leave us in the grand scheme of things? I pondered this question a lot on the long flight home yesterday, particularly after Candida Moss reminded me of the accusation that early Christian Montanists were derided as heretical ῥαφανοφαγίας (“radish-eaters”). While Hippolytus was likely decrying them as pseudo-ascetics, I wondered if the radish was still cast as a feminizing vegetable in Late Antiquity, and thus became an insult that had layers to it.

I may not have a definitive ruling on whether radishes were actually inserted into the anuses of adulterers in antiquity, but I do think the history of ancient radishes is itself a defense of our curiosity in the everyday. It stands as a thesis for the continued utility of the microhistory in the form of academic blogging that can allow researchers to go down the rabbit hole in order to explore. Not everything needs a dedicated monograph, and the radish is a strong statement for why academic blogs should exist.

The vegetable also illustrates Isidore’s main point, namely that etymologies can reveal to us organizations of human knowledge in a way that is not readily apparent in a modern world brimming with  overarching macro-histories of war, imperialism, and powerful men. Much as when I first read Italian microhistorian Carlo Ginzburg‘s transformative Il formaggio e i vermi (“The Cheese and the Worms”), about the life of a 16th century miller, I was brought back to why the cultural turn within history was so… radical. Proof that there remains a need for both distant and close readings; for micro and macro histories; for monographs and blogposts.

Roman mosaic depiction of a red mullet fish (150-225 CE) now located at the British Museum (Image via the British Museum).


Danielle S. Allen, The World of Prometheus The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (Princeton University Press, 2000). 

Christopher Carey, “‘Return of the radish or just when you thought it safe to go back into the kitchen,” Liverpool Classical Monthly 18.4 (1993): 53–55. 

David Cohen, “A note on Aristophanes and the Punishment of Adultery in Athenian Law,” Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Romanistische Abteilung. Issue 102 (1985): 385–387.

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms : the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller (Johns Hopkins Press, 1980).

Shawn O’Bryhim, “Catullus’ Mullets and Radishes (c. 15.18-19),” Mnemosyne 70 (2) (2017): 325-330.

ῥαφανιδόω: Never Look at A Radish in the Same Way Again,” Sententiae Antiquae (January 1, 2017).

Priscilla Throop, trans., Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies : the complete English translation of Isidori Hispalensis Episcopi Etymologiarum sive Originum Libri XX (2005).

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