Judgment of Paris teaches economics of female sexual competition

judgment of Paris with three nude goddess

A leading U.S. high-brow magazine recently published an interminably boring article on the “sex recession.” One missing observation is that, while having less sex, women are dressing more provocatively. Women in yoga tights showing in close definition everything are omnipresent on the streets. Women in college classes and libraries dress as if they were at the beach. Is it sexual harassment via the male gaze for an old man to read what’s printed on the rear of a young woman’s short-short shorts? I’m still waiting for my lawyer’s advice, but I’ve heard that one word written there is “PINK.” As always, classical literature provides enduring truths about beauty and humanity. Consider a classical story commonly known as the Judgment of Paris.

To celebrate the marriage of Achilles’s parents Thetis and Peleus, the nominal head god in charge of the cosmos Zeus held a wedding banquet. He naturally didn’t invite Eris, the goddess of discord. She arrived uninvited, enraged as usual. To stir up strife, she threw a golden apple amid a throng of women. On the golden apple was written “to the most beautiful one {καλλίστῃ}.” The goddesses Juno, Minerva, and Venus all quickly claimed sole right to the golden apple. Having learned from the wisdom of Solomon, Zeus didn’t want to incur the ire of women by choosing one as the most beautiful. Zeus thus ordered the shepherd-prince Paris to judge their beauty and give the golden apple to the most beautiful one. That’s the backstory for the Judgment of Paris.

Juno, Minerva, and Venus were fully clothed when they initially presented themselves to Paris. Each of these women had her special personal attributes. Each was arguably quite beautiful in her own way. Paris couldn’t decide which was the most beautiful one. Then Venus took her clothes off. The others had to do likewise to have any hope of competing. But Venus, with the stunning beauty of her naked body, easily dominated her rivals. Paris, after all, wasn’t even able to resist the beauty of the married woman Helen of Troy, who later rightfully called herself a “shameless whore.” When Paris saw the naked Venus, he fell at her feet in adoration and awarded her the golden apple.

Writing in the fourth century, the eminent Roman author Ausonius recognized in the Judgment of Paris general wisdom about competition. Ausonius observed:

The listener who wishes to induce one who is afraid to speak should hide learning, and veteran cunning should not brandish seasoned weapons against raw recruits. Venus realized this concerning the palm of beauty long delayed by doubtful judgement. She had competed modestly veiled as if before her father, and equal apparel didn’t deter her rivals. But after the contest of the goddesses was brought to the examination of the shepherd, she competed as she had come forth from the sea or come together with Mars. She thus both caused the judge to bow down to her and overcame the competition of her rivals.

{ tegat oportet auditor doctrinam suam, qui volet ad dicendum sollicitare trepidantem, nec emerita adversum tirunculos arma concutiat veterana calliditas. sensit hoc Venus de pulchritudinis palma diu ambiguo ampliata iudicio. pudenter enim ut apud patrem velata certaverat nec deterrebat aemulas ornatus aequalis; at postquam in pastoris examen deducta est lis dearum, qualis emerserat mari aut cum Marte convenerat, et consternavit arbitrum et contendentium certamen oppressit. }

A novice speaker cannot compete against one highly learned in rhetoric. A shrewd, well-practiced warrior can easily defeat a raw recruit. Women with their clothes on compete for men’s favor with their dress, their words, and their general character. When women get naked, a man can quickly choose the most physically beautiful woman.

The underlying competitive fundamental is the scope of competition. In economic terms, product differentiation helps to sustain competition. If one party has too clear of an advantage in a relatively narrow field of competition, then rivalry quickly vanishes. A broad scope of competition helps to sustain different competitive niches.

One reason that women are having less sex is that they are wearing less clothes. Wearing less clothes intensifies female sexual competition. That means a larger share of men sexually desire a smaller share of women. As a result, fewer men and fewer women actually have sex. To end the sex recession, men must stop groveling to women as white-knighting, chivalrous fools, and women must start wearing more clothes.

Judgment of Paris with only Venus nude

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The above quote is from Ausonius, Epistles 5a (7 in Evelyn-White’s Loeb edition) “Reply to Paulus {Rescriptum Paulo}” ll. 4-11, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Knight (2006) pp. 370-2. For these lines, Knight’s Latin text is the same as that in Green (1991). Paulus is Ausonius’s close friend and fellow professor of rhetoric Axius Paulus.

While the Homeric epics indicate knowledge of the Judgment of Paris, it’s more fully represented in surviving fragments of the Cypria, a seventh-century BGC Greek epic about the Trojan War. On the Judgment of Paris in Euripides, Stinton (1965). Here’s an online collection of ancient references to the Judgment of Paris.

In a book of epigrams praising the “celestial modesty {caelestis verecundia}” of Roman Emperor Domitian, Martial depreciated the nude goddess Venus:

Book, about to enter the laureled home of our Lord Domitian,
learn to speak more sacredly, with reverent mouth.
Nude Venus, withdraw! This little book is not yours.
You come to me, you, Caesar’s Pallas Athena.

{ Laurigeros domini, liber, intrature penates
disce verecundo sanctius ore loqui.
nuda recede Venus! non est tuus iste libellus.
tu mihi, tu, Pallas Caesariana, veni. }

Martial, Epigrams 8.1, Latin text from the Latin Library, English translation (with my changes) from Hayes (2019) p. 145. The reference to Domitian’s “laureled home” suggests that this epigram was written about 88 GC. In that year, Emperor Domitian achieved victories over the Sarmatians and the Dacians along the Danube river. In the English translation of this epigrams, I’ve expanded dominus to “Lord Domitian” and Pallas Caesariana to “Caesar’s Pallas Athena” to make these terms more understandable to ordinary readers. Similarly, penates literally refers to Roman household deities. I’ve translated that word as a metonym for “home.”

In his preface to Book 8 of his epigrams, Martial described Book 8 as praising Emperor Domitian’s celestial modesty. Martial’s preface explains:

Although epigrams appearing to aim at the verbal license of mine have been written even by men of the strictest morals and the highest station, I have not allowed these here to talk as wantonly as is their custom. Since the greater and better part of the book is bound up with the majesty of your sacred name, let it remember that only persons purified by religious lustration should approach temples. So that prospective readers may know that I shall observe this principle, I have thought proper to announce it on the very threshold of this little book in the briefest of epigrams.

{ quamvis autem epigrammata a severissimis quoque et summae fortunae viris ita scripta sint ut mimicam verborum licentiam affectasse videantur, ego tamen illis non permisi tam lascive loqui quam solent. cum pars libri et maior et melior ad maiestatem sacri nominis tui alligata sit, meminerit non nisi religiosa purificatione lustratos accedere ad templa debere. quod ut custoditurum me lecturi sciant, in ipso libelli huius limine profiteri brevissimo placuit epigrammate. }

Martial, Epigrams, Book 8, preface, Latin text and English translation from Shackleton Bailey (1993). Possessing celestial modesty only in the ironic sense of acting lustfully like the god Jupiter, Domitian enjoyed having sex with slave boys. Domitian had his beloved slave-boy Earinus castrated to maintain his sexual attractiveness. On the threshold between prefaces and epigrams in Martial’s books of epigrams, Hayes (2019).

[images] (1) Judgment of Paris, with three nude goddesses. Oil on copper painting made by Pacecco De Rosa about 1645. Preserved in the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Judgment of Paris, with only Venus getting nude. Painting made by François-Xavier Fabre in 1808. Preserved in the Virginia Museum of Art, Richmond. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Green, R. P. H., ed. 1991. The Works of Ausonius. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (review)

Hayes, Sam A. 2019. “Epistulam versibus clusero: Fluid Paratextuality in Martial’s Prose Prefaces.” Pp. 139-158 in Ritter-Schmalz, Cornelia, and Raphael Schwitter, eds. Antike Texte und ihre Materialität: Alltägliche Präsenz, mediale Semantik, literarische Reflexion. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Knight, Gillian R. 2006. “Ausonius to Axius Paulus: Metapoetics and the Bissula.” Rheinisches Museum Für Philologie. 149 (3): 369-385.

Shackleton Bailey, D. R. 1993. Martial. Epigrams. Volume II: Books 6-10. Loeb Classical Library 95. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stinton, T. C. W. 1965. Euripides and the Judgement of Paris. London: Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies.

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