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. On rejecting Venus’s competitive advantage in being nude relative to the more modestly dressing Minerva (Pallas Athena), Martial, Epigrams 8.1.

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.

[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)

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

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

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