I’ve been on a lot planes lately, and so am unusually sensitive to manspreading at the moment. This week I spoke at Policy Exchange, a Westminster Think-Tank, on the enduring relevance of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987). I was manspread (manspreaded?) like never before by Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng. I note that I place my hands in a defensive-rampart postition. He also verbally interrupted me, but he wasn't alone in that.
The verb 'manspread' was not added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 2015, but my brief investigations of sitting postures in the history of art suggest that it is not confined to modernity. In Giovanni Belloni's 1514 'Feast of the Gods', for example, poor Amphitrite is wedged between a groping Neptune, and a manspreading Mercury. The satyr in the red cloak behind her looks as though his knees are pressing into her bottom, too. Her straight-ahead gaze suggests she is not enjoying her quince. It's supposed to be an aphrodisiac, but I don't think it's working.
More recent pictures of classical deities portray similarly exaggerated manspreading, for example this Hades and Persephone. Her hands are doing what mine were.
My hasty research into sitting etiquette in ancient art today suggested that it was by no means as obviously gendered. In ancient Mespotamia and Egypt, for example, I have only (so far) found depictions of men sitting with their knees considerately together next to women in the identical posture.
Indeed, the Mesopotamian woman seems to feel able to wedge her knee further into her boyfriend's space than he does into hers. The Egyptian couple look perfectly at ease: mutually touching elbows but legs nowhere near in contact.
The East Pediment of the Parthenon sculptures, probably depicting Dionysos, Persephone and Demeter, suggest that spreading was in Pheidas' day a matter of status: all the gods, regardless of their gender, are letting their knees loll apart regardless of what anyone else thinks.
And here is Atalanta, admittedly the kind of girl unlikely to be told not to sit like a man. But her refusal to cross her legs or squeeze her knees demurely together doesn't seem to be disapproved of by the artist as a woman sitting like that would be censured today.
My final piece of evidence is the so-called 'Capitoline Triad' of Juno, Jupiter and Minerva. It is true that Jupiter has his knees casually apart, but he is not extending either leg into his wife or daughter's space. And they both apparently feel free to sit with their knees relaxed and apart, just like him.
Does this mean that we have actually gone backwards since the Renaissance in terms of sitting etiquette being dictated by patriarchy? I am certainly having a hard time figuring out how to translate 'manspread' into ancient Greek.