BMCR 2003.07.29

Homosexuality in Greece and Rome. A Sourcebook of Basic Documents

, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome : a sourcebook of basic documents. Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xvii, 558 pages).. ISBN 9780520936508 $34.95 (pb).

This collection of sources relating to homosexual behaviour in the classical world is a welcome addition to the literature and should greatly facilitate teaching on this subject.

First, a succinct and balanced Introduction (1-20) serves to introduce the study of ancient homosexuality rather than to try to write its history. It begins at the beginning, with what Hubbard means by “homosexuality” and with the difficulty of correlating ancient and modern phenomena. The first subsubsection, “Sexual preference,” introduces the conflict between “essentialists” and “constructionists”; while he is open to the valid insights of the latter, Hubbard’s real sympathies seem to be with the former, and this section is largely devoted to making the case that something like our concept of a sexual orientation was recognized at points in antiquity. “Varieties of same-gender attraction” delivers what it advertises before settling down to discuss the term cinaedus, for which Hubbard unfortunately advocates the translation “pervert” (in addition to its inappropriate clinical overtones, this covers fetishism, bestiality, etc. as well as homosexual attraction; if a translation must be used, “faggot” is preferable, being essentially an abusive term whose general import is clear without implying a clinical diagnosis). “Varieties of moral judgment” discusses precisely what was condemned or commended about which practices, while “Power dynamics” is devoted to the notoriously asymmetrical structure of most ancient same-sex relationships. “Origin and chronological development” raises but does not attempt to answer the questions of why paederasty developed in ancient Greece and whether its Roman incarnation was an importation or an independent development; it also offers a valuable reminder that societies change through time. In “Lesbianism,” I have doubts about the attempt to associate Nossis in Herondas 6 with lesbianism simply because she owns a dildo, and stronger ones about the claim that Roman writers “take an extremely hostile view of female homoeroticism as the worst perversion of natural order” (17); and I would deny absolutely the value of the Iphis and Ianthe story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as evidence for attitudes toward lesbianism. A final section, “Iconographic conventions,” discusses some of the numerous Greek vase-paintings reproduced here; the only Roman visual evidence offered, the Warren Cup, is not discussed anywhere, as far as I can see.

The 447 documents on offer are presented in 10 groups, 6 representing Greek literature in a more or less chronological arrangement from archaic lyric to Hellenistic poetry, 3 devoted to periods of Roman history, and one on “Later Greco-Roman Antiquity.” Each section follows the same pattern: first a survey of relevant issues, with frequent reference to the documents, then a succinct “bibliographical note” directing students to modern scholarship, and finally the documents themselves, lightly annotated and usually arranged chronologically or by author rather than by theme, and almost always presented without introduction or heading. I greatly prefer this situation to what prevails in sourcebooks where such praefanda can too easily supply predigested interpretations to students; the general introductions likewise suggest itineraries though the documents without being so explicit that students are spared detailed thinking. Initially at least this kind of presentation can be demanding on the instructor, but with sufficient experience of the material it can become liberating.

The 6 sections devoted to Greek culture (as well as the final section) clearly surpass in length, fullness, and quality the 3 devoted to Rome, as one might expect given Hubbard’s previous work. They cover a mix of genres and eras: archaic lyric, “historical texts” (far and away the loosest category, combining Thucydides and graffiti), comedy, oratory, philosophy, and Hellenistic poetry. The documentation is generous in the extreme, and while some selections might be thought superfluous, the only addition I could suggest would be P. Oxy. 3723, containing a Hellenistic elegy in which the author apparently consoled himself for his erotic subjugation by a boy with the reminder that many gods had “been there, done that.” All in all the Greek sections of this book appear admirable.

Unfortunately, both dependability and utility decline somewhat in the Roman sections, on which I will concentrate because of my recent experience teaching a course in Roman sexuality. Hubbard still summarizes the subject as accurately as the available scholarship allows, and there is still an abundance of essential documents: we have, for example, the whole of Catullus’ Attis poem, the whole of Tibullus’ Marathus cycle, all the Nisus and Euryalus material from the Aeneid, the paederastic tales of Metamorphoses 10, the whole of Juvenal 2 (and 9 as well), and page upon page from the Satyricon.

But closer examination shows that the documentation is not after all as generous as in the Greek sections. Themes, episodes, and characters are sometimes illustrated from only one source or two even when more are available. For example, the prevalence of sexual slander in the political discourse of the late Republic, especially involving charges of having yielded to paederastic advances, could also be illustrated effectively from the apocryphal Invectives of Sallust and Cicero. Nero’s sexual habits could be illustrated from Tacitus as well as Suetonius, and Commodus’ from Herodian as well as the Historia Augusta. If one is going to cite only one version of the story of Laetorius Mergus, then Hubbard is correct to cite Dionysius of Halicarnassus; but Valerius Maximus 6.1.11 should be cited as well. For the killing of Marius’ nephew C. Lusius by his soldier P. Plotius, Hubbard offers Valerius Maximus 6.1.12 as well as Calpurnius Flaccus’ declamation on the topic; but he should also offer the much longer rhetorical treatment in [Quint.] Decl. mai. 3, and above all the account in Plutarch’s Marius, which is as close as we can come to a serious, reliable narrative of the events. This is not just a quibble over the exhaustiveness of the compilation. Comparison of alternative accounts is absolutely vital to an appreciation of the unique natures and biases of the sources, an appreciation that is perhaps even more essential for studying Roman sexuality than Greek. Much of the literature of the early Empire which is vital to the understanding of Roman sexuality is literature of social criticism; students need to understand this but also to understand that Valerius Maximus, Seneca, Martial, and Juvenal are all moralistic in their own ways and that appreciation of their individuality is essential to mining them as quasi-historical sources for “facts” and attitudes. Hubbard does give some attention in the Greek section to the difficulties of using various genres, but it is all the more important in the Roman section; not to mention that my classroom experience suggests that sourcebooks need to give students some guidance in how to use them effectively.

There are also gaps and omissions. I missed, for example, the suppression of the Bacchanalia, where (according to Liv. 39.13.10) Hispala Fecenia claimed that plura uirorum inter sese quam feminarum esse stupra. Other passages that deserved inclusion are Cat. 80, where Gellius is teased for always leaving the house with Victor’s ejaculate on his lips; [Caes.] Bell. Hisp. 4.33, where the rebel Scapula orders a freedman who had been his former concubinus to light his pyre; S. 1.2.116-8, where Horace mentions an available slave-boy as the sensible alternative to chasing married women, along with paederastic odes like 2.9 (Valgius and his beloved Mystes) and 4.10 (Ligurinus); Cic. Phil. 2.105 and Serv. E. 8.29 for the pueri meritorii; Digest 48.5.9(8), which shows that Augustus’ law on adultery could also be applied to sex between males, and, showing that the Lex Julia on uis publica applied to the rape of boys; Tac. A. 14.42, where no less a personage than the City Prefect is murdered in what might have been, as newspapers used to put it, a “homosexual love triangle”; Val. Max. 6.1.5, for the punishment of the “son of doubtful chastity,” and 6.1.6, for Atilius Philiscus, the boy prostitute turned strict father; Ovid, AA 1.523-4, on men who cruise for other men; Priap. 45, for the cinaedus and his “Afro”; the “Oxford fragment” of Juvenal 6; instead of just an extract from Statius, S. 2.6, both 2.1 and 2.6, preferably complete (with more attention generally to the phenomenon of the puer delicatus); and a whole host of epigrams by Martial: 1.96 and 3.82 (to reinforce Juvenal 2.97), on the effeminate associations of the colour galbinus (1.96 should also be cited for Maternus’ penis-fixation, with Chrestus in 9.27 appended as another example); 3.73, for what Gallus does with boys; 6.37, for Charinus’ now-unsatisfiable itch to be buggered; 9.47, for philosophers who like to be buggered (again reinforcing Juvenal 2; Mart. 1.24 even gives us someone who always has Curius and Camillus on his lips, yet becomes a “bride”); 9.69, for the bisexual Polycharmus; 11.30 (and others), for the bad reputation of the fellator; 11.63, where Philomusus wonders why Martial’s boy-slaves are so well-endowed — and others could be listed as well.

There are also some weaknesses in the translations here, many of them apparently commissioned for the volume from a variety of hands rather than (as in the Greek section) being taken from reliable published versions. Some simply need more context; some introduce an obscene tone where none is present in the original; some are simply wrong in their understanding of the Latin, even to the point of obscuring the author’s meaning. Thus in Liv. 8.28 (= Hubbard 7.1), besides minor quibbles, “form of bondage” does not translate uinculum fidei; ferre ad populum does not mean “to propose a resolution”; and the content of that “resolution” — ne quis, nisi qui noxam meruisset, donec poenam lueret in compedibus aut in neruo teneretur — is represented as “that no man could be held in shackles or prison, unless he had already been judged guilty and was waiting to pay the penalty” rather than “that only a man who had deserved punishment could be held in shackles or in prison until he paid his penalty.” In Val. Max. 6.1.9 (=7.2) in qualicumque statu is translated as “under any circumstances” when it actually means “in any social status” (in this case free or bondsman). In Val. Max. 6.1.10 (=7.4) quod … stupri commercium habuisset is translated as “because he had negotiated an act of sexual immorality” when stupri commercium actually indicates a mutual sexual relationship, and sponsionem se facere paratum diceret is not “he said he was prepared to wager” but “he said he was prepared to assert the truth of his statement in the formal legal process called sponsio.” In Val. Max. 6.1.12 (=7.21) iure is translated “legally” when it means “rightly” (a soldier could never “legally” kill an officer). In Pl. Curc. 482-4 (=7.10), in Tusco uico is translated as “on the Tuscan road” instead of “in the Vicus Tuscus” (where there stood a famous statue of Vertumnus, perhaps not irrelevant to the uortant/uorsentur play in 484), and a misleading impression is created by omitting 483, which begins a new sentence and thus shows that 484 does not further describe the male prostitutes of 482. In Cic. Tusc. 4.70-71 (=7.55) there are again both infelicities and errors: “they deny that love is present in an illicit sexual act” is offered as a translation of amorem negant stupri esse, which is much closer to “they say that love is nothing to do with sex”; the ut-clause that begins 71 has been misunderstood, as has the later purpose clause qui … tribueremus. Ov. AA 3.437-8 (=8.20) is taken out of context and mistranslated, with uir rendered “husband” in 437 but “men” in 438, so that words that originally warned women about well-groomed men who are really only muggers now comment on husbands who have their bodies plucked. Even if an etymological connection does exist between the two words, it is wrong to translate spintria as “sphincter” (Suet. Tib. 43 =9.1). Seneca the Elder, C. (=9.3) has an inaccurate introductory blurb and an inexact annotation about Haterius’ reputation as well as a mistranslation of obiciebatur as “accused.” Seneca the Younger’s denunciation of Hostius Quadra ( N.Q. 1.16, =9.9) is full of inappropriate expressions like “peckers” and “sucking and fucking” that stylistically do not belong in anything purporting to be the work of Seneca. Still other examples could also be cited.

Questionable or mistaken opinions are easier to find here than in the Greek sections. “Debt slavery was deemed unacceptable precisely because it could lead to … sexual violation” (308) is not in fact the motive given by either Livy or Valerius Maximus, and there is no reason to expect the latter especially to give the true motive of those who eliminated the practice. Using the phrase “Romule cinaede” (Cat. 29) is not the same as “Romulus [being] said to submit passively like a cinaedus,” especially when it does not in fact refer to Romulus at all, and I am not persuaded that Catullus’ Attis poem implies criticism of Greek paederasty. Nor would I state casually that the Satyricon was written for Nero’s entertainment (383) or countenance even the remotest possibility that Boudicca really spoke the words Tacitus attributes to her ( ibid.). Some issues that need fuller treatment are omitted or scanted. In particular, the outlines of the vast social institution that was Roman paederasty are difficult to trace here, and the notoriously problematic Lex Scantinia is barely mentioned; but what better place than a sourcebook to set out a model lesson on the difficulties of studying an ancient society by presenting all the sources?

I have a more general concern regarding the approach to the Roman sexual vocabulary, which is always translated into some sort of English equivalent, but sometimes (and only sometimes) glossed with the original term (the absence of Adams’ The Latin Sexual Vocabulary from the bibliography is surprising in any case). I readily concede that a sourcebook of documents must offer them in a language that the user understands; but Roman sexuality is so thoroughly defined by its distinctive vocabulary that it seems fruitless to try to discuss it in anything but that vocabulary. That avoids all the difficulties associated with Hubbard’s choice of “pervert” to translate cinaedus, but it also gives students their only hope of thinking about sexuality as the Romans did. It would also save the need to explain certain phrases in the translations that were not commissioned for this volume; since most students will no more understand “bitch-queen” in the translation of Catullus 29 than they will pathicus, they might as well get the Latin term, though with a better explanation than the one offered here (just as they need to be told why “boy-toy” is the wrong word for concubinus in Catullus 61). No more than a dozen or so terms would need this treatment — some that come to mind are cinaedus, exoletus, concubinus, pathicus, stuprum, mollis, ceuere, and (im)pudicus and associates. The obvious disadvantage to the editor is that it would be almost impossible to use published translations and nearly everything would have to be translated from scratch; but the gain from using clinically exact translations of this kind would be enormous. It would also eliminate the distracting use of terminology adopted from current (gay) slang to translate these terms, which of course begs the question of whether there is any affinity between the homosexual cultures of any ancient Romans and those of our contemporaries — not to mention that many of the terms used here are misleading and inaccurate: despite C.A. Williams’ erroneous definition, an exoletus was not an “over-age male hustler” (7.63 = Cic. Mil. 55, and Seneca’s attack on Hostius Quadra, the orgiast with the distorting mirrors, is full of such language, which thoroughly obscures the Roman sexual concepts on which Seneca draws.

It should be obvious that, for all its strengths, I think that the Roman section of this book could be improved substantially through better translations, fuller documentation, and a fuller concentration on the Roman sexual vocabulary. The entire book could no doubt be improved by discussing ancient homosexual behaviour more explicitly within the broader context of gender itself and constructions of male and female; Hubbard does take steps in this direction, but I would like to see a more thoroughgoing treatment of bisexuality (with appropriate nuances) and transgender phenomena especially. The Romans, after all, certainly saw some kinds of homosexual conduct as transgendering — the penetrated male muliebria patitur, for example — and, just as importantly, some of the material included here may just as easily involve gender confusion as homosexuality. For example, in Lucian, Dialogues of the Courtesans 5, a woman who shaves her head and calls herself Megillus apparently uses a dildo to penetrate another woman; should this be counted as a case of lesbianism, or of gender dysphoria? There would also be some value in setting the Roman material more clearly within the larger cultural context of masculinized women and feminized heterosexual men.

I was frequently impressed to find out-of-the-way items in the bibliography, but there are surprising omissions as well: though Hubbard certainly knows the Hallett-Skinner Roman Sexualities, he cites only one article from it, while the omission of Clarke’s Looking at Lovemaking is consistent with the general neglect of Roman (as opposed to Greek) visual evidence. The standard of production is extremely high, and I noticed no typographical errors beyond “did you used” (313; “did you use” appears correctly a few lines below) and “Praetonium” (377, n. 79).