BMCR 2016.12.15

Ancient Rome and the Construction of Modern Homosexual Identities. Classical presences

, Ancient Rome and the Construction of Modern Homosexual Identities. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. xvii, 358. ISBN 9780199689729. $120.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The timeliness of this collection of papers will be impressed upon every reader. While much has been written about Greece’s contribution to modern discourses of homosexuality, Rome’s significant role has either been overlooked or consigned to the dustbin of the history, with the Roman paradigm of sexuality being stereotyped as one in which unbridled lust and perversion reigned supreme. This fixation upon Roman sexual licentiousness goes back, of course, to early Christianity. Thanks to film, television, video, and the Internet, it is more lurid than ever; and homosexuality—above all male homosexuality—occupies a central place. In her introduction, however, Ingleheart underlines the fact that “Roman homosexuality itself is broad, and therefore demands a comparably broad cultural exploration,” so that the reception of Roman homosexuality needs to be examined “under a wide lens;” (9) and it is indeed such a lens that is applied in this collection of fifteen papers.

The papers are grouped into three parts: Part I, “Homosexual Encounters in Writing from the Renaissance to the Modern Period,” with nine papers, is by far the largest; there are four papers in Part II, “Homosexuality in the Visual Arts,” and two in Part III, “Two Homosexual Authors and Their Influence.” The reception studies contained in this collection place before the reader a wide diversity of responses over the centuries to Roman homosexuality in both elite and popular culture, ranging from the philological labors of Renaissance Latinists to the sympathetic portrayal of male homosexuality in some contemporary fiction and—especially independent—cinema. I fully agree with the editor in her Introduction that this series of papers makes an important contribution to classical reception studies.

What struck me already in my first reading is that, except for the first paper, female same-sex desire and love is only a minor subject in the collection (the only significant exception among the other articles is Matzner’s paper on Ulrichs). This is, of course, can be explained, as is done by Ingleheart, by the fact that the representation of female homosexuality is rare in Roman literature—with, moreover, iconography hardly coming into the picture at all and, with the exception of Horace’s mascula Sappho (Ep. 1.19.28), invariably hostile to boot. Lesbian women in the much later West have had the towering figure of Sappho in archaic Greece with whom to declare their spiritual affinity, but the Roman world offers no woman, whether historical or fictional, who is even remotely comparable. A paper or more discussion in the Introduction shedding more light on this conspicuous imbalance in the context of classical reception studies would have been welcome.

I will focus briefly on six papers in this collection, four in part I and two in part II, where I believe I am in a good position to make apposite comments. A list of all fifteen papers is appended at the end.

In “Lesbian Philology in Early Print Commentaries on Juvenal and Martial,” Marc D. Schachter shows how Italian philologists, especially Calderino and Sabino, in print commentaries on Martial and Juvenal that appeared in the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth century tackled the challenge of correctly understanding certain words or phrases denoting sapphism, the tribade, and cunnilingus—a challenge which faced them especially in Martial, Epigrams 7.6 and Juvenal, Satires 6.306-8, 311, 314-315, 320-323. Their philological labors on these passages provided the foundation for later commentaries. Schachter raises the interesting question of why their skillful exegeses took so long (centuries, in fact), to reach the vernacular literature which has thus far occupied scholarship on lesbian sexuality. This is a question he is unable to answer at this point, and so am I. He might have fleshed out his brief discussion, by way of contrast, with a swift look at the vernacular print literature on Roman male homosexuality, which began to appear over the course of the early modern period and which often hinted at the physicality of the sexual acts themselves.1

In “Of That I know Many Examples… On the Relationship of Greek Theory and Roman Practices in Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s Writings on the Third Sex,” Sebastian Matzner provides the reader with an insightful and particularly well documented introduction to the life and work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), who has been hailed as the “grandfather of the gay liberation movement” and the creator of “the first theory of sexuality as such.” (94). As underlined by Matzner, Ulrichs was also a formidable Latinist and a vigorous advocate for the continuing use of Latin as the international language of science and scholarship. His theories and increasingly complex taxonomies of sexual identity based on a fixed binary of male and female in which homosexual persons constituted a “third sex” (later on, he was to conceptualize lesbian women as a “fourth sex”) have long since been discredited, but they were shaped as much by the Roman practices as by the Greek theories (for instance, in Plato’s Symposium). Since female same-sex desire and love lay almost completely outside the ken of his social life, Ulrichs was to draw on Martial’s satirical epigrams caricaturing ‘butch’ lesbians in order to formulate his new understanding of such women.

“Walter Pater’s Marcus the Epicurean (first published in 1885) is probably one of the very few works of fiction drawing on the ancient Roman world that may be truly called a philosophical novel; it may be contrasted in this respect with two other nineteenth-century novels, namely Lewis Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880), or Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), both of which, not surprisingly, have inspired, numerous movies over the past century. The story, set in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, follows the homoerotically colored friendship which develops between the upper- class Marius and the Christian soldier Cornelius, but it is above all the story, as shown by Daniel Orells, of an intellectually gifted and aesthetically refined young man’s search for philosophic and religious meaning in his life. Orells argues persuasively that Pater has, above all, projected his own very contemporary sensibility into this (his only) novel, infusing his work with the cult of “fine feeling” (131), which goes back to the eighteenth century, as well as reflecting profound “late nineteenth century concerns [in Britain] about the relationship between self and other in the context of debates about masculinity, and religious and imperial identity.” (135).

Starting with Robert Graves’s I Claudius, Craig Williams offers in “Homosexuality in Roman Fiction from Robert Graves to Steven Saylor” an enjoyable survey of English- language novels that have appeared over the past eighty years and touch upon sexual desire and love between men in the Roman world. I myself have read many of these and concur with his assessments, particularly his positive assessment of Colleen McCullough’s and Steven Saylor’s novels set in the Late Republic. One sees indeed a steady trend towards a greater openness and even positive affirmation. Regrettably, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien, which was translated into English in 1954 and is justly admired in the English-speaking world as a literary classic, is not brought into the discussion.2

In “’Gay Pompeii’: Pompeian Art and Homosexuality in the Early Twentieth Century.” Sarah Levin-Richardson argues persuasively that Eduard von Mayer’s Pompeji in seiner Kunst (published in 1904 and translated into English as Pompeii as an Art City) reflects the rise of a “historicizing movement” (202) in the study of Greek and Roman culture, including art criticism, as it distanced itself from the narrow scope of Winckelmann’s philhellenism. Von Mayer’s understanding of Pompeii’s material culture highlighted that Pompeii was “not a barbarous Roman town but a cultured Hellenized one.” (207), and its Hellenism was conspicuously reflected in its art celebrating the physical beauty of young men. Thus, Pompeii provided von Mayer and his fellow activists in the German homosexual emancipation movement with a broader cultural-historical model for emulation. The overall direction of this paper ties in very well with Caroline Vout’s article, “Rom(e)-antic Visions: Collecting, Display, and Homosexual Self-Fashioning.” The collecting and displaying of erotic art and artefacts can play a distinct and important role in the construction of one’s erotic and sexual self and, as an integral part of this self-fashioning, of one’s aesthetic sensibility and one’s capacity for love; this is a role very different from that offered by the medium of literature, much of which is directed to the elite strata of society. Vout develops this thesis through numerous examples ranging from Winckelmann to Mapplethorpe. If male homoeroticism in Greek art might seem like a remote ideal, Roman material culture of all sorts provided a “portal” (250) for many generations to its ‘earthier’ manifestations in the Roman world.

There is a comprehensive bibliography, some black-and-white photos, and a six-page Index.

Authors and Titles

1. Marc D. Schachter, Lesbian Philology in Early Print Commentaries on Martial and Juvenal
2. Jennifer Ingleheart, The Invention of (Thracian) Homosexuality: The Ovidian Orpheus in the English Renaissance
3. Matthew Fox, Decorum, Textuality, and National Stereotype in the Eighteenth-Century Reception of Homosexuality
4. Sebastian Matzner, Of That I know Many Examples… On the Relationship between Greek Theory and Roman Practices in Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s Writings on the Third Sex
5. Jane Funke and Rebecca Langlands, The Reception of Rome in English Sexology
6. Daniel Orells, Roman Receptions /Receptions of Rome: Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean
7. Jennifer Ingleheart, Putting the Roman Back into Romance: The Subversive Case of the Anonymous Teleny
8. Nicolai Endres, Sex and the City in Petronius’ Satyrica and Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar
9. Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality in Historical Fiction, from Robert Graves to Steven Saylor
10. Sarah Levin-Richardson, ‘Gay’ Pompeii’: Pompeian Art and Homosexuality in the Early Twentieth Century
11. Jen Grove, The Role of Roman Artefacts in E.P. Warrens’s ‘Paederastic Evangel’
12. Caroline Vout, Rom(e)-antic Visions: Collecting, Display, and Homosexual Self-Fashioning
13. Alastair J. L Blanshard, The Erotic Eye: Cinema, Classicism, and the Sexual Subject
14. Ralph J. Hexter, The Kisses of Juventius, and Policing the Boundaries of Masculinity: The Case of Catullus
15. Craig Williams, Too Gross for our Present Notions of Propriety: Roman Homosexuality in Two Nineteenth Century Translations of Martial’s Epigrams


1. Chapters 9-12 and 14 of Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality & Civilization (Cambridge MA, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), have numerous discussions of and references to such literature, which mirrors the ubiquitous repression of male homosexuality in Western Europe and the Americas during this period.

2. Perhaps the omission was deliberate since Yourcenar’s novel tells the story of Rome’s most conspicuously hellenophile emperor whose uniquely iconic relationship with Antinous perfectly exemplifies the paradigm of classical Greek pederasty rather than the less restrictive norms governing Roman male homosexuality; moreover, the posthumous deification of Antinous resonated mainly in the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman empire. The couple is briefly mentioned by Williams in another context, and Hadrian and Antinous each are prominently featured in the collection as a whole.