FORTEANA FROM THE ANCIENT WORLD COMPILED BY BARRY BALDWIN
The ideal Greek relationship was between older man and hairless boy
214: (H)OMO ADDS BRIGHTNESS
Old soap-powder slogan, though more deterrent than detergent for homophobes.
“Buggery is useful for that awkward time between tea and cocktails” – Maurice Bowra, classicist and wit, the model for Mr Samgrass in Brideshead Revisited.
“Buggers can’t be choosers” – also Bowra. (Full story in: KJ Dover, Greek
Homosexuality (1978); Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality (1999); R McMullen, ‘Roman Attitudes to Greek Love,’ Historia 31, 1982, 484-502. Cornucopia of translated sources in Forberg’s unintentionally hilarious Classical
Erotology, 1884, sub-titled “Privately printed for Viscount Julian Smithers M.A. and Friends”)
Though not short in descriptive terms for specific practices and practitioners – the most impressive being Lucilius’s (fr. 1373)
Scultimidonus, anciently glossed “One who bestows for free his anal orifice, so described as from the inner parts of whore” – there is no actual word for homosexuality in Greek or Latin, our English one being a modern hybrid coined by 19th-century German psychologist Karoly Maria Benkert.
And, whilst waxing terminological, ‘gay’ is not a modernism, being used in the 18th-century to describe patrons of the male brothels known as Molly-Houses.
Helps to know the terminology (cf. JN Adams, Latin Sexual Vocabulary, 1982) if you want to enjoy the weirdlooking captions to pictures of ‘Daisy Chains’ and ‘Circle Jerks’, e.g. ‘An Irrumator irrumated,’ ‘Five Pedicons Pedicated’ – all in Forberg.)
OK, here’s the crib. ‘Irrumator’ denotes one who forces his cock into another man’s mouth. A ‘Pedicon’ is one who either buggers or is buggered; Catullus (Poem 16) threatens to do both to a pair of rivals.
Leviticus 18.22 & 20.13 prescribe the death penalty for homosexuals. No need to describe the Genesis story of God’s fiery destruction of
Sodom and Gomorrah – we know a Lot:
( Oh, you’ve all read in the New Testament
How the wife of Lot became condiment. It was her curiosity started the rot She only peeped a little but she had
lost her Lot – Oxford Theatre calypso) Albeit not explicit in Homer, Achilles and Patroclus were/ are often thought to be lovers, likewise Alexander the Great and Hephæstion. No doubt about tragedian Agathon and Pausanias, both of whom decamped to Macedonian King Archelaus’s court along with misogynist Euripides – a hospitable place for their tastes, as was Sparta whose men, according to their best modern historian Paul Cartledge ( Reflections on Sparta, 2003, p190) “were addicted to buggery”.
No doubt either about Cleisthenes, favourite butt of at least four Aristophanes comedies as an effeminate pathic. When not mattress-munching, he was a diplomat, thus foreshadowing Julius Cæsar who (Suetonius, ch49 paras1-2) procured a favourable treaty for Rome in the bed of King Nicomedes of Bithynia. One rival dubbed Cæsar “Every wife’s husband, every husband’s wife.” Bisexuality was classically rampant. As Woody Allen said, “It doubles your chances of a date.”
There was gossip about Socrates and man-about-town Alcibiades – might have been welcome relief from nagging wife Xanthippe. One of his disciples, Phædo, was a former rent-boy. His Roman followers were enthusiastic pedicators, Juvenal (2. v10) dubbing one’s arsehole “the most notorious Socratic ditch”.
When legally persecuted, modern gays often romanticised classical Greece as a haven of sexual freedom. In fact, you had to play by rigorous, not always attractive rules. The ideal relationship was between older man (‘Erastes’) and hairless young boy (‘Eromenos’) – no age minima for consent. Only the active partner was supposed to enjoy the sex. Adult pathics were (as Cleisthenes) remorselessly pilloried.
Oral sex was also deemed shameful. Martial and the Greek
Anthology abound in epigrams denouncing fellators’ bad breath, so foul that it contaminated any thing their lips touched.
Still, a Pompeian graffito ( CIL 4
no9027) lauds one Secundus as “a cock-sucker of rare talent” – three choruses of For He’s A Jolly Good Fell-ator...
Perhaps as a reaction, modern writers insist that anal penetration was rare, the usual method being intercrural cock-friction – thighs of relief everywhere. Happily, this dull-sounding ersatz copulation is countered by frequent literary jokes about a male ‘Euryproktos’ (‘Arse-hole split open by constant buggery’), and arch-pæderast Strato’s ( Greek Anthology, bk12 no6 –cf. Daryl Hines’s Puerilities, 2003) computation that the numerical Greek letter values of ‘Arse’ and ‘Gold’ are identical.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was never an issue in the Roman army. Good and bad here: Polybius (bk6 ch37 para9) reports a pathic private being clubbed to death; Marius (Plutarch, ch14 paras 4-8) acquitted a squaddie who had killed an officer sexually harassing him – a theme of Simon Raven’s Feathers of Death.
No nonsense about ‘unmanly’ gay soldiers. Thebes had its famous ‘Sacred Band’ consisting of 150 pairs of lovers, outstanding in courage. Surveying their corpses after the decisive battle of Chæonea (338 BC), Philip (Plutarch, Pelopidas, ch16) pronounced: “Let him perish who says these men did or suffered anything unseemly.”
Same-sex marriages are attested at all social levels, from those ridiculed by Martial (bk1 no24, bk12. no42) and Juvenal (2. vv117-42) to Nero’s two (possibly three) boy brides, one of whom (Sporus) he first had castrated – balls were in the other court – and Elagabalus who married at least two, besotted by their giant organs – size really mattered to him, as to Commodus whose 300-strong bisexual harem included a fellow so prodigiously hung (think John Dillinger) that he was nicknamed ‘Donkey’.
When not kissing this ‘titanic doodle’ (Victorianism from My Secret
Life), Commodus would occupy himself with a favourite eight-yearold bedmate – no wonder neglected concubine Marcia eventually organised his murder.
Even Nero plays second fiddle to Hadrian who, when his catamite Antinous ‘did a Maxwell’ in the Nile, promptly deified him – from sod to god; cf. Royston Lambert, Beloved
and God (1984). Can imagine Elton John doing this for his eromenos – to adapt the old slogan, Fucks Do Furnish a Groom
John Boswell, Christianity: Social
Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980) claimed same-sex weddings involving Byzantine emperors, though his sources are ambiguous and Boswell had an ‘agenda’, being himself gay.
Speaking of which, there is little sign of venereal diseases in Greece and Rome, apart from a vague reference to morbus Venereus that could be figurative, although some forensic studies currently suggest the possibility of syphilis.
As now, impossible to estimate the percentages. Accusations of passive sodomy were the stock-in-trade of legal and political orators – no libel laws restraining them – from Aeschines in Athens to Cicero in Rome, the latter having great fun in his Second Philippic reviling Mark Antony (in pre-Cleopatra days) for being so mad for buggery that he smashed through the roof of his lover’s house to get instant gratification.
Another one who couldn’t wait was the septuagenarian Galba (Suetonius, ch22), unusual in preferring mature men, who greeted a former partner bringing news of Nero’s death with kisses and a quickie.
Impossible to top Hostius Quadra. Shame I’ve not the space fully to quote Seneca, Natural Questions, bk1 ch16 – go read it online. He disported himself with multiple partners, revelling in simultaneous oral and anal penetration whilst fellating a third, in a special orgy room whose walls and ceiling were lined with reflecting glass to make their cocks seem enormous – eat your heart out, Hugh Hefner...
In addition to Julius Cæsar, Augustus, Tiberius (whose minions ran from fellating infants to daisychains of ‘Sphincters’), Caligula, Nero, and Elagabalus all swung both ways. Only Claudius is (significantly) commended by Suetonius for eschewing “unnatural vice”. Not the only sign of disapproval; Dio Cassius felt obliged to apologise for the otherwise admirable Trajan’s devotion to boys.
Such attitudes hardened with Christianity. Witness this vicious Latin epigram (no43) by Ausonius – identical with Greek Anthology, bk12 no210: “Three men in bed together, Two are sinning, one is sinned against. Doesn’t that make four? Wrong! The man at either end is implicated once; the one in the middle does double duty.”
Apart from the obscure Scantinian Law Concerning Infamous Love (possibly third-century BC, but not mentioned until Cicero in 50 BC), there were few if any intrusions by the state into ancient bedrooms until Philip the Arab (AD 244-9) banned male prostitution – this helped later Church historians’ claims that he was a crypto-Christian. Over the next two centuries, various emperors enacted increasingly barbarous punishments, from decapitation to burning alive, climaxing in Justinian’s reign (AD 527-65) where (e.g.) Malalas, Chronicle, bk18 pp4489 mentions two accused bishops tortured, castrated, and dragged through the streets.
Justinian ( Novels, nos 77, 141) achieved a legislative apogee by banning sodomy because it caused earthquakes – earth certainly moved in gay bedrooms, no such eruptions reported for Hampstead Heath. Justinian was probably helped to this conclusion by the Byzantine word for natural disasters being
theomenia = Wrath of God. A literary consequence was the disappearance of pæderastic Greek poetry until its Alexandrian revival by Constantine Cavafy.
This (shall we say) fundamental canard bottomed out in 2008, when the sodomy-earthquake equation was revived by Israeli MP Shlomo Benizri, apropos recent local seismic shakings – as Vonnegut Kurtly opined, What Goes Around Comes Around.
One person who’d have chuckled at this is the dedicatee of this column: the courageous Quentin Crisp, self-styled Stately Homo of England.