Bisexual tyrants and courtiers disregard cautious philosophers and physicians



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On November 20, 130, Julia stood with the emperor

before the Colossus of Memnon, hoping to hear it speak

to the rays of the rising sun. Such were its powers,

tradition said. She rebuked its silence in verses carved

on its pedestal. On the next day, obediently it responded "out of the ringing stone." Her inscribed

poems are the last known record of Thrasyllus' line. 13


A eulogy delivered by a son during the reign of Augustus praised his mother for "modesty, propriety, chastity, obedience, woolworking, industry and honour," who did not "take second place to any woman in virtue, work and wisdom in times of danger." 14 Epitaphs, most numerous from the first through the third centuries, seem to come from the heart of the entombed whether composed by the dead women themselves or their understanding intimates, who could express their innermost thoughts. They stress love for father and husband, bearing of sons, pleasant conversation, graceful gait, dancing, acting, grief for lost children, chastity, obedience to masters and mistresses, and fairness to daughters, all traditional matronly virtues.
An elderly senator, Nerva (96 98), said to favor the restoration of the Republic, elected by his colleagues like the other "Good Emperors," was married but childless. "It is . . . often insisted that Domitian was enjoyed by his eventual successor, the Emperor Nerva" (Suetonius, Domitian, 1). It is said of his militaristic heir, the Spanish general Trajan (98  117), whom the army forced Nerva to adopt and who was the first provincial to be elected descended from an Italian family settled at Italica since its founding in and husband of Plotina, "it was a fault in him that he was a heavy drinker and also a pederast. But he did not incur censure, for he never committed any wicked deed because of this. He drank all the wine that he wanted and yet remained sober, and in his relations with boys he harmed no one" (Dio, 68.7.4). The philhellenic Hadrian (117 138), Trajan's cousin and successor, though he married, loved Antinous, an extraordinarily beautiful Greek youth, who accompanied the emperor on his journeys throughout the empire until he drowned either by accident or intent. Hadrian, who may have come closest of all the Roman emperors to the Greek ideal, expressed his immense grief through temples, festivals, oracles, busts, coins, gems, and statues. More interested in improving the Empire through public works and diligent redress of grievances than in expanding it through conquests, he found time in his busy schedule to exchange Anacreontic trifles with his friend Florus and Aulus Gellius (c.130 180) mentioned the verses of another friend of his, Vocontius. About his adopted son and heir Antoninus Pius (138 161) his successor Marcus Aurelius wrote
In my father I observed mildness of temper, and un 

changeable resolution in the things which he had

determined on after due deliberation; and no vain 

glory in those things which men call honors; and a

love of labor and perseverance; and a readiness to

listen to whoever had anything to propose for the

common weal; and undeviating firmness in giving to

every man his deserts; and a knowledge derived from

experience of the right times for vigorous action

and for relaxation. And I observed that he had

overcome any passion for boys. . . . (Meditations,

I, 16)
Besides his declared love for his tutor Fronto, discussed below, Marcus Aurelius (161 180) did not marry until he was 24, partly because he broke his first engagement to marry Faustina, younger daughter of Pius. He also thanked the gods for restraining his affections toward his slaves:


I thank the gods for giving me a brother {Lucius Verus}

who was able by his moral character to rouse me to

vigilance over myself, and who, at the same time,

pleased me by his respect and affection; that my children

have not been stupid or deformed in body; that I was not

more proficient in rhetoric, poetry, and the other studies,

in which I should perhaps have been completely engaged, if

I had seen that I was making progress in them; that I

promptly placed those who brought me up in the stations

of honor they seemed to desire, without putting them off

with promises of doing it some time after, because they

were then still young; that I received clear and frequent

impressions of what is meant about living in accordance

with nature; so that, so far as depended on the gods,

and their gifts, and help, and inspiration, nothing

hindered me from living according to nature, though I

still fall short of it through my own fault, and

through not observing the admonitions of the gods,

and, I may almost say, their dictates; that my body

has held out so long in such a kind of life; that I

never touched either Benedicta or Theodotus, and that,

after having fallen into some fits of love, I was

cured . . . (Med., I, 17).
Fox summed up the ethos of the Antonines:
The Antonines did combine taste with rarer capacities.

The ideal of their texts on ethics was a dignified

self control, in which reason governed the emotions

and intelligence guided a man through adversity. Their

men of letters idealized youth and beauty and admired

elegance and education. 15


In the time of Hadrian, Strato, a native of Sardis, composed openly immodest and blunt epigrams to boys that surpassed Ibycus' in lasciviousness and crudity (Cicero, ). He even gaily described the sexual frolicking of dogs in his Musa Paidike or "Boyish Muse" (Pal. Anth., XII). In the early second century, Pseudo Lucian had in Affairs of the Heart, the exclusive devotee of boys debate the Stoicizing advocate of women, who said that it was unnatural for the male to become soft and warned against transgressing the laws of nature. The judge, commenting ironically that it really came down in both cases to caresses, kisses, and hands wandering underneath tunics, finally decided in favor of boys. Eros (love for boys) brought order out of chaos thus improving nature with civilization, an amalgam of Epicurean and Platonic theories. Women, however ugly they appear to the pederast, unlike boys, reciprocate the enjoyment of their men. The victory of the hard pressed pederast finally hinged on his advice to remain as chaste as Socrates sharing his bed with Alcibiades. In another interlocking dialogue, however, the conditional nature of the victory of pederasty, because of its connection to philosophy and absence of sex, was noted in such a way as to question whether it was realistic to avoid physical enjoyment.
In Eroticus, Plutarch (46 120) pitted a typical erastes in his twenties against a wise and wealthy widow of his own age, who could do for the boy as much as any erastes, for the affection of an attractive honorable ephebe whom the woman kidnapped to the chagrin of the pederast. The artificiality of women was contrasted as usual with the naturalness of boys, and animalistic heterosexuality with pederastic intellectuality. Hoisted on their own petard, boy lovers were accused of posing as philosophers and sages when they were really interested in "the sweetness of their thighs and their lips" ( ). If love was incompatible with sex, pederasts had to abstain from physical pleasures, if not, women were no less inspiring than boys and able to do everything for a boy that pederastic tradition claimed an erastes could do. Thus, Plutarch gave to marriage alone all the advantages traditionally imputed to male love. "Plutarch . . . has a fanciful essay, 'Gryllos,' in which an intelligent pig asserts inter alia that animals are better than human beings because they do not practice pederasty. (The idea was in fact already adumbrated by Plato in the fourth century B.C.)" 16

Like his teacher Musonius Rufus, the lame slave Epictetus (c.60 c.120) from Phrygia, at Rome until expelled by Domitian in 90, afterwards at Nicopolis in Epirus, who never married, advised restraint and decorum but not marriage. His Dissertations, of which four of the original books survive, form our chief source for Stoic ethics. In sharp contrast to Musonius, as well as boy  love, Epictetus emphasized control of the will and ability to bear changes of fortune with equanimity free from the normal fears of life and from entangling relationships, including marriage. His Enchiridion, or handbook of moral philosophy, was often adopted by the later Christians, as we learn from verbatim notes on his lectures taken by Arrian (c.96 c.180), who composed a life of Alexander in which he described Alexander's homosexual liasons without condemnation. Hadrian appointed Arrian governor of Cappadocia and he spent a lot of time at Athens before returning home to write. Warning against consorting with ballet boys, adulterers, and those who applauded burlesque dancers, and counseling instead taking one's pleasure decently with both sexes, he reconciled Roman and Stoic traditions. The growing heterosexual exclusivity so overemphasized by Foucault, of the Stoics in imperial Rome, even when true, hardly foreshadowed Christian abstention. However, Epictetus did opine that the gay lover, as well as the beloved, was not a man (2.10.17). Even among the wealthy upper class for whom Epictetus wrote, with their slave boys the most tolerant of pederasty, a majority continued, as they had in the republic, to condemn pederasty.


Ignoring almost unanimous Roman condemnation of adult passivity, Boswell misread a text from the anti Judaic and anti  tyrannical Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, some of which were composed shortly after 200 describing conflicts between Greeks of Alexandria and their enemies during the previous two centuries, reedited in the first third of the third century, Boswell misinterpreted four texts, claiming "that marriage between males or between females were legal and familiar among the upper classes:" Cicero's ironic description of Curio as the husband of Antony, Martial's epigrams about pathics, Juvenal's Second Satire, and Lampridius' Elagabalus. Boswell also implied wrongly that because no law prohibited the sexual use of one's boy slaves, none prohibited seduction of free boys.17
For all his brilliant insights, MacMullen was incorrect in saying "we approach the end of the history of Roman homosexuality" after Hadrian founded Antinoopolis in honor of his beloved, who reputedly drowned himself out of love for the emperor. Indeed, almost no Latin literature from Hadrian to the late third century Fourth Bucolic of Nemesianus ("O cruel boy!") mentions pederasty, but only a tiny fraction of that literature survives. Much of it may have been destroyed, often deliberately by Christians.18 MacMullen omitted to mention "a light hearted love poem addressed to an adolescent boy by Annianus, who flourished during the reigns of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius {Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 19.11}."19 In any case many Latins like Hadrian wrote in Greek, especially erotic poems because they considered Greek, like nineteenth century English considered French, the language of love, particularly pederastic love. At the culmination of the melding of Greek and Latin literature, when many wrote in both languages, Fronto (c.100 170), arbiter litterarum, Latin tutor of Marcus Aurelius, created a literary circle intent on restoring Latin letters by imitating Cicero and even going beyond him to such authors as Ennius, paralleling the contemporary neo Atticism of Greek scholars such as his fellow tutor (in Greek) Herodes Atticus (101 177). The letters exchanged between Fronto and the future emperor betray homoeroticism if not homosexuality. Marcus addressed his tutor in warmly romantic terms such as "Amo vitam propter te, amo litteras tecum" ("I love life on account of you; I love letters with you"). Fronto declared that nothing was sweeter than a kiss from his student.
We must . . . place under the heading of

homoerotically colored friendships the

epistolary outpourings . . . between the

young Marcus Aurelius, the future

emperor, and his tutor Fronto. At one

point in the correspondence Marcus

Aurelius is responding to a discourse

on love written to him by Fronto  a

rhetorical exercise very much in the

tradition of Plato's Phaedrus and



Symposium. Some of the affectionate

exchanges between Marcus Aurelius and

Fronto (the young Marcus is especially

uninhibited) are framed in the language

of passionate love suggestive of the

noblest traditions of classical Greek

pederasty. . . . 20

Annianus wrote salacious Fescennine verse, at whose Etrurian estate Aulus Gellius, who studied at Rome and Athens, banqueted (Ausonius, apologia for the Cento Nuptiales). At Athens, Gellius dined monthly with a circle of philosophers and devoted winter nights to excerpting a wide range of Greek and Latin authors, almost our single source for Latin erotic poetry before Catullus. His younger contemporary, Terentianus Maurrus, cited Catullus, Horace, and Virgil as well as primitives like Livius Andronicus. Septimius Serenus ( ) wrote in rustic verse perhaps once used by Calabrian peasants a sort of new Georgics. St. Jerome ranked Serenus, who wrote in Latin but of whom we have only scanty fragments, with the (gay) poets Alcaeus, Pindar, Catullus, and Horace as pagan lyricists equal to King David the Psalmist. Another member of this circle, Alfius Avitus ( ) from whom a fragment quoted by Priscian survives, told of the treacherous schoolmaster from Falerii who marched his students over to the Romans but whom Camillus ordered to flog him back to his own side. Thus some of the most important lost Latin as well as Greek (often written by Romans) pederastic writings came well after Hadrian's death. In addition, the Pseudo Lucian, Maximus of Tyre, and erotic poets in the Greek Anthology including Agathias, wrote later even into the reign of Justinian.


If Antoninus Pius did indeed finally "overcame any passion for boys," we cannot say that Hadrian's "two successors turned their faces against it {pederasty}," for Marcus loved Theodotus and Fronto. Also the edicts that banned homosexual, but not heterosexual, prostitution during the 240's were hardly enforced because taxes were collected from male prostitutes until Theodosius I (379 395) and they plied their trade at Carthage even afterwards in the time of Saint Augustine (Confessions, ). The histories are full of examples: from Dio Cassius (150 235) to Procopius (c.500 c.565) to cite only two. MacMullen's acknowledgement that the Greeks continued pederasty no matter where they lived  even in the city of Rome  was an advance over Veyne who affirmed that "life in a city in the Latin West in the second century B.C. was identical to life in a city in the eastern half of the empire." 21 Veyne should have limited himself to saying that the architecture of cities was similar and the upper classes in them spoke Greek or Latin and shared aspects of classical culture though hardly of sexual practice as Fox proved:
In the second and third centuries, accepted sexual

practice in the Roman Empire had a range and variety

which it has never attained since. It varied somewhat

between cultural regions and perhaps between social

classes: we cannot, however, identify a "bourgeois"

code of morality, or even be sure that divorce and

adultery were more frequent and more tolerated in

upper class society. Here, these variations are not

at issue, for we need only sketch the range of

accepted pagan practice which Christians could

confront. As always, we should be wary of isolating

one "Greek" and one "Roman" attitude: different

Greek speakers and Romans regarded practices

differently. Yet even this diversity points to a

change. Among Christians, more conduct was regarded

with one, and only one, attitude.


In Egypt and much of the Near East, brothers married

their sisters. . . . In many cultural regions,

"bisexuality" was also taken for granted, for "Greek

vice" had not faded with the classical age. In civic

life, homosexuality between young men, or an older

and younger partner, was socially acceptable.22



Both Veyne and Foucault spoke of "the Romans" without differentiating them. This does not mean that the Roman upper classes gave up their pueri deliciosi just because little surviving "Latin literature" attests the custom. Histories written in Latin do, such as the Augustan History and Ammianus Marcellinus. In fact, pederasty continued at the court, as we shall see, even after Constantine's conversion and into the reign of Justinian.
MacMullen failed to consider pederastic graffiti, epitaphs, and sarcophagi such as the one from the second or third century describing "a cobbler and a ropemaker who lived together {and} were buried together because they were friends" pictured in Veyne. 23 After Hadrian, the Christian Tatian (c.150) employed an argument once used against the Greeks to taunt the Romans, "pederasty . . . among the Romans merits special rights of pasturage, and they try to collect herds of boys like grazing horses" (Ad Graecos, 28 ff.). The homophobic barb of the physician of the methodical school and greatest of the later Skeptics, Sextus Empiricus (f. c. 200), who lived at Alexandria and Athens to be sure but gained fame at Rome, famous for formulating the theories and giving a full and impartial account of his predecessors, that pederasty was as irrelevant in the real world as intercourse with one's mother in no way denied that it was practiced (Pyrr. hyp. 3.245). In the middle of the third century the historian Herodian, probably a Syrian Greek, mentioned wealthy Roman fops with little nude boys in their houses.24
Precursor of the Neo Platonists, and a member of the Second Sophistic, the Eclectic Syrian Maximus of Tyre, traveled several times to Rome under the Antonines and sojourned there in the reign of Commodus. He devoted four of his 41 Dissertations in Greek to whether physical or spiritual love was best between men and boys. He decided emphatically in favor of chastity, claiming that classical Greek pederasts had always been as chaste as Socrates. Even among the Cretans and Spartans, he claimed, the lover did not touch his beloved. Moralistically he did not seem to allow any physical gratification, which he maintained had no relation to love or thought since Socrates, whom he viewed as Xenophon had, had tried to banish "vicious" love from Greece and rescue lambs from the claws of wolves. Virtuous love was voluntary, free, praiseworthy, Greek, masculine, solid; its opposite was violent, mercenary, shameful, barbaric, effeminate, unstable. If the ephebe failed to resist solicitation, so much the worse, for one does not deserve to live who cannot master his emotions. To soil the body of a male was criminal, and to procure sterile pleasures unnatural. Intercourse with women, however, should be limited to avoid excesses; marriage was the normal state, adultery castigated. He condemned the effeminate love of Paris for Helen but praised the tender and noble love of Hector for Andromache. Achilles and Patroclus, like Sappho, remained chaste, so that Homer, thus interpreted, like Plato, recommended chastity with the boys one loved and moderation with the wife one used for reproduction.

Surnamed "the blasphemer," according to Suidas, for telling absurd tales of the gods, the satirist Lucian (c. 125 c.190) from Samosata in Syria, practiced successively law, sculpture, and rhetoric, residing in Rome and Athens before ending his days as an official in Egypt. Anticipating the concerted attack to be subsidized by later imperial families, he characterized Christ as "that crucified sophist" and his followers as "unhappy men {who} have persuaded themselves that they will be immortal and live for ever; wherefore they despise death and willingly sacrifice themselves" (Peregrinus, 13). His Life of Alexander of Abonouteichos satirized a Pythagorean divine who, having become rich and famous in middle age, kept a harem of pretty young priests (5). Born about 105 in that Hellenized Black Sea port, Alexander, a tall, handsome quick witted youth became the beloved of a quack physician from Tyana who had once followed Apollonius. Having learned and gotten all he could from the doctor, the unscrupulous youth joined an itenerant entertainer "practicing quackery and sorcery" (Alex. 6). Having learned in Macedonia how to keep pet snakes, he now claimed descent from Perseus and mesmerized credulous audiences as a prophet of Asclepius, whose snake answered in verse questions submitted in writing for one drachma and two obols. Marcus Aurelius granted a new name to his native city (Ionopolis) which issued coins showing Alexander wearing his grandfather Asclepius's fillets (58). A Senator's brother, a former consul, visited the shrine and became his son  in law. The syncretistic Alexander, a long haired vegetarian, also claimed to be the reincarnation of Pythagoras. He copied mysteries from Eleusis and made capital of the rise of oracles and the occult and Oriental religions, be they Iranian, Syrian, or Egyptian, in the late second century at the expense of the Skepticism so prevalent among masses, as well as elites from 100 B.C. to 100 A.D. 25


The romance Lucius, or the The Ass, based on the work of Lucius of Patrae, may be among Lucian's innumerable authentic works. Rather, it appears to be a gross summary of his elaboration of Lucius's work. On a visit to Thessaly, the protagonist witnessed the drug induced transformation of his hostess into a bird. Taking a draught himself, he became an ass and underwent various sexual abuses, being buggered by a randy master and having to screw interminably a nymphomaniac. Lucian indicated that some Greeks abhorred lesbianism: "Citing monstruous instruments of lust . . . the tribad {lesbian} will become rampant" (Loves).
Born in Numidia c. 125 and educated at Carthage and Athens, the bilingual orator and philosopher Lucius Apuleius traveled extensively in the East, studying mystery religions and practiced law at Rome before returning to Africa. Successfully defending himself in his Apologia before the proconsul in Carthage from the charge of having used magic to gain the hand and estate of a rich widow, he cited his youthful love poems to boys as a point in his favor. He devoted the rest of his comfortable life to writing. Probably an embellished version of the Metamorphoses of the first century Lucius of Patrae, his ribald Golden Ass, replete with thefts, sorceries, and other horrors, consisted of fantastic satiric tales with twists added to the odyssey of suffering and misfortunes, especially the restoration of the protagonist to human form with the assistance of Isis, of whose cult he became a priest. When he regained his human form by eating roses, the antidote to the drug, he was disappointed to find that, instead of being pleased by his metamorphosis back into a man, the woman he had loved as an ass became distraught because she preferred the ass's super member. His tribulations included near starvation and extremely brutal beatings  one of the many reflections of sado masochism in ancient literature  and overwork by cruel robbers who stole him from a kinder master. Besides another romance, many other works, including his erotic poems, have perished. 26 Like Cicero and Boethius, he tried to make Greek philosophy, including Plato and Aristotle, available to readers of Latin.
The death of Marcus Aurelius marked the end of the Pax Romana when Hadrian's first plan to adopt a handsome young Senator, Lucius Verus the Elder, was thwarted by the latter's death and he adopted the childless Antoninus Pius as heir on condition that he in turn adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus the Younger to succeed Pius as co emperors. As long as the great gay emperor's arrangement lasted, Rome was well governed, but Marcus also produced a natural son, Commodus, who proved to be unnaturally vicious after succeeding Marcus. As late as 1776 Gibbon could say with some justice: "If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus." 27 Decline, famines, plagues, and wars had already set in during the reign of the last of the Good Emperors caused in part by excess population and economic stagnation or regression, but chaos first threatened under his mad son and successor Commodus.
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