Homosexuality in Ancient Rome - Homoerotic Literature and Art

Homoerotic Literature and Art

Homoerotic themes are introduced to Latin literature during a period of increasing Greek influence on Roman culture in the 2nd century BC. The consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus was among a circle of poets who made short, light Hellenistic poems fashionable. One of his few surviving fragments is a poem of desire addressed to a male with a Greek name. The elevation of Greek literature and art as models of expression promoted the celebration of homoeroticism as the mark of an urbane and sophisticated person. No assumptions or generalizations should be made about any effect on sexual orientation or real-life behavior among the Romans.

"Greek love" influences aesthetics or the means of expression, not the nature of Roman homosexuality as such. Greek homosexuality differed from Roman primarily in idealizing eros between freeborn male citizens of equal status, though usually with a difference of age (see "Pederasty in ancient Greece"). An attachment to a male outside the family, seen as a positive influence among the Greeks, within Roman society threatened the authority of the paterfamilias. Since Roman women were active in educating their sons and mingled with men socially, and women of the governing classes often continued to advise and influence their sons and husbands in political life, homosociality was not as pervasive in Rome as it had been in Classical Athens, where it is thought to have contributed to the particulars of pederastic culture.

The "new poetry" introduced at the end of the 2nd century came to fruition in the 50s BC with Gaius Valerius Catullus, whose poems include several expressing desire for a freeborn youth explicitly named "Youth" (Iuventius). The Latin name and freeborn status of the beloved subvert Roman tradition. Catullus's contemporary Lucretius also recognizes the attraction of "boys" (pueri, which can designate an acceptable submissive partner and not specifically age). Homoerotic themes occur throughout the works of poets writing during the reign of Augustus, including elegies by Tibullus and Propertius, the second Eclogue of Vergil, and several poems by Horace. In the Aeneid, Vergil draws on the Greek tradition of homosexuality in a military setting by portraying the love between Nisus and Euryalus, whose military valor marks them as solidly Roman men (viri). Vergil describes their love as pius, linking it to the supreme virtue of pietas as possessed by the hero Aeneas himself, and endorsing it as "honorable, dignified and connected to central Roman values."

By the end of the Augustan period Ovid, Rome's leading literary figure, proposed a radically new heterosexual agenda: making love with a woman is more enjoyable, he says, because unlike the forms of same-sex behavior permissible within Roman culture, the pleasure is mutual. Ovid does include mythological treatments of homoeroticism in the Metamorphoses, but Thomas Habinek has pointed out that the significance of Ovid's rupture of human sexuality into categorical preferences has been obscured in the history of sexuality by a later heterosexual bias in Western culture.

In literature of the Imperial period, the Satyricon of Petronius is so permeated with the culture of male-male sexuality that in 18th-century European literary circles, his name became "a byword for homosexuality." The poet Martial often derides women as sexual partners, and celebrates the charms of pueri.

Read more about this topic:  Homosexuality In Ancient Rome

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