Homeric cento subtly reverses gender to refigure men’s sexuality

As if she were incapable of thinking about power differently, a widely acclaimed classicist speaking from the commanding heights of the symbolic economy declares that women’s voices are silenced. No one laughs. About three hundred years after a woman translated the Odyssey into French, the first woman with a first name that begins with a vowel translated the Odyssey into English. The nightingale Itylus sings mournfully for her dead son. Should we hope that a woman whose first name begins with a consonant will pioneer a new Odyssey translation that breaks from the dominant English meter and finally offers fresh insights into gender? We must overturn the intellectual hierarchy. A Homeric cento written in Late Antiquity offers reason for hope.

Men being killed or raped haven’t counted as significant. King Alcinous, eager to serve his princess-daughter’s interests, hosted a farewell feast for the promising young man Odysseus. The blind bard Demodocus sang of epic violence:

A woman wails as she throws herself upon
dear husband’s body. He has fallen in battle
before the town walls, fighting to the last
to defend his city and protect his children.
As she sees him dying and gasping for breath,
she clings to him and shrieks, while behind her
soldiers prod their spears into her back,
and as they lead her away into slavery,
her tear-drenched face is a mask of pain.
So too wept Odysseus, pitiful in his grief.

{ ὡς δὲ γυνὴ κλαίῃσι φίλον πόσιν ἀμφιπεσοῦσα,
ὅς τε ἑῆς πρόσθεν πόλιος λαῶν τε πέσῃσιν,
ἄστεϊ καὶ τεκέεσσιν ἀμύνων νηλεὲς ἦμαρ·
ἡ μὲν τὸν θνήσκοντα καὶ ἀσπαίροντα ἰδοῦσα
ἀμφ᾿ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει· οἱ δέ τ᾿ ὄπισθε
κόπτοντες δούρεσσι μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμους
εἴρερον εἰσανάγουσι, πόνον τ᾿ ἐχέμεν καὶ ὀιζύν·
τῆς δ᾿ ἐλεεινοτάτῳ ἄχεϊ φθινύθουσι παρειαί·
ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς ἐλεεινὸν ὑπ᾿ ὀφρύσι δάκρυον εἶβεν. } [1]

Odysseus wasn’t weeping for the man, the husband who was killed. That husband was killed along with many other men in the horrific violence against men of the Trojan war. After Odysseus stopped weeping, he told an epic account in which he engaged in similar gender-specific killing:

From Ilion the wind took me to the Cicones
in Ismaros. I pillaged the town and killed the men.
The women and treasure that we took out,
I divided as fairly as I could among all hands

{ Ἰλιόθεν με φέρων ἄνεμος Κικόνεσσι πέλασσεν,
Ἰσμάρῳ. ἔνθα δ᾿ ἐγὼ πόλιν ἔπραθον, ὤλεσα δ᾿ αὐτούς·
ἐκ πόλιος δ᾿ ἀλόχους καὶ κτήματα πολλὰ λαβόντες
δασσάμεθ᾿, ὡς μή τίς μοι ἀτεμβόμενος κίοι ἴσης. }

Kill the men and capture the women remains a dominant symbolic strategy in today’s democratic politics. Women’s lives have long been valued more highly than men’s lives. Today, about four times more men than women are murdered, yet violence against men generates no public concern. Violence against men is normalized and obscured as merely violence.

Calypso, blonde goddess

Even while anti-sexual Stalinism is descending on decaying democracies, few dare speak about sexual violence against men. In the Odyssey, the goddess Calypso held Odysseus by force and had sex with him repeatedly against his will. Echoing the sexual violence of castration culture at the origin of the cosmos, Odysseus enters the epic weeping while being held captive in sexual servitude:

I saw him on an island, shedding salt tears,
in the halls of Calypso, who keeps him there
against his will. He has no way to get home.

{ τὸν δ᾿ ἴδον ἐν νήσῳ θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυ χέοντα,
νύμφης ἐν μεγάροισι Καλυψοῦς, ἥ μιν ἀνάγκῃ
ἴσχει· ὁ δ᾿ οὐ δύναται ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἱκέσθαι· }

The god Zeus, showing more concern for men being raped than many do today, ordered that Calypso let Odysseus leave. When Hermes arrived conveying that order, Calypso was singing and weaving within her vast cave in a remote, isolated place of natural pleasure, at least for her. Calypso declared that she had made Odysseus her “bed-companion {ἀκοίτης}.” He was an unwilling bed-companion. Calypso went to speak with Odysseus:

She found him sitting where the breakers rolled in.
His eyes were perpetually wet with tears now,
his life draining away in homesickness.
The nymph had long since ceased to please.
He still slept with her at night in her cavern,
an unwilling lover mated to her eager embrace.
Days he spent sitting on the rocks by the breakers,
staring out to sea with hollow, salt-rimmed eyes.

{ τὸν δ᾿ ἄρ᾿ ἐπ᾿ ἀκτῆς εὗρε καθήμενον· οὐδέ ποτ᾿ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν τέρσοντο, κατείβετο δὲ γλυκὺς αἰὼν
νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη.
ἀλλ᾿ ἦ τοι νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
ἐν σπέσσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ᾿ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ·
ἤματα δ᾿ ἂμ πέτρῃσι καὶ ἠιόνεσσι καθίζων
δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων
πόντον ἐπ᾿ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων. }

Calypso told Odysseus that now she willing to let him go home. She deceptively mentioned nothing of Zeus’s order. Like a husband who had endured years of lies and verbal abuse from his wife, Odysseus was suspicious of Calypso’s motives and statements. He insisted that Calypso swear a binding oath that she wasn’t plotting some new intrigue to harm him. So she did. She didn’t break her oath. She sent Odysseus on his way home with a favorable wind, warm and gentle.[2]

Odysseus weeping as captive of Calypso

More prevalent than rape of men is brutalization of men’s sexuality. Reflected today in the huge gender protrusion among persons incarcerated and laws criminalizing men seducing women, a man’s sexuality is readily represented as a vicious attack upon a woman. A Late-Antique poem drew upon epic Greek phrases from the battle between Amazon warrior-women and Greek warrior-men to figure brutally men’s sexuality:

Swiftly he pierced the god-like maiden. His stout spear went right through her belly and dark blood spurted out, and her dear bed was stained. With sharp spear he pierced the maid between her thighs, her with the fair ankles, unwed, and cut through her blood-filled veins, and the dark blood bubbled swiftly through the wound that had been dealt, and the sinewy spear brought her low.

{ Αἶψα δ’ ὅγ’ ἀντιθέην κούρην βάλε· τῆς δὲ διαπρὸ
ἦλθε δόρυ στιβαρὸν κατὰ νηδύος, ἐκ δέ οἱ ὦκα
κήκιεν αἷμα μέλαν, φορύνοντό τε δέμνια φίλα·
ἔγχεϊ δ’ ὀξυόεντι μεσηγὺ κόρην βάλε μηρῶν
εὔσφυρον, ἀδμῆτιν, διὰ δὲ φλέβας αἱματοέσσας·
κέρσε· μέλαν δέ οἱ αἷμα δι’ ἕλκεος οὐταμένοιο
ἔβλυσεν ἐσσυμένως, δάμνα δέ ἑ νεύρινον ἔγχος. } [3]

Widely read newspapers deceptively reported that a nearly 25% of Asian-Pacific men admitted to raping women. Many persons probably believed that claim. Who would believe that Sabina and Ausonius, wife and husband, loved each other?

A Homeric cento written in Late Antiquity subtly reverses gender to refigure men’s sexuality.  On its surface, the poem seems disjointed:

My cruel-hearted mother, an evil mother to me;
it pains me much, the wound that a mortal man inflicted on me
in the dark night when other mortals sleep.
Naked, without a helmet and shield, nor had he a spear,
and all his sword was bathed in hot blood, but afterwards
he sent forth a favorable wind, warm and gentle.

{ Μῆτερ ἐμὴ δύσμητερ, ἀπηνέα θυμὸν ἔχουσα,
λίην ἄχθομαι ἕλκος, ὅ με βροτὸς οὔτασεν ἀνὴρ
νύκτα δι᾿ ὀρφναίην, ὅτε θ᾿ εὕδουσι βροτοὶ ἄλλοι,
γυμνὸς ἄτερ κόρυθός τε καὶ ἀσπίδος, οὐδ᾿ ἔχεν ἔγχος.
πᾶν δ᾿ ὑπεθερμάνθη ξίφος αἵματι· αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
οὖρόν τε προέηκεν ἀπήμονά τε λιαρόν τε. } [4]

The poem seems to tell a reluctant bride’s story of her wedding night. The bride blames her mother for forcing her into marriage. The middle four lines figure the penis as a sword in painful, wounding sexual intercourse. But the final line expresses appreciation for the groom’s erection labor.

This poem should be appreciated as a Homeric cento subverting dominant gender representations. A meaningful relationship exists between the underlying Homeric source text (hypotext) and the surface text of the poem (hypertext). The six lines of the poem have the following Homeric sources:

1: Odyssey 23.97, Telemachus to his mother Penelope, she not recognizing Odysseus
2: Iliad. 5.361, Aphrodite to Mars, after Diomedes speared her
3: Iliad 10.83, Nestor to Agamemnon, worriedly waking him
4: Iliad 21.50, Lycaon, by the river Scamander, before Achilles killed him
5: Iliad 16.333, Oilean Ajax (little Ajax) killing Trojan Cleobulus
6: Odyssey 5.268 / Odyssey 7.266, Calypso sending Odysseus on his way

The first and last lines of the poem reverse the gender of the subject. In the first line, the wife, not the son, disparages the mother. In the final line, the groom, not the goddess Calypso, provides a helpful, gentle, warm flow. Yet a concluding difference is telling. Calypso actually dominated and raped Odysseus, despite classical scholars longstanding blindness to that clear representation. The husband is figured as brutalizing his bride on their wedding night, yet that figure is only a shallow, conventional representation. The Homeric cento ingeniously encodes a subversive thrust against poetically stale and oppressive representations of men’s sexuality.[5]

Creative forms of literature are necessary to liberate men from conventional, prejudicial representations. The great heroines of today’s classical scholarship are mainly apparatchiks serving gynocentrism. In contrast, Decimius Magnus Ausonius, Faltonia Betitia Proba, John Tzetzes, and Joseph of Exeter demonstrate that daring and innovative classical scholarship can sound unheard voices and help to make gynocentric power work differently.

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[1] Odyssey 8.523-31, Latin text from Murray & Dimock (1995), English translation (adapted slightly) from Lombardo (2000). All subsequent quotes from the Odyssey are similarly sourced. They are: Odyssey 9.39-42 (From Ilion the wind…), 4.556-8 (I saw him on an island…), 5.120 (bed companion), and 5.151-8 (She found him sitting…). The Perseus Digital Library provides online a Greek text of the Odyssey and the English translation of Samuel Butler (1900), as revised by Timothy Power and Gregory Nagy.

The starting point for Odysseus’s journey home is revealed in the very beginning of the Odyssey:

Calypso detains the poor man in his grief,
sweet-talking him constantly, trying to charm him
into forgetting Ithaca. But Odysseus,
longing to see even the smoke curling up
from his land, simply wants to die.

{ τοῦ θυγάτηρ δύστηνον ὀδυρόμενον κατερύκει,
αἰεὶ δὲ μαλακοῖσι καὶ αἱμυλίοισι λόγοισιν
θέλγει, ὅπως Ἰθάκης ἐπιλήσεται· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεύς,
ἱέμενος καὶ καπνὸν ἀποθρῴσκοντα νοῆσαι
ἧς γαίης, θανέειν ἱμείρεται. }

Odyssey 1.55-59(partial). Odysseus’s son Telemachus subsequently learns that Proteus told Menelaus that Calypso was holding Odysseus by force. Calypso held Odysseus captive for seven years. She had been raping him for a long time. When Hermes arrived at Calypso’s cave,

Odysseus was sitting on the shore,
as ever those days, honing his heart’s sorrow,
staring out to sea with hollow, salt-rimmed eyes.

{ ἀλλ᾿ ὅ γ᾿ ἐπ᾿ ἀκτῆς κλαῖε καθήμενος, ἔνθα πάρος περ,
δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων.
πόντον ἐπ᾿ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων. }

Odyssey 5.81-3. This passage echoes Proteus’s description of Odysseus weeping in Odyssey 4.556-8. It emphasizes Odysseus’s grief from Calypso’s sexual violence against him. Calypso boasted that she, a goddess, was more beautiful than his wife Penelope. Odysseus, however, preferred having mutually loving sex with Penelope.

[2] Calypso is among “passionate models of female power” to a professor writing from a pinnacle of symbolic power:

The divine Calypso, Aphrodite, and Circe provide passionate models of female power — idealized fantasies of how much agency mortal women might have, if only social circumstances were completely different.

Watson (2017). Women already have astonishing power to escape punishment for raping men and boys. Only through suppressing thought of gynocentrism does this authority have true insight into Homer:

I read Homer’s great poem as a complex and truthful articulation of gender dynamics that continue to haunt us.

Id. Another authority ran the standard gynocentric trick of making the victimization of men be about women:

At the opening of the poem Odysseus languishes on the island of Ogygia, transfixed by the spellbinding words of Calypso (1.56-58), who also compels him to have sex with her — a very obvious conflation of the twin dangers of women’s language and sexuality.

Fletcher (2008) p. 78. In a similar line of thinking, men’s gender loss in lifespan and the gender bias toward killing men hurts women’s ability to collect compulsory sex payments.

McCarter questioned, “Is Homer’s Calypso a Feminist Icon or a Rapist?” The correct answer is both. McCarter shows little concern about women raping men. Her primary concern is how Homer’s Calypso relates to “feminist potential” and “feminist empowerment.” McCarter (2018).

[3] Anthologiae Planudeae, Appendix Barberino-Vaticana (Anthologia Barberina) 7, Greek text and English translation from Cameron (1992) p. 172. For philological notes, see id. p. 173, n. 14 and Sternbach (1890) pp. 7-11. The Anthologia Barberina was compiled about 919 GC in Byzantium. Lauxtermann (2003) pp. 123-8.

This poem has an anonymous attribution in the manuscript. Cameron attributes it to the same period as the ninth-century polymath Leo the Philosopher / Leo the Mathematician. Cameron (1992) p. 173, n. 14. But it would be a highly unusual Byzantine poem. It may have been written centuries earlier. Lauxtermann (2003) p. 101.

The first two lines are nearly identical to Quintus Smyrnaeus, Posthomerica 1.235-6. Thematically, the whole poem is similarly to Posthomerica 1.235-43. The language of the Posthomerica is drawn largely from Homer’s work. However, as Sternbach (1890) pp. 7-11 makes clear, this poem is not a Homeric cento, nor is it a cento, strictly speaking.

[4] Greek Anthology 9.361, Greek text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Paton (1920). The manuscripts attribute the poem to “Leo the Philosopher {Λέοντος Φιλοσόφου}.” Lauxtermann describes it as a “late antique” Homeric cento that “cannot have been written by Leo the Philosopher.” Lauxtermann (2003) p. 101. Cameron believes Leo wrote it. Cameron (1992) pp. 172-3.

Lauxtermann described this Homeric cento as “a girl’s complaint about the painful experience of her defloration.” He further characterized it as having a “scabrous subject.” Lauxtermann (2003) p. 101. Sex, of course, is a subject central to the evolution of species. Moreover, sex is vitally important in the everyday lives of a large share of adults. The term “defloration” pejoratively characterizes a woman’s first heterosexual intercourse of reproductive type. It reflects the symbolic brutalization of men’s sexuality.

[5] Late Antique poetry has long been under-appreciated. Agosti perceptively observed:

A long-established critical tradition speaks of the ‘ivory tower’ of the late antique poets (and especially of Nonnus and his ‘school’), stressing the literary side of their activity. As for myself, I am firmly convinced this is only one side of the coin and that we cannot float on the calm surface of literary analysis without considering the possible reactions of Nonnus’ contemporary audience.

Agosti (2014) p. 312. The Homeric cento on a wedding night is an ingenious, socially engaged literary work. It should be interpreted with appreciation for the dominant pattern of representing men’s sexuality, gynocentrism, and the transgressive tradition of Ausonius’s Wedding Cento.

Recent study has shown that Homeric verses had a variety of applications. On using Homeric verses for divination, Martín-Hernández (2013). See similarly the oracles of Astrampsychus. Context of use is critical for interpretation:

Any interpretation of the homeromanteion as it currently survives is based on the reciprocity of answer and question, a concept which invites us to ask to what inquiries the homeromanteion responded; how, more precisely, Homer’s lines were used from a performance perspective; and how meaning was further constructed.

Karanika (2011) p. 273. Homeric verses also were used apotropaically.  Renberg (2017). The Homeric cento on a wedding night addresses a plague-like representational problem.

[images] (1) Calypso, blonde goddess. Painting by Jan Styka. Made early in the twentieth century. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Odysseus weeping on the shore as a captive of Calypso. Painting by Arnold Böcklin. Made in 1882. Held as accession # 108 in Kunstmuseum Basel (Switzerland). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Agosti, Gianfranco. 2014. “Greek Poetry in Late Antique Alexandria: between Culture and Religion.” Pp. 287-312 in Guichard, Luis Arturo, Juan Luis Garcia Alonso, and María Paz de Hoz, eds. 2014. The Alexandrian Tradition: interactions between science, religion, and literature. Bern: Peter Lang.

Cameron, Alan. 1992. The Greek Anthology: from Meleager to Planudes. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fletcher, Judith. 2008. “Women’s Space and Wingless Words in the Odyssey.” Phoenix. 62 (1-2): 77-91.

Karanika, Andromache. 2011. “Homer the Prophet: Homeric Verses and Divination in the Homeromanteion.” Ch. 13 (pp. 255-278) in A. P. M. H. Lardinois, Josine Blok, and Marc van der Poel, eds. Sacred Words: orality, literacy, and religion. International Conference on Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World. Leiden: Brill.

Lauxtermann, Marc D. 2003. Byzantine Poetry from Pisides to Geometres. Vien: Der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Lombardo, Stanley, trans. 2000. Homer. Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Martín-Hernández, Raquel. 2013. “Using Homer for Divination: Homeromanteia in Context.” CHS Research Bulletin 2, no. 1 (online).

McCarter, Stephanie. 2018. “Is Homer’s Calypso a Feminist Icon or a Rapist?Electric Lit (online, Jan. 30).

Murray, A.T., trans., revised by George E. Dimock. 1995. Homer. The Odyssey. New ed. Loeb Classical Library 104-5. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Paton, W.R. 1920. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16).

Renberg, Gil H. 2017. “Homeric Verses and the Prevention of Plague? A New Inscription from Roman Termessos and its Religious Context.” Pp. 165-171 in Coleman, Kathleen M., ed. Albert’s anthology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sternbach, Leo, ed. 1890. Anthologiae Planudeae: appendix Barberino-Vaticana. Lipsiae: Teubneri.

Watson, Emily. 2017. “A Translator’s Reckoning with the Women of the Odyssey.” The New Yorker. Dec. 8.

non-traditional marital partnerships: ancient & medieval examples

procuress offering a female prostitute to man

Men have traditionally been confined to the gender role of working away from home to earn resources for women and children. Many men want to escape from this oppressive gender role, but what are the alternatives? Is it possible for a man to marry, yet not be forced into the role of obligatory wage-worker outside the home? Ancient and medieval literature shows possibilities for non-traditional marital partnerships.

Under the Roman Empire, most men lived in difficult circumstances, as have most men throughout history. The Roman Emperor Augustus enacted laws that pressured men into marriage. Moreover, Augustus established the lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis {law of Julius restraining adultery}. Throughout history, punishment for adultery has been gender-biased against men. The lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis apparently was less gender-biased against men than earlier adultery laws. However, sources on the lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis are fragmentary, specific provisions showing clear punishment bias against men are well-attested, and law in action is commonly more biased against men than formal law is.[1] Even thought they weren’t subject to eighteen years or more of compulsory, monthly sex payments for doing nothing more than having consensual sex of reproductive type, men’s sexuality was considerably constrained under the Roman Empire.

Living within the Roman Empire, Zoilus shrewdly established a non-traditional marital partnership. He was a man who actively enjoyed being sexual penetrated by another man. To avoid penalties imposed on men who remained unmarried, and because men at this time weren’t allowed to marry other men, Zoilus married a career woman. Specifically, he married a woman pursuing a career of prostituting herself. Zoilus similarly pursued a career of prostituting himself. Zoilus and his wife thus lived today’s ideal of gender-egalitarian marriage.

Anti-men bias in punishing adulterers benefited Zoilus as well as his wife. An epigram disparaging Zoilus recognized his shrewdness:

Zoilus, you half-man / half-woman, you have married an adulteress.
Oh, how much profit will you two make at home,
when he who grinds you pays your wife the penalty, and her adulterer pays you.
How much will those men caught in the act be fined for their immodesty!

{ Semivir uxorem duxisti, Zoile, moecham.
O quantus fiet quaestus utrimque domi,
cum dabit uxori molitor tuus et tibi adulter.
Quantum deprensi damna pudoris emunt! } [2]

Suppose that lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis were gender-neutral. Then an adulteress and adulterer would pay an equal, symmetric fine when they were caught. Suppose that Zoilus, who actively enjoys being sexually penetrated, as many women do, were fined as an adulteress under a gender-neutral lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis. Then the home-based, sex-work enterprise of Zoilus and his wife would generate zero profit to them when they encountered prosecution under lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis. But since only the penis-wielder paid, lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis profited Zoilus and his wife.

While gynocentric society can create a wide range of laws privileging women, gynocentric society cannot repeal facts of nature. The second part of the epigram on the marital partnership of Zoilus and his wife taunted them about their future:

But lust, which now seems profitable to you,
will soon causes expenses when you unexpectedly become old,
for adulterers will soon charge you for their work;
only your procuring youth now keeps them generous.

{ Sed modo quae vobis lucrosa libido videtur,
iacturam senio mox subeunte feret,
incipient operas conducti vendere moechi,
quos modo munificos lena iuventa tenet. }

When an old man self-identifies as a young, alluring man, others often don’t respect his identity. No human-made law requires anyone to respect the old man’s new self-identity. Hellenistic epigrams sang of the sexual allure of old women, but those epigrams probably did that only for their paying customers. The unpleasant truth is this: old men and old women are less sexually desirable on the open market than are young men and young women. A marital partnership in the business of sex, as Zoilus and his wife’s was, will be most successful when both partners are young. Such a marriage can easily go bankrupt with age.

Men stuck in a dishonorable job can benefit from marrying a career woman. In the fifteenth century, the great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini recounted:

In Avignon, a French notary, well known among church officials, was captivated with love for a common prostitute. He gave up his notary practice and lived by the profits of her prostitution. On the first day of January, he put on new clothes and wrote on his sleeves in French in silver letters: “from good to better.” He regarded being a pimp as more honorable than his previous profession.

{ Erat Notarius Gallicus Avinione, in Romana Curia admodum scitus, qui, cum publici scorti amore captus artem Notarii descisset, quaestu meretricio vitam agebat. Is, cum Calendis Januarii, quod est anni principium, novam vestem induisset, in manica litteris argenteis adscripsit verbis Gallicis: De bene in melius. Visum est sibi lenonis exercitium priori esse honore praeferendum. } [3]

Avignon in the fourteenth century was at the center of intrigues among leading church officials. The notary in seeking to make a living probably attested to written deeds that were fake or misleading. His wife, in contrast, provided actual, well-understood deeds for her customers. Historically, marketing assistants for female prostitutes have been predominately women, usually old women. The notary courageously took up a position in a female-dominated profession. His marital partnership allowed him to retire from his dishonorable profession and have a higher standard of living through sharing in his wife’s earnings as a prostitute. That’s an advantageous marriage for a man.

Men must be shrewd and innovative to make the most of their lives under gynocentrism. Traditional marital partnerships usually serve women’s interests. Men should value their own lives equally to those of women and explore non-traditional options for their lives.

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[1] During the Roman Republic, adultery was less often punished, but punishment was more biased against men:

The punishments {of the male adulterer) were invariably violent, either death, voluntary suicide, or a beating. Moreover, the punishments that are mentioned are for the male adulterer and little attention is made to the punishment of the {female} adulteress. It seems therefore that even in cases where the adulterer was tried publically, the adulteress’ punishment {if any} remained the responsibility of the family.

Dixon (2012) pp. 87-8. The lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis heightened regulation of adultery, but retained a variety of anti-men biases in punishment. A man convicted of adultery lost half of his property, while a woman convicted of adultery lost only a third of her property. Id. p. 62. If a husband caught his wife engaging in adultery with a low-status man, he could kill that man, but not his wife. Id. p. 65. If an adulteress remarried, the adulterer had to be prosecuted before she was prosecuted, and if he wasn’t convicted, she couldn’t be. Id. p. 50. The time limit for bringing a charge against an adulterer was five years, while the time limit for bringing a charge against an adulteress was six months. Id. p. 53. Dixon observed:

There is no suggestion within the sources as to why there was such difference between the time allowed for accusations against the adulterer and the adulteress.

Id. Criminal law, particularly the crime of seduction, has always been gender-biased against men. That’s not explained because it’s been accepted without questioning as natural and appropriate.

[2] Ausonius, Epigrams 101 (94 EW), Latin text from Green (1991) (with my changes to editorial punctuation and capitalization), my English translation benefiting from that of Evelyn-White (1919) v. 2, p. 209. Evelyn-White records the title of the epigram, which is ancient but probably not from Ausonius, as “To Zoilus, who had married an adulteress {Ad Zoilum qui uxorem moecham duxerat}.” Green noted that Zoilus appears in the Greek Anthology (11.82, 12.76) and in Martial (2.16). The subsequent quote is the second half of the full epigram.

[3] Poggio Bracciolini, Facetiae 189, “About a pimp who had been a notary {De lenone facto ex notario},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 106-7, my English translation. Latin was the language within the Roman Curia where the notary worked. Having vernacular text written on his sleeves emphasizes his turn to a popular profession. A notary is different from an actuary, who is a person who lacked sufficient personality to become an accountant.

[image] The Procuress. Painting by Johannes Vermeer in 1656. Preserved under accession # AM-1335-2-PS01 in Old Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Dixon, Jessica Elizabeth. 2012. The Language of Roman Adultery. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Manchester.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G., ed. and trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1Vol. 2.

Green, R. P. H., ed. 1991. The Works of Ausonius. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

Ausonius’s Bissula & Jerome’s captive maiden: Rabbi Akiba understood

Among primates generally, male sexual coercion of females is rare. Among humans specifically, females rape males about as frequently as males rape females. The same is probably true of primates generally. In contrast, human warfare throughout history has tended to have a highly asymmetric gender structure: men kill other men and take captive their young women. A captive maiden figures in Ausonius’s Bissula and Jerome’s epistles, both written in the fourth century. As Rabbi Akiba understood centuries earlier, erotic love and marriage between a captive maiden and her captor is no mere metaphor.

captive Greek maiden

Ausonius’s Bissula was a young, blonde, blue-eyed captive German girl known only through Ausonius’s poem Bissula. Ausonius indicated that he received her as a war prize after Emperor Valentinian I’s victory against the Alamanni in 368. Ausonius loved Bissula, taught her Latin, and let her rule his house. According to Ausonius, she was too beautiful for a painter to represent:

Bissula, whom no wax nor paint can imitate,
can’t fit her natural beauty to fakes of art.
Vermilion and white, paint pictures of other girls.
Your hand, painter, can’t mix these like her face.
Away, mingle red roses with lilies,
and let their coloring of air be hers.

{ Bissula nec ceris nec fuco imitabilis ullo
naturale decus fictae non commodat arti.
sandyx et cerusa, alias simulate puellas;
temperiem hanc vultus nescit manus. ergo age, pictor,
puniceas confunde rosas et lilia misce,
quique erit ex illis color aeris, ipse sit oris. } [1]

Ausonius thus claimed that Bissula could defeat a painter’s power of mimesis. Men killed and women kept as prizes is a real, historical pattern of human warfare. But who can believe that a young captive maiden and her old-man master could have an intimate relationship as Ausonius depicted his with Bissula? If Ausonius’s myth of his masculine desire defeated the painter’s power of mimesis, that’s no real victory for him.[2]

While Ausonius indicated a historical origin for Bissula, Jerome’s captive maiden came from sacred literature. Deuteronomy 20:12-14 instructed the Israelites that in waging warfare against a town, they should kill all the males and take the women as war prizes. Deuteronomy 21:11-14 set out rules with respect to a particular type of captive woman:

When you go forth to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hands, and you take them captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you have desire for her and would take her for yourself as wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and do her nails. And she shall put off her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house and bewail her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her, and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. Then, if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she will; but you shall not sell her for money, you shall not treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.

{ כי־תצא למלחמה על־איביך ונתנו יהוה אלהיך בידך ושבית שביו׃
וראית בשביה אשת יפת־תאר וחשקת בה ולקחת לך לאשה׃
והבאתה אל־תוך ביתך וגלחה את־ראשה ועשתה את־צפרניה׃
והסירה את־שמלת שביה מעליה וישבה בביתך ובכתה את־אביה ואת־אמה ירח ימים ואחר כן תבוא אליה ובעלתה והיתה לך לאשה׃
והיה אם־לא חפצת בה ושלחתה לנפשה ומכר לא־תמכרנה בכסף לא־תתעמר בה תחת אשר עניתה׃ ס
} [3]

Jerome understood this captive maiden as a typological representation of classical culture:

A type of this sort of wisdom {classical, secular literature} is described in Deuteronomy under the figure of a captive woman. The divine voice commands that if an Israelite desires to have her as a wife, he shall make her bald, pare her nails, and shave her hair. When she has been made clean, then she shall pass into the victor’s embrace. If we understand this literally, isn’t it ridiculous? But in such a way we are accustomed to act when we read the philosophers, when books of secular wisdom come into our hands. If we find anything useful in them, we apply it to our own doctrine. But anything beyond this, having to do with idols or love or the care of secular things, we shave off. We prescribe baldness, and we cut them away like nails with a very sharp knife.

{ Huius sapientiae typus, et in Deuteronomio sub mulieris captivae figura describitur, de qua divina vox praecipit ut, si Israelites eam habere voluerit uxorem, calvitium ei faciat, ungues praesecet, pilos auferat, et cum munda fuerit effecta, tunc transeat in victoris amplexus. haec si secundum litteram intellegimus, nonne ridicula sunt? itaque et nos hoc facere solemus, quando philosophos legimus, quando in manus nostras libri veniunt sapientiae saecularis: si quid in eis utile repperimus, ad nostrum dogma convertimus, si quid vero superfluum, de idolis, de amore, de cura saecularium rerum, haec radimus, his calvitium indicimus, haec in unguium morem ferro acutissimo desecamus. } [4]

With keen appreciation for masculine heterosexual vulnerability, Jerome associated classical culture and the captive maiden with sensual desire:

Food of demons are the songs of poets, secular wisdom, the display of rhetorical language. These delight all with their loveliness but, while they captivate the ears with flowing verses of sweet rhythm, they penetrate the soul as well and bind the depths of the heart.

{ daemonum cibus est carmina poetarum, saecularis sapientia, rhetoricorum pompa verborum. haec sua omnes suavitate delectant et, dum aures versibus dulci modulatione currentibus capiunt, animam quoque penetrant et pectoris interna devinciunt. }

Jerome understood the allure to men of a captive maiden like Ausonius’s Bissula. The allure of the captive maiden is like the allure of classical culture:

What is surprising if I too, because of the charm of her speech and the beauty of her form desire to turn secular wisdom from a captive handmaid into an Israelite, or if I cut or shave off whatever is dead in her, idolatry, pleasure, error, and lust, and joining myself to her pure body, beget by her slaves born in my house for the Lord of hosts?

{ quid ergo mirum, si et ego sapientiam saecularem propter eloquii venustatem et membrorum pulchritudinem de ancilla atque captiva Israhelitin facere cupio, si quidquid in ea mortuum est idolatriae, voluptatis, erroris, libidinum, vel praecido vel rado et mixtus purissimo corpori vernaculos ex ea genero domino sabaoth? } [5]

Understood literally, the captive maiden wasn’t actually ridiculous to Jerome. A leading scholar of Jerome accused him of having a “dirty mind.” This scholar perceived a “note of prurience” pervading one of Jerome’s letters.[6] Jerome’s natural masculine heterosexual sense, far too commonly pathologized and brutalized under gynocentric ideology, apparently informed his response to the captive maiden. She for him was a representation of reality, not just a typological figure of classical culture.[7]

Ancient Jewish biblical interpreters understood the effects of women’s beauty on men and the risks of gyno-idolatry. A rabbi sometime between 70 and 250 GC (Tannaitic midrashim) narrated how Moab women at Shittim seduced Jewish men into worshiping the Baal of Peor. An old Moab woman would sell a Jewish man delightful food, then encourage him to go into a young Moab woman’s hut to buy more such food there. The young woman would offer him wine to drink:

Then the wine would inflame him, and he would say to her: Give yourself to me. And she would say to him: Do you wish me to obey you? Then renounce the law of Moses. [8]

Getting a man intoxicated in order to have sex with him is now formally regarded as rape. Coercing him into idolatry is an additional offense. The first would be prosecuted as rape if the victim were a woman or if criminal law were gender-neutral in actual application. Men must understand the power of young women over them. Men must be wary not to be exploited as captives to young women’s beauty.

Man can become captives even to a captive maiden’s beauty. Rabbi Akiba in Tannaitic midrashim rationally interpreted Deuteronomy’s rules about a beautiful captive maiden as preventing Jewish men from being exploited. In the ancient world, a woman’s long hair was highly important to her beauty.[9] Shaving a young women’s head disfigured her in sense of eliminating her superficial attractiveness to men: “she looks like a pumpkin-shell, and he sees her in all her disfigurement.”[10] Rabbi Akiba interpreted “do her nails” to mean that the captive maiden would be required to grow her nails so long that her hands would become hideously ugly and hurtful to encounter. With respect to “discard her captive’s garb,” Rabbi Akiba explained:

This indicates that the captor must divest her of her attractive dress and clothe her in widow’s somber attire, for these accursed {gentile} nations make their daughters adorn themselves in time of war in order to cause their foes to go whoring after those women.

A highly privileged woman about to be captured in war would rationally dress in fine clothing to emphasize her royal status. All else equal, men prefer to have as wives wealthy, high-status, well-dressed women. Yet taking as a wife a captive woman of that type likely would make for a difficult marital relationship. Deuteronomy thus made explicit provisions for divorce from the captive maiden. Rabbi Akiba warned, “you will come to hate her.”[11]

captive maiden

Ausonius’s Bissula and Jerome’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:11-14 show that both Ausonius and Jerome appreciated Rabbi Akiba’s understanding of a captive maiden’s allure. Because men value women so highly, men will kill other men, take their young women captive, and even fall in love with those captive maidens and seek to marry them. Societies must do more to raise men’s sexual welfare and reduce violence against men.[12]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Ausonius, Bissula 5, Latin text from Green (1991), my English translation benefiting from those of Evelyn-White (1919) and Warren (2017). Bissula was probably written in the 370s. For contextual background on Bissula, see note [1] in my post on Ausonius and Sabina.

[2] On the metapoetics of mimesis in Bissula, Pucci (2016).

[3] Common English translations of Deuteronomy 21:12 have “pare her nails.” I use the more literal translation “do her nails.” What that specifically meant was an issue among ancient Jewish biblical interpreters. Stern (1998) p. 120.

[4] Jerome, Epistles 21, “To Damasus about Two Sons {Ad Damasum de duobus filiis}” (about the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32) 13.5-6, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), English translation (adapted slightly) in part from Mierow (1963) and Mohr (2007) p. 308. I follow Hutchinson (2014) p. 55, n. 26, in reading itaque rather than Hilbert’s atqui. This letter is dated 383 GC. Here’s Migne’s Patrologia Latina (1845) Latin text. The subsequent quote is from Jerome, Epistles 21.13.4, with the English translation from Mohr (2007) p. 307.

Ausonius sent Bissula to Axius Paulus, a close friend who was also a professor of rhetoric. Axius Paulus frequently visited Ausonius. Paulus probably lived in Saintes, in the southwestern Charente-Maritime department of France. Both Ausonius and Paulus knew Greek.

Jerome may have been aware of Ausonius’s Bissula. Ausonius was an eminent, widely known poet. He creatively engaged closely with Virgil’s poems. Jerome’s teacher was Aelius Donatus, the leading Virgil expert of Ausonius’s time. Mohr (2007) p. 313. Ausonius taught Paulinus of Nola and maintain correspondence with him. Paulinus of Nola in turn corresponded with Jerome about secular and sacred literature. On Ausonius’s correspondence, Green (1980). Jerome explicitly recognized Attius Patera’s distinguished family of rhetoricians in Bordeaux. They were originally from Bayeux. Sivan (1993) p. 87.

[5] Jerome, Epistles 70, “To Magnus, an orator of the city of Rome {Ad Magnum oratorem urbis Romae}” 2.5, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), English translation (adapted slightly) from Mohr (2007) pp. 310-11. This letter is dated 397 GC. Here’s Migne’s Patrologia Latina (1845) Latin text.

[6] Adkin (2003) pp. 230, 17.

[7] Mohr doesn’t adequately appreciate the importance of the captive maiden’s feminine beauty to Jerome:

He is wary of the maiden, even in her cleaned-up condition. His caution seems to stem, initially, from fear of her captivating charm which might compromise Christian commitment. … The voluptas and libido, pleasure and lust, that he wishes to excise from the captive are not, in fact, features of herself, but rather the response her beauty arouses in others.

Mohr (2007) pp. 309, 311. Jerome’s own Christian commitment was quite earthy. Jerome, who associated extensively with women, undoubtedly received pleasure from them in a way consistent with his Christian commitment. Moreover, Jerome was a highly sophisticated writer. He didn’t literally want all the women around him to be “emaciated, filthy, and joyless.” Cf. Mohr (2007) pp. 311-2. Jerome also wasn’t opposed to the attractive surface itself of secular literature. Hutchinson (2014) p. 54, n. 23.

Captivity has great social and gender significance even today. About 10 million persons are currently held behind bars in prisons and jails around the world today. Among them, men captives outnumber women captives by about fifteen to one. Showing little understanding of men’s sexuality or current practices of captivity, Stern stated:

it is necessary to remember that the sign of captivity is just a metaphor, a constructed representation, for the process of cultural influence: an ancient metaphor as much as a modern one, but nonetheless, solely a metaphor.

Stern (1998) p. 118. Gynocentric society works to suppress discussion of violence against men and highly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men. Never forget those in prison.

[8] From Tannaitic midrash on Numbers, Sifre Bamidbar, on 25:1-3, from Hebrew trans. Stern (1998) p. 108. College administrators today are intensively concerned that college men are seducing women from their studies using a gender-reversed version of this script.

[9] On the importance of long hair to a woman’s beauty, see note [5] in my post on Paul and Thecla.

[10] All the quotes in the above paragraph are from Tannaitic Midrashim on Deuteronomy 21:10-14, trans. Stern (1998) pp. 118-23. I’ve adapted Stern’s translation slightly and non-substantially to be more readable and to use more accessible English. I follow Stern in using the name Rabbi Akiba as “purely a matter of convenience,” not as an assertion that all the interpretations quoted actually were his.

Deuteronomy 21:11 refers to, among captives, “a beautiful woman whom you desire.” A Tannaitic midrashim rabbi interpreted this passage:

I conclude that this refers only to a beautiful woman; whence do we learn that this includes also an unattractive one? From the following: “whom you desire.”

Trans. Stern (1998) p. 119 (adapted non-substantially). An ancient Jewish principle of biblical interpretation is that no words of scripture are superfluous. Kugel (2007) p. 15. The ancient Greek idea of beauty was closely associated with sexual desire. Konstan (2015). The rabbi, however, understood that men suffering extreme sexual deprivation, or pursuing women in the dark of night, might desire even an unattractive woman. Hence the particular reference to a beautiful woman is an initial incidental description associated with the broader class of women whom men desire. As the great dispeller of delusions Lucretius recognized, gyno-idolatry can occur even when a woman isn’t objectively beautiful.

[11] Rabbi Akiba’s understanding of the captive maiden in Deuteronomy was “adopted by many of the most important medieval Jewish exegetes.” Those following Rabbi Akiba include Rashi, Abravanel, and Ibn Ezra. Stern (1998) p. 113.

Stern interprets Rabbi Akiba to be expressing “an extreme misanthropy of the sort of which Jews were sometimes accused by pagan authors.” Id. p. 106. Echoing misrepresented medieval literature of men’s sexed protest, Stern claims, “For Akiba, the captive woman is less a person than a poison.” Id. p. 104. Stern traces the source of Rabbi Akiba’s view to “Greco-Roman erotic narratives of the kind found in Parthenius’ Peri Erotikon Pathematon.” Id. passim. Apparently imagining that Rabbi Akiba wrote in the context of the strict sexual regulations of modern universities, Stern interpreted details of the midrashim with no understanding into men’s actual, gendered circumstances. For example, Stern claims that the “plain sense” of “captive’s garb” is clothing of “inferior, poor quality.” Id. p. 121. That wasn’t the “plain sense” in context to Rabbi Akiba, nor is it to me.

[12] Under gynocentrism, discussion of the captive maiden generally doesn’t include recognizing the similarly situated young men who were killed. Earnestly working to advance moral education among gynocentrism, Resnick passed by without gendered moral concern the Deuteronomic instruction to kill men and capture women. He, however, declared:

the contemporary educator would rightfully be concerned that teaching this passage {Deuteronomy 21:11-14, on the captive maiden} may perpetuate the view of woman as sexual object, privileging male desire and dominance.

Resnick (2004) p. 309. Dilating upon this gender ideology, Rey (2016) seems to me to be viciously hateful, willful bigotry that works to advance gender inequality in incarceration and more tyrannical gynocentrism. That work shows a broader and deeper development than the U.S. Mann Act of 1910.

[images] (1) La Captive Grecque {The Captive Greek Girl}. Painting by Henriette Browne in 1863. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Captive | B. Excerpt from photograph by comeonandorra. Made on July 20, 2011. Released on flickr under CC by-nc-2.0 license.


Adkin, Neil. 2003. Jerome on Virginity: a commentary on the Libellus de virginitate servanda (Letter 22). Cambridge: Francis Cairns.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G., ed. and trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1Vol. 2.

Green, R. P. H. 1980. “The Correspondence of Ausonius.” L’Antiquité Classique. 49: 191-211.

Green, R. P. H., ed. 1991. The Works of Ausonius. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (review)

Hilberg, Isidorus, ed. 1910-18. Jerome. Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae. S. Eusebii Hieronymi Opera, sect. 1, pars 1-3; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, v. 54-56. Vindobonae: F. Tempsky.

Hutchinson, E.J. 2014. “And Zeus Shall Have No Dominion, or, How, When, Where, and why to ‘Plunder the Egyptians’: The Case of Jerome.” Ch. 3 (pp. 49-80) in Peter Escalante, and W. Bradford Littlejohn, eds. For the healing of the nations: essays on creation, redemption, and neo-Calvinism. Davenant Trust.

Konstan, David. 2015. Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kugel, James L. 2007. How to Read the Bible: a guide to scripture, then and now. New York: Free Press.

Mierow, Charles Christopher, with notes by Thomas Comerford Lawler. 1963. The letters of Saint Jerome. New York: Newman Press.

Mohr, Ann. 2007. “Jerome, Virgil, and the Captive Maiden: the attitude of Jerome to classical literature.” Ch. 12 (pp. 299-322) in Scourfield, J. H. D., and Anna Chahoud, eds. Texts and Culture in Late Antiquity: inheritance, authority, and change. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales.

Pucci, Joseph. 2016. “Ausonius on the Lyre: De Bissula and the Traditions of Latin Lyric.” Pp. 111-131 in McGill, Scott, and Joseph Pucci, eds. Classics Renewed: Reception and Innovation in the Latin Poetry of Late Antiquity. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter.

Resnick, David. 2004. “A case study in Jewish moral education: (non-)rape of the beautiful captive.” Journal of Moral Education. 33 (3): 307-319.

Rey, M.I. 2016. “Reexamination of the foreign female captive: Deuteronomy 21:10-14 as a case of genocidal rape.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 32 (1): 37-53.

Sivan, Hagith. 1993. Ausonius of Bordeaux: genesis of a Gallic aristocracy. London: Routledge.

Stern, David. 1998. “The Captive Woman: Hellenization, Greco-Roman Erotic Narrative, and Rabbinic Literature.” Poetics Today. 19 (1): 91-127.

Warren, Deborah, trans. 2017. Ausonius: Moselle, Epigrams, and Other Poems. London: Routledge.

epic disaster of men’s impotence: Encolpius in the Satyricon

portrait of Virgil from the Vergilius Romanus manuscript

The retired gladiator Encolpius caught the eye of Circe. She was a wealthy woman with maids, and young and beautiful, too. She sent a maid to buy a tryst for her with Encolpius.

The maid spoke knowingly with Encolpius. When she implied that he was a prostitute and scum, he responded as learned seducers do, “So you’re the one who loves me {numquid illa, quae me amat, tu es}?” He was the sort of suave rogue that bored, lonely, upper-class women love.

Encolpius’s newly experienced impotence ruined his tryst with Circe. She had hungered for sex with him. She despairingly asked him:

What is it? Do you find some offense in my kiss? Is there something in my breath, which is growing faint from hunger? Have I been negligent about the perspiration of my armpits?

{ Quid est? Numquid te osculum meum offendit? Numquid spiritus ieiunio marcens? Numquid alarum sum negligens sudor puto? }

Encolpius felt as if his whole body had gone limp, as if he had just learned about laws suppressing men’s sexuality. He explained, “Witchcraft has affected me {Veneficio contactus sum}.”

Later that day, Encolpius received a letter from Circe. Encolpius’s failure to perform for her had deeply shaken her self-esteem. She expressed concern about Encolpius’s well-being:

I am writing to inquire about how you are, and whether your own two feet were able to carry you home from our love-making. Doctors say that men who lose their sexual power are unable to walk. I warn you, young man, be wary of paralysis. I have never seen a sick person in such grave danger. I swear you are already dead. If the same mortal chill gets to your hands and knees, you should send for the funeral trumpeters.

{ Quid tamen agas, quaero, et an tuis pedibus perveneris domum; negant enim medici sine nervis homines ambulare posse. Narrabo tibi, adulescens, paralysin cave. Nunquam ego aegrum tam magno periculo vidi; medius fidius iam peristi. Quod si idem frigus genua manusque temptaverit tuas, licet ad tubicines mittas. Quid ergo est? Etiam si gravem iniuriam accepi, homini tamen misero non invideo medicinam. }

Circe then suggested that Encolpius rest for three days without penetrating his boyfriend. To boost her wounded self-esteem, Circe declared to Encolpius that she is beautiful. She told him that, before him, she had had many men who performed well for her. She told him that she could surely find a more responsive lover than him.

Encolpius responded to Circe with the self-abasement of a courtly lover. All his seductive learning, all his charisma as a suave rogue, vanished. He wrote to Circe a letter of apology:

I admit, my lady, my many faults, for I am human and still young. But never before this day have I committed deadly wrongdoing. You have the one who confesses guilt: whatever you will order, I deserve. I have committed betrayal, I have killed a person, I have profaned her temple. Devise a penalty for these crimes. If execution would please you, I will come with my sword. If you are content with a whipping, I will run naked to my lady. Remember this one thing: not I but my tool is at fault. I was ready as a soldier, but I had no weapon. Who upset me, I don’t know. Perhaps my will outran my body’s behavior, perhaps I wasted all my pleasure in delay in desiring too much. I cannot account for what happened.

{ Fateor me, domina, saepe peccasse; nam et homo sum et adhuc iuvenis. Nunquam tamen ante hunc diem usque ad mortem deliqui. Habes confitentem reum: quicquid iusseris, merui. Proditionem feci, hominem occidi, templum violavi: in haec facinora quaere supplicium. Sive occidere placet, ferro meo venio, sive verberibus contenta es, curro nudus ad dominam. Illud unum memento, non me sed instrumenta peccasse. Paratus miles arma non habui. Quis hoc turbaverit, nescio. Forsitan animus antecessit corporis moram, forsitan dum omnia concupisco voluptatem tempore consumpsi. Non invenio, quod feci. }

Men blame themselves for their impotence. That’s blaming the victim. Compassionate women can and should help to empower men.

The next day Circe’s maid brought to Encolpius an old woman named Proselenus. With different-colored threads twisted together, saliva, and small stones, Proselenus ministered to Encolpius. Then, without first asking for his affirmative consent, she placed her hands on his groin. His penis responded with a prodigious uplifting. Joyfully exultant, Proselenus declared Encolpius potent.

Encolpius returned to Circe to redeem his promise. She was languidly lying on a couch and fanning herself. She greeted him:

“How’s it with you, paralytic?” she asked. “Have you come today with all working?”

{ “Quid est” inquit “paralytice? ecquid hodie totus venisti?” }

Regaining some of his former rogue charm, Encolpius responded, “Are you inquiring rather than testing {Rogas, potius quam temptas}?” Then they passionately embraced and kissed.

Encolpius was struck again with impotence. Circe was furious. She ordered him to be hoisted and flogged. Then she had her servants spit on him. Men are commonly disparaged as dogs. Yet even just performing in accordance with that dehumanizing characterization isn’t always possible for all men.

Falling into a pit of despondency and self-hate, Encolpius embraced castration culture. Sotadean meter is associated with cinaedus, a Latin term for a man who actively enjoys being penetrated by another man’s penis. So Encolpius sought to shape his future:

Three times I took in hand the fearsome, two-edged blade,
three times my arm in weakness failed, and so remade
with less strength than a cabbage-stalk, I feebly banned
the weapon cruelly serving my trembling hand.
No longer could I execute my earlier will.
My fearful penis, colder than the winter’s chill,
shrank on my belly, within a thousand wrinkles hidden.
Its head would not be raised for punishment, though bidden:
the rascal’s deadly fear made me a baffled plaything.
I fled for solace, finding words that hurt much more.

{ Ter corripui terribilem manu bipennem,
ter languidior coliculi repente thyrso
ferrum timui, quod trepido male dabat usum.
Nec iam poteram, quod modo conficere libebat;
namque illa metu frigidior rigente bruma
confugerat in viscera mille operta rugis.
Ita non potui supplicio caput aperire,
sed furciferae mortifero timore lusus
ad verba, magis quae poterant nocere, fugi. }

Encolpius then “erected himself on his elbow {erectus igitur in cubitum}” and castigated his penis:

What do you have to say for yourself, you shame of all gods and men? Even your name is a sacrilege to cite among worthy matters. Have I deserved this from you, that you should raise me to the heavens and then drag me to the fiery depths? That you should betray me in my prime age, in the flower of my vigor, and reduce me to the weakness of extreme senility? I request of you, give me the conventional show of your worth.

{ Quid dicis, inquam, omnium hominum deorumque pudor? Nam ne nominare quidem te inter res serias fas est. Hoc de te merui, ut me in caelo positum ad inferos traheres? ut traduceres annos primo florentes vigore, senectaeque ultimae mihi lassitudinem imponere? Rogo te, mihi apodixin defunctoriam redde. }

Virgil, who understood well men’s weakness in relation to women, formed the penis’s response:

It turned away and kept its eye fixed on the ground, my
only begun harangue aroused no more its look
than pliant willow, or poppy with a drooping head.

{ Illa solo fixos oculos aversa tenebat,
nec magis incepto vultum sermone movetur
quam lentae salices lassove papavera collo. }

The penis hears indifferently what is said to it. Betrayed and scorned, men commit suicide nearly four times more frequently than women do. The penis living flaccidly in the underworld reflects men’s impotence. Impotent men can do no more than kiss women’s feet. That’s an epic disaster for all.

man adores Circe's feet

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The above story adapts the story of the encounter of Encolpius (Polyaenus) with Circe in Satyricon 125-132. Most classical scholars now think that Petronius Arbiter wrote the Satyricon about 65 GC.

In the Odyssey, the goddess Circe threatened to make Odysseus impotent. Hermes intervened to save Odysseus from that fate. Hermes gave him a magic herb to retain his potency. Odyssey 10.275-300.

Gladiators were known for their sexual allure to women in ancient Rome. Circe’s maid Chrysis thought that Encolpius was a slave. She scorned him:

I have never given myself to a slave yet. God forbid that I should throw my arms around a man destined for the gallows. Married women go for those; they kiss the scars on flogged slaves. I may be just a lady’s maid, but as that I never sit in the lap of anyone lower than a knight.

{ Ego adhuc servo nunquam succubui, nec hoc dii sinant, ut amplexus meos in crucem mittam. Viderint matronae, quae flagellorum vestigia osculantur; ego etiam si ancilla sum, nunquam tamen nisi in equestribus sedeo. }

Satyricon 126. Chrysis, however, subsequently developed a burning sexual passion for the gladiator-slave Encolpius. Satyricon 138.

The quoted texts above are my English translations from Satyricon 125-132. My translations draw upon those of Heseltine & Rouse (1913), Allinson (1930), and Walsh (1996). The Latin text is from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), with some non-substantive adaptions. Here’s an online Latin text of the Satyricon. The Latin text has not been well-transmitted, hence lacunae and textual uncertainties exist.

The first poem quoted above is in the Sotadean meter. That meter is associated with the poet Sotades writing in the third-century BGC. Sotades wrote earthy, licentious verse such as “It’s an unholy hole he’s shoving his prick in {εἰς οὐχ ὁσίην τρυμαλιὴν τὸ κέντρον ὤθει }.” From Kwapisz (2009), quoting Alan Cameron’s English translation. While the meter of the first poem above is Sotadean, its tone is Virgilian epic.

Cinaedus is a Greek term transliterated into Latin. Too often cinaedus is misandristically described as “applied to men who fulfill the role of passively providing sexual pleasure to a man.” See, e.g. Connors (2006) p. 31, n. 37. The dichotomy of “active” and “passive” is narrow-minded gender ideology. Cf. Tiresias’s important insight.

The second poem quoted above is a Virgilian cento. Its first two verses are from Aeneid 6.469-70. The third verse’s first half is a modified version of Eclogues 5.16; the second half is Aeneid 9.436. Schmeling commented:

The result uses Virgil’s words but not in the order in which the poet wrote them. Had E. {Encolpius} continued with A. {Aeneid} 6. 471, instead of a comparison with soft plants, he would have got quam si dura silex aut stet Marpesia cautes. E. is impotent and the words dura silex, instead of lentae salices, would have been ashes in his mouth. And P.’s {Petronius’s} literate audience, knowing their Virgil as South Carolina Baptists once knew their New Testament, recognizes that the three lines are not continuous, knows that v. 471 described flint and rocks, and enjoyed a twofold literary joke: (i) a misuse or parody of Virgil’s words about Dido’s eyes to describe E.’s penis and (ii) chopping up and reassembling lines from Virgil so that the text reads the opposite of what Virgil meant; the omission of the line about silex and cautes calls added attention to E.’s mentula languida.

Schmeling (2011) pp. 508-9. The fundamental sexual issues are more important than Schmeling’s comment indicates. Connors explained:

Petronius juxtaposes Encolpius’ erotic failures with the Aeneid’s representations of terrible grief and loss, evoking not just Dido but Nisus and Euryalus too: the valiant self-sacrifice of Virgilian heroes has been parodically debased into Encolpius’ histrionic outburst.

Connors (2006) p. 32. Debasement can serve a higher purpose. The penis’s response has epic significance today.

[images] (1) Portrait of Virgil from folio 14r of the fifth-century illustrated manuscript known as the Vergilius Romanus (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3867). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Man adores Circe’s feet. Monochrome image of painting by Émile Lévy, displayed in Parisian salon in 1889. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Allinson, Alfred R, trans. 1930. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. New York: Panurge Press.

Connors, Catherine. 2006. Petronius the Poet: verse and literary tradition in the Satyricon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kwapisz, Jan. 2009. “A lesson for the King: Sotades’ Invective against Ptolemy (fr. 1 and 16 Powell) and Callimachus’ Epigram 1 Pfeiffer.” Symbolae Philologorum Posnaniensium Graecae Et Latinae. 19: 85-94.

Schmeling, Gareth L. 2011. A Commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, Patrick G, trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

celebrating marriage: Ausonius loved his wife Sabina

male and female duck mates: mosaic from Pompeii

In the fourth-century Roman Empire, Ausonius wrote his Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis} at the command of the emperor and to challenge the brutalization of men’s sexuality. That poem met the emperor’s request, but the broader error it ironically addressed has scarcely been corrected. Ausonius of his own volition wrote about his wife Sabina. Juvenal would be scandalized by Ausonius and Sabina’s marriage. Sabina apparently wasn’t afraid that her husband would rape her. As difficult as it is to believe today, Sabina and Ausonius loved each other.

When he was about sixty, Ausonius apparently received a slave girl. Fighting against the Alamanni Germans in 368, the Roman soldiers of Emperor Valentinian killed many men. Among their spoils of war was a Swabian girl. She was given to Ausonius for accompanying the emperor on the German campaign. Her name was Bissula. That’s according to Ausonius’s poem that tells all that’s known of her.

Ausonius found Bissula delightful. He immediately freed her and called her “my foster-daughter {alumna}.” He hadn’t had a wife for about thirty years. Bissula had blue eyes and blonde hair. He taught her Latin. She took up rule over his home. The poem that tells all that’s known of Bissula includes this descriptio:

My darling, plaything, love, my joy and delight,
barbarian foster-girl better than Roman women,
Bissula, a rustic name for a tender girl,
raw to strangers, that name so charms her master.

{ Delicium, blanditiae, ludus, amor, voluptas,
barbara, sed quae Latias vincis alumna pupas,
Bissula, nomen tenerae rusticulum puellae,
horridulum non solitis sed domino venustum. } [1]

Ausonius jested about old men’s failures in sexual desire. Bissula may have been merely the poetic imaging of an old man who should have known better. In any case, what would Ausonius’s wife have thought?

Ausonius appreciated the complexities of women and men’s intimate relations. He understood that women could be wicked, and men, stupid:

I wish I had a mistress such as this:
one that carelessly starts a fight,
and doesn’t strive to talk demurely,
beautiful, pushy, petulantly ready to slap,
who takes blows and returns them, too;
and beaten, makes defense with kisses.
If she not be of that hard way,
but chaste, modest, bashful in life —
horror to say — then she will be a wife.

{ Sit mihi talis amica velim,
iurgia quae temere incipiat
nec studeat quasi casta loqui,
pulchra procax petulante manu,
verbera quae ferat et regerat
caesaque ad oscula confugiat.
Nam nisi moribus his fuerit,
casta modesta pudenter agens,
dicere abominor, uxor erit. } [2]

The last line could also be translated, “horror to say — then she will be my wife.” Ausonius’s wife Sabina was, according to him, modest and sober. Did Ausonius actually wish for a mistress radically different from his own wife?

Ausonius wrote licentious epigrams. In one, he noted a woman prostitute who would masturbate for men and sexually serve them with three orifices. He wrote a clever and socially significant description of men engaged in a threesome. He also wrote epigrams about his love for Crispa (“curly-haired girl”) and Galla (“girl from Gaul”). Ausonius’s wife Sabina wasn’t concerned about such poems:

Laïs and Glycera, names of lascivious fame —
when my wife read of them in my songs,
she said I was playing and jesting about fictitious loves.
Such is her confidence in my uprightness.

{ Laidas et Glyceras, lascivae nomina famae,
coniunx in nostro carmine cum legeret,
ludere me dixit falsoque in amore iocari:
tanta illi nostra est de probitate fides. } [3]

Flesh-and-blood love is far more real than love poetry.

Sabina understood that Ausonius’s amatory poems were not like his real presence in her life. She herself was skilled at weaving beautiful fabric, and doing so economically. Ausonius wrote:

Let the proud East extol its ancient looms;
O Greece, you weave soft gold for women’s robes;
may fame celebrate no less the West’s Sabina,
who sparing large cost, equals them in skill.

{ Laudet Achaemenias orientis gloria telas,
molle aurum pallis, Graecia, texe tuis,
non minus Ausoniam celebret dum fama Sabinam,
parcentem magnis sumptibus, arte parem. } [4]

The phrase “Ausoniam Sabinam,” translated as “the West’s Sabina,” could also be translated as “Ausonius’s Sabina.” Ausonius, who rose to be a Roman consul, represented Sabina’s weaving as not just a domestic matter. He poetically placed her weaving among the great politics of the ancient world: rivalry among Achaemenid Persia, Alexander’s Greece, and Aeneas’s Italy. Sabina herself associated weaving and writing poetry:

Some weave cloths and poems: poems for Muses,
the cloths for you, most chaste goddess Minerva.
But I, Sabina, won’t sunder this group.
I have embroidered cloths with my own lines.

{ Licia qui texunt et carmina, carmina Musis,
licia contribuunt, casta Minerva, tibi.
Ast ego rem sociam non dissociabo Sabina,
versibus inscripsi quae mea texta meis. } [5]

Sabina and Ausonius weaved cloths and poems as a couple. Sabina’s insistence on the unity of this work evokes her unity with Ausonius. Her own lines may be his lines, and his clothes, her cloths. Sabina wasn’t worried about finding in Ausonius’s poetry a second sun, another woman that truly warmed him in love.

Ausonius wanted to grow old together with his wife Sabina. He wrote:

Dear wife, as we have lived, so let us live, and keep
the names we took when first together in wedding bed.
Let no day make us change, though change in time the age.
I’ll live as your lad, and you’ll be my loving girl.
Though I might rival Nestor in boasting of wisdom’s years,
and you surpass the Cumaean Sibyl famed at Delphi,
let us ignore what age’s ripeness means in body.
Knowing the worth of age, not counting years is best.

{ Uxor, vivamus ceu viximus et teneamus
nomina quae primo sumpsimus in thalamo,
nec ferat ulla dies ut commutemur in aevo,
quin tibi sim iuvenis tuque puella mihi.
Nestore sim quamvis provectior aemulaque annis
vincas Cumanam tu quoque Deiphoben,
nos ignoremus quid sit matura senectus:
scire aevi meritum, non numerare decet. } [6]

Ausonius wanted their wedding night to be their life forever. It could be in quality of heartfelt love.

It was not to be. Sabina and Ausonius had three children. She subsequently died at age twenty-seven. Her death devastated Ausonius. After writing of many dead family members, he declared:

Thus far our dirges their proper tasks fulfilled,
mourning of family so dear in measured end.
But now, grief and torment, a wound I cannot touch:
I must recall my wife’s untimely death.
Noble from birth, a bright Senator’s daughter,
good morals made Sabina always brighter.
Young and weeping for you, stolen early,
I’m still alone, mourning, after nine Olympics.
I can’t dull my sadness in tired age,
always it rages, a fresh pain to me.
Others in sickness through time permit solace;
my wounds weigh more with length of days.
I tear my gray hair, which mocks me unwed.
The more I live alone, the more the gloom
feeding my wound: my house silent, my bed frigid —
of that I share nothing, neither good nor bad.
I grieve for men with good spouses, grieve for men
with bad: your image is always here with me.
You torture me both ways. If his is bad,
unlike her, you were. But, if good, like you.
I bewail not useless wealth, nor hollow joy,
but you, snatched in youth from youthful me.
So cheerful, modest, sober, famed of clan and face,
the glory, the grief that husband Ausonius held.
Before completing twenty-eight Decembers,
you left our two living children, our hopes.
By God’s grace, they flourish, just as you prayed,
with goods abundant, as you desired for them.
And still I pray they thrive, until at last
may my embers so announce to your ashes.

{ Hactenus ut caros, ita iusto funere fletos,
functa piis cecinit nenia nostra modis.
Nunc dolor atque cruces nec contrectabile fulmen,
coniugis ereptae mors memoranda mihi.
Nobilis a proavis et origine clara senatus,
moribus usque bonis clara Sabina magis,
te iuvenis primis luxi deceptus in annis
perque novem caelebs te fleo Olympiadas.
Nec licet obductum senio sopire dolorem;
semper crudescit nam mihi poena recens.
Admittunt alii solacia temporis aegri:
haec graviora facit vulnera longa dies.
Torqueo deceptos ego vita caelibe canos,
quoque magis solus, hoc mage maestus ago.
Volnus alit, quod muta domus silet et torus alget,
quod mala non cuiquam, non bona participo.
Maereo, si coniunx alii bona, maereo contra,
si mala: ad exemplum tu mihi semper ades.
Tu mihi crux ab utraque venis, sive est mala, quod tu
dissimilis fueris, seu bona, quod similis.
Non ego opes cassas et inania gaudia plango,
sed iuvenis iuveni quod mihi rapta viro:
laeta, pudica, gravis, genus inclita et inclita forma,
et dolor atque decus coniugis Ausonii.
Quae modo septenos quater impletura Decembres,
liquisti natos, pignera nostra, duos.
Illa favore dei, sicut tua vota fuerunt,
florent, optatis accumulata bonis.
Et precor ut vigeant, tandemque superstite utroque
nuntiet hoc cineri nostra favilla tuo. } [7]

Sabina and Ausonius have been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. Marriage is now more like the affair that Martianus Capella described. But the way that Ausonius and Sabina loved, you can still love, too.

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[1] Ausonius, Bissula 4, Latin text from Green (1991), my English translation benefiting from those of Evelyn-White (1919) and Warren (2017).

In the final line, horridulum and venustum grammatically apply to nomen, but they also poetically evoke how other Romans and Ausonius responded, respectively, to Bissula herself. Echoing the diminutive of horridulum, Bissula is called a virguncula in Bissula 2.2.

Recent study of Bissula has highlighted its metapoetics. Pucci argued:

The emphasis at the poem’s conclusion on mimetic failure allows readers to view the ending of De Bissula as sensible. If the point of the collection is to worry the ability of mimesis to offer a copy that is essential, and if, more specifically, verbal mimesis fails Ausonius here, then nothing more need, or can, be said. Ausonius thus cuts his losses, presumably preferring the rich and abiding pleasures of Bissula’s real-time allurements to the sterile articulations of poetry’s fictions. … In this regard, too, Ausonius would seem to question the importance that Catullus would attach to lyric, especially Catullus’ seeming insistence on lyric’s ability to copy experience successfully, for there is always a sense in Catullus that he, if no one else, has succeeded in inscribing emotion in language.

Pucci (2016) pp. 130-1. On the social metapoetics of Bissula, Knight (2006). On mirroring of the self in Mosella, Taylor (2009). On Ausonius’s concern with naming, titling, and self, Rebillard (2015). With respect to these concerns, Bissula (as in Green (1991)) seems to me a better name for the poem than De Bissula.

How Ausonius imagined his long-dead wife Sabina seeing Bissula is a relatively neglected metapoetic issue. With no appreciation for the complexities of poetry and a particular visceral sense, Sivan declared:

Bissula, the pretty Suebian whom Ausonius won as ‘booty’, prompted a number of verses in which Ausonius, who had avowed eternal fidelity to this dead wife, expressed his delight in the young German.66 To say the least, the Bissula and the epigrams in honour of Sabina offer a fascinating psychological insight into Ausonius’ character. He seemed not in the least disturbed by the incongruity of his feelings. Perhaps, after all, in an age which fervently extolled and practised sexual renunciation, Ausonius’ sheer happiness with the successor to his wife comes as a relief.67

Sivan (1993) p. 105. Sivan’s note 66 points to the epigrams discussed subsequently above and notes that they, like Bissula, echo Catullus. Sivan’s note 67 merely cites Peter Brown, The Body and Society (1988). In Sivan’s reading, “Ausonius’ sheer happiness … comes as a relief” to persons recently taught a grand master narrative of emotions. Sabina, I think, would have viewed Bissula / Bissula with more poetic sophistication and more humane understanding.

Ausonius referred to Bissula as “my foster-daughter {alumna}” in Bissula, Ausonius to {Axius} Paulus (praef. 1) l. 5. On Bissula having blue eyes and blond hair, and that she ruled over Ausonius’s house, Bissula 3.3-5, 10-12. Ausonius is reasonably thought to have been born about 310. Booth (1983) p. 329, n. 4. Bissula apparently was captured in Emperor Valentinian I’s German campaign in 368. She “was probably captured in 368 (see on 3. 2), but the poems may not have been completed until some time later.” Green (1991), Bissula, introduction. Joseph Pucci agrees that she was captured at that date. Warren (2017) p. 11. “Since the heroine is represented as already thoroughly Romanized, the composition cannot well be earlier than c. 371-2 A.D.” Evelyn-White (1919) v. 1, p. xvii. Ausonius thus would have received Bissula when he was about sixty. She was probably then in her teens. Ausonius’s wife Sabina died before 350, perhaps in the early 340s. Green (1991), Parentalia 9, note to title; Pucci in Warren (2017) p. 4.

[2] Ausonius, Epigrams 89 (89 EW), “What type of girlfriend he would like to have {Qualem velit habere amicam},” Latin text from Green (1991), my English translation benefiting from those of Evelyn-White (1919), Kay (2001), and Warren (2017). The Latin epigram is in dactylic trimeter hypercatalectic, an unusual meter. Green (1991). Lake (2011c) provides online textual notes to the Latin. All subsequent quotes from Ausonius are similarly sourced.

Primary epigram numbers are those in the numbering of Green and Kay. Evelyn-White’s numbering is indicated as (# EW). Here’s an online Latin text of Ausonius’s epigrams.

I use the epigram titles from Evelyn-White. Green states:

The evidential value of headings in these matters is nil: the occasional title may be Ausonian, but most are certainly later, and so they do not appear in my text.

Green (1991) Epigrammata, introduction.

Roman love elegy privileged mistresses above wives. Propertius wrote:

I would sooner allow my head to be severed from my neck
than I’d bear wasting torches at some bride’s command
or passing your bolted gate, a married man,
looking back with wet eyes at what I’d lost.
Ah, then what dirges my flute would sing for you,
flute, even sadder than the funeral bugle!

{ nam citius paterer caput hoc discedere collo
quam possem nuptae perdere more faces,
aut ego transirem tua limina clausa maritus,
respiciens udis prodita luminibus.
a mea tum qualis caneret tibi tibia somnos,
tibia, funesta tristior illa tuba! }

Propertius, Elegies 2.7, Latin text and English translation from Katz (2004) pp. 104-5. Torches were used in wedding celebrations.

For Ausonius’s characterization of his wife Sabina, see his Parentalia 9, quoted subsequently above. Ausonius described “the procreative unions of legitimate sexual intercourse {legitimi genitalia foedera coetus}.” Epigrams 75 (79 EW), “Written under the portrait of a lewd woman {Subscriptum picturae mulieris impudicae},” l. 1. Baehrens emended genitalia to genialia {joyful}, and Evelyn-White followed, but Green and Kay reject that emendation. That emendation does, however, capture the sense of Ausonius’s relationship with his wife.

[3] Epigrams 19 (39 EW), “Of the opinion his wife held of him {De opinione quam de illo habebat eius uxor}.” Laidas and Glyceras are generalizing plurals. Green (1991). Laïs is the name of a famous courtesan in fifth-century BGC Corinth. Glycera is the name of a mistress in Horace.

On the woman prostitute serving customers with her three orifices, Ausonius, Epigrams 75 (79 EW). Her name was Crispa. Ausonius expressed love for Crispa (perhaps a different woman) in Epigrams 85 (88 EW), “To Crispa, said by some to be deformed {Ad Crispam quae a quibusdam dicebatur deformis}.” For Gallus, Epigrams 14 (34 EW), “To a maid, Galla, now growing old {Ad Gallam puellam iam senescentem}.” That epigram parallels the epigram Greek Anthology 5.21. Martial’s epigrams refer repeatedly to Galla. Green (1991).

[4] Epigrams 27 (53 EW), “Lines woven in a robe {Versus in veste contexti}.” Lake (2011b) provides textual notes for this and the subsequent three epigrams quoted above. Ausonia is an ancient region of Italy. It can refer poetically to Italy or to the West (relative to Greece).

[5] Epigrams 29 (55 EW), “On the same Sabina {De eadem Sabina}.” It’s possible that Sabina wrote this epigram, but unlikely. Poets commonly write in other than their own voices. No other evidence exists that Sabina wrote poetry. Epigrams 28 (54 EW) tells of Sabina both weaving cloth and embroidering verses.

[6] Epigrams 20 (40 EW), “To his wife {Ad uxorem}.” A love elegy that a man poet writes to his wife is highly unusual. Sklenár (2005). Joseph Hutchison provides a translation in a more familiar, intimate voice. I think Ausonius was warmly intimate with his wife, but that’s not quite the voice I hear in this poem.

[7] Parentalia 9, “Attusia Lucana Sabina, my wife {Attusia Lucana Sabina uxor}.” Lake (2011a) provides an online Latin text with textual notes. My English translation benefited from that of Scott McGill in Maas (2010) pp. 280-1.

Sabina and Ausonius were born and lived near Bordeaux, part of Gaul in present-day France. On Sabina’s parents and sisters, Lake (2011b). Ausonius’s father was Julius Ausonius, who died in 377 or 378. Green (2011) 5, Epicedion In Patrem. Ausonius’s maternal uncle, Aemilius Magnus Arborius, was a learned tutor to Ausonius. On Ausonius’s network of family, teachers, students, and friends, Sivan (1993).

Sabina died not later than 350 GC, probably in the early 340s. Green (1991); Warren (2017) p. 4. An Olympiad (Olympics) occurred every four years. Hence Ausonius was writing thirty-six years (9 times 4 years) after Sabina’s death.

Sabina and Ausonius had three children:

Their son Ausonius died in infancy (Parentalia 10). Their second son, Decimus Hilarianus Hesperius, became a prefect in 378 CE; he married and had three children, the third of whom, a son Pastor, died young (Parentalia 11). Sabina’s {and Ausonius’s} third child was a daughter, whose name has not been preserved; she married Valerius Latinus Euromius, who died after she bore him a child (Parentalia 14); she then married Thalassius, by whom she had two children, Censorius Magnus Ausonius and Paulinus.

Lake (2011a), references omitted. Both Hesperius and Thalassius both rose to the positions of proconsul of Africa. Like many other men, they probably transferred much money and goods to women. Writing about Ausonius’s Parentalia 9 in the excellent but resolutely gynocentric World of Marriage, Lake complains:

While it is a testimony to the constancy of his affection, it obsesses on his suffering and continuing sorrow and reveals little about the young woman who inspired him to write the passionate love elegy above.

Lake (2011a). Cf. a Thessalonian woman’s epitaph for her husband in 1481.

Krynicka summarized the female characters in Ausonius’s Parentalia:

Parentalia is a collection by Ausonius made of 30 works dedicated to 33 of his deceased relations. 15 out of 33 were Gallo-Roman women, living somewhere between the mid-3rd and the late 4th century. … The poems are individual portraits of mothers, wives, virgins – both elderly ladies and maidens who passed away young. Of all the women he speaks with nothing but immeasurable respect.

Krynicka (2012), from abstract.

The Parentalia was a nine-day festival in ancient Rome during which persons honored their ancestors. The Parentalia occurred annually from February 13 to February 21. Ausonius regarded celebrating the Parentalia as consistent with his Christian beliefs. On Ausonius and honoring dead family members, Dolansky (2011).

[image] Male and female duck mates. Detail from mosaic in the House of Faun, Pompeii, first century GC. Preserved as inv. 9993 in Naples National Archaeological Museum (Italy). Here’s the full mosaic image by the wonderfully generous Marie-Lan Nguyen on Wikimedia Commons.


Booth, Alan D. 1983. “The Academic Career of Ausonius.” Phoenix. 36 (4): 329-343.

Dolansky, Fanny. 2011. “Honouring the Family Dead on the Parentalia: Ceremony, Spectacle, and Memory.” Phoenix. 65 (1-2): 125-157.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G., ed. and trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1Vol. 2.

Green, R. P. H., ed. 1991. The Works of Ausonius. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (review)

Katz, Vincent, trans. 2004. The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kay, N. M., trans. 2001. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius, Epigrams: text with introduction and commentary. London: Duckworth.

Knight, Gillian R. 2006. “Ausonius to Axius Paulus: Metapoetics and the Bissula.” Rheinisches Museum Für Philologie. 149 (3): 369-385.

Krynicka, Tatiana. 2012. “Sylwetki kobiet w zbiorku Parentalia Decimusa Magnusa Auzoniusza.” Roczniki Humanistyczne. 58-59 (3): 133-150.

Lake, Keely. 2011a. “Decimus Magnus Ausonius, Epigrammata 20, Parentalia 9: Sabina.” Web page in Ann R. Raia and Judith Lynn Sebesta, The World of Marriage.

Lake, Keely. 2011b. “Decimus Magnus Ausonius, Epigrammata 19, 27, 28, 29: Sabina.” Web page in Ann R. Raia and Judith Lynn Sebesta, The World of Marriage.

Lake, Keely. 2011c. “Decimus Magnus Ausonius, Epigrammata 89: Amica.” Web page in Ann R. Raia and Judith Lynn Sebesta, The World of Flirtation.

Maas, Michael. 2010. Readings in Late Antiquity: a sourcebook. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.

Pucci, Joseph. 2016. “Ausonius on the Lyre: De Bissula and the Traditions of Latin Lyric.” Pp. 111-131 in McGill, Scott, and Joseph Pucci, eds. Classics Renewed: Reception and Innovation in the Latin Poetry of Late Antiquity. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter.

Rebillard, Suzanne Abrams. 2015. “‘The Dead With Me’: Ausonius’s Parentalia as Memorial to the Poet.” Arethusa. 48 (2): 219-251.

Sivan, Hagith. 1993. Ausonius of Bordeaux: genesis of a Gallic aristocracy. London: Routledge.

Sklenár, Robert. 2005. “Ausonius’ Elegiac Wife: Epigram 20 and the Traditions of Latin Love Poetry.” Classical Journal. 101 (1): 51-62.

Taylor, Rabun. 2009. “Death, the Maiden, and the Mirror: Ausonius’s Water World.” Arethusa. 42 (2): 181-205.

Warren, Deborah, trans. 2017. Ausonius: Moselle, Epigrams, and Other Poems. London: Routledge.

put woman on top for matriarchy and to dissolve marriage

In early fifteenth-century Italy, a young man was engaged to a widow’s daughter. He visited her frequently at her home where she lived with her mother. One day her mother wasn’t there. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the engaged couple had sex.


When the mother returned, her daughter’s new radiance raised suspicion. Under questioning, the young woman confessed that she and her fiancé had sex. The mother “bitterly scolded her for having disgraced herself and her family {jurgare acriter illam coepit quae se domumque deshonestasset}.” The mother declared that her daughter being married to that man wasn’t just a matter of time until the formal wedding ceremony, as they had apparently rationalized. The mother ordered her daughter to break the engagement.

As soon as her mother again left the home, the young man returned to his beloved. She was mournful. She told him what her mother had ordered. The man respected the woman’s own choice of whether to marry him. He asked her, as men often ask the women they love, “What do you want {Quid tu}?” The woman responded, “I want to obey my mother {Matri obsequi volo}.” That’s the way matriarchy functions.

The shattered man quickly recomposed his mind and made the best of life under matriarchal oppression. Taking advantage of a common misconception of marriage, the man declared that they could easily obey mother. The woman asked how exactly they could do that:

“The first time you were on the bottom,” he said. “Now shift to being on top, and so the contrary action will dissolve our marriage.” She consented, and thus their marriage was dissolved.

{ “Antea,” ait, “inferiores partes egisti; nunc superior evadas oportet, ut per contrarium actum dissolutio matrimonii fiat.” Consensit illa, et matrimonium dissolvit. }

The woman being on top dissolves marriage. That’s a lesson all newlyweds should be taught.

The lovers estranged under matriarchy found other spouses. They remained friends. At the man’s wedding, they exchanged warm, knowing smiles in remembering their past relationship. The bride became suspicious. She insisted that her husband tell her of his relationship with that woman. So he told her the whole sad story of matriarchal oppression. She exclaimed:

May God have saddened her who was so insane as to make that known to her mother! What is the need for foolishly telling your mother of your sexual intercourse? In fact more than a hundred times our family servant had sex with me, and not even one word of it did I tell my mother.

{ Contristetur, illam Deus quae tam fuit amens, ut id notum fecisset matri! Quid enim opus erat, ut matri vestrum concubitum referret stulta? Me quidem noster famulus amplius centies cognovit, neque ullum unquam verbum a me innotuit matri. }

The husband said nothing in response. Any man getting married should understand that women aren’t angels. Gyno-idolatry is delusional. With truthful understanding and a bride strong enough to defy the matriarchy, this couple had an auspicious future.

Women and men, unite! Defy the matriarchy!

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The above story and quotes are from Poggio, Facetiae 157, “Of a Florentine betrothed to a widow’s daughter {De Florentino qui filiam viduae desponsaverat},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 55-7, my English translation. Here’s the Latin text in a machine-readable form.

[image] Old woman. Oil painting (cropped slightly) by Hans Memling, made between 1470 and 1475. Held as accession # RF 1723, in Louvre Museum (Paris). Via Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

on first looking into Slavitt’s Ausonius: prolegomenon to prosaic studies

expansive ocean vista

Much of classics study, building upwards to a theory of reception in Late Antiquity, has produced goodly reams of publications in Mnemosyne, Philologus, and Classical Quarterly. Yet study of Ausonius’s prosody in Cento nuptialis has been relatively neglected. The publication of Slavitt’s Ausonius in a fine edition from the University of Pennsylvania Press provides a foundation for exploring a wide expanse of prosaic studies concerning Cento nuptialis.

Scholars as of yet haven’t fully studied Slavitt’s Ausonius and its translation of the Cento nuptialis. Peter Burian in The American Journal of Philology, 121/2 (2000) at 305, briefly described it as a “real tour de force.” In Papers of the British School at Rome, 68 (2000) at 176, n. 33, Jaś Elsner labeled it “brilliant,” but provided no analysis of its prosody. Garth Fowden in his important work on contexualizing and periodicizing Late Antiquity, Before and After Muhammed, Princeton (2014) at 52, n. 6, listed Slavitt’s Ausonius as an English translation paired with Green’s critical edition, Oxford (1991) at 145-54. That suggests the critical importance of Slavitt’s Ausonius, but Fowden didn’t elaborate. Martha Malamud, who edits Arethusa and provided a blurb for Slavitt’s Ausonius, cursorily and ambiguously described its Cento nuptialis as a “recreation.” Writing in the Classical Outlook, 76/4 (1999) at 157, Robert Colton more forthrightly declared:

This book will be very useful in a course in Latin literature in translation, and will serve as a fine introduction to the work of an important late Latin poet.

Jan Dierckx, a verified purchaser, gave Slavitt’s Ausonius a five-star review, dated August 13, 2009, on Amazon and wrote:

I like this book because it gives some insight into social life near the end of Antiquity.

The scope for interpreting and evaluating Slavitt’s Ausonius is far broader than these commentaries indicate.

Slavitt’s Ausonius includes an apparatus of citations to the verses that comprise his translation of Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis. Ausonius, of course, worked in the dactylic hexameters of Virgil’s verse. Ausonius added to Virgil’s quantitative meter particular rules for stitching together verses to form a cento. Ausonius himself explicitly indicated the importance of these cento rules: quae si omnia ita tibi videbuntur, ut praeceptum est, dices me composuisse centonem. With the apparatus of Slavitt’s Ausonius, analysis of quantitative meter can be extended to the hypotext of the cento.

While I cannot offer here a full analysis of the Cento nuptialis of Slavitt’s Ausonius, some measures of its Imminutio might contribute to achieving the heights of surveying all its hypotextual prosody. The issue of poetic periodization must first be addressed. The Imminutio of Slavitt’s Ausonius has the great poetic merit of containing exactly the same number of verses as Ausonius’s Imminutio: thirty-one. Since thirty-one is a prime number, partitioning the Imminutio’s verses into equal, whole-number components isn’t possible. Going beyond formal structure to recognize the meaning of the poem, a reasonable partition can be made. It consists of 9, 7, and 14 verses, seriatim.

What do you here alone? O God of battles!
steel their soldiers’ hearts. His purity
of manhood stands upright, whose dreadful sword
was never drawn in vain. “Naked as I am,
I will assault thee.” Look down. The purple pride,
and jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones…
They are dangerous weapons for maids. She takes the staff
in her mouth and guides it, that his puissance holds.
The hand’s more instrumental than the mouth.

{ Postquam congressi sola sub nocte per umbram
et mentem Venus ipsa dedit, nova proelia temptant.
Tollit se arrectum: conantem plurima frustra
occupat os faciemque, pedem pede fervidus urget,
perfidus alta petens: ramum, qui veste latebat,
sanguineis ebuli bacis minioque rubentem
nudato capite et pedibus per mutua nexis,
monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum
eripit a femine et trepidanti fervidus instat. }

Slavitt’s Ausonius treats half-verses and full verses rather differently from the Latin. Enjambment of a single hypotextual Shakespearean verse occurs in the very first line and frequently recurs. The Latin Virgilian lines are never enjambed. In verse 5, Slavitt daringly innovates. He combines three hypotextual segments with a 2-1-2 beat structure to form the full verse of iambic pentameter.

For centos, an important meter is the pattern in the distance in syllables between the hypertext and the hypotext across verses of hypertext. For example, the first line of Slavitt’s Ausonius agrees perfectly with serial syllables taken from Shakespeare’s Othello 3.3.309 and Henry V 4.1.370. To create pleasing variety and to avoid a robotic invocation of readers’ memory of Shakespearean verse, Slavitt immediately modulated the perfect correspondence in his verse 2. Henry V 4.1.370 has “steel my soldiers’ hearts,” which Slavitt changed to “steel their soldiers’ hearts” (syllable distance = 1). The syllables after the caesura “His purity” are at one syllable distance from Timon of Athens 4.3.1677, “In purity.” So the total hypertext-hypotext syllabic distance for the verse is 2. The next verse moves back to a distance of 1. The subsequent triplet of lines all have a distance of zero, which persons familiar with Shakespeare would readily sense. Then, in a ingenious chiasmus of prosody, Slavitt reverses the previous movement to conclude the section with a 1-2 climb in syllable distance to a verse providing more abstract wisdom on entering into oral sex.

Of all thy sex, most monster like, one eye
thou hast to look to heaven for grace. The doors,
being shut against his entrance, with instruments
upon them fit to open, be the ram
to batter such an ivory wall. Are ye
undone? No, ye fat chuffs. On bacons, on!
The ruddiness upon her lip is wet.

{ Est in secessu, tenuis quo semita ducit,
ignea rima micans: exhalat opaca mephitim.
Nulli fas casto sceleratum insistere limen.
Hic specus horrendum: talis sese halitus atris
faucibus effundens nares contingit odore.
Huc iuvenis nota fertur regione viarum
et super incumbens nodis et cortice crudo }

The second section of the Immunitio continues the prosaic patterns that Slavitt established in the first. It repeats the quartet-singleton (Bush-thrust) pattern of enjambment that the first section displays. Perhaps contributing to the sense of delay in the poetic consummation, Slavitt introduces and ends the second section with a 0-1 / 1-0 pattern of hypertext-hypotext syllabic distance. The alert reader naturally wonders whether the poem is flattening. Yet Slavitt shows poetic daring in his lines 14 and 15. Ausonius in describing the rules of the cento declared: duos iunctim locare ineptum est, et tres una serie merae nugae. Slavitt’s Ausonius, lines 14 and 15, uses syllables from lines 826-828 of Henry IV, Part 1, 2.2! Slavitt seems to have deliberately interrogated the boundaries of the cento form.

Not an inch further? He sticks deeper, grows
with more pernicious root to shake the bags
and make the coming hour o’erflow with joy
and pleasure drown the brim, for one to thrust,
his hand between his teeth. And mark the moan
she makes. Most resolutely snatched, he is
far gone, far gone, to the profoundest pit,
where the dribbling dart of love doth melt and pour
froth and scum, hot and full, to shake
their frames, his hair uprear’d, his nostrils stretch’d
with struggling. Look on the sheets, his hair, you see
is sticking. But soft! See how busily she turns.
He doth revive again: madam, be patient.
Why these balls bound. There’s noise in it. ‘Tis hard
and will he not come again? Spit, fire! Spout, rain!

{ intorquet summis adnixus viribus hastam.
Haesit virgineumque alte bibit acta cruorem.
Insonuere cavae gemitumque dedere cavernae.
Illa manu moriens telum trahit, ossa sed inter
altius ad vivum persedit vulnere mucro.
Ter sese attollens cubitoque innixa levavit,
ter revoluta toro est. Manet imperterritus ille;
nec mora nec requies: clavumque affixus et haerens
nusquam amittebat oculosque sub astra tenebat.
Itque reditque viam totiens uteroque recusso
transadigit costas et pectine pulsat eburno.
Iamque fere spatio extremo fessique sub ipsam
finem adventabant: tum creber anhelitus artus
aridaque ora quatit, sudor fluit undique rivis,
labitur exsanguis, destillat ab inguine virus. }

In terms of prosody, the third section of the Immunitio has both continuity and change, like most in-depth historiography. It begins with a protruding enjambment, then has a quartet of enjambed verses leading to “he is / far gone, far gone.” The syllabic distance reflects the initial struggle, with the unique structure of three successive verse with a hypertext-hypotext syllabic distance of 1. But when the couple becomes one, the syllabic distance stays closer to identity, varying only for a line or two from identity (zero) to retain poetic interest. The imminent consummation is signaled with a syllabic distance of 2 from the hypertextual verse “where the dribbling dart of love doth melt and pour” to the hypotextual “that the dribbling dart of love” (Measure for Measure 1.2.290) and “I melt and pour” (Antony and Cleopatra 2.5.1088). The Immunitio ends with a triplet of identity: three verses with hypertext-hypotext syllabic distance of zero. Virgil, Ausonius, Shakespeare, and Slavitt understand deeply the flesh-and-blood complications of human intimacy.

Much further study needs to be done so that Slavitt’s Ausonius is well-covered in publications in classics journals. Even this preliminary climb has revealed a vast, fertile domain for further prosaic studies. Just as for meninist literary criticism, those who have eyes to see can only be filled with wild wonder at the new world spread out before them.

*  *  *  *  *

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Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis raises important social issues not discussed above. For those who would prefer to examine closely my analysis of prosody in Slavitt’s Ausonius, here’s a workbook containing details (LibreOffice Calc version). Ausonius, like Proba, probably had memorized Virgil’s Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues. For those today who don’t hold in memory all of Shakespeare’s verses, OpenSourceShakespeare provides helpful tools. For additional insight into the above analysis, see John Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816).

[image] Expansive ocean vista. From image released CCO Public Domain on pxhere.


Slavitt, David R. 1998. Ausonius: three amusements. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

why can’t men have it all? an alternate life-stages approach

portrait of intense old man

Most men love to be with beautiful, young women. But what happens when a man gets old? Old men readily fall into the desperate self-abasement of courtly love. Acting chivalrously, wrongly understood, might make old men feel sexually alluring. Chivalrous behavior, however, rewards old men only with knightly fantasies. Men cannot have it all, just as everyone cannot be the richest man in the world.[1] Men can, however, choose different priorities for different stages of their lives.

Having the wrong priorities can lead a person to utter self-humiliation and abasement. Consider an old man begging the young beauty Focilla in fifteenth-century Italy:

Don’t take away those sexy eyes,
show pity on my old age.
Love all the young men, go flirt with them,
only, my girl, don’t spurn my years.
Give yourself to this one and that one,
just don’t deny me who loves you.
I don’t want sex and thrills;
I’ve given up sexual pleasure.
But I beg you for those sexy eyes.
Whenever you turn towards me with
those sexy eyes, laughing and weeping,
you give me back my youth.
I’d remove the garments of old age
if sweet you would thrice kiss me, Focilla,
if you’d draw my tongue into your tender mouth,
if you’d hang entwined about my neck.

{ Lascivos male temperas ocellos,
nec nostrae miseret tamen senectae.
Quantum vis iuvenes ama foveque,
dum ne me fugias senem, puella;
atque hos atque alios ames licebit,
dum ne me abicias, puella, amantem.
Nolo delicias libidinesque:
amisi venerem libidinemque,
lascivos oculos volo precorque.
Lascivos quotiens reflectis in me,
et rides simul et doles, ocellos,
inspiras iuvenis mihi vigorem;
quin omnem simul exuo senectam,
si ter blanda, Focilla, suaviaris,
si linguam tenero sub ore suggis,
si collo quoque complicata pendes. } [2]

That was an old man who should have studied the Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim. Women despise needy, clinging, desperate men. Stuck with such men, women will cuckold them. Men, be the best that you can be. Don’t be that man. A man can get better than Gillette, a little Gilote.

To have fuller lives, men and women should align their priorities to complement their age. Cleric-scholars in medieval Europe lamented their lack of bodily activity after choosing as young men to be students of Athena rather than students of Venus. They alternately might have arranged their lives like the fifteenth-century Italian Andreas Contrarius did his:

Thalia loved a youth whom now,
aged, is loved by bright Sophia.
Thalia taught the boy to sing,
old now, Sophia gives him wisdom.
The youth sang Thalia’s tunes;
the old man stores up Sophia’s wisdom.
O happy youth and happy old man,
Contrarius, o youth and blessed old man,
whom learned Muses taught as a boy,
now in grave old age Athens tutors
with a chaste heart and chaste habits!

{ Dilexit iuvenem Thalia, quem nunc
senem candida diligit Sophia;
monstravit iuveni Thalia cantum,
nunc seni sapientiam Sophia;
cantavit iuvenis modos Thaliae,
nunc senex sapientiam reponit:
o felix iuvenis senexque felix,
Contrari, o iuvenem, o senem beatum,
quem doctus puerum erudivit Aon,
nunc senem erudiunt graves Athenae,
casto pectore moribusque castis! } [3]

Thalia, which literally meaning flowering in ancient Greek, was one of the three Graces (Charites). She was also the Muse of light verse. Here she seems to represent primarily a singing courtesan learned in entertaining men, including having sex with them. As a young man, Contrarius may similarly have become learned in pleasing men. In any case, he didn’t as a young man waste his youthful beauty with his face to books or to a long-term career. Only as an old man did Contrarius become a student of Athena. He didn’t have it all at the same time. He prioritized different pursuits at different ages.

Men should seek women’s love when they are young men, for aging respects no one’s self-identification. A leading businesswoman has advised young women to sleep around when they’re young, and then late in their reproductive life, marry boring men who will reliably support their wives’ careers. Men usually don’t have a similar, gender-symmetric life opportunity. Yet men can adapt. Ovid as an old man turned away from seducing women to study of mathematics, astronomy, theology and other engaging subjects. Other men can similarly develop new interests in response to their changing circumstances.

White-haired Myron requested a night with Laïs,
and she refused him outright.
He understood the cause, and with soot
dyed his white head dark.
With the same face, but not the same hair as Myron,
he begged what he begged before.
But she, contrasting his features with his hair,
thinking him alike, but not the same
(maybe even the same, but wishing to enjoy a jest)
thus said to the crafty wooer:
“Awkward one, why ask me what I have refused?
I have already rejected your father.”

{ Canus rogabat Laidis noctem Myron:
tulit repulsam protinus
causamque sensit et caput fuligine
fucavit atra candidum.
Idemque vultu, crine non idem Myron,
orabat oratum prius.
Sed illa formam cum capillo comparans
similemque, non ipsum, rata,
(fortasse et ipsum, sed volens ludo frui)
sic est adorta callidum:
“Inepte, quid me, quod recusavi, rogas?
Patri negavi iam tuo.” } [4]

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[1] The question “Why can’t women have it all?” has long been a major topic of discussion in the U.S. No one can have it all. Gynocentric society keeps women in the dark about that banal reality in order to promote the anti-men resentment that helps to support gynocentrism.

[2] Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, “To Focilla {Ad Focillam},” Hendecasyllaborum sive Baiarum Libri Duo {Two Books of Hendecasyllables, or Baiae} 2.14, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Dennis (2006) pp. 124-5. For praise of Focilla’s eyes, Baiae 2.4 “The Eyes of the Young Women Focilla {De Focillae puella ocellis}.” Focilla’s name suggests “little brightness” or “little fireplace.” Id. p. 216. For a quite good Latin text of Pontano’s Baiae, freely available online, Oeschger (1948).

[3] Pontano, “About Andreas Contrarius {De Andrea Contrario},” Baiae 2.3, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Dennis (2006) pp. 100-1. Andreas Contrarius apparently was an actual person. He was born in Venice and after 1471 settled in Naples. Id. p. 215.

[4] Ausonius, Epigrams 38 (Kay 18), “On Myron who requested a night with Laïs {De Myrone qui Laidis Noctem rogaverat},” Latin text from White (1919) v. 2, p. 178, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Kay (2001) p. 114.

Myron of Eleutherae was a famous sculptor who lived in fifth-century BGC Athens. His bronze sculpture of a cow featured in many Greek and Latin epigrams. See e.g. Ausonius, Epigrams 68-75, and Squire (2010).

Laïs was a famous courtesan of fifth-century BGC Corinth. Ausonius described Laïs as being among “names of lascivious fame {lascivae nomina famae}” in Epigrams 39, “Of the opinion that his wife has of him {De opinione quam de illo habebat eius uxor}.” Ausonius also described Laïs lamenting her own old age in Epigrams 65, “On Laïs dedicating her mirror to Venus {De Laide dicante Veneri Speculum suum}.”

In early Arabic love poetry, Buthaynah taunted Jamīl about his hair having changed color with his old age. Jamīl responded with poignant, loving nostalgia.

[image] Portrait of an intense old man. Source photo thanks to aamiraimer on pixabay.


Dennis, Rodney G., ed. and trans. 2006. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Baiae. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G., ed. and trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1Vol. 2.

Kay, N. M., trans. 2001. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius, epigrams: text with introduction and commentary. London: Duckworth.

Oeschger, Johannes. 1948. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Carmina: Ecloghe, Elegie, Liriche. Bari: Laterza.

Squire Michael. 2010. “Making Myron’s cow moo? Ecphrastic epigram and the poetics of simulation.”  American Journal of Philology. 131 (4): 589-634.