women’s desire to be on top benefits guileful man selling goose

head and neck of a gooseIn early fifteenth-century Italy, a young peasant man was walking to Florence to sell a goose. The goose had a long, thick neck. A woman noticed him:

Considering herself to be witty, she for the sake of laughing asked the man how much he would make for the goose. He said to her, “What you would very easily yield.” “What’s that?” she asked.

{ quae sibi faceta videbatur, ridendi hominis gratia rogavit, quanti anserem faceret. At ille: “Quod facillime,” inquit, “persolvas.” “Quid est?” inquit mulier. }

Women generally are more socially sophisticated than men. With words or even just looks, women rule over men. But this peasant youth was destined to be different.

This peasant youth responded with the roguish manliness that actually makes men more attractive to women. He spoke only a few blunt words:

“One-time sex,” he said.

{ “Unico,” ait ille, “coitu.” }

The woman became intrigued and excited. With many words she denied her interest and advanced their affair with a show of reluctance:

“You are joking,” replied the wife. “But let’s go into my house and agree on a price.” They went into the house. When he remained steadfast in his will, the wife agreed to his price.

{ “Jocaris,” respondit mulier, “sed domum ingredere, et de pretio conveniemus.” Ingressus domum, cum perstaret in sententia, mulier pretio annuit. }

The wife was a woman who wanted to be on top. The youthful peasant with guile acquiesced:

But when with her in the top position they had finished sex and she requested the goose, he refused to give it over. He said that he had not taken her, but she was pressing down on him.

{ Verum cum superiores partes egisset, petito ansere, rusticus se negat daturum; non enim se mulierem subagitasse, sed se ab ea compressum dixit. }

Like many men in relation to public claims about gender inequality, the woman interpreted the situation superficially. The peasant youth understood gender more realistically. He appreciated the metaphorically disadvantaged position of men’s sexuality and used it to his advantage.

The peasant youth acted with interpersonal guile far superior to that of most men. He agreed to a reversal of gender positions:

Therefore they revived their bout, and the youth performed the service of rider. Again according to their agreement, the wife requested the goose. The youth refused, asserting that he was now equal with her. He had not received the price, but had removed the injury the wife had inflicted upon him in the earlier instance when she had subdued him.

{ Igitur, redintegrata pugna, munere sessoris fungitur adolescens. Iterum ex conventu mulier cum anserem postulasset, renuit adolescens, pari ratione se cum illa esse asserens; non enim se pretium accepisse, sed repulisse injuriam illatam; nam se prius a muliere subactum. }

In short, the man insisted on reparations for the sexual injury that the wife had inflicted upon him, as sexual injury is commonly defined in gynocentric society. That’s a crafty start to men receiving adequate compensation for their erection labor.

Usually the cuckold intervenes to support his woman. Yet in this extraordinary case, the husband, who probably endured his wife being on top, took the side of the peasant youth. The wife had denied the validity of the peasant’s claim for equality over time and reparations:

After their wrangling had gone on for a long time, the husband came in and sought to know what all the controversy was about. “I desired,” said his wife, “to prepare a well-furnished dinner for you, but this cursed one has impeded me. We agreed upon twenty soldi. Now that he has entered the house, he has changed his mind, and demands two more.” “Eh,” says the husband, “that such a small matter should impede our dinner! Come in,” he said, “here is that which is pleasing.” Thus the peasant left with the price and having had sex with the wife.

{ Cum longior progrederetur contentio, superveniens vir sciscitatur, quaenam haec sit controversia: “Cupiebam,” inquit uxor, “tibi coenam opiparam parare, nisi hic maledictus impediret: convenerat enim mecum in viginti solidis; nunc, postquam introiit domum, mutata est sententia, duos amplius requirit.” – “Eia,” inquit vir, “tam parva res impedit coenam nostram! Accipe,” inquit, “quodlibet.” Ita rusticus pretium abstulit et concubitum uxoris. }

Since the peasant youth had sex with another man’s wife, he didn’t even run the risk of forced financial fatherhood. This peasant youth was far more knowledgeable about the ways of the world than many men who undergo many years of higher education today.

Men are overwhelmingly below women in society. If men are ever to escape from the bottom, they must learn how to deal with women’s desire to be on top and the metaphorically disadvantaged status of men’s sexuality.

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The above story and quotes are from Poggio, Facetiae 69, “Of a peasant man who had a goose for sale {De rustico qui anserem venalem deferebat},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 1, pp. 111-3, my English translation. Here’s the Latin text in a machine-readable form.

[image] Head and neck of a goose. From image released under CCO Creative Commons license thanks to AnnaER and pixabay.


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).

resurrection: overcoming the poetic problem with penises & erections

resurrection (Limoges enamel)

While men’s status is scarcely an issue of contemporary public concern, men’s impotence has catastrophic long-term effects on society. Men commonly feel anxiety about their bodily endowment and struggle with their burden of performance. Men understand, at least sub-consciously, that their sexuality supports powerful social forces of gender oppression. That’s particularly true with regard to the vastly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men — that “gender protrusion” almost wholly ignored in the public media of gynocentric society.

Men’s sexual problems have an important poetic component. Superficial metaphorical thinking figures the erect penis as a weapon and colors men’s sexuality with violence. However, Abu Nuwas, an eighth-century Arabic poet commonly regarded as among the greatest classical Arabic poets, pushed forward poetry associating the penis and resurrection. Abu Nuwas’s poetry offers a vital resource for promoting social justice and bringing more joy to the lives of men and women today. As Abu Nuwas recognized, a man’s erection should be appreciated with hope for resurrection.

In literature around the world and throughout history, the penis is dominantly figured as a weapon: a sword, cudgel, or club. The idea of love as war is common in world literature.[1] Yet for gross, formal reasons, men’s genitals are figured as weapons while women’s aren’t. A perceptive scholar noted that the penis-sword metaphor is “common to virtually all cultures.” Such a figure can be found in the fifth-century BGC Greek comedy of Aristophanes and in second-century BGC Latin drama of Plautus.[2] Classical Arabic literature associated the penis’s sexual exploits with raiding and battles. In today’s English, the impressively functional “fuck” means both to do someone harm (“screw” the person) and to have sex. That corresponds to the metaphorical space of penal-penis action.

Poetry affirming the generous, sacrificial work of men’s penises has relatively little cultural salience. The beautiful and learned sixth-century poetry of Maximianus’s Greek girl is now largely unknown. Medieval Latin literature described the penis as a peacemaker and a husband’s sexual obligation to his wife as a matter of preserving her life. But major news sources now report as true mendacious statistics about husbands raping their wives. Men’s sexuality is now criminalized in ways that make the early-twentieth-century Mann Act seem almost gender-neutral in comparison. Classical Arabic poetry analogized a impotent penis to loss of mind-enriching resources:

So thin of grip, it is as if my penis were a sack emptied of books [3]

Penises have seminal value for new life like books do for new ideas. But few persons read books today. More powerful poetic resources are urgently needed to affirm the value of men’s penises.

Abu Nuwas offers a subtle poetic answer to the hurtful, violent figures of men’s erect penises. Unlike today’s prevalent literature of women writing sympathetically about themselves and men writing dutifully to please women, Abu Nuwas wrote with utter disregard for social orthodoxy:

I rose up and made for him, swaggering and erect, having prepared my ram for butting. When I had fixed the lance in him, he awoke, like one prostrated by wounds. [4]

Raping a man is wrong. But Abu Nuwas is doing more in this line than just describing another deplorable incident of violence against men. After Abu Nuwas’s penis penetrated the man, that victim “awoke, like one prostrated by wounds.” That’s a preternatural conjoining of returning to conscious life with falling toward death in battle. In another poem, a man who was an Islamic scholar, an ascetic, and an expert doctor advised Abu Nuwas:

Make peace with them and retaliate on their children, if you have a grudge against the unbelievers!
And stab with your lance the belly of this girl or the back of that boy: that is proper jihad! How excellent is the final Home! [5]

The concluding ejaculation, “How excellent is the final Home!” is a quote from the Qur’an. Abu Nuwas has for children conjoined the blissful ultimate end of Islam with being stabbed by an erect penis. With its conjunctions, Abu Nuwas’s poetry subverts the figure of the penis as weapon and connects an erection with resurrection.

Erection and resurrection is even more explicit in another of Abu Nuwas’s poems. This poem associates a battle with symposiastic revel:

When the Father of War deploys his horsemen for war
and death’s banner has passed before the Sheikh as a signal
and the battle reaches maturity and is ignited with fires ablaze,
we ignite our combat as dalliance with those whom we love and who love us,
and the heat of the engagement bares its teeth in a snarl.
We make our hands into bows, and lilies into arrows
and send ahead, in place of standard and spear, sweet basil.
Then our battle reverts to friendship and we become comrades once again
of youths who deem dying in pleasure a sacrifice. [6]

War and love are thoroughly mixed in these lines. The third-personal narrative of the first three lines has abstract, allusive actors ceremonially staging a battle. The fourth line links a second-personal collective of older men to combat in love with youths. The men attack the youths by pretending to shoot them with Cupid’s bow, by throwing flowers at them, and offering them sweet basil, a delicacy then consumed with wine. The reference to “youths who deem dying in pleasure a sacrifice” raises the poem to its initial abstract allusiveness. What sort of sacrifice was it for the youths to die in love — to die from being penetrated by the men’s penises? The poem drops back to narrative details of the love-combat:

When they beat the drum we strum lutes
and draw up squadrons of carnations, all colors —
the stones of our siege-engines are the apples of Lebanon
and the cause of our war is a cup-bearer who has taken captive a wine and gives us it to drink,
urging on the goblet so that the next cup can overtake the first.
You can see this one felled, laid low, and that one flaccid, drunk.
This war is not a war which engulfs people in enmity;
in it we kill them and then resurrect our victims. [7]

The final line relates the youth’s sacrifice of dying in pleasure to the men’s ability to resurrect their victims. The youth’s sacrifice of dying in pleasure is the men’s detumescence. The men’s power to resurrect their victims means their power to resurrect their erections. That’s how the penis functions within the reciprocity of “those whom we love and who love us.”

Classical Arabic poetry may have drawn upon the Hebrew Bible in relating erection and resurrection. The Book of Isaiah, widely revered as beautiful, divinely inspired prophetic poetry, declares:

Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth to those long dead.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. [8]

Classical Arabic poetry lamenting men’s impotence offers a sad counterpoint:

O cock, wake up! The young gazelle has taken off its clothes!
How shall I excuse myself now that you lie together skin to skin!
Messages about incited cocks are revealed at encounters.
O you heavy-headed one that slumbers all night and all day,
using the skin of its testicles as a wrapper against the cold!
O you who won’t move at all to benefit its awakener! [9]

Resurrection is central to the faith and hope of many men and women of different beliefs around the world. Unfortunately, belief that Mary as a virgin gave birth to Jesus has confused many Christians. Such an event would be pointless without men’s erections. Men’s erections have carried forward the promise of eternal life. When you think of penises and erections, think of profound love and hope for resurrection.

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[1] Papoutsakis (2014) p. 110, with references to relevant ancient Greek and Latin literature in n. 30. For sexual exploits presented as raids and battles in classical Arabic literature, id. pp. 108-12 and Schippers and Mattock (1986). Sexual super-heroes are also depicted less allusively in Arabic literature.

[2] Shanzer (1983) p. 184. In the sixth-century BGC Greek poetry of Hipponax, a man’s penis is beaten as a scapegoat.

[3] Abū Ḥukayma, Dīwān no. 33, p. 107, from Arabic trans. Papoutsakis (2014) p. 107. The references to Abū Ḥukayma’s Dīwān are to the third revised edition of Aʿrajī (Köln / Baghdad, 2007).

[4] Abu Nuwas, poem 170, ll. 3-4 in edition of al-Gazālī (Cairo, 1953), from Arabic trans. Mattock (1987) p. 532 (which also supplies the transliterated Arabic). For an English translation of the full poem, Caswell (2015) pp. 69-70. For the verses quoted above, Caswell has:

I then stirred and rose proud as a peacock
Having prepared my ram for butting
He woke up with a start as I speared him

Id. p. 70. Mattock’s translation seems to me to be closer to the Arabic, yet readily understandable. Caswell’s translation misses some of the subtleties of the poetry. Caswell’s work, however, has the great merit of making a large amount of Abu Nuwas’s poetry available in English.

Interpreting Abu Nuwas’s poetry biographically and writing up rape charges against him, as literary scholars now commonly do for men literary characters throughout history, tends to be a mind-numbing exercise. In this poem, Abu Nuwas reports that the victim got him drunk. If a woman gets a man drunk and then has sex with him, she should be regarded as a rapist under gender-neutral application of criminal law. Yet victimizing men in this way has to avoid making men unable to fulfill their performance burden. A scholar has appropriately questioned Abu Nuwas’s account of committing rape:

In the sexual episodes, one would imagine that the victim’s being asleep would detract considerably from the performer’s enjoyment; one would also imagine that the amount of drink consumed beforehand would, in fact, in view of its notoriously anaphrodisiacal qualities, seriously inhibit any such performance.

Mattock (1987) p. 537.

Poets’ actual lives do inform their understanding and their poetry. With respect to Abu Nuwas, Montgomery presented “the poet as impotent tee-totaller (the [distorted] Mattock hypothesis).” Montgomery strongly rejected that hypothesis in his interpretive approach to Abu Nuwas. Montgomery (1998) p. 19 and passim. Between believing that Abu Nuwas was an impotent tee-totaller and charging him with rape is a broad space for enriching literary engagement.

[5] Abu Nuwas, Dīwān 5:211, ll. 15-6 (mujūnīya §211) (ed. Wagner), from Arabic trans. Geert Jan van Gelder. As van Gelder observed, the last phrase above quotes Qur’an 13:24 in the English translation of Yusuf Ali. For l. 16, Lyons has:

Pierce with your spear the bellies of the females and the back of the males: this is jihad; how good will be your future dwelling place.

Lyons (1999) p. 183. Lyons’s translation misses the Qur’anic context of the last phrase and interpolates a possessive pronoun (“your future dwelling place”) that associates that dwelling place with the destination of the person with the spear / penis (“Pierce with your spear”). That confuses Abu Nuwas’s subtle imagery of erection and resurrection.

Caswell provides a looser translation of the whole poem. The poem clearly includes parody. It ends:

I said: “…what else would you advise
A bachelor, stranger, newly arrived in town?”
He said: “Commit adultery with your neighbor’s wife
Then sodomise his son!”

Caswell (2015) p. 144. Just as for the brilliant classical Arabic litterateur al-Jahiz, Abu Nuwas’s outrageousness is mixed with deep seriousness.

[6] Abu Nuwas, Dīwān 5:168.16-169.16 (mujūnīya §167) (ed. Wagner), from Arabic. trans. Montgomery (2011) p. 132 (adapted slightly). The subsequent quote is similarly from id. Montgomery (1998) pp. 22-3 provides a slightly different English translation. Caswell (2015), p. 292, provides a relatively loose, easily readable translation. Other English translations of some lines are Lyons (1999) p. 183, n. 1, and Meisami (2010) pp. 42-3.

Sweet basil is a figure of pleasure in classical Arabic poetry. A seventh-century wine poem of al-A’sha states:

I have gone to the tavern in the morning,
with a bold, brazen, bawdy butcher in my tracks. . .
Reclining I have outdone my rivals for a
sprig of sweet-basil and a dry wine from a moist jug.

From Arabic trans. Galvin (2002). Al-Shanfarā in The Ta’iyya of al-Shanfarā (Mufaḍḍaliyya no. 20) wrote of the narrator and his lover:

We passed the night as though the tent above us was enclosed with sweet basil that had been touched by the evening breeze and the dew.

From Arabic trans. Xie (2016) p. 40. The famous and poignant Lāmiyyāt ‘al-Arab is commonly attributed to al-Shanfarā.

Abu Nuwas rejected the figure of the hero in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. In one poem Abu Nuwas declared:

better than standing on a battlefield and riding horses while shouting halā and hab is the cry of the wine-server to one who keeps a glass in hand.

Abu Nuwas, Dīwān 162.7 in ed. al-Gazālī (Cairo, 1953), from Arabic trans. Lyons (1999) p. 181 (adapted insubstantially for readability).

[7] In translations of this poem, the terms “carnations” and “siege-engines” above are typically “gillyflowers” and “mangonels.” I’ve used the former terms to help ordinary readers at little apparent poetic cost. Montgomery earlier translated the third-to-last line as:

Then you will see this one felled and that one screwing another who’s drunk.

Montgomery (1998) p. 23. Translating classical Arabic is difficult and requires much scholarly study. Moreover, establishing the original-language text that is the best possible representation of what the author actually wrote more than a millennium ago requires arduous scholarly work. Recent academic fashions have regrettably devalued that important work.

[8] Isaiah 26:19, 60:1. Cf. Ephesians 5:44:

Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead
and Christ will shine on you.

[9] Abū Ḥukayma, Dīwān no. 9, pp. 61-3, ll. 1-6, from Arabic trans. Papoutsakis (2014) p. 111 (adapted slightly). Id. (which provide the whole poem in translation) notes that this poem “was obviously well-liked by Ibn al-Muʻtazz who quoted it in his note on Abū Ḥukayma in the Tabaqāt.”

[image] Three saints rising from the dead. Limoges enamel, made c. 1250. Along the sides of the enamel is pseudo-Arabic Kufic script. Preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, item M.104-1945. Image thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen and Wikimedia Commons.


Caswell, F. Matthew, trans. 2015. The khamriyyat of Abū Nuwās: Medieval Bacchic Poetry. Kibworth Beauchamp: Matador.

Galvin, Rachel. 2002. “Of Poets, Prophets, and Politics.” Humanities: the Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. 23(1).

Lyons, M. C. 1999. Identification and identity in classical Arabic poetry. Gibb Literary Studies 2. Warminster, Wiltshire: Aris & Phillips.

Mattock, John N. 1987. “Description and Genre in Abū Nuwās.” Quaderni Di Studi Arabi. 5/6: 528-540.

Meisami, Julie Scott. 2010. Structure and meaning in medieval Arabic and Persian poetry Orient pearls. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Montgomery, James E. 1998. “Abū Nuwās the Alcoholic.” Pp. 15-26 in Vermeulen, Urbain, and D. De Smet, eds. Philosophy and arts in the Islamic world: proceedings of the eighteenth congress of the Union Européenne des Arabisants et Islamisants held at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (September 3-September 9, 1996). Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters.

Montgomery, James E. 2011. “Abū Nuwās, The Justified Sinner?” Oriens. 39 (1): 75-164.

Papoutsakis, Nefeli. 2014. “The Ayrīyāt of Abū Ḥukayma (d. 240/854): a preliminary study.” Ch. 6 (pp. 101-122) in Talib, Adam, Hammond, Marlé and Schippers, Arie, eds. 2014. The Rude, the Bad and the Bawdy: Essays in honour of Professor Geert Jan van Gelder. Warminster: Gibb Memorial Trust.

Shanzer, Danuta. 1983. “Ennodius, Boethius, and the date and interpretation of Maximianus’s Elegia III.” Rivista di filologia e di istruzione classica 111: 183-195.

Schippers, Arie, and John Mattock. 1986. “Love and War: a Poem of Ibn Khafājah.” Journal of Arabic Literature. 17 (1): 50-67.

Xie, Wei. 2016. Love in Pre-Islamic poetry and Shijing. Master of Arts Thesis. University of Virginia.

Boethius’s wife Rusticiana sought to bring him true happiness

diptych of Boethius's father

“But you say you desire to hear more: with what desire you would burn if you knew where I will lead you!”

“Where?” I asked.

“To true happiness,” she said, “of which your spirit dreams, but you cannot actually see because your sight is too occupied with images.”

{ Sed quod tu te audiendi cupidum dicis, quanto ardore flagrares, si quonam te ducere aggrediamur agnosceres!”

“Quonam?” inquam.

“Ad veram,” inquit, “felicitatem, quam tuus quoque somniat animus, sed occupato ad imagines visu ipsam illam non potest intueri.” } [1]

The great sixth-century scholar, statesman, and theologian Boethius and his eminent wife Rusticiana had marital difficulties. They married when Boethius was young. Sometime before his late forties, Boethius had become known as a philanderer — the sort of husband who would have in his bedroom whorish actresses. Rusticiana came from a wealthy, powerful Roman Christian family. She surely wasn’t constrained to endure an unfaithful husband. But she was strong and highly intelligent, and she truly loved Boethius. When Boethius was imprisoned and facing a death sentence, Rusticiana presented to him the false consolation of philosophy and recalled him to the eternal present of their love.

Rusticiana was probably Boethius’s first love. Boethius, like Rusticiana, came from a wealthy, powerful Roman Christian family. Boethius’s father had been the sole consul for the western Roman Empire, and he served successively as the powerful praetorian and urban prefect of Rome. He died when Boethius was young. The eminent Roman Symmachus, most likely a close friend of Boethius’s father, adopted him. Symmachus was highly learned. He knew Greek and wrote seven volumes of Roman history. Symmachus probably taught his daughter Rusticiana along with Boethius. Boethius married his foster-father’s daughter Rusticiana in 495. Most authorities date Boethius’s birth between 475 and 477; others place his birth about 480.[2] Boethius thus married Rusticiana, which whom he had lived closely for some years, when he was between fifteen and twenty years old.

Boethius subsequently acquired the reputation of a philanderer. Magnus Felix Ennodius, who was only a few years older than Boethius, wrote of Boethius:

In your hands the substance of a rigid sword droops,
even steel dissolves like flowing water.
The unwarlike right hand of Boethius renders swords soft:
what was recently a weapon is now, believe me, a spindle.
Vile one, the javelin you carry turns into a thyrsus.
Outstanding in the pursuit of sexual affairs, leave war’s tools to others.

{ Languescit rigidi tecum substantia ferri,
Solvitur atque chalybs more fluentis aquae.
Emollit gladios inbellis dextra Boeti,
Ensis erat dudum, credite, nunc colus est.
In thyrsum migrat quad gestas, inprobe, pilum.
In Venerem constans, linque Mavortis opem. } [3]

This epigram characterizes Boethius as impotent in violence against men, but blessed in pursuing sex with women. Writing in the mid-sixth century, Maximianus depicted Boethius as urging illicit sex and paying a girl’s mother to promote an affair.[4] Boethius apparently didn’t regard his wife’s love as sufficient for him.

Imprisoned in his late forties and facing a death sentence for treason, Boethius despaired for what he had done with his life. A personification of philosophy appeared to him and spoke with him. This personification of philosophy wasn’t merely a grammatically gendered abstraction. She sang sweetly to him, caressed his breast, and dried his tears. She had a majestic face and towering height, and conversed with Boethius intelligently and learnedly. She also had woven her own dress. She was an outstanding woman by the standards of Roman times. In Boethius’s intricate, sophisticated literary construction, Lady Philosophy was Boethius’s wife Rusticiana.[5]

Lady Philosophy recalled the imprisoned Boethius to his marital love with Rusticiana. She reminded Boethius of her love for him, and his love for her:

Your wife lives, a woman excelling in modesty and propriety and — to sum up all her gifts in one phrase — in character like her father. She lives, I say, and goes on living though she detests this life and goes on living only for you. I must admit that in this alone is your happiness lessened — that she is wasting away in tears in her grievous longing for you.

{ Vivit uxor ingenio modesta, pudicitia pudore praecellens et, ut omnes eius dotes breviter includam, patri similis. Vivit inquam tibique tantum vitae huius exosa spiritum servat quoque uno felicitatem minui tuam vel ipsa concesserim, tui desiderio lacrimis ac dolore tabescit } [6]

Lady Philosophy led Boethius to understand that wealth, honor, and political power are relatively unimportant. More subtly, she also demonstrated that philosophy is merely a game of the mind.[7] She reminded Boethius that he was a man. She implored him to act rightly. She sought to bring him home to the eternal present of life with her.

To you this tale refers,
who seek to lead your mind
into the upper day.
For if he who overcomes should turn back his gaze
towards the Tartarean cave,
whatever excellence he takes with him,
he loses when he looks on those below.

{ Vos haec fabula respicit
Quicumque in superum diem
Mentem ducere quaeritis.
Nam qui Tartareum in specus
Victus lumina flexerit,
Quidquid praecipuum trahit
Perdit, dum videt inferos. } [8]

Boethius and Rusticiana (Lady Philosophy)

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[1] Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy {De consolatione philosophiae} 3.1P.15-20, Latin text and English translation (adapted non-substantially) from Stewart, Rand & Tester (1973). All subsequent quotes from The Consolation of Philosophy are similarly from id. Freely available online is a Latin text (via James O’Donnell) and English translations of H.R. James (1897), Walter John Sedgefield (1900), W.V. Cooper (1902), and H. F. Stewart (LCL, 1918).

[2] On Boethius biography (including marriage in 495 and birth “between 475 and 477”), Martyn (2006) p. 3. On Boethius’s birth year, similarly the Boethius entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Cf. Hodgkin (1885) p. 522, James J. O’Donnell’s life of Boethius and MacTutor History of Mathematics entry for Boethius, all of which place his birth year about 480.

Boethius’s full name was Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. That name indicated a prestigious lineage:

his name Anicius indicated a real and genuine connection with one of the noblest families of the Lower Empire {Eastern Roman Empire}. Manlius was meant to carry back his lineage to the Manlii Torquati of the {Roman} Republic; but here the connection was probably of that vague and shadowy kind which is met with in manufactured genealogies. Severinus was no doubt given to him in honor of one of the holiest names of the fifth century, the saintly hermit of Noricum.

Hodgkin (1885) pp. 522-3. The Anicius family include Olybrius, the leader of the Western Roman Empire in 472. Boethius’s father, Nar. Manlius Boethius, served as consul in 487. Boethius’s foster-father, Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, was consul in 485.

[3] Magnus Felix Ennodius, Epigrams 2, entitled On Boethius’s Broadsword Being Sheathed {De Boetio spata cincto}, Latin text and English translation from Shanzer (1983) p. 183. Juster (2018), p. 91, provides an alternate, less literal translation. With expressive freedom that would scarcely be tolerated today, Ennodius

wrote homophobic epigrams, graphic abuse of the failing and post-menopausal physiology of an old woman who wants to marry a young man and epigrammtic slurs on the sexual dissolution of his friend, the great Boethius.

Id. p. 182.

Ennodius, who was ordained a deacon about 493 and became Bishop of Pavia in 514, in 510 sought from his friend Boethius the donation of a neglected house to the Church. Boethius was extremely wealthy and had no need of the house. He apparently promised to donate it, but never did. Kennell (2001) pp. 108-10. Learned, faith-filled, and fully human men, both Ennodius and Boethius are recognized as saints in the Roman Catholic Church.

[4] Maximianus, Elegies 3. Juster (2018) provides the Latin text and an English translation. Maximianus’s portrayal of Boethius is highly literary. Shanzer constructs life stories consistent with Maximianus’s characterization:

I would suggest that Boethius was chosen by Maximianus because of the way the details of his life counterbalance those of the poet. Boethius had a reputation for lasciviousness in youth (Ennodius), he was a poet, up to a point he was a political success story, and in his senectus {old age} he wrote an important philosophical and literary work which demonstrated a change of heart from the ways of his youth, and he came to a quasi-saintly end as a political martyr.

Shanzer (1983) p. 194. When he was probably 20 or younger, Boethius married his foster-father’s daughter Rusticiana. Those aren’t likely circumstances for having a youthful reputation for being lascivious. Moreover, Boethius married in 495, and Ennodius sought the donation of a house from him in 510. Ennodius plausibly wrote his biting epigram after 510 in relation to Boethius’s relatively recently established sexual reputation. The Boethius in Maximianus’s Elegies 3 seems to me to parody the depiction of Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy. That parody having an element of public reputation gives it heightened piquancy.

[5] Rusticiana seems to have been a strong, independent woman. She was Symmachus’s oldest daughter among his three children, all girls. Marriage to Boethius probably wasn’t a vocation imposed on Rusticiana. Her two sisters, Proba and Galla, became nuns. Martyn (2006) p. 4, n. 9. Rusticiana survived for about twenty-five years after the deaths of her husband Boethius and her father Symmachus. The Goths regarded Rusticiana as an important public actor even after she had been widowed for decades:

Boethius’ wife was living in Rome in 546 when the Goths captured it. They believed that Rusticiana had destroyed Theoderic’s statues in revenge for the deaths of her husband and father on the king’s orders, and were about to kill her when the new king, Totila, appeared and saved her life.

Id. p. 4. Although born into a life of extraordinary privilege, Rusticiana was capable of enduring extraordinary hardship:

for several months, this once wealthy and generous lady had to beg for bread in Rome just to survive. Her death occurred several years later, its date unknown.

Id. Rusticiana died more than fifty years after marrying Boethius. She, like Boethius, undoubtedly married young.

Written evidence testifies to the stature of Rusticiana’s granddaughter, also named Rusticiana. She was a close friend of Pope Gregory I. He wrote more letters to her (seven) than to the Brunhilde, Queen of the Franks, and more to her than to most other men. Id. p. 5. The Pope addressed Rusticiana as “your Excellence {excellentia vestra},” inquired about her travels, prayed for her health, worried about enemies’ attacks on her, urged her to visit him, and greeted her children. See Epistolae, entry for Rusticiana. The leading scholar of Boethius’s family has no doubt that this Rusticiana was Boethius’s granddaughter. Martyn (2006) pp 4-9. Boethius’s wife Rusticiana almost surely was a woman of similar stature.

[6] Consolation of Philosophy 2.4P.18-24.

[7] Boethius achieved considerable power and honor. He was named consul in 510. His two sons together served as consul in 522. While he was imprisoned and facing execution, Lady Philosophy painfully reminded Boethius of his public success:

If genuine happiness ever comes from the affairs of mortals, could the weight of any crowding ills, however great, obliterate the memory of that glory you experienced when you saw your two sons borne from your house together as consuls, in the crowd of Senators and the throng of the rejoicing populace? Or when you delivered the panegyric in praise of the king with them sitting in the curule chairs in the Senate House, and deserved well the praise you received for your splendid oratory? Or when between the two of them as consuls in the assembly you satisfied, with the largesse proper to a triumphal occasion, the hopes and expectations of the multitude crowding around you?

{ Si quis rerum mortalium fructus ullum beatitudinis pondus habet, poteritne illius memoria lucis quantalibet ingruentium malorum mole deleri, cum duos pariter consules liberos tuos domo provehi sub frequentia patrum, sub plebis 30 alacritate vidisti, cum eisdem in curia curules insidentibus tu regiae laudis orator ingenii gloriam facundiaeque meruisti, cum in circo duorum medius consulum circumfusae multitudinis expectationem triumphali largitione satiasti? }

Consolation of Philosophy 2.3P.25-36. That public acclaim didn’t prevent Boethius from being imprisoned and executed, without a trial, on a dubious charge of treason. Boethius’s foster-father Symmachus was similarly executed about a year later.

Boethius aspired to translate all the works of Plato and Aristotle, write commentaries on them, and harmonize them. Among Boethius’s many scholarly works, he wrote translations and commentaries on Aristotle’s In Categorias, De Interpretatione, and Analytica Priora. Boethius never completed his impossible goal of encompassing all of Aristotle and Plato’s works. Lady Philosophy treats philosophical learning with subtly parody. She shows that philosophy as merely a matter of the mind ultimately leads to involuted nonsense. See Consolation of Philosophy, Book 5.

[8] Consolation of Philosophy 3.12V.52-8 (from Boethius’s retelling of the story of Orpheus’s love for his wife Eurydice). Scholars have misinterpreted this story as an allegory for Boethius’s pursuit of the life of the mind. It’s better understood as Rusticiana’s sophisticated disparagement of Boethius’s love for other women.

[images] (1) The consular diptych of Nar. Manlius Boetius, father of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. Made about 487 GC. Preserved in Santa Giulia Museum (Brescia, Italy). Image by Giovanni Dall’Orto, June 25 2011. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Lady Philosophy (Rusticiana) and Boethius. Painting: tempera colors, gold leaf, gold paint, and ink on parchment, by Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?) (French, active about 1450 – 1485). Miniature excerpt from Boethius, Consolation de philosophie (Ms. 42 in the J. Paul Getty Library; manuscript dated about 1460 – 1470). Image thanks to The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.


Hodgkin, Thomas. 1885. Italy and her invaders 476-535. Vol. 3. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Juster, A. M., ed. and trans, with introduction by Michael Roberts. 2018. The Elegies of Maximianus. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. (review)

Kennell, S. A. H. 2000. Magnus Felix Ennodius: a gentleman of the Church. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Martyn, John R. C. 2006. “A New Family Tree for Boethius.” Parergon. 23 (1): 1-9.

Shanzer, Danuta. 1983. “Ennodius, Boethius, and the date and interpretation of Maximianus’s Elegia III.” Rivista di filologia e di istruzione classica 111: 183-195.

Stewart, H. F., E. K. Rand, S. J. Tester, ed. and trans. 1973. Boethius. Theological Tractates. The Consolation of Philosophy. Loeb Classical Library 74. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Maximianus’s Greek girl mourned men’s complacent impotence

I blushed, I froze. Since shame then made me lose my mind
and panic cut off the alluring task,

she started fondling my burning prick by hand
and she aroused me with her fingers too.

Even the strokes of passion did not help my numbness;
frost stayed within the hearth, as in the past.

“What bitch has stolen you from me?” she said, “From whose
grasp do you come back tired to my arms?”

{ erubui stupui quia tunc verecundia mentem
abstulit et blandum terror ademit opus

contrectare manu coepit flagrantia membra
meque etiam digitis sollicitare suis

nil mihi torpenti vel tactus profuit ignis
perstitit in medio frigus ut ante foco

quae te crudelis rapuit mihi femina dixit
cuius ab amplexu fessus ad arma redis } [1]

ancient Roman relief showing erect penis

Many men today complacently accept their impotence. So too did Maximianus living within the half-dead, sixth-century Roman Empire. A. M. Juster’s recently released translation of Maximianus’s elegies provides a poignant, poetic resource for pondering aging in men and men’s impotence. Within this book unfolds a soul-warming hero: a beautiful, young Greek girl who is crafty, worldly, and learned. She strongly rejects Maximianus’s sexual self-contempt and sings wisely and beautifully in praise of a potent penis.

Maximianus’s elegies fundamentally concern failure in relationships between women and men. In his first elegy, Maximianus recounts that, as a young man, all the girls of Rome desired him:

I would proceed through central Rome, its flesh for sale,
examined everywhere by all the girls,

and a young girl who could be sought, or had been sought
perhaps, when glimpsed would blush at my expression,

and, barely smiling, looked for hideouts — wishing, though,
that her coquettishness not fully hide her.

She wished instead for part of her to be revealed;
she cheered up when she was more badly hidden.

{ ibam per mediam venali corpore romam
spectandus cunctis undique uirginibus

quaeque peti poterat fuerat vel forte petita
erubuit vultum visa puella meum

et modo subridens latebras fugitiva petebat
non tamen effugiens tota latere volens

sed magis ex aliqua cupiebat parte videri
laetior hoc potius quod male tecta fuit }

Juster’s translation expresses the subtle reflectivity of the Latin poetry. Maximianus, walking among streetwalkers, found himself subject to the female gaze. The streetwalkers blushed in modesty as Maximianus immodestly radiated male sexuality. They sought to pretend to cover themselves while flirting with him. The end is unhappy: Maximianus sought a woman of inhuman perfection, and never found one.

Maximianus’s poetry is similar to the psalms. Like line-pairs in the psalms, couplets in Maximianus typically convey a complete unit of sense, and subject matter and tone vary widely and disjunctively across couplets. In Hebrew poetry, the second line of a couplet often echoes or modifies the first line. The poetry of Maximianus works similarly. Consider again the couplet:

She wished instead for part of her to be revealed;
she cheered up when she was more badly hidden.

{ sed magis ex aliqua cupiebat parte videri
laetior hoc potius quod male tecta fuit }

The second line of the couplet restates the sense of the first line, adding an oblique contrast of good and bad (being happy / “cheered up” versus being “badly hidden”). Juster’s translation makes Maximianus’s poetry as accessible and attractive as widely read English translations of the psalms.

Maximianus’s elegies cover a wide range of failures in heterosexual relationships. In his second elegy, Maximianus mourns being rejected by his long-term lover Lycoris. Unlike he, she retained her sexual self-confidence despite her grey hair. Maximianus and his girlfriend Aquilina discover in the third elegy that forbidden love is sweeter, and that love without difficulties can quickly transform into passionate hate. In the fourth elegy, Maximianus falls in love with the singing and dancing girl Candida. But social contempt for men’s sexuality, particularly for older men desiring young, beautiful women, destroys any prospects for a relationship. The fifth elegy explores Maximianus’s impotence and presents the Greek girl hero.[2]

The Greek girl of Maximainus’s fifth elegy is an extraordinary character. Beautiful, bright-eyed and apparently highly intelligent, she recognized the injustice of men’s gender-burden of soliciting amorous relationships. She pursued Maximianus as men were required to pursue women in Roman love elegy:

Outside my windows she remained on watch all night —
in soft tones sweetly singing something Greek.

Her tears, groans, sighs and pallor were now coming —
and things that you would think no one could fake,

{ pervigil ad nostras astabat nocte fenestras
nescio quid Graeco murmure dulce canens

nunc aderant lacrimae, gemitus suspiria pallor
et quicquid nullum fingere posse putes }

The Greek girl praised the penis with elegant poetry that comes through wonderfully in Juster’s translation:

You often were inclined to help me while aroused
and tease me for my spirit’s sultriness.

You were my dearest guardian all through the night,
and partner in my happiness and sadness,

always most trustworthy when privy to our secrets,
standing tall on watch in private rites.

Your power stuns, your patience stuns, you love the conquered;
you love to win and being won again.

You gather strength and spirits as you lie down beaten,
and like to win once more, then being won.

{ tu mihi flagranti succurrere saepe solebas
atque aestus animi ludificare mei

tu mihi per totam custos gratissima noctem
consors laetitiae tristitiaeque meae

conscia secreti semper fidissima nostri
astans internis pervigil obsequiis

mira tibi virtus mira est patientia victos
diligis et vinci tu quoque saepe voles

cum superata iaces vires animosque resumis
atque iterum vinci vincere rursus amas }

The narrative voice of Maximianus complacently accepted his impotence simply as an aspect of old age. He cynically referred to the Greek girl as deceptive and shallowly lustful. She understood the situation much more deeply than he. In the last two of her couplets above, Juster has conveyed the polyptoton of the Latin victos … vinci … vinci vincere with the English “win … won … win … won.” His pun “won” / “one” helps to convey the enveloping structure of the couplets and of sexual intercourse, while his pun “then” / “than” provides an alternate portrayal of male sexual psychology. Set in contrast to the intricately patterned surface of her poetry, the Greek girl perceptively recognized that men’s impotence signifies “universal chaos {generale chaos}” resulting from men’s lack of self-confidence.[3]

Like Maximianus’s Greek girl, the highly sophisticated classical Arabic world recognized men’s impotence to be catastrophic. From no later than the first half of the eighth century, classical Arabic men poets wrote poems about their impotent penises.[4] Abū Ḥukayma, an Abbasid government bureaucrat and non-professional poet of the ninth century, wrote about forty poems about his penis’s impotence. Like Maximianus’s Greek girl did, Abū Ḥukayma both praised the penis and lamented impotence:

When every cock’s valor is lauded, my cock’s cowardice refuses to let it be praised.
At a league’s distance it flees wary of the army; how much more when the army draws near!
It behaves like a slug between beautiful women and shirks from what consummates the revel of the brothers of joy.
It sleeps on the palm of the young woman’s hand, and when it infrequently moves, the hand fails to perceive it.
Like a two-day-old chick, it raises its head to its parents but is instantly overtaken by weakness.
It coils over the testicles like a rope wound up at the top of a well.
When decay affected it and the days’ vicissitudes hit it, Sulaymā {the narrator’s wife} said:
“If it’s now thin and flaccid, its grip was once hard in its taker’s hand,
on the morning when it’d hasten to strike with a head out of stone, with no lesions or horns.
When I so wished, it met me with straightened surface and pointed head like a sharp-edged spear-head.
Why do I now see it droop-headed like one drunk whom unmixed wine has caused to recline?
It finds it hard to rise to satisfy a need and even if it rose, neither limb nor flank would follow it.
Ever since I saw it bowed, my life has turned turbid. All things limpid are turned turbid by Time’s mishaps.” [5]

In other poems, Abū Ḥukayma described his penis as having shrunk so much that it nearly vanished. It was “weak, slack, and its nerves worn out”; it had become “a tiny bald head amidst wilted skins and veins.” He declared that “were it not for urination, he would gladly cut if off.” He sought to acquire a new penis at any cost. Abū Ḥukayma’s poetry about his impotent penis was so well-known in the classical Arabic world that Abū Ḥukayma’s penis became a proverbial expression. His impotent-penis poems generated many imitations in classical Arabic literature.[6] Maximianus’s Greek girl is a worthy predecessor to that prominent body of poetry.

Juster’s Elegies of Maximianus deserves to be widely read and studied. Juster has translated the Latin original into accessible poetry that the general public can read and enjoy. His book also serves as a testament and invitation to scholarly study. With the Latin text included on facing pages, it inspires those who have never read Latin to try. Juster’s book includes a separate, enormously learned commentary. Juster explicitly states that he hasn’t translated the Latin literally.[7] Translating literally usually isn’t possible for a good poetic translation. As his commentary makes clear, his translation is strongly rooted in scholarly work on transmission of the text through Latin manuscripts. Fidelity to the truth of a text, like fidelity to the truth of an other, is vitally important to personally enriching, humanistic work.

Juster’s book has two weakness. First, he included as appendices the Imitatio Maximiani, a Latin poem in imitation of Maximianus and dating from the eighth or ninth century; and Le regret de Maximian, a Middle English poem from late in the thirteenth century.[8] He didn’t, however, provide a translation of either poem. That’s unfair to the general reader. Juster described Imitatio Maximiani as a “plodding” imitation. Perhaps he despaired of turning it into good English poetry. He should have instead produced for readers an example of non-poetic, “pitilessly literal” translation.[9] Good poets should possess the psychological freedom to do that. Second, Juster’s book is too expensive. I paid $65 dollars for it. To be clear, that’s certainly a bargain relative to a labor theory of value and the amount of labor Juster must have done to produce this book. But if Juster sought to work for money, he surely would have been better off working in a fast-food restaurant or a car wash. His book should be issued in a reasonably priced, paperback version that could feasibly get the widespread readership that it deserves.

Maximianus’s elegies were one of the six authors / texts (Sex auctores) that dominated education in the schools of thirteenth-century Europe. That was a time of wide-ranging, vibrant humanistic study. The humanities today are in crisis. If today’s universities and colleges aspire to rise again to the heights of thirteenth-century humanistic study, they should encourage all students to read Maximianus’s elegies.

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[1] Maximianus, Elegies 5.55-62, Latin text and English translation from Juster (2018). Juster presents the Latin text with neither punctuation nor capitalization. That’s consistent with how the text would have been written in the sixth century. An alternate Latin text is available online.

Subsequent quotes from Maximianus are from Juster’s Latin text and English translation. They are (cited by elegy number and Latin line number): 1.63-70 (I would proceed through central Rome…), 5.9-12 (Outside my windows she remained…), 5.91-6, 147-50 (You often were inclined…).

I refer to the elegies’ narrative voice as Maximianus for convenience. The elegies are not necessarily biographical in the specifics of the personal relationships and sexual performance. On biographical interpretation of the elegies, Fielding (2016).

[2] Six elegies are commonly attributed to Maximianus. The sixth elegy has only twelve lines. The meaning of the final couplet (6.11-2) is contentious. Juster has:

Morose, I rise now as if mourned at my last rites;
I think I’m living partly dead this way.

{ infelix ceu iam defleto funere surgo
hac me defunctum vivere parte puto }

I translated that couplet as:

Unhappy as though from a funeral, I rise:
Although my part is dead, I live I think.

My translation reflects my interpretation of the narrator’s persona and the Boethian literary legacy and an allusion to Descartes’s famous saying, “I think, therefore I am.” Juster comments (p. 193) that Uden & Fielding (2010), p. 457, “stretch to find a sexual meaning in the use of parte.” I too see a sexual meaning in this couplet, but at a more thematic level.

[3] Uden & Feilding interpret the polyptoton as figuring the universe as “a cycle of sexual regeneration that has no goal other than its own perpetuation.” Uden & Feilding (2010) p. 456. Medieval European readers of Maximianus, who surely outnumbered modern readers, more likely interpreted that polyptoton as figuring the original Edenic unity of male and female.

The “then / than” pun best makes sense if one reads the third foot of line 5.150 as a spondee. Spondees are common in Maximianus’s poetry. Juster (2018) Preface, p. vii.

The translation of generale chaos as “universal chaos” is mine. Those words are from 5.109-10, which Juster translates as:

She raged, “You’re clueless, traitor! Clueless, as I see it!
I mourn a public, not a private, hell.

{ illa furens nescis ut cerno perfide nescis
non fleo priuatum, set generale chaos }

The Greek girl’s words gain additional force within the literary history of Dis’s threatening sexual dissatisfaction in De raptu Proserpina.

[4] The first surviving Arabic poem about the poet’s impotent penis is by “ʿAmmār Dhū Kināz, a little-known bibulous Kufan poet who flourished in the first half of the 8th century.” Papoutsakis (2014) p. 115. An ayrīyāt is the transliterated-Arabic term for a poem about the ayr (penis).

[5] Abū Ḥukayma, Poem no. 5 in his Dīwān, from Arabic literally translated in prose by Arabic poetic line in Papoutsakis (2014) pp. 105-6. I’ve made some insubstantial changes in the translation for ease of reading. The words “droop-headed” translate above an Arabic expression “typically applied to exhausted camels that stretch out their necks upon the ground out of extreme fatigue.” Id. p. 106, n. 26.

Abū Ḥukayma may not literally have had an impotent penis. A classical Arabic commentator characterized Abū Ḥukayma as a poet presenting himself as the opposite of what he was. He declared of Abū Ḥukayma, “in reality even a billy-goat would fall short of his sexual stamina.” Id., p. 102, citing Ibn al-Muʿtazz. A poem about the poet’s impotent penis serves as a potent metaphor for men’s real social position under gynocentrism.

[6] Papoutsakis (2014) p. 107 (quotes about his penis and thoughts of action), p. 103 (his penis as proverbial, and poetic imitators).

[7] The first sentence of Juster’s Preface declares:

My goal with this book is to provide a faithful — but not “literal” — translation that also works as poetry.

[8] On the medieval reception of Maximianus, Wasyl (2014). Maximianus had largely unappreciated influence on Nigel of Canterbury’s brilliant Speculum stultorum.

[9] The publicity blurb for Hart (2017) describes his translation as “pitilessly literal.” Hart himself declared:

When the Greek of the original is maladroit, broken, or impenetrable (as it is with some consistency in Paul’s letters), so is the English of my translation; where an author has written bad Greek (such as one finds throughout the book of Revelation), I have written bad English.

Hart (2017) p. xviii.

[image] Penis relief from first-century Pompeii (reproduction in Nijmegen, the Netherlands; here’s an image of the original). The inscription reads “HIC HABITAT FELICITAS {here lives happiness}.” Thanks to Sailko and Wikimedia Commons.


Fielding, Ian. 2016. “A Greek Source for Maximianus’ Greek Girl: Late Latin Love Elegy and the Greek Anthology.” Pp. 323-339 in McGill, Scott, and Joseph Pucci, eds. Classics Renewed: Reception and Innovation in the Latin Poetry of Late Antiquity. Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag.

Hart, David Bentley, trans. 2017. The New Testament: a translation. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Juster, A. M., ed. and trans, with introduction by Michael Roberts. 2018. The Elegies of Maximianus. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Papoutsakis, Nefeli. 2014. “The Ayrīyāt of Abū Ḥukayma (d. 240/854): a preliminary study.” Ch. 6 (pp. 101-122) in Talib, Adam, Hammond, Marlé and Schippers, Arie, eds. 2014. The Rude, the Bad and the Bawdy: Essays in honour of Professor Geert Jan van Gelder. Warminster: Gibb Memorial Trust.

Uden, James, and Ian Fielding. 2010. “Latin Elegy in the Old Age of the World: The Elegiac Corpus of Maximianus.” Arethusa. 43 (3): 439-460.

Wasyl, Anna Maria. 2014. “Quemlibet dehortari ne … senectutis vicia desideret. Maximianus’s Elegy on Old Age and a Few Examples of Its Medieval Reception.” Symbolae Philologorum Posnaniensium Graecae Et Latinae. 24 (2): 135.

folly of chivalry: women don’t want a man for kitchen help

man cutting vegetables in kitchen under wife's directionA youth in fourteenth-century Florence memorized words he wanted to say when he first approached a woman that he ardently loved. One day, he saw his beloved in church. But he was struck dumb with performance anxiety. His friend pushed him forward:

Urged and impelled by his friend, he as a stunned and lost soul approached the woman. He forgot all that he had thought out, and didn’t dare to say anything. His friend kept urging him to utter some words. “Lady,” at last he said, “I am your lowly servant.”

{ Ille, velut amisso spiritu stupidus, hortante atque impellente socio, prope mulierem adiit; oblitusque eorum quae cogitaverat, cum neque auderet loqui, socius autem instaret ut saltem verba funderet, tandem ille: “Domina,” inquit, “ego sum vester servitialis.” }

Learned authorities have long exalted “courtly love” and urged men to abase themselves to women. That’s a losing strategy. The youth’s chivalric words were folly:

At these words the woman, smiling, said, “Enough, more than enough, domestic servants I already have. They sweep the house and wash the dishes and knives, so there is no need for me to have more lowly servants.

{ Ad quae verba subridens foemina: – “Satis superque satis famulorum habeo,” inquit, “domi, qui et eam verrant, et scutellas ac incisoria lavent, ut pluribus mihi servitialibus non sit opus.” }

Through the ages, few women, and even fewer men, have been as privileged as this lady was. Yet the inner meaning of her words carry universal truth. A ready market for servants has always existed. Today a woman can even buy a sperm injection. But as the ancient Book of Proverbs recognized, a good husband with capable jewels is far more precious than jewels.

Ignorant, mis-educated men have been failing in love for centuries. Men understanding themselves to be inferior to women and seeking to serve women as courtly, chivalric lovers are like the manlet knight Lancelot. They are fools. To rise in love, men must be practical and study what works. Start with studying medieval women’s love poetry, learn from Boccaccio’s Corbaccio, and then move on to medieval Welsh erotic poetry.

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The above story and quotes are from Poggio, Facetiae 247, “The beautiful response of a woman to a youth ardently in love with her {Bellum mulieris responsum, ad juvenem suo amore flagrantem},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 188-9, my English translation. Here’s the Latin text in a machine-readable form.

[image] Man cutting vegetable in kitchen under wife’s direction. Thanks to  Kourosh000 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).

in celibate Hell: resentful Dis threatens civil war & abducts girl

With the rise of smartphone-based intimate solicitation, many societies are experiencing dramatically increasing sexual inequality. The biggest losers are ordinary men. They receive almost no solicitations and nearly an unbounded number of rejections. As Claudian’s fourth-century epic The Abduction of Proserpina {De raptu Proserpinae} makes clear, societies that fail to provide ordinary men with adequate sexual welfare are heading toward horrible violence.

Dis abducting Proserpina

Living in Hell, Dis deeply resented disrespect for his sexuality. He was experiencing involuntary celibacy. Like many ignorant men, he idealized marriage and yearned to be married. The more he thought about his godly sexual potential, the angrier he became:

{Dis} blazed forth into swelling anger,
intending to stir up war against the gods above because he alone
was unmarried and had long been wasting away barren years,
unable to bear his ignorance of the marriage-bed and knowing not a bridegroom’s
allurements nor the sweet name of father.

{ tumidas exarsit in iras
proelia moturus superis quod solus egeret
conubiis sterilesque diu consumeret annos
inpatiens nescire torum nullasque mariti
inlecebras nec dulce patris cognoscere nomen. } [1]

Lachesis, a woman subordinate to Dis according to the org chart of Hell, implored:

do not seek to dissolve the established laws of peace
which we have given and our distaff has spun, nor overturn the bonds of brothers
with the trumpet-blast of civil war. …
Ask Jupiter;  a wife will be given to you.

{ ne pete firmatas pacis dissolvere leges
quas dedimus nevitque colus, neu foedera fratrum
civili converte tuba …
posce Iovem; dabitur coniunx. }

Dis reluctantly “desisted and blushed at her entreaties {pepercit erubuitque preces}.” He typically confronted men fiercely. In fact, Lachesis’s instruction was questionable. Jupiter, nominally the head-god-in-charge of the cosmos, usually acted with his wife Juno’s approval or behind her back (Dis was obviously that sort of character as well). According to Martianus Capella, Mercury asked Juno if he could marry Philology. Dis might well have been better off asking Juno for a wife.[2]

In any case, following Lachesis’s instruction, Dis summoned Mercury to ask Jupiter for a wife. Dis formulated this request with heated, threatening words:

Are you, most savage of brothers,
to have so much control over me? Thus has injurious fortune taken from me my strength
along with the light of heaven? Surely I have not lost my power and arms,
if day has been stolen from me?  …
you even prevent me from marrying? Amphitrite, daughter of Nereus,
encircles Neptune in her grey-green embrace;
when you are tired from hurling thunderbolts, your sister
Juno receives you in her bosom. Not to mention your secret love for Latona,
or Ceres, and great Themis. You have opportunity of becoming a father
in abundance; a happy crowd of children encircles you.
But I, mourning ingloriously in my deserted palace —
shall I not solace my harsh cares with a pledge of love?
Such inactivity cannot be borne. The primeval night
I call to witness, and the inviolate pools of the dreaded marsh:
if you refuse to obey my words, I will lay open and stir up
Tartarus, I will unfasten the ancient chains of Saturn,
I will obscure the sun with darkness, the world’s joints will be loosened
and the shining heavens will be mingled with shadowy Avernus.

{ tantumne tibi, saevissime fratrum,
in me iuris erit? sic nobis noxia vires
cum caelo fortuna tulit? num robur et arma
perdidimus, si rapta dies? …
sed thalamis etiam prohibes? Nereia glauco
Neptunum gremio conplectitur Amphitrite;
te consanguineo recipit post fulmina fessum
Iuno sinu. quid enim narrem Latonia furta,
quid Cererem magnamque Themin? tibi tanta creandi
copia; te felix natorum turba coronat.
ast ego deserta maerens inglorius aula
inplacidas nullo solabor pignore curas?
non adeo toleranda quies. primordia testor
noctis et horrendae stagna intemerata paludis:
si dictis parere negas, patefacta ciebo
Tartara, Saturni veteres laxabo catenas,
obducam tenebris solem, conpage soluta
lucidus umbroso miscebitur axis Averno. }

Jupiter was furious at Dis’s belligerent request. Having experienced marital life with Juno, Jupiter knew how best to punish Dis. He thought, “Why should the lowest kingdom be at peace {cur ultima regna quiescunt}?” He thus arranged to provide Dis with a wife.[3]

Jupiter gave his daughter Proserpina in marriage to Dis. But rather than having Cupid shoot her with a dart of love for Dis, he required Dis to abduct her while she was picking flowers in a meadow. That was a violent action. Venus, Pallas Athena, and Diana — three goddesses with history of causing men considerable pain — arranged the circumstances for the abduction. Yet when Dis came through to perform his appointed criminal role, the goddesses switched sides in solidarity with maidenhood {stimulat communis in arma virginitas}. They fought in opposition to a “demonic” man. Pallas Athena taunted and disrespected Dis:

Why have you left your abode
and dare to defile heaven with your Tartarean chariot?
You have the ugly Dirae, the other spirits of Lethe,
and grim Furies worthy to have you as husband.

{ cur sede relicta
audes Tartareis caelum incestare quadrigis?
sunt tibi deformes Dirae, sunt altera Lethes
numina, sunt tristes Furiae te coniuge dignae. }

Most men don’t regard an ugly harpy as a worthy wife. Men who want wives deserve ones that they regard as beautiful and that don’t always act furiously toward them. All men are entitled to satisfying, intimate love.

Men will not be liberated to have fully human lives until they free themselves from yes dearism. That means firmly rejecting repulsive Dirae. But saying no to yes dearism has a more difficult and more important aspect: men must not, in ignorance of the fundamental empirical laws of seduction, grovel, cater, or pander to beautiful women. Dis, however, lacked self-respect and seductive skill. When he was carrying off Proserpina, she began to cry, lament, and call out to her mother:

O how fortunate were all the girls carried off
by other abductors! At least they enjoy the common light of day.
But to me is denied both my virginity and the heavens,
my chastity is stolen along with the light. Leaving the earth behind me,
I am led as a captive to serve the tyrant of Styx.
O flowers loved to my cost and my mother’s scorned
advice! O the arts of Venus which I detected too late!
Mother, help!

{ o fortunatas alii quascumque tulere
raptores! saltem communi sole fruuntur.
sed mihi virginitas pariter caelumque negatur,
eripitur cum luce pudor, terrisque relictis
servitum Stygio ducor captiva tyranno.
o male dilecti flores despectaque matris
consilia! o Veneris deprensae serius artes!
mater, io! }

Dis immediately sought to comfort the crying woman with promises of extraordinary privilege:

Fierce Dis himself by these words and her becoming sobs
was overpowered and felt the sighs of first love.
Then he wiped away her tears with his dusky cloak
and consoled her sorrowful grief with gentle speech:
“Stop troubling your heart, Proserpina, with mournful cares
and empty fear. A greater scepter will be granted to you,
and you will not endure marriage with an unworthy husband.
I am that child of Saturn whom the framework of nature
serves, and my power extends through the limitless void.
Do not believe that you have lost the daylight. We have other
stars and other worlds, and you will see a light
more pure and marvel instead at the sun of Elysium
and its righteous inhabitants. There dwells an age of greater worth,
a golden generation; we possess for always
what those above have obtained but once. Nor without soft meadows
shall you be; there ever-blooming flowers breathe
to kindlier Zephyr breezes, flowers such as not even your Aetna has produced.
In the shady groves there is also a most precious tree,
whose curving branches gleam with verdant metal:
this is appointed as sacred to you — you will possess
the blessed harvest and will ever be enriched with its tawny-gold fruit.
But I speak of small details: whatever the clear air embraces,
whatever the earth feeds, whatever the sea plains swirl round,
what the rivers sweep along, what the marshes have nourished —
all living things alike shall yield to your sovereignty,
all that lies beneath the sphere of the moon

{ talibus ille ferox dictis fletuque decoro
vincitur et primi suspiria sentit amoris.
tum ferrugineo lacrimas detergit amictu
et placida maestum solatur voce dolorem:
“desine funestis animum, Proserpina, curis
et vano vexare metu. maiora dabuntur
sceptra nec indigni taedas patiere mariti.
ille ego Saturni proles cui machina rerum
servit et inmensum tendit per inane potestas.
amissum ne crede diem: sunt altera nobis
sidera, sunt orbes alii, lumenque videbis
purius Elysiumque magis mirabere solem
cultoresque pios; illic pretiosior aetas,
aurea progenies habitat, semperque tenemus
quod superi meruere semel. nec mollia derunt
prata tibi; Zephyris illic melioribus halant
perpetui flores, quos nec tua protulit Aetna.
est etiam lucis arbor praedives opacis
fulgentes viridi ramos curvata metallo:
haec tibi sacra datur fortunatumque tenebis
autumnum et fulvis semper ditabere pomis.
parva loquor: quidquid liquidus conplectitur aer,
quidquid alit tellus, quidquid maris aequora vertunt,
quod fluvii volvunt, quod nutrivere paludes,
cuncta tuis pariter cedent animalia regnis
lunari subiecta globo }

Proserpina would become even more powerful than Empress Theodora or Anne of France. Moreover, under arrangements she subsequently established with her husband, she spent only four months a year with him and spent the rest of the year with her mother. Proserpina and Dis may have had a sexless marriage. No surviving ancient source directly indicates that Proserpina had children.

In De raptu Proserpinae, Claudian is centrally concerned with absence. Modern scholarly study of the poem has emphasized, not Dis in celibate Hell, but Proserpina’s separation from her mother Ceres and her mother’s bitter sense of absence.[4] That emphasis reflects dominant gynocentric ideology. Claudian, like any modern writer, could distance himself from gynocentrism only with great difficulty and risk.[5]

With considerable literary sophistication, Claudian embedded a subtle allegory of castration culture within his account of Ceres’s anguish. Ceres left her daughter to celebrate rites with the goddess Cybele. So strongly was Cybele associated with castration that later literature depicted her as having castrated Ovid. Ceres expressed her fears for her daughter with simultaneous allegories of defiling a virgin and castrating a man:

there stood a bay-tree, dearer than all the grove,
which once used to overshadow with its chaste leaves her maiden daughter’s
chamber: she saw this cut down to the bottom of the stump and
its unkempt branches defiled with dust.
When she asked about this abomination, the wailing Dryads said
that the Furies had conquered it with an axe of the underworld.

{ stabat praeterea luco dilectior omni
laurus virgineos quondam quae fronde pudica
umbrabat thalamos: hanc imo stipite caesam
vidit et incomptos foedari pulvere ramos,
quaerentique nefas Dryades dixere gementes
Tartarea Furias debellavisse bipenni. }

The allegorical violence inflicted upon men’s genitals becomes even more horrific when the raging Ceres turned two beautiful cypresses into torches:

Two cypresses raised their inviolate heads
on the grass nearby; finer trees than any Simois admired
on the crags of Ida, finer trees than any washed by the rich waters
of Orontes, who feeds Apollo’s grove. …
These won her approval as torches; briskly she assailed each one,
the folds of her robe girt up, her arms bared and equipped with a double-edged axe, striking them in turn. With all her strength pushing against them as they trembled, she toppled them. Together they trailed destruction,
and together laid down their foliage and sank upon the plain,
a grief to fauns and Dryads. She clasped them both
just as they were and lifted them on high and,
with her loose hair streaming behind her, she climbed the ridge
of the panting mountain, surmounted the boiling heat and rocks accessible to no one, and
trampled the sand that scorned footsteps. …
After she arrived at the mouth of the blazing crag,
turning aside her face, she at once thrust the cypresses
that were to burn into the middle of its jaws, on all sides covering
the crater and blocking off the chasm that brimmed with flames.
The mountain thundered with suppressed fire, and against his confinement
Vulcan struggled. The smothered steam could not escape.
The cone-bearing tree-tops flared up and
Aetna grew with fresh ashes. The branches crackled with applied sulphur.

{ tollebant geminae capita inviolata cupressus
caespite vicino, quales non rupibus Idae
miratur Simois, quales non divite ripa
lambit Apollinei nemoris nutritor Orontes. …
hae placuere faces; pernix invadit utramque
cincta sinus, exerta manus, armata bipenni,
alternasque ferit totisque obnixa trementes
viribus inpellit. pariter traxere ruinam
et pariter posuere comas campoque recumbunt,
Faunorum Dryadumque dolor. conplectitur ambas,
sicut erant, alteque levat retroque solutis
crinibus ascendit fastigia montis anheli
exuperatque aestus et nulli pervia saxa
atque indignantes vestigia calcat harenas…
postquam perventum scopuli flagrantis in ora,
protinus arsuras aversa fronte cupressus
faucibus iniecit mediis lateque cavernas
texit et undantem flammarum obstruxit hiatum.
conpresso mons igne tonat claususque laborat
Mulciber: obducti nequeunt exire vapores.
coniferi micuere apices crevitque favillis
Aetna novis; stridunt admisso sulphure rami. }

The trees are both two erect penises and a man’s testicles. They are thrust into molten lava and scorched. That’s a Hellish transfiguration of heated, mutually satisfying heterosexual intercourse. Being viciously burned sexually, or even just experiencing women turning aside their faces as if in disgust, hurts men.

Justifying to herself her departure from her daughter, Ceres imagined having ensconced Proserpina in a golden-age land. In that mythic time and place, men’s sexuality is unnecessary for fertility:

To your care I commit the joy
of my blood and the dear labour of my womb.
Worthy rewards await you. You will suffer no mattocks
and be turned by no blow of the hard plowshare.
Your fields will flower of their own accord, and while the ox idles,
a richer farmer will wonder at the spontaneous harvest.

{ tibi gaudia nostri
sanguinis et caros uteri commendo labores.
praemia digna manent: nullos patiere ligones
et nullo rigidi versabere vomeris ictu;
sponte tuus florebit ager; cessante iuvenco
ditior oblatas mirabitur incola messes. }

For at least a billion years, a wide range of species have reproduced with the participation of male sexuality. Male primates, for good evolutionary reason, hardly ever harm female primates in seeking and having sexual relations with them. Men’s sexuality commonly provides life-affirming pleasure to women. Yet Ceres’s figured men’s sexuality as blows of a hard plow upon the earth. The gynocentric dream of men not being necessary has existed throughout written history. Compared to women’s sexuality, men’s sexuality has been much less socially supported in societies from ancient Greece through to present-day, high-income democracies.

Contempt for men’s sexuality and lack of concern about dramatically increasing sexual inequality portend terrible violence. Even if civil war is avoided, men in celibrate Hell will not be content to seek action with their own hands. These men will engage in despicable acts of violence and ignorant, ineffectual practices of yes dearism and white knighting. All-out gender war is likely to erupt between the haves and the have-nots — between those who have all the vagina and those who have none. The resulting violence, chaos, and misery will be far greater than from any prior world war among men.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Claudian {Claudius Claudianus}, The Abduction of Proserpina {De raptu Proserpinae} 1.32-6, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Gruzelier (1993). All quotes from De raptu Proserpinae are similarly from id.

Proserpina is a Roman acculturation of the ancient Greek goddess Persephone. Proserpina’s mother Ceres corresponds to Persephone’s mother Demeter in ancient Greek myth. Dis (called more fully Dis Pater) was the Roman god of the Underworld. He became conflated with Pluto and Hades.

The Latin word raptus most centrally means abduction. Proserpina clearly was abducted. Yet in traditional societies bridal capture is commonly a highly ritualized action socially imposed on men. See note [2] in my post on the Sabine women. The significance of the abduction in De raptu Proserpinae is a question that Claudian constructed with considerable literary sophistication:

So the poem continually brings to the fore the question of how events should and can be read. Has Proserpina undergone a forced abduction or entered into a marriage arranged by her father? Has she gained an eternal kingdom through the love of her husband or suffered a kind of death? Are we reading of love or violence?

Parkes (2015) p. 485. Scholars have commonly obliterated Claudian’s literary art underlying these questions and translated De raptu Proserpinae as The Rape of Proserpina. That translation of the title lacks both philological necessity and literary-critical merit. Moreover, “rape” is now mendaciously applied to criminalize a large share of men. In this context, the best translation of De raptu Proserpinae is The Abduction of Proserpina.

Subsequent quotes above from De raptu Proserpinae are (cited by book.Latin lines): 1.63-5, 67 (do not seek to dissolve); 1.67-8 (desisted and blushed at her entreaties); 1.93-6, 103-16 (Are you, most savage…); 1.224 (Why should the lowest kingdom…); 2.207 (solidarity of maidenhood); 2.216-19 (Why have you left…); 2.260-7 (O how fortunate were…); 2.273-98 (Fierce Dis himself…); 3.74-9 (there stood a bay-tree…); 3.370-3, 376-85, 392-99 (Two cypresses raised…); 1.195-200 (To your care). I’ve lineated Gruzelier’s English translation to match the Latin lines so readers can more easily identify corresponding Latin text. In some instances I’ve also slightly modified the English translation to more closely track the Latin.

Latin text and the English translation of Maurice Platnauer (Loeb Classical Library, 1922) are available online through LacusCurtius. NoDictionaries offers a Latin text with linked English dictionary entries.

De raptu Proserpinae was one of the six texts / authors {Sex auctores} that were central to school teaching in thirteenth-century Europe. An eminent scholar of medieval Latin literature has characterized them as “elementary Latin texts.” Ziolkowski (2007) p. 114. The Latin of De raptu Proserpinae might fairly be characterized as elementary relative to the medieval Latin of Alan of Lille’s De planctu naturae. Yet Claudian’s late-classical Latin text engages in learned, complex literary figuration. Harrison (2017).

[2] Blushing associates Dis with the “the human role of a powerless male lover.” Tsai (2007) p. 44. Men’s lack of sexual power comes in part from lack of good education in seduction skills. Yet structural gender inequality also contributes considerably to ordinary men’s sexual disadvantage and the vast predominance of men among the most sexually disadvantaged persons.

Tai’s emphasizes “compulsory sexuality” in interpreting De raptu Proserpinae. Id. pp. 60, 61. That seems to me misleading. While rape of men is as prevalent as rape of women, most sexual intercourse is consensual within any reasonable understanding of consent. Compulsory sexuality is much less significant to men’s welfare than is the social devaluation of men’s sexuality. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pluto (Dis) is figured as an “emotionless instrument”:

the emphasis stays fixed on Proserpina, with Pluto a mere tool in an oblique case.

Id. p. 68, n. 45 (both quotes above). That’s commonly how men are socially figured in their sexuality.

[3] Wheeler (1995) appreciates the threat of civil war, but conflates rape and marriage as an alternative to civil war:

the marriage of Proserpina is a necessary sacrifice to prevent a war between brothers and a return to chaos

the rape of Proserpina has been arranged to avoid just such a civil war between heaven and hell.

rape and marriage can replace the violence of civil war

Id. pp. 116, 129, 132. Very few men rape their wives under any non-misandristic understanding of rape. Rape and marriage aren’t significantly related. The social alternatives that De raptu Proserpinae sets out are better understood as adequate sexual welfare for all, or civil war.

[4] Konstan (1997) reviews the reaction of Demeter / Ceres to the abduction of her daughter Persephone / Prosperpina across ancient Greek and Latin literature. He observed:

For a girl, separation from the mother and incorporation in the household of a husband are analogous to death, and Claudian is sensitive to mortal fear of mother and child alike.

Id. p. 88. While ancient literature of men’s sexed protest strongly opposed marriage, analogizing separation from mother and marriage to death seems extreme. Thecla and Hysmine in relation to their mothers probably more realistically depict the mother-daughter relationship in the context of the daughter’s love for a potential husband and her marriage. Mothers probably were in practice the dominant parent in the arrangement of ancient marriages.

Ceres relished the social status she associated with marrying her daughter. She lamented:

No such torches as these for you, Proserpina, I hoped to carry,
but my wishes were those common to all mothers:
marriage-bed, festal firebrands, and a wedding-song sung in heaven
before everyone’s eyes. …
How exalted was my recent state, by how many keen suitors
was I encircled! What mother of numerous children did not
yield to me on account of my one child?

{ non tales gestare tibi, Proserpina, taedas
sperabam, sed vota mihi communia matrum,
et thalami festaeque faces caeloque canendus
ante oculos hymenaeus erat. …
quam nuper sublimis eram quantisque procorum
cingebar studiis! quae non mihi pignus ob unum
cedebat numerosa parens? }

De raptu proserpinae 3.407-10, 412-4. Given her concern for appearances (“before everyone’s eyes”) and social status, Ceres probably would have sought to hire Martianus Capella’s Special Day Wedding Services for a lavish wedding banquet.

[5] The poetic work of De raptu proserpinae has recently been interpreted as attempted distancing from the traditional language of Latin poetry:

The language of the family in De raptu is literally ubiquitous; references to the familial constellation appear regularly. … The narration of the creation of a “new family” (Pluto and Proserpina) takes place within an older and pre-existent familial order. The family allegorizes a tradition which is impossible to escape and within which every new event cannot be anything else than a reproduction of the same order. … in Claudian’s poem as in the Mosella, the very concept of tradition, that is, the language of Latin poetry, is directly thematized and problematized through figures of displacement, disconnection, decentralization, and separation but also through the very impossibility of escaping precisely that language.

Formisano (2017) pp. 226-7. These abstract claims are better understood in relation to specific, relevant social reality. In the Achilleid, Statius allegorized the difficulty of creating an epic separate from the traditional epic devaluation of men’s lives. De raptu Proserpinae also sought to remake Homer. It used Homer’s hexameter line and adapted the Homeric Hymn to Demeter with high figurative sophistication. Harrison (2017) pp. 250-1. In De raptu Proserpinae, Claudian allegorized the difficulty of creating an alternative to the traditional devaluation of men’s sexuality.

The poetic problem that Claudian confronted in writing De raptu Proserpinae is analogous to attempting to express concern about reproductive choice for men within the long-standing, prominent public debate about abortion. That debate has refused to allow men’s real social position to figure and signify in considering abortion and reproductive rights. More general, the poetic problem of De raptu Proserpinae is like trying to get scholars to consider seriously the question, “What does a man want {Was will der Mann}?”

[image] The Abduction of Proserpina (detail). Oil on oak panel painting by Rembrandt, c. 1631. Preserved in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Via Wikimedia Commons. Peter Paul Rubens did a rather different painting of the abduction of Proserpina c. 1637.


Elsner, Jaś, and Jesús Hernández Lobato, eds. 2017. The poetics of late Latin literature. New York: Oxford University Press.

Formisano, Marco. 2017. “Displacing Tradition: A New-Allegorical Reading of Ausonius, Claudian, and Rutilius Namatianus.” Ch. 6 (pp. 207-235) in Elsner & Hernández Lobato (2017).

Gruzelier, Claire, ed. and trans. 1993. Claudian. De raptu Proserpinae. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Harrison, Stephen. 2017. “Metapoetics in the Prefaces of Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae.” Ch. 7 (pp. 236-251) in Elsner & Hernández Lobato (2017).

Konstan, David. 1997. Afterword (pp. 79-98) in Slavitt, David R., trans. Broken columns: two Roman epic fragments: The Achilleid of Publius Papinius Statius and The Rape of Proserpine of Claudius Claudianus. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Parkes, Ruth. 2015. “Love or War? Erotic and Martial Poetics in Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae.” Classical Journal. 110 (4): 471-492.

Tsai, S-C Kevin. 2007. “Hellish Love: Genre in Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae.” Helios. 34 (1): 37-68.

Wheeler, Stephen M. 1995. “The Underworld Opening of Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae.” Transactions of the American Philological Association. 125: 113-134.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2007. “Mastering Authors and Authorizing Masters in the Long Twelfth Century.” Ch. 6 (pp. 93-188) in Verbaal, Wim, Yanick Maes, and Jan Papy, eds. Latinitas perennis. Vol. 1. Leiden: Brill.

Alan of Lille, Chaucer & Shakespeare knew all that glistens isn’t gold

gold wedding dress

All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms infold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscrolled.
Fare you well, your suit is cold.

You that choose not by the view,
Chance as fair and choose as true.
Since this fortune falls to you,
Be content and seek no new.
If you be well pleased with this
And hold your fortune for your bliss,
Turn to where your lady is,
And claim her with a loving kiss. [1]

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio rejected the silver and gold caskets. He choose the dull lead one. That was the casket that carried the inscription, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” Within that casket was the winning sign, a portrait of Bassanio’s beloved Portia.

Gazing upon Portia’s portrait, Bassanio lavishly praised its realistic beauty. Its eyes seemed to be alive and so beautiful that just one of them could have stolen the eyes of the painter. Her mouth seemed to exhale sweet breath that parted her lips, and her hair was a golden web that could entrap men’s hearts. This was just a portrait of Portia. Perhaps looking toward Portia, then turning back to her portrait, and then turning to fill his eyes again with her, Bassanio exclaimed:

Yet look, how far
The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow
In underprizing it, so far this shadow
Doth limp behind the substance.

Shakespeare connected the now-proverbial wisdom “all that glistens isn’t gold” to a woman’s appearance and to a mirror-like representation of her. Geoffrey Chaucer, a feminized, second-tier courtier writing mainly for women, associated “all that glistens isn’t gold” with men deceiving women. Shakespeare and Chaucer thus sensitively perceived this proverb in relation to another, now neglected proverb in Alan of Lille’s influential Book of Proverbs {Liber Parabolarum}.

The foremost intellectual and poet of the twelfth century, Alan of Lille recognized a world beyond mere appearances and fearlessly challenged entrenched falsehoods. In Liber Parabolarum, Alan declared:

Do not consider gold everything that shines like gold
nor think that each and every lovely fruit is good.
Virtue is not in many things in which it seems to be.
Our eyes deceive us with their actions.
Such have more of aloe than of honey in their heart
whom you think to be like saints in their simplicity.

{ Non teneas aurum totum quod splendet ut aurum
nec pluchrum pomum quodlibet esse bonum;
non est in multis virtus quibus esse videtur,
decipiunt factis lumina nostra suis;
plus aloes quam mellis habent in pectore tales
quos sanctis similes simplicitate putes. } [2]

Following Lucretius in challenging gynocentric delusions, Alan also wrote:

The matter that we observe in a mirror is not in it;
Trust stands out, and it is not in woman.

{ Non est in speculo res quam speculamur in illo:
eminet, et non est in muliere fides. } [3]

In our benighted age, reigning authorities instruct the masses to “listen and believe” women, as if trust is inherent in woman. Even without indoctrination, both women and men are more inclined to trust women than men. Yet women are no more naturally trustworthy than men are. That’s what the eminent medieval scholar Alan of Lille sought to teach the ignorant. The general proverbial wisdom “all that glistens isn’t gold” applies to women as well as men.

Truth inconsistent with women-are-wonderful dogma tends to be suppressed in gynocentric society. Here’s a late-fourteenth-century French translation of Alan of Lille’s proverb on women and appearances:

In a mirror, the shiny thing
That seems to be there isn’t;
Eyesight and a fox seem reliable,
But they are false like the devil.

{ En miroir n’en cose polie
Ce qui y samble n’y est mie;
Loux et renart samblent fiable,
Mais ilz sont faulx come le dyable. } [4]

Alan’s reference to women has been completely obliterated in this translation. In 2005, an eminent medieval scholar commented about this translation:

The translator evidently wanted to remove the clearly misogynistic tone of the original [5]

Misogyny in this scholar’s evaluation apparently means any expression that some woman might claim offends her. Misogyny is also commonly used as a myth to support the myth of patriarchy. Rather than pondering an ever-more elaborate web of myths and convoluted explanations for why gender reality contradicts dogma, one might consider how a sensible, rational mind from more enlightened medieval times would interpret Alan’s proverb. Here’s a commentary on that proverb from a fourteenth-century scholar:

The ensuing proverb {Alan of Lille’s proverb on women and appearances} teaches us to flee and avoid, as much as possible for us, the company of a dissolute or suspicious woman. It says that some beautiful promise or certification that such a woman gives to a man, if there is not any trust apart from her appearance, is thus similar to a man seeing the appearance of her form in a mirror.

{ La parabole qui ensuit nous enseigne fuyr et eviter, en tant que possible nous est, la compaignie de femme dissolue ou suspecte, disant que quelque belle promesse ou certification que telle femme donne a l’homme, si n’y a il point de foy en elle fors d’apparence, ainsi que par similitude l’omme peut veoir apparentement sa forme en ung miroir. } [6]

That’s good wisdom. It applies equally well to a dissolute or suspicious man. Most persons readily understand its application to men. Applying it to women is controversial under gynocentrism and thus far more socially important.

Geoffrey Chaucer appreciated that “all that glitters isn’t good” applies to heterosexual perceptions, but he differed from Alan of Lille and Shakespeare in gender-value judgment. In discussing men’s alchemy and the despair of men’s lives, Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman declared:

But every thing that shines like gold
is not gold, as I have heard said;
and every apple that is fair to the eye
is not good, whatever men may chatter or cry.

{ But al thyng which that shineth as the gold
Nis nat gold, as that I have herd told;
Ne every appul that is fair at eye
Ne is nat good, what so men clappe or crye. } [7]

The appealing apple alludes to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Adam, the primordial subordinate husband, obeyed his wife Eve and ate the fruit, understood in medieval Europe to be an apple. Adam should have extensively questioned Eve before obeying her. Men today still haven’t learned that lesson. Men continue to blindly obey women, to the detriment of all human society.

Chaucer was more interested in his own personal advancement than in the welfare of all human society. Under gynocentrism, pandering to women is always profitable. Chaucer thus recast “all the glistens isn’t gold” in terms of men deceiving women. Narrating one of his dreams, Chaucer described the affair of Dido and Aeneas. Dido fell deeply in love with Aeneas:

She made of him, in short, in one word,
her life, her love, her lust, her lord;
and showed him all the reverence,
and gave him all the wealth,
that any woman might do,
believing that it was all so,
as he swore to her, and by this judging
that he was good, for he seemed such.

{ Made of him, shortly, at oo word,
Hir lyf, hir love, hir luste, hir lord;
And dide him al the reverence,
And leyde on him al the dispence,
That any woman mighte do,
Weninge hit had al be so,
As he hir swoor; and her-by demed
That he was good, for he swich semed. } [8]

The results were tragic, and it was all his fault:

Alas! What harm does appearance,
When it is false in reality!
For he was a traitor to her;
and she therefore killed herself, alas!

{ Allas! what harm doth apparence,
Whan hit is fals in existence!
For he to hir a traitour was;
Wherfor she slow hir-self, allas! }

Chaucer all but claimed that Aeneas killed Dido. That’s about as just as prominent newspaper reports that about a quarter of men rape their wives. Moreover, Chaucer immediately generalized the tragic case of Aeneas and Dido:

See, how a woman is mistaken
to love him who isn’t known.
For, by Christ, see! Thus it goes:
“It is not all gold, that glistens.”

{ Lo, how a woman doth amis,
To love him that unknowen is!
For, by Crist, lo! thus hit fareth;
“Hit is not al gold, that glareth.” }

Chaucer declared that men in their pure nature (“pure kinde”) are untrustworthy:

For all that I pledge my head to be broken,
there may be by right-headedness
covered many a cursed vice.
Therefore be in no way so foolish
to take a love only for looks,
for speech, or for friendly manners;
For this shall every woman find:
that some man, of his pure kind,
will show outward the fairest,
until he has gotten what he desires;
and then he will find excuses,
and swear that she is unkind,
or false, or sly, or two-faced.

{ For, al-so brouke I wel myn heed,
Ther may be under goodliheed
Kevered many a shrewed vyce;
Therfor be no wight so nyce,
To take a love only for chere,
For speche, or for frendly manere;
For this shal every woman finde
That som man, of his pure kinde,
Wol shewen outward the faireste,
Til he have caught that what him leste;
And thanne wol he causes finde,
And swere how that she is unkinde,
Or fals, or prevy, or double was. }

Not all men are like that. Righteous men from Jerome in the fourth century to Paul Elam today have told women the truth. Yet condemning them and all men is an easy path for personal advancement.

The truth isn’t as superficially pleasing as pretty gynocentric lies. All that glistens isn’t gold. Both women and men must be wary of being deceived, for no flesh-and-blood human is intrinsically trustworthy. The learned, courageous medieval scholar Alan of Lille was wise. Don’t merely listen and believe women, for trust is not inherent in woman.

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[1] Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice 2.7.65-73,  3.2.131-8 (from Pelican ed.). The two subsequent quotes are from id. 2.7.16 (casket inscription “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath”) and 3.2.126-9 (Portia’s portrait: shadow versus substance). Here’s more on Shakespeare’s invocation of shadows and sense of presence.

[2] Alan of Lille, Liber parabolarum 3.1, Latin text from Limone (1993) p. 64 (critical edition), English translation adapted from Pepin (1999) p. 160. Alan’s Liber parabolarum is also called Alani Parabolae, Doctrinale minus, and Parvum doctrinale. Limone’s Latin text is based on fifteen manuscripts dated from the middle of the thirteenth century to end of the fifteenth. Limone (1993) p. 27. While Limone’s text is currently the most authoritative, Latin texts are also available in Patrologia Latina 210,  and in appendices of both Hunt (2005) and Hunt (2007).

Alan’s Liber parabolarum consists of 321 elegiac distichs arranged in six chapters of incremental proverb length. In its first chapter, the proverbs are couplets, thematically grouped in pairs. In subsequent chapters, the proverbs are quatrains, sextets, octets, etc. Liber parabolarum has considerable literary sophistication, but isn’t included in Wetherbee (2013).

Alan of Lille’s epitaph recognized his intellectual eminence. It proclaimed:

Brief life has left buried in a small tomb Alan,
who knew the two, who knew the seven, who knew all that is knowable.

{ Alanum breuis hora breui tumulo sepeliuit
Qui duo, qui septem, quit totum scibile sciuit. }

Latin text from Wetherbee (2013) p. vii, English translation adapted from id. The two apparently are the Old and New Testament, and the seven, the seven liberal arts. Id. For more on Alan’s intellectual eminence, id. pp. viii-ix.

Liber parabolarum was included in the Auctores octo that was central to late-medieval school teaching. It was thus widely studied in medieval Europe.

[3] Liber parabolarum 1.8, Latin from Limone (1993) p. 46, English translation adapted from Pepin (1999) p. 152. Its paired proverb is 1.7. That proverb concerns the deceptiveness of a new path and a new ally. Proverb 1.4 warns against entrusting to old men an opinion that you wish to remain private. Medieval thinkers undoubtedly understood that proverb to apply to old women as well.

[4] Les proverbez d’Alain (attributed to Thomas Maillet) 1.8, Middle French text from Hunt (2007) p. 55, my English translation. The text has survived in a single manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, français, 12478, f. 249r-268r).

[5] Hunt (2007) p. 93, note to Middle French text line 83, my translation from the French. That note in its entire original text:

Le traducteur a évidemment voulu supprimer le ton nettement misogyne de l’original: ‘Non est in speculo res quae speculatur in illo; / Eminet, et non est in muliere fides’ (I,8).

Hunt also described Alan of Lille’s proverb as displaying “conventional anti-feminism.” Hunt (1985) p. 367. That’s a conventional, disparaging scholarly term for transgressive literature of men’s sexed protest.

[6] Commentary on Liber parabolarum 1.8 in Les paraboles Maistre Alain en françoys, first published by Antoine Vérard in 1492. Middle French text from Hunt (2005) p. 126, my English translation. Cf. 1 Samual 16:7.

Other French translations respected the important insight of Liber parabolarum 1.8. A partial translation of Liber parabolarum from the late-thirteenth century provided both the original Latin and a French translation:

The matter that we observe in a mirror is not in it;
Trust stands out, and it is not in woman.

{Commentary} The same is not in the mirror that is perceived in the glass; trustworthiness is lost in a woman, but it seems that it is there.

{ Non est in speculo res quam speculamur in illo,
Iminet et non est in muliere fides.

Ceo n’est mie en les mirur ceo ke l’en garde lens; leauté pert en femme, mes i ni at nule. }

From Ms. London, Lambeth Palace Library 371, ff. 130v – 134r, quoting Latin and Old French text from Hunt (1981) p. 48, my English translation.

The French translation that Antoine Vérard printed in 1492 also didn’t obliterate the reference to woman:

There isn’t the real form
in a mirror that a man perceives there;
in a false woman also, likewise,
there isn’t the fidelity about which the man is very deceived.

{ Cela n’est pas forme realement
En ung miroir que l’omme y apparçoit;
En fole femme aussi, pareillement,
N’est point la foy dont maint homme deçoit. }

Middle French text from Hunt (2005) p. 54, my English translation.

[7] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale ll. 962-5, Old English text and close translation from Larry Benson’s Harvard Chaucer Page.

[8] Chaucer, House of Fame ll. 1.257-64, Old English text from Skeat (1899), transcribed by Douglas B. Killings; my close modern English translation. Subsequent quotes are similarly from id. ll. 1.265-85.

[image] Gold wedding dress. Made in 1951 by Norman Hartnell. Source image thanks to Elisa.rolle and Wikimedia Commons.


Hunt, Tony. 1981. “Une traduction partielle des Parabolae d’Alain de Lille.” Le Moyen Age 87 (1): 45-56.

Hunt, Tony. 1985. “Les paraboles Maistre Alain.” Forum for Modern Language Studies. 21 (4): 362-375.

Hunt, Tony, ed. 2005. Alan of Lille. Les paraboles maistre Alain en françoys. MHRA Critical Texts 2. London: Modern Humanities Research Association.

Hunt, Tony, ed. 2007. Alan of Lille. Les proverbez d’Alain. Paris: Honoré Champion.

Limone, Oronzo, ed. 1993. Alan of Lille. Liber parabolarum: una raccolta di aforismi. Galatina: Congedo.

Pepin, Ronald E. 1999. An English translation of Auctores octo, a medieval reader. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press.

Wetherbee, Winthrop, ed. and trans. 2013. Alan of Lille. Literary works. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (online review)

whore ridiculed Venetian cuckolds for their large penises

Freedom of Speech (excerpt), Norman Rockwell, 1943

Today, pervasive codes of conduct explicitly prohibit “offensive communication.” Medieval Europe, in contrast, allowed much greater freedom of expression, especially in Latin. Medieval authors such as the eminent medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini explored lascivious topics fundamental to human well-being and to perpetuating humanity. This freedom of expression helped to sustain a more humane, tolerant, and culturally vibrant society.

A learned man told Poggio a story about a whore who ridiculed Venetian cuckolds by claiming that they had enormous penises. This whore was welcoming and inclusive in providing her important service to men:

The whore was, he said, a commonly known Venetian to whom men of diverse nations came.

{ Scortum erat, ait, Venetiis vulgare, ad quod cum diversarum gentium viri accederent } [1]

The whore’s embrace of diversity gained for her valued knowledge:

Someone asked her one day the nationality of the men who had the largest penises that she had seen. The woman without hesitation responded that it was the Venetians. “Those,” she said, “have such a long Priapus, that although they are often away traveling in the remotest provinces beyond the seas, they still copulate with their wives and have children.”

{ quaesivit ab eo aliquando quispiam, quae sibi hominum natio majori membro virili esse videretur. Mulier e vestigio Venetos respondit. Cum causa postularetur: — “Quoniam,” inquit, “tam longo sunt Priapo, ut cum saepius in remotissimis et ultra mare sitis provinciis versentur, tamen cum uxoribus coeant et procreent filios.” }

Neither this whore nor anyone else actually believed that the Venetian husbands were having sex with their wives while being far distant from them. The Venetian husbands were being cuckolded. The witty whore was ridiculing them. While penis size is vitally important, cuckolds throughout history have commonly been subjects of ridicule.

Compared to men, women experience less pressure to perform sexually and typically are less concerned about the size of their genitals. However, women who understand themselves as being like men can mis-interpret the quality of their genitals. Consider the case of a woman and man committing adultery in early fifteenth-century Sienna:

Immediately after having sex with her, the adulterer insultingly said that he had never found any other woman with such a wide vagina. She, supposing him to be praising her, said: “From graciousness you are saying this, not from my merit. I wish it were what you say, as big as that! I would, because of it, regard myself as being more noble and more greatly valued.

{ Hic cum post coitum in ejus contumeliam dixisset, se nunquam in alia latiorem vulvam reperisse, illa existimans id sibi laudi esse: — “Ex gratia tua hoc,” inquit, “dicis, non meo merito: utinam mihi ea, quam profers, adesset copia! nam multo propterea me nobiliorem, et majori existimandam reputarem.” } [2]

That’s what a man might think upon being told that he had a relatively large penis. Medieval literature figuratively associated a wide vagina with a woman having had sex with many different men. Medieval men preferred, all else equal, women with narrow vaginas. Yet, as sexually subordinate persons, men often have to accept other than what they prefer. The woman in this story misunderstood herself as being measured sexually like men.

Men who believe that merely having a large penis protects them from being cuckolded are fools. Women who believe that their sexual value is measured like men’s are also fools. Modern triggering and making offense is a repressive, inhumane alternative to medieval freedom of expression in discussing sex.

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[1] Poggio Bracciolini, Facetiae 244, “The witty saying of a prostitute about Venetians {Facetum Dictum Meretricis Adjocans Venetis},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 184-5. The quotes above provide my English translations, drawing upon that of id., but tracking the Latin more closely.  The subsequent quote is similarly from id. The Latin text of Poggio’s Facetiae is available online in machine-readable format.

[2] Poggio Bracciolini, Facetiae 180 “About a woman who believed that she was being praised when being told that she had a wide vagina {De Muliere Se Credente Ad Laudem Trahi, Confitendo Latiorem Vulvam Habere},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 95-6, my translation as above.

[image] Excerpt from “Freedom of Speech,” an oil on canvas painting by Norman Rockwell, 1943.  It was incorporated into a U.S. government poster that added around the painting, “Save Freedom of Speech / Buy War Bonds.” Source image via 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).