naked ass-driver and ass from Octavian to Byzantium in 1204

Roman naval ram like at Octavian's Actium memorial

Octavian’s naval forces confronted those of Cleopatra and her beloved Marc Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BGC. Octavian, who became Caesar Augustus, won a decisive victory. He then erected a spectacular victory memorial at the site of his pre-battle camp in Actium. The campsite memorial displayed thirty-six massive bronze rams from warships that Octavian captured from Antony and Cleopatra. The memorial also displayed naked, ithyphallic ass-driver and ass statues probably cast from melted-down rams.[1] Those statues memorialized a favorable omen that Octavian encountered before the battle. Under-appreciated by modern scholars, the ass-driver and ass statues generated intriguing semiotic problems across more than a millennium of literary history.

Tusculum Octavian: heroic nude

A naked man and an erect penis were common features of public art late in the Roman Republic. After his victory in the Battle of Naulochus in 36 BGC, Octavian had a bronze, nude statue of himself set up in the Roman forum near the speaker’s platform.[2] A statue known at the Tusculum Octavian, which was probably made shortly before the battle of Actium, also shows Octavian nude. These statues show a young, muscular male body. Such portraiture was associated with heroic, godlike figures, particularly Alexander the Great. While these statues showed Octavian’s penis, it wasn’t erect. Statues of the minor divinity Priapos, however, commonly showed an erect penis. A naked, ithyphallic ass-driver and ass wouldn’t have been formally unusual representation. Moreover, about the time of the battle of Actium, Octavian was shifting his self-representations to less heroic forms.[3] An ass being crowned by the goddess Victory while mounting a lion is certainly a less heroic victory representation. That painting at Pompeii may well be related to the ass-driver and ass sculptures at Actium.[4]

ass mounting lion painting at Pompeii

About 150 years after the Battle of Actium, the learned, high-ranking Roman official Suetonius wrote in Latin about the ass-driver and ass sculptures. The existence of these sculptures surely was generally known among the Roman elite. Suetonius may have added further meaning:

At Actium, as he {Octavian} was going down to begin the battle, he met a little ass with its ass-driver: the man was named Eutychus and the beast Nikon. The victor {Octavian} set up bronze images of the two in a sacred enclosure constructed at the site of his camp.

Apud Actium descendenti in aciem asellus cum asinario occurrit: homini Eutychus, bestiae Nicon erat nomen; utriusque simulacrum aeneum victor posuit in templo, in quod castrorum suorum locum vertit. [5]

Suetonius’s account includes a pun across Latin and Greek. The little ass’s name Nikon is a Latin transliteration of the Greek word for “the conquering {one}” (νικῶν). That’s equivalent to the Latin (and English) word victor. The conquering one corresponds to Caesar Augustus, the victor in the battle of Actium. Suetonius’s account thus semiotically identified Augustus with a little ass.[6] Why did Augustus the conquering one seek to bring together sculptures of a naked, ithyphallic ass-driver and ass? Suetonius, who apparently saw no need to describe the features of the ass-driver, hinted that Augustus was asinine.

The Greek intellectual Plutarch wrote a similar account of the ass-driver and ass about the same time as Suetonius. Plutarch’s account plausibly strengthened the association of Caesar Augustus with the ass-driver and ass:

Caesar, we are told, who had left his tent while it was still dark and was going round to visit his ships, was met by a man driving an ass. He asked the man his name, and he, recognizing him, replied: “My name is Eutychus, and my ass’s name is Nikon.” Therefore, when he afterwards decorated the place with the beaks of ships, he set up bronze figures of an ass and a man.

Καίσαρι δὲ λέγεται μὲν ἔτι σκότους ἀπὸ τῆς σκηνῆς κύκλῳ περιϊόντι πρὸς τὰς ναῦς ἄνθρωπος ἐλαύνων ὄνον ἀπαντῆσαι, πυθομένῳ δὲ τοὔνομα γνωρίσας αὐτὸν εἰπεῖν. ‘ἐμοὶ μὲν Εὔτυχος ὄνομα, τῷ δὲ ὄνῳ Νίκων.’ διὸ καὶ τοῖς ἐμβόλοις τὸν τόπον κοσμῶν ὕστερον ἔστησε χαλκοῦν ὄνον καὶ ἄνθρωπον. [7]

The ass-driver recognized Caesar at night and met him. The ass-driver and ass here are not only a victory omen. They also hint of anti-Augustus ridicule.

The ass-driver’s name was EutychusΕὔτυχος. That’s a Latin / Greek word meaning “fortunate one.” In the context of a battle, the fortunate one is most simply understood as the victor. Yet being a victor only by good fortune provides no affirmation of intrinsic power and no promise of future victories. Making a victory significant requires making it meaningful. Octavian surely meant his victory memorial at Actium to be memorable and meaningful.

Priapus sculpture at Pompeii

By the eighth century, Octavian’s ass-driver and ass sculptures presented philosophical problems in interpreting prophetic meaning of sculptures. The ass-driver and ass sculptures were thought to have been brought from Actium to the Hippodrome in Constantinople about 370. Soon after 421, seven Athenian philosophers reportedly came to Constantinople.[8] Kranos, the leader of the Athenian philosophers, identified the ass-driver as a bath attendant (περιχύτην). Kranos (Κράνος) in Greek means both a helmet and a rod of wood. Kranos evocatively described the bath attendant as a naked man with a helmet on his head.[9] Viewing the sculptures of the bath attendant following the ass, Kranos declared:

One day an ass will be like a man; what a disaster, for a man to follow an ass!

ποτὲ ὄνος ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἔσται ὦ συμφορά, ὅτι ἂνθρωπος ὄνῳ ἀκολουθεῖ [10]

Kranos’s statement makes best sense in the context of the ancient Greek-Latin literary tradition of Lucius or the Ass (Λούκιος ἢ ὄνος) and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (Asinus aureus). In that literary tradition, an ass with its large penis gives great sexual pleasure acting like a man to a woman.[11] That’s a performance that few men could equal and most would be ashamed to follow. The ass-driver and ass thus became a dispiriting omen:

May the words of the seer not come to pass!

᾿Αλλὰ μὴ ἔστω <τὸ> τοῦ μάντεως [12]

Yet Octavian understood the ass-driver and ass to be a propitious omen. If Octavian identified with an ass, he might have understood his intrinsic masculine virtue to be superior to that of the lady’s man Marc Antony.[13]

With a keen sense of manliness, the highly learned, thirteenth-century Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates significantly re-interpreted the ass-driver and ass sculptures. Choniates was rhetorically sophisticated enough to gaze erotically at the loins and breasts of Athena.[14] The goddess Athena was a conventional counterpart to Venus in figuring struggle between pursuing wisdom and pursuing pleasure. Choniates recognized manliness in men’s physical beauty and men’s sexual performance. Yet for Choniates, manliness also encompassed honoring truth and being reasonable and wise.[15] He condemned the Latin crusaders who conquered Constantinople in 1204 and melted Augustus’s statues to make coins:

Thus great things were exchanged for small ones, those works fashioned at huge expense were converted into worthless copper coins.

ἀνταλλασσόμενοι μικρῶν τὰ μεγάλα καὶ τὰ δαπάναις πονηθέντα μεγίσταις οὐτιδανῶν ἀντιδιδόντες κερμάτων [16]

Among the sculptures the Latin crusaders melted down for coins were the ass-driver and ass:

Together with Herakles they pulled down the ass, heavy-laden and braying as it moved along, and the ass driver following behind. These figures had been set up by Caesar Augustus at Actium (which is Nikopolis in Hellas) because when going out at night to reconnoiter Antony’s troops, he met up with a man driving an ass, and on inquiring who he was and where he was going, he was told, “I am Nikon and my ass is Nikandros, and I am proceeding to the camp of Caesar.”

Τούτῳ δὲ συγκαθεῖλον καὶ τὸν σεσαγμένον καὶ σὺν  ὀγκηθμῷ στελλόμενον ὄνον καὶ τὸν τούτῳ ἐφεπόμενον ὀνηγόν, οὓς ἐν ᾿Ακτίῳ ἔστησε Καῖσαρ ὁ Αὔγουστος, ὅ ἐστιν ἡ καθ᾿ ῾Ελλάδα Νικόπολις, ἡνίκα νυκτὸς ἐξιὼν τὸ τοῦ ᾿Αντωνίου κατασκέψασθαι στράτευμα ἀνδρὶ ἐνέτυχεν ὄνον ἐλαύνοντι καὶ πυθόμενος, ὅστις εἴη καὶ ἔνθα πορεύεται, ἤκουσεν ὡς καλοῦμαι Νίκων καὶ ὁ ἐμὸς ὄνος Νίκανδρος, ἀφικνοῦμαι δὲ πρὸς τὴν τοῦ Καίσαρος στρατιάν.

Choniates’s description of the ass as heavy-laden and being in front of the ass-driver are probably factual aspects of the sculptures. Choniates, however, shifted the name Nikon (victor) from the ass to the man. For the ass, he applied the name Nikandros.[17] That’s Greek for “victory of the man.” In addition, he newly directed the ass-driver and ass to the camp of Caesar. Choniates combined plentiful material goods, the genital superiority of an ass, and service to the victorious man in a unified figure of victory directed to Caesar. That’s meaning that Caesar Augustus plausibly would have intended.

Lack of close, sympathetic engagement with men’s penises has impeded scholarly appreciation for Octavian’s ass-driver and ass sculptures. A leading scholar of Byzantine statuary reported in a footnote:

A statue called Perichytes as well as one of a donkey, both in the Hippodrome. The Perichytes was nude except for a loincloth, and wore a helmet. [18]

A bath attendant (perichytes / περιχύτης), nude except for a loincloth and wearing a helmet, seems to me an implausible figure. Bath attendants didn’t wear helmets. Romans in the late Republic didn’t wear loincloths, nor did they produce sculptures of men wearing loincloths. In some sculptures of that period, a naked male figure had a non-functional mantle or drapery flowing across his waist. Such covering makes no sense for an ass-driver.

The reference to a loincloth probably came from a reading of an eighth-century account of the monuments of Constantinople. Here’s the relevant text from the critical edition:

The statue {of the ass-driver} is shaped like a man, with a helmet on its head, completely naked but with its private parts covered.

Ἔστι δὲ ἀνδροείκελον τὸ ἄγαλμα περικεφαλαίαν τῇ κεφαλῇ περιέχον, γυμνόν τοι ὅλως καὶ ἐν τοῖς βρετγάνοις διδύμοις ἐπικεκαλυμμένον. [19]

The Greek word translated as the first word (βρετγάνοις) in the two-word combination interpreted as “private parts” (βρετγάνοις διδύμοις) isn’t known apart from this text. The critical edition in its commentary gives an alternate translation “arms.”[20] Nude statutes of men in the Roman Republic commonly had a chlamys wrapped around an arm. A doubled or matching covering for an arm or arms is a more plausible object for the clause qualifying the “completely nude” ass-driver. Given the description of ass-driver as a completely naked bath attendant, “καὶ ἐν τοῖς βρετγάνοις διδύμοις ἐπικεκαλυμμένον” might refer to the completely naked figure having around him twin covered pots of some sort. Both an ass-driver of a heavily laden ass and a bath attendant might plausibly carry identical objects in each hand.[21]

bath attendant mosaic from Pompeii

Visual art, literature, and history cannot be understood adequately without keen appreciation for men’s seminal, life-generating, pleasure-providing penises. Man historically has tended to be understood as a generic, sexless human being. Women historically have been treated as special beings within the still-dominant social structure of gynocentrism. That’s a travesty of human nature and creation.[22] Overturning castration culture and the pervasive criminalization of men’s sexuality requires liberating imagination. Serious study of Augustus’s ass-driver and ass sculptures would be a good omen for that pivotal battle.

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Notes:

[1] The number of bronze rams is based on surviving archaeological evidence. Zachos (2003) p. 65. The ass-driver and ass were made of bronze. Rams were frequently melted down to cast public sculptures and would have been a ready-to-hand source of bronze at Actium after the battle. Murray & Petsas (1989) p. 72, n. 78. Zachos (2015), pp. 63-9, contains magnificent color images of a reconstruction of the victory memorial.

Octavian celebrated his Actian triumph on August 14, 29 BGC. The first Actian games were held near the site of the campsite memorial in September, 27 BGC. The campsite memorial thus dates to 29-27 BGC. Zachos (2003) pp. 90, 66; Zachos (2015) p. 60.

[2] Hallet (2005) p. 98. While the statue hasn’t survived, a representation of it appears on a silver denarius in the Niggeler Collection. For an image, see Gyori (2013) p. 205, Fig. 3. See also id., Fig. 5, and id. p. 211, Figs. 44a-47c. Here’s a large image of an oval gem with a nude Octavian as Neptune. Gyori observes:

The most common “heroic figure” type consists of either a nude figure standing with a spear or a nude figure standing with a cloak bunched on the left shoulder holding a spear or a sword in hand and is by far the most basic pose for a Hellenistic monarch.

Id. p. 65. Here’s a large, online collection of Augustan portraits. On nude figures in Roman art more generally, Hallet (2005) Ch. 3-4.

Octavian married Clodia Pulchra about 44 BGC. That was his first marriage. She was the daughter of Fulvia and the stepdaughter of Marc Antony. The marriage was arranged as a political alliance. Octavian divorced Clodia after a sexless marriage of a few years. Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Augustus 62.1 records that Octavian returned Clodia intactam adhuc et virginem {untouched until then, and still a virgin}. That experience may have heightened Octavian’s concern to assert his virility.

Octavian’s conflict with Fulvia may have also heightened his concern to assert his virility. Fulvia married Marc Antony. When Antony for sexual pleasure preferred his mistress Glaphyra, Fulvia attempted to solicited Octavian for sex. Octavian rejected her. Fulvia in response fought against Octavian in the Perusine War. Octavian’s forces fired lead sling bullets (glandes) shaped like a penis and inscribed with messages of virility. Fulvia’s forces fired back bullets inscribed with descriptions of Octavian engaging in homosexual acts. Given that history, the ass-driver and ass statues might suggest, whatever the sexual act, Octavian has the virility to be victorious.

[3] In conflict with Antony, Octavian engaged in a battle of images. After Octavian prevailed, he shifted his self-representations. Zanker (1988), Ch. 2-3. That shift wasn’t a totalitarian change in imperial mythology. Stevenson (1998).

[4] The Pompeii ass-lion-victory painting is on a post-earthquake wall, hence it must date no earlier than 62 GC. Clarke (2007) p. 112. Since the eruption of Vesuvius occurred in 79 GC, the painting is from no later than that date. A naked, ithyphallic ass-driver and ass in Augustus’s victory memorial at Actium surely would have become well-known. It probably would have been particularly intriguing to plausible social peers of the ass driver, e.g. men laborers, small-scale merchants, and others who might frequent a tavern in Pompeii.

The wide-ranging nineteenth-century scholar Guilio Minervini associated the ass-driver and ass sculptures at Actium with the Pompeii painting a mere four years after its discovery in 1855. Clarke (2007) pp. 110-2. Minervini’s skills in archaeology, numismatics, philology, and law probably helped him to make this pioneering association. My interpretation, which differs significantly from Minervini’s, draws upon more than century of additional, important philological work.

[5] Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Life of Augustus 96.2. I’ve slightly adapted the English translation of  J. C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library, 1913-14) to make it more literal. The Latin text is also from Rolfe’s edition.

[6] Suetonius knew enough Greek to cite and quote Greek texts appropriately. He may have also authored in Greek a book on Greek insults. Wardle (1993). Tissol (1997), p. 33, points out Suetonius’s Latin/Greek pun. Id., p. 34, insightfully adds:

We readers of Ovid may also contemplate the comic potential of this bronze ass-driver and donkey in a military monument that bristled with the rams of ships and other impressive spoils.

[7] Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Antony 65.3. I’ve slightly adapted the English translation of Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb Classical Library, 1914) to make it more literal. The Greek text is also from Perrin’s edition.

The phrase γνωρίσας αὐτὸν is associated with some ambiguity. It could mean either that the ass-driver recognized Caesar, or that the ass-driver made himself known to Caesar.  The seventeenth-century translation made under the editor John Dryden has “he answered him that his own name was….” in place of “he, recognizing him {Caesar}, replied….” The phrase “answered him that his own name was” lacks good sense. Immediately following that phrase, the ass-driver gives his own name and the name of his ass. There’s no reason for the ass driver saying γνωρίσας αὐτὸν if it means “that his own name was.” Underscoring that point, Clarke’s translation gives no apparent significance to γνωρίσας αὐτὸν. See Clarke (2008) p. 303. Interpreting that phrase to imply the ass-driver recognized Caesar seems to me a better translation. Such was the choice of Perrin, the Loeb translator.

[8] In Patria 2.82, a lector states that Valentinian set up the statues of the ass-driver and ass. Trans. Berger (2013) p. 105, which identifies Valentinian as Valentinian I. Valentinian I reigned as Roman Emperor from 364 to 375. Valentinian resided in Milan. He appointed his brother Valens as Emperor of the East. Valens resided in Constantinople.

The Emperor Constantine I set up a serpent column, originally from Delphi, in the Hippodrome in Constantinopole. However, “images of victory were by the far the most common type of antiquity brought to the circus {the Hippodrome in Constantinople}.” Bassett (2004) p. 62.

The seven Athenian philosophers came with Eudokia the Athenian. She perhaps won an imperial bride-show (she was “judged” and “found great fortune through her beauty”) and thus become the wife of Emperor Theodosius II in 421. Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai {Παραστάσεις σύντομοι χρονικαί / Brief Historical Notes} 64, trans. Cameron & Herrin (1984) p. 141. John Malalas, Chronicle, Bk. 14, describes Theodosius II (reigned 408-450) falling in love with Eudokia for her beauty, but without the multi-contestant formality of judgment associated with a bride show.

Eudokia reportedly was in love with the magistros Paulinos. She gave him a large, beautiful apple that Theodosius had given to her. Theodosius found out about the gift and suspected romantic intrigue. In accordance with deeply entrenched gender bias in punishment for illicit sex:

he {Emperor Theodosius} reproached her with harsh words, and ordered that Paulinos be cut to pieces when he arrived at the palace.

Patria 3.146, trans. Berger (2013) p. 201.

[9] Patria 2.82, Greek text and English trans. in Berger (2013) pp. 104-7. The Greek word for bath attendant (περιχύτην) etymologically comes from “one that pours around.” The bath attendant is known as Perichytes, a transliteration of the Greek word for bath attendant.

Both the tenth-century Byzantine text known as the Anonymous Treu and the Patria of Constantinople, put together about 989, described the ass-driver as naked and a bath attendant. Cameron & Herrin (1988) p. 258. The ass-driver / bath attendant most plausibly didn’t have his penis covered. The bath attendant probably had an erect penis, as depicted in the Priapus fountain sculpture (House of Vettii) and the bath attendant mosaic (House of Menander) found at Pompeii. On the macrophallic bath attendant, Clarke (1998) pp. 129-36.

According to the Patria, a statue of Priapos stood in Constantinople. The statue “holds in his left hand his erect private parts, for he clearly reveals the seed hidden in the earth.” Patria 2.12, trans. Berger (2013) p. 55.

In addition, the ass of a human sculpture in the Hippodrome of Constantinople was the focus of public attention. A Constantinopolitan house-owner (“a certain Xenophon”) had demanded that, in exchange for selling his house to make way for the Hagia Sophia, a sculpture of him be erected in the Hippodrome and honored by charioteers. The emperor agreed. He had the statue erected and ordered:

that his backside should be mockingly reverenced by the charioteers before mounting their chariots. This has lasted to this day, and he is called the ruler of the underworld.

Patria 4.5, trans. Berger (2013) p. 239.

[10] Parastaseis 64, Greek text and English translation from Cameron & Herrin (1988) pp. 146-7. For συμφορά, I’ve used Berger’s translation “disaster” from the corresponding text in the Patria. See subsequent note. The Parastaseis was written in eighth-century Constantinople, probably by descendants of aristocratic families long-established there. Anderson (2011).

The Patria, a compilation finished in Constantinople about 990, adds an additional note of shame to Kranos’s words about the ass and the man:

{he said} “One day an ass will be like a man” and “What a disaster if a man is not ashamed to follow an ass!”

“ὥς ποτε ὄνος ἄνθρωπος ἔσται,” και “ὦ τῆς συμφορᾶς, ὄτι ἄνθρωπος ὄνῳ ἀκολουθεῖν οὐκ αἰσχύνεται.”

Patria 2.82, Greek text and English trans. from Berger (2013) pp. 106-7. For consistency in the use of terms, I’ve substituted “ass” for “donkey” in Berger’s translation. The only substantial difference from the Greek text in Parastaseis 64 is the additional qualifier “not ashamed” (οὐκ αισχύνεται).

[11] In Apuleius, Asinus aureus (Metamorphoses) 11.8, the festival procession includes an ass and a man:

an ass with wings stuck on walking alongside a decrepit old man, such that you might call him a Bellerophon and the ass a Pegasus, and yet laugh at them both.

asinum pinnis agglutinatis adambulantem cuidam seni debili, ut illum quidem Bellerophontem, hunc autem diceres Pegasum, tamen rideres utrumque.

Latin text and English trans. from Harrison (2012) p. 378. Pegasus as “an ass with wings stuck on” and Bellerophon as “a decrepit old man” are comic reversals of heroic figures. The pair functions as a “fittingly climactic conclusion” to the festival procession, “symbolic recapitulation of previous events in the novel’s plot.” Harrison (2012) p. 385. Octavian’s ass-driver and ass, interpreted as comic reversal of a heroic figure, may well have been a significant influence on Apuleius.

[12] Parastaseis 64, Greek and English trans. Cameron & Herrin (1988) pp. 146-7. The subsequent sentence gives scholarly seriousness to the problem of interpreting the ass-driver and ass:

This problem, which Kranos expounded, was found in the book of Leo the Great, according to Ligurius the astronomer and consul of the same Emperor Leo.

Id. This philosophical problem is similar to those that make up Aristotle’s Problemata. That was a corpus of popular philosophic conundrums that developed over centuries. In the Patria, the philosopher Karos emphasizes the ominous prophecy of the sculptures that the philosophers discussed:

All this appears to be bad in my opinion, for if these statues tell the truth when they are put to the test, why does Constantinople still stand?

Patria 2.82, trans. Berger (2013) p. 107. The great Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes recounted from the Parastaseis the philosophers’ interpretation of the ass-driver and ass sculptures. He interpreted their prophetic meaning as “one day in the future fools (donkeys) will be valued above true wisdom.” Cameron & Herrin (1988) p. 258. An implicit question would have been obvious to contemporary readers: given the philosophers’ and Tzetzes’s understanding of the prophetic meaning of the ass-driver and ass, why was Octavian the victor at the battle of Actium?

The Parastaseis is subtly and wryly comic. The names of the seven Athenian philosophers who went to Constantinople are Kranos, Karos, Pelops, Apelles, Nerva, Silvanus, and Kyrvos. These names apparently were fabricated to be evocative and amusing. Moreover, a stern Byzantine official (praepositus) has the self-absorbed name Narcissus:

Narcissus, a praepositus, gave the philosopher {Kranos} a slap and said to him, “You are benighted; answer the sun like the sun he is.” When Kranos turned the other cheek, Narcissus gave him <another slap>.

Parastaseis 64, trans. Cameron & Herrin (1988) p. 145. The words “another slap” are a plausible editorial interpretation for apparently missing text. For the humor in deeply Christian Byzantine, cf. Matthew 17:5, 5:39.

The humor of the Parastaseis doesn’t mean that it is non-factual and non-serious. The Parastaseis has been called “a parody, a play with historical (or, rather, pseudo-historical) facts and names.” Kazhdan, Sherry & Angelide (1999) p. 311. But the Parastaseis is more than a parody. It includes many, well-attested historical facts. It promotes the interests of the old Constantinople aristocracy by asserting “a criterion for imperial service above simple loyalty” and “forms of knowledge that cannot be bent to imperial will.” Anderson (2011) p. 19. Similar conflicts can be perceived in the textual history of Aristotle’s advice to the Alexander the Great in the Secret of Secrets, and in the Persian intellectual Ibn al-Muqaffa translating into Arabic Kalilah and Dimnah.

[13] In support of gynocentric ideology, classical scholarship has tended to associate penile penetration with asserting dominance. Penile penetration is better understood as giving pleasure and life in ancient Greece and Roman and in all societies throughout the ages.

Recognize penile penetration to be a desired good has important implications for interpreting the ass-driver and ass sculptures, as well as the ass-lion-victory painting at Pompeii. Regarding the Pompeii painting, Clarke stated:

Since the ass is penetrating a lion, not a lioness, it would be hard to read the scene as an allegory of a human male mounting a human female. It’s certainly not a very flattering representation if it’s supposed to stand for lovemaking between human beings.

Clarke (2008) p. 310. In another publication Clarke recognized that the painting doesn’t show the sex of the lion/lioness. Clarke (2007) p. 261, n. 3. The sex of the animal has no relevance in this context. Lovemaking between human beings takes a variety of forms. A male penetrating a female or a male penetrating a male can be a flattering and loving act. Based upon my philological study (careful study of the words he has written in his scholarly publications), I believe that Clarke understands this. He didn’t mean what his words above say. Yet one must also recognize a broader context. Scholars today facilely disparage men’s sexuality and regularly fail in seeing, reading, and understanding in relation to men.

Ass-driver and ass sculptures and the Pompeian ass-lion-victory painting might signify victory as affiliation, rather than dominance. Octavian had close personal familial relations with Antony. He probably would have preferred to be united with Antony in a loving relationship than to be fighting with him as an enemy. Like the lion laying down with the lamb, the lion laying down with the ass in the Pompeiian painting might signify an astonishing victory of peaceful, loving relationships. Cf. Isaiah 65:25.

[14] Athena was much more known for wisdom than sex appeal. Yet Choniates in his major historical work responded with erotic sense to a statue of Athena in Constantinople:

She stood about thirty feet high and her draperies were made of the same bronze material in which the rest of the statue had been cast. Her tunic reached to her feet and was bunched up in many parts, so that no part of her body which nature ordained should be covered, could be seen. The war-like girdle around her waist was drawn quite tight. And over her pointed breasts, she wore a decorated layer like an aegis, which fell from her shoulders and bore a depiction of a Gorgon’s head on it. She wore no tunic at her throat which stretched upwards on a high neck; it was an unbeatable sight in terms of the pleasure it gave. The bronze was so well crafted to give a convincing imitation of everything that even the lips gave the impression that, if you waited long enough, you would hear a gentle voice. Even the swelling of the veins showed through and the whole body, as if it were supple, bent where it should, and despite not being alive, had the look of a living thing, filling your eyes with desire. The crest on her head sloped downwards in awe-inspiring fashion. Her hair was wound in braids and fastened behind, while some spilled out over her forehead, and was a pleasure to behold. While as to her hands, the left one was lifting the folds of her garment, while the other was stretched out southwards to the horizon.

Niketas Choniates, Annals 558-9, trans. Papamastorakis (2009) p. 219. The English translation in Magoulias (1984), pp. 305-6, greatly dulls the eroticism in Choniates’s ekphrasis.

A bronze nude may not have been in itself troubling to Byzantine sensibility. A miniature nude bronze figure exists in a portrait of St. John the Divine in a Byzantine Gospel Book. See British Museum, Add. Mss. 5112, fol. 134. The British Museum catalog dates that portrait to the third quarter of the twelfth century. Cutler (1968), p. 115, states: “the presence in this sacred context of a nude figure, apparently in cast bronze, is distinctly anomalous.” It may be anomalous only with respect to surviving evidence.

[15] Choniates associated manliness with “our duty to honor truth as being more important and precious than our own dear friends.” He condemned barbarians understanding of manliness as cruelty. He disparaged those who “separated manliness from the correspondent virtues and claimed it for themselves.” Underscoring the eroticism of manliness given his ekphrasis of Athena, Choniates described Athena as “the patroness of manliness and wisdom even though she was but a symbol of these.” Niketas Choniates, Annals 402, 513, 650, 559, trans. Magoulias (1984) pp. 221, 283, 359, 306.

Choniates harshly condemned many of Andronikos I’s actions. Nonetheless, Choniates appreciated Andronikos’s manliness:

As was to be expected, insidious plots and clandestine intrigues were hatched against Andronikos while others were contrived in the open, but Andronikos swept these away like so many spider webs and scattered them about like children’s playthings made of sand, relying on his manliness and the fact that he surpassed his enemies in mother-wit to the degree that irrational creatures are inferior to rational ones. In his many contentions with his adversaries, he always turned them to flight and carried off Eudokia’s love as a reward.

Annals 104, from Greek trans. id. p. 60. Andronikos had exceptionally strong and independent sexuality. Choniates regarded that as detracting from his manliness, but not his sexual success:

Andronikos gave himself over to wanton pleasures, adorned himself like a fop, and paraded in the streets escorted by bodyguards bearing silver bows; these men were tall in stature and sported their first growth of beard and blond hair tinged with red. Henceforth Andronikos pursued his quarry, bewitching her with his love charms. He was lavish in the display of his emotions, and he was endowed, moreover, with a wondrous comeliness; he was like a young shoot climbing up a fir tree. The acknowledged king of dandies, he was titillated by fine long robes, and especially those that fall down over the buttocks and thighs, are slit, and appear to be woven on the body. But his manliness was diminished, and he was constantly anxious; he lost his sobriety and faculty of reason, and the beast of prey shed his gravity of deportment. Philippa, utterly conquered, consented to the marriage bed, forsook both home and family, and followed after her lover {Andronikos}.

Annals 139, trans. id. p. 79. On Choniates’s complex perspective on Andronikos, Kaldellis (2009) pp. 93-101.

[16] Niketas Choniates, Annals 649, trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 358. The Greek text is from Van Dieten (1975). The page numbers of the latter provide the text reference numbers for the Annals. The subsequent quote is from Annals 650, trans. id. p. 359. Both are from the last chapter of the Annals. Some scholars regard that as a separate work and call it De Signis or De Satuis. It has survived only at the end of two thirteenth-century manuscripts of the Annals, Laurentianus IX 24 and Oxoniensis Roe 22. Papamastorakis (2009) p. 209.

[17] The Byzantine historian Joannes Zonaras, writing in the twelfth century, followed Plutarch in naming the ass-driver Eutychus and the ass Nikon. See Zonaras, Epitome Historiarum 10.30.

The Byzantines felt strongly the power of images. The Parastaseis warns:

Consider these things truly, Philokalos {lover of beauty}, and pray that you do not fall into temptation, and take care when you look at old statues, especially pagan ones.

Parastaseis 28, trans. Cameron & Herrin (1988) p. 91. The power of statues wasn’t fixed. It could be controlled and manipulated. James (1996) pp. 15-8.

The change in the names for the ass-driver and ass in Choniates’s Annals probably represents Choniates’s deliberate choice. Choniates had impressive classical learning and almost surely knew of Plutarch’s account of the sculptures, even if only through Zonaras’s Epitome Historiarum. Choniates is “one of the most reliable and trustworthy {sources} when it comes to what was destroyed in the fires and plunder of 1203-1204.” Kaldellis (2016) p. 738. However, a naked, ithyphallic ass-driver and ass presented serious interpretive challenges in Byzantium. Byzantine ominous prophetic interpretations of those sculptures were inconsistent with Octavian’s victory in the Battle of Actium. Choniates alleviated that historical-prophetic problem.

[18] Mango (1963) p. 58, n. 16 (internal references omitted). Citing Vita S. Lucae Stylitae, Mango adds that the ass-driver “was stolen by western merchants some time between 935 and 959.” Id. Given the witnesses of Zonaras, Tzetzes, and Choniates, the ass-driver sculpture most likely was present in the Constantinople Hippodrome until 1204. The writer of Vita S. Lucae Stylitae plausibly regarded the ass-driver sculpture as embarrassing to Constantinople and fictionally got rid of it through bad persons acting wrongly.

[19] Parastaseis 64, Greek and English trans. Cameron & Herrin (1988) pp. 146-7.

[20] Cameron & Herrin (1988) p. 258.

[21] Further philological study might consider whether any relevant Greek texts provide a plausibly parallel formulation. The text of the Parastaseis is “frequently corrupt and even lacunose.” Id. p. 2.

[22] Even regarding men as pigs or as dogs is better than regarding men as generic, sexless human beings.

[images] (1) Bronze Carthaginian naval ram from the Battle of the Egadi Islands (First Punic War, 241 BGC). Image thanks to Sb2s3 and Wikimedia Commons. The Athlit ram, dated between 530 and 270 BGC, is similar. On the rams displayed in Octavian’s Actium memorial, see Murray & Petsas (1989) pp. 34-40. (2) Marble statue known as the Tusculum Octavian. The head, showing Octavian’s features, was added to a sculpture body carved earlier. Louvre Museum (Paris): item Ma 1251 (MR 328), Borghese Collection purchase, 1807. Image thanks to Jastrow and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Being crowned by Nike (the goddess of Victory), an ass mounts a lion. Painting from a tavern in Roman Pompeii, now held in Archaeological Museum, Naples. Under Wikimedia Commons thorough analysis of copyright law, this image and other images of ancient paintings from Pompeii are in the public domain in the U.S. I have enhanced the brightness and contrast of this image to make it more legible. (4) Priapus sculpture from House of the Vettii, Pompeii. Now held by Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei, inv. 87265. This sculpture served as a fountain, with water flowing through its penis. Photo by Jordi Miralles. A Priapus statuette and a Priapus painting (in the House of Vettii) were also uncovered at Pompeii. Here’s more on ancient Roman perceptions of Priapus. (5) Mosaic of bath attendant from House of the Menander, Pompei, at the entryway to the caldarium. Dated 40 – 20 BGC by Clarke (1998) p. 125.

References:

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