sickness results not from being a doctor, but from marriage

doctor giving patient an enema

Enraged at being intellectually disparaged and declared a cuckold, a fourteenth-century Byzantine scholar attacked his colleague with a sturdy stick. He struck him over the head and caused his brain to pour down his nostrils. Nearly losing consciousness, the wounded scholar kept screaming “Get a doctor!” as blood spurted from his head. A doctor soon arrived on the scene:

He was that fine, upright character Pepagomenos, who once instead of a remedy made up a poisonous drug and administered it to himself and to Phokidios, the drunken assistant secretary, now deceased, of the dead old dotard Eumarantus. He at once stopped the bleeding by applying the herb known as ox-eye. [1]

Pepagomenos then turned and recognized his old friend Mazaris, who himself was a close friend of the wounded man and had been with him at the time of the attack. Mazaris was also a doctor. Pepagomenos greeted and embraced Mazaris and then exclaimed:

How did you get into this state, my boy? Where have you come from, looking so shabby, limping, pale, weakened by exposure, your fingers and toes out of joint? What made you a pauper and a beggar, disreputable and disrespectable? How did it all happen to you? For the sake of our old friendship, tell me.

Doctors historically were associated with being sick and having pallid, sallow faces. Mazaris was a doctor particularly noted for treating gout. His wounded friend apparently didn’t trust Mazaris’s medical skills. As a doctor, Mazaris seemed unable to cure himself.[2]

In Mazaris’s Byzantine society, doctors were harshly disparaged. They were called “certified killers,” “professional poison-mongers,”  “banes to mankind,” and menaces to their patients.[3] Pepagomenos described some doctors who were eminent and well-connected among Byzantine elites:

one, the elder, is called Pepagomenos {sic}, but his nickname is Sauromates. He belongs to the class of certified killers, along with Onocentius, as he is called in good Latin, a sad case of brain damage; his brother and exact image Libistros; the deaf Malakes; Peter, like the Peter in Synesius, who is considered the scourge of Pentapolis; then, ranking above all these, Konones the hellhound, who administers hemlock for medicine, and Charsianites, who gently and without bloodshed helps his serious cases along on their way to Charon {death}. [4]

Mazaris described himself as depressed. Pepagomenos was concerned that his sons, who were Mazaris’s colleagues, would suffer Mazaris’s troubles.

Mazaris’s troubles had nothing to do with being a doctor. Mazaris explained to Pepagomenos:

Don’t worry. You can set your mind at ease. Nothing of this kind will happen to them, so long as they remain single. When they get it into their head to marry, then you will see them in my condition and worse. I, for my part, as long as I lived alone, enjoyed a fair measure of dignity and respect, and also of wealth and other pleasant things, as you know. Unfortunately, right after my marriage my troubles began, because the bad, as somebody has said, is next-door to the good. And so I now look like this.

Occupational hardships are nothing compared to men’s sufferings in marriage. Scholars have disparaged and marginalized voices of men’s sexed protest throughout history. Those voices deserve serious consideration.

The most serious public health problem today is unhealthful personal relationships. Demonization of men, harsh repression of men’s sexuality, and grotesque anti-men sex discrimination in child-custody and child-support decisions greatly lessens possibilities for loving personal relationships and good marriages. Hating men makes persons sick.

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[1] Mazaris’s Journey to Hades, from Greek trans. Seminar (1975) p. 35. Subsequent references to Mazaris’s Journey to Hades are by page number in id. Subsequent quotes are from pp. 35-6 (How did you get into this state…), p. 39 (one, the elder, is called Pepagomenos…); 41 (Don’t worry…). I’ve made some minor, non-substantial changes to the translations for ease of reading.

[2] On doctors being sick and having sallow complexions, see note [11] in my post on physiognomy of skin color before the Enlightenment. On Mazaris treating grout, Mazaris’s Journey to Hades, p. 67.

[3] Mazaris’s Journey to Hades, pp. 39, 5, 67, 77. The text “possesses a clear subtext of satire against doctors.” Garland (2007) p. 199. Kazhdan argued that the social status of doctors in Byzantium declined after the seventh century and then began rising at the end of the tenth century. He observed that the twelfth-century Byzantine historian Nicetas Choniates “overtly differentiated the doctor and the poisoner” (Historia, 298.14). Kazhdan (1984) p. 51. I don’t find Kazhdan’s argument convincing. More importantly, persons have always desperately sought doctors and been frustrated with doctors’ costs and limitations.

[4] The name Onocentius has the Greek work for donkey (onos) substituted into the Latin name Innocentius (Innocent). The phrase “like the Peter in Synesius” refers to Synesius, Epistle 47:

Regard Peter also as the scorn of Pentapolis, a fellow who sets about breaking its laws without method, and for my part I detest the man who proceeds about a thing in that way.

From Greek trans. Augustine FitzGerald (1926), via Livius. Synesius, who lived from c. 373 to c. 414, was a bishop of Ptolemais in the Libyan Pentapolis. In ancient Greek myth, Charion is a ferryman who carries souls to the land of the dead.

[image] Patient receiving an enema. Illumination from iatromathematical housebook from the Southern German/Swiss region. Produced in the middle of the fifteenth century. From p. 120 in Cod. Sang. 760, held in Stiftsbibliothek (St. Gallen, Switzerland). Thanks to e-codices.


Garland, Lynda. 2007. “Mazaris’s Journey to Hades: Further Reflections and Reappraisal.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 61: 183-214.

Kazhdan, Alexander. 1984. “The Image of the Medical Doctor in Byzantine Literature of the Tenth to Twelfth Centuries.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 38: 43-51.

Seminar, Classics 600 at SUNY Buffalo. 1975. Mazaris’ Journey to Hades; or Interviews with Dead Men about Certain Officials of the Imperial Court. Greek text with translation, notes, introduction and index. Buffalo: Arethusa.

Journey to Hades: Byzantine anti-men bias in divorce rulings

Acute anti-men bias in child custody, child support, and alimony rulings is a well-known but little discussed aspect of family courts today. Under a veneer of equal justice, anti-men sex discrimination is pervasive in practice. Appreciation for the distinction between formal, written law and actual, popular practice is crucial in considering the history of child-support and divorce rulings. With respect to actual divorce rulings, Mazaris’s Journey to Hades provides amazing insight into early fifteenth-century Byzantine divorce practice.

climbing the Scala Sancta

Early in the fifteenth century, Padiates was having sex with Malakenos’s wife in Constantinople. Padiates subsequently left for the island of Lemnos. Padiates alleged that he left because his assistant secretary Holobolos had squeezed him out of imperial favor. Holobolos was getting all the imperial writing assignments and had been appointed “sole and permanent secretary of public and confidential affairs.” Holobolos, bitter about his own bureaucratic rival “the scion of the evil Angels Philommataios,” told a different story about Padiates’s departure:

That wasn’t how you came to sail off to Lemnos, you cripple Padiates. It happened like this: you were terrified that the heartbroken cuckold who shared the use of his wife with you, the late Malakenos, might return from the dives of Thessalonica and take his stand at the top of that famous flight of stairs, with which adulterous wives threaten their husbands: “Think twice, you men, before you have anything to say against us, or else we will make you walk up those famous seventy-two steps to the Patriarch’s Palace.” As I was saying, it was out of fear of that cuckold that you forgot everything else and rushed off to Lemnos. [1]

The wives’ taunt can be understood straightforwardly as a threat of divorce. Walking up the steps to the Patriarch’s Palace makes sense as a reference to being called to formal proceedings for a divorce. Because divorce rulings in practice commonly destroy husbands financially and deprive them of a close relationship with their children, wives today can taunt their husbands with the threat of divorce. That same dynamic apparently existed in early-fifteenth-century Byzantium. Men were better off enduring being cuckolds than objecting to their wives’ adulterous ways and getting divorced.

The cuckolded husband Malakenos taking a stand at the top of the stairs may point to further, less well-known aspects of family law. Padiates seems to have feared that the husband he was cuckolding would seek a divorce to punish him. As a result of a divorce, Padiates might find himself pressured to marry the ex-wife. But the situation was probably worse than that. Under family law today, men lack the reproductive right to have sex without risking being legally forced into financial fatherhood. Moreover, a married man is financially responsible for any children that his wife might have during the course of their marriage, even if the children come from his wife’s adulterous affair. Byzantine family law probably worked similarly. By having sex with Malakenos’s wife, Padiates was acting prudently for a man who wanted only to have sex. If Malakenos divorced his wife, Padiates’s risk in having sex with her would go up considerably. He plausibly fled to Lemnos because he feared being pressured into marriage or being caught in forced financial fatherhood.

The “famous flight of stairs” having seventy-two steps is a unique, late reference to an ancient structure in Constantinople. An eighth-century text on the monuments of Constantinople refers “seventy-two steps” leading from a “golden-roofed” basilica to the church of the Mother of God at Chalkoprateia. While this stairway isn’t described as famous, it certainly had a well-known position on the path of imperial and ecclesiastical processions.[2]

Associating a well-known stairway with adultery may have gained rhetorical force in relation to a stairway now known as the Scala Sancta. According to Christian tradition, Saint Helena, the mother of the early fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine, had this stairway transported to Rome from Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem. Jesus is thought to have walked up its steps to be judged by Pilate and then crucified. The Scala Sancta would have made a poignant figure for wives calling their husbands to divorce proceedings. However, the Scala Sancta isn’t well documented prior to the sixteenth century. Perhaps Dante’s early fourteenth-century Comedia referred to it.[3] The entry in Liber Pontificalis for the ninth-century Pope Sergius II notes:

He performed another excellent work outside the doors of this venerable church {the original St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome}: the holy thresholds were formerly hidden from the people, and with great endeavour he rendered them visible to all when he constructed there from the foundations beautifully adorned arches; and these he magnificently adorned with various pictures.

{Et aliud quidam opus ante fores huius venerandae ecclesiae valde optimum fecit, quia sacra pridem quae latebant populis limina summo studio omnibus manifesta constituit cum pulchri decoris ibidem arcos a fundamentis construxit; quos etiam variis picturis nitide decoravit.} [4]

Some believe that Liber Pontificalis here refers to the Scala Sancta. That’s questionable. Whether in early fourteenth-century Constantinople Holobolos might have parodied the Scala Sancta must be regarded as an open question.

Michael Psellos’s influential eleventh-century history of Byzantine emperors provides more convincing context for a famous stairway to divorce proceedings. Psellos’s history describes the early-eleventh-century Empress Zoë Porphyrogenita flagrantly cuckolding her husband the Emperor Romanos III. Romanos was highly reluctant to divorce Zoë. He even gave her lover free access to their bedchamber in return for foot massages in bed. Zoë later in life became extremely devoted to an icon of Jesus called the Antiphonetes (ἀντιφωνητής). In Zoë’s time, that icon was held in the church of the Mother of God at Chalkoprateia next to the stairway of seventy-two steps. Zoë frequently went to the church at Chalkoprateia to venerate the Antiphonetes icon. She also had a replica created for her own personal use:

Zoë made several prophecies with regard to the future from a study of this image. So, when she had met with some good fortune, or when some trouble had befallen her, she would at once consult her image, in the one case to acknowledge her gratitude, in the other to beg its favour. I myself have often seen her, in moments of great distress, clasp the sacred object in her hands, contemplate it, talk to it as though it were indeed alive, and address it with one sweet term of endearment after another. Then at other times I have seen her lying on the ground, her tears bathing the earth, while she beat her breasts over and over again, tearing at them with her hands. If she saw the image turn pale, she would go away crestfallen, but if it took on a fiery red colour, its halo lustrous with a beautiful radiant light, she would lose no time in telling the emperor and prophesying what the future was to bring forth. [5]

According to Psellos’s history, Zoë died at age seventy-two. With her well-documented connection to the seventy-two steps, her flagrantly cuckolding her husband, and her emotional intimacy with an icon, Zoë provides a plausible origin for the association of the stairway with adultery.  Underscoring Zoë’s connection to the Chalkoprateia, after describing why Padiates fled to Lemnos, Holobolos turned to his friend Mazaris and said:

Don’t you realize that this so-called son of his is in fact a bastard of Rhiphas Chalkeopoulos? [6]

The one who cuckolds being cuckolded is a form of the well-known folk motif “trickster tricked.” The famous stairway upon which adulterous wives taunt their husbands seems to be a literary figure built upon a real stairway in Constantinople and Michael’s Psellos’s historical account of the Empress Zoë.

icon of Christ Antiphonetes

Much more important than the source of the literary figure is its enduring policy insights. Men historically have been punished more severely for adultery than women have. Acute anti-men bias in child support, child custody, and alimony rulings makes for unusually cruel punishment for husbands whose wives commit adultery and then divorce their husbands. Those husbands climb on their knees to family court crucifixion.

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[1] Mazaris’s Journey to Hades, from Greek trans. Seminar (1975) p. 35. I’ve made a couple of minor, non-substantial changes for ease of reading. The two prior quotes “sole and permanent secretary of public and confidential affairs” and “the scion of the evil Angels Philommataios” are from id. pp. 33 and 27, respectively.

[2] Parastaseis syntomoi chronikai 37 (seventy-two steps), from Greek trans. Cameron & Herrin (1984) p. 99. Zosimus, a historian writing about 500 GC, may have referred to them. Zosimus, Historia Nova 2.31.2, discussed in Mango (1959) p. 44. On imperial and ecclesiastical processions in Constantinople, Berger (2001). The number seventy-two has significant references in Jewish mystical literature. According to the Zohar, Jacob’s ladder had seventy-two steps. On the Basilica, which wasn’t the Hagia Sophia, Mango (1959) pp. 48-51. On the location of the Patriarch’s Palace, Dark & Kostenec (2014).

Another stairway in Constantinople was “steps known as Topoi.” Parastaseis syntomoi chronikai 32, trans. Cameron & Herrin (1984) p. 95. See also Patria 2.27 (“steps know as <Topoi>”), from Greek trans. Berger (2013) p. 67. Patria 3.32 refers to topon (τοπον) in the context of clearing the site (topon) for the church of the Holy Mother of God at Chalkoprateia. Id. pp. 156-7 (text and translation), 310 (note). Topoi (τόποι) in ancient Greek literally means places or positions. However, the steps known as Topoi were not near the Chalkoprateia, but near the Constantinopolitan shore of the Bosphorus.

[3] Wilkins (1955), in relation to Dante, Paradiso XXI: 28-30. The excellent Princeton Dante Project unconvincingly but authoritatively declares that the “ladder” (scaleo) of Paradiso XXI: 29 is derived from the biblical Jacob’s ladder.

[4] From Liber Pontificalis 104.19, entry for Pope Sergius II (reigned 844 to 847), Latin text from Duchesne (1886) vol. 2, p. 91, English trans. Davis (1996) pp. 83-4. Neither edition makes any note of a possible reference to the Scala Sancta. A typical statement of Christian tradition:

The first written testimonies to this renowned memory of the Passion {the Scala Sancta} are found in a passage from the Liber Pontificalis dating from the time of Sergius II (844-847) and in a Papal Bull issued by Pope Pascal II (1099-1119). It is also known that the stairs were originally placed in the complex of the Lateran Palaces (Patriarchium), the ancient seat of the Papacy.

Reportedly a person named “Soresino” in 1672 produced a bull of Paschal (Pascal) II, dated August 5, 1110, that declared that Pope Sergius II had placed the Scala Sancta before the portal of the Lateran Palace. Lea (1896) p. 458. Id. calls that bull a “somewhat audacious forgery.” Pope Pius VII, by a decree of the Sacred Congress of Indulgences on September 2, 1817, granted an indulgence of nine years for each step ascended on one’s knees. Leo XIII (1898) p. 156.

The Scala Sancta is a Latin phrase meaning Holy Stairway. An alternate, perhaps older Latin name is Scala Pilati (Stairway of {Pontius} Pilate). In Italian, the stairway is called the Scala Santa. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (third revised edition, 2005) describes the Scala Sancta:

A staircase of 28 Tyrian marble steps near the Lateran church at Rome. … At the top of the steps is the ‘Sancta Sanctorum’ chapel (1278), the only surviving piece of the old Lateran Palace.

For the sixteenth-century renovation that made the Scala Sancta famous, Witcombe (1985).

[5] Michael Psellos, Chronographia 6.66, from Greek trans. Sewter (1953) pp. 138-9. Zoë having died at age seventy-two is from Chronographia 6.160, id. p. 180. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (ed. Kazhdan), s.v. Chalkoprateia, states that the icon Christ Antiphonetes was held in the church of the Holy Mother of God (Theotokos) at Chalkoprateia. That church also held “the worthy girdle and the robe of the holy Mother of God.” Patria 3.147, trans. Berger (2013) p. 203. Zoë reportedly founded a Church of Christ Antiphonetes in which she was buried. Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, s.v. Christ Antiphonetes. For more on the icon Christ Antiphonetes, which probably differed from the Christ icon on the Chalke Gate (Christos Chalkitês), Mango (1959) pp. 142-8.

[6] Mazaris’s Journey to Hades, trans. Seminar (1975) p. 35. Chalko- means bronze. Chalkoprateia originally was the area of bronze shops. The Chalke or Chalke Gate was originally the main entrance to the vestibule of the Great Palace of Constantinople. It was south of the Hagia Sophia. See map of ancient Constantinople.

[image] (1) Persons ascending the Scala Sancta on their knees. Image thanks to Antoine Taveneaux and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Icon of Christ Antiphonetes. Made from green steatite in Greece, ca. 1350 or later. Held in Metropolitan Museum (New York), accession # 1979.217.


Berger, Albrecht. 2001. “Imperial and Ecclesiastical Processions in Constantinople.” Pp. 73-87 in Necipoğlu, Nevra, ed. Byzantine Constantinople: monuments, topography and everyday life. Leiden: Brill.

Berger, Albrecht, ed. and trans. 2013. Accounts of medieval Constantinople: the Patria. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 24. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cameron, Averil, and Judith Herrin. 1984. Constantinople in the early eighth century: the Parastaseis syntomoi chronikai. Introduction, translation, and commentary. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Dark, Ken R., and Jan Kostenec. 2014. “The patriarchal palace at Constantinople in the seventh century: locating the Thomaites and the Makron.” Jahrbuch Der Österreichischen Byzantinistik. 64: 33-40.

Davis, Raymond, trans. 1996. The lives of the ninth-century popes: the ancient biographies of ten popes from A.D. 817 – 891. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Duchesne, Louis, ed. 1886. Le liber pontificalis: texte, introduction et commentaire. 2 vols. Paris: De Boccard (online: vol. 1, vol. 2).

Lea, Henry Charles. 1896. A History of auricular confession and indulgences in the Latin Church. Philadelphia, Penn: Lea Brothers and C°.

Leo XIII, Pope. 1898 (1903). The new raccolta: or, Collection of prayers and good works, to which the sovereign pontiffs have attached holy indulgences. Philadelphia, PA: P.F. Cunningham.

Mango, Cyril A. 1959. The brazen house: a study of the vestibule of the Imperial Palace of Constantinople. København: Munksgaard in Komm.

Seminar, Classics 600 at SUNY Buffalo. 1975. Mazaris’ Journey to Hades; or Interviews with Dead Men about Certain Officials of the Imperial Court. Greek text with translation, notes, introduction and index. Buffalo: Arethusa.

Sewter, E. R. A., trans. 1953. The Chronographia of Michael Psellus. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Wilkins, Ernest Hatch. 1955. “Dante’s celestial scaleo: stairway or ladder?” Romance Philology 9: 216-222.

Witcombe, Christopher L. C. Ewart. 1985. “Sixtus V and the Scala Santa.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. 44 (4): 368-379.

men reluctant to marry for money; prefer beautiful women

Diana (Artemis) and Callisto

In choosing mates, men tend to have narrower criteria than women do. Beauty, with its close correlates youthfulness and a healthy sexual receptivity, is typically men’s paramount criterion in seeking intimate, heterosexual relationships. A woman’s educational degrees, her career success, and the shoes she wears are relatively unimportant to most men. In the sixth century, the sophist Choricius of Gaza pretended to make a case for a young war-hero to marry an ugly but wealthy girl. Choricius’s declamation is best interpreted as a light parody of that type of rhetorical exercise. A young man in love being seriously concerned with any factor other than his sense of his prospective bride’s beauty is scarcely credible among persons broadly free to think and speak as they were in the sixth century.

In arguing for a war-hero to marry an ugly but wealthy girl, Choricius’s declamation deliberately presents an unappealing case. The speaker is the boy’s father. In the ancient world, fathers were respected no less than mothers are. This father, however, is described as a wealthy, miserly old man. A wealthy miser is a perennial character of social opprobrium. The declamation’s theme has as its first sentence’s subject “a wealthy miser,” not a father. In the first sentence of his explanatory header, Choricius included an aside that the old man doesn’t love a beautiful maiden because “old age is usually chaste in such matters.” That’s a wry insinuation of impotence. For those lacking rhetorical sophistication, Choricius directly stated his lack of sympathy for the miserly father:

I shall mimic the miserly father, though I am not particularly enamored of money and am not a father. My imitation of both qualities comes from my art. [1]

Choricius then takes the rhetorical art of declamation to a higher, parodic level of sophistication.

The miserly father makes outrageous arguments in support of forcing his war-hero son to marry an ugly but wealthy girl. If, as reward for his heroism, the People allow the son to marry the beautiful girl that he loves, they are “playing the part of a sort of pimp.” Moreover, “children will come to neglect parents.” The miserly father argues that the first question a suitor asks is naturally, “How big is the girl’s dowry?” He claims:

different people judge women’s beauty in different ways, and there is much diversity in the matter. You will not find one woman pleasing every man or the same woman consistently pleasing the same men. … What beauty, I ask you, can compete with the fairness of gold? That, I fancy, is why the poets call Aphrodite “golden,” to give the goddess beauty.

No one in the ancient world would believe any of this.

The father characterizes himself as ridiculous. He explains:

I have such a longing for money that I feel towards it very much as lovers of horses or devotees of dogs feel towards their horses or their dogs. They soothe them and talk to them, though the animals have no sense of human speech. I too am often led to talk to my money and I sit beside it, as others sit beside their loves ones

In the ancient world, men were allowed to gaze upon beautiful, young women performing at public festivals. The miserly old father risibly analogizes festivals to collecting interest:

I take the interest owing and at the same time calculate what is to come; as the time draws near, I already know the appointed day, but I still ask about it, wanting to have the profit of its sweet name — just as people who very much enjoy feasts have the date of the festival in mind long before, and yet, as it approaches, ask about it, though they know it well, so as to get extra pleasure from hearing of something which they know and want. Well, what they feel about festivals, I feel about interest payments: they are my festivals!

Contravening norms of personal generosity, the father hosts for his war-hero son a victory banquet only in anticipation of receiving a large, public monetary reward for his son’s military service:

Ever since my son became famous, I dreamed of gold. I walked around, cheerful and smiling, expecting everyone to share my joy and telling everyone that “it’s my boy that won the battle.” Deceived by these enchanting thoughts, I gave my son permission to invite his friends to a victory celebration. There was an expensive drinking party in my house, all young men and indulging themselves unduly. For how could men who were young and happy at the city’s victory, when they were entertained at someone else’s table, possibly eat and drink in moderation? Perhaps they even indulged in some extra luxury because they wanted to annoy me. I warned myself to be patient, consoling myself for the pain of the expense by the expectation of the reward. So when the party had broken up, I weighed into the boy and urged him to summon the Assembly as soon as possible, while the war was still fresh in your minds. Postponements diminish gratitude because they make memory fainter. He said he was convening the People — sooner than I wish — because, as I now understand, he had another reason. When you, the People, were assembled, he advanced proudly on the platform and said a few words about the war (he was in a hurry to get the girl) before asking, as a reward, leave to spend my money {by marrying a beautiful but poor girl}! That’s all the good I have had of my son’s heroism! That’s the fine support I’ve been keeping for my old age!

The miserly father thus make clear that he completely lacks civic virtue. In his concluding argument before the assembled People, this wealthy old miser addresses his son about public venality and hypocrisy:

So long as you have wealth, you have friends, relations, admirers. If you inadvertently spend it, you have spent everything with it. And most important of all: if the wealthy have no virtue, they are deemed to have it; even if the poor have it, it goes unnoticed.

What People wouldn’t rebuff a politician publicly speaking such claims?

Like all good rhetoricians, Choricius made his parody of declamation plausible. Marrying a wealthy woman has obvious advantages for a man, particularly under current child-support and alimony laws. Choricius included in his declamation a vignette with novelistic realism:

So, having successfully made her lover her husband, she will order you to dress her in a splendid tunic and brilliant gold ornaments. She will easily persude you in all this, for no command of the beloved seems onerous to the lover — indeed, he is annoyed if he receives no commands. And if the thought of her previous poverty makes her have more modest notions, the company of other women will soon puff her up, when they say to one another in her presence, raising their voices just enough for her to hear, “She was a fool to think she had a husband who loved her. What can be the affection of a man who doesn’t provide clothes and gold?” When she comes home after hearing such things, she will put on a gloomy face and sit at table without eating, keeping her eyes on the ground and only sullenly consenting when you propose bed. Who, when he sees his beloved behaving like this, would not agree to do anything? And what wealth will suffice to meet such obligations?

Throughout history, men have striven to please their wives and have lived in fear of sexless marriage. Yet these realities are poor arguments for marrying an ugly but wealthy woman.

The war-hero son scarcely needs to argue for being allowed to marry the beautiful girl that he loves. He rightly explains:

Even a poor girl can bring a splendid dowry: a glorious body, a good character, fine housekeeping skills. [2]

The poor girl’s glorious body is first in importance: “invincible is her beauty.” Only after drinking would the son speak of the ugly but wealthy girl whom his father sought for him to marry. The son didn’t even want to recall the ugly girl’s face. The young man stated bluntly, “I put a higher value on beauty than on money.” The son respected his father and behaved toward him in accordance with a fundamental Christian commandment:

I try to behave towards my father as I should wish the son I may have by my beloved to behave toward me. [3]

In the son’s view, profound respect for fathers doesn’t require him to marry the ugly but wealthy girl that his father favored. The son insisted on marrying the beautiful but indigent girl that he passionately loved.

Women are much more reluctant to marry an indigent person than men are. In twelfth-century Byzantium, a rhetorical exercise addressed the case of Atalanta. She was a figure from ancient Greek myth. Emulating Artemis, Atalanta developed her physical prowess. She trained in archery, hunting, and war. She spent much of her time riding about in the wilderness. The rhetorical exercise challenged the plausibility of the classical Greek story of Atalanta:

concerning Atalanta, daughter of Oeneus, see how far their “wisdom” has fallen short of the truth! For they {ancient Greek poets} make her out to be a woman, but they rob her of the characteristics of a woman, and although they agree that she is a female, they praise her for her masculinity. [4]

Challenging men to footraces, Atalanta promised that she would marry any man who could beat her. She repeatedly outraced men:

A girl competed, and a man was left behind; a woman mastered men, and men were tested and found wanting by a woman.

But is this plausible? Why would any woman do this?

What reason was there in fact for the contest of speed? If she fell in love, why did she not marry her lover? If she did not yet feel the passion of love in her heart, why did she not preserve her maidenhood? Whether one supposes that she was in love or does not concede that she felt passion, there was no reason for the challenge, and she should not have competed.

But let us see if even the proclamation seems reasonable. Let us suppose that she proclaimed a public contest, that she did not bar anyone from the racetrack, and that she opened the doors of the gymnasium to all. What if a man of base appearance, or an indigent man, or a man of low birth should beat her? After the victory he would carry off the prize, and yet that is an even greater insult to a woman than this {losing a footrace}.

For a man not to be an insulting mate choice to a woman, he must not have “base appearance.” That doesn’t imply that he must be beautiful. More significantly, he must not be indigent and must not be of low birth (low social status). Both these factors matter much less to men in marrying women.

Women’s and men’s mate choices have enormous implications for social inequality. Men’s willingness to marry indigent, low-status women has historically been an important source of upward mobility for women. Unfortunately, women don’t naturally support similar upward mobility for men. The female boss doesn’t seek to marry her male secretary, the female professor doesn’t yearn to marry her male graduate student, the female doctor doesn’t want to have children with the male nurse. Thought-leaders and policy-makers must strongly encourage women to choose husbands from within the rapidly growing population of indigent, low-status men.

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[1] Choricius of Gaza, Declamation 6 (“<The Miserly Old Man>”), Explanatory Comment, trans. D. A. Russell in Penella (2009) p. 126. The previous two quotes are from the theme (a wealthy miser) and the explanatory comment (old age is usually chaste), trans. id. p. 125. Subsequent quotes are from this declamation (cited by section number and page in id.): 60, p. 137 (playing the part of a sort of pimp); 61, p. 137 (children will come to neglect their parents); 76, p. 139 (How big is the dowry?); 75, p. 139 (different people judge…); 45-6, p. 134 (I have such a longing for money…); 47, pp. 134-5 (I take the interest owing…); 78-80, p. 140 (Ever since my son became famous…); 85, p. 141 (So long as you have wealth…); 32-4, p. 132 (So, having successfully made her lover her husband…).

[2] Choricius of Gaza, Declamation 5 (“<The Young War-Hero”) 73, trans. D. A. Russell in Penella (2009) p. 124. Subsequent quotes are from this declamation (cited by section number and page in id.): 2, p. 111 (invincible is her beauty); 32, p. 116 (I put a higher value on beauty than on money); 17, p. 114 (I try to behave…).

[3] Cf. Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31, Galatians 5:14. Choricius of Gaza was a Christian. Penella (2009) p. 4.

[4] Nikephoros Basilakes, Progymnasmata Refutation 1 (“That the story of Atalanta is implausible”) 2, from Greek trans. Beneker & Gibson (2016) pp. 97, 99. The Greek text is on facing pages. Subsequent quotes are from this refutation (cited by paragraph number and page in id.): 9, p. 103 (A girl competed, and a man was left behind…); 9-10, pp. 103, 105 (What reason was there…). Here are ancient Greek sources on Atalanta.

[image] Diana (Roman version of Artemis) and Callisto. Oil on canvas by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1635. Held in Prado Museum (Madrid), accession # P01671. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Beneker, Jeffrey, and Craig Alan Gibson, ed. and trans. 2016. The rhetorical exercises of Nikephoros Basilakes: progymnasmata from twelfth-century Byzantium. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 43. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Penella, Robert J., ed. 2009. Rhetorical exercises from late antiquity: a translation of Choricius of Gaza’s Preliminary talks and declamations. Cambridge: Cambridge Cambridge University Press.

Holy House in Loreto founded with Apuleius’s Metamorphoses

In North Africa late in the second century, Christianity was rapidly gaining fearlessly faithful adherents. The North African orator-scholar Apuleius, schooled in traditional Roman culture and a devotee of the traditional Greco-Romans gods, seems to have been aware of the growing Christian cult. Apuleius nowhere in his surviving work directly refers to Christians. Such silence, however, was typical for elites deeply invested in traditional Roman culture:

Roman literary men notoriously refused to demean their pages by specific references to Christianity, towards which the governing class felt a social as well as an ideological revulsion; Apuleius would certainly not be alone in this respect. [1]

In Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, a highly derogatory depiction of a baker’s wife worshiping purportedly the “one and only” god and imbibing wine early in the morning almost surely implicitly refers disparagingly to Christians. Scholars have suggested other disparaging, indirect references to Christianity in Apuleius’s works.[2] Yet perhaps as result of classical scholars lack of appreciation for medieval literature, Apuleius’s intriguing story of a house being magically translated seems to have attracted no relevant analysis. That story has clear structural parallels to the medieval Christian story of angels translating the house of Jesus’s family from Nazareth to Loreto. Apuleius may well have been mocking a much earlier, but similar Christian account.

Apuleius’s reference to a house being translated occurs in the Metamorphoses within the account of Socrates’s marriage to the witch Meroe. Because of Meroe’s evil deeds, the people of her town decided to stone her. She in response with supernatural powers bound everyone within their homes. After two days of not being able to get out, the people solemnly swore that they would not harm Meroe and would help her against anyone who sought to do her harm. Meroe then released them. She, however, acted further against the man who had led the town assembly to the decision to stone her:

But the man who was responsible for that assembly she transported in the dead of night, together with his whole house, that is, with walls and the floor itself and the entire foundation, locked up as it was, away to the one hundredth milestone into another city, which was situated on the highest top of a rugged mountain and because of that without water. And since the close-built houses of its inhabitants did not offer enough space for their new guest, she threw down the house in front of the city gate and left.

{At vero coetus illius auctorem nocte intempesta cum tota domo, id est parietibus et ipso solo et omni fundamento, ut erat clausa, ad centesimum lapidem in aliam civitatem, summo vertice montis exasperati sitam et ob id ad aquas sterilem, transtulit. Et quoniam densa inhabitantium aedificia locum novo hospiti non dabant, ante portam proiecta domo discessit.} [3]

An extensive commentary on the first book of the Metamorphoses observes, “There is no parallel in ancient witchcraft for this particular feat.”[4]

Holy House being translated to Loreto

A medieval Christian story tells of angels transporting Jesus’s childhood house from Nazareth to Loreto. According to pious reports, in 1291, just before the expulsion of the crusaders from the Holy Land, angels transported the holy family’s house from Nazareth to a hill in Trsat, Croatia. When Turks took Albania in 1294, the house was potentially threatened. Angels then transported it across the Adriatic to a wooded area near Recanati, Italy. Bandits, however, were troubling the many pilgrims coming to the house. To improve public safety, angels in 1295 transported the house from there to a hill in Loreto. The Holy House become a prominent Christian pilgrimage site. The lavish Basilica della Santa Casa was erected about it late in the sixteenth century. It, and within it the Holy House from Nazareth, stand in Loreto to this day.[5]

The Metamorphoses’s transported house makes sense as an anti-Christian recasting of a Christian tradition like that concerning the Holy House in Loreto. Christians regarded as plausible the supernatural transport of a whole house across a long distance. Locating a city on a mountaintop lacking water makes little worldly sense. But in Christian understanding, a mountaintop is place to encounter God. A city on a hill signifies Christian civilization. Moreover, Christians transformed into sacramental material the mundane substances water, bread, wine, and oil.[6] In the Metamorphoses, a witch transporting a house to a spot outside a city gate on a mountaintop lacking water works as a thoroughly Apuleian travesty of a popular Christian story.

Sometime before Apuleius wrote the Metamorphoses in the mid-second century, Christians may have spoken of the Holy House of Nazareth, or some other hallowed house, being transported elsewhere. The North African city of Alexandria, with its early, vibrant Christian community, would have been a worthy destination. With inspiration, you can imagine that ancient tradition changed into new forms in the Metamorphoses and in the medieval story of the Holy House of Loreto.

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[1] Walsh (1968) pp. 152-3. Similarly, Hunink (2000) p. 92.

[2] On the baker’s wife:

That vile woman lacked not a single fault. Her soul was like some muddy latrine into which absolutely every vice had flowed. She was cruel and perverse, crazy for men and wine, headstrong and obstinate, grasping in her mean thefts and a spendthrift in her loathsome extravagances, an enemy of fidelity and a foe to chastity. Furthermore she scorned and spurned all the gods in heaven, and, instead of holding a definite faith, she used the false sacrilegious presumption of a god, whom she would call “one and only,” to invent meaningless rites to cheat everyone and deceive her wretched husband, having sold her body to drink from dawn and to debauchery the whole day. …  But an old woman who was a confidante of her debaucheries, and acted as a go-between in her affairs, was her inseparable companion all day every day. With her, first thing in the morning after breakfast and then some preliminary exchanges of strong wine, she would construct deceptive charades with cunning twists for the downfall of her poor, wretched husband.

{Nec enim vel unum vitium nequissimae illi feminae deerat, sed omnia prorsus ut in quandam caenosam latrinam in eius animum flagitia confluxerant: saeva scaeva, virosa ebriosa, pervicax pertinax, in rapinis turpibus avara, in sumptibus foedis profusa, inimica fidei, hostis pudicitiae. Tunc spretis atque calcatis divinis numinibus in vicem certae religionis mentita sacrilega praesumptione dei, quem praedicaret unicum, confictis observationibus vacuis fallens omnes homines et miserum maritum decipiens matutino mero et continuo stupro corpus manciparat. … Sed anus quaedam stuprorum sequestra et adulterorum internuntia de die cotidie inseparabilis aderat. Cum qua protinus ientaculo ac dehinc vino mero mutuis vicibus velitata, scaenas fraudulentas in exitium miserrimi mariti subdolis ambagibus construebat.}

From Metamorphoses 9.14-5, Latin and English trans. from Hanson (1989) vol. 2, pp. 123-7. For anti-Christian interpretation of the baker’s wife, Walsh (1968) p. 152; Tripp (1988) (rather over-interpreting); Smith (2012) pp. 48-5; Kyriakides (2015) pp. 5-7. Other possible anti-Christian allusions are discussed in the previously cited articles. For possible anti-Christian indications in Apuleius’s Florida and Apologia, Hunink (2000). For an interesting comparison of Lucius’s and Paul of Tarsus’s conversions, Smith (2009). Hunink declared:

Two points, I would suggest, now seem established beyond reasonable doubt: not only was Apuleius aware of the existence of Christianity, but he did not feel much sympathy for it either.

Hunink (2000) p. 80.

[3] Apuleius, Metamorphoses 1.10.5-6, Latin text and English translation from May (2013) pp. 74-5. For civitatem May translated “town,” as does Hanson (1989) p. 19. But “city” is also possible, particularly given close-built houses and the gate (ante portam). I’ve substituted “city” above. That helps to bring out the anti-Christian allusions that I perceive.

[4] May (2013) p. 144.

[5] By 1451, the Holy House at Loreta was “the most celebrated sanctuary {sacellum} in all Italy.” MacDonald (2013) pp. 111, 153, citing the fifteenth-century papal official Flavius Blondus.

How the Holy House came to be in Loreto is, of course, controversial. MacDonald (1913) and D’Anghiari (1967) argue for miraculous translation. Kerr (2012) and Hesemann (2016), Ch. 5, assert that the aristocratic Angelos family shipped the stones of the Holy House from Nazereth to Loreto. That position is based on a medieval document called the Chartularium culisanense. Nicolotti (2012) argues that the Chartularium culisanense is a forgery.

[6] For the mountaintop as a place to encounter God, see, e.g. Exodus 19, Matthew 17: 1-8, 28:16-18. For a city on a hill, Matthew 5:14. On Christian sacramental use of mundane materials, baptism with water (e.g. Luke 3:16, Acts 8:36-8, 1 Peter 3:20-1), communion using bread and wine (e.g. Matthew 26:26-9), consecrating persons and anointing the sick with oil (e.g. Exodus 30:22-33, James 5:13-4).

[image] The Translation of the Holy House of Loreto. Tempera and gold on wood. Attributed to Saturnino Gatti, c. 1510. Held in the Met Museum (New York), accession # 1973.319.


D’Anghiari, Angelo Maria, trans. by Cecilia Nachich. 1967. The authenticity of the Holy House: summary of the arguments. Loreto, Italy: Congregazion Universale della Santa Casa. (excerpt)

Hanson, John Arthur, ed. and trans. 1989. Apuleius. Metamorphoses {The Golden Ass}. Loeb Classical Library 44. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Hesemann, Michael. 2016. Mary of Nazareth: history, archaeology, legends. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Hunink, Vincent. 2000. “Apuleius, Pudentilla, and Christianity.” Vigiliae Christianae. 54 (1): 80-94.

Kerr, David. 2012. “Pope entrusts Year of Faith, evangelization synod to Mary.” Catholic News Agency (CNA) News Report, Loreto, Italy, Oct. 4.

Kyriakides, Theophilos. 2015. “Anti-Christian Allusions in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.” Paper uploaded to

May, Regine, ed. and trans. 2013. Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or the Golden Ass: Book 1. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

MacDonald, Alexander. 1913. The Holy House of Loreto: a study of documents and traditions. New York: Christian Press Association.

Nicolotti, Andrea. 2012. “Su alcune testimonianze del Chartularium Culisanense, sulle false origini dell’Ordine Costantiniano Angelico di Santa Sofia e su taluni suoi documenti conservati presso l’Archivio di Stato di Napoli.” Giornale Di Storia 8: 1-18.

Smith, Warren S. 2009. “Apuleius and The New Testament: Lucius’ Conversion Experience.” Ancient Narrative. 7: 51-73.

Smith, Warren S. 2012. “Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and Jewish/Christian Literature.” Ancient Narrative. 10: 47-87.

Tripp, David. 1988. “The baker’s wife and her confidante in Apuleius, Met. IX 14 ff.: some liturgiological considerations.” Emerita. 56 (2): 245-254.

Walsh, P. G. 1968. “Lucius Madaurensis.” Phoenix. 22 (2): 143-157.