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.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[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. Reviews by John Talbot and by Dennis Trout.

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.

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