the penis’s image problem in comparative gender perspective

As children readily recognize, vaginas and penises have different surface forms. But when we become thoroughly educated adults, we set aside childish ways of understanding. Now we think with poetry and rhetorical sophistication. The superficial differences between penises and vaginas now support stark gender inequality in genital figures.

penis as sword in Amazonomachy

While the penis plays a vital role in bringing persons together in intimate, loving unity, the penis is commonly figured as a weapon. The penis-sword metaphor is “common to virtually all cultures.”[1] In ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire, weapons evoked not social concern for vastly gender-disproportionate violence against men, but the sense of men’s penises:

the frequency of ad hoc metaphors both in Greek and Latin shows that the sexual symbolism of weapons was instantly recognisable in ancient society. [2]

Weapons are the basis for the most common metaphors for the penis in Latin from before the fourth century GC. Culturally elaborating on the penis-weapon metaphor, ancient Greek and Latin literature celebrated Spartan mothers insisting that their sons either be victorious or die in battle. Ancient Roman culture associated manliness with men displaying war wounds on their chests. Is it any wonder that shrewd men preferred to be pigs?

Disparagement of men’s penises went beyond associating them with weapons. Greek poetry from about 2700 years ago figured men’s penises as sightless eels:

many a sightless eel have you taken in

{ πολλὰς δὲ τυφλὰς ἐγχέλυας ἐδέξω } [3]

Ancient Greek literature also figured the penis as a snake or a lizard.[4] In Roman culture, low-status figures with enormous, grotesque penises were prevalent. Sophisticated Latin poetry known as Priapea criticized the prevalent cultural disparagement of men’s penises. That criticism wasn’t sufficient to overcome the penal forces evident across millennia in the reception of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses.[5]

Kylix vase with man grabbing penis in brawl

While penises have been predominately figured as weapons, vaginas are typically figured non-violently. In ancient Greek and Latin, metaphors for the vagina typically are soft, furry animals, fertile fields, protective caves, and useful household items such as containers and hearths. Vaginas are also commonly figured as avenues of commerce: doors, paths, and ports. Strangulation, suffocation, and live burial (vivisepulture) are violent acts well-recognized throughout human history. Engulfment in a violent storm is similarly a well-understood situation. None of these has been commonly associated with the vagina.[6]

While disparaging penises, ancient Greek and Latin literature lavishly admired and praised vaginas. Rufinus, writing perhaps in the fourth century GC, composed an epigram praising the vaginas of three women:

Rhodope, Melite, and Rhodoclea competed to see
which of the three had the best pussy,
and chose me as judge. Like the much-admired goddesses
they stood, naked, dripping with nectar.
The treasure between Rhodope’s thighs
gleamed like a rose bush cleft by a gentle zephyr;
Rhodoclea’s was shaved smooth like glass,
its wet surface like a temple statue newly carved.
But wisely, knowing the fate of Paris for his judgment,
quickly I awarded the crown to all three immortals.

{ Ἤρισαν ἀλλήλαις Ῥοδόπη Μελίτη Ῥοδόκλεια,
τῶν τρισσῶν τίς ἔχει κρείσσονα μηριόνην,
καί με κριτὴν εἵλοντο· καὶ ὡς θεαὶ αἱ περίβλεπτοι
ἔστησαν γυμναί, νέκταρι λειβόμεναι.
καὶ Ῥοδόπης μὲν ἔλαμπε μέσος μηρῶν πολύτιμος
οἷα ῥοδὼν πολιῷ σχιζόμενος ζεφύρῳ·
τῆς δὲ Ῥοδοκλείης ὑάλῳ ἴσος ὑγρομέτωπος
οἷα καὶ ἐν νηῷ πρωτογλυφὲς ξόανον.
ἀλλὰ σαφῶς ἃ πέπονθε Πάρις διὰ τὴν κρίσιν εἰδώς,
τὰς τρεῖς ἀθανάτας εὐθὺ συνεστεφάνουν. } [7]

Showing still-continuing repression of men’s appreciation of vaginas, the medieval compiler added the introductory description (lemma) “offensive and extremely vile {ἀναίσχυντον καὶ σαπρότατον}” to characterize this epigram.[8] The beauty of women’s vaginas, as men perceive that beauty, deserves to be taken more seriously.

A couplet describing Melite’s vagina undoubtedly existed in the original text. That couplet is missing from all surviving manuscript copies of Rufinus’s epigram. It was probably censored through the irrational social construction of offenses of misogyny under gyncentrism. Another of Rufinus’s epigrams indicates that he regarded Melite to be an extremely beautiful woman:

Where is Praxiteles now? Where are the hands of Polyclitus,
which endowed ancient works of art with life?
Who will mold Melite’s fragrant locks, or her fiery
eyes and the luster of her neck?
Where are the modelers, the carvers in stone? Such beauty,
like an image of the blessed gods, ought to have a temple.

{ Ποῦ νῦν Πραξιτέλης; ποῦ δ᾽ αἱ χέρες αἱ Πολυκλείτου
αἱ ταῖς πρόσθε τέχναις πνεῦμα χαριζόμεναι;
τίς πλοκάμους Μελίτης εὐώδεας ἢ πυρόεντα
ὄμματα καὶ δειρῆς φέγγος ἀποπλάσεται;
ποῦ πλάσται, ποῦ δ᾽ εἰσὶ λιθοξόοι; ἔπρεπε τοίῃ
μορφῇ νηὸν ἔχειν ὡς μακάρων ξοάνῳ. } [9]

Rufinus probably praised Melite’s vagina even more lavishly and more explicitly than he praised the vaginas of Rhodope and Rhodoclea. Because men’s judgments of beauty are relatively consistent, other men who managed to see Melite’s vagina probably would have praised it highly as well.

Despite continued suppression of men’s praise for women’s vaginas, additional examples of men praising the beauty of women’s vaginas have survived from ancient Greek literature. In another epigram, Rufinus praised an older woman. He admired her breasts, figured as perky apples, and her vagina, figured as a rose:

Time has not yet quenched your beauty, but many relics
of your prime survive; your charms have not aged,
nor has the beauty departed from your perky apples or rose.
Ah! how many men your once godlike beauty consumed in flame

{ Οὔπω σοι τὸ καλὸν χρόνος ἔσβεσεν, ἀλλ᾽ ἔτι πολλὰ
λείψανα τῆς προτέρης σῴζεται ἡλικίης,
καὶ χάριτες μίμνουσιν ἀγήραοι, οὐδὲ τὸ καλὸν
τῶν ἱλαρῶν μήλων ἢ ῥόδου ἐξέφυγεν.
ὢ πόσσους κατέφλεξε τὸ πρὶν θεοείκελον κάλλος } [10]

The final line of this epigram hasn’t survived. Perhaps in that line Rufinus described men dying to enter the woman’s bedewed, unfolding rose.

Attic comic poets, writing more than 2400 years ago, also praised women’s vaginas. Pherecrates, a comic poet who was a contemporary of Aristophanes in fifth-century BGC Athens, depicted a place of sensuous pleasure:

with shawls of finely-woven hair, girls, recently
grown into womanhood and with shaved roses,
were using funnels to fill cups of sweet-smelling
dark wine for anyone who wanted a drink.

{ κόραι δ᾿ ἐν ἀμπεχόναις τριχάπτοις, ἀρτίως
ἡβυλλιῶσαι καὶ τὰ ῥόδα κεκαρμέναι,
πλήρεις κύλικας οἴνου μέλανος ἀνθοσμίου
ἤντλουν διὰ χώνης τοῖσι βουλομένοις πιεῖν. } [11]

The phrases “shaved roses” refers to beautiful vaginas that have been depilated. Men also regarded as beautiful vaginas with hair. One of Aristophanes’s comedies displayed on stage a naked, young woman known for offering a sexually festive experience. One man said to another:

Just look at this cooker of hers!
— (response) My, she’s a fine thing!

{ τουτὶ δ᾿ ὁρᾶτε τοὐπτάνιον.
οἴμ᾿ ὡς καλόν. } [12]

The metaphor “cooker” refers to her vagina. The respondent noted that she had a “scorched” cooker. That figuratively indicates that she had black hair on her vagina.

Long ago, humane and understanding women didn’t condemn men for admiring women’s vaginas. Nossis, a Greek poet writing in the third century BGC, is one of the mostly highly regarded Greek epigrammists. She encouraged all to gaze upon beautiful women. She wrote:

Nothing is sweeter than love; all good things
come second, even honey I spat from my mouth.
Nossis says this, and whomever Cypris has not kissed
does not know what roses her flowers are.

{ Ἅδιον οὐδὲν ἔρωτος· ἃ δ᾽ ὄλβια, δεύτερα πάντα
ἐστίν· ἀπὸ στόματος δ᾽ ἔπτυσα καὶ τὸ μέλι.
τοῦτο λέγει Νοσσίς· τίνα δ᾽ ἁ Κύπρις οὐκ ἐφίλασεν,
οὐκ οἶδεν τήνας τἄνθεα, ποῖα ῥόδα. } [13]

Like other ancient poets, Nossis figured vaginas as delightful roses. That’s a beautiful figure.

Men surely have praised the beauty of women’s vaginas throughout history. Writing in Greek, the eminent third-century Christian theologian Hippolytus of Rome apparently described the vagina as “the delightful grove of greatly honored Aphrodite.” Writing in Latin, the great sixth-century African epigrammist Luxorius figured a woman’s vagina as a “pleasurable garden {hortus amoenus}” and associated it with roses:

A Cypris {Venus} made of shining-white marble
revealed the truth of herself through a breathless body.
She infused her own heat into the parts
and by the flowers on the statue she came alive.
The jest isn’t deceptive: “What blushes on the outside,
preserves the roses of the handmaiden’s vagina.”

{ Cypris candidulo reddita marmore
veram se exanimi corpore praebuit.
Infudit propriis membra caloribus,
per florem in statua viveret ut sua.
Nec mendax iocus est: “Quae violas foris,
servabit famulas inguinibus rosas.” } [14]

The thirteenth-century French Romance of the Rose figured at great length woman’s vagina as rose. Much medieval Latin literature described women’s beauty. Some even indicated the beauty between women’s legs.[15]

Appreciation and praise for the beauty of men’s genitals, like the beauty of men’s bodies generally, has been much less prevalent historically than that for women. This gender inequality is bound up with terrible penal oppression under structures of castration culture and gynocentrism. But the penis’s image problem is also personal for men. As a sensitive and expressive man explained:

If you are a male you would have at some time in your life been concerned about the size or appearance of your penis. The fear of being considered inadequate or different haunts most human beings but there is a particularly deep connection between men’s self-confidence and their genitals.

Men know this and so do women. Sadly, this knowledge has been used to humiliate, taunt, belittle, delegitimize and denigrate men since the time we first walked upright.

Women should step up and take responsibility for lavishly praising the beauty of the men with whom they seek to have or have had sexual relations. But is there any active role for men in addressing the social gender injustice of men’s disadvantaged genital image?

Study of great literature offers both women and men a vital, neglected imaginative resource for overcoming the penis’s image problem. The great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini recorded a wife’s lament. Her husband had been absent for a long time as a result of the gender burden of work-related travel historically imposed disproportionately on men. This wife couldn’t summon the personal resources to write to her husband:

“In what way,” she said, “could I write, when my husband has taken away the pen, and left the inkwell empty?”

{ ‘Quomodo,’ inquit, ‘possum scribere, cum vir calamum detulerit secum, pugillare vacuum reliquerit?’ } [16]

The inkwell normally supplies ink for the pen. But as this medieval woman understood, lively conjugal relations depend on mutuality. Lacking stimulation from her loving husband, the wife’s inkwell dried up. Similarly, without a woman’s inkwell, a man’s pen cannot write with enduring significance. The inkwell and pen belong together. The inkwell is a figure for the vagina. The pen is a humane, non-violent, appreciative figure for the penis.

The pressing postmodern adult problem of figuring the penis non-violently and appreciatively can be solved. Like a luxurious, jeweled pen, but alive and more magnificent, the penis is.

precious pen as figure of penis

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Read more:


[1] Shanzer (1983) p. 184.

[2] Adams (1982) p. 19. Weapon as a metaphor for penis is “the largest category of metaphors of our general type.” Id. That’s within Adams’s higher category of “sharp or pointed instruments.” With respect to that category, Adams states:

No objects are more readily likened to the penis than sharp instruments, and it is likely that metaphors from this semantic field abound in all languages.

Id. p. 14. Besides weapons, other items in this category are household objects (rake, poker); poles, stakes, rods, and similar objects; agricultural implements (plows); musical implements (picks); and nautical referents (ship prows, masts). Id. passim. Adams’s evidence, as well as my reading of Latin literature, indicates that weapons are overall the most prevalent basis of metaphors for the penis.

[3] Archilochus, fr. 189, Greek text from Gerber (1999) p. 204, trans. West (1993) p. 3.

[4] Adams (1982) p. 30. On the penis as lizard, Sistakou (2011) p. 199. Strato’s AP 12.207 describes Diocles’s penis as a lizard, but also states that Paris would have preferred it to the three beautiful, naked goddess competing in the Judgment of Paris. Sistakou follows Paton’s translation in interpreting Strato’s epigram to describe those goddess as “less fair” than Diocles’s penis. That’s reasonable, but not necessarily true. Sexual preferences, particularly preferences of sexual minorities, aren’t exclusively keyed to beauty.

[5] The most uplifting appreciation for a penis in ancient Greek and Latin literature is that of the sage and humane Greek girl in Maximianus, Elegies 5. She lamented a man’s impotent penis. Rufinus, in AP 5.47, delights in Thaleia’s sweet limbs, but he suffers impotence. While men are paid for sex relatively infrequently compared to women, men carry a burden of performance that can be crushing in failure. On sexual inequalities, see note [2] in my post about sexual lies.

[6] Adams (1982), Ch. 3, lists no weapon metaphor for the female genitalia. Neither does Henderson (1991) pp. 130-47 (surveying only Attic comedy). Henderson apparently carried out his study under the dominant gynocentric ideological belief that Athens was androcentric. Id. p. ix.

Surveying Latin literature from its beginnings to about the fourth century GC, Adams evaluated references to the mentula {penis} relative to the cunnus {vagina}:

The attitude to the cunnus was remarkably different. It posed no threat, and did not arouse the same indulgent admiration.

Adams (1982) p. 79. That evaluation is heavily weighted with gynocentric ideology. The cunnus threatens men through the power of its beauty to inspire men to attack violently other men. The phrase “indulgent admiration” evokes, with the term “indulgent,” men’s subordination to women under gynocentrism. But almost no Latin text from the fourth century GC or earlier figuratively colors the penis as other than violently threatening or disgusting. Cf. Richlin (1992) p. 26, which is deeply gender-biased against men. For some analysis, see note [6] in my post on Priapea.

The vagina dentata is a figure of the vagina that threatens mutilation to a penetrating penis. While the penis is commonly presented as aggressively threatening, the vagina dentata doesn’t independently attack flaccid penises. The vagina dentata is associated with castration culture. The phenomenon of women raping men remains largely ignored or excused away to this day.

Perhaps the most disparaging figure of the vagina in Latin literature from the fourth century or earlier is Ausonius, A Nuptial Cento {Cento Nuptialis} ll. 111-4. That description is married to an even more disparaging figuring of the penis. See especially Cento Nuptialis ll. 105-9.

[7] Rufinus, AP 5.36, Greek text and English trans. from Paton & Tueller (2014). I’ve lineated the English translations and made minor changes to the English to track the Greek more closely or to be more readable. In the second to last line of AP 5.36, Paton & Tueller translated σαφῶς as “clearly.” I’ve used “wisely,” which seems to me contextually a better translation. Subsequent epigrams from the Greek Anthology (AP) are likewise sourced.

Sistakou (2011), a brilliant article that in scholarly quality towers above typical classical scholarship, describes how Rufinus’s AP 5.36 parodies the epic story of the Judgment of Paris. To the question “how this type of parody challenges the ideological basis of the elevated genres of the past, first and foremost of epic poetry,” she answers “the emergence of a new eroticism, recorded in the imperial period epigram, as {like} the one put forward by Rufinus and Strato.” Id. pp. 208-9. Sistakou concludes:

It seems that this new erotic aesthetic filters out the tragic aspects of the Trojan myth, thus allowing comedy to take over. Or, to rephrase the famous saying, in the history of literature epic always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

Id. p. 209. I retain hope that the next epic repetition will be both instructive and entertaining.

[8] Constantine Cephalas is thought to have put together Book 5 of the Greek Anthology about 900 GC. Its most important manuscript is the Anthologia Palatina (AP), held mainly in the Palatine library in Heidelberg, Germany. That Anthologia Palatina manuscript was written about 940 GC. Paton & Tueller (2014), introduction.

[9] Rufinus, AP 5.15. The epigram’s lemma describes Melite as a courtesan. Rufinus also praised Melite in AP 5.94:

You have Hera’s eyes, Melite, Athena’s hands,
the Paphian’s breasts, Thetis’ ankles.
Fortunate is he who looks at you, thrice blessed he who hears your voice,
half divine he who kisses you, immortal he who sleeps with you.

{ Ὄμματ᾽ ἔχεις Ἥρης, Μελίτη, τὰς χεῖρας Ἀθήνης,
τοὺς μαζοὺς Παφίης, τὰ σφυρὰ τῆς Θέτιδος.
εὐδαίμων ὁ βλέπων σε, τρισόλβιος ὅστις ἀκούει,
ἡμίθεος δ᾽ ὁ φιλῶν, ἀθάνατος δ᾽ ὁ γαμῶν. }

Hera (Juno), Athena (Minerva), and the Paphian (Venus) were the three participants in the judgment of Paris. The lemma for this epigram is “On Melite; beauty {εἰς Μελίτην· ὡραῖον}.” The ancient Greek word ὡραῖος {beautiful} is close to ἔρως {passionate desire}. On that relationship, Konstan (2015).

[10] Rufinus, AP 5.62. On the interpretation of this epigram, including roses as figuring vaginas, White (2001) pp. 77-9. For additional references to the vagina figured as a rose in ancient Greek literature, Page (1978) p. 85. Rufinus also delighted in the appearance and feel of Doris’s vagina:

I took Doris, with her rosy buttocks, on my bed and spread
her legs, and amid her dewy flowers I felt immortal.
She bestrode my groin with her magnificent legs
and finished Aphrodite’s long course without swerving,
gazing at me with languorous eyes. Her crimson parts quivered
like leaves in the wind while she bounced astride me,
until the white strength spilled out of us both
and Doris lay splayed out with limbs all slack.

{ Δωρίδα τὴν ῥοδόπυγον ὑπὲρ λεχέων διατείνας
ἄνθεσιν ἐν χλοεροῖς ἀθάνατος γέγονα.
ἡ γὰρ ὑπερφυέεσσι μέσον διαβᾶσά με ποσσὶν
ἤνυσεν ἀκλινέως τὸν Κύπριδος δόλιχον,
ὄμμασι νωθρὰ βλέπουσα· τὰ δ᾽, ἠΰτε πνεύματι φύλλα,
ἀμφισαλευομένης ἔτρεμε πορφύρεα,
μέχρις ἀπεσπείσθη λευκὸν μένος ἀμφοτέροισιν,
καὶ Δωρὶς παρέτοις ἐξεχύθη μέλεσι. }

Rufinus, AP 5.55.

While Rufinus greatly appreciated beautiful vaginas, he was a man who was generally moderate in his preferences. He favored moderation in sexual behavior (AP 5.42) and also favored women not too slender and not too stout (AP 5.37). He still appreciated a woman’s beauty if she was older (AP 5.75, above) and had a bit of gray in her hair (AP 5.48). He also was inclusive and accepting. He had sex with boys as well as with women (AP 5.19, AP 5.28), and with slaves as well as with free persons (AP 5.18).

[11] Pherecrates, Miners {Μεταλλῆς}, fragment 112.38-32 in Storey (2011). The fragment has survived only in Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters  6.269b-c. I’ve taken the Greek text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Olson (2014). For other references to the ancient practice of vaginal depilation, Henderson (1991) pp. 131-2.

Pherecrates’s Miners describes a utopian afterlife apparently conceived in relation to the horrendous working conditions of miners in vast mines in Laurium in southwest Attica. Sells (2018). Most of the persons working in those brutal conditions almost surely were men.

[12] Aristophanes, Peace {Εἰρήνη} 891, Greek text and English trans. from Henderson (1998).

[13] Nossis, AP 5.170. White (1980) Ch. 2 (“The Rose of Aphrodite”) established the best reading of this epigram.

[14] Luxorius, Cypris candidulo, Anthologia Latina 351, Latin text from Riese & Shackleton Bailey (1982) pp. 275-6, my English translation. Here’s more related poetry from Luxorius.

[15] In a careful consideration of Rufinus’s AP 5.60, Höschele & Konstan (2005) interpret Εὐρώτας {Eurotas} as the name of a river and as characterizing a woman’s vagina as having “dankness, sliminess.” Höschele & Konstan seem to have followed the direction of deeply flawed gynocentric ideology that dominates classics:

The vagina was typically regarded by men in classical antiquity with a certain revulsion as clammy, malodorous, or swamplike. In Latin literature, as Amy Richlin states, ‘The female genitalia are almost exclusively described as disgusting—squashy and foul in texture and constitution …, salty and rank.’

Id. p. 624, citing Richlin (1992) p. 26. Richlin’s characterization of Latin literature is aggressively misandristic. It’s also grotesquely misleading, especially in relation to young women. Rufinus’s epigram AP 5.60 describes a silver-footed maiden with breasts like golden apples. In Rufinus’s allusion to her vagina, most men would interpret “dankness, sliminess” as “moist, well-lubricated.” Most men would find a vagina in that condition to be much more more sensuous and appealing than a dry, rough, and frigid vagina. Moreover, the river Eurotas at the time Rufinus wrote probably was associated with a wide, moist, and lush delta region. Ancient literature associated a delta with a woman’s pubic region. Henderson (1991) pp. 146 (word 184), 248 (n. 184).

Catullus uses the river Eurotas in a figure of a woman emitting sweet odors while gazing with desirous eyes upon a man she passionately loves:

When the virgin woman beheld him with eager eye,
that royal girl — her chaste little bed, emitting sweet odors,
still nursed her in her mother’s soft embrace,
like the smell of myrtles that surround Eurotas’ stream,
or the various shades of flowers borne by spring’s breeze —
no sooner had she lowered her desirous eyes from him
did she catch a flame in her whole body,
and blaze up completely from the depth of her marrow.

{ Hunc simul ac cupido conspexit lumine uirgo
Regia, quam suauis exspirans castus odores
Lectulus in molli complexu matris alebat,
Quales Eurotae progignunt flumina myrtos
Auraue distinctos educit uerna colores,
Non prius ex illo flagrantia declinauit
Lumina quam cuncto concepit corpore flammam
Funditus atque imis exarsit tota medullis. }

Catullus 64.86-93, English trans. adapted from that of Brendan Rau. The odor of myrtles that surround Eurotas’ stream suggests a female bodily response preceding desired sexual intercourse.

[16] Poggio Bracciolini, Facetiae 261, “Courtly reply of a woman who had an empty inkwell {Faceta responsio mulieris pugillare vacuum habentis},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 4-5, my English translation with help from that of id. Here’s the Latin text in machine-readable form.

The eleventh-century Arabic masterpiece Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim} includes a similar figure of pen and inkwell.

[images] (1) Amazon woman and Greek man fighting in the Amazonomachy. Excerpt (image enhanced) from gilded frieze on a silver amphora from fourth-century Byzantium. Preserved as inventory n. 2180-1 in the Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia), image used in accordance with permission for “interactive forms used for the presentation of scholarly works.” In the twelfth century, Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis decisively addressed the problem of men-hating Amazons. (2) Man aggressively grabbing another man’s penis in a brawl. Excerpt from painting, attributed to Panaitios Painter, on a red-figure kylix made in Attica (Greece) about 480 GC. Preserved as inventory n. ГР-7038 in the Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia). The Panaitios Painter was “foremost cup painter of his time, and in some ways the greatest Greek ceramic artist.” Richter (1936) v. 1, p. 61. Sexual violence against men is a serious social problem, yet attacks on men’s genitals are used for laughs in today’s major-media commercials. (3) Luxurious fountain pen. Excerpt from a CC0 public-domain image. In Arabic poetry, the comparative merits of the sword and the pen were a well-developed poetic topos. The question shouldn’t be whether the sword is mightier than the pen, but which is better for women and especially men.


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Sells, Donald. 2018. “The Blessed Afterlife in Old Comedy: Pherecrates, fr. 113.” Paper presented at the 114th meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (Albuquerque, New Mexico), Apr. 11-14.

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

Storey, Ian C., ed. & trans. 2011. Fragments of Old Comedy, Volume II: Diopeithes to Pherecrates. Loeb Classical Library 514. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

West, M. L. 1993. Greek lyric poetry: the poems and fragments of the Greek iambic, elegiac, and melic poets (excluding Pindar and Bacchylides) down to 450 B.C. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

White, Heather. 1980. Essays in Hellenistic poetry. Amsterdam: Gieben.

White, Heather. 2001. “Philological and Interpretative Problems in Greek Epigrams.” Myrtia 16: 77-103.

how Emperor Otto the Great judged pope accused of raping women

crown of Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great

In our ignorant and barbaric age, the preferred approach to handling accusations that a man committed sexual offenses against a woman is to listen and believe the woman, have the leading organs of public propaganda sensationally denounce the man, and then have a cathartic celebration of public hate directed at him. In tenth-century Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (Otto I) took a much more reasoned, deliberative approach when Pope John XII was accused of rape and other serious crimes. Studying this history, as well as the long history of false accusations of rape, can contribute to overcoming the oppressive structures of gender inequality in criminal justice.

The charge that Pope John XII raped women emerged when Otto sent inquires to Rome about apparently seditious activity. Otto’s messengers gathered a report from a number of reputable Romans. According to this report, Pope John XII was carrying on a sexual affair with the widow of the soldier Rainerius. Moreover, John was giving to her golden crosses and chalices that were ancient, prized possessions of the Church. John was also carrying on sexual affairs with his aunt Stephania and her sister. In addition, John, was having sex with a variety of other women, without discriminating among women on the basis of their fatness or wealth:

Witness that he receives not only women reed-thin from dieting, but also women of everyday shape. To him it’s the same whether women come to him treading the black pavement with their bare feet or arrive with the help of huge horses.

{ Testes sunt non solum iuncearum curatura sed et cotidianarum mulieres formarum. Cui idem est, et silicem pedibus quae conterunt atrum, et quae magnorum subvehuntur adiutorio iumentorum. }

In short, Pope John XII was having sex with women without any respect for men’s typical, understandable sexual and material interests. Moreover, women were being raped at the Lateran palace, “now a brothel for prostitutes {nunc prostibulum meretricum}”:

Witness the absence of women from all nations except the Roman. Women fear to visit the threshold of the apostles for the sake of prayer, since they heard that a few days ago several women — married, widowed, and virgins — were there forcefully raped.

{ Testis omnium gentium preter Romanarum absentia mulierum, quae sanctorum apostolorum limina orandi gratia timent visere, nonnullas ante dies paucos hunc audierint coniugatas, viduas, virgines, vi oppressisse. }

The threshold of the apostles was the entryway to the Lateran palace. That was Pope John XII’s residence. While many women and men lived and worked at the Lateran, the accusation of rape was implicitly directed at John.

Otto the Great understood that Pope John’s sexual promiscuity was nothing extraordinary in that age of pornocracy. Moreover, the sensational accusation of rape directed at John didn’t identify him specifically as the perpetrator. That accusation included no credible details of particular times, places, and victims. In response, Otto took a merciful approach of correcting John like loving fathers do when they haven’t been deprived of custody of their children. Otto declared:

“He is a child,” he said, “He will easily shift his ways under the influence of good men. I will hope for his honest change of heart, brought about by kind persuasion, so that he may easily lift himself out of these vices. … let us meet the lord Pope for a fatherly rebuke. If not through his own will, at least through his sense of shame he will transform himself into a perfect man. In this way, perhaps, forced to take on good habits, he will feel ashamed to become accustomed to them all over again.”

{ “Puer,” inquid, “est, facile bonorum immutabitur exemplo virorum. Sperabo eum obiurgatione honesta, suasione liberali, facile ex illis sese emersurum malis …. paterna abdicatione domnum papam conveniamus; si non voluntate, verecundia saltem in virum perfectum sese commutabit. Sicque forsitan devictus, bene consuescere pudebit desuescere.” }

College sex-crime tribunals should learn from the liberal, humane action of Otto the Great.

Otto not merely corrected John, but also conducted a follow-up investigation. Otto chaired a convocation in Rome of important authorities from across the Roman Empire. John was appropriately given an opportunity to testify and ask questions, but he refused to participate and fled from Rome. The authorities there described crimes that John committed beyond sexual wrongs. They revealed that John has acted as an agent of castration culture:

he killed John the cardinal subdeacon by amputating his genitals

{ Iohannem cardinalem subdiaconem virilibus amputatis occidisse }

That’s a combination of sexual violence and murder. Otto didn’t ignore these crimes because they were committed against a man rather than against a woman. At the same time, without any indication of anti-men gender bigotry, Otto questioned the truthfulness of the accusers:

I request that no accusations be cast against the lord pope for wrongdoing that has not been perpetuated by him and seen by the most trustworthy of men.

{ nullas in domnum papam iaculentur convitia, quae non sint ab ipso patrata atque a viris probatissimmis visa. }

The authorities swore that John had committed the horrendous crimes of which he had been accused. They also recounted a crime for which many witnesses existed. Nonetheless, Otto gave John another opportunity to come and clear himself of these accusations.

John didn’t respond substantially to the accusations. He responded only with blustery threats. Otto the Great then consulted with Roman authorities and had them select and consecrate a new pope, Leo VIII. John in response conspired with the pornocracy to overthrow Leo. Mobilizing women is an extraordinarily powerful tactic. However, while John and a woman were having adulterous sex, the devil struck him in the temple. The devil, not surprisingly, administered long-entrenched anti-men bias in punishment for adultery. John died of that wound eight days later. The wife with whom John had sex apparently wasn’t punished.

Devilishly oppressive structures of gender inequality in criminal justice aren’t easy to overturn. With fifteen times as many men as women authoritatively held behind bars around the world, each criminal accusation of a man potentially increases the structural gender injustice. Great leaders like the tenth-century Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great took extensive care to ensure that accusations of rape and other serious crimes against Pope John XII were true. Adjudicators of accusations against men should embrace enlightened justice and act with even greater care for due process and fairness today.

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The above quotes are from Liudprand of Cremona, Liber de rebus gestis Ottonis magni imperatoris / Historia Ottonis {Book of the deeds of Otto the great emperor / History of Otto } Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English translation from Squatriti (2007). In some cases I’ve adapted Squatriti’s English translation to track the Latin more closely or to be more easily readable.

The first quote concerning the different types of women having sex with John is from Historia Ottonis 4. That quote implicit cites Terence, Eunuchos 2.3.25 and Juvenal Satire 6.350.

Subsequent quotes are from Historia Ottonis 4 (brothel / absence of women), 5 (he is a child), 10 (amputating genitals), and 11 (no false accusations).

Balzaretti insightful noted how Otto the Great, at age forty-three, acted as a father figure to Pope John XII, who became pope at age 18. Balzaretti (1999) p. 157. In thirteenth-century Europe, Statius’s Achilleid was part of the Sex Auctores at the core of the school curriculum. The Achilleid highlighted the importance of fathers through Chiron’s care for Achilles.

With respect to castration, Grabowski dismissively declared:

In post-Carolingian Europe castration was not a common penalty, and in the sources it is mostly found only in regions on the borders of Christendom. It was always treated as a cruel punishment suitable only for sexual offenders.

Grabowski (2015) p. 82. Given prevalent misunderstanding of the gendered pattern of sexual violence today, this dismissal of medieval castration culture is suspect. Grabowski himself notes that the Annals of Fulda reports that in 884 Zwentibold, dux of the Moravians, castrated Werinhar, son of Engelschalk, and also castrated Count Wezzilo. Grabowski notes that Thietmar’s Chronicon reports that Duke Henry I of Bavaria had castrated Engelfried, patriarch of Aquilea, and that Boleslav III, duke of Bohemia, had castrated his own brother Jaromir. Id. pp. 82-3. No sexual offenses are mentioned in any of these instances. Brave, transgressive scholars have only started to direct attention to castration culture. The full, terrible significance of castration culture isn’t yet well-understood.

Grabowski argues that Liudprand presented Pope John XII as the “ultimate monster.” The Roman authorities used that word in referring to John in pleading before Otto:

We plead therefore that the greatness of your imperial authority cast this monster, redeemed from vices by no virtue whatsoever, out of the holy Roman church, and appoint another man in his place, one who is worthy to lead us by the example of his good ways, who himself lives righteously and offers us an example by living well.

{ Petimus itaque magnitudinem imperii vestri, monstrum illud nulla virtute redemptum a vitiis, a sancta Romana eclesia pelli, aliumque loco eius constitui, qui nobis exemplo bonae conversationts preesse valeat et prodesse; sibi recte vivat, ac bene vivendi nobis exemplum prebeat. }

Historia Ottonis 15. Even with sensational charges against Pope John XII, Otto the Great questioned the truthfulness of witnesses, carefully investigated the matter, and gave John ample opportunities to refute the charges.

[image] crown of Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (with later additions of cross and arch). Preserved as item SK Inv.-Nr. XIII 1 in the Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. Image via Wikimedia Commons thanks to MyName (Gryffindor) CSvBibra.


Balzaretti, Ross. 1999. “Men and Sex in Tenth-Century Italy.” Ch. 9 (pp. 143-59) in Hadley, D.M., ed. Masculinity in Medieval Europe. London: Longman.

Chiesa, Paolo, ed. 1998. Liudprand of Cremona. Antapodosis; Homelia pachalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 156. Turnholt: Brepols.

Grabowski, Antoni. 2015. “Liudprand of Cremona’s papa monstrum: the image of Pope John XII in the Historia Ottonis.” Early Medieval Europe. 23(1): 67-92.

Squatriti, Paolo, trans. 2007. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Wright, F.A., trans. 1930. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

pornocracy: rule by whores in tenth-century Italy

colored woodcut of Pope Joan

Gynocentrism typically operates with front men as nominal rulers. Occasionally gynocentrism reveals itself in direct gynokratia, or in a variant, pornocracy (rule by whores). The leading historical example of pornocracy is tenth-century Italy.

Sharing a name with the celebrated Byzantine Empress Theodora, Theodora I was the matriarch of tenth-century Italian pornocracy. A learned and nearly contemporary official characterized her as a “shameless harlot {scortum impudens}.” Wife of Theophylact I, Count of Tusculum, Theodora I became a senatrix, a female member of the Roman Senate.[1]

In addition to being a sentatrix, Theodora apparently was also a rapist. She fell in love with Giovanni da Tossignano (John), an attractive member of the clergy at Ravenna. As a politically powerful woman, Theodora apparently thought that she had the privilege of having sex with John without his freely given consent:

Theodora {I} — as I testified, a quite shameless prostitute — inflamed with the heat of Venus because of his {John’s} beautiful appearance, blazed ardently for him, and she not only desired but actually — O shame! — forced him to fornicate with her over and over again.

{ Theodora — ut testatus sum meretrix satis impudentissima — Veneris calore succensa, in huius spetiei decorem vehementer exarsit secumque hunc scortari solum non voluit, verum — pro! — etiam atque etiam compulit. } [2]

Literary scholars and historians, like today’s thought-leaders and policy-makers, have largely ignored the reality of women raping men. At least in the tenth century, church officials didn’t further victimize John for being raped. They allowed him to be elevated to Bishop of Bologna, and then Bishop of Ravenna. Like Harvey Weinstein groomed superstar actresses, Theodora I helped to propel John’s career forward while she was raping him:

Theodora, with the perverted mind of Glycerium, lest she should enjoy her lover only in very rare beddings on account of the length of the two hundred miles that separate Ravenna from Rome, pushed him to desert the see of the archbishopric of the Ravennans — O wickedness! — and to usurp the pontificate at Rome.

{ Theodorae autem Glycerii mens perversa, ne amasii sui ducentorum miliariorum interpositione, quibus Ravenna sequestratur Roma, rarissimo concubitu potiretur, Ravennatae hunc sedis archipraesulatum coegit deserere Romanumque — pro nefas! — summum pontificium usurpare. } [3]

The rape victim John thus became Pope John X.

Theodora produced two strong, independent daughters: Marozia and her younger sister Theodora II. Compared to their mother, these daughters were “not just her equals but if anything even faster in the exercise of Venus {sibi non solum coaequales, verum etiam Veneris exercitio promptiores}.”

Marozia, also called a “shameless harlot {scortum impudens},” married three times and probably had many lovers. With the help of her mother, Marozia had a sexual affair with Pope Sergius and gave birth to son named John. She married Alberic I of Spoleto, whom she probably cuckolded with Pope Sergius. When Alberic I was killed, Marozia quickly remarried. She married the powerful military commander Wido (Guy) of Tuscany. Working together in the medieval ideal of marriage as a conjugal partnership, Marozia and Wido smothered to death Pope John X with a cushion.[4] They then installed Leo VI as pope. Marozia subsequently promoted Stephen VII into the papacy in 929. She successfully guided her own extra-marital son John to the top of the church. John became Pope John XI in 931.

When Wido of Tuscany died, Marozia quickly propositioned Wido’s half-brother, the Italian King Hugh of Arles. The great defier of gynocentrism Liudprand of Cremona complained and lamented:

Why, Marozia, do you rage, urged on by Venus’s sting?

Now there comes to you, like a desired bull led under yoke,
King Hugh, moved more to rule the Roman city.
What does it profit you, O wicked woman, to ruin such a holy man?

{ Quid Veneris facibus compulsa Marozia saevis?

Advenit optatus ceu bos tibi ductus ad aram
Rex Hugo, Romanam potius commotus ob urbem.
Quid iuvat, o scelerata, virum sic perder sanctum? } [5]

King Hugh needed Marozia’s authority to rule over Rome. A modern historian working to buttress gynocentrism explained:

An extraordinary women {Marozia}, her importance lies not in her paramours, but in the fact that she continued the tradition of the Theophylact clan in maintaining stability in Rome and the Patrimonium. … She understood that the sexual was political and was able to use this to her advantage in a patriarchal {sic} world. Obviously beautiful and alluring to men, she was also intelligent, strong-willed, and independent like her mother. [6]

With the formative efforts of educational institutions, media, tech giants, and government, more women will grow up to be like Marozia and her mother. Pornocracy can be re-established, but much work remains to be done.

Marozia’s success in seducing King Hugh had a worthy pedigree in King Hugh’s mother Bertha. She married Adalbert II, the Margrave of Tuscany. Bertha came to rule on her own many castles and cites “by craftiness, gifts, and the sweet exercises of copulation {cum calliditate, muneribus, tum hymenei exercitio dulcis}.”[7] Bertha’s daughter Ermengard followed her mother’s example and was her “equal in the sweetness of Aphrodite {Afroditis dulcedine coaequalem}.” Ermengard came to rule all of Italy through her skills in sexual trading:

she engaged in carnal transactions with everyone, not just with princes, but even with non-noble men.

{ carnale cum omnibus non solum principibus, verum etiam ignobilibus, commercium exercebat. }

This was a time of great turmoil in churches:

within them people used to hold dinners, make lewd gestures, sing bawdy songs, have parties; and — most hideous! — women actually prostituted themselves there.

{ In his namque simbolam faciebant, gestus turpis, cantus ludicres, dibachationes; sed et mulieres eodem publice — pro nefas! — prostituebantur. }

With Marozia and King Hugh relishing marital sex, Marozia’s son contemptuously denounced his mother’s promiscuity and men’s stupidity:

The dignity of the Roman city is led to such depths of stupidity that it now obeys the command of a prostitute.

{ Romanae urbis dignitas ad tantam est stultitiam ducta, ut meretricum etiam imperio paroeat. } [8]

That’s pornocracy in action. As the ancient Greeks understood, Eros often becomes the most important god. That’s true even in the era following Paul of Tarsus’s solemn warning.

Pornocracy is less recognized as a social danger than that many men might come to prefer porn to real women. Governments should address gender inequalities in sex compensation as well as gender inequalities in sexual welfare. Pornocracy isn’t the natural and inevitable destiny of gynocentric democracies.[9]

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Update, 31 Jan. 2019: Errors in an earlier edition of this post were corrected thanks to an informative and highly disparaging comment from Richardis Roe.

[1] Theodora soon eclipsed her husband Theophylact in political influence:

the “monarchy of Theodora” was undoubted fact: From the year 900 onward it is her name, not her husband’s, that predominates in the sparse annals of the city {Rome}.

Chamberlin (1986) p. 27. For Theodora being a scortum impudens, Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis {Retribution} 2.48, Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English translation from Squatriti (2007). All subsequent quotes from Antapodosis are similarly sourced. For the subsequent quote on Theodora’s daughters being equally Venusian, Antapodosis 2.48.

[2] Antapodosis 2.48. Many men recall being sexually harassed and raped by today’s standards, but the dominant gynocentric media largely ignores men’s actual life experiences.

[3] Antapodosis 2.48. In Terence’s Andria, Glycerium is a sister of a prostitute. She and Pamphilus have an extramarital child that creates turmoil among Pamphilus’s extended family and friends.

[4] Antapodosis 3.43. Almost all the historical details in the above paragraph are based on Liudprand’s Antapodis. While Liudprand was a rhetorically sophisticated writer, he likely had good sources concerning the relevant events. Moreover, he had much less of a gynocentric bias than other historians, including most modern ones.

[5] Antapodosis 3.44. The previous short quote (Marozia as scortum impudens) is also from 3.44.

[6] Collins (2013) p. 66. For a more neutral account of Marozia’s life, Schaff (1918) § 63 and Chamberlin (1986) pp. 25-38. With the modern intensification of gynocentrism, Liudprand of Cremona has been unfairly devalued as a historical witness. For some biographical information on major figures of the pornocracy era, Brook (2003).

[7] Antapodosis 2.55. Subsequent quotes in the above paragraph are from Antapodosis 2.56 (sweetness of Aphrodite), 3.7 (carnal transactions), 1.33 (prostitution in churches), 3.45 (rule of prostitutes).

[8] Alderic subsequently overthrew King Hugh. Alderic apparently drove his mother Marozia from Rome. Antapodosis 3.44, 46. Marozia may have died in a convent. Schaff (1918) § 63, under “The Demoralization of the Papacy.” Marozia was probably confined to a convent as a form of house arrest. Punishment for seditious men is typically much harsher, e.g. “hard” imprisonment, castration, execution.

[9] The tenth-century Italian “pornocracy” was first directly characterized in the sixteenth century by Cardinal Baronius in his Annales Ecclesiastici. See The Church Review and Ecclesiastical Register, Volume 54, pp. 167-8, which doesn’t provide a citation to Annales Ecclesiastici. But see, e.g. Annales Ecclesiastici vol. 16, year 908 GC, sec. 5.

[image] Colored woodcut of Pope Joan in a book probably published in Germany in the sixteenth century. Pope Joan is a mythic figure that has served a variety of interests. See, e.g. Rustici (2006) and Noble (2013). included this image, without any source reference, in a post about the pornocracy.


Brook, Lindsay, 2003. “Popes and Pornocrats: Rome in the Early Middle Ages.” Foundations (a publication of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy). 1(1): 5-21.

Chamberlin, E. R. 1986. The Bad Popes. New York: Dorset Press.

Chiesa, Paolo, ed. 1998. Liudprand of Cremona. Antapodosis; Homelia pachalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 156. Turnholt: Brepols.

Collins, Paul. 2013. The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century. New York: PublicAffairs.

Noble, Thomas F. X. 2013. “Why Pope Joan?” The Catholic Historical Review. 99 (2): 219-238.

Rustici, Craig. 2006. The Afterlife of Pope Joan: Deploying the Popess Legend in Early Modern England. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Schaff, Philip. 1918. History of the Christian church. Vol. IV. Mediaeval Christianity: from Gregory I to Gregory VII, A.D. 590-1073. New York: Scribner.

Squatriti, Paolo, trans. 2007. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Wright, F.A., trans. 1930. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Liudprand’s rhetorical sophistication & a castrated man’s large penis

woman, man, and the worship of Mammon

Disparaging men is less dangerous than criticizing women. The tenth-century Italian court official, bishop, and historian Liudprand of Cremona disparaged men and narrated horrific violence against men in accordance with gynocentric acceptance of such abuse of men. Yet Liudprand, a highly sophisticated writer, used abuse of men as a rhetorical means for more subtly criticizing women.

Liudprand viciously disparaged Dominic, the chaplain to the tenth-century queen consort Willa of Tuscany. Liudprand described Dominic as:

short in stature, sooty in color, crude, bristly, restless, rough, a barbarian, harsh, hairy, endowed with a tail, shameless, mad, rebellious, and unfair

{ statura brevem colore fuligineum, rusticum, setigerum, indocilem, agrestem, barbarum, durum, villosum, cauditum, petulcum, insanum, rebellem, iniquum } [1]

What ostensibly began as a simple physical description became an abstract, highly prejudicial characterization of the man. Being endowed with a tail associates Dominic with the devil. In addition to describing him as “hairy {villosum}” here, Liudprand subsequently two more times in the short section on Dominic described him as “hairy {hirsutus}.” Liudprand thus emphasized that Dominic, by status a spiritual authority, was physically masculine. Being physically masculine is a suspect condition under gynocentrism. In contrast to Liudprand’s characterization, Dominic apparently was religiously and culturally sophisticated enough to become a royal chaplain. He was learned enough to be entrusted to teach the Queen’s daughters how to read.

Liudprand seems to have characterized Dominic as distinctively masculine and brutish in order to criticize Queen Willa’s lack of sexual self-control. Liudprand explained:

using the excuse of the girls, whom the priest Dominic, hairy and unwashed, taught amusingly, the mother seduced him, giving him delicate food and costly clothes.

{ Occasione itaque puellarum, quas presbiter Dominicus hirsutus inlotus facete docebat, mater ei propitiaverat, tribuens delicatum cibum vestesque preciosas. }

Like Hysmine sexually harassing Hysminias, Queen Willa sexually harassed her subordinate household employee Dominic. Most persons cannot conceive of the frequency with which women rape men. Willa’s behavior was similarly difficult to conceptualize:

Everyone wondered why a woman so unlikable, unpleasant, and unyielding to all should be so generous to him. That truthful saying, however, which goes: “For nothing is covered that shall not be revealed, nor hidden that shall not become public,” did not allow men to wonder about it for long. For on a certain night, with Berengar {King Berengar II, Willa’s husband} absent, that hairy fellow sought to get into the lord’s bed as usual. A dog was at hand. With its horrible barking the dog awakened those sleeping nearby, and it mauled the priest with a fierce bite.

{ Mirari omnes, cur cunctis invisa, ingrata, tenax huic existeret larga. Sententia tamen veritatis, quae ait: Nihil opertum quod non reveletur, et ocultum quod non in publicum veniat, diu mirari homines passa non est. Nam cum nocte quadam Berengario absente ad cubile dominicum more solito hirsutus isdem vellet accedere, canis isthic aderat, qui latratu horribili circumiacentes exitavit huncque morsu vehementi laniavit. } [2]

The awakened servants seized Dominic. They questioned him about where he was going. Answering for him, Willa said that Dominic was going to sleep with the maids. Dominic supported Willa’s lie in the hope that he would receive less severe punishment.

Willa, however, then turned upon Dominic. She attempted to kill him, and also offered a reward to anyone who succeeded in killing him. Willa’s husband Berengar eventually learned of the affair. Willa was fearful that her husband might not accept her cuckolding him:

Willa began to make inquiries of diviners and sorcerers so that she might be helped by their incantations. Whether she was aided, however, by their incantations or by Berengar’s softness, regardless his mind was so inclined that he spontaneously placed his head back into the marital muzzle.

{ Willa vero coepit aruspices maleficosque inquirere, quo eorum carminibus iuvaretur. Utrum autem horum carminibus an Berengarii sit adiuta mollicie, adeo mens eius est inclinata, ut sponte maritali porrigeret ora capistro. } [3]

Many husband’s throughout history have complacently accepted being cuckolded. Not surprisingly, paternity laws have institutionalized being cuckolded as equivalent to normal fatherhood. Moreover, punishment for adultery has long been gender-biased against men. Thus it was in this instance:

Thus the priestlet, since he neighed at the servants of the mistress, was sent away with his manhood amputated; and the mistress was loved all the more by Berengar. Those, however, who made him a eunuch said that the mistress had loved him for a good reason, as he proved to carry massive Priapic weaponry.

{ Presbiterulus itaque, quia dominae asseculas adhinnivit, virilibus amputatis dimittitur; domina vero a Berengario magis diligitur. Dixerunt autem qui eum eunuchizaverunt, quod merito illum domina amaret, quem priapeia portare arma constaret. }

Priapus is an ancient, mythic figure associated with deeply entrenched disparagement of men’s sexuality. Castration is horrific sexual violence against men. Liudprand didn’t condemn those who castrated Dominic. His story of Willa and Dominic exemplifies the social injustice of brutal violence against men — a social injustice that has been all too common throughout history and that continues today under a code of silence.

Liudprand’s concluding reference to Dominic’s large penis wasn’t gratuitous. Women historically have been thought to prefer sexually partners with large penises.[4] Nonetheless, only men as foolish as an ass strive to acquire a longer penis. According to surviving ancient and medieval literature, women who have sex with many different men, particular men with large penises, tend to develop enlarged vaginas. Liudprand allusively indicated that Willa’s mother had this condition.

The sexual behavior of Willa’s mother, also named Willa, was associated with avariciousness. She “burned with love for gold {phylargiriae … amore flagrare}.” Her marital situation was consistent with such desire:

Her husband Boso had a gold belt of wondrous length and width, which glittered with the splendor of many precious gems.

{ Vir ipsius Boso mirae longitudinis et latitudinis aureum habuerat balteum, qui multarum et pretiosarum splendebat nitore gemmarum. } [5]

The tenth-century Italian King Hugh of Arles captured Boso. Hugh particularly sought Boso’s belt. That belt was materially precious and was also, as a noble belt, a central social symbol of power.[6] But Hugh’s men couldn’t find it. Hugh suspected that Willa was hiding it. He instructed his men:

turn all the gear of her horses inside out, even the pillow upon which she sits while riding. And if you cannot find the belt even there, strip her of all her clothes, lest she hide anything anywhere on her person: for I have learned how crafty she is, and how greedy.

{ falerarum eius omnem apparatum, pulvinar etiam quod equitando premit evertite. Et si nec ibi quidem balteum poteritis repperire, vestimentis omnibus eam exuite, ne alicubi super se possit latere: novi enim quantum callida quantumque sit cupida. }

Men typically aren’t granted bodily privacy. Even today, strip-searching men prisoners is common practice, and the design of urinals in men’s bathrooms typically gives men no personal privacy. Hugh recognized Willa to be a strong, independent, crafty woman. By requiring her to be subject to a strip search, he, with a commendable sense of gender equality, didn’t privilege her above men.[7]

Hugh, moreover, apparently was humble enough to learn from Jacob’s wife Rachael. Another strong, independent woman, Rachel took her father’s household gods. Her father, searching for his gods, came to her camp. Rachel hid her father’s gods under herself. She then claimed that she couldn’t stand up because she was menstruating.[8] Menstruation, like men’s erection labor, is a sex-specific bodily function. Yet while male privilege is a recently constructed myth, Rachel’s father never recovered his household gods because Rachel successfully sat with female privilege. Unlike so many men ignorant of the profound insights in Hebrew scripture, Hugh shrewdly rejected the claim of female sitting privilege. He commanded that his men search even the pillow upon which Willa sat while riding.

All but one of Hugh’s men supported female privilege. Liudprand, narrating the events, also normatively colored the narrative for female privilege and against gender equality:

having gone back and obeyed the king’s command, they {Hugh’s men} found nothing after having searched everywhere. They thus stripped her of all her clothing. With eyes averted, none of the decent men would look upon this filthy and unprecedented crime {of stripping Willa}. But one of the servants directed his gaze to her and saw a purple string hanging below the sphere of her buttocks. When he impudently grabbed it and pulled it in a defiling way, the belt they were seeking came out of her most intimate part.

{ Igitur illis redeuntibus regisque iussioni paroentibus, cum requisitis omnibus nil invenissent, vestimentis eam omnibus nudaverunt. Hoc denique tam turpe facinus atque inauditum cum avertentibus oculis proborum nemo conspiceret, servorum quidam directo obtutu purpuream secus natium speroiden vidit dependere corrigiam, quam inpudenter arripiens foediterque trahens, e secretiori corporis parte eam secutus balteus est egressus. }

Willa had secreted the golden belt, studded with rubies and other gems, in her apparently quite large vagina. Perhaps she enjoyed sex with men endowed like Dominic. While Liudprand set up that allusion, he normatively disparaged the servant who successfully recovered the belt. Liudprand, like any author writing under gynocentrism, recognized the importance of supporting female privilege.

Liudprand prominently featured the transgressive servant defying gynocentric norms of honoring and serving women. Displaying at length the servant’s “shameless” wit, Liudprand wrote:

Then the servant, not just shameless, but rendered all the more giggly by his dirty deed, burst out: “Ha! Ha! He! What an expert midwife is this soldier! A red-headed boy was born to the lady: I ask that you be my witnesses! O, how fortunate I would be, indeed the happiest of men, if my wife bore me just two such children! Indeed, I would send them both as messengers to Constantinople since, as I learned when merchants told about it, the emperor graciously welcomes this kind of messenger!”

{ Servus itaque isdem non solum inverecundus, sed eo ipso turpi facinore hilarior redditus: “Há! há! hé! — ait — quam peritus obstetricandi miles! Ruffus puer est natus herae; quaeso, ut sit superstes! O me fortunatum, immo omnibus feliciorem, si tales saltem duos uxor mea mihi pareret natos! Hos quippe Constantinopolim dirigerem nuntios, quoniam quidem, ut institoribus narrantibus agnovi, huiusmodi libenter imperator nuntios suscipit!” }

Liudprand himself had been an envoy to Constantinople. He knew that the Byzantine emperor, whom he ridiculed in another work, sought precious gifts from envoys. Liudprand went on to quote the servant’s poetry, which the servant ostensibly composed spontaneously:

Willa, what madness is this? To store gold in the invisible
entrance of your genitals? O, I think your lust is unheard of!
By the name of the furies you stored gems in your body!
To produce such offspring is unusual for mothers:
from it the ten months’ gestation brought you no discomfort.
Noble mother, do not hold back from us such offspring,
who, once born, may overtake you, the mother, in age!

{ Willa quid insanis? Aurum quod condere caecis
Incipis in membris? Prô, non audita cupido!
Allectô furiis gemmas in corpore condis!
Matribus insolitum tales producere partus:
Hinc tibi nulla decem tulerant fastidia menses.
Alma parens, tales nobis haud desine foetus
Edere, qui nati superent te aetate parentem! }

This servant had impressive classical learning. His announcement of the birth of Ruffus (the ruby-studded belt) quoted Terence’s Andria. His subsequent celebratory poem quoted two of Virgil’s eclogues and the Aeneid. Liudprand seems to have approached the moral imperatives of gynocentrism with all the rhetorical sophistication of the Middle English Poet’s Repentance.[9]

Liudprand wasn’t afraid to criticize women directly. He declared:

the purpose of this work is this: namely, to depict, make public, and complain about the deeds of this Berengar who nowadays does not so much rule as tyrannize in Italy, and of his wife Willa, who is appropriately called a second Jezebel on account of the immensity of her despotism and a child-eating witch on account of her insatiable desire for robbery.

{ intentio huius operis ad hoc respicit, ut Berengarii huius, qui nunc in Italia non regnat sed tyranizat, atque uxoris eius Willae, quae ob inmensitatem tyrannidis secunda Iezabel et ob rapinarum insacietatem Lamia proprio apellatur vocabulo, actus designet, ostendat et clamitet. }

This was the Willa who seduced her chaplain Dominic, who then sought to have him killed, and who allowed him to be castrated. Before narrating the story of Willa’s mother hiding the jeweled belt in her vagina, Liudprand noted that Willa “managed things so her mother could not be considered the worst of women {hoc effecit, ne genitrix sua omnium esset mulierum nequissima}.” That direct reference foreshadows the more subtle allusion between the two stories.

Writing in support of gynocentric ideology, modern academics have called Liudprand a bad name for criticizing women directly. Liudprand, however, also deserves credit for his great rhetorical sophistication in criticizing women indirectly. Under gynocentrism, describing a man as a beast isn’t shameful, and a man being castrated doesn’t merit condemning. Under gynocentrism, a servant-man who recovers a large, precious belt from an enemy-woman’s vagina must be condemned as shameless, impudent, and dirty. Liudprand understood gynocentric gender values. He drew upon them with great rhetorical sophistication.

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[1] Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis {Retribution} 5.32, Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English translation from Squatriti (2007). All subsequent quotes from Antapodosis are similarly sourced. In some cases I’ve made minor changes to Squatriti’s English translation to track the Latin more closely or to be more easily readable. The subsequent four quotes are from Antapodosis 5.32.

For earlier, freely available Latin text and English translation, Dümmler (1877) and Wright (1930). Both are of reasonably good quality.

[2] The quoted phrase is from Matthew 10:26. The Vulgate Latin for that quotation is:

For nothing is covered that shall not be revealed, nor hidden that shall not be known.

{ ne ergo timueritis eos nihil enim opertum quod non revelabitur et occultum quod non scietur. }

The text that Liudprand quoted is close to the Vulgate, but slightly different.

[3] Grabowski noted that malefici refers to male magicians and hence is better translated as “sorcerers” than as “witches” (although witches can be male). Grabowski (2015) p. 259, n. 60. I’ve incorporated Grabowski’s insight into the English translation above.

[4] In the relatively tolerant and enlightened Middle Ages, elite discourse didn’t suppress frank descriptions of men’s and women’s genitals. Balzaretti speculated that Liudprand’s story of the recovery of a precious belt from a captured queen’s vagina “may well have been intended to titillate his male readership with explicit treatment of Willa’s body.” Balzaretti (2002) p. 121. That seems to me about as plausible as a claim that Liudprand’s description of Dominic’s large penis was intended to titillate his female readership. Balzaretti, in accordance with dominant gynocentric ideology, didn’t put forward the latter speculation. Instead, he wondered:

Surely it is possible that Liutprand is here taking a swipe at Willa’s husband Berengar by implying that his penis could not satisfy Willa because it was too small?

Id. p. 122. That’s possible. Men commonly endure an onerous burden of performance. But a woman’s sexual satisfaction from a man typically depends more on him not acting like General Belisarius than on him being endowed with an unusually large penis.

[5] Antapodosis 4.12. The previous short quote on Willa burning with love is from id. 4.11. The subsequent four quotes above are from id. 4.12.

[6] On the symbolic importance of noble belts in early medieval European society, Grabowski (2015) p. 261.

[7] Grabowski stated that Pieniądz interpreted Willa in this story as follows: “her passive character during the whole shameful scene was meant by Liudprand to put her again in the proper place for woman.” Grabowski (2015) p. 266, referring to Pieniądz (2010). During this scene, Willa was a captive. Captives, both women and men, commonly are passive. Men captives being strip-searched aren’t typically active. Showing rare courage for a man in relation to a woman, Grabowski disagreed with Pieniądz’s interpretation.

[8] For the story of Rachel stealing her father’s gods, Genesis 31:33-5.

[9] The servant cited Terence, Andria 486-7 (at beginning of what’s commonly labeled Act 3, Scene 2) and Virgil, Eclogues 10.22, 4.61; Aeneid 2.591, as noted in Chiesa (1998) p. 104. Liudprand may have been alluding more generally to the birth imagery in Virgil’s fourth eclogue. Squatriti (2007) p. 149, n. 29.

Levine observed that the servant composed “nine hexameters on the event, demonstrating surprising metrical and rhetorical competence for his rank.” Levine sensibly recognized the incongruity of the text, but laughably missed the irony of Liudprand’s concluding moralization:

Pretending to disapprove of the servant’s behavior, and of the poem, which clearly was composed by the bishop of Cremona himself, Liudprand represents himself as puzzled by the problem of determining whose behavior was worse {that of King Hugh, who defeated an enemy, or his servant, who seized the precious belt from the enemy}.

Levine (1991) {note omitted}. Grabowski shows clearly the quality of today’s gynocentric scholastic reasoning:

Therefore, while the joke is at a woman, the wrongdoing is on the part of a man. This is a misogynistic tale, where in the end the male character is shown as evil and wrong.

Grabowski (2015) p. 264. Being able to declare that a story is misogynistic and that it shows a man as “evil and wrong” is a double win in modern academic scoring. Grabowski provided further clarity concerning gynocentrism:

This becomes even clearer when compared to how Otto acted toward the wives of rebels. While it is implied that they had some role in the rebellion, none of them was in any way punished by Otto. The price they paid was the death of their husbands in warfare. This shows clearly how wrong Hugh was because of greed and lack of mercy, where the latter was an important element of being a decent king.

Id. {footnote omitted}. Under gynocentrism, women receive no or very mild punishment for crimes for which men are killed. Moreover, since men devote their lives to serving women, men’s deaths, when rarely noticed, are scored as punishment of women.

Liudprand included as the final couplet of the servant’s transgressive poem the normative response:

One energetic man hit the neck of the one saying such things,
and reprimanded him with harsh words.

{ Talia cunctanti collum percusserat unus
Impiger, ac verbis ipsum culparat amaris. }

Antapodosis 4.12. Liudprand inserted this brilliant poem, which dilates upon the servant’s literary boasting, in the margin of the manuscript. Squatriti (2007) p. 149, n. 28. Liudprand perhaps thought that adding this poem would ensure that readers correctly understand his rhetoric. He apparently under-estimated the interpretive force of gynocentric ideology, at least with respect to modern academics.

[image] Woman, man, and worship of Mammon. Oil on canvas painting by Evelyn De Morgan, circa 1909. Her work shows extraordinary insights into the relationship of women and men under the prevailing gender structure of family law. Preserved in the De Morgan Centre (London, UK), via Wikimedia Commons.

The man’s hand gesture in De Morgan’s painting is appropriately similar to that of men displaying their emasculation. See, e.g., the illumination of Attis castrating himself on folio 343v of a manuscript of Augustine’s De civitate Dei {City of God}, trans. from Latin into French by Raoul de Presles. Made in Paris about 1475, MS. MMW 10 A 11, in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.


Balzaretti, Ross. 2002. “Liutprand of Cremona’s Sense of Humour.” Ch. 5 (pp. 114-28) in Guy Halsall, ed., Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chiesa, Paolo, ed. 1998. Liudprand of Cremona. Antapodosis; Homelia pachalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 156. Turnholt: Brepols.

Grabowski, Antoni. 2015. “From Castration to Misogyny. The Meaning of Liudprand of Cremona’s Humour.” Acta Poloniae Historica. 112: 243.

Levine, Robert. 1991. “Liudprand of Cremona: History and Debasement in the Tenth Century.” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch. 26:70–84.

Pieniądz, Aneta. 2010. “Kobieta, honor i polityka we wczesnym średniowieczu.” Pp. 408-24 in Bartoszewicz, Agnieszka, ed. 2010. Świat średniowiecza: studia ofiarowane Profesorowi Henrykowi Samsonowiczowi. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego.

Squatriti, Paolo, trans. 2007. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Wright, F.A., trans. 1930. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.