why can’t men have it all? an alternate life-stages approach

Most men love to be with beautiful, young women. But what happens when a man gets old? Old men readily fall into the desperate self-abasement of courtly love. Acting chivalrously, wrongly understood, might make old men feel sexually alluring. Chivalrous behavior, however, rewards old men only with knightly fantasies. Men cannot have it all, just as everyone cannot be the richest man in the world.[1] Men can, however, choose different priorities for different stages of their lives.

portrait of intense old man

Having the wrong priorities can lead a person to utter self-humiliation and abasement. Consider an old man begging the young beauty Focilla in fifteenth-century Italy:

Don’t take away those sexy eyes,
show pity on my old age.
Love all the young men, go flirt with them,
only, my girl, don’t spurn my years.
Give yourself to this one and that one,
just don’t deny me who loves you.
I don’t want sex and thrills;
I’ve given up sexual pleasure.
But I beg you for those sexy eyes.
Whenever you turn towards me with
those sexy eyes, laughing and weeping,
you give me back my youth.
I’d remove the garments of old age
if sweet you would thrice kiss me, Focilla,
if you’d draw my tongue into your tender mouth,
if you’d hang entwined about my neck.

{ Lascivos male temperas ocellos,
nec nostrae miseret tamen senectae.
Quantum vis iuvenes ama foveque,
dum ne me fugias senem, puella;
atque hos atque alios ames licebit,
dum ne me abicias, puella, amantem.
Nolo delicias libidinesque:
amisi venerem libidinemque,
lascivos oculos volo precorque.
Lascivos quotiens reflectis in me,
et rides simul et doles, ocellos,
inspiras iuvenis mihi vigorem;
quin omnem simul exuo senectam,
si ter blanda, Focilla, suaviaris,
si linguam tenero sub ore suggis,
si collo quoque complicata pendes. }[2]

That was an old man who should have studied the Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim. Women despise needy, clinging, desperate men. Stuck with such men, women will cuckold them. Men, be the best that you can be. Don’t be that man. A man can get better than Gillette, a little Gilote.

Let’s forget our studies —
it’s sweet to be foolish —
and seize the sweet hours
of tender youth.
It’s apt for the old
to focus on serious matters.
It’s apt for the young
to play with a happy heart!

{ Omittamus studia,
dulce est desipere,
et carpamus dulcia
iuventutis tenerae!
Res est apta senectuti
seriis intendere.
Res est apta iuventuti
laeta mente ludere. }[3]

To have fuller lives, men and women should align their priorities to complement their age. Cleric-scholars in medieval Europe lamented their lack of bodily activity after choosing as young men to be students of Athena rather than students of Venus. They alternately might have arranged their lives like the fifteenth-century Italian Andreas Contrarius did his:

Thalia loved a youth whom now,
aged, is loved by bright Sophia.
Thalia taught the boy to sing,
old now, Sophia gives him wisdom.
The youth sang Thalia’s tunes;
the old man stores up Sophia’s wisdom.
O happy youth and happy old man,
Contrarius, o youth and blessed old man,
whom learned Muses taught as a boy,
now in grave old age Athens tutors
with a chaste heart and chaste habits!

{ Dilexit iuvenem Thalia, quem nunc
senem candida diligit Sophia;
monstravit iuveni Thalia cantum,
nunc seni sapientiam Sophia;
cantavit iuvenis modos Thaliae,
nunc senex sapientiam reponit:
o felix iuvenis senexque felix,
Contrari, o iuvenem, o senem beatum,
quem doctus puerum erudivit Aon,
nunc senem erudiunt graves Athenae,
casto pectore moribusque castis! }[4]

Thalia, which literally meaning flowering in ancient Greek, was one of the three Graces (Charites). She was also the Muse of light verse. Here she seems to represent primarily a singing courtesan learned in entertaining men, including having sex with them. As a young man, Contrarius may similarly have become learned in pleasing men. In any case, he didn’t as a young man waste his youthful beauty with his face to books or to a long-term career. Only as an old man did Contrarius become a student of Athena. He didn’t have it all at the same time. He prioritized different pursuits at different ages.

Men should seek women’s love when they are young men, for aging respects no one’s self-identification. A leading businesswoman has advised young women to sleep around when they’re young, and then late in their reproductive life, marry boring men who will reliably support their wives’ careers. Men usually don’t have a similar, gender-symmetric life opportunity. Yet men can adapt. Ovid as an old man turned away from seducing women to study of mathematics, astronomy, theology and other engaging subjects. Other men can similarly develop new interests in response to their changing circumstances.

White-haired Myron requested a night with Laïs,
and she refused him outright.
He understood the cause, and with soot
dyed his white head dark.
With the same face, but not the same hair as Myron,
he begged what he begged before.
But she, contrasting his features with his hair,
thinking him alike, but not the same
(maybe even the same, but wishing to enjoy a jest)
thus said to the crafty wooer:
“Awkward one, why ask me what I have refused?
I have already rejected your father.”

{ Canus rogabat Laidis noctem Myron:
tulit repulsam protinus
causamque sensit et caput fuligine
fucavit atra candidum.
Idemque vultu, crine non idem Myron,
orabat oratum prius.
Sed illa formam cum capillo comparans
similemque, non ipsum, rata,
(fortasse et ipsum, sed volens ludo frui)
sic est adorta callidum:
“Inepte, quid me, quod recusavi, rogas?
Patri negavi iam tuo.” }[5]

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[1] The question “Why can’t women have it all?” has long been a major topic of discussion in the U.S. No one can have it all. Gynocentric society keeps women in the dark about that banal reality in order to promote the anti-men resentment that helps to support gynocentrism.

[2] Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, “To Focilla {Ad Focillam},” Hendecasyllaborum sive Baiarum Libri Duo {Two Books of Hendecasyllables, or Baiae} 2.14, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Dennis (2006) pp. 124-5. For praise of Focilla’s eyes, Baiae 2.4 “The Eyes of the Young Women Focilla {De Focillae puella ocellis}.” Focilla’s name suggests “little brightness” or “little fireplace.” Id. p. 216. For a quite good Latin text of Pontano’s Baiae, freely available online, Oeschger (1948).

[3] Carmina Burana 75, “Let’s forget our studies {Omittamus studia},” st. 1, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). For a freely available English translation of the whole poem, Waddell (1929) pp. 203-5.

[4] Pontano, “About Andreas Contrarius {De Andrea Contrario},” Baiae 2.3, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Dennis (2006) pp. 100-1. Andreas Contrarius apparently was an actual person. He was born in Venice and after 1471 settled in Naples. Id. p. 215.

Tension between between being a student of Venus (love) and being a student of Athena / Minerva (scholarly knowledge) is a recurring theme in medieval lyric. For example:

Youthful Cupid, spare young me!
Venus, look with favor on my inexperience
by starting a fire
and nursing that fire
so death will not be what I live,
so that she will not be like Daphne to Apollo,
she to whom I dedicate myself.
Once apprenticed to Pallas Athena,
I now yield to your rule, Venus.

{ Parce, puer, puero!
Fave, Venus, tenero,
ignem movens,
ignem fovens,
ne mori sit quod vixero,
nec sit ut Daphne Phoebo,
cui me ipsum dedo.
Olim tiro Palladis
nunc tuo iuri cedo. }

Carmina Burana 56, “Janus brings the year full circle {Ianus annum circinat},” st. 5, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Another poem is exhortative:

Therefore let this contingent,
steeped in literature,
campaign as soldiers
following Venus’s standards!

{ Ergo litteris
cetus hic imbutus
signa Veneris
militet secutus! }

Carmina Burana 162, “O companions {O consocii},” 5.1-4, sourced as previously. For a related example, Carmina Burana 108, “On the balance of a teetering scale {Vacillantis trutinae / libramine}.”

[5] Ausonius, Epigrams 38 (Kay 18), “On Myron who requested a night with Laïs {De Myrone qui Laidis Noctem rogaverat},” Latin text from White (1919) v. 2, p. 178, my English translation benefiting from that of id. and Kay (2001) p. 114.

Myron of Eleutherae was a famous sculptor who lived in fifth-century BGC Athens. His bronze sculpture of a cow featured in many Greek and Latin epigrams. See e.g. Ausonius, Epigrams 68-75, and Squire (2010).

Laïs was a famous courtesan of fifth-century BGC Corinth. Ausonius described Laïs as being among “names of lascivious fame {lascivae nomina famae}” in Epigrams 39, “Of the opinion that his wife has of him {De opinione quam de illo habebat eius uxor}.” Ausonius also described Laïs lamenting her own old age in Epigrams 65, “On Laïs dedicating her mirror to Venus {De Laide dicante Veneri Speculum suum}.”

In early Arabic love poetry, Buthaynah taunted Jamīl about his hair having changed color with his old age. Jamīl responded with poignant, loving nostalgia.

[image] Portrait of an intense old man. Source photo thanks to aamiraimer on pixabay.


Dennis, Rodney G., ed. and trans. 2006. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Baiae. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G., ed. and trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1Vol. 2.

Kay, N. M., trans. 2001. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius, epigrams: text with introduction and commentary. London: Duckworth.

Oeschger, Johannes. 1948. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Carmina: Ecloghe, Elegie, Liriche. Bari: Laterza.

Squire Michael. 2010. “Making Myron’s cow moo? Ecphrastic epigram and the poetics of simulation.”  American Journal of Philology. 131 (4): 589-634.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Waddell, Helen. 1929 / rev. 1948. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. New York: Henry Holt.

Homerocentones & Vergiliocentones from Jerome to Boccaccio and beyond

Faltonia Betitia Proba presents Virgilian cento

Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones are created by stitching together verses of Homer and Virgil, respectively. The great fourth-century Christian scholar Jerome ridiculed Christian Vergiliocentones in a letter to Paulinus of Nola in 394. Jerome in that letter alluded to Proba and her Virgilian Cento Concerning the Glory of Christ {Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi}. Jerome’s disparagement of centos paralleled the views of prominent Christian thinkers Irenaeus in the second century, Tertullian in the third century, and Augustine in the fifth.[1] Yet about a millennium later, Christian authors lavishly and superficially praised Proba’s cento. In doing so, they interpreted Jerome to support Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones and failed to appreciate Proba’s challenge to dominant gender ideology. When gender is important, reason often doesn’t guide interpretation.

Jerome wrote among closely connected elite thinkers pondering how the canon of traditional Greco-Roman culture related to Christian scripture. Paulinus of Nola, to whom Jerome wrote at least three warm letters, was a student of Ausonius. Ausonius had written the stunning Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis} probably in the 370s. While Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis isn’t explicitly Christian, Ausonius himself was a Christian, and his Cento nuptialis has significant thematic connections to Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi. Ausonius and Paulinus of Nola were close and frequent correspondents. Jerome may well have known of both Proba’s and Ausonius’s Vergiliocentones. Frequently censored through the ages, Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis would have disturbed Jerome even more than Proba’s cento.

With his usual vigorous, vibrant rhetoric, Jerome ridiculed Christian Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones in his letter to Paulinus. Jerome is the sort of writer who would playfully construct an obscene gesture with words and fabricate a text and attribute it to the ancient Athenian philosopher Theophrastus. When discussing field-specific learning, Jerome at first didn’t distinguish secular writing from sacred writing:

Agricultural laborers, masons, craftsmen, workers in wood and metal, wool-dressers and fullers, as well as those artisans who make furniture and cheap utensils, cannot attain the ends they seek without instruction from qualified persons. Those who practice medicine are medical doctors, and craftsmen put together craft-work {quoting Horace, Epistles 2.1.115-6}. Only the art of writing all everywhere claim to have. Taught or untaught, we all everywhere write poems {quoting Horace, Epistles 2.1.117}. The garrulous old woman, the raving old man, the wordy solecism-speaker — one and all they take it up, tear it apart, and teach it before learning it.

{ Agricolae, caementarii, fabri, metallorum, lignorumve caesores, lanarii quoque et fullones, et caeteri qui variam supellectilem et vilia opuscula fabricantur, absque doctore non possunt esse quod cupiunt. Quod medicorum est promittunt medici, tractant fabrilia fabri. Sola scripturarum ars est, quam sibi omnes passim vindicant. Scribimus indocti, doctique poemata passim. Hanc garrula anus, hanc delirus senex, hanc sophista verbosus, hanc universi praesumunt, lacerant, docent, antequam discant. } [2]

Writing poetry was an elite activity in the fourth-century Roman Empire. Jerome declaring that writing poetry is more prevalent than common manual trades shows Jerome engaging in extravagant rhetoric. His learned quotes of Horace distinguish him from the ignorant solecism-speaker. Jerome, like Paulinus, was highly educated in elite, secular literature.

Much more so than Paulinus, Jerome was also highly educated in Holy Scripture. Jerome mocked the pretense that secular learning is sufficient to understand and teach Holy Scripture:

Some, with brows knit and weighing grand words among unimportant women, philosophize concerning sacred literature. Others — for shame! — learn from women what they teach men, and if this weren’t bad enough, expound it to others with a certain ease, or even boldness, in speaking. They expound what they themselves do not understand. I remain silent about those who, like me, come to the study of Holy Scripture after having studied secular literature. When they have stroked the ear of the people with well-arranged speech, they think that whatever they say is the law of God. They do not deign to know what the prophets and the apostles perceived, but attach inept evidence to their own feelings, as if this were a grand accomplishment and not the most corrupt mode of speaking. They distort the intentions of Scripture and tug it, though it resist, toward their own inclination.

{ Alii adducto supercilio, grandia verba trutinantes, inter mulierculas de sacris litteris philosophantur. Alii discunt, proh pudor, a feminis, quod viros doceant: et ne parum hoc sit, quadam facilitate verborum, imo audacia edisserunt aliis, quod ipsi non intelligunt. Taceo de mei similibus, qui si forte ad Scripturas sanctas, post saeculares litteras venerint; et sermone composito aurem populi mulserint, quidquid dixerint, hoc legem Dei putant: nec scire dignantur, quid Prophetae, quid Apostoli senserint; sed ad sensum suum incongrua aptant testimonia; quasi grande sit, et non vitiosissimum docendi genus, depravare sententias, et ad voluntatem suam Scripturam trahere repugnantem. }

Jerome’s reference to women introduces his particularization “sacred literature.” Unlike in traditional Greco-Roman culture, gender had normative significant to Christians in the incarnation of God and in teaching sacred literature. Jerome’s paralipsistic reference to his prior study of secular literature emphasizes that he, unlike the others he ridicules, went on to study extensively sacred literature. For Jerome, sacred literature requires particular expertise, particular gender in teaching, and particular respect for its authority. Jerome in his letter to Paulinus was positioning himself to teach Paulinus about sacred literature, not secular literature.

Proba and her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi represented to Jerome the wrong way to approach sacred literature. Proba was a married woman deeply learned in the secular literature of Virgil. She turned from the path of secular literature to write a Vergiliocento — an epic of Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament constructed from verses of Virgil. At least one other poet similarly made Christian Homerocentones.[3] Jerome apparently felt that study of sacred literature was being shortchanged. Secular learning was being given priority over study of sacred scripture:

Otherwise we wouldn’t read Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones, nor would we say that even Virgil was a Christian without Christ because he had written: “Now the Virgin returns, the kingdom of Saturn returns. Now a new race will spring up in the whole world {quoting Virgil, Eclogues 4.6-7},” and a father saying to his son: “Son, you alone my strength, my mighty power {quoting Virgil, Aeneid, 1.664},” and after the words of the Savior on the cross: “Speaking thus he rested and remained held in place {quoting Virgil, Aeneid 2.650}.” These are childish views and similar to the sport of pretentious frauds: to teach what you don’t know; or rather — to vent my spleen — not even to know that you don’t know.

{ Quasi non legerimus, Homerocentonas, et Virgiliocentonas: ac non sic etiam Maronem sine Christo possimus dicere Christianum, qui scripserit: “Jam redit et virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna. Jam nova progenies coelo demittitur alto.” Et patrem loquentem ad filium, “Nate, meae vires, mea magna potentia solus.” Et post verba Salvatoris in cruce, “Talia perstabat memorans, fixusque manebat.” Puerilia sunt haec, et circulatorum ludo similia, docere quod ignores: imo, ut cum stomacho loquar, ne hoc quidem scire quod nescias. } [4]

Jerome believed in the teaching authority of unmarried men who had made extensive study in the separate field of sacred literature. He wasn’t concerned about how the brutalization of men’s sexuality diminished marriage. Jerome, a priest engaged in monastic life, advocated for the distinctive calling of priests and monks. Jerome implicitly disparaging Proba’s cento is highly plausible.[5]

Antoine Dufour presents book on famous women to Queen Anne

Living about a millennium after Jerome, Boccaccio reconsidered Proba’s cento and the secular literature of ancient Rome. Seeking to earn a living in fourteenth-century Italian gynocentric society, Boccaccio wrote two collections of biographies: About Famous Women {De claris mulieribus} and About the Downfall of Illustrious Men {De casibus virorum illustrium}. The collection about women, which Boccaccio dedicated to Countess Andrea Acciaioli, was successful and influential. It included a chapter on Proba. Boccoccio credited Proba with lost works:

The more we think the work {Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi} worthy of being remembered forever, the less we can believe that so intellectually gifted a person {Proba} would have been satisfied with only this effort. In fact, I think that, if Proba lived for many years, she must have written other praiseworthy works which have not reached us, to our loss, because of scribal laziness.

{ Et quanto magis illud memoratu perpetuo dignum putamus, tanto minus credimus tam celebre mulieris huius ingenium huic tantum acquievisse labori; quin imo reor, si in annos ampliores vite protracta est, eam alia insuper condidisse laudabilia, que librariorum desidia, nostro tamen incommodo, ad nos usque devenisse nequivere. } [6]

Proba herself indicated in her surviving work that she had written an earlier work. Boccaccio claimed that, “according not to no source,” Proba wrote a Homerocento:

Among these {Proba’s lost works}, according not to no source, was a Homeric cento consisting of verses taken from Homer in which she displayed the same skill and used the same subject matter she had employed for Virgil. If this is the case, we can infer (and it rebounds even more to her credit) that she was deeply learned in Greek as well as Latin literature.

{ Que inter – ut non nullis placet – fuit Omeri centona, eadem arte et ex eadem materia qua ex Virgilio sumpserat ex Omero sumptis carminibus edita. Ex quo, si sic est, summitur, eius cum ampliori laude, eam doctissime grecas novisse literas ut latinas. } [7]

Boccaccio’s wording and previous rationalization of lost works suggest that his claim about Proba writing a Homerocento isn’t to be taken seriously. No evidence exists that Proba wrote a Homeric cento or that she knew Greek.[8] Boccaccio aimed to magnify Proba, particularly in relation to learned men:

But now I ask you: what more could one wish than to hear of a woman scanning the poems of Virgil and Homer and choosing those verses apt for her purpose? Let learned men consider how artistically she wove together her selected passages. Though they themselves belong to the honorable calling of sacred literature, they find it difficult and challenging enough to pluck passages here and there from the vast sacred book and to press them into an ordered prose narration of the life of Christ — something Proba did from a pagan poem.

{ Sed queso nunc: quid optabilius audisse feminam Maronis et Homeri scandentem carmina, et apta suo operi seponentem? Selecta artificioso contextu nectentem eruditissimi prospectent viri, quibus, cum sit sacrarum literarum insignis professio, arduum est et difficile ex amplissimo sacri voluminis gremio nunc hinc nunc inde partes elicere et ad seriem vite Cristi passis verbis prosaque cogere, uti hec fecit ex gentilitio carmine. }

Boccaccio depicted men learned in sacred literature composed centos on the life of Christ, as if the Gospels didn’t suffice. Boccaccio here seems to be mocking Jerome’s concern about centos in his letter to Paulinus. With his perverse wit, Jerome, rather than being offended, probably would laugh with Boccaccio if they were to read this together.

Boccaccio then went on to mock himself. He declared:

If we reflect on normal feminine practice, the distaff, the needle, and the loom would have been sufficient for Proba, had she wanted to lead an idle life like the majority of her sex. But she achieved eternal fame by taking her sacred studies seriously and scraping off completely the rust of intellectual sloth. Would that her example was favorably regarded by those women who yield to pleasure and idleness, who think it wonderful to stay in their rooms and waste irrevocable time in frivolous stories, who often drag out their hours from dawn to late at night in harmful or useless gossip and save time only for the pursuit of wantonness! Then they would see how much difference there is between seeking fame for praiseworthy works and burying one’s name together with one’s body — in effect, dying as if one had never lived.

{ Erat huic satis – si femineos consideremus mores – colus et acus atque textrina, si more plurium torpere voluisset; sed quantum sedula studiis sacris ab ingenio segniciei rubiginem absterxit omnem, in lumen evasit eternum. Quod utinam bono intuerentur animo voluptatibus obsequentes; et ocio quibus pregrande est cubiculo insidere, fabellis frivolis irreparabile tempus terere, et a summo diei mane in noctem usque totam persepe sermones aut nocuos aut inanes blaterando deducere, seu sibi tantum lasciviendo vacare, adverterent – edepol – quantum differentie sit inter famam laudandis operibus querere, et nomen una cum cadavere sepelire et tanquam non vixerint e vita discedere! }

About ten years before writing this, Boccaccio wrote his Decameron. In that work, seven women and three men go to a villa outside Florence for two weeks to escape the plague. There they idly enjoy each other’s company and tell each each other superficially frivolous and wanton stories. They don’t engage in scholarly study, or even engage in urgent discussion about how to cure the plague or help others suffering from it.

Boccaccio ironically concluded his chapter on Proba. Men in the ancient Greco-Roman world competed vigorously for fame — sometimes, as was the case with Peregrinus Proteus, to their own great harm. Boccaccio in De claris mulieribus presented both famously good and famously bad women. Believing in Christ, rather than making one’s own name famous or infamous, is the way to immortality for a Christian. Proba seeking immortal fame, if she actually did, wouldn’t be to her Christian credit.

After Boccaccio’s witty work on Proba came less imaginative writing in support of women. Christine de Pizan, who might be regarded as an early female supremacist, praised Proba as a great writer. Christine in her Book of the City of Ladies {Le Livre de la Cité des Dames} declared of Proba:

now that woman ran through, which is to say, skimmed and read, the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, as are entitled the books Virgil composed, and now she would take from one part entire verses, now from another she would tap small pieces. With wondrous craftsmanship and subtlety she composed entire verses in good order. She put together small pieces and paired and joined them while respecting the rules, craft, and measures of feet and the joining together of verses. Without making a slip she organized them with such great mastery that no man could have done better.

{ maintenant par Bucoliques et puis par Georgiques ou par Eneydos, qui sont livres ainsi appellez qui fist Virgile, ycelle femme couroit, c’est a dire, visitoit et lisoit, et maintenant d’une partie les vers tout entiers prenoit et maintenant de l’autre aucunes petites parties touchoit. Par merveilleux artefice et soubtiveté a son propos ordeneement ver entiers faisoit et les petites parties ensemble mettoit et coupploit et lyoit en regardant la loy, l’art et les mesures des piez et conjunctions des vers. Sans y faillir ordenoit tant magistraument que nul homme ne peust mieulx. } [9]

Of course no man could do better than the great woman.

The Dominican friar Antoine Dufour explained in 1504 that Proba was a better poet than Homer and Virgil. At the command of Anne of Brittany, Queen Consort of France, Dufour wrote The Lives of Famous Women {Les Vies des femmes célèbres}. Dufour knew well both the letters of Jerome and Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. Dufour apparently altered his sources to puff up Proba:

By that time {fourth century} reigned one of the greatest poets and orators in the world, by the name of Proba, wife of Adelphius, who created a work that I, had I not read it, would consider impossible. For she composed a book in which she joined the entire Old and New Testament in meter, taking nothing but the words of Virgil. She called it centones of Virgil. Saint Jerome in the prologue of his Bible, praises her saying: “We have seen the celebrated work of the Vergiliocentones.” Thereafter, wanting to prove herself in the Greek language, she wrote another book in Greek out of the sentences of Homer, which she also named Homerocentones, of which Jerome speaks in this same prologue. To conclude, this woman was so very clever that in reading these books, you would say that Homer, Virgil and other orators, her predecessors, are nothing but her disciples.

{ En ce temps régnoit l’une des plus grans poèthes et oratrixes du monde, nommé Proba, femme d’Adelphus, laquelle fist ung oeuvre que, si je ne l’avoye leu, je le tnedroye comme impossible. Car elle fist ung livre là où accorda tout le viel et nouveau Testament en mettre, ne prenant riens seullement fors les parolles de Virgille. Elle l’intitula les centones de Virgille. Saint Ihérosme, au prologue de sa Bible, la loue en disant: “Nous avons veu l’oeuvre sollempnel de Virgiliocentones.” Depuys, se voullant monstrer en la langue grecque, fist ung aultre grant et merveilleux livre en grec des sentences d’Omère, qui fut aussi par elle nommé Homerocentones, duqel Saint Ihérosme parle en ce mesme prologue. Somme, ceste femme fut si tresingénieuse qu’en lisant ses livres, vous direz qu’Omère, Virgille et aultres orateurs, ses prédécesseurs, ne sont que ses disciples. } [10]

Jerome’s letter to Paulinus was included as a preface to the Gutenberg Bible and other medieval bibles. Dufour surely knew that Jerome in that letter didn’t praise Proba for her Vergiliocento. Moreover, Dufour almost surely had no credible information that Proba wrote a Homerocento. Scholars have recently complained of misogyny in evaluations of Proba’s work. Across all of history, misogyny probably mattered much less than the social value of praising women.[11]

Proba is a vitally important and sadly under-appreciated author. Proba wasn’t concerned to engage in gender war against men authors. She was a learned, wealthy, married woman in a politically elite fourth-century Roman family. Her epic poem of Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament — her Vigilian cento — would have delighted and instructed elites like her. Jerome ridiculed Proba’s cento in relation to the calling of men like him and Paulinus of Nola. Jerome’s calling wasn’t Proba’s calling. For understanding how to renew loving intimacy between women and men, the Virgilian centos of Proba and Ausonius are more important today than are Jerome’s letters and commentaries.

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[1] Homercentones are Homeric centos (centos made from verses from Homer’s poems). Vergiliocentones are Virgilian centos (centos made from verses from Virgil’s poems). Vergil is an alternate spelling of Virgil. The spelling Vergiliocentones is more common than Virgiliocentones. I use the former in English above, but the spelling in quoted, non-English source text is as from the source. The plural of “cento” may be written as “centos” or “centones.”

Writing in Greek late in the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons complained:

they {heretics} gather together sayings and names from scattered places and transfer them, as we have already said, from their natural meaning to an unnatural one. They act like those who would propose themes which they chance upon and then try to put it into verse from Homeric poems, so that the inexperienced think that Homer composed the poems {centos} with that theme, which in reality are of recent composition.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies {Adversus haereses} 1.9.4, Greek and Latin text in Harvey (1857) pp. 85, 86-7; trans. Unger (1992) p. 47. Here’s an online English translation linked to the relevant pages in Harvey. On the Homerocento that Irenaeus presents as an example, Wilken (1967).

Writing early in the third century, Tertullian declared:

And they {heretics} therefore possess power and facility in inventing and constructing errors. That shouldn’t be regarded as a marvel, as if it were difficult and inexplicable. A example in secular writings is readily available of that facility. Today you see from Virgil composed a totally different story, the matter following his verse, and his verse chosen according to the matter. In that way Hosidius Geta sucked all of his tragedy Medea out of Virgil. Among other works he did at his leisure, my relative explicated from the same poet {Virgil} the Pinax of Cebes. These are commonly called Homerocentones. They from the songs of Homer make their own work by composing into one body many pieces from here and there.

{ Et ideo habent uim et in excogitandis instruendisque erroribus facilitatem, non adeo mirandam quasi difficilem et inexplicabilem, cum de saecularibus quoque scripturis exemplum praesto sit eiusmodi facilitatis. Vides hodie ex Virgilio fabulam in totum aliam componi, materia secundum uersus et uersibus secundum materiam concinnatis. Denique Hosidius Geta Medeam tragoediam ex Virgilio plenissime exsuxit. Meus quidam propinquus ex eodem poeta inter cetera stili sui otia Pinacem Cebetis explicuit. Homerocentones etiam uocari solent qui de carminibus Homeri propria opera more centonario ex multis hinc inde compositis in unum sarciunt corpus. }

Tertullian, On the prescription of heretics {De praescriptione haereticorum} 39.2-5, Latin text of Refoulé (1957), my English translation benefiting from that of Holmes (1870) and Bindley (1914).

Writing early in the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo stated:

but I fear that, if I select some portions only, I may appear to many who know the material to have omitted parts that are more essential. Then, too, the evidence that is presented must be supported by the context of the entire psalm, at least so far as to show that there is nothing to contradict it in case the whole is not pertinent to its support. Otherwise I fear that I might seem to be gathering individual verses on the topic in hand, in the technique used in centos, when one makes selections from a long poem not written on the same subject, but on another and very different one.

{ deinde — quia testimonium, quod profertur, de contextione totius psalmi debet habere suffragium, ut certe nihil sit quod ei refragetur, si non omnia suffragantur—ne more centonum ad rem quam volumus tamquam versiculos decerpere videamur, velut de grandi carmine quod non de re illa, sed de alia longeque diversa reperiatur esse conscriptum. }

Augustine, City of God {De Civitate dei} 17.15, Latin text and English translation from Loeb Classical Library (1965).

[2] Jerome, Epistles 53.6-7 (to Paulinus of Nola), Latin text from Migne, my English translation benefiting from those of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) 2, Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) pp. 499-500, and Hutchinson (2014) pp. 63-70 (selected passages). The subsequent two quotes are similarly from id. Putnam in Ziolkowski & Putname (2008) translated sophista verbosus as “wordy solecist”; it’s “the person full of eloquent solecisms” in McGill (2007) p. 189, n. 37. Both seem to me better than “wordy sophist” of NPNF.

[3] Homerocentones from the fifth century are attributed to Eudocia Athenais. She in 421 married Theodosius II, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Emperor. On Eudocia’s centos, Whitby (2007) and Sandnes (2011) Ch. 6.

Proba wasn’t the only ancient poet to write a Christian Vergiliocento. Writing in support of Christianity, Minucius Felix early in the third century incorporated into his Octavius 19.2 a Virgilian cento. Sandnes (2011) pp. 125-7. Pomponius’s Verses to the Grace of the Lord {Versus ad gratiam Domini} is a Christian Virgilian cento of the late fourth or early fifth century. On that cento, McGill (2001). On the incarnation of the Word {De verbi incarnatione} and On the church {De ecclesia}, attributed to Vettius Agorius Basilius Mavortius of the late fifth to early sixth century, are other Christian Vergiliocentones that have survived from antiquity.

[4] Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008), p. 500, follows Hilberg’s emendation cum Clitomacho loquar. McGill (2007), p. 188, n. 28, and Hutchinson (2014), p. 67, n. 54, follow the manuscript reading cum stomacho loquar. Id. points out that the latter sets up an allusion to Socrates. I follow that reading.

The phrase quasi non legerimus Homerocentonas et Vergiliocentonas ac non sic etiam… has been difficult to understand exactly. McGill (2007) p. 177. The key insight is to understand this sentence as exemplying the problem indicated in the previous sentence. Hutchinson (2014) p. 67, n. 53. I’ve used the relatively loose translation “otherwise” to represent that semantic relation.

Jerome was deeply learned in the works of Virgil. Mohr aptly explained:

Throughout his formative years, trained by a Virgilian expert, Jerome had been immersed in the works of Virgil. Virgil could not simply be used or discarded, he was part of Jerome’s blood and bone. Though he did not approve of attempts to turn his beloved poet into a sort of proto- Christian, Jerome desperately wanted to hear a Christian song in Virgil’s lines, and listened carefully for it. In terms of his image of the captive maiden, the important thing is that Jerome recognized and valued her fertility, and envisaged a continuing relationship with her, to keep what he could of his classical heritage by producing new life out of it.

Mohr (2007) p. 318. Jerome’s view of fertility and producing new life was less connected to flesh-and-blood life than the views of Proba and Ausonius.

[5] Jerome’s explicit disparagement of the idea that Virgil was a Christian maps to Proba’s introductory claim:

God be present, raise my mind:
may I tell that Virgil sang of the holy gifts of Christ. }

{ Praesens, Deus, erige mentem:
Vergilium cecinisse loquar pia munera Christi. }

Proba, Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi ll. 22(2nd half)-23, sourced as in note [14] of my post on the centos of Ausonius and Proba. Two of the three Virgilian passages that Jerome cites in disparaging Christian Virgilian centos (Aeneid 1.664 and 2.650) appear fully in Proba’s cento (ll. 403, and 624, respectively). Jerome’s third Virgilian citation (Eclogues 4.6-7) appears in part in Proba’s cento (l. 34). Jerome’s references to the garrulous old woman and women boldly teaching also suggest Proba. Moreover, Proba was among the elite to which Jerome and Paulinus of Nola belonged. With good reason, “scholarly consensus has settled on this conclusion”: Jerome was alluding to Proba’s cento. McGill (2007) p. 178. Cf. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) pp. 57-8, which challenges that view by raising some relatively unimportant questions and then refraining from discussing the matter further.

Jerome disparaging Proba’s cento would be consistent with the views of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Augustine on Christian centos. See previous note [1]. Isidore of Seville, a scholar, priest, and Christian church leader writing about 600 GC, knew of Proba’s cento, recognized Proba’s witness as a Christian, but didn’t regard her poem highly:

Proba, wife of Adelphius, the consul, the only woman {Isidore} placed among the men of the church; out of her concern for the praise of Christ, she composed a cento about Christ, put together out of Virgilian lines. Her art we do not admire, but we praise her ingenuity.

{ Proba, uxor Adelphii proconsulis, femina, idcirco inter viros ecclesiasticos posita sola pro eo quod in laude Christi versata est, componens centonem de Christo, Virgilianis coaptatum versucilis. Cuius quidem non miramur, sed laudamus ingenium.}

Isidore of Seville, De viris illustribus 18.22, Latin text and English translation from Sandnew (2011) pp. 141-2. Isidore in Etymologarium 1.39.26 made a shorter, more simply factual notice of Proba.

[6] Boccaccio, De claris mulieribus 97, “Proba, Wife of Adelphus,” trans. Brown (2001) pp. 410-15 (adapted slightly). The subsequent three quotes are similarly from id. Here’s the Latin text online.

Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi, ll. 1-8, tells of an epic poem she wrote long ago on a civil war. According to a scholiast to the ninth-century Codex Mutinensis, Proba wrote on Constantius’s war against Magnentius (350 to 352 GC). Green (1995) p. 552.

In 1503, Symphorien Champier had published his book The Ship of Virtuous Ladies {La nef des dames vertueuses}. His book drew from Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus, but focused exclusively on praising women. Champier dedicated his book to the French princess and regent Anne of France. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 109.

[7] Brown (2001) translated ut non nullis placet as “according to some sources.” Above I’ve translated that Latin phrase more literally to make clearer Boccaccio’s wink.

[8] Jerome’s letter to Paulinus is the most probable historical origin of claims that Proba wrote Homerocentones. Proba was known to have written a Vergiliocento. Jerome linked Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones, and alluded to Proba. Therefore Proba also wrote Homerocentones. While that conclusion doesn’t logically follow, advocating for women under gynocentrism commonly defies reason. Consider, for example, modern claims about domestic violence against women.

Pollmann, one of the most knowledgeable authorities on Proba, asked about Proba, “Did she know Greek?” Pollmann (2014) p. 255. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 25, n. 37, provides an uncritical list of citations to claims that Proba knew Greek. Cf. id., pp. 62-5 on the medieval reception of Jerome’s letter to Paulinus in relation to Proba. More plausible than vague claims about an unknown, lost “ancient source” attesting to Proba having written Homerocentones is Boccaccio’s surely fictional dilation of information from Jerome’s letter to Paulinus.

[9] Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies {Le Livre de la Cité des Dames}, Old French text from Richards & Caraffi (1999), p. 156, English translation by Ziolkowski in Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) pp. 146-7. Christine explicitly quoted Boccaccio’s biography of Proba in her own biography, but she showed none of Boccaccio’s literary flair in writing fiction. Christine declared:

In spite of the fact that the effort required by this work {Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi}, on account of its length, should have taken a man’s lifetime, not nearly so long passed in her attention to this poem; on the contrary, she produced many other outstanding and most praiseworthy books. One among the rest that she composed in verse was also entitled Cento, because of the hundred (cento) verses that are contained in it. She took the expressions and verses from the poet Homer; from this one can conclude to her praise that she not only knew Latin literature but also knew Greek perfectly.

{ Et nonobstant que le labour de celle oeure, pour sa grandeur, deust souffire a la vie d’un homme, a y vacquier ne s’en passa mie a y tant, ains fist plusieurs autres livres excellens et tres louables. Un entre les autres en fist en vers appellés aussi Centomie pour la cause de cent vers qui y sont contenus: et prist les diz de Omerus, le pouette, et les vers. Par quoy on peut conclurre, a la louenge d’icelle, que non pas tant seullement les lettres latines savoit, mais aussi les grecques sçeut parfaictement. }

Le Livre de la Cité des Dames, from Ch. 29, “On Proba the Roman,” Old French text from Curnow (1975) p. 725, English translation by Ziolkowski in Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) p. 147. In addition to following Boccaccio’s claim that Proba wrote Homerocentones, Christine may have also assimilated to Proba the fifth-century Homerocentones of Eudocia Athenais.

[10] Antoine Dufour, The Lives of Famous Women {Les Vies des femmes célèbres} (1504), Old French text from Jeanneau (1970) p. 142, English translation from Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 110. On Dufour’s Vies des femmes célèbres, Szkilnik (2010). Szkilnik declared:

He {Dufour} does not intend to write an apology nor a denigration of women like other men before him had done. What makes him different is his ability to look for (and find) serious, accurate sources with which he will correct prejudices, whichever they might be.

Id. p. 69. But Dufour also significantly misrepresented Jerome, whose writings he knew well. Id. pp. 77, 79.

[11] In 1574, the classical scholar and scholarly printer Henri Estienne compared Proba to the Amazon queen Penthesileia. He vowed to rival her like no man had done before. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 31. That’s implicit praise. Estienne was less successful than Achilles in rivaling Penthesileia. On recent scholarly bias, see notes [12] and [20] in my post on the centos of Ausonius and Proba.

[images] (1) Proba the Roman presents her epic song from Virgil. Woodcut from Filippo de’ Barbieri, On the Discord between Jerome and Augustine, Settled Using Dicta of the Sibyls and of all the Gentiles, both Prophets and Ancient Poets Who Prophesied Concerning Christ {Discordantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini Sybillarum et gentilium de Christo vaticinia}, printed in 1481, instance Stockholm, Royal Libarary, Barbieri (1481) p. 31v. Image via Wikimedia Commons. The Biblioteca Nacional de Espana has an instance, with an uncolored, slightly different woodcut (image 24), similar to an instance in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (f. 39) and in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (p. 46). (2) Antoine Dufour presenting to Queen Anne of Brittany his book praising famous women. Miniature created c. 1506 and attributed to Jean Pichore. In Antoine Dufour, The Lives of Famous Women {Les Vies des femmes célèbres}. Renck (2015) provides more on this book and its illuminations. Manuscript preserved as Nantes, Musée Dobrée, ms. XVII. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Brown, Virginia, ed. and trans. 2001.Giovanni Boccaccio. Famous women. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Curnow, Maureen Cheney. 1975. The Livre de la cité des dames of Christine de Pisan: a critical edition. Ph.D. Thesis. Nashville, Tenn: Vanderbilt University. Available via Proquest Dissertations.

Green, R. P. H. 1995. “Proba’s Cento: Its Date, Purpose, and Reception.” The Classical Quarterly. 45 (2): 551-563.

Harvey, W. Wigan, ed. 1857. Sancti Irenaei: Libros Quinque Adversus Haereses. Cantabrigiae: Typis academicis.

Hutchinson, E.J. 2014. “And Zeus Shall Have No Dominion, or, How, When, Where, and why to ‘Plunder the Egyptians’: The Case of Jerome.” Ch. 3 (pp. 49-80) in Peter Escalante, and W. Bradford Littlejohn, eds. For the healing of the nations: essays on creation, redemption, and neo-Calvinism. Davenant Trust.

Jeanneau, Gustave, ed. 1970. Antoine Dufour. Les vies des femmes célèbres. Genève: Droz.

McGill, Scott C. 2001.“’Poet a Arte Christianus’: Pomponius’s cento Versus ad gratiam Domini’ as an Early Example of Christian Bucolic.” Traditio. 56: 15-26.

McGill, Scott. 2007. “Virgil, Christianity, and the Cento Probae.” Ch. 6 (pp. 173-193) in Scourfield & Chahoud (2007).

Mohr, Ann. 2007. “Jerome, Virgil, and the Captive Maiden: the attitude of Jerome to classical literature.” Ch. 12 (pp. 299-322) in Scourfield & Chahoud (2007).

Pollmann, Karla. 2014. “Ph.D. Thesis Review: Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed, Proba the Prophet. Studies in the Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba.” Samlaren. Swedish Science Press. Stockholm: Elanders Gotab.

Renck, Anneliese Pollock. 2015. “Les Vies Des Femmes Celebres: Antoine Dufour, Jean Pichore, and a Manuscript’s Debt to an Italian Printed Book.” The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History. 18: 1-23.

Richards, Earl Jeffrey and Patrizia Caraffi, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1999. La Città delle Dame. Milano: Lune.

Sandnes, Karl Olav. 2011. The Gospel “According to Homer and Virgil”: cento and canon. Leiden: Brill. Here’s a closely related article by Sandnes.

Schottenius Cullhed, Sigrid. 2015. Proba the Prophet: the Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba. Leiden: Brill. Related: cf. ch. 2, Proba and Jerome; ch. 5, cento and Genesis.

Scourfield, J. H. D., and Anna Chahoud, eds. 2007. Texts and Culture in Late Antiquity: inheritance, authority, and change. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales.

Szkilnik, Michelle. 2010. “Mentoring Noble Ladies: Antoine Dufour’s Vies des femmes célèbres.” Ch. 4 (pp. 65-80) in Brown, Cynthia Jane, ed. The Cultural and Political Legacy of Anne de Bretagne: negotiating convention in books and documents. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Unger, Dominic J., with John J. Dillon, trans. 1992. St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies. New York, N.Y.: Newman Press.

Wilken, Robert L. 1967. “The Homeric Cento in Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses I, 9,4.” Vigiliae Christianae. 21 (1): 25-33.

Whitby, Mary. 2007. “The Bible Hellenized: Nonnus’ Paraphrase of St. John’s Gospel and ‘Eudocia’s’ Homeric centos.” Ch. 7 (pp. 195-231) in Scourfield & Chahoud (2007).

Ziolkowski, Jan M., and Michael C. J. Putnam, eds. 2008. The Virgilian Tradition: the first fifteen hundred years. New Haven: Yale University Press.

other than a dirty old man: Swift’s “When I come to be old”

Sir William Temple, master to Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift’s patron Sir William Temple died at age 71. Swift was then 32 years old. About the time of Temple’s death in 1699, Swift composed points of advice entitled “When I come to be old.” Swift apparently sought that in his old age he would be able to see himself as he now saw Sir William Temple.[1] Swift’s exercise in perspective shifting reveals that even he, a master of shifts in perspective, had a highly constrained view of old men’s sexuality.

Swift’s advice to himself as an old man includes points that old women, younger women and men, and children might equally well follow. Desiderata:

Not to tell the same story over and over again to the same people.

Not to be too free with advice, nor trouble {with advice} any but those that desire it.

Not to talk {too} much, nor {too much} of myself.

Not to be peevish, or morose, or suspicious.

Not to be positive {insistent in opinion} or opiniâtre {stubborn}. [2]

Most of the biblical commandments known as the Ten Commandments take the form “You shall not {verb in imperative form}.” That form highlights specific actions. Swift’s advice to himself as an old man uses infinitive verbal forms that suggest the existence of a character’s shadow. Rather than prescribing particular rules for ethical behavior, Swift’s advice disparages “that sort of person.”

Swift particularly disparaged persons commonly called “dirty old men.” Sir William Temple was well-known to be “a very amorous man.” In 1677, when Temple was about fifty years old, a diplomat reported:

He held me in discourse a great long hour, of things most relating to himself, which are never without vanity, but this most especially full of it; and some stories of his amours, and extraordinary abilities that way, which had once upon a time very nearly killed him. [3]

Swift’s most extensive biographer commented, “a man {Temple} who enjoys such indulgence at fifty does not sacrifice it at sixty-five,” and then passed on to the Swift-Temple relationship.[4] Temple in his mid-fifties probably had an affair with his housekeeper Bridget Johnson and sired Swift’s life-long intimate friend Hester Johnson.[5]

Not you, Marinus, do not enter
warm baths with a tender girl.
Not an old man’s fit companion,
girls are different from old men.
Cups and wine instead of baths,
jugs not tender girls for you,
Melphiacan wine in flagons.
Baths are for boys, wine taverns
suit decrepit old men. And you,
dried up, frigid, minuscle,
hung with just a little pickle,
your stiff veins want a wetter Bacchus.

{ Ne tu, ne calidas, Marine, thermas
intres cum tenera senex puella:
nil habet socium senex puellae,
a sene omnimodis puella differt.
Pro thermis paterae et merum, lagena
assit pro tenera tibi puella,
assit Melphiaci cadus Liaei.
thermae nam iuvenes decent, tabernae
Leneae invalidos senes. Is ipse es
arens, frigidulus minutulusque
cui pendet cucumis rigentque venae,
quae Bacchum sitiant madentiorem. } [6]

Swift’s advice to himself as an old man deprecates old men’s sexual worth. To Swift, being an old man enjoying a young woman’s true love is inconceivable:

Not to marry a young woman.

Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with ladies, etc.

Not to harken to flatteries, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant odisse ac vitare {and detest and avoid those who try to catch an inheritance}. [7]

The eleventh-century Latin verse romance Ruodlieb celebrates the love of a young husband for his old, formerly widowed wife. As an old man, the great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini entered into a fruitful marriage with a young woman. Such situations are sadly under-appreciated. An old man identifying as a young, sexually vigorous man commonly generates scorn.

Swift and many others less perceptive than he lack alternative perspectives on old men’s sexuality. Social justice doesn’t compel enacting laws requiring all to respect an old man’s self-identification as a person who is beautiful and sexually alluring to young women. Moreover, old men should understand that they have no reproductive rights and that they could face crushing “child support” payments even for children who aren’t biologically theirs. In the context of these mundane realities, the fundamental problem is imagination. Humane societies should provide safe space for old men’s sexual imagination and self-identification.

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[1] Swift joined Temple’s household in 1689 and spent about six years there between 1689 and 1699. Marshall (2013) p. 35. Swift naturally would have striven to impress Temple early in their relationship. That basic status dynamic provides a straight-forward reading of “Ode to Sir William Temple,” which Swift wrote at Moor Park in June, 1689. For analysis, id. pp. 57-8, which favors an uncomplicated reading. Temple died on January 27, 1699. “When I come to be old” is dated 1699. Swift probably wrote that poem in January of 1699 or soon thereafter.

Marshall provides an extensive, objective, and judicious analysis of the relationship between Swift and Temple. Her conclusion has broad, weighty relevance to historiography:

The problem is a very simple one. A great deal has been said about the Swift-Temple connection despite the fact that precious little is known about it. … The only story we can believe is one no biographer wants to tell, because it is brief, undramatic, and fails to illuminate either the mind or the art of our subject. Swift lived with Temple for a while and did some work for him. Swift expected patronage, but whether or not Temple promised it, no remunerative position ever materialized, leaving Swift to shift for himself. He made relatively few remarks on his erstwhile patron in later years, which taken together suggest neither bitter traumatization nor veneration. His intellectual “borrowings” from Temple turn out to be commonplaces; his career is so different from that of the Moor Park patriarch as to make comparison difficult, and not as conclusive as has been suggested. In trying to understand the life and work of Swift, the invocation of Sir William Temple has been, at best, a distraction — regardless of whether Sir William Temple is viewed as a beloved surrogate father or a petty despot whose thrall the young Swift resented and systematically resisted. What should be clear, however, is that Ehrenpreis and his successors have put their faith in an engrossing, affecting saga that is essentially illusory.

Marshall (2013) p. 78, which refers to Ehrenpreis (1962). Cf. Rosenberg (2018). Marshall didn’t discuss Swift’s “When I come to be old.”

My point in addressing Swift’s “When I come to be old” isn’t to tell the true story of the Swift-Temple relationship. I want to change your life. Your father was or will be an old man. If you are male, you probably will become an old man if you aren’t already one. I want to inspire you to think differently about being an old man.

[2] Jonathan Swift, “When I come to be old,” excerpts (re-ordered), with modernized spelling, modernized capitalization, and my clarifications in {}. Lists of Note provides the full text and an image of the manuscript. Scott & Dennis (1902) vol. 1, p. xcii, provides a scholarly version of the text, as does Ross & Woolley (1984) p. 23. Id. provides the reading opiniâtre and comments:

May we not also hear ironic use of the tones of the urbane Temple in the second to last resolution, with its modish French word opiniâtre, meaning stubborn or opinionated?

Id. p. 611. Similarly Damrosch (2013) pp. 48-9, who doesn’t cite Ross & Woolley (1984) but for a similar reason suggests the reading  opiniâtre. Id., pp. 48-9, fails to observe that “or let them come near me hardly” (in reference to children) is scribbled out by other than Jonathan Swift’s hand. Scott & Dennis (1902) vol. 1, p. xcii, n. 1, suggests that Deane Swift did the crossing out.

[3] From the diary of Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester, reporting conversation with Lord Ambassador William Temple in the Hague in 1677. Singer (1828) p. 628. Quoted in Ehrenpreis,  (1962), vol. 1, p. 120, Damrosch (2013) p. 54. The description of Swift as “a very amorous man” is from an anonymous review in 1751 of the biography, Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift (1751), by John Boyle, fifth Earl of Cork and Orrery, quoted in Damrosch (2013) p. 54.

[4] Ehrenpreis (1962), vol. 1, p. 120.

[5] Damrosch (2013) pp. 50-6. Swift’s affectionate name for Hester Johnson was Stella.

[6] Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, “To Marinus Tomacellus {Ad Marinum Tomacellum},” Hendecasyllaborum sive Baiarum Libri Duo {Two Books of Hendecasyllables, or Baiae} 2.1, ll. 20-31, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Dennis (2006) pp. 92-4. For a Latin text freely available online, Oeschger (1948). Pontano wrote the Baiae in the Kingdom of Naples late in the fifteenth century. Potano’s Baiae were first published in 1505. The Baiae was a pleasure resort on the Bay of Naples.

Dennis observes Pontano’s “Dried up, frigid, minuscule, / hung with just a little pickle {arens, frigidulus minutulusque / cui pendet cucumis rigentque venae},” is similar to Catullus 67.21, “hung with a penis limper than a tender beet {languidior tenera cui pendens sicula beta}.” Dennis (2006) p. 215, note to ll. 29-30. The penis is commonly disparaged throughout literary history — particularly starkly in comparison to representations of the vagina. Maximianus’s exceptionally learned and insightful Greek girl, however, provides a heart-warming and stimulating lament for men’s impotence.

[7] Swift, “When I come to be old,” excerpts, cited as previously. Swift, like William Caxton, turned to Latin to express thoughts apart from vernacular gynocentric discipline and punishment.

In “When I come to be old,” Swift included a point of advice that literally addresses the issue of being a dirty old man: “Not to neglect decency, or cleanliness, for fear of falling into nastiness.”

[image] Portrait (excerpt) of Sir William Temple about 1660. Temple then was 32 years old. That’s Swift’s age when he wrote “When I come to be old.” This painting apparently was made from an original that Peter Lely painted. It’s preserved as item NPG 152 in the U.K. National Portrait Gallery. That national, public gallery apparently is slowly changing its rapacious, reactionary approach to making its collection accessible. More on problems at the National Portrait Gallery. Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Damrosch, Leopold. 2013. Jonathan Swift: his Life and his World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dennis, Rodney G., ed. and trans. 2006. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Baiae. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ehrenpreis, Irvin. 1962. Swift: the Man, his Works, and the Age. London: Methuen & Co Ltd.

Marshall, Ashley. 2013. “Swift and Temple.” 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era (Brooklyn, NY: AMS Press), vol. 20: 33-78.

Oeschger, Johannes. 1948. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Carmina: Ecloghe, Elegie, Liriche. Bari: Laterza.

Rosenberg, Alex. 2018. How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ross, Angus, and David Wooley, eds. 1984. Jonathan Swift. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scott, Temple, and G. Ravenscroft Dennis. 1902. The prose works of Jonathan Swift. London: Bell. Vol. 1.

Singer, Samuel Weller, ed. 1828. The correspondence of Henry Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, and of his brother Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester; with the diary of Lord Clarendon from 1687 to 1690, containing minute particulars of the events attending the revolution: and the diary of Lord Rochester during his embassy to Poland in 1676. London: H. Colburn.

sexual harassment of men: beautiful breasts in Pontano’s Baiae

In classical Arabic literature, men admire women’s buttocks — the bigger the better. Classical Greek literature celebrates the rose-like beauty of women’s vaginas. In the Baiae, Giovanni Pontano’s fifteenth-century Latin poems about times in a pleasure resort, women’s eyes and the female gaze sexually harass men. But most of all in the Baiae, women’s beautiful breasts attract men’s attention, divert men from drudgery, and arouse men’s sexual imaginations.

Bartolomeo Veneto's portrait of Lucrezia Borgia with a naked breast

One poem in Pontano’s Baiae playfully explores the focus of the man poet’s attention. Consider:

Luna shined with new elegance,
and radiance streamed from her naked breasts;
from out of the blessed one’s dewy hollow
exhaled a breeze of rosy liquor,
from whose tender lips flowed down
Ambrosian essence dropwise liquefied.

{ Effulsitque novo decore Luna
ac nudis iubar extulit papillis,
cuius roridulo e sinu beatae
spirabant rosei liquoris aurae,
cuius de teneris fluens labellis
stillatim ambrosiae liquebat humor } [1]

Luna is a young woman lying on a bed beside a pool in the cool shade. The first focus is Luna’s naked breasts. Since it’s associated with a rose metaphor, the dewy hollow most likely is Luna’s vagina. A straight-forward reading of the third couplet shifts attention upwards, over Luna’s breasts, to her mouth. The second two couplets bodily bracket the radiance streaming from her naked breasts. Ovid long ago knew the rest:

she plays in the way of Venus in the wrestling arena,
and then sleeps with you, quietly and peacefully.

{ ludit Idaliae iocos palaestrae
et tecum placida cubat quiete. }

One might complain that the metaphor of wrestling brutalizes men’s sexuality. But at least their intercourse ends peacefully.

Sexual harassment, in contrast, can create a hostile environment for men. Under current U.S. sexual harassment law, intentions don’t matter. Only persons’ experienced feelings are relevant. The man poet spoke out about the discomfort he felt in encountering a topless woman:

I’m telling you to clothe those shining breasts,
desist from stirring the insanity of lovers.
I’m congealed already by cold, old age;
you’re improperly and wrongly heating me up. Hence
I’m telling you to clothe those shining breasts
and veil your bosom with a decent bikini-top.
For why do you your milky chest, and your very
breasts, in front of you carry, unclothed?
Do you wish to say, “Kiss these breasts,
and caress this glowing bosom”?
Thus are you saying, “Touch, touch, stroke them”?
Do you go out with naked breasts?
Do you expose your bosom to stroll around?

{ Praedico, tege candidas papillas
nec quaeras rabiem ciere amantum.
Me, quem frigida congelat senecta,
irritas male calfacisque: quare,
praedico, tege candidas papillas,
et pectus strophio tegente vela.
Nam quid lacteolos sinus et ipsas
prae te fers sine linteo papillas?
An vis dicere: “Basia papillas
et pectus nitidum suaviare?”
Vis num dicere: “Tange, tange, tracta?”
Tene incedere nudulis papillis?
Nudo pectore tene deambulare? } [2]

The young woman perpetrating sexual harassment with her naked breasts was none other than Hermione, the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy. With her bodily beauty, Helen of Troy had prompted the deaths of many men in the Trojan War. Helen’s daughter Hermione apparently learned nothing from her mother about the effects of young, beautiful women on men. Women’s sexual harassment of men should be taken seriously. Too often it isn’t.

Mary Magdalene with naked breasts

In Pontano’s Baiae, breasts seem to be the most powerful attribute with which women sexually harass men. Nearly every poem admiring a woman praises her breasts. Among the poetic lines in which breasts appear are these:

  1. “from your sweet bosom {sinuque blando}” exhale Arabian fragrances
  2.  helplessly “he is fixated on her breasts {haeret in papillis}”
  3. you “recline on her tender bosom {in sinu recumbis}”
  4. upon that “milky bosom {lacteolo sinu}” you sleep languidly
  5. you see her “delicate breasts {vesculas papillas}”
  6. don’t blush to stroke with your hand those “milky breasts {lacteolas papillas}”
  7. jealous of he who presses with his hand those “tender breasts {teneras papillas}”
  8. what “blissful man licks a saliva-moistened chest {beatus udo quis de pectore rettulit salivam}”
  9. I saw that “beautiful chest, those jeweled breasts {pulcro e pectore, gemmeis papillis}”
  10. she bears the day on her “glittering bosom {sinu corsco}”
  11. she with her “bright-white chest {pectore candicante}” outshines the sun
  12. girls thrust “tender bosom {teneros sinus}” toward you
  13. you recline on her “tender bosom {tenero sinu}”
  14. fragrant odors waft upon you “from her tender breasts {de teneris papillis}”
  15. she pours a calming potion on you “from her milky bosom {in lacteolo sinu}”
  16. this soft air breathes “from the bosom of tender young women {de tenerae sinu puellae}”
  17. “the brightness from her snowy breasts {de niveis nitor papillis}” leads him to devotion [3]

Almost all men typically love nearly all women. The man poet Giovanni Pontano writing in late-fifteenth-century Italy particularly loved young women’s breasts. Despite frequently describing naked women and sex with women, he only rarely and vaguely alludes to women’s vaginas. Perhaps he regarded women’s vaginas as too awesome to describe. The poet also never mentioned women’s buttocks. Perhaps that was a matter of aesthetic preference. Not all men suffer sexual harassment by women in exactly the same way.[4]

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Read more:


[1] Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, “To Chariteus {Ad Chariteum},” Hendecasyllaborum sive Baiarum Libri Duo {Two Books of Hendecasyllables, or Baiae} 1.30, ll. 34-9, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Dennis (2006) pp. 86-7. The subsequent quote is similarly from id. In addition to being the young woman’s name, luna is Latin for “moon.” The poem is to the Catalan poet Benet Gareth, who acquired the Italian name Benedetto Chariteo. Id. p. 213.

The Baiae commonly uses sinus in its meaning “bosom.” But sinus also means “hollow” or “cavity.” Here that could refer to Luna’s mouth, but vagina seems to me a better interpretation.

[2] Pontano, Baiae “To Hermione, to Cover Her Breasts {Ad Hermionen, ut papillas contegat},” Latin text from Dennis (2006) p. 12, my English translation, benefiting considerably from that of id. In Baiae 2.7, “To Focilla, to Restrain her Eyes {Ad Focillam de cohibendis ocellis},” the poet protests Focilla sexually harassing him with the female gaze. But in the Baiae, the female gaze sexually harasses men much less frequently than does a young woman’s breasts.

[3] In the Baiae (cited by citation number, poem number, Latin page in Dennis (2006)): 1, 1.13, p. 38; 2,1.14, p. 44; 3, 1.16, p. 48; 4, 1.16, p. 50; 5, 1.16, p. 50; 6, 1.18, p. 56; 7, 1.21, p. 64; 8, 1.21, p. 64; 9, 1.23, p. 68; 10, 1.23, p. 68; 11, 1.23, p. 68; 12, 1.24, p. 70; 13, 1.27, p. 76; 14, 2.9, p. 112; 15, 2.18, p. 132; 16, 2.28, p. 164; 17, 2.30, p. 168. Descriptions of breasts already quoted above are among those not cited.

In the above list I consistently translate papilla, sinus, and pectus as breast, bosom, and chest, respectively. Dennis translated those terms with similar sense, but not with strict, formal consistency.

In the Baiae and in medieval Europe generally, bigger breasts didn’t make a woman more attractive to men. In praising a woman’s appearance, a twelfth-century Ovidian cento declared:

The shape of her nipple were nowhere apparent,
either because they were too small or they were bound.
Young women often compress their breasts with girdles,
for breasts that are too full are displeasing to men.
But this young woman isn’t among those such women:
her breast were without doubt sufficiently small.

{ Forma papillarum nusquam parebat in illa,
vel quod parva nimis vel quod stricta foret.
Ubera saepe suis zonis strinxere puellae,
turgida namque nimis displicuere viris;
sed non inter eas est haec referenda puella,
ubera nempe satis parva fuere sibi. }

About three girls {De tribus puellis} vv. 45-50, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020), pp. 374-5. On the literary context of De tribus puellis, Kretschmer (2013).

[4] Of course men’s interests aren’t necessarily limited to one part of a woman. A poem from the Carmina Burana (early thirteenth century) highlights breasts and lips:

When I caught sight of her breasts,
I longed to slip my hands in,
to play with her flawless mammas.
So thinking I felt sexually aroused.
Sitting on her lips
was the rose of modesty.
I was pulsing with love
to kiss her mouth,
ah kiss, ah kiss, ah kiss,
sensuously sealing her lips with mine.

{ Ubera cum animadverterem,
optavi manus, ut involverem,
simplicibus mammis ut alluderem.
Sic cogitando sensi Venerem.
Sedit in ore
rosa cum pudore.
Pulsatus amore
quod os lamberem,
hei lamberem, hei lamberem, hei lamberem
luxuriando per characterem. }

Carmina Burana 117, “I take solace for my fate in singing {Sic mea fata canendo solor},” stanza 3, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Some editions regrettably excise this stanza as spurious. Here are alternate, more interpretive translations by Carol Anne Perry Lagemann.

Men, even at the same time and place, find many different attributes of women beautiful. Like most men, Greeks in the time of Homer admired the full range of a woman’s physical being: from a woman with beautiful hair {καλλίκομος, Iliad 9.449} to a woman with beautiful ankles {καλλίσφυρος, Iliad 9.557}. What men admire in women depends partly on what men see and what men experience. Comparative literary study of men admiring women’s beauty is much less developed than scholarly work scrutinizing literature for the purpose of charging long-dead men authors with misogyny.

[images] (1) Portrait of courtesan Flora of literary imagination; person attributed to be Lucrezia Borgia. Painting made by Bartolomeo Veneto in Italy in c. 1520. Preserved under accession number 1077 in Städel Museum (Frankfurt, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Mary Magdalene with naked breasts. Painting made in the Lombard School in northern Italy, c. 1515. Contested attribution between Giampetrino and Leonardo da Vinci. Preserved in private collection in Switzerland. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Dennis, Rodney G., ed. and trans. 2006. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Baiae. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hexter, Ralph J., Laura Pfuntner, and Justin Haynes, ed. and trans. 2020. Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kretschmer, Marek Thue. 2013. “The Elegiac Love Poems Versus Eporedienses and De Tribus Puellis and the Ovidian Backdrop.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 23: 35-47.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.