women’s beauty and men’s under-appreciated work of desire

Bathsheba bathing, with David onlooking yearningly

Important recent classical scholarship has established that “the classical Greek notion of beauty is closely related to erôs, that is, passionate desire.”[1] The learned, twelfth-century monk Guibert of Nogent understood beauty classically. Guibert, however, went beyond the ancient Greek notion of beauty to highlight men’s under-appreciated work of desire.

Guibert presented beauty with a superficial contrast. Consider how Guibert described his greatest blessing:

I have already said, Pious and Holy One, that I am thankful to you for your gifts. I thank you, first and foremost, for having given me a mother who is beautiful yet chaste and modest and exceedingly God-fearing. Mentioning her beauty alone would be profane and foolish if I didn’t add (to show the vanity of the word “beauty”) that the severity of her appearance was sure proof of her chastity.

{ Dixeram, pie et sancte, quod de tuis tibi beneficiis gratularer. Primum potissimumque itaque gratias ago, quod pulchram, sed castam, modestam mihi matrem timoratissimamque contuleris. Pulchram profecto satis seculariter ac inepte protuleram, nisi certae castitatis severissima fronte hoc nomen inane firmassem. } [2]

Guibert’s mother is beautiful {pulcher}, yet she has a severe appearance. So does she look like Saint Pelagia, or like a viciously anti-meninist woman? Guibert immediately explained:

Fasting for the poor, who have no choice for when food is available, is really a form of torture and is therefore less praiseworthy. In the same way, if rich people abstain from food, their merit is derived from abundance. So it is with beauty, which is all the more praiseworthy if it resists flattery while knowing itself to be desirable.

{ Sicut sane in omnino pauperibus jejunia videntur extortitia, quibus non suppetunt ciborum suffragia, et ideo minus laudabilia, frugalitas autem divitum pro sua habet copia pretium; sic forma quanto appetibilior, si contra lenocinia duruerit, tanto omnimodae titulo laudis evectior. }

Guibert’s mother evidently is a woman that men desire, like men do Saint Pelagia. His mother’s severity isn’t repellent bitterness and hostility toward men. Her severity is merely her reason and judgment strong enough to resist the servile flattery of weak, self-abasing men.

Guibert went on to consider a classical understanding of beauty. He stated:

Sallust was able to consider beauty praiseworthy independent of moral considerations. Otherwise he never would have said about Aurelia Orestilla, “Good men never praised anything in her except her beauty.” Sallust seems to have meant that Aurelia’s beauty, considered in isolation, could still be praised by good people, while admitting how corrupt she was in everything else.

{ Sallustiuse Crispus nisi solam sine moribus pulchritudinem laudi duxisset, nunquam de Aurelia Orestilla dixisset: “Inqua, ait, praeter formam nihil unquam bonus laudavit.” Si formam ejus, quam excipit, a bono laudari asserit, quia tamen in caeteris omnibus turpem } [3]

Aurelia Orestilla came from a leading political family in the Roman Republic of the early first century BGC. She was the wife of the eminent Roman commander Catiline when he engaged in a conspiracy to burn Rome and overthrow the Republican government. Cicero associated Aurelia Orestilla with obscenity.[4] She was probably similar to her contemporary Sempronia, a type of woman profusely celebrated in mass media today:

Sempronia was a woman who had often committed many crimes of masculine daring. In family heritage and beauty, and in her husband and her children, she was abundantly favored by fortune. She was well-read in the literature of Greece and Rome, and able to play the lyre and to dance more skillfully than an honest woman would find necessary. She had many other accomplishments that aid voluptuousness. Nothing she valued so little as modesty and chastity. You could not easily say whether she was less sparing of her money or her honor. Her sexual desires were so ardent that she sought men more often than they sought her. Even before the time of the conspiracy she had often broken her word, repudiated her debts, and been privy to murder. Experiences of poverty and extravagance had combined to drive her forward. Nevertheless, she was a woman of no paltry endowments. She could write verses, bandy jests, and use language modest, tender, or wanton. In short, she possessed a high degree of wit and charm.

{ erat Sempronia quae multa saepe virilis audaciae facinora commiserat. Haec mulier genere atque forma, praeterea viro atque liberis satis fortunata fuit; litteris Graecis et Latinis docta, psallere et saltare elegantius, quam necesse est probae, multa alia, quae instrumenta luxuriae sunt. Sed ei cariora semper omnia quam decus atque pudicitia fuit; pecuniae an famae minus parceret, haud facile discerneres; lubido sic accensa, ut saepius peteret viros quam peteretur. Sed ea saepe antehac fidem prodiderat, creditum abiuraverat, caedis conscia fuerat, luxuria atque inopia praeceps abierat. Verum ingenium eius haud absurdum; posse versus facere, iocum movere, sermone uti vel modesto vel molli vel procaci; prorsus multae facetiae multusque lepos inerat. } [5]

The Latin word for beauty used to characterize both Aurelia Orestilla and Sempronia is forma. The Latin word that Guibert used to characterize his mother is pulcher. The word forma is beauty much more narrowly limited to physical appearance.[6]

Like Bishop Nonnus with respect to Pelagia, Guibert had a realistic understanding of womanly beauty. Writing in a more liberal and less doctrinaire age than ours, Guibert frankly explained:

Speaking for Sallust, I think he might just as well have said that Aurelia deserved to be praised for a natural, God-given gift, impaired though she was by all the other impurities that made up her being. Likewise a statue can be praised for the harmony of its parts, no matter what material composes it. It may be regarded as an idol by the Apostle Paul from the viewpoint of faith, and indeed nothing may be called or is more impious, but one can still admire the harmony of its limbs.

{ dicit, secure pro Sallustio loquor sic sensisse, ceu diceret, digne dote naturae a Deo approbari, licet eam constet adjectivis quibuslibet impuritatibus impiari. Laudatur itaque in idolo cujuslibet materiei partibus propriis forma conveniens, et licet idolum ab Apostolo, quantum spectat ad fidem, nihil appelletur nec quippiam profanius habeatur, tamen illa membrorum apta diductio non ab re laudatur. }

Men sexually desire beautiful women even if those women are morally bad. Women, on the other hand, sexually desire bad boys even if those boys aren’t beautiful. Reality resists social constructions of gender. Beauty is an aspect of natural, God-given reality.

The classical understanding of beauty closely linked beauty with desire, but commonly trivialized men’s work of desire. Consider, for example, the classical poet Eumolpus. One day while bathing in a Roman bathhouse with other naked men, he attempted to recite learned poetry. His fellow bathers ridiculed him, attacked him, and drove him out of the bath. Outside, a huge crowd surrounded another naked man. Eumolpus sarcastically reported:

In contrast to their treatment of me, a huge crowd surrounded that other man’s groin and clapped their hands in humblest admiration. He had genitals that hung down with such weight that you would have thought that the man himself was a mere appendage to his penis. What a hard-working young man he must be! I suspect that he has to begin today to finish tomorrow. So it wasn’t long before he got himself an assistant — some Roman noble or other, with a dubious reputation, they say — who gave his clothes to cover him up and brought him home with him, I believe, to enjoy his good fortune in private. … It just shows that it’s more profitable to work your genitals than your brains.

{ ilium autem frequentia ingens circumvenit cum plausu et admiratione timidissima. Habebat enim inguinum pondus tam grande, ut ipsum hominem laciniam fascini crederes. O iuvenem laboriosum: puto ilium pridie incipere, postero die finire. Itaque statim invenit auxilium; nescio quis enim, eques Romanus ut aiebant infamis, sua veste errantem circumdedit ac domum abduxit, credo, ut tam magna fortuna solus uteretur. … Tanto magis expedit inguina quam ingenia fricare. } [7]

Eumolpus thus trivialized the erection labor of even a man with very heavy equipment.[8] More generally, in the defective classical understanding of beauty, men’s desire requires of men negligible labor.

Showing important development of reasoned, empirical thinking, Guibert highlighted that desire requires labor from men. Guibert sympathetically reported why an older man became a monk:

Another man was from a noble Beauvaisien family with rich estates in Noyon. He was elderly, and his body had been worn out long ago. Yet he had a wife vigorous in the business of the marriage bed. That’s greatly pernicious. So, deserting married life and the world, he professed vows as a monk.

{ Alter quidam, genere nobilis Bellovagensium, Noviomagensium quoque locuples, aetate evectus, et effoeto jam corpore, quod talibus pestiferum est, uxorem habens vegetiorem officio thalamorum, desertis conjugio ac saeculo, monachum inibi profitetur. } [9]

With great love for women, men engage in tiring work in bed. Other medieval literature similarly tells of men exhausted by their erection labor. Desire requires strength-sapping labor from men.

In the more liberal and less doctrinaire medieval period, women both under-appreciated and over-appreciated men’s erection labor. Men generally endure less risk to their health when women under-appreciate men’s sexuality. Today, however, many women insist on being on top. Yet women also eagerly buy seedless watermelons and urgently pursue an ideal of zero emissions. Men’s health is thus endangered and men’s erection labor is devalued. Women’s beauty is good for society only when men are adequately compensated for their erection labor.

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Notes:

[1] Konstan (2015) p. 62.

[2] Guibert of Nogent, Monodiae {Songs of Self} 1.2, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. from Archambault (1996) (adapted). All subsequent quotes from Guibert, unless otherwise noted, are similarly sourced from Monodiae 1.2.

Guibert ended his discussion of his mother’s beauty in a way that underscores the close relationship between beauty and desire:

Thank you, God, for instilling virtue into my mother’s beauty. The seriousness of her whole bearing was enough to show her contempt for all vanity. Her lowered eyes, paucity of speech, and unexcitable facial expression by no means indicated acquiescence to flirtatious looks.

{ Gratia igitur tibi, Deus, qui praestillaveras decori ejus virtutem: illius enim habitudinis gravitas tolius vanitatis poterat insinuare contemptum; oculorum namque pondus, raritas eloquendi ac faciei motuum difficultas, minime levitatibus intuentium obsecundat. }

Id. Guibert here shifts to referring to his mother’s beauty with the Latin word decor. That word most commonly represents physical beauty. Konstan (2015) p. 142. Guibert’s mother is physically beautiful, but she in other ways distances herself from sexual desire.

As many mothers throughout history have with respect to their sons, Guibert’s mother dominated him. He regarded her as almost God-like and was greatly concerning to follow her instructions. She regarded Guibert’s sexual desire as dangerous to him. That’s certainly true for men under gynocentrism today.

[3] Guibert quotes from Sallust, The War With Catiline {Bellum Catilinae} 15.2. Here’s the Loeb edition of The War With Catiline, with Latin text and English translation by John C. Rolfe (1921/1931). Catiline’s full name in Latin is Lucius Sergius Catilina.

[4] On Aurelia Orestilla family background, Evans (1987). Catiline’s wife Aurelia plausibly was Catiline’s daughter via his adulterous relationship with her mother. Consider words of Cicero, with ancient commentary:

“Whenever you were caught in adultery, whenever you caught adulterers yourself, when arising from the same act of gross indecency you found yourself a woman to be both wife and daughter.” It is said that Catilina committed adultery with the woman who was later his mother-in-law, and took to wife the female offspring of that fornication, although she was his daughter. This charge Lucceius also levels against Catilina in the orations which he wrote attacking him. I have not yet discovered the names of these women.

{ “Cum deprehendebare in adulteriis, cum deprehendebas adulteros ipse, cum ex eodem stupro tibi et uxorem et filiam invenisti.” Dicitur Catilina adulterium commisisse cum ea quae ei postea socrus fuit, et ex eo natam stupro duxisse uxorem, cum filia eius esset. Hoc Lucceius quoque Catilinae obicit in orationibus quas in eum scripsit. Nomina harum mulierum nondum inveni. }

Cicero’s speech In his white gown {In toga candida}, according to the commentary of Asconius 91C. Latin text and English translation from Lewis (2006) pp. 183-4. A correction written in Poggio’s manuscript of Asconius added, “the name of his wife was Aurelia Orestilla, of his mother-in-law, I don’t know {nomen uxori fuit Aurelia Orestilla, de socru ignoro}.” Id. (in editor’s note).

Cicero, in his Letters to Friends {Epistulae ad Familiares} 9.15 associated Aurelia and Lollia with obscenity. Cicero stated, “if we use the word Aurelia or Lollia we must prefix an apology {sin de Aurelia aliquid aut Lollia, honos praefandus est}.” Latin text and English translation from Loeb edition of William Glyn (1927).

[5] Sallust, The War With Catiline {Bellum Catilinae} 25, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from the Loeb edition of Rolfe (1921/1931). This Sempronia was the wife of Decimus Junius Brutus. On her involvement in the conspiracy, Bellum Catilinae 40.5. For a modern apology for the perhaps adulterous Sempronia, wife of Scipio Aemilianus, Beness & Hillard (2016). Here’s some analysis of modern reporting of men being cuckolded.

Despite Aurelia Orestilla almost surely being deeply involved in what has been called the Catiline conspiracy, she apparently suffered relatively little from that failed uprising. Catiline in 62 BGC was killed fighting for the conspiracy attempt. But in 50 BGC Aurelia Orestilla was making an elite marriage for her daughter. Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares 8.7.7, discussed in Evans (1986) p. 70.

Ben Jonson’s tragedy Catiline His Conspiracy (1611) plausibly elaborates on Aurelia Orestilla’s character. Brian Jay Corrigan’s Compendium of Renaissance Drama recognizes Jonson’s gender-critical insight in Catiline His Conspiracy:

After their respective meetings, both men and women conspirators convene in the early hours of the morning to take their leave and make a final statement of confidence. Eventually, when the conspirators are sentenced to death, it is understood that the women, including Aurelia, are not punished.

See Aurelia in Corrigan’s character list. A gender protrusion in men’s mortality and sex discrimination in punishment are common aspects of gynocentrism.

[6] The word forma most specifically refers to physical shape or figure, but it can take on the meaning “beauty” in context. The Latin words for beauty formosus and formositas, which are derived from forma, highlight that physical meaning of beauty. Konstan (2015) pp. 144, 148.

[7] Petronius, Satyricon 92, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), English translation from Walsh (1996) (adapted). The well-endowed man is Ascyltus, a rival to Encolpius for amorous relations with Giton. On classical literature admiring large penises, see commentary to Satyricon 92 in Schmeling (2011).

[8] Despite Eumolpus’s disdain’s for Ascyltus’s erection labor, Eumolpus himself experienced sexual exhaustion in his relationship with the Pergamene youth. Eumolpus threatened to alert the father of the Pargamene youth if that youth didn’t stop pressing him for more sex. Satyricon 82-7. On the literary context of this story, Harrison (1998). The gender-political implications of the story have been regrettably overlooked.

[9] Guibert, Monodiae 2.5, Latin text from Bourgin (1907), English trans. from Archambault (1996) (adapted).

[image] Bathsheba sexually harassing David. As a result of that sexual harassment, one man suffered a reproductive injury and a man and a boy were killed. Specifically, Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was cuckolded and killed, and Bathsheba and David’s newly born son died. 2 Samuel 11-12. In recent decades scholars have tended to blame the victim and condemn men in such situations for “the male gaze.” That reflects the growing influence of carceral anti-meninism. Illumination on f. 71 of French Book of Hours, made c. 1485. Preserved as British Library MS Harley 2863.

References:

Archambault, Paul J., trans. 1996. A Monk’s Confession: the memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Beness, J. Lea, and Tom Hillard. 2016. “Wronging Sempronia.” Antichthon. 50: 80-106.

Bourgin, George, ed. 1907. Guibert of Nogent. Histoire de sa vie: 1053-1124. Paris: Picard.

Evans, Richard J. 1987. “Catiline’s wife.” Acta Classica. 30: 69-71.

Harrison, Stephen J. 1998. “The Milesian Tales and the Roman Novel.” Groningen Colloquia on the Novel. 9: 61–73.

Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Konstan, David. 2015. Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, R.G, ed. and trans. 2006. Asconius: Commentaries on Speeches of Cicero. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schmeling, Gareth L. 2011. A Commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, Patrick G, trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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