overcoming disparagement of men’s sexuality in ancient Greek poetry

Men have long been disparaged as being sexually like dogs. In ancient Greece, men’s sexuality was disparaged and harshly regulated. Yet across about 500 years — from an epigram of Dioscorides in the third-century BGC to a short, popular poem in the second or third century GC — ancient Greek culture shows a peculiar reversal in representing men’s sexuality. The overall historical trend from Milesian tales to the Brothers Grimm is undoubtedly grim. Nonetheless, scarcely recognized ancient Greek poetry shows the possibility of improving men’s sexual status.

In the third-century BGC, Dioscorides wrote an epigram in which a man describes his insane love for a woman. Dioscorides’s poem testifies to the wretched status of men as distinctively gendered, sexual persons:

I go mad for her rosy, soul-melting, story-telling
lips, the portals of her ambrosial mouth,
and for her eyes that flash under thick eyebrows,
nets and snares for my heart,
and for her milky breasts — well-mated, enticing,
well-formed, more delightful than any flower.
But why am I pointing out bones to dogs?
Midas’s reeds bear witness to unrestrained speech.

{ Ἐκμαίνει χείλη με ῥοδόχροα, ποικιλόμυθα,
ψυχοτακῆ, στόματος νεκταρέου πρόθυρα,
καὶ γλῆναι λασίαισιν ὑπ᾽ ὀφρύσιν ἀστράπτουσαι,
σπλάγχνων ἡμετέρων δίκτυα καὶ παγίδες,
καὶ μαζοὶ γλαγόεντες, ἐΰζυγες, ἱμερόεντες,
εὐφυέες, πάσης τερπνότεροι κάλυκος.
ἀλλὰ τί μηνύω κυσὶν ὀστέα; μάρτυρές εἰσι
τῆς ἀθυροστομίης οἱ Μίδεω κάλαμοι. }[1]

“Dogs” in the penultimate verse refers to men, and “bones” to beautiful physical aspects of a woman. Men are thus dehumanized as dogs. Their love for women is figured as dogs gnawing on bones. Moreover, while the man admires his beloved woman’s “story-telling lips,” he himself feels the need to restrain his speech, lest he be shamed as King Midas was for his donkey-sized ears. In context, the reference to a donkey’s shameful physical attribute evokes the male donkey’s large penis and vigorous sexuality. Dioscorides’s rhetorically elaborate poem plausibly draws upon Sapphic odes and Homeric hymns. Its disparagement of men’s sexually occurs squarely within ancient Greek elite literary tradition.[2]

A Greek poem that circulated widely in the Roman Empire during the second or third century emphatically challenges disparaging men’s sexuality. While the genders of the speaker and addressee aren’t syntactically marked, the poem plausibly represents a man speaking to his beloved woman:

They say
what they wish.
Let them say it.
I don’t care.
Go on, be an intimate friend to me.
That does you good.

{ Λέγουσιν
ἃ θέλουσιν
λεγέτωσαν
οὐ μέλι μοι
σὺ φίλι με
συνφέρι σοι }[3]

In Discorides’s epigram, the man fears social harm from speaking of his delight in gazing upon his beloved woman. In this later poem, the man doesn’t care what others say about his relation to his beloved woman. Not caring what others say was a common ancient philosophical pose. But a man not caring what others say about his relationship to a woman is far from abstractions of philosophy. Under gynocentrism, relations of men to women carry an intense social charge. Moreover, men typically don’t relate to women as dogs do to bones. Men’s intimate relations with women typically do both of them good. As scarcely possible as it is to believe today, the goodness of men’s sexual relations with women was popularly asserted in the second or third century Roman Empire.

Some women throughout history have gratefully appreciated men’s sexuality. In late-thirteenth-century Galicia, a woman in a worldly wise song recognized her boyfriend’s steadfast love of her:

I see all the things of this world
stop being what they used to be,
and I see the people stop doing
well as they used to. That’s how the times are.
But it’s not possible to stop the heart
of my boyfriend from loving me.

Although a man can tear his heart away
from the things he loves in good faith,
and tear himself from the land where he is,
and tear himself from the riches he has,
it’s impossible to tear the heart
of my boyfriend from loving me.

I see all things change.
Times change, and the rest changes to,
people change in doing well or doing ill,
the winds change, and every other thing changes.
But it’s impossible to change the heart
of my boyfriend from loving me.

{ Todalas cousas eu vejo partir
do mund’ en como soían seer,
e vej’ as gentes partir de fazer
ben que soían, tal tempo vos ven,
mais non se pod’ o coraçon partir
do meu amigo de mi querer ben

Pero que ome part’ o coraçon
das cousas que ama, per bõa fe,
e parte s’ ome da terra ond’ é
e parte s’ ome du gran prol ten,
non se pode parti-lo coraçon
do meu amigo de mi

Todalas cousas eu vejo mudar,
mudan s’ os tempos e muda s’ o al,
muda s’ a gente en fazer ben ou mal,
mudan s’ os ventos e tod’ outra ren,
mais non se pod’ o coraçon mudar
do meu amigo de mi querer ben }[4]

Men’s love for women has endured and prevailed despite a changing world. Men now lack reproductive rights and suffer under penal justice systems that vastly disproportionately incarcerate persons with penises. Nonetheless, men need not only suffer, endure, and prevail over such injustices in their love for women. In the history of ancient Greek poetry, a popular poem eventually emerged to reverse Dioscorides’s epigram disparaging men’s sexuality. Improving men’s sexual status can happen when enough women appreciate men.

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Read more:

Notes:

[1] Greek Anthology {Anthologia Graeca} / Palatine Anthology {Anthologia Palatina} 5.56, Dioscorides {Διοσκουρίδης}, epigram, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Paton & Tueller (2014). In another epigram Dioscorides depicted men as sexually indiscriminate and not caring to inquire about their wives’ sexual preferences:

Never lay a pregnant woman on your bed face-to-face
and enjoy her in procreative sex.
Between you will be a large swell and much work for you both —
her being rowed, and you being rocked.
Turn yourself instead to her backside and enjoy her rosy buttocks,
using your bed-mate according to the custom of boy-sex.

{ Μήποτε γαστροβαρῆ πρὸς σὸν λέχος ἀντιπρόσωπον
παιδογόνῳ κλίνῃς Κύπριδι τερπόμενος.
μεσσόθι γὰρ μέγα κῦμα καὶ οὐκ ὀλίγος πόνος ἔσται
τῆς μὲν ἐρεσσομένης σοῦ δὲ σαλευομένου.
ἀλλὰ πάλιν στρέψας ῥοδοειδέϊ τέρπεο πυγῇ
τὴν ἄλοχον, νομίσας ἀρσενόπαιδα Κύπριν. }

Greek Anthology 5.54, sourced as previously. Not all men are like that. A medieval scholium characterized this poem as “Nonsense directed at men like himself: how to sleep with a pregnant woman {φλυαρία πρὸς ὁμοίους αὐτοῦ· πῶς δεῖ μετὰ γυναικὸς ἐγκύμονος συγκαθεύδειν}.”

[2] Acosta-Hughes (2010) p. 90 (Sappho), Di Castri (1997) pp. 57-9 (Homeric Hymns, Pindar, and others).

[3] Greek text and English translation (modified) from Whitmarsh (2021) p. 136. The poem probably was composed in the first or second century GC. Id. p. 137.

Whitmarsh’s translation:

They say
What they like
Let them say it
I don’t care
Go on, love me
It does you good

Id. Different translations of the imperative verb φίλι are possible. In modern English, the verb “love” has a wide range of meanings. Ancient Greek has a variety of terms that fall within that range of meanings. On differences between φιλία and ἔρος and related terms in archaic Greece, Konstan (1996), Ch. 2. For an example of distinguishing between φιλέω and ἀγαπάω, John 21:15-17.

[4] Johan / João Airas de Santiago 0, Song about a beloved man {Cantiga de amigo}, “I see all the things of this world {Todalas cousas eu vejo partir}” (B 963, V 550), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Universo Cantigas and at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[image] Helena de Alfonso singing Johan Airas’s Tôdalas Cousas on Barahúnda’s album Múdanse Os Ventos (2015). Via YouTube.

References:

Acosta-Hughes, Benjamin. 2010. Arion’s Lyre: archaic lyric into Hellenistic poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cohen, Rip. 2003. 500 Cantigas d’Amigo. Porto: Campo das Letras.

Cohen, Rip. 2010. The Cantigas d’Amigo: An English Translation. Online. Quotes are based on the 2016 edition.

Di Castri, Maria Beatrice. 1997. “Tra sfoggio erudito e fantasia descrittivariaa: un profilo letterario e stilistico di Dioscoride epigrammatista. 3 – Epigrammi erotici e scoptici.” Atene e Roma. 42 (2/3): 51-73.

Konstan, David. 1996. Friendship in the Classical World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paton, W.R., ed and trans, rev. by Michael A. Tueller. 2014. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. Original (1916-18) printed London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16).

Whitmarsh, Tim. 2021. “Less Care, More Stress: A Rhythmic Poem from the Roman Empire.” The Cambridge Classical Journal. 67: 135-163. Corrigendum. Associated press release from St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

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