Ennodius celebrated seminal blessing & disparaged eunuch Tribune

The early Christian church fathers Jerome and Augustine vigorously denounced classical castration culture. Yet the poet of antiquity who thrust most firmly for men’s seminal blessing was the fittingly named Magnus Felix Ennodius. Appointed bishop of Pavia about 514, Ennodius in a wedding song urged the young man Maximus to be fruitful in marital love. Ennodius also disparaged the eunuch Tribune for lacking manly seed. Moreover, Ennodius represented Pasiphae’s sexual desire for a bull as no less understandable than women’s admiration for male donkeys. In light of Ennodius’s profound appreciation for human sexuality, Christians rightly came to regard Ennodius as a saint.

Ennodius had a keen sense for historical misrepresentation of men’s sexuality. The last two verses of his wedding song (epithalamium) for Maximus are programmatic:

When cold frost suppresses inspiration,
may the warmth of swelling spring revive it.

{ Quod nunc ingenium premunt pruinae,
Distendat refouens decore uernum. }[1]

Subtly alluding to the sophisticated allegory of Prudentius, cold frost figures the persecution and repression of men’s heterosexuality. The warmth of swelling spring represents the enlivening effect of men’s sexual love for women.

While spring is a common setting for love poetry, spring envelops Ennodius’s epithalamium with specific, physical representations of human sexuality. The richness of Ennodius’s figuration is extraordinary:

The earth becomes aroused by her conjugal nature,
tumescent trees leaf wanton foliage,
milk-giving grass is pressed down into knotty turf,
and jeweled fingers start to burgeon from the branch.

{ Erigitur genio tellus tumefacta marito,
Torrida lasciuis silua uiret spoliis.
Lactans cespitibus in nodum truditur herba.
Vitea gemmatos brachia dant digitos. }[2]

Perhaps alluding to the biblical unity of the sexes, these verses alternate between feminine and masculine signs. Figuring female genitals, the innately sexual earth rises up and grassy loins, pressed, produce milk. Figuring male genitals, the tumescent trees with hard wood and wanton foliage become in tighter focus jeweled fingers extending from the branch. These verses display a sexual imagination as wonderfully physical and specific as that of Saint Jerome.

A classically learned man, Ennodius drew upon the traditional Greco-Roman deities Venus and Cupid to spur Maximus’s sexual ardor. Ennodius described the nude Venus as having “rosy nipples {roseae papillae}” and a shining body.[3] Venus declared to her son Cupid about Maximus:

Let this man’s deepest fibers come to know my lamp.
Let him begin to sigh, desire, careen, burn, beg.

{ Huius ad abstrusas ueniat mea lampada fibras:
Suspiret cupiat discurrat ferueat oret. }

Maximus begging his wife for sex suggests that he values her more than she values him. The Roman ideology of female superiority goes all the way back to the Sabine women. Superior female value was prominently represented in the tombs of Pythionice. Ennodius interpreted superior female value as honoring Maximus:

Your pure life brings a wife whose merits vanquish yours.
Because she overcomes you, she is your palm.

{ Vincentem meritis sponsam dat candida uita,
Quae cum te superat, sic tibi palma uenit. }

With the man on the bottom, that’s classical Roman ideology like Propertius crediting his beloved Cynthia for all his poetic success.[4]

Christian marriage, however, was meant to be a conjugal partnership. Husbands in normal Christian marriages have no need to beg their wives for sex. Ennodius with his epithalamium urged Maximus to have joyful, fruitful sexual relations with his wife. With magnificent irony, Ennodius had Cupid declare to Maximus, “if you believe {si credis},” then you will have “many descendants {multi nepotes}.”[5] That’s the typical effect of the Jewish and Christian seminal blessing in practice.

Ennodius disparaged the eunuch Tribune for lacking the seminal blessing. Castration in the ancient world varied from the removal of just a male’s testicles to the removal of most or all of his penis as well. Ennodius with a Latin pun represented a man being deprived of his testicles as making him into a liar:

You, Tribune, can speak falsely without testification:
your wind has a tongue with the weight of air.

{ Tutus falsa loqui poteris sine teste, Tribune:
Ventus habet linguam ponderibus uacui. }[6]

Ennodius associated a man’s penis with being rooted and weighty:

His damaged nature renders Tribune unstable.
He’ll fly away again unless chains hold him down.
Wretch, weigh your little anchor when the Zephyr comes,
for no roots offer you convenient help.

{ Instabilem faciunt naturae damna Tribunum.
Auolat hinc rursus, uincula ni teneant.
Tolle, miser, modicam zephyro ueniente saburram.
Radix nulla tuo est utilis auxilio. }

Ennodius thus implied that the eunuch Tribune lacks the preeminent Roman masculine virtue of gravitas.

A Christian perspective on the eunuch Tribune differs significantly from traditional Roman concern about gravitas. Christian teaching affirms that those who are eunuchs by birth have the same human dignity as do all human persons.[7] Men throughout history, however, have made themselves eunuchs for worldly advantage under gynocentrism. Eunuchs in ancient Rome held positions of both political-administrative and military leadership.[8] The name Tribune associates this eunuch with such worldly eminence. Ennodius said of him:

You wish to be called “rich,” “noble,” “handsome,” “a friend.”

{ Vis dici locuples sublimis pulcher amicus }

Men who castrate themselves for worldly advantage wrongly separate themselves and others from the seminal blessing. A man doesn’t truly profit if he gains the whole world and loses his seminal blessing.

Ennodius refigured the eunuch Tribune in Christian terms. The eunuch Tribune became merely a poor farmer:

This eunuch at the crossroads asks for his foul upkeep,
but has no seed to sow into the ground.
The countryside protects large buds in furrowed fields
and its youthful harvest pays back multiple.
In vain this gelding cleaves the earth’s back with his plow
unless he tills and strews about wheat seeds.

{ Eunuchus turpem poscit per compita uictum:
Semina telluri non habet unde ferat.
Grandia proscissis rus seruat germina membris.
Fetibus et messis multiplicata redit:
Incassum sectus proscindit uomere terga.
Ni findens spargat triticeam subolem. }

With “pays back multiple {multiplicata redit},” Ennodius alludes to the biblical parable of the sower, which Jerome interpreted in the context of heterosexual relations. As a eunuch, Tribune lacks the seminal blessing. If he has merely wheat seeds, he cannot incarnate the fruit of numerous descendants.

Queen Pasiphae embracing the Cretan bull

Ennodius sympathetically treated a silver goblet engraved with a representation of Pasiphae’s love for the Cretan bull. The Cretan king Minos had refused to sacrifice the beautiful Cretan bull to Poseidon. Enraged, Poseidon caused Minos’s wife Pasiphae to lust ardently for the bull. Daedalus constructed for her a cow that she used to deceive the bull into having sex with her. Women raping males should be regarded as a serious wrong. But with a sense for representational sophistication, Ennodius interpreted Pasiphae’s sexual desire for the bull as a natural female response to a physically magnificent male:

In art you, Pasiphae, won’t relinquish the young, snow-white bull.
You beg for kisses, arms entwined around his neck.

{ Pasiphae, niueum linquis nec in arte iuuencum
Diffusis collo manibus petis oscula supplex }[9]

Pasiphae and the bull behave as a wife and husband, fully ensouled like Eve and Adam:

The woman flirts, the bull responds, limbs start to move.
Who has infused souls into the mold art made?

{ Blanditur mulier, sentit bos, membra mouentur.
Attulit ars formas: quis dedit hic animas? }

Ennodius appreciated a woman’s active role in arousing a male. He also acknowledged the intense physicality of sexual intercourse:

Look! The woman like a wife again sinks below the bull.
These human flames cause that beast’s heart to heave.
How does the nape of its vast neck withstand the yoke?
The sweat! Oh, how exhausted by the leather strap!

{ Ecce iterum tauro mulier summittitur uxor,
Humanas pecudum suspirant pectora flammas.
Vasta iugum ceruix, cur suscipit area colli,
Qualiter astricto sudauit marcida loro! }

Their relationship includes physical tenderness. The bull “nuzzles his snout beneath approaching lips {admotis suspendat rostra labellis}.” While typically lacking a physical endowment as extensive as that of a bull or donkey, most men are fully capable of pleasing a woman in the same way that the Cretan bull pleased Pasiphae.[10]

woman embraces a bull

Ennodius represents the beginning of medieval literature vigorously affirming the goodness of men’s sexuality and the seminal blessing. The epic disaster of men’s impotence within the decadence of Nero’s Rome falls away. The Greek girl’s eloquent lament for Maximianus’s sexual incapacity is a counterpart to Ennodius’s epithalamium for Maximus. The past led to Maximianus, while the medieval future belonged to Maximus’s line. Ennodius, Bishop of Pavia, became recognized as a saint. Pavia became famous for lovely, warmly receptive women. But the faith is still not understood, hope is clouded, and love for men all too tenuous. Study the sign of Jonah and the Archpoet!

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[1] Magnus Felix Ennodius, Carmina 1.4 (Mulligan 8), “Wedding song delivered to Maximus, an Admirable Man {Epithalamium Dictum Maximo Viro Spectabili},” incipit “The year, its sun renewed, forms tender stalks of grain {Annus sole nouo teneras dum format aristas},” Latin edition of Hartel (1882), English translation (modified slightly) from Mulligan (2022). The Latin edition of Vogel (1885) is also important and freely available. Readily available to all also are a lemmatization of Ennodius’s poems and a compilation of resources on Ennodius.

The term “Admirable Man {Vir Spectabilis}” is an imperial Roman title for a man with senatorial rank. Vir Spectabilis was the second highest title among the imperial Roman aristocracy. It ranked below only the senatorial title “Illustrious Man {Vir Illustris}.” Mulligan (2022) p. 171, n. 252. Ennodius apparently wrote his epithalamium in the spring of 510 GC. Id. n. 251.

Ennodius is a sophisticated poet. Mulligan’s seminal translation carries across Ennodius’s verse forms:

Ennodius’ poetry deserves a verse translation, the only mode that can capture some qualities of a style that contains nice touches — and occasionally strains language to (and sometimes past) the breaking point. Creating a readable, accessible, and metrical translation of Ennodius was a perplexing, exhilarating challenge.

Mulligan (2022) p. 25. On Ennodius’s meters, id. pp. 27-34. My changes to Mulligan’s translation, which don’t necessarily reflect his verse forms, are intended to make the text more easily readable and closer to the literal meaning of the Latin to serve a general audience. More exacting poetic readers should consult Mulligan’s book.

The subsequent six quotes above are similarly from “Epithalamium Dictum Maximo Viro Spectabili,” vv. 7-10 (The earth becomes aroused…), 42 (rosy nipples), 93-4 (Let this man’s deepest fibers…), 21-2 (Your pure life brings a wife…), 121 (if you believe; many descendants).

[2] The Latin verb erigat originally applied to constructing buildings in the sense of “raise” or “erect.” Juster, discussing mentem … erigat in Maximianus, Elegies 3.3-4, observed:

The phrase mentem …. erigat (“uplift a mind”) has strong Christian overtones. See, e.g. Augustine, Sermones 4.352.2 (erigant mentes); Ennodius, Dictio 8.1.18 (erigere mens).

Juster (2018) p. 157. In Ennodius’s epithalamium, the verb erigat thus raises sexual arousal to acquiring knowledge of God.

[3] In a classical myth known as the Judgment of Paris, Venus, by baring her body won the beauty context against Juno and Minerva.

[4] In his epithalamium, Ennodius drew upon the classical Roman elegiac conceit of “love is war.” Ennodius depicted Cupid shooting arrows, and Cupid explicitly referred to sexual relations as “war {bellus}” in his epithalamium, v. 121. Ennodius, however, urged Maximus to have sex only with his wife and associated such chastity with elite behavior:

May you know only she who has been destined for you, as you were destined for her, since you did not come from the dregs of the earth.

{ solam illam tibi deputatam noueris, cui te quasi non esses ex mundi faece seruasti. }

“Ennodius to Maximus, Admirable Man {Ennodius Viro Spectabili Maximo},” Latin edition of Vogel (1885) #386, English translation of Mulligan (2022) #8. Ennodius’s letters are highly literary works:

He put the act of communication through belletristic display first, often leaving the nuts and bolts of substantive business to be entrusted to the bearer of the letter or relegated to now-lost attachments.

Kennell (2016) p. 370. Ennodius’s appeal to Maximus to be chaste uses rhetoric rather than Christian moral doctrine.

Ennodius similarly presents marital sexuality and fecundity as natural and a blessing. Wasyl aptly observed of the scene of Venus and Cupid in Ennodius’s epithalamium:

this whole scene is certainly permeated with sympathy – and not hatred at all – for the rights (if not desires) of the «flesh», or rather, to put it properly, of human nature with sexuality as its integral part.

Wasyl (2018) p. 614.

[5] Cupid laments to Venus, “there are not enough children for the nascent age {nec proles nascenti sufficit aeuo}.” Epithalamium, v. 56. Ennodius composed funeral epigrams. Among those for married women, a recurring them is matrimonial fecundity. Wasyl (2018) p. 611. The issue is not simply that Maximus needs to get to work in fulfilling Roman men’s traditional marriage obligation. Cf. Bernstein (2019) pp. 78-80. Ennodius is concerned about the seminal blessing, a fundamental good in Jewish and Christian understanding.

[6] Ennodius, Carmina 2.70 (Mulligan 138), complete epigram. The subsequent three quotes above are from Ennodius’s eunuch Tribune epigrams: Carmina 2.71 (Mulligan 139), complete epigram (His damaged nature…); 2.69 (Mulligan 137), v. 5 (You wish to be called…); 2.72 (Mulligan 140), complete epigram (This eunuch at the crossroads…).

Ennodius’s epigrams are topically and formally similar to Martial’s. Adamik (2014). But Ennodius’s epigrams are infused with Christian sensibility, while Martial’s aren’t.

[7] Matthew 19:12, Galations 3:28.

[8] Eunuchs held prominent positions in the Roman Empire from the third century onward. Steward (2014) and Steward (2017). The eunuch Narses was the supreme commander of the Eastern Roman army that sacked Gothic Rome in 552.

[9] Ennodius, Carmina 2.25 (Mulligan 83), vv. 1-2. With respect to Pasiphae, “Ennodius treats his controversial protagonist with intriguing tenderness.” Wasyl (2018) p. 609. More importantly, Ennodius’s understanding interpretation of Pasiphae isn’t merely poor-dearism. Ennodius appreciated Pasiphae’s sexual desire for the magnificent bull and so affirmed the attractiveness and goodness of male sexuality, even of a beastly sort. In Ennodius’s interpretation, “the laws of nature have not been broken by this peculiar union.” Id., Abstract.

The subsequent three quotes above are from Ennodius’s Pasiphae epigrams: Carmina 2.29 (Mulligan 84), full epigram (The woman flirts…); 2.103 (Mulligan 87) vv. 5-8 (Look! The woman like a wife…); 2.30 (Mulligan 85), v. 2 (nuzzles his snout…).

Modern scholars have vastly underestimated the sexual freedom of expression available to medieval authors. For example, with respect to Ennodius’s epithalamium, a leading scholar of Ennodius stated:

only through metaphors of vernal fecundity and mythological situations could he articulate the physical nature of marriage positively and with apposite candor. Of necessity, his poem {his epithalamium} minimizes the Christian background to the impending nuptials.

Kennell (2000) p. 92. Ausonius’s Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis} candidly, satirically confronted the brutalization of men’s sexuality. Ennodius, in contrast, articulated positively the physical nature of marriage through Christian belief in the seminal blessing.

[10] Donkeys need not yearn for longer tails, nor men for bigger penises. Men’s gentials are sufficient for the seminal blessing. At the same time, men must recognize their limitations with respect to women.

[images] (1) Queen Pasiphae embracing the Cretan bull. Illumination from an instance of Christine de Pizan’s The Letter of Othea to Hector {L’Épître d’Othéa á Hector}. From folio 116r of the Book of the Queen, London, British Library, Harley MS 4431 (created from 1410 to 1414). (2) A woman and a bull. Excerpt from Alfred Philippe Roll’s painting from 1885, preserved as accession # 2671 in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes {National Museum of Fine Arts } (Buenos Aires, Argentina). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Adamik, Tamás. 2014. “Ennodius und Martial.” Acta Classica Universitatis Scientiarum Debreceniensis. 50: 195–205.

Bernstein, Neil W. 2019. “Nec Tibi Sufficiat Transmissae Gloria Vitae: Otium and Ambition from Statius to Ennodius.” The Classical Journal. 115 (1): 63–85.

Hartel, Wilhelm, ed. 1882. Magnus Felix Ennodius. Magni Felicis Ennodii Opera Omnia. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Volume 6. Vienna: Gerold. Alternate presentation. Another presentation (mis-attributed to Vogel).

Juster, A. M., ed. and trans, with introduction by Michael Roberts. 2018. The Elegies of Maximianus. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. Reviews by John Talbot and by Dennis Trout.

Kennell, Stefanie A. H. 2000. Magnus Felix Ennodius: A Gentleman of the Church. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Kennell, Stefanie A. H. 2016. “The Letter Collection of Ennodius of Pavia.” Chapter 22 (pp. 369-383) in Cristiana Sogno, Bradley K. Storin, and Edward Jay Watts. 2016. Late Antique Letter Collections: A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Mulligan, Bret. 2022. The Poetry of Ennodius: Translated with an Introduction and Notes. London: Routledge.

Steward, Michael E. 2014. “Eunuchs in Theoderic’s Italy.” mikeaztec. Online.

Steward, Michael E. 2017. “Breaking Down Barriers: Eunuchs in Italy and North Africa, 400-625.” Pp. 33-54 in Amelia Brown and Bronwen Neil, eds. Byzantine Culture in Translation. Byzantina Australiensia 21. Leiden: Brill.

Vogel, Friedrich, ed. 1885. Magnus Felix Ennodius. Magni Felicis Ennodi Opera. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Volume 7. Berolini: Apud Weidmannos.

Wasyl, Anna Maria. 2018. “The Future Bishop and Pasiphae. Asceticism, Corporeality, and the Secular in Ennodius’s Poetry.” Athenaeum. Studi di Letteratura e Storia dell’Antichità pubblicati sotto gli auspici dell’Università di Pavia. 106 (2): 607-618.