penal systems: Ovid on Silenus’s ass braying at Priapus

Penal systems around the world overwhelmingly punish persons with penises. That punishing gender bias deserves critical analysis. About two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Ovid told “a short tale of much jesting {multi fabula parva ioci}” concerning the god Priapus. At a divine bacchanal, Priapus allegedly attempted to rape the nymph Lotis, or perhaps the Roman national goddess Vesta, who was dear to Emperor Augustus. That’s no minor, jesting matter. These myths about Priapus point to deeply entrenched brutalization of men’s sexuality through corrupt penal systems.

Cybele or Vesta, great goddess of Rome

The divine bacchanal was an event regularly held in Greece every third year. Playful divinities of traditional religion brought ample wine to a grove near a stream. They reclined there on the grass to enjoy themselves. Lovely young women-nymphs were actively seducing participants:

Water nymphs, some not using a clip, have flowing hair,
while other of them present hair placed with artful hand.
One serves with tunic gathered above her calves,
another with ripped fold of her tunic shows her breast.
This one bares her shoulder. That one trails her skirt on the grass.
No binding shoes hinder their tender feet.

{ Naïdes effusis aliae sine pectinis usu,
pars aderant positis arte manuque comis:
illa super suras tunicam collecta ministrat,
altera dissuto pectus aperta sinu:
exserit haec umerum, vestem trahit illa per herbas,
impediunt teneros vincula nulla pedes. }[1]

Young male nature spirits and the goatish god Pan became sexually aroused. So too did the elderly god Silenus. Ovid disparaged him for his youthful sexual vitality:

Silenus of unextinguished lust, you too burn with passion.
It is wickedness that doesn’t permit you to be old.

{ te quoque, inexstinctae Silene libidinis, urunt:
nequitia est, quae te non sinit esse senem. }[2]

That’s conventional disparagement of men. Elderly men who retain their sexual vitality aren’t necessarily wicked. Silenus, who perhaps arrived uninvited, should be credited for continuing to participate in the divine bacchanal despite his old age.

Silenus and his ass, other divine beings, Priapus, and Lotis / Vesta at divine bacchanal

Priapus, a god of strong, independent sexuality, also participated in the divine bacchanal. He became enamored of the lovely young goddess Vesta. Late that night after much drinking, most of the divine beings fell sleep. Priapus stealthily approached the sleeping Vesta and uncovered her. Then Silenus’s young ass bellowed loudly. Everyone awoke, and Vesta pushed Priapus away. He suffered humiliation under the divine assembly’s gaze:

And the god Priapus, with his obscene part excessively prepared for sex,
was the laughter of all in the light of the moon.

{ at deus obscena nimium quoque parte paratus
omnibus ad lunae lumina risus erat. }

While farting at a divine event is comic, a man’s erect penis isn’t obscene. Ridiculing a man for the functioning of his penis contributes to the epic disaster of men’s impotence. Ovid understood the need to transform epic violence against men into myths of humane complexity.

Ovid misleadingly explained why an ass is regularly sacrificed to Priapus. Ovid implied that the people of Lampascus approved of Priapus allegedly attempting to rape Vesta:

The people of Lampsacus are accustomed to sacrifice this animal to Priapus.
They sing, “We rightly give to the flames the innards of the betrayer.”

{ Lampsacus hoc animal solita est mactare Priapo
“apta” canens “flammis indicis exta damus.” }

While women raping men has been a matter of laughter throughout history, men raping women has long been regarded as a serious crime. It’s implausible that the people of Lampsacus would condemn and victimize an ass for protecting a woman from being raped.

Ovid ironically undermined his claim that the people of Lampsacus sacrifice an ass to Priapus because an ass betrayed Priapus’s attempt to rape Vesta. In his alternate myth of Priapus’s attempted rape, Ovid provided a different, more diffuse aetiology for the ass sacrifice:

A young ass is killed for the erect custodian of the countryside.
The reason is indeed shameful, but such is apt for the god Priapus.

{ caeditur et rigido custodi ruris asellus;
causa pudenda quidem, sed tamen apta deo. }

Sacrificing an ass because it sought to prevent a rape would be shameful. But the analogous shame associated with Priapus isn’t perversion of criminal justice, such as the current shameful gender bias in penal punishment. The shameful reason apt for the god Priapus must be some other reason.

Ancient myth provides reasons for sacrificing asses to Priapus. Eratosthenes of Cyrene’s Star-Placings {Καταστερισμοί}, compiled in the third century BGC, is associated with a story about Dionysus’s gift to an ass:

Some also say that Dionysus granted a human voice to an ass who had carried him. The ass later contended with Priapus about the penis. The ass was defeated and killed by him.

{ Nonnulli etiam dixerunt asino illi, quo fuerit vectus, vocem humanam dedisse. Itaque eum postea cum Priapo contendisse de natura et victum ab eo interfectum. }[3]

This story suggests that the penis functions as a weapon to defeat and kill. Men’s penises have been historically so brutalized. Sacrificing an ass to Priapus could commemorate Priapus’s victory in that brutal penal contest. Such a victory commemoration, similar to Octavian’s for his victory at Actium, wouldn’t be interpreted as shameful within its classical cultural context. It thus could not be the shameful sacrificial reason that Ovid indicated.

Marble votive relief dedicated to Vesta

The fourth-century Christian author Lactantius, explicitly drawing on ancient myth associated with Aratus of Soli’s Phaenomena {Φαινόμενα}, plausibly provides Ovid’s shameful reason. Lactantius describes Dionysus as rewarding a helpful ass by giving it the power of speech. Lactantius then tells of contention between the ass and Priapus:

Between Priapus and the ass arose a contest about the size of their obscene organs. Priapus was defeated, and in anger he killed the winner. … Thus because a donkey has a penis of enormous size, a more apt victim could not be ordained to be acquired than one that could imitate the god to whom it is sacrificed.

{ inter eum, Priapumque ortum esse certamen de obsceni magnitudine: Priapum victum et iratum interemisse victorem. … Ita in hoc quia magnitudo membri virilis enormis est, non potuit ei monstro aptior victima reperiri quam quae posset ipsum cui mactatur imitari. }[4]

In this mythic account, the ass, not Priapus, is victorious in the penis-size competition.[5] The despondent loser Priapus then killed the winning ass. Lactantius’s reference to similarity in determining the sacrifice is shaped as Christian ridicule of traditional Greco-Roman religion, particularly in the context of a contest over differing penis sizes. But Lactantius’s reference to penis size at least focuses on the central concern. The people of Lampsacus appeased the shamefully jealous Priapus. They did so by sacrificing to him asses with their superior-sized penises. That’s plausibly Ovid’s shameful reason for sacrificing asses to Priapus. Ovid, with his keen psychological insight, used shameful reason to allude to Priapus’s jealousy over the ass’s larger penis.

Ovid ironically disparaging sacrifice to the jealous Priapus participates in a marginalized current of critical penal thought. According to Hebrew scripture, the assembly of the United Kingdom of Israel petitioned King Rehoboam to lighten their service to him. Old men advised King Rehoboam to speak pleasant words to the petitioners. But the young men who were King Rehoboam companions advised him to say:

My little finger is thicker than my father’s cock. Although my father imposed on you a heavy yoke, now I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.

[6]{ קָֽטָנִּי עָבָה מִמָּתְנֵי אָבִֽי׃
וְעַתָּה אָבִי הֶעְמִיס עֲלֵיכֶם עֹל כָּבֵד וַאֲנִי אוֹסִיף
עַֽל־עֻלְּכֶם אָבִי יִסַּר אֶתְכֶם בַּשּׁוֹטִים וַאֲנִי אֲיַסֵּר אֶתְכֶם

The ignorant braggadocio of Rehoboam’s young companions implicitly associated a bigger penis with harsher punishment. Rehoboam foolishly said these words to the people of Israel. He was the son of King Solomon and the grandson of King David. Both Solomon and David had passionately realized God’s seminal blessing, sometimes even in wrongful ways. Yet the wrong of their passionate inseminating was far less damaging than Rehoboam’s penal brutalization. Rehoboam’s ignorant words led to seventeen years of civil war between the northern tribes of Israel and Judah.[7] Hundreds of thousands of men undoubtedly were killed in the violence against men. Associating men’s penises with punishment led to killing many bearers of seminal blessing.

Men refusing to perform sexually is associated with them being subject to penal pain. A third-century historian of ancient Greek philosophy recorded a telling story about the philosopher Xenocrates:

One time, they say, the courtesan Phryne wanted to test him. So when she found herself being chased by some men, she sought refuge at his little cottage. Out of sheer compassion, he let her come in. Since there was only one little bed, he let her share it with him when she asked. Finally, despite her persistent efforts, she got up and left without accomplishing anything. She would tell anyone who asked that the one she had left behind was not a man but a statue. Some say his students arranged for Laïs to go to bed with him, and how he had such great self-control that he endured frequent incisions and cautery around his genitals.

{ ποτε καὶ Φρύνην τὴν ἑταίραν ἐθελῆσαι πειρᾶσαι αὐτόν, καὶ δῆθεν διωκομένην ὑπό τινων καταφυγεῖν εἰς τὸ οἰκίδιον. τὸν δὲ ἕνεκα τοῦ ἀνθρωπίνου εἰσδέξασθαι, καὶ ἑνὸς ὄντος κλινιδίου δεομένῃ μεταδοῦναι τῆς κατακλίσεως· καὶ τέλος πολλὰ ἐκλιπαροῦσαν ἄπρακτον ἀναστῆναι. λέγειν τε πρὸς τοὺς πυνθανομένους ὡς οὐκ ἀπ’ ἀνδρός, ἀλλ’ ἀπ’ ἀνδριάντος ἀνασταίη. ἔνιοι δὲ Λαΐδα φασὶ παρακατακλῖναι αὐτῷ τοὺς μαθητάς· τὸν δὲ οὕτως εἶναι ἐγκρατῆ ὥστε καὶ τομὰς καὶ καύσεις πολλάκις ὑπομεῖναι περὶ τὸ αἰδοῖον. }[8]

Phryne and Laïs were sex workers whom many men valued highly. Like Silenus’s ass allegedly did for Vesta, Xenocrates apparently prevented Phryne from being sexually assaulted. He also exerted astonishing self-control in bed with the sexually eager Phryne and Laïs. King David showed similar self-restrain in bed with the lovely and warm young woman Abishag. Men are not dogs. Yet the remarkable restraint of Xenocrates is associated with painful treatment of his genitals. This anecdote suggests that men’s genitals need to be treated painfully in order for men to have self-control.

Did Priapus attempt to rape the nymph Lotis, or the Roman national goddess Vesta, or both, only to be prevented in either or both cases by the braying of Silenus’s ass? Reading Ovid’s text as depicting Priapus as a serial rapist of Lotis and then Vesta is ridiculously obtuse.[9] Even describing Priapus as a rapist is best understood as echoing the gender ideology of penal systems. Sophisticated Priapus poems questioned brutalizing stereotypes of male sexual aggression. Ovid, who personally experienced unjust penal action, played with the willingness of readers to imagine Priapus as a rapist even within circumstances of radically inconsistent and implausible myths. Sacrificing a well-endowed, living male ass to the imaginary god Priapus represents the incoherent, shamefully destructive effects of brutalizing men’s sexuality.[10]

Penal systems, which aren’t truly justice systems, must be abolished. The criminalization of “seduction” must end. Rape must be prosecuted without gender discrimination and with equal concern for men being raped. Men’s lack of self-esteem is leading to societal collapse amid failures to do home repair and to maintain critical public infrastructure, including the infrastructure of public reason. A well-endowed male ass is a majestic animal that shouldn’t be senselessly sacrificed. Societies that demonize men, yet lack persons with the will to squish ugly creepy crawling insects, will not long endure.

Go ahead and laugh, or fume. Emperor Augustus pressured Roman men to marry. Augustus had statues of the husband-killing Danaids placed in front of Rome’s temple of Palatine Apollo. Ovid didn’t deserve to be exiled or castrated.

Don’t live in a world of myths.[11] A man’s penis isn’t an instrument of punishment. The worth of a man is determined by the quality of his heart, not the size of his penis.

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[1] Ovid, Calendar {Fasti} 1.405-10, Latin text from Frazer (1931), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Kline (2004) is an alternate, freely available English translation of Ovid’s Fasti. Boxus & Poucet (2004) is a freely available French translation.

Ovid’s account of Priapus attempting to rape the nymph Lotis occurs at Fasti 1.391-438 (within entry for January 9). Ovid refers to Lotis fleeing from Priapus and metamorphosing into a lotus flower in Metamorphoses 9.345-8. Ovid’s myth of Priapus attempting to rape the goddess Vesta occurs at Fasti 6.319-348 (entry for June 9). The significance of the Fasti’s mythic doublet about Priapus is a matter of considerable scholarly controversy.

Subsequent quotes from Fasti are similarly sourced. The previous short quote above, “short tale of much jesting,” is from Fasti 6.320. The subsequent Fasti quotes above are vv. 1.413-4 (Silenus of unextinguished lust…), 1.438-8 (And the god Priapus, with his obscene part…), 6.345-6 (The people of Lampsacus…), 1.391-2 (A young ass is killed…).

[2] Sexual jealousy in the disparagement of Silenus is evident in a servant’s description of Labrax, a pimp in Plautus’s The Rope {Rudens}:

Have you seen any
old man with a bald forehead like Silenus, good-sized, with a big belly,
with twisted eyebrows, a scowling forehead, a swindler,
an object of hate to gods and men, evil and full of evil, vice, and disgrace,
who was taking with him two rather lovely women?

{ ecquem
recaluom ad Silanum senem, statutum, uentriosum,
tortis superciliis, contracta fronte, fraudulentum,
deorum odium atque hominum, malum, mali uiti probrique plenum,
qui duceret mulierculas duas secum satis uenustas? }

Plautus, Rudens vv. 316p-320, Latin text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from De Melo (2012).

In the fourth century, the Christian scholar Paul of Concordia lived to be one hundred years old. Jerome attributed Paul’s longevity to Paul’s righteousness. Moreover, Jerome depicted the elderly Paul as a vigorous, healthful man:

Your eyes are keen and bright, your step vigorous, your hearing fully functioning, your teeth white, your voice melodious, and your body firm and full of sap. Your ruddy complexion contrasts with your white hairs. Your strength remains despite your age.

{ oculi puro lumine vigent, pedes inprimunt certa vestigia, auditus penetrabilis, dentes candidi, vox canora, corpus solidum et suci plenum. cani cum rubore discrepant, virtus cum aetate dissentit. }

Jerome, Letters {Epistolae} 10, “To the old man Paul of Concordia {Ad Paulum senem Concordiae},” section 2, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), my English translation, benefiting from those of Carroll (1956) and Freemantle (1892). Jerome wrote this letter in 374 GC in seeking to borrow books from Paul and sending him Jerome’s Life of Paul.

[3] Hyginus, About Astronomy {De Astronomica} 2.23, Latin text from Viré (1992) via Garani (2021) p. 463, English translation (modified slightly) from Hard (2015) p. 67. Here are myths of Dionysus in English translation. Some, but not all, scholars think that the author of De Astronomica was Augustan librarian C. Iulius Hyginus. Robinson (2013) p. 448.

De Astronomica drew upon earlier astronomical works: “we find much Eratosthenic material in the De Astronomia of Hyginus.” Robinson (2013) p. 448. Eratosthenes of Cyrene was poet-scholar of the third-century BGC. His Star-Placings {Catasterismi / Καταστερισμοί}, an Eratosthenic source for De Astronomica, apparently was an open textual corpus. Eratosthenes may not have composed it as a complete work. Catasterismi is closely associated with Aratus of Soli’s Phaenomena {Φαινόμενα} in surviving manuscripts. Catasterismi seems to have been written as a mythological companion to Phaenomena.

Scholia on Germanicus’s Latin translation of Aratus’s Phaenomena attributes the story of Priapus and the ass to the Alexandrian tragic poet Philiscos / Philiscus. Philiscus of Corcyra was an eminent playwright who flourished early in the third century BGC. The story of Priapus presumably was derived from one of Philiscus’s satyr plays. That satyr play could have been a source for the story in Catasterismi. Hard (2015) p. 68; Garani (2021) p. 466. The Germanicus scholia further state: “Priapos wanted to kill the ass after the contest, but Dionysos snatched it to safety, substituting another, and then placed both of them in the sky.” Hard (2015) p. 69.

The story of Priapus and the ass explains a constellation identified as a Manger with Crab and two Asses. Aratus stated:

Observe also the Manger. Like a slight haze in the north, it leads the year in company with the Crab. On either side of it move two faintly shining stars, not at all far apart and not very close, but as far as the approximate estimate of an ell. One comes on the north side, the other on the south. Now these are called the Asses, and between them is the Manger. If suddenly, when the sky is clear all over, it disappears completely, and the stars that go on either side appear close to each other, then the fields are drenched with no mean storm. If the Manger would darken and the two stars be at the same time recognisable, they will be giving a sign of rain. If the one to the north of the Manger shines faintly, being slightly hazy, and the southern Ass is bright, expect wind from the south. And wind from the north you must certainly look for if the hazy and the bright stars are the other way round.

{ σκέπτεο καὶ φάτνην. ἡ μέν τ’ ὀλίγηι εἰκυῖα
ἀχλύι βορραίη ὑπὸ καρκίνωι ἡγηλάζει,
ἀμφὶ δέ μιν δύο λεπτὰ φαεινόμενοι φορέονται
ἀστέρες, οὔτε τι πολλὸν ἀπήοροι οὔτε μάλ’ ἐγγύς,
ἀλλ’ ὅσσον τε μάλιστα πυγούσιον ὠίσασθαι,
εἷς μὲν πὰρ βορέαο, νότωι δ’ ἐπικέκλιται ἄλλος.
καὶ τοὶ μὲν καλέονται ὄνοι, μέσση δέ τε φάτνη,
ἥ τε κεἰ ἐξαπίνης πάντη διὸς εὐδιόωντος
γίνετ’ ἄφαντος ὅλη, τοὶ δ’ ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἰόντες
ἀστέρες ἀλλήλων ἀυτοσχεδὸν ἰνδάλλονται,
οὐκ ὀλίγωι χειμῶνι τότε κλύζονται ἄρουραι.
εἰ δὲ μελαίνηται, τοὶ δ’ αὐτίκ’ ἐοικότες ὦσιν
ἀστέρες ἀμφότεροι, ἐπί χ’ ὕδατι σημαίνοιεν.
εἰ δ’ ὁ μὲν ἐκ βορέω φάτνης ἀμενηνὰ φαείνοι
λεπτὸν ἐπαχλύων, νότιος δ’ ὄνος ἀγλαὸς εἴη,
δειδέχθαι ἀνέμοιο νότου, βορέω δὲ μάλα χρὴ
ἔμπαλιν ἀχλυόεντι φαεινομένωι τε δοκεύειν. }

Aratus of Soli, Phaenomena {Φαινόμενα} vv. 892-908, Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially for ease of reading) from Kidd (1997) pp. 138-9. I’ve taken the Greek text from the freely available online edition of Martin (1998), which doesn’t appear to differ substantially from Kidd’s text for these verses. Mair & Mair (1921) provides a freely available English translation.

Theocritus, Idyll 22.21-2 refers to Aratus concerning the Manger, Crab, and Asses. Kidd (1997) p. 41. A tripartite constellation that under certain conditions produces a rainstorm is a plausible figure for male genitals.

[4] Lactantius / Lucius Caecilius Firmianus, Divine Institutes {Institutiones Divinae} 1.21.28, 30, Latin text from Brandt & Laubnamm (1890), my English translation, benefiting from those of McDonald (1964) and Bowen & Garnsey (2003). Subsequent quotes from Institutiones Divinae are similarly sourced. In Institutiones Divinae 1.21.25-6, Lactantius explicitly referred to the Fasti and recited Ovid’s explanation of why the people of Lampsacus sacrifices asses to Priapus. Lactantius then commented:

What is uglier, what is more outrageous, than if Vesta is a virgin by the favor of an ass?

{ Quid turpius? quid flagitiosius? quam si Vesta beneficio asini uirgo est? }

Institutiones Divinae 1.21.27. Prefacing his account of Priapus contesting with the ass over penis size, Lactantius explicitly cited Aratus’s Phaenomena:

The authors of the Phaenomena have written, when in speaking of the two stars of the Crab, which the Greeks call asses, that they were asses that father Liber rode across a river when he could not himself cross it, and so as a reward gave one of them a human voice

{ Φαινόμενα conscripserunt, cum de duabus Cancri stellis loquuntur, quas Graeci ὄνους vocant asellos fuisse, qui Liberum patrem transuexerint, cum amnem transire non posset; quorum alteri hoc praemium dederit, ut humana voce loqueretur }

Institutiones Divinae 1.21.28. Liber is another name for Bacchus, a Roman assimilation of the Greek god Dionysus.

[5] While correctly quoting both Hyginus’s and Lactantius’s accounts of the outcomes of the contest between Priapus and the ass, Garani didn’t note the difference in outcomes. In summarizing Hyginus’s account, he reported the outcome in Lactantius’s account: “Priapus is defeated and so kills the ass.” Garani (2021) p. 463.

[6] 1 Kings 12:10-11, ancient Hebrew text from the Masoretic Text via Blue Letter Bible, English translation drawing upon widely available translations.

[7] On continual war between Jeroboam and Rehoboam, 1 Kings 14:21, 14:30. With respect to Solomon’s and David’s ardent inseminating, Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. 1 Kings 11:3. The extent of Solomon’s relationship with the Queen of Sheba isn’t clear. 1 Kings 10:13. David had seven wives, perhaps additional concubines, and many children. 1 Chronicles 3:1-9. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and sent her husband Uriah the Hittite to death in institutionalized violence against men (war). 2 Samuel 11. David subsequently repented of this terrible wrong. 1 Samuel 12:13.

[8] Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers {Βίοι καὶ γνῶμαι τῶν ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ εὐδοκιμησάντων}, 4.2.7 (from life of Xenocrates {Ξενοκράτης}), ancient Greek text from Long (1964), English translation (modified insubstantially) from White (2021). The current best ancient Greek text is Dorandi (2013), which isn’t readily available to me. Hicks (1925) provides a freely available Greek text and English translation.

White (2021) translated τομὰς as “surgery.” Mensch (2018) has “incisions.” Since the treatment wasn’t for a specific bodily ailment, the latter seems to me preferable in context. With respect to this treatment, Mensch noted:

Cutting and burning were standard medical treatments for various inflammations and discharges; it’s unlikely Xenocrates used these procedures as aids to self-restraint, as Diogenes assumes.

Id. p. 132, n. 17. Diogenes probably copied this aspect of the story from a source that associated physical harm to men’s genitals with sexual restraint.

Diogenes Laertius flourished in the third century GC. The story of Phryne attempting to seduce Xenocrates also occurs in Valerius Maximus‘s early first-century Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings {Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX} 4.3 ext. 3a.

Xenocrates lived from 396 to 313 BGC and was the head of Plato’s academy from 339 to 314 BGC. The courtesan Phryne of Thespiae, who became one of the most wealthy women in ancient Greece, similarly lived in the middle of the fourth century BGC. The eminent courtesans Lais of Corinth and Lais of Hyccara apparently were alive in the late fifth century and early fourth century, respectively. They may have been the same woman. If Xenocrates’s students arranged for Lais of Hyccara to sleep with him, she was probably very old at the time. Of course, other courtesans had an incentive to adopt the name Lais given its association with an illustrious courtesan.

[9] With respect to the Priapus double myth in Ovid’s Fasti, a literary scholar observed:

the order in the poem of these two anecdotes conjures up a risible picture of Priapus not having learnt his lesson, trying exactly the same kind of furtive approach to a sleeping female yet again, and being foiled in exactly the same way yet again (why didn’t the idiot check for the ass and remove it, one wonders).

Murgatroyd (2002) p. 623. Murgatroyd went on to interpret the second version as a display of literary ingenuity. Id. But classicists have also interpreted the Priapus double myth in terms of the sensational seriousness of serial rape:

Ovid here highlights an element of Priapus’s essential nature, namely, serial rape. Ancient religious thought imagined Priapus as the embodiment, literally, of constant and unfulfilled male sexual desire and as a god who sought sexual fulfillment continually.

Frazel (2003) p. 64. Seeking sexual fulfillment continually doesn’t, however, imply serial rape, nor serial rape being part of a god’s “essential nature.” The claim that “ancient religious thought imagined Priapus as the embodiment, literally…” shows remarkable conceptual confusion. Thought imagining? Literally? Imagine! Who knew? Say it again to make it true: “serial rape is a part of this god’s essential nature.” Id. p. 93. As long as essentialist literary scholarship is criminalizing men or male gods, it’s welcomed in today’s academia. Id. is literally about “joking discourse.” Mass incarceration of men such as exists in the U.S. today is no joke. An elaborate web of myth provided a glittering cover for Augustan rule, just as it does now for penal systems predominately punishing persons with penises.

[10] Frazel declared:

Perhaps nothing delighted Roman men more than seeing Priapus himself, the embodiment (literally) of male sexual aggression, degraded and humiliated.

Frazel (2003) p. 76. More likely, Frazel is projecting onto Roman men today’s dominant ideology of righteous sexual desire. If Ovid depicted women acting as wickedly as he depicts men acting, today’s classicists would superficially dismiss Ovid as a misogynist. Some scholars do that in any case.

Modern scholarship has responded to Ovid’s critical construction of myths with parochial, ignorant, and sensational interpretation. For example, about the time that U.S. incarceration incidence began moving toward historical unprecedented mass incarceration, a U.S. classicist produced what has been called “one of the definitive pieces of scholarship on the Metamorphoses.” Johnson (2016) on Richlin (1992). In a 2014 reprinting of that enormously influential scholarly article, Richlin added an introduction that began:

Marilyn Skinner became my co-conspirator and inspiration in the early 1980s, when she was teaching at Northern Illinois University. In 1985 I experienced the hospitality of DeKalb, Illinois, at first hand, and Marilyn, ever keen to clue me in, took me to see a screening of a new documentary, “Not a Love Story,” which focused on the exploitation of women in the sex industry and on the objectification of the female body in popular culture. This film moved me to tears; it is easy now to shelve the preoccupation of late-1980s feminism with rape and pornography under the label “Sex Wars,” easy to diminish it under an historical label — over, a phase — but my tears sprang from the recent death of a friend who had been raped and murdered, and I do not think the abuse of women is over.

Richlin (2014) p. 130. In 1985, the FBI by crime definition restricted the crime of rape to mean only rape of females. Rape of men literally didn’t count. Men nonconsensually being made to penetrate a woman still doesn’t count as rape in FBI and other U.S. national rape statistics. Moreover, four times more men than women are murdered in the U.S., yet violence against men is nowhere near as much of a social concern as violence against women. That gender context is utterly lacking in Richlin’s original 1992 article and its new 2014 introduction. Instead one encounters the power of women’s tears. “I do not think the abuse of women is over.” When will the abuse of men be over? Richlin’s article interprets Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a way that promotes the dominant, gynocentric, mythic hierarchy of victimization. Her article seems to me to brutalize men, contribute to mass incarceration of men, and promote systemic sexism against men. Classics as a field should reject gender bigotry and be welcoming and inclusive of meninist literary criticism. Instead, the prestige hierarchy of classics has promoted decades of tendentious myth-mongering in the tradition of Richlin (1992).

[11] Scholars have considered Ovid’s implicit political criticism in the double myths of Priapus in Fasti. One scholarly acknowledged suspicion that involving Vesta in “phallic tomfoolery” carries a serious message. Barchiesi (1997) pp. 138-40. Another perceived political disenchantment in Ovid’s substitution of Vesta for Lotis in the second Priapus myth. Newlands (1995) Chapter 4. A third argued that with the Priapus / Vesta myths Ovid metaphorically presented Augustus as raping Vesta. McKay (2016). None of these authors consider the penal significance of multiplying myths of men raping women.

[images] (1) Cybele or Vesta, the great goddess ruling ancient Rome. Excerpt from the title page of the second volume of Georg Braun & Franz Hogenberg, About the preeminent cities of the whole world {De precipuis, totius universi urbibus}, published in six volumes between 1572 and 1618 in Cologne. Source image from Stanford University, Stanford Digital Repository, The Barry Lawrence Ruderman Map Collection. Also on Wikimedia Commons. The shrine of Vesta in ancient Rome held the sacred “eternal fire {ignes aeternum},” the Palladium of Pallas Athena, and the Penantes (the household gods of the Roman state). (2) “The Feast of the Gods”: Silenus and his ass, other divine beings, Priapus, and Lotis / Vesta at the divine bacchanal. The two figures nearest the right edge of the painting are typically identified as Silenus and Lotis. But the woman could also be a shocking representation of Vesta. Painted by Giovanni Bellini (1514), Dosso Dossi, and Titian (1529) for the Alabaster Chamber of Alfonso I d’Este. Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Marble votive relief dedicated to Vesta. Made in Rome, c 140-150 GC. Preserved in Altes Museum (Berlin, Germany). Source image thanks to Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) and Wikimedia Commons.


Barchiesi, Alessandro. 1997. The Poet and the Prince: Ovid and Augustan discourse. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. English translation, with revisions, of Il Poeta e il Principe Ovido e il Discorso Augusteo (1994). Review by Karl Galinsky.

Bowen, Anthony, and Peter Garnsey, trans. 2003. Lactantius: Divine Institutes. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Boxus, Anne-Marie, and Jacques Poucet, trans. 2004. Ovide — Les Fastes. With Notes. Online.

Brandt, Samuel, and Georg Laubnamm, eds. 1890. Lactantius. Opera Omnia. Pars I. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum. Volume 19. Vienna, Prague, Leipzig.

Carroll, Paul, trans. 1956. The Satirical letters of St. Jerome. Chicago: Gateway Editions, distributed by H. Regnery Co.

De Melo, Wolfgang, ed. and trans. 2012. Plautus. The Little Carthaginian. Pseudolus. The Rope. Loeb Classical Library 260. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dorandi, Tiziano, ed. 2013. Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, vol. 50. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Frazel, Thomas D. 2003. “Priapus’s Two Rapes in Ovid’s Fasti.” Arethusa. 36 (1): 61–97.

Frazer, James George, ed. and trans. 1931. Ovid. Fasti. Loeb Classical Library, 253. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Garani, Myrto. 2021. “Ovid and the Ass (Fast. 1.391-440, 6.319-46).” ΦΑΙΔΙΜΟΣ ΕΚΤΩΡ: Studi in Onore Di Willy Cingano Per Il Suo 70° Compleanno. Antichistica 31 / Filologia e letteratura 4: 457-475.

Hard, Robin, trans. 2015. Eratosthenes and Hyginus: Constellation Myths with Aratus’s Phaenomena. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Review by Colin Leach.

Hicks, Robert Drew, trans. 1925. Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Loeb Classical Library, 184 and 185. London: W. Heinemann. LCL 184 (books 1-5), LCL 185 (books 6-10). Alternate presentation of English translation.

Hilberg, Isidorus, ed. 1910-1918. Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae {Letters of Saint Eusebius Hieronymus (Jerome)}. Vindobonae: Tempsky. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 54 (Epistulae 1-70), 55 (Epistulae 71-120), and 56 (Epistulae 120-154).

Johnson, Marguerite. 2016. “Guide to the classics: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and reading rape.” The Conversation. Online.

Kidd, Douglas, ed. and trans. 1997. Aratus. Phaenomena. Cambridge U.K: Cambridge University Press. Review by Mark Possanza.

Kline, A. S. 2004. Ovid. Fasti. Poetry in Translation. Online.

Long, H. S, ed. 1964. Diogenis Laertii Vitae Philosophorum. Oxford Classical Text series. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mair, A. W. and G.R. Mair, ed. and trans. 1921. Callimachus and Lycophron; Aratus. Loeb Classical Library 129. London: William Heinemann. Alternate presentation of Aratus’s Phaenomena in ancient Greek text and English translation.

Martin, Jean, ed. 1998. Aratos, Phénomènes. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

McDonald, Mary Francis, trans. 1964. Lactantius. The Divine Institutes. Books I-VII. The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. Volume 49. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.

McKay, Abigail. 2016. Rape or Romance? Sexual Violence and the Lust for Power in Ovid’s Fasti. M.A. Thesis in Classics, University of Tasmanian.

Mensch, Pamela, trans. 2018. Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Murgatroyd, Paul. 2002. “The Rape Attempts on Lotis and Vesta.” The Classical Quarterly. 52 (2): 622-624.

Newlands, Carole E. 1995. Playing with Time: Ovid and the Fasti. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Reviews by Anne Gosling and by Geraldine Herbert-Brown.

Richlin, Amy. 1992. “Reading Ovid’s Rapes.” Pp. 158-179 in Amy Richlin, ed. Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Richlin, Amy. 2014. “Reading Ovid’s Rapes.” Chapter 5 (pp. 130-165) in Amy Richlin, ed. Arguments with Silence: Writing the History of Roman Women. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Reprinting, with new introduction, of Richlin (1992).

Robinson, Matthew. 2013. “Ovid and the Catasterismi of Eratosthenes.” American Journal of Philology. 134 (3): 445–80.

Viré, Ghislaine, ed. 1992. Hygini De Astronomia. Stuttgart: B.G. Teubner.

White, Stephen. 2021. Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers: an edited translation. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. Review by Anthony Hejduk and by Christopher Moore.

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