shameful anti-men bigotry in study of honor-based killings

honor killing: men dueling

Study of honor-based killings and abuse is replicating the shameful anti-men bigotry prevalent in discussions of domestic violence and rape. Honor killings make for sensational stories of sex and violence. Those stories are powerful weapons for demonizing men, promoting brutal suspension of civilized due process of law, and expanding the number of persons forceful held behind bars. That treatment of honor killings completely fails to provide an inspiring, alternate model of honor, decency, and humane tolerance.

A recent, book-length study of honor killings in Germany provides a rare window into the extent of anti-men bigotry in the treatment of honor killings. The study explained:

We define honour killings as intentionally committed or attempted homicides that are carried out predominantly by males against females in the context of patriarchal families or societies in order to restore, from the perspective of the perpetrator, their family’s or personal honour. [1]

The term “patriarchal families or societies” covers almost all circumstances under the dominant, hateful social construction of patriarchy. To ensure a sexist definition of honor killing, the scholars defined “honour killing in the strict sense”:

An honour killing in the strict sense is the killing of a girl or young woman by their blood relatives to restore collective family honour.

Under that definition, men cannot die in an honor killing. Alexander Hamilton’s death in his duel with Aron Burr thus wasn’t an honor killing. The whole sordid history of men dueling is conceptually effaced with this definition of honor killing. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) standard definition of rape from 1927 to 2012 was “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” The FBI explained that, under its definition, rape “included only forcible male penile penetration of a female vagina.” This sexist and hetero-sexist definition of rape obscured the reality that rape of men is about as prevalent as rape of women. Study of honor killings is perpetrating similar ignorance.

The German study’s definition of “honour killing in the strict sense” helped to obscure a remarkable finding. With extensive research, the study found 78 honor killing in Germany from 1996 to 2005. Of the persons killed, 43% were male.[2] Men victims of honor killings are nearly invisible in public discussion of honor killings. These dead men are not victims of “honour killing in the strict sense.” In the U.S., about four times more men than women suffer violent deaths. That gender disparity gets almost no attention. In contrast, elites make the ludicrous claim that “violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world.” Men’s lives count remarkably little relative to women’s lives in countries strongly affirming ideals of gender equality. That’s shameful.

While criminal justice systems construct men as the perpetrators of honor killings, that’s not socially realistic. A recent study of cases of honor-based abuse in Britain found:

there was overwhelming evidence of abhorrent behaviours by mothers towards children in inflicting violence, condoning violence, deceiving and denigrating daughters, ostracising them from kin, bartering to sell them, wishing them “dead,” threatening to kill them or throw them downstairs. [3]

In ten cases of honor-based abuse associated with pregnancy outside of marriage, direct violence by a mother seeking to induce her daughter to have an abortion was observed in two cases.[4] Honor-based killings are associated with family concerns. Historically, men have been predominately assigned the role of killing others. Women incite men to kill others and support the killing.

Criminal justice systems predominately assign men criminal responsibility for honor killings. Just as police engage in gender profiling men for arrest for domestic violence, police stereotype men as the perpetrators of honor-based killings and abuse:

Despite police incident reports directly implicating mothers in violence (solely or with others), uniformed officers did not place mothers as perpetrators on police computer systems (PPI) or within formalised crime reports in 12% of cases. Instead fathers were often logged as perpetrators and/or arrested, sometimes based on little to no evidence. In one case despite only the mother being implicated in the violence by throwing shoes and chairs at the victim, surprisingly only the father is named as key perpetrator in the crime report. [5]

One of the starkest gender inequalities is the vastly disproportionate imprisonment of men relative to women. That anti-men gender disparity arises from sex discrimination against men from the definition of crimes and the assignment of responsibility to anti-men gender disparities in sentencing to incarceration. Study and persecution of honor-based killings shows shameful criminal justice sexism in action.

Within the full scope of violent death, “honour killing in the strict sense” is a relatively infrequent occurrences in countries historically associated with western European culture. In Germany from 1996 to 2005, about 8 honor killings occurred per year. For comparison, about 700 homicides occur annually in Germany. The number of honor killings per year in the U.S. isn’t known, but it is surely only a small fraction of total homicides.[6] Honor killings have their greatest social significance in raising publicly the meaning of honor. Study and prosecution of honor killings and honor-based abused have shameful failed to uphold a humane, civilized, and enlightened understanding of honor.[7]

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[1] Oberwittler & Kasselt (2011), Executive Summary, p. 1. The subsequent quote is from id.

[2] Id. pp. 2-3.

[3] Aplin (2017) p. 9. Humans abuse each other in a variety of ways, and mothers are no different as perpetrators:

Daughters were attacked by mothers (and other females) in a variety of ways, by pulling their hair, in some cases cutting off their hair; being slapped; being “hit” across the face and elsewhere being punched and kicked. Mothers also used household objects to assault daughters with, such as a hoover pipe, the metal frame of a bed; mothers threw “chairs and shoes” or slapped children on the head with slippers. In one case a 14-year-old child was tied to a chair and systematically assaulted, having her hair cut off by both mother and grandmother because she went missing from home and was found in the park.

Id. p. 3, parenthetical reference citations omitted.

[4] Id. p. 4.

[5]. Id. p. 8. Not recognizing mothers as perpetrators of abuse is facilitated by “victims unwavering loyalty to mother.” Id. pp. 6-8.

[6] On honor killings per year compared to homicides per year in Germany, Oberwittler & Kasselt (2011), Executive Summary, p. 2. The number of homicides in the U.S. is less than the number of suicides for both men and women.

[7] Shapiro (2010) begins her analysis of honor crimes with a sensational story of a man killing his two daughters. Such sensational beginnings are a staple of shamefully gender-bigoted domestic violence legal scholarship. Shapiro then offers a sexist definition of honor crimes:

Honor crimes are brutal acts of violence against women, committed by male relatives who seek to avenge their family’s honor when the male perceives that the female engaged in a dishonorable act.

Id. p. 294, repeated at p. 297. With no sense of irony, Shapiro declares, “courts must comprehend the full meaning and context of honor killings.” With another sensational, stereotyped story, she concludes, “this flawed perception of honor has once again caused society an immense and incomprehensible loss.” Id. pp. 314-5. Such shamefully bigoted scholarship helps produce an immense loss in civilized, enlightened society. Underscoring the extent of the problem, the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic Violence awarded Shapiro’s article first prize in the 2009 Annual Law Student Writing Competition on Domestic Violence and the Law. Id. p. 293, footnote.

[image] Eugine Onegin and Vladimir Lensky duel. Watercolor by Ilya Repin, 1899. Held in Pushkin Museum (Moscow). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Aplin, Rachael. 2017. “Exploring the role of mothers in ‘honour’ based abuse perpetration and the impact on the policing response.” Women’s Studies International Forum. 60: 1-10.

Oberwittler, Dietrich, and Julia Kasselt. 2011. Ehrenmorde in Deutschland, 1996-2005: eine Untersuchung auf der Basis von Prozessakten. Kōln: Luchterhand (executive summary in English).

Shapiro, Shira T. 2010. “She Can Do No Wrong: Recent Failures in America’s Immigration Courts to Provide Women Asylum from ‘Honor Crimes’ Abroad.” American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law. 18 (2): 293-316.

Digenis Akritis shows Byzantine matriarchy devaluing men’s lives

Mother of God as Empress

Most men deeply love their mothers. Most mothers deeply love their sons. Unfortunately, the mother-son relationship tends to support oppressive gynocentrism. The preeminent power of a mother over her son is evident in the eleventh-century Latin romance Ruodlieb. A mother’s power also appears in the Grottaferrata version of the tenth-century Byzantine epic Digenis Akritis.[1] The latter has particularly enduring value for helping women and men to recognize still-common, damaging patterns in the mother-son relationship.

Digenis Akritis tells the story of Basil Digenis Akritis. He’s a strong, independent man of action who realistically lives out his love for women in challenging, culturally diverse circumstances of gynocentrism. This epic is set on frontiers between the Byzantine and Islamic empires about the tenth century GC. Digenis’s father, an unnamed Islamic emir, became a Christian to marry Digenis’s Christian Byzantine mother. The name Digenis Akritis means literally frontiersman of double descent. That double descent involves a man making a wrenching change to conform to his beloved woman’s society.

In Christian understanding, the savior of the world Jesus Christ is born of a woman without the labor of a man. The prologue of Digenis Akritis immediately evokes Christian worldly gynocentrism:

I shall now reveal to you the deeds
which he {Digenis} performed in this present life,
how powerful and brave warriors
he terrified and all beasts,
with aid of the grace of God
and of the unconquerable Mother of God [2]

The prologue then goes on to credit and praise four men military saints. Christianity does not necessarily imply the devaluation and subordination of men to women. Yet powerful social forces independent of Christianity often produce that gynocentric outcome.

With the subtle irony characteristic of this epic, Digenis Akritis begins with a lengthy account of the life of Digenis’s father. His father was a high-born, rich, brave, strong, handsome Islamic emir (general). Along with conquering much Byzantine territory, the emir overran the house of Digenis’s maternal grandparents. His maternal grandfather, a Byzantine general, was away from his home under exile. Digenis’s maternal uncles were away engaging in men-on-men violence on the frontiers. Following common practice of gender distinction in violence, the emir’s forces killed all the men remaining at the home, but not all the women.[3] Digenis’s maternal grandmother wasn’t killed. She somehow escaped from the attackers. The emir, however, held Digenis’s mother as a prisoner. He provided her with sumptuous, highly privileged accommodations. He did not force her to have sex with him, but implored her to marry him.

Digenis’s grandmother incited her five sons to engage together in a dangerous, violent attempt rescue their sister from the emir. The mother wrote to her sons:

Most longed for children, pity your mother
whose soul is afflicted and who is about to die.
Remember the love of your sister,
hasten to free your sister and your mother,
her from bitter slavery and me from death.
Let us surrender our very being for the sake of our dearest one;
do not prefer life to your sister;
pity your own sister, my children.
Go with speed to her rescue.
If not, you will see your mother dying for her child
and you will receive my curse and that of your father.

The mother emotionally manipulated her sons with the claim that she would die if they didn’t attempt to rescue their sister. The mother urged her five sons to recognize that their lives are worth less than freeing their sister from privileged captivity. The mother threatened to curse her sons if they didn’t do what she told them to do. She also assumed authority to make a similar threat on behalf of their father.

Rather than decisively rejecting their mother’s emotional manipulation, the sons abjectly surrendered their own lives. With deep sighs and tears for their sister’s situation, the sons eagerly urged each other on to the dangerous rescue mission. Without personal consciousness of the poet’s surely deliberate irony, they said seriously to each other:

Let us go; let us be slaughtered on her behalf. [4]

Via a written request, the sons were granted an audience with the emir. They met with the emir amid his vast army. They said to him:

Emir, servant of God and first man in Syria,
may you reach Panormos {Jeddah, port for Mecca and Medina} and see the mosque {in Mecca},
may you do obeisance , emir, to the hanging rock {Ka’aba in Mecca}
and be deemed worthy to kiss the Prophet’s tomb {in Medina}
and hear the sacred prayer {Takbīr, Shahada, etc.}
You have abducted a delightful girl, our sister.
Ransom her to us, servant of the most high God,
and in return for her we will give you as much treasure as you ask.
For our father mourns for her since he has no other daughter,
our mother wishes to die since she cannot see her
and we who also have a boundless desire for her
have all sworn with most terrible oaths
that if we do not recover her we shall all be slaughtered. [5]

In appreciation for their bravery, the emir offered to fight in single combat any one of the sons. If the emir won, he would have all the sons as slaves. If the son won, the emir would return their sister.

The sons agreed to the violent challenge. By lot the youngest son was chosen for the fight. He was his sister’s twin. That underscores the much higher value of his sister’s life than his. His brothers advised him:

Do not, brother, let shouts shock you at all,
nor let noises alarm you nor wounds frighten you;
if you see the naked sword do not give way and flee,
if you see something yet more dreadful do not retreat and run away.
Do not spare yourself though you are young but think of your mother’s curse

The single combat was brutal. Both the emir and the son broke their spears against each other. After drawing swords, they hacked away at each other for hours. They became covered with wounds. Their blood flowed all over the ground. Finally, the son prevailed.

The emir initially deceived the sons. He told them to look for their sister. They found only women’s dead bodies much like men’s dead bodies after a battle. The sons returned to the emir and declared:

Give us, emir, our sister, or if not, kill us;
not one of us returns to our house without her,
but let us all be slaughtered instead of our sister.

The emir apparently again was impressed with the sons. He asked them about their parentage. He learned that they were high-born and had served as Byzantine generals on the frontier. The emir in turn explained to them:

I subdued all Syria and I captured Kufah,
then I swiftly wiped out Herakleia.
Coming past Amorion as far as Ikonion,
I subdued hosts of brigands and all wild beasts.
The generals could not withstand me, nor the armies,
but a most lovely woman has completely conquered me.
Her beauty enflames me, her tears are wasting me away,
her sighs torture me; I don’t know what to do.
Because of her I was testing you, to know for certain,
for she never stops lamenting for you.
However, I declare to you and I tell you the truth,
if you do not reject having me as a brother-in-law,
because of the delightful beauty of your sister
I shall come over to Roman {Byzantine} territory and become a Christian.
And know for certain, by the great Prophet,
she has given me neither a kiss nor a word.
Come then, to my tent and see the girl you are looking for. [6]

The sons found their sister on a couch draped with gold. At great risk to themselves, the sons thus rescued their sister from “slavery” as their mother had instructed them. The emir converted to Christianity and moved to their mother’s house.[7] Their sister then married the emir in a lavish wedding ceremony.

The emir subsequently had to deal with emotional manipulation from his own mother. From Syria his mother sent him a letter “full of lamentation, reproach and blame.” Her letter began:

Most beloved child, how could you have forgotten your mother,
blinded my eyes and extinguished my light?
How could you renounce your kinsmen and faith and country
and become a reproach to all Syria?
We are abominated by all men
as deniers of the faith, as law-breakers
and for not having observed well the Prophet’s words.
What has happened to you, my child? How have you forgotten these things?

The emir’s mother then recounted how Byzantine soldiers had hacked his father to death because he would not abandon his Islamic faith. She accused the emir of destroying everything “for the love of a pig-eater.” She declared that if he didn’t return quickly to Syria, she would be beheaded, his children killed, and his Islamic wives given to other men. The emir’s mother concluded her letter with specific instructions to her son:

Look, I have sent you, as you see, choice horses.
Mount the chestnut, lead the black,
let the bay follow and no one will catch you.
Bring the Roman girl too {the emir’s Christian wife}, if you are upset because of her,
but if you disobey me, may you be accursed.

Men tend to regard betraying their faith and moving to enemy territory as much less fearful than disobeying their mother. When the emir read his mother’s letter, he was “filled greatly with the compassion a son feels for his mother.” He decided to travel back to his mother in Syria.[8]

Since Digenis Akritis is a Christian romance, the emir was able to address readily all his mother’s concerns. When the emir returned to his mother in Syria, he was embraced with joyful tears. He was also subjected to his mother’s anguished questioning:

My sweetest child, light of my eyes
and comfort of my soul in my old age,
my charming delight, my consolation,
tell my why you have lingered, child, in Roman territory?
For when I did not see you I no longer wished to see the light
or the gleaming sun or to live in the world.
Do wonderful miracles happen in Roman territory,
such as are performed, my child, at the Prophet’s tomb,
to which you came with me when I went to pray?

How have you, my child, become a renegade from all this
and spurned power and great renown?
All expected you to conquer Egypt,
but you have thwarted your own fortune,
you have destroyed everything for the sake of one Roman girl.

The emir’s response was simple. He announced that Christianity is the light and the truth. He recited to his mother the Christian creed. He then urged his mother to return with him to Roman/Byzantine territory, be baptized as a Christian, and live with him in his wife’s mother’s home. Many sons probably find the mother’s response unbelievable:

She did not reject her child’s excellent counsel
but, like fertile soil that has accepted the seed,
she immediately brought forth fruit and pronounced these words:
“I believe, my child, through you in the Triune God,
and with you I will travel happily to Roman territory,
being baptised for the remission of my many faults
and acknowledging thanks that through you I have been enlightened.” [9]

That response makes good sense within a Byzantine Christian epic. Men in the real world throughout history have probably been considerably less successful in counseling their mothers.

Mothers’ manipulative behavior in the life of Digenis Akritis’s father provides key context for Digenis’s life. Digenis sought to live with his young, beautiful wife in lovely gardens apart from gynocentric society.[10] Many men today, valuing their own lives as equal to those of women and observing mothers acting like the mothers in the emir’s life, similarly imagine living in love with a woman in isolation from gynocentric society.

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[1] The main character’s name is variously spelled as Digenes and Digenis, and Akritas, Akrites, and Akritis. Other than folk-songs sharing such a name for a character, the epic Digenis Akritis has survived only in six Greek manuscripts and some Russian manuscripts. A version of the epic was probably written in Constantinople about 1150. Jeffreys (1998) pp. xviii-xxiii, lvi-ii. The two oldest manuscripts are Greek, the Grottaferrata manuscript (G) (written in south Italy about 1300) and the Escorial manuscript (E):

in dealing with the same basic subject-matter they are very close, yet at the same time fundamentally different: they come out of different milieux; they address different audiences; they have, as literary texts, different preoccupations. E has effective simplicity of language, earthy humour, direct expression, epic oral style; Go does not have these — but then G is not interested in having them. Its interests lie elsewhere: in literary texts, in romance against a military background, in flowery language, in long ekphraseis.

Galatariotou (1993) p. 49. The Grottaferrata version fits easily into the cultural context that produced the twelfth-century Byzantine novels. The Escorial version has no parallels in that period. Id. pp. 51-4. Both are in unrhymed, fifteen-syllable verse lines. Much discussion of Digenis Akritis has focused on differences between the Grottaferrata and Escorial versions. Beaton & Ricks (1993).

[2] Digenis Akritis, Grottaferrata 1.13-8, from Greek trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 3. Jeffreys supplies the Greek text along with her English translation. The four men military saints subsequently named in the prologue are Theodore of Heraclea, Theodore of Amasea, George, and Demetrios of Thessaloniki.

Subsequent quotes from Digenis Akritis are from the Grottaferrata version and cited by book.lines and page number in id. The subsequent ones above are: 1.70-81, p. 7 (most longed for children…); 1.85, p. 7 (Let us go…); 1.100-12, p. 9 (Emir, servant of God…); 1.34-8, p. 11 (Do not, brother…); 1.259-61, p. 19 (Give us, emir, our sister…); 1.293-309, p. 21 (I subdued all Syria…); 2.52, p. 27 (full of lamentation…); 2.53-59, pp. 27, 29 (Most beloved child…); 2.82, p. 29 (love of a pig-eater); 2.94-8, p. 31 (Look, I have sent…); 2.106, p. 31 (filled greatly with compassion); 3.132-40, 153-57, pp. 53, 55 (My sweetest child…); 3.229-35, pp. 57, 59 (She did not reject…)

[3] Jeffreys translated the relevant line without reference to gender:

For he {the emir} killed all those who were found there

{Πάντας γὰρ ἐθανάτωσε τοὺς ἐκεῖ εὑρεθέντας}

1.59, p. 7. The accusative masculine plural πάντας (all), under the historical linguistic gender effacement of men, could include females. But the context clearly indicates that the emir didn’t kill the daughter or the mother. Killing all men but keeping women as prisoners is well-attested gender bias in violence. See, e.g. Deuteronomy 20:13-4, Numbers 31:17-8. A better translation for 1.59 is thus, “For he killed all the males who were found there”.

[4] Penninck (2007) recognizes the dramatic irony in the Grottaferrata Digenis Akritis.

[5] On the Islamic context in Digenis Akritis, Muhammad (2010).

[6] Byzantium historically continued the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The Byzantines called themselves Romans and regarded their territory as the Roman Empire.

Book 1 of Digenis Akritis concludes:

And it became well-known throughout the whole world
that an exceedingly high-born girl, with her delightful beauty,
had broken up the famed armies of Syria.

1.335-7, p. 23. The power of women’s beauty tends to be willfully ignored today.

[7] The mother expressed considerable concern about her daughter marrying the emir:

Will the bridegroom be your equal in beauty?
Will he share the views of high-born Romans?
I fear, my lovely child, that he may be lacking in affection,
being a heathen, he may have a fierce temper, and there may be no point in my living.

2.22-25, p. 25. The mother may have preferred to have selected her daughter’s bridegroom herself, as mothers did in Byzantine bride-shows.

[8] The prologue to Book 3 explains:

Receiving a letter from his mother in Syria,
he decided to leave, fearing her curse,
for it is certainly right not to provoke one’s parents.

3.16-8, trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 45. Moral codes commonly require honoring one’s parents, e.g. Exodus 20:12. Here there seems to be subtle irony with the curse and consequential reasoning.

The emir told his wife of his plan to leave and asked her to come with him. When his wife’s brothers confronted him and denounced that plan, the emir wrongly accused his wife of not keeping his secret. She responded:

Why, my husband, do you accuse the one who longs for you so much?
It is unthinkable for me — may this never happen — to reveal your plan.
If I did that, may the earth swallow me up alive,
so that I may become an example to all the world
of one who makes public her husband’s secrets.

2.210-15, p. 37. Wives’ failure to keep their husbands’ secrets is major concern in literature of men’s sexed protest.

[9] The simile “like fertile soil that has accepted the seed” is a feminine Christian figure for being a good Christian. It comes from the parable of the sower influential in early Arabic thought. See Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:1-15.

[10] Both Penninck (2007) and Trilling (2016) contrast in literary interpretation the emir’s social position and Digenis’s. Yet, immersed in the dominant ideology, they fail to recognize the significance of gynocentric oppression to that contrast. Dokou (2005) documents the dire intellectual consequences of uncritical acceptance of the dominant ideology.

[image] Mother of God portrayed as Byzantine Empress. Tapestry icon from sixth-century Egypt. Thanks to Cleveland Museum of Art (preserved as item 167.144) and Wikimedia Commons.


Beaton, Roderick, and David Ricks. 1993. Digenes Akrites: new approaches to byzantine heroic poetry. Aldershot, G.B.: Variorum.

Dokou, Christina. 2005. “‘’tis a Pity She’s A’ Chora – Theoretical Transformations of the Marriage Metaphor in the Epic of Digenis Akritas.” Neohelicon. 32 (1): 231-239.

Galatariotou, Catia. 1993. “The primacy of the Escorial Digenes Akritis: an open and shut case?” Ch. 4 (pp. 38-54) in Beaton & Ricks (1993).

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, ed. and trans. 1998. Digenis Akritis: the Grottaferrata and Escorial versions. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Muhammad, Tarek M. 2010. “The Conversion from Islam to Christianity as viewed by the Author of Digenes Akrites.” Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 7: 121-149.

Penninck, Mieke. 2007. “Two heroes, two lives in the Grottaferrata Digenes Akrites.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 31(1): 32-52.

Trilling, James. 2016. “Re-Introducing Digenis Akritis: A Byzantine Poem of Strength, Weakness, and the Disturbing Absence of God.” Viator. 47 (3): 149-170.

Byzantine literature can help men overcome romantic simplicity

romantic simplicity of man in love

When in love with a woman, most men in their purity and innocence simply want to have sex with her. But life gets much more complicated. Consider, for example, the case of Hysminias in twelfth-century Byzantium. After enduring sexual harassment from Hysmine, Hysminias fell passionately in love with her. Yet before he could have sex with her, barbarians and Greeks enslaved him. To make matters worse, both the woman who owned him as a slave and Hysmine’s female boss amorously besieged him. Merely to kiss Hysmine, Hysminias had to engage in the fiction that he was kissing Hysmine’s female boss. As innocent men ruefully learn, real-world romance can be tragic.[1]

Hysminias had been in love with Hysmine for a year, yet he hadn’t fully realized his desire. Enslaved, he wept for his misfortune and mournfully recalled flirting with Hysmine. The Greek mistress who with her husband owned Hysminias asked him about his parentage and the story of his life. He summoned learning and eloquence amid his tears and responded:

Mistress, I am your slave; when you ask to know more you are asking for a whole play, a complete tragedy. I am the exemplification of Fate, a ghost from the underworld, the plaything of the gods, the Erinnyes’ banquet. [2]

She and her husband insisted. Hysminias then told of his love for Hysmine, their elopement by ship, the storm, his loss of her at sea, and his being captured and enslaved. Seeing Hysminias’s passionate grief, his master-owner urged him to “cultivate chastity and love sobriety.”

Some days later, on the festival day that was the anniversary of Hysminias falling in love with Hysmine, Hysminias’s mistress-owner accosted him. Hysminias was lying down, dreaming and weeping about long-past times with his beloved Hysmine:

I held up to my mind … the well within the garden, the birds on it, the golden eagle, Hysmine pouring out the wine, teasing me with passion, playing with my feet, playing with the cups and everything else that we did in our sport (alas for those passionate delights in my dreams); and above all else I whispered softly, “Hysmine, my beloved.”

Hysminias’s mistress-owner suddenly appeared. She said:

Why are you so drenched in tears? Look who is beside you; you have me as your Hysmine, your mistress and your slave in passion.

Hysminias sat up and rebuffed his mistress-owner. She then sat next to him and attempted to seduce him. He responded stolidly. She then threatened to strike him. She verbally abused him and spun household intrigues against him. But Hysmine didn’t yield to her. Despite obvious advantages of becoming her lover, Hysminias didn’t even allow her to trespass on his thoughts of loving Hysmine.

Just as Hysminias had earlier been selected for the honor of being herald, his master-owner was similarly selected. His master-owner had to travel to Artykomis to be honored as herald at a banquet there. Hysminias’s mistress-owner sought to keep Hysminias at home while her husband went to Artykomis. But her husband decided that Hysminias, formerly a herald and now a slave, might be of some use to him in Artykomis. Hence Hysminias traveled with his master-owner to Artykomis to the herald’s banquet.[3]

At the lavish herald’s banquet, the host’s daughter Rhodope worked as a serving maiden. Long ago Hysmine had performed the same service at the herald’s banquet for Hysminias. According to Hysminias, Rhodope was:

a lovely girl if you compare her with maidens in general but, in comparison with my Hysmine, she was like an ape compared to Aphrodite.

Rhodope’s servant girl helped her to wash Hysminias’s feet. The servant girl moaned and sighed and looked at Hysminias intently. Rhodope’s servant girl was the enslaved Hysmine!

Later, Hysmine sent Hysminias a letter. She reminded Hysminias that because of him she had become a captive and a slave. She also instructed him on how to behave. Hysminias pondered the sense and meaning of this letter. He sat in the garden and drenched the letter in tears. Rhodope came up to him and asked him what was the matter. She also asked about his parentage and how he had become a slave. Hysminias responded:

tears overwhelm my speech, mistress, and hinder my tongue and swamp my soul and inhibit my voice entirely. If you want to observe a Fate that had led to misery, I provide the example in my own person, completely clad in misfortune and transformed into abominable circumstances, a veritable picture of ill luck.

Rhodope begged to be told more. Hysminias told her his story. He then fell to the ground in grief. With loving concern, Rhodope clasped his hands and wept. She placed her hands on his chest and massaged his heart. Then she kissed him and asked him his name.

Rhodope’s servant girl Hysmine was weeping nearby. Rhodope asked her what was the matter. She said that Hysminias was her long-lost brother. Hysmine embraced Hysminias and kissed him, and he her in return. Their passionate love for each other wasn’t incestuous. They struggled to avoid that fiction and to create the fiction of a brother-sister reunion.

Hysminias later sat by himself, overwhelmed with teeming thoughts. Hysmine came and sat beside him. She freely kissed him, laughed, and said:

I kiss you as my brother, I embrace you as my lover. But this kiss is not mine, it is not from me the beloved to you my lover, nor from a sister to her brother; it is from a slave to her mistress’s lover. Rhodope, my mistress, loves you. I am the procuress, and this kiss is her message.

That was a story that Hysminias could barely comprehend. He kissed her and wept. He declared that he would “pray to die a slave with Hysmine rather than be free and immortal with Rhodope.” Hysmine kissed him again and explained:

These are not my kisses but I convey to you kisses from Rhodope, the mistress whom I serve as a slave.

Hysminias innocently and indignantly responded:

You really are my Hysmine. I kiss your lips, even though they belong to my fellow slave, my sister, my beloved. And I kiss the kisses, but not as though they are Rhodope’s kisses but Hysmine’s, whom Zeus betrothed to me and whom now emperor Eros restores once more. Away with Rhodope and Rhodope’s passion and any other maiden whom the Erotes throw in your Hysminias’s way!

Recognizing men’s inferiority in guile, Hysmine put the matter bluntly:

Even if you do not love her, even if you spurn her passion, even if you observe our vows, pretend for my sake to be in love and act the lover for me; and perhaps the deception will not be useless and without results for us. Even if it allows nothing else, I shall be able to converse with you without inhibition as a slave, and embrace you as your sister, and I can convey kisses to you as the procuress.

Hysminias finally understood. Sophisticated romantic intrigues and fictions don’t come naturally to men.

While uneasily and recalcitrantly following Hysmine’s fiction, Hysminias didn’t suspend the reality of his desire. To send kisses to Rhodope, Hysminias offered to kiss Hysmine anywhere “where the grapes of passion are to be harvested.” Even more boldly, Hysminias declared to Hysmine:

Whatever you think should be said to please Rhodope, say it as if from me. If she asks to be kissed, kiss her, and give her all the many kisses that my lips have stored in your mouth. And if she is not satisfied with kisses alone and her passion is not assuaged with lips but, like female palm trees, she seeks a shoot from the male palm to penetrate into her innermost soul, I shall demonstrate first with you, conveying this to Rhodope.

Demonstrating penetration was action too forward and direct for Hysmine. She ran off to convey Hysminias’s kisses to Rhodope.

Hysminias’s pure desire to have sex with Hysmine came to be entangled in Byzantine amorous relations. Hysminias’s master-owner, the herald, returned home from Artykomis with Hysminias. The herald brought with him as guests the herald-banquet hosts and their daughter Rhodope. Rhodope brought her servant girl Hysmine. All gathered for a banquet at the master-owner’s home. Three women there were in love with Hysminias: his mistress-owner, the herald’s wife; the herald-banquet hosts’ daughter Rhodope; and Rhodope’s slave-servant Hysmine. Working as a slave-servant at the banquet, Hysminias struggled to juggle these amorous plates:

So my mistress {owner}, enrolled in the service of the Erotes, flirted with me over the cup and jested with me, or rather the Erotes flirted with her, using me and the cups.For at one moment she pressed my finger, at another she pulled my entire hand together with the cup and sported in other ways, or was made a game of by the Erotes. While I tried to escape from this as if from a fire, I too flirted but with my fellow wine-pourer, Hysmine, exchanging games with the mistress for games with the slave. This Rhodope approved and she allowed flirtation with the slave as though she was rather more Hysmine’s slave since she was assisting in her passion.

Exhausted from the romantic challenges of the banquet, afterwards Hysminias went quickly to the servants’ quarters to sleep alone.

Increased public support for study of Byzantine literature such as Hysmine and Hysminias could help men to overcome their romantic simplicity. For men lacking in literary appreciation, Solon’s wise welfare proposal could provide an important safety net. Individual women also have important personal responsibility. Women should respond with understanding, sympathy, and mercy to the men who love them.

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[1] Scholars have been slow to appreciate the importance of Hysmine and Hysminias for men. Alexiou (1977) is a pioneering literary appreciation of a Byzantine novel. Yet that work narrowly interpreted Hysmine and Hysminias as providing “insight into female behavior as viewed by men.” With a similar intellectual perspective, Alexiou’s article might be regarded as offering only a woman’s insight into a man-authored work. Hysmine and Hysminias “clearly puts aside the principle of emotional gynecocentrism which was the norm of the Greek novel.” Jouanno (2006) p. 159. That underscores the importance of bringing a masculine perspective to understanding this Byzantine romance.

[2] Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias 8.11.2, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 240. Subsequent quotes from Hysmine and Hysminias, cited by sections and by page numbers in id., are: 8.14.4, p. 242 (cultivate chastity…); 8.16.2-3, p. 242 (I held up to my mind…); 8.16.4, p. 242 (Why are you so drenched…); 9.3.2, p. 245 (a lovely girl…); 9.12.3-4, p. 248 (tears overwhelm my speech…); 9.16.2-4, p. 250 (I kiss you as brother…); 9.17.1, p. 251 (pray to die a slave…); 9.18.1, p. 251 (These are not my kisses…); 9.18.1-2, p. 251 (You really are my Hysmine…); 9.19.1, p. 251 (Even if you do not love her…); 9.19.3, p. 251 (where the grapes of passion…); 10.3.1-2, p. 254 (Whatever you think…); 10.8.1-3, p. 255 (So my mistress…).

[3] A central compositional technique in Hysmine and Hysminias is doubling and repetition. Nilsson (2001).

[image] Woman strives to educate man beyond his natural romantic simplicity. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 311r. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Alexiou, Margaret. 1977. “A Critical Reappraisal of Eustathios Makrembolites’ Hysmine and Hysminias.Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 3 (1): 23-43.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, trans. and notes. 2012. Four Byzantine novels: Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles; Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias;  Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea; Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Jouanno, Corinne. 2006. “Women in Byzantine Novels of the Twelfth Century: an Interplay Between Norm and Fantasy.” Ch. 7 (pp. 141-62) in Garland, Lynda, ed. 2006. Byzantine women: varieties of experience, 800-1200. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Nilsson, Ingela. 2001. Erotic pathos, rhetorical pleasure: narrative technique and mimesis in Eumathios Makrembolites’ Hysmine & Hysminias. Uppsala: Uppsala University.

Andronikos defied Spartan mothers, rejected soldier’s role

gender role reversal in responsibility for violence

Spartan mothers promoting violence against men have cast a long shadow across history. A twelfth-century Byzantine novel declared:

Those who have been reared with weapons and those experienced in fighting
must either stain their hands with enemy blood
and gird on a tunic bespattered with their slaughter
or fall valiantly and stout-heartedly
after having striven mightily with the opposition. [1]

Another twelfth-century Byzantine novel makes explicit the connection to Spartan mothers. A man fighting to save a damsel in distress declared:

the maiden was not torn from my hands, with me intoning “With my shield or on it,” like the Spartan mother. [2]

The horrible sayings of the Spartan mothers, urging and glorifying violence against men, became proverbial in Byzantium.

As has been the case throughout history, some truly heroic, socially conscious persons defied the deplorable devaluation of men’s lives. Another despicable passage in a Byzantine novel hints at recalcitrant men’s resistance:

It befits a soldier either to act valiantly
or to fall and not to have as witness to his shame the sun
and the all-nurturing earth and the moon.
It is a fine memorial for soldiers
when they die as heroes in battle, and not in bed. [3]

Achilles, with the help of his mother Thetis, wisely made a fine, but failed attempt to avoid fighting in the idiotic Trojan War. Yet men should not have to pretend to be women in order not to be treated as disposable humans.

Andronikos I, a Byzantine nobleman who became the Byzantine emperor in 1183, defied the Spartan mothers’ teaching and focused on manly passion in bed. About 1161, Andronikos was sent to fight against the Armenian forces of Thoros II in Cilicia. Soon after he was enmeshed in the horrors of war there, Andronikos had an epiphany:

Not many days elapsed before Andronikos reckoned the slaughter of men, battles and warfare, the war trumpet, and Terror, Rout, and Ares, who is the bane of mortals, as secondary and incidental. Setting aside the deeds of war, he gave himself over to the orgiastic rites of Aphrodite. … Andronikos, notorious for being love-smitten, laid down his shield, removed his helmet, completely doffed his military attire, and deserted to his inamorata {Philippa} in Antioch. Making his way there, he preferred the joys of the Erotes to the armaments of Ares, although he did not card wool or devote himself to the loom and twist the distaff for Philippa as did Herakles when he served Omphale as her slave. His beloved was the daughter of Raymond of Poitiers and sister to his cousin Manuel’s wife whom the emperor had married not long before. [4]

Andronikos used his sword intelligently, shrewdly, and with imaginative manliness:

Once when he was lying in the Eudokia’s embraces in his tent at Pelagonia, her blood relations, on being so informed, surrounded the tent with a large number of armed troops. They stood guard over the exit, intending to cut him down on the spot. Eudokia was well aware of this plot, even though her mind was occupied with other matters. She had either been alerted by one of her kinsmen or warned in some other way of the ambush planned against her corrupter. Contrary to the nature of women, she was quick-witted and gifted with sagacity. While in the embraces of Andronikos, she informed him of the plot. Shaken by what he heard, he leaped out of bed and, girding on his long sword, deliberated on what he should do. Eudokia proposed to her lover that he don female attire and that she should command aloud and by name one of her chambermaids and maidservants to fetch a lantern to the tent. As soon as the ambushers heard her voice, he should exit and make his escape. However, he was not convinced by her persuasive argument. He feared that he might lose his way, be taken captive, and be led before the emperor, ignobly dragged by the hair, and, worse, made to suffer a womanish and inglorious death. Hence, unsheathing his sword and taking it in his right hand, he cut slantwise through the tent, and jumped through the slit he had cut with his naked sword. In one mighty bound, like a Thessalian, he hurdled over the barrier which chanced to be standing in front of the tent and the space occupied by the stakes and ropes. His ambushers were left agape. [5]

Used properly and with delightful imagination, a man’s sword is a wonderful instrument.

For more than two millennia, young men have been taught Greek through uncritical study of the deplorable sayings of the Spartan mothers. The world must be turned upside down. The world must come to recognize the reality of violence against men and turn to valuing men’s lives humanely.

man prefers spinning to being soldier

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[1] Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea 173, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 334. Manasses’s novel survives only from collections of excerpts. I cite by Jeffrey’s excerpt number and line.

[2] Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias 7.14.1, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 232. For some background on this Byzantine novel, see the notes to my post on how Hysmine enthralled Hysminias. On the Spartan mothers’ saying becoming proverbial, id. n. 223.

[3] Aristandros and Kallithea 9, trans. Jeffreys (2012) pp. 285-6.

[4] Niketas Choniates, Annals 138-9, from Greek trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 79. I have made non-substantive changes to Magoulias’s translation to improve its accessibility.

[5] Choniates, Annals 104-5, trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 60. Magoulias’s translation significantly tones down the eroticism in Choniates’s account. See note [14] in my post on Octavian’s ass-driver and ass Actium statues. Kaldellis (2009) p. 94 recognizes the “very masculine sexuality” figured in Andronikos jumping through the slit that he cut with his naked sword. Above I’ve drawn on Kaldellis’s translation of that figure.

[images] (1) Gender role reversal in responsibility for violence. From chapbook, dated c. 1750, The World turn’d upside down, or, the folly of man; exemplefied in twelve comical relations upon uncommon subjects. Illustrated with twelve curious cuts, etc. Via Public Domain Review. (2) Man rejects role of soldier. The caption below the image: “La donna armata a piastre, e armata spada / fa il marito filar in su la strada. {The lady is armed with plate armour and sword / and the husband spins in the street.}” Detail from late 16th-century woodcut Il Mondo Alla Riversa {The World Upside Down}. Created in the style of Giambattista de Cavalieri, Italian, about 1525–1601. Held at the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston). The British Museum (London) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) also hold copies. Other similar woodcut images: World Turned Upside Down, or the Folly of Man (example 1, example 2); and Die Verkehrte Welt (example).


Jeffreys, Elizabeth, trans. and notes. 2012. Four Byzantine novels: Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles; Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias;  Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea; Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Kaldellis, Antony. 2009. “Niketas Choniates: Paradox, Reversal, and the Meaning of History.” Pp. 75-101 in Simpson, Alicia, and Stephanos Efthymiadis, eds. Niketas Choniates: a historian and a writer. Geneva: La Pomme d’Or.

Magoulias, Harry J. trans. 1984. Nicetas Choniates. O city of Byzantium: annals of Niketas Choniates. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

castration culture promotes vicious, jealous eunuchs as officials

tree stump

The twelfth-century Byzantine novel Aristandros and Kallithea reported:

They say that once a viper, mother of poisons,
managed to bite a eunuch, and promptly expired,
for it had tasted blood that was much more poisonous
and that had overcome even its own deadly venom. [1]

How did eunuchs come to be so despised? Castration culture is an important part of the answer. Castration culture criminalizes men’s sexuality. Castration culture deprives men of sexual freedom and imposes on men forced financial fatherhood for nothing more than using their penises. Castration culture threatens with castration any man would dare speak out about injustices against men. In these circumstances of gynocentric domination, some males were castrated for their own worldly advantage and career advancement. Because principled, self-respecting men naturally despised them, these eunuchs greatly tarnished the reputation of eunuchs generally.

In the Gospel of Matthew, men being castrated for their own worldly self-interest were beneath Jesus of Nazareth’s concern. Some of Jesus’s disciples observed that men are better off not getting married. Jesus implicitly characterized unmarried men as enjoying an easy, appealing life. He also implicitly labeled unmarried men as eunuchs. Jesus distinguished three types of unmarried men / eunuchs:

there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. [2]

Eunuchs who have been so from birth have the same inherent human dignity as any other human being. Men made eunuchs by others hostile to them (by castration culture and by the penile function of the gynocentric criminal justice system) deserves compassion, solidarity, and social justice. Men who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom anticipate other-worldly bliss. They deserve respect personally, and their serious belief-action ethics merit thoughtful consideration. The missing group in Jesus’s concern for eunuchs is men who castrate themselves for worldly advantage, or have been castrated by their parents for worldly advantage. These men and parents, like parents who have their sons circumcised merely for worldly concerns, have betrayed men’s god-created nature and their humanity.

Eunuchs and men today tend to be considered in terms of the social construction of the social construction of gender. Yet such persons can be found throughout history. For example, Aristandros and Kallithea characterized a man who, under today’s social construction of the social construction of gender, might be regarded as a socially constructed eunuch. He was a person:

who until he was aged and his ancient hair white
used to take mashed and chewed food
from his nurse’s mouth like a baby
so that he would not hurt his teeth with chewing;
he never put his own hand
below his navel, not even on his genitals. [3]

This person almost surely had male genitals. But if, as a man, you never put your hand on your genitals, you act as if you don’t have them. To be comfortable, most men prefer to sit with their legs spread wide. Men also occasionally make adjustments to their precious package, which shouldn’t be called junk. Spreading and adjusting are natural for a man. They shouldn’t be cause for shaming and criminalizing men.

In Byzantium, some men had their genitals cut off to improve their career prospects as government officials. After becoming eunuchs, some came to occupy the highest offices in the Byzantine imperial government. Byzantine eunuchs often monopolized access to royally privileged women and impeded mutually joyful affairs.[4] Men generally despised these eunuch officials. Aristandros and Kallithea reported:

The race of eunuchs is by nature jealous;
when entrusted with guard-duty, they do not drowse,
not because they are faithful to their masters or wish them well
but because they are envious, they are jealous and are grudging to others;
being unable to perform themselves, they hinder others who can.
They say dogs in the manger do the same;
although they cannot eat barley like horses
they do not make way for the horses when they want to eat. [5]

In a Russian popular fable, a peasant prays to God not for a cow, but that his neighbor’s cow will die. While far distant in time and space, eunuchs in twelfth-century Byzantium were similarly characterized as envious.[6]

In 399 in Constantinople, the eunuch Eutropius was appointed consul in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The consul held the highest elected political office in the Roman Empire, much like the president does in the United States today. Eutropius was in some ways like the typical politician, whether woman or man or neither:

Do you marvel? There is nothing big that in his heart
Eutropius does not hold. Always new things, always large things,
he loves and tastes individually with quick feeling.
He fears nothing from the rear; to needy persons watching searchingly
he is open, night and day. Smooth and easy for petitioners to move,
and even in the middle of passion, he is very soft.
He never says “no” and offers himself even to those who don’t ask;
whatever inclination desires, he cultivates and offers for enjoyment;
whatever you love, his hand will give; in common for everyone
he performs his service, and his power enjoys to be bent.
His meetings and his meritorious labors have given birth to this:
he accepts the robes of consul as rewards for his skillful right hand.

{miraris? nihil est, quod non in pectore magnum
concipit Eutropius. semper nova, grandia semper
diligit et celeri degustat singula sensu.
nil timet a tergo; vigilantibus undique curis
nocte dieque patet; lenis facilisque moveri
supplicibus mediaque tamen mollissimus ira
nil negat et sese vel non poscentibus offert;
quod libet ingenio, subigit traditque fruendum;
quidquid amas, dabit ilia manus; communiter omni
fungitur officio gaudetque potentia flecti.
hoc quoque conciliis peperit meritoque laborum,
accipit et trabeas argutae praemia dextrae.} [7]

But Eutropius was a monstrous person, completely unsuited for office, a joke and an embarrassment to the empire:

Half-beast births, and babes that frighten their mothers;
within the city walls in the night wolves were heard to
murmur and sheep spoke to their astonished shepherd;
dire winter storms of stones and with bloody cloud,
threatening Jove grew red, and wells with gore
were filled. About the poles run double moons
and twin suns, yet the world ceases to wonder:
all have given way when a eunuch is appointed consul.
Oh, what shame to heaven and earth! …
This is the power, Fortune, that you hold? What is
this savage humor? At what length will you play with human affairs?
If it pleases you that the consul’s chair be servilely
disgraced, let one with opened shackles advance to consul,
let an escaped prisoner be crowned as god of the Roman state:
but at least give us a man.

{Semiferos partus metuendaque pignora matri
moenibus et mediis audi tum nocte luporum
murmur et attonito pecudes pastore locutas
et lapidum duras hiemes nimboque minacem
sanguineo rubuisse Iovem puteosque cruore
mutatos visasque polo concurrere lunas
et geminos soles mirari desinat orbis:
omnia cesserunt eunucho consule monstra.
heu terrae caelique pudor! …
Hoc regni, Fortuna, tenes? quaenam ista iocandi
saevitia? humanis quantum bacchabere rebus?
si tibi servili placuit foedare curules
crimine, procedat laxata compede consul,
rupta Quirinales sumant ergastula cinctus;
da saltem quemcumque virum.} [8]

Even before Eutropius took office, eunuch officials had bad reputations:

eunuchs in imperial government were notorious for plotting, selling favors, and fortifying their position by closing off others’ access to the emperor {and to the empress}. [9]

Eutropius made the bad reputation of eunuch officials much worse. He was particularly cruel and greedy. He was thought to have arranged the assassination of his predecessor, and he acquired great wealth by selling imperial offices. After Eutropius served for about a year as consul, Emperor Arcadius deposed and exiled him. The Emperor decreed that Eutropius’s name be erased from the official Roman imperial record. The Emperor also decreed that all statues and paintings of Eutropius be destroyed so that they would not “as a brand of infamy on our age, pollute the gaze of beholders.”[10]

Throughout history, some parents have had their sons castrated in schemes to gain for them career advantages. Some men have for similarly reasons castrated themselves.[11] Such eunuchs earned a reputation for being vicious, greedy, jealous, poisonous, and vain. One should recognize the social circumstances that motivated them to become what they were. Gynocentric society supports castration culture and cadres of vicious, jealous eunuch officials.

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[1] Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea 80.6-9, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 307. This novel survives only from collections of excerpts. I cite by Jeffrey’s excerpt number and line.

According to Jeffrey’s analysis of the available evidence, Constantine Manasses wrote Aristandros and Kallithea about 1145 in Constantinople. Manasses wrote it in twelve-syllable Greek verse lines (political verse). Jeffreys (2012) pp. 273-9.

[2] Matthew 19:12.

[3] Aristandros and Kallithea 125.20-5, trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 321.

[4] On eunuch’s monopolizing access to Byzantine royally privileged women, see Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 6746-66. I briefly discussed how this action limited men’s political opportunities in my post on Constantinople statues serving men.

[5] Aristandros and Kallithea 110, trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 316.

[6] A Byzantine literary figure of a maiden being a mixture of milk and roses seems also to have traveled to Russian popular culture.

[7] Claudius Claudianus {Claudian}, In Eutropium {Against Eutropius} 1.358-70, from Latin my translation, with help from Maurice Platnauer’s translation (Loeb Classical Library, 1922) and that of Long (1996) p. 142. Platnauer’s full Latin text and English translation is available online. I’ve included the Latin poetry because careful study of it is particularly helpful for appreciating the full literary art and meaning of this passage.

Claudian lived between 370 and 420 GC. He was born in Alexandria and migrated to Rome. Here’s more on Claudian. The western part of the Roman Empire didn’t recognize Eutropius as consul. The Roman Empire at that time still imagined itself to be a unity of east and west. Long (1996) pp. 268-9.

Eutropius’s parents had him castrated to improve his career opportunities:

He is destined from his very cradle to bloody tortures; straight from his mother’s womb he is hurried away to be made a eunuch; no sooner born than he becomes a prey to suffering. Up hastens the Armenian, skilled by operating with unerring knife to make males womanish and to increase their loathly value by such loss. He drains the body’s life-giving fluid from its double source and with one blow deprives his victim of a father’s function and the name of husband.

In Eutropium 1.46-54, trans. Platnauer (1922).

[8] In Eutropium 1.1-8, 1.24-30, from Latin my translation as previously.

[9] Long (1996) p. 105.

[10] Codex Theodosianus {Theodosian Code} 9.40.17. The quoted English translation is from Platnauer’s introduction. The Latin text: “ne tamquam nota nostri saeculi obtutus polluat intuentum.”

[11] To increase the supply of imperial officials, Alexios I Komneno decreed that families with more than one son should have one castrated. Byzantine families plausibly had an economic incentive to castrate a relative. Tougher (2008) pp. 61-4.

[image] Stump. Photo by Douglas Galbi.


Jeffreys, Elizabeth, trans. and notes. 2012. Four Byzantine novels: Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles; Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias;  Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea; Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Long, Jacqueline. 1996. Claudian’s In Eutropium, or, How, when, and why to slander a eunuch. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Tougher, Shaun. 2008. The eunuch in Byzantine history and society. London: Routledge.

how Hysmine enthralled Hysminias: hazards of herald service

medieval couple embracing in context of sexual harassment

At a public banquet honoring the virgin herald Hysminias, the serving maiden Hysmine whispered welcome to him. She served him a cup of wine. Thirsty, hot, and sweaty, Hysminias relished the delightful drink. Later in the dinner, Hysmine came again to serve Hysminias. She said in quiet voice:

You are receiving the cup from a maiden with the same name.

She then pressed her foot against Hysminias’s foot. Later, she again came to him with a cup of wine. But when he grasped it, she held on. Befuddled, Hysminias said to her:

Do you not want to give it to me? What do you want to do?

She immediately released the cup to him. She blushed and stared at the ground. Her parents looked at her angrily and reproachfully. Yet later, she came to Hysminias, put a cup of wine into his hands, and looked longingly into his eyes. With her finger, she pressed his finger to the cup and moaned and sighed.

After the banquet, the situation became even more serious. Under the conventional protocol for showing hospitality, guests’ feet were washed before they went to bed. The maiden Hysmine accompanied two servants to the bedroom of the herald Hysminias and his colleague Kratisthenes. Hysmine helped the servant wash Hysminias’s feet. She embraced his feet, squeezed them, and kissed them. She scratched his feet with her fingernails and tickled him. She then gazed at him intently, smiled, and nodded. Kratisthenes had his feet washed without any embracing, squeezing, kissing, scratching, gazing, smiling, or nodding. In short, Hysminias received seriously disparate foot-washing treatment.

Men suffer from many forms of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment of men usually doesn’t involve raping a man. Women in positions of authority sometimes pressure subordinates for sex and sometimes respond with false accusations of rape if they are refused. But sexual harassment of men, like sexual harassment generally, is today understood to cover a much broader range of behavior. Women who wear tight pants in places where men might inadvertently see them commit sexual harassment under today’s standards. Women who expose breast cleavage that men might inadvertently see sexually harass men under today’s standards. Classical Latin literature makes clear that a woman in the kitchen, stirring a pot and wiggling her hips suggestively, can greatly disturb a man. In this case, Hysminias was working as a herald. Hysmine was on the job as a serving maiden. With her actions, to say nothing of gazing in his eyes intently, Hysmine surely sexually harassed Hysminias under today’s enlightened standards of behavior.

Hysmine’s behavior seriously and adversely impacted Hysminias. The following night Hysminias suffered frightful dreams. With his heart pounding in his chest and grasping for breath, he sat up in his bed and cried out to his colleague Kratisthenes, “I am ruined.” Hysminias could no longer perform appropriately his job requirements as herald. Hysminias felt as if his ribs were being gouged out, as had earlier happened to Adam before a great fall. Hysiminias didn’t feel a crown of thorns on his head. He felt as if he were sleeping on whole bed of thorns. He also perceived that he was being roasted on coals. Many faithful early Christian martyrs suffered similarly. Damages to Hysminias figured as high as complete job disability and extremely painful death.

In accordance with current legal standards, emotional damages must also be considered. Hysminias recorded nearly contemporaneous notes of a deeply disturbing dream:

I touch her hand and, although she tries to withdraw it and conceal it in her tunic, nevertheless I prevail. I draw it up to my lips, I kiss it, I nibble it incessantly; she pulls away and curls up on herself. I clasp her neck and set my lips on hers and fill her with kisses and exude passion. She pretends to withdraw her lips but bites my lip passionately and steals a kiss. I kiss her eyes and suck all passion into my soul, for the eye is the source of love. Then I find myself at the girl’s chest; she puts up a stout resistance, curls up completely and defends her breast with her entire body, as a city defends a citadel, and fortifies and barricades her breasts with her hands and neck and fist and belly; and further down she raises her knees as she shoots off a tear from the citadel of her head, all but saying, “Either he loves me and will be softened by my tears, or he doesn’t love me and will shrink from battle.” I am rather ashamed to be defeated and so I persist more violently and at length I am almost victorious but find defeat in my victory and am utterly undone. For the moment my hand got to the girl’s breast lassitude invaded my heart.

I was in pain, I was in anguish, a strange trembling came over me, my sight was dimmed, my soul softened, my strength weakened, my body grew sluggish, my breath choked, my heart beat faster and a sweet pain poured over my limbs with a kind of tickling sensation and an ineffable, unspeakable, inexpressible passion took possession of me. And I experienced, by Eros, what I had never experienced before.

The subsequent need to wash Hysminias’s bedsheets was only a minor cost compared to the harm to him. Hysminias had been so traumatized by Hysmine’s sexual harassment of him that he dreamed that he attempted to rape her. Leading literary scholars now regularly castigate fictional men for fictional rape. As certain as a Rolling Stone fraternity gang-rape exposé gathers no facts or a college sex-tribunal will be a kangaroo court even for an unsupported allegation of stolen panties, literary scholars today will condemn a fictional man for fictionally dreaming about raping a fictional woman. In our culture, leading news sources report astonishing tales that a large share of men rape their wives. Hysminias’s dream surely cannot merely end with a nocturnal emission.

Because of his dream, Hysminias is exposed to the emotional harm of harsh disparagement and condemnation by leading literary scholars world-wide. A literary character could hardly find himself in a more harrowing situation. For Hysminias, that’s a direct result of Hysmine’s sexual harassment of him.

Wounded by Eros’ sharp soul-destroying
bows to the depth of his heart, Hysminias
urges young people to flee the unruly onrush of passion
with vigour for it is the cause of harm.
Whatever passion Eros induces with his gaze, may I escape his goad.

Solomon, writer of odes and psalms,
declared in his scriptural proverbs,
“Never, my son, let desire for a woman
overcome you, except for your own wife.
For even if sweetness flows from her lips
at first, even if she seems to you, my son,
as sweet as any honey,
later — alas — she will induce bitterness,
taming your heart with incessant arrows.”

Although much progress has been made against the epidemic of sexual harassment of men, much work remains to be done. There must be zero tolerance for sexual harassment of men in literature and in life.

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Eumathios (or perhaps Eustathios) Makrembolites wrote Hysmine and Hysminias in twelfth-century Constantinople, probably between 1145 and 1160. Makrembolites wrote this novel in Greek prose in eleven books. It is closely modeled on Achilles Tatius’s Leucippe and Clitophon. Hsymine and Hysminias has survived in 43 manuscripts. It was the most popular and influential Byzantine novel.

Quotes above are from Jeffreys (2012). Cited by book.section.line and page number in id., they are from: 1.9.1, p. 181 (You are receiving…); 1.9.3, p. 182 (Do you not want…); 3.2.2, 3.2.3, p. 193 (I am ruined); 3.7.1-6, p. 197 (I touch her hand…); prefatory verses included in several manuscripts (probably not by Makrembolites), p. 177, n. 1 (Wounded by…). The figures of Hysminias having his ribs gouged out, lying on a bed of thorns, and being roasted on coals are from 3.4.1, p. 194. Cf. Genesis 2:21, Matthew 27:29.

[image] Woman and man (Goesli von Ehenhein of Strasbourg) embracing. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 308v. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Jeffreys, Elizabeth, trans. and notes. 2012. Four Byzantine novels: Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles; Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias;  Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea; Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

from Byzantine maiden as mixture of milk and roses to кровь с молоком

peasant girl: кровь с молоком

A novel written in Greek verse in Constantinople about 1156 described the beautiful maiden Drosilla:

she seemed a mixture of milk and roses
and it looked as though nature, like a painter,
had coloured her body white and red;
she was astonishing to the girls who danced with her
within the meadow of the temple of Dionysos.

Kleinias, in love with Drosilla, described her similarly:

{Eros} paints you in greater beauty
as he placed his fingers on your mother’s womb,
applying a two-fold colour, milk white and rose red.
O Drosilla, how you burn up Kleinias!

The maiden’s skin color, and implicit sense of her breasts, might have evoked milk white. Her lips or blush, or perhaps her blood or more abstractly her inner vitality and passion, could suggest rose red.

Close association of milk white and rose red in describing a woman’s beauty is unusual. A rose, of course, has long been associated with womanly beauty. Ancient Latin literature figured a beautiful woman’s vagina as a rose. The influential medieval French Romance of the Rose allegorized likewise. In describing a maiden’s beauty, her lips might be characterized as rosy red and, in western Eurasia, her flesh as milky white. Yet describing a maiden as being a mixture of milk white and rose red seems peculiar. Across the long history of men gazing longingly and harmlessly upon beautiful, young women, such a figure occurs, to my knowledge, in pre-modern literature only in the twelfth-century Byzantine novel.

A close analog of the milk-rose figure is common in Russian today. A healthy, wholesome young person, particularly a young woman exuding the simple grace and fertility of an innocent peasant girl, is commonly described in Russian with the phrase “кровь с молоком.” That literally means “blood with milk.” That phrase more abstractly means healthy and wholesome. Medieval Constantinople was a great distance, in many senses, from peasant Russia. Nonetheless, a Byzantine literary figure of womanly beauty may have spread from Constantinople to the Russian countryside and endured there in popular, oral culture.

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The above quotes are from Drosilla and Charikles, a Byzantine novel that Niketas Eugenianos wrote about 1156 in Constantinople. See 1.147-51, 4.187-191, from Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) pp. 356, 392.

In the Byzantine novels, praising the whiteness of a maiden’s skin was a common component of praising her beauty. For example, Charikles was enraptured with the beauty of a girl in garden “burgeoning with roses and flowers”:

There I saw her arms half-uncovered,
with which not even snow could compete,
there I saw her crystalline fingers,
which could compete with white milk.

Drosilla and Charikles, 4.232, 239-42, trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 393.

[image] Peasant girl. Thanks to AdinaVoicu and pixabay for providing this photo as CCO Public Domain.


Jeffreys, Elizabeth, trans. and notes. 2012. Four Byzantine novels: Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles; Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias;  Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea; Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

naked ass-driver and ass from Octavian to Byzantium in 1204

Roman naval ram like at Octavian's Actium memorial

Octavian’s naval forces confronted those of Cleopatra and her beloved Marc Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BGC. Octavian, who became Caesar Augustus, won a decisive victory. He then erected a spectacular victory memorial at the site of his pre-battle camp in Actium. The campsite memorial displayed thirty-six massive bronze rams from warships that Octavian captured from Antony and Cleopatra. The memorial also displayed naked, ithyphallic ass-driver and ass statues probably cast from melted-down rams.[1] Those statues memorialized a favorable omen that Octavian encountered before the battle. Under-appreciated by modern scholars, the ass-driver and ass statues generated intriguing semiotic problems across more than a millennium of literary history.

Tusculum Octavian: heroic nude

A naked man and an erect penis were common features of public art late in the Roman Republic. After his victory in the Battle of Naulochus in 36 BGC, Octavian had a bronze, nude statue of himself set up in the Roman forum near the speaker’s platform.[2] A statue known at the Tusculum Octavian, which was probably made shortly before the battle of Actium, also shows Octavian nude. These statues show a young, muscular male body. Such portraiture was associated with heroic, godlike figures, particularly Alexander the Great. While these statues showed Octavian’s penis, it wasn’t erect. Statues of the minor divinity Priapos, however, commonly showed an erect penis. A naked, ithyphallic ass-driver and ass wouldn’t have been formally unusual representation. Moreover, about the time of the battle of Actium, Octavian was shifting his self-representations to less heroic forms.[3] An ass being crowned by the goddess Victory while mounting a lion is certainly a less heroic victory representation. That painting at Pompeii may well be related to the ass-driver and ass sculptures at Actium.[4]

ass mounting lion painting at Pompeii

About 150 years after the Battle of Actium, the learned, high-ranking Roman official Suetonius wrote in Latin about the ass-driver and ass sculptures. The existence of these sculptures surely was generally known among the Roman elite. Suetonius may have added further meaning:

At Actium, as he {Octavian} was going down to begin the battle, he met a little ass with its ass-driver: the man was named Eutychus and the beast Nikon. The victor {Octavian} set up bronze images of the two in a sacred enclosure constructed at the site of his camp.

Apud Actium descendenti in aciem asellus cum asinario occurrit: homini Eutychus, bestiae Nicon erat nomen; utriusque simulacrum aeneum victor posuit in templo, in quod castrorum suorum locum vertit. [5]

Suetonius’s account includes a pun across Latin and Greek. The little ass’s name Nikon is a Latin transliteration of the Greek word for “the conquering {one}” (νικῶν). That’s equivalent to the Latin (and English) word victor. The conquering one corresponds to Caesar Augustus, the victor in the battle of Actium. Suetonius’s account thus semiotically identified Augustus with a little ass.[6] Why did Augustus the conquering one seek to bring together sculptures of a naked, ithyphallic ass-driver and ass? Suetonius, who apparently saw no need to describe the features of the ass-driver, hinted that Augustus was asinine.

The Greek intellectual Plutarch wrote a similar account of the ass-driver and ass about the same time as Suetonius. Plutarch’s account plausibly strengthened the association of Caesar Augustus with the ass-driver and ass:

Caesar, we are told, who had left his tent while it was still dark and was going round to visit his ships, was met by a man driving an ass. He asked the man his name, and he, recognizing him, replied: “My name is Eutychus, and my ass’s name is Nikon.” Therefore, when he afterwards decorated the place with the beaks of ships, he set up bronze figures of an ass and a man.

Καίσαρι δὲ λέγεται μὲν ἔτι σκότους ἀπὸ τῆς σκηνῆς κύκλῳ περιϊόντι πρὸς τὰς ναῦς ἄνθρωπος ἐλαύνων ὄνον ἀπαντῆσαι, πυθομένῳ δὲ τοὔνομα γνωρίσας αὐτὸν εἰπεῖν. ‘ἐμοὶ μὲν Εὔτυχος ὄνομα, τῷ δὲ ὄνῳ Νίκων.’ διὸ καὶ τοῖς ἐμβόλοις τὸν τόπον κοσμῶν ὕστερον ἔστησε χαλκοῦν ὄνον καὶ ἄνθρωπον. [7]

The ass-driver recognized Caesar at night and met him. The ass-driver and ass here are not only a victory omen. They also hint of anti-Augustus ridicule.

The ass-driver’s name was EutychusΕὔτυχος. That’s a Latin / Greek word meaning “fortunate one.” In the context of a battle, the fortunate one is most simply understood as the victor. Yet being a victor only by good fortune provides no affirmation of intrinsic power and no promise of future victories. Making a victory significant requires making it meaningful. Octavian surely meant his victory memorial at Actium to be memorable and meaningful.

Priapus sculpture at Pompeii

By the eighth century, Octavian’s ass-driver and ass sculptures presented philosophical problems in interpreting prophetic meaning of sculptures. The ass-driver and ass sculptures were thought to have been brought from Actium to the Hippodrome in Constantinople about 370. Soon after 421, seven Athenian philosophers reportedly came to Constantinople.[8] Kranos, the leader of the Athenian philosophers, identified the ass-driver as a bath attendant (περιχύτην). Kranos (Κράνος) in Greek means both a helmet and a rod of wood. Kranos evocatively described the bath attendant as a naked man with a helmet on his head.[9] Viewing the sculptures of the bath attendant following the ass, Kranos declared:

One day an ass will be like a man; what a disaster, for a man to follow an ass!

ποτὲ ὄνος ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἔσται ὦ συμφορά, ὅτι ἂνθρωπος ὄνῳ ἀκολουθεῖ [10]

Kranos’s statement makes best sense in the context of the ancient Greek-Latin literary tradition of Lucius or the Ass (Λούκιος ἢ ὄνος) and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (Asinus aureus). In that literary tradition, an ass with its large penis gives great sexual pleasure acting like a man to a woman.[11] That’s a performance that few men could equal and most would be ashamed to follow. The ass-driver and ass thus became a dispiriting omen:

May the words of the seer not come to pass!

᾿Αλλὰ μὴ ἔστω <τὸ> τοῦ μάντεως [12]

Yet Octavian understood the ass-driver and ass to be a propitious omen. If Octavian identified with an ass, he might have understood his intrinsic masculine virtue to be superior to that of the lady’s man Marc Antony.[13]

With a keen sense of manliness, the highly learned, thirteenth-century Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates significantly re-interpreted the ass-driver and ass sculptures. Choniates was rhetorically sophisticated enough to gaze erotically at the loins and breasts of Athena.[14] The goddess Athena was a conventional counterpart to Venus in figuring struggle between pursuing wisdom and pursuing pleasure. Choniates recognized manliness in men’s physical beauty and men’s sexual performance. Yet for Choniates, manliness also encompassed honoring truth and being reasonable and wise.[15] He condemned the Latin crusaders who conquered Constantinople in 1204 and melted Augustus’s statues to make coins:

Thus great things were exchanged for small ones, those works fashioned at huge expense were converted into worthless copper coins.

ἀνταλλασσόμενοι μικρῶν τὰ μεγάλα καὶ τὰ δαπάναις πονηθέντα μεγίσταις οὐτιδανῶν ἀντιδιδόντες κερμάτων [16]

Among the sculptures the Latin crusaders melted down for coins were the ass-driver and ass:

Together with Herakles they pulled down the ass, heavy-laden and braying as it moved along, and the ass driver following behind. These figures had been set up by Caesar Augustus at Actium (which is Nikopolis in Hellas) because when going out at night to reconnoiter Antony’s troops, he met up with a man driving an ass, and on inquiring who he was and where he was going, he was told, “I am Nikon and my ass is Nikandros, and I am proceeding to the camp of Caesar.”

Τούτῳ δὲ συγκαθεῖλον καὶ τὸν σεσαγμένον καὶ σὺν  ὀγκηθμῷ στελλόμενον ὄνον καὶ τὸν τούτῳ ἐφεπόμενον ὀνηγόν, οὓς ἐν ᾿Ακτίῳ ἔστησε Καῖσαρ ὁ Αὔγουστος, ὅ ἐστιν ἡ καθ᾿ ῾Ελλάδα Νικόπολις, ἡνίκα νυκτὸς ἐξιὼν τὸ τοῦ ᾿Αντωνίου κατασκέψασθαι στράτευμα ἀνδρὶ ἐνέτυχεν ὄνον ἐλαύνοντι καὶ πυθόμενος, ὅστις εἴη καὶ ἔνθα πορεύεται, ἤκουσεν ὡς καλοῦμαι Νίκων καὶ ὁ ἐμὸς ὄνος Νίκανδρος, ἀφικνοῦμαι δὲ πρὸς τὴν τοῦ Καίσαρος στρατιάν.

Choniates’s description of the ass as heavy-laden and being in front of the ass-driver are probably factual aspects of the sculptures. Choniates, however, shifted the name Nikon (victor) from the ass to the man. For the ass, he applied the name Nikandros.[17] That’s Greek for “victory of the man.” In addition, he newly directed the ass-driver and ass to the camp of Caesar. Choniates combined plentiful material goods, the genital superiority of an ass, and service to the victorious man in a unified figure of victory directed to Caesar. That’s meaning that Caesar Augustus plausibly would have intended.

Lack of close, sympathetic engagement with men’s penises has impeded scholarly appreciation for Octavian’s ass-driver and ass sculptures. A leading scholar of Byzantine statuary reported in a footnote:

A statue called Perichytes as well as one of a donkey, both in the Hippodrome. The Perichytes was nude except for a loincloth, and wore a helmet. [18]

A bath attendant (perichytes / περιχύτης), nude except for a loincloth and wearing a helmet, seems to me an implausible figure. Bath attendants didn’t wear helmets. Romans in the late Republic didn’t wear loincloths, nor did they produce sculptures of men wearing loincloths. In some sculptures of that period, a naked male figure had a non-functional mantle or drapery flowing across his waist. Such covering makes no sense for an ass-driver.

The reference to a loincloth probably came from a reading of an eighth-century account of the monuments of Constantinople. Here’s the relevant text from the critical edition:

The statue {of the ass-driver} is shaped like a man, with a helmet on its head, completely naked but with its private parts covered.

Ἔστι δὲ ἀνδροείκελον τὸ ἄγαλμα περικεφαλαίαν τῇ κεφαλῇ περιέχον, γυμνόν τοι ὅλως καὶ ἐν τοῖς βρετγάνοις διδύμοις ἐπικεκαλυμμένον. [19]

The first word (βρετγάνοις) in the two-word combination interpreted as “private parts” (βρετγάνοις διδύμοις) isn’t known apart from this text. The critical edition in its commentary gives an alternate translation “arms.”[20] Nude statutes of men in the Roman Republic commonly had a chlamys wrapped around an arm. A doubled or matching covering for an arm or arms is a more plausible object for the clause qualifying the “completely nude” ass-driver. Given the description of ass-driver as a completely naked bath attendant, “καὶ ἐν τοῖς βρετγάνοις διδύμοις ἐπικεκαλυμμένον” might refer to the completely naked figure having around him twin covered pots of some sort. Both an ass-driver of a heavily laden ass and a bath attendant might plausibly carry identical objects in each hand.[21]

bath attendant mosaic from Pompeii

Visual art, literature, and history cannot be understood adequately without keen appreciation for men’s seminal, life-generating, pleasure-providing penises. Man historically has tended to be understood as a generic, sexless human being. Women historically have been treated as special beings within the still-dominant social structure of gynocentrism. That’s a travesty of human nature and creation.[22] Overturning castration culture and the pervasive criminalization of men’s sexuality requires liberating imagination. Serious study of Octavian’s ass-driver and ass sculptures would be a good omen for that pivotal battle.

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[1] The number of bronze rams is based on surviving archaeological evidence. Zachos (2003) p. 65. The ass-driver and ass were made of bronze. Rams were frequently melted down to cast public sculptures and would have been a ready-to-hand source of bronze at Actium after the battle. Murray & Petsas (1989) p. 72, n. 78. Zachos (2015), pp. 63-9, contains magnificent color images of a reconstruction of the victory memorial.

Octavian celebrated his Actian triumph on August 14, 29 BGC. The first Actian games were held near the site of the campsite memorial in September, 27 BGC. The campsite memorial thus dates to 29-27 BGC. Zachos (2003) pp. 90, 66; Zachos (2015) p. 60.

[2] Hallet (2005) p. 98. While the statue hasn’t survived, a representation of it appears on a silver denarius in the Niggeler Collection. For an image, see Gyori (2013) p. 205, Fig. 3. See also id., Fig. 5, and id. p. 211, Figs. 44a-47c. Here’s a large image of an oval gem with a nude Octavian as Neptune. Gyori observes:

The most common “heroic figure” type consists of either a nude figure standing with a spear or a nude figure standing with a cloak bunched on the left shoulder holding a spear or a sword in hand and is by far the most basic pose for a Hellenistic monarch.

Id. p. 65. Here’s a large, online collection of Augustan portraits. On nude figures in Roman art more generally, Hallet (2005) Ch. 3-4.

Octavian married Clodia Pulchra about 44 BGC. That was his first marriage. She was the daughter of Fulvia and the stepdaughter of Marc Antony. The marriage was arranged as a political alliance. Octavian divorced Clodia after a sexless marriage of a few years. Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Augustus 62.1 records that Octavian returned Clodia intactam adhuc et virginem {untouched until then, and still a virgin}. That experience may have heightened Octavian’s concern to assert his virility.

Octavian’s conflict with Fulvia may have also heightened his concern to assert his virility. Fulvia married Marc Antony. When Antony for sexual pleasure preferred his mistress Glaphyra, Fulvia attempted to solicited Octavian for sex. Octavian rejected her. Fulvia in response fought against Octavian in the Perusine War. Octavian’s forces fired lead sling bullets (glandes) shaped like a penis and inscribed with messages of virility. Fulvia’s forces fired back bullets inscribed with descriptions of Octavian engaging in homosexual acts. Given that history, the ass-driver and ass statues might suggest, whatever the sexual act, Octavian has the virility to be victorious.

[3] In conflict with Antony, Octavian engaged in a battle of images. After Octavian prevailed, he shifted his self-representations. Zanker (1988), Ch. 2-3. That shift wasn’t a totalitarian change in imperial mythology. Stevenson (1998).

[4] The Pompeii ass-lion-victory painting is on a post-earthquake wall, hence it must date no earlier than 62 GC. Clarke (2007) p. 112. Since the eruption of Vesuvius occurred in 79 GC, the painting is from no later than that date. A naked, ithyphallic ass-driver and ass in Augustus’s victory memorial at Actium surely would have become well-known. It probably would have been particularly intriguing to plausible social peers of the ass driver, e.g. men laborers, small-scale merchants, and others who might frequent a tavern in Pompeii.

The wide-ranging nineteenth-century scholar Guilio Minervini associated the ass-driver and ass sculptures at Actium with the Pompeii painting a mere four years after its discovery in 1855. Clarke (2007) pp. 110-2. Minervini’s skills in archaeology, numismatics, philology, and law probably helped him to make this pioneering association. My interpretation, which differs significantly from Minervini’s, draws upon more than century of additional, important philological work.

[5] Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Life of Augustus 96.2. I’ve slightly adapted the English translation of  J. C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library, 1913-14) to make it more literal. The Latin text is also from Rolfe’s edition.

[6] Suetonius knew enough Greek to cite and quote Greek texts appropriately. He may have also authored in Greek a book on Greek insults. Wardle (1993). Tissol (1997), p. 33, points out Suetonius’s Latin/Greek pun. Id., p. 34, insightfully adds:

We readers of Ovid may also contemplate the comic potential of this bronze ass-driver and donkey in a military monument that bristled with the rams of ships and other impressive spoils.

[7] Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Antony 65.3. I’ve slightly adapted the English translation of Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb Classical Library, 1914) to make it more literal. The Greek text is also from Perrin’s edition.

The phrase γνωρίσας αὐτὸν is associated with some ambiguity. It could mean either that the ass-driver recognized Caesar, or that the ass-driver made himself known to Caesar.  The seventeenth-century translation made under the editor John Dryden has “he answered him that his own name was….” in place of “he, recognizing him {Caesar}, replied….” The phrase “answered him that his own name was” lacks good sense. Immediately following that phrase, the ass-driver gives his own name and the name of his ass. There’s no reason for the ass driver saying γνωρίσας αὐτὸν if it means “that his own name was.” Underscoring that point, Clarke’s translation gives no apparent significance to γνωρίσας αὐτὸν. See Clarke (2008) p. 303. Interpreting that phrase to imply the ass-driver recognized Caesar seems to me a better translation. Such was the choice of Perrin, the Loeb translator.

[8] In Patria 2.82, a lector states that Valentinian set up the statues of the ass-driver and ass. Trans. Berger (2013) p. 105, which identifies Valentinian as Valentinian I. Valentinian I reigned as Roman Emperor from 364 to 375. Valentinian resided in Milan. He appointed his brother Valens as Emperor of the East. Valens resided in Constantinople.

The Emperor Constantine I set up a serpent column, originally from Delphi, in the Hippodrome in Constantinopole. However, “images of victory were by the far the most common type of antiquity brought to the circus {the Hippodrome in Constantinople}.” Bassett (2004) p. 62.

The seven Athenian philosophers came with Eudokia the Athenian. She perhaps won an imperial bride-show (she was “judged” and “found great fortune through her beauty”) and thus become the wife of Emperor Theodosius II in 421. Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai {Παραστάσεις σύντομοι χρονικαί / Brief Historical Notes} 64, trans. Cameron & Herrin (1984) p. 141. John Malalas, Chronicle, Bk. 14, describes Theodosius II (reigned 408-450) falling in love with Eudokia for her beauty, but without the multi-contestant formality of judgment associated with a bride show.

Eudokia reportedly was in love with the magistros Paulinos. She gave him a large, beautiful apple that Theodosius had given to her. Theodosius found out about the gift and suspected romantic intrigue. In accordance with deeply entrenched gender bias in punishment for illicit sex:

he {Emperor Theodosius} reproached her with harsh words, and ordered that Paulinos be cut to pieces when he arrived at the palace.

Patria 3.146, trans. Berger (2013) p. 201.

[9] Patria 2.82, Greek text and English trans. in Berger (2013) pp. 104-7. The Greek word for bath attendant (περιχύτην) etymologically comes from “one that pours around.” The bath attendant is known as Perichytes, a transliteration of the Greek word for bath attendant.

Both the tenth-century Byzantine text known as the Anonymous Treu and the Patria of Constantinople, put together about 989, described the ass-driver as naked and a bath attendant. Cameron & Herrin (1988) p. 258. The ass-driver / bath attendant most plausibly didn’t have his penis covered. The bath attendant probably had an erect penis, as depicted in the Priapus fountain sculpture (House of Vettii) and the bath attendant mosaic (House of Menander) found at Pompeii. On the macrophallic bath attendant, Clarke (1998) pp. 129-36.

According to the Patria, a statue of Priapos stood in Constantinople. The statue “holds in his left hand his erect private parts, for he clearly reveals the seed hidden in the earth.” Patria 2.12, trans. Berger (2013) p. 55.

In addition, the ass of a human sculpture in the Hippodrome of Constantinople was the focus of public attention. A Constantinopolitan house-owner (“a certain Xenophon”) had demanded that, in exchange for selling his house to make way for the Hagia Sophia, a sculpture of him be erected in the Hippodrome and honored by charioteers. The emperor agreed. He had the statue erected and ordered:

that his backside should be mockingly reverenced by the charioteers before mounting their chariots. This has lasted to this day, and he is called the ruler of the underworld.

Patria 4.5, trans. Berger (2013) p. 239.

[10] Parastaseis 64, Greek text and English translation from Cameron & Herrin (1988) pp. 146-7. For συμφορά, I’ve used Berger’s translation “disaster” from the corresponding text in the Patria. See subsequent note. The Parastaseis was written in eighth-century Constantinople, probably by descendants of aristocratic families long-established there. Anderson (2011).

The Patria, a compilation finished in Constantinople about 990, adds an additional note of shame to Kranos’s words about the ass and the man:

{he said} “One day an ass will be like a man” and “What a disaster if a man is not ashamed to follow an ass!”

“ὥς ποτε ὄνος ἄνθρωπος ἔσται,” και “ὦ τῆς συμφορᾶς, ὄτι ἄνθρωπος ὄνῳ ἀκολουθεῖν οὐκ αἰσχύνεται.”

Patria 2.82, Greek text and English trans. from Berger (2013) pp. 106-7. For consistency in the use of terms, I’ve substituted “ass” for “donkey” in Berger’s translation. The only substantial difference from the Greek text in Parastaseis 64 is the additional qualifier “not ashamed” (οὐκ αισχύνεται).

[11] In Apuleius, Asinus aureus (Metamorphoses) 11.8, the festival procession includes an ass and a man:

an ass with wings stuck on walking alongside a decrepit old man, such that you might call him a Bellerophon and the ass a Pegasus, and yet laugh at them both.

asinum pinnis agglutinatis adambulantem cuidam seni debili, ut illum quidem Bellerophontem, hunc autem diceres Pegasum, tamen rideres utrumque.

Latin text and English trans. from Harrison (2012) p. 378. Pegasus as “an ass with wings stuck on” and Bellerophon as “a decrepit old man” are comic reversals of heroic figures. The pair functions as a “fittingly climactic conclusion” to the festival procession, “symbolic recapitulation of previous events in the novel’s plot.” Harrison (2012) p. 385. Octavian’s ass-driver and ass, interpreted as comic reversal of a heroic figure, may well have been a significant influence on Apuleius.

[12] Parastaseis 64, Greek and English trans. Cameron & Herrin (1988) pp. 146-7. The subsequent sentence gives scholarly seriousness to the problem of interpreting the ass-driver and ass:

This problem, which Kranos expounded, was found in the book of Leo the Great, according to Ligurius the astronomer and consul of the same Emperor Leo.

Id. This philosophical problem is similar to those that make up Aristotle’s Problemata. That was a corpus of popular philosophic conundrums that developed over centuries. In the Patria, the philosopher Karos emphasizes the ominous prophecy of the sculptures that the philosophers discussed:

All this appears to be bad in my opinion, for if these statues tell the truth when they are put to the test, why does Constantinople still stand?

Patria 2.82, trans. Berger (2013) p. 107. The great Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes recounted from the Parastaseis the philosophers’ interpretation of the ass-driver and ass sculptures. He interpreted their prophetic meaning as “one day in the future fools (donkeys) will be valued above true wisdom.” Cameron & Herrin (1988) p. 258. An implicit question would have been obvious to contemporary readers: given the philosophers’ and Tzetzes’s understanding of the prophetic meaning of the ass-driver and ass, why was Octavian the victor at the battle of Actium?

The Parastaseis is subtly and wryly comic. The names of the seven Athenian philosophers who went to Constantinople are Kranos, Karos, Pelops, Apelles, Nerva, Silvanus, and Kyrvos. These names apparently were fabricated to be evocative and amusing. Moreover, a stern Byzantine official (praepositus) has the self-absorbed name Narcissus:

Narcissus, a praepositus, gave the philosopher {Kranos} a slap and said to him, “You are benighted; answer the sun like the sun he is.” When Kranos turned the other cheek, Narcissus gave him <another slap>.

Parastaseis 64, trans. Cameron & Herrin (1988) p. 145. The words “another slap” are a plausible editorial interpretation for apparently missing text. For the humor in deeply Christian Byzantine, cf. Matthew 17:5, 5:39.

The humor of the Parastaseis doesn’t mean that it is non-factual and non-serious. The Parastaseis has been called “a parody, a play with historical (or, rather, pseudo-historical) facts and names.” Kazhdan, Sherry & Angelide (1999) p. 311. But the Parastaseis is more than a parody. It includes many, well-attested historical facts. It promotes the interests of the old Constantinople aristocracy by asserting “a criterion for imperial service above simple loyalty” and “forms of knowledge that cannot be bent to imperial will.” Anderson (2011) p. 19. Similar conflicts can be perceived in the textual history of Aristotle’s advice to the Alexander the Great in the Secret of Secrets, and in the Persian intellectual Ibn al-Muqaffa translating into Arabic Kalilah and Dimnah.

[13] In support of gynocentric ideology, classical scholarship has tended to associate penile penetration with asserting dominance. Penile penetration is better understood as giving pleasure and life in ancient Greece and Roman and in all societies throughout the ages.

Recognize penile penetration to be a desired good has important implications for interpreting the ass-driver and ass sculptures, as well as the ass-lion-victory painting at Pompeii. Regarding the Pompeii painting, Clarke stated:

Since the ass is penetrating a lion, not a lioness, it would be hard to read the scene as an allegory of a human male mounting a human female. It’s certainly not a very flattering representation if it’s supposed to stand for lovemaking between human beings.

Clarke (2008) p. 310. In another publication Clarke recognized that the painting doesn’t show the sex of the lion/lioness. Clarke (2007) p. 261, n. 3. The sex of the animal has no relevance in this context. Lovemaking between human beings takes a variety of forms. A male penetrating a female or a male penetrating a male can be a flattering and loving act. Based upon my philological study (careful study of the words he has written in his scholarly publications), I believe that Clarke understands this. He didn’t mean what his words above say. Yet one must also recognize a broader context. Scholars today facilely disparage men’s sexuality and regularly fail in seeing, reading, and understanding in relation to men.

Ass-driver and ass sculptures and the Pompeian ass-lion-victory painting might signify victory as affiliation, rather than dominance. Octavian had close personal familial relations with Antony. He probably would have preferred to be united with Antony in a loving relationship than to be fighting with him as an enemy. Like the lion laying down with the lamb, the lion laying down with the ass in the Pompeiian painting might signify an astonishing victory of peaceful, loving relationships. Cf. Isaiah 65:25.

[14] Athena was much more known for wisdom than sex appeal. Yet Choniates in his major historical work responded with erotic sense to a statue of Athena in Constantinople:

She stood about thirty feet high and her draperies were made of the same bronze material in which the rest of the statue had been cast. Her tunic reached to her feet and was bunched up in many parts, so that no part of her body which nature ordained should be covered, could be seen. The war-like girdle around her waist was drawn quite tight. And over her pointed breasts, she wore a decorated layer like an aegis, which fell from her shoulders and bore a depiction of a Gorgon’s head on it. She wore no tunic at her throat which stretched upwards on a high neck; it was an unbeatable sight in terms of the pleasure it gave. The bronze was so well crafted to give a convincing imitation of everything that even the lips gave the impression that, if you waited long enough, you would hear a gentle voice. Even the swelling of the veins showed through and the whole body, as if it were supple, bent where it should, and despite not being alive, had the look of a living thing, filling your eyes with desire. The crest on her head sloped downwards in awe-inspiring fashion. Her hair was wound in braids and fastened behind, while some spilled out over her forehead, and was a pleasure to behold. While as to her hands, the left one was lifting the folds of her garment, while the other was stretched out southwards to the horizon.

Niketas Choniates, Annals 558-9, trans. Papamastorakis (2009) p. 219. The English translation in Magoulias (1984), pp. 305-6, greatly dulls the eroticism in Choniates’s ekphrasis.

A bronze nude may not have been in itself troubling to Byzantine sensibility. A miniature nude bronze figure exists in a portrait of St. John the Divine in a Byzantine Gospel Book. See British Museum, Add. Mss. 5112, fol. 134. The British Museum catalog dates that portrait to the third quarter of the twelfth century. Cutler (1968), p. 115, states: “the presence in this sacred context of a nude figure, apparently in cast bronze, is distinctly anomalous.” It may be anomalous only with respect to surviving evidence.

[15] Choniates associated manliness with “our duty to honor truth as being more important and precious than our own dear friends.” He condemned barbarians understanding of manliness as cruelty. He disparaged those who “separated manliness from the correspondent virtues and claimed it for themselves.” Underscoring the eroticism of manliness given his ekphrasis of Athena, Choniates described Athena as “the patroness of manliness and wisdom even though she was but a symbol of these.” Niketas Choniates, Annals 402, 513, 650, 559, trans. Magoulias (1984) pp. 221, 283, 359, 306.

Choniates harshly condemned many of Andronikos I’s actions. Nonetheless, Choniates appreciated Andronikos’s manliness:

As was to be expected, insidious plots and clandestine intrigues were hatched against Andronikos while others were contrived in the open, but Andronikos swept these away like so many spider webs and scattered them about like children’s playthings made of sand, relying on his manliness and the fact that he surpassed his enemies in mother-wit to the degree that irrational creatures are inferior to rational ones. In his many contentions with his adversaries, he always turned them to flight and carried off Eudokia’s love as a reward.

Annals 104, from Greek trans. id. p. 60. Andronikos had exceptionally strong and independent sexuality. Choniates regarded that as detracting from his manliness, but not his sexual success:

Andronikos gave himself over to wanton pleasures, adorned himself like a fop, and paraded in the streets escorted by bodyguards bearing silver bows; these men were tall in stature and sported their first growth of beard and blond hair tinged with red. Henceforth Andronikos pursued his quarry, bewitching her with his love charms. He was lavish in the display of his emotions, and he was endowed, moreover, with a wondrous comeliness; he was like a young shoot climbing up a fir tree. The acknowledged king of dandies, he was titillated by fine long robes, and especially those that fall down over the buttocks and thighs, are slit, and appear to be woven on the body. But his manliness was diminished, and he was constantly anxious; he lost his sobriety and faculty of reason, and the beast of prey shed his gravity of deportment. Philippa, utterly conquered, consented to the marriage bed, forsook both home and family, and followed after her lover {Andronikos}.

Annals 139, trans. id. p. 79. On Choniates’s complex perspective on Andronikos, Kaldellis (2009) pp. 93-101.

[16] Niketas Choniates, Annals 649, trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 358. The Greek text is from Van Dieten (1975). The page numbers of the latter provide the text reference numbers for the Annals. The subsequent quote is from Annals 650, trans. id. p. 359. Both are from the last chapter of the Annals. Some scholars regard that as a separate work and call it De Signis or De Satuis. It has survived only at the end of two thirteenth-century manuscripts of the Annals, Laurentianus IX 24 and Oxoniensis Roe 22. Papamastorakis (2009) p. 209.

[17] The Byzantine historian Joannes Zonaras, writing in the twelfth century, followed Plutarch in naming the ass-driver Eutychus and the ass Nikon. See Zonaras, Epitome Historiarum 10.30.

The Byzantines felt strongly the power of images. The Parastaseis warns:

Consider these things truly, Philokalos {lover of beauty}, and pray that you do not fall into temptation, and take care when you look at old statues, especially pagan ones.

Parastaseis 28, trans. Cameron & Herrin (1988) p. 91. The power of statues wasn’t fixed. It could be controlled and manipulated. James (1996) pp. 15-8.

The change in the names for the ass-driver and ass in Choniates’s Annals probably represents Choniates’s deliberate choice. Choniates had impressive classical learning and almost surely knew of Plutarch’s account of the sculptures, even if only through Zonaras’s Epitome Historiarum. Choniates is “one of the most reliable and trustworthy {sources} when it comes to what was destroyed in the fires and plunder of 1203-1204.” Kaldellis (2016) p. 738. However, a naked, ithyphallic ass-driver and ass presented serious interpretive challenges in Byzantium. Byzantine ominous prophetic interpretations of those sculptures were inconsistent with Octavian’s victory in the Battle of Actium. Choniates alleviated that historical-prophetic problem.

[18] Mango (1963) p. 58, n. 16 (internal references omitted). Citing Vita S. Lucae Stylitae, Mango adds that the ass-driver “was stolen by western merchants some time between 935 and 959.” Id. Given the witnesses of Zonaras, Tzetzes, and Choniates, the ass-driver sculpture most likely was present in the Constantinople Hippodrome until 1204. The writer of Vita S. Lucae Stylitae plausibly regarded the ass-driver sculpture as embarrassing to Constantinople and fictionally got rid of it through bad persons acting wrongly.

[19] Parastaseis 64, Greek and English trans. Cameron & Herrin (1988) pp. 146-7.

[20] Cameron & Herrin (1988) p. 258.

[21] Further philological study might consider whether any relevant Greek texts provide a plausibly parallel formulation. The text of the Parastaseis is “frequently corrupt and even lacunose.” Id. p. 2.

[22] Even regarding men as pigs or as dogs is better than regarding men as generic, sexless human beings.

[images] (1) Bronze Carthaginian naval ram from the Battle of the Egadi Islands (First Punic War, 241 BGC). Image thanks to Sb2s3 and Wikimedia Commons. The Athlit ram, dated between 530 and 270 BGC, is similar. On the rams displayed in Octavian’s Actium memorial, see Murray & Petsas (1989) pp. 34-40. (2) Marble statue known as the Tusculum Octavian. The head, showing Octavian’s features, was added to a sculpture body carved earlier. Louvre Museum (Paris): item Ma 1251 (MR 328), Borghese Collection purchase, 1807. Image thanks to Jastrow and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Being crowned by Nike (the goddess of Victory), an ass mounts a lion. Painting from a tavern in Roman Pompeii, now held in Archaeological Museum, Naples. Under Wikimedia Commons thorough analysis of copyright law, this image and other images of ancient paintings from Pompeii are in the public domain in the U.S. I have enhanced the brightness and contrast of this image to make it more legible. (4) Priapus sculpture from House of the Vettii, Pompeii. Now held by Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei, inv. 87265. This sculpture served as a fountain, with water flowing through its penis. Photo by Jordi Miralles. A Priapus statuette and a Priapus painting (in the House of Vettii) were also uncovered at Pompeii. Here’s more on ancient Roman perceptions of Priapus. (5) Mosaic of bath attendant from House of the Menander, Pompei, at the entryway to the caldarium. Dated 40 – 20 BGC by Clarke (1998) p. 125.


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