Leander to Hero: it’s your turn to swim

ἡ μὲν Σηστὸν ἔναιεν, ὁ δὲ πτολίεθρον Ἀβύδου,
ἀμφοτέρων πολίων περικαλλέες ἀστέρες ἄμφω,
εἴκελοι ἀλλήλοισι.

She dwelt in Sestos, and he in the city of Abydos, each the fairest star in each of their two cities, like to each other.

Hero looking for Leander

Mittit Abydenus, quam mallet ferre, salutem,
si cadat unda maris, Sesti puella, tibi.
si mihi di faciles, si sunt in amore secundi,
invitis oculis haec mea verba leges.
sed non sunt faciles; nam cur mea vota morantur
currere me nota nec patiuntur aqua?

Leander, he of Abydos, sends to you, Hero, young woman of Sestos, the greetings he would rather you bring, if only the waves of maleness should fall. If the gods are favorable to me, if they assist me in love, you will read these my words with reluctantly seeing eyes. But the gynocentric gods are not favorable, for why do they delay my vows of equal love, and urge me to hurry once again through familiar waters?

Quam mihi misisti verbis, Leandre, salutem
ut possim missam rebus habere, veni!
longa mora est nobis omnis, quae gaudia differt.
da veniam fassae; non patienter amo!
urimur igne pari, sed sum tibi viribus inpar:
fortius ingenium suspicor esse viris.
ut corpus, teneris ita mens infirma puellis —
deficiam, parvi temporis adde moram!

So that I, Leander, may enjoy in very truth the initial love claims you have sent in words, you come! Long to me is all delay that defers our joys. Forgive me what I say — I cannot be patient for equal love. We burn with equal fires, but I am not equal to you in my socially devalued manliness. Men, I think, must have a stronger disposition toward women. Body and soul are frail that pander to tender women. Delay but a little longer, and I’ll be dead to you: you will never see me again.

Parce continuis,
deprecor, lamentis;
ne, qua vincularis,
legem Amoris
nimium queraris.

Cease, I beg, your incessant complaints. For you are not enchained; you complain too much of the law of Love.

Vos modo venando, modo rus geniale colendo
ponitis in varia tempora longa mora.
aut fora vos retinent aut unctae dona palaestrae,
flectitis aut freno colla sequacis equi;
nunc volucrem laqueo, nunc piscem ducitis hamo;
diluitur posito serior hora mero.
his mihi summotae, vel si minus acriter urar,
quod faciam, superest praeter amare nihil.
quod superest facio, teque, o mea sola voluptas,
plus quoque, quam reddi quod mihi possit, amo.

We men, now hunting, and now farming the marital acres of the countryside, consume long hours in the varied tasks that you decree. But you, either the marketplace holds you, or you’re lubricated for wrestling with men, or you turn the neck of your responsive steed with the bit in his mouth. Now you take his bird with your snare, now the fish swallows your hook. The later hours you waste away with wine in front of you. I am denied these things. But even were I less fiercely burning, I can do nothing other than to seek to be loved. That is my only delight. I love with even greater love than could be returned to me.

quaeque tuum, miror, causa moretur iter;
aut mare prospiciens odioso concita vento
corripio verbis aequora paene tuis;
aut, ubi saevitiae paulum gravis unda remisit,
posse quidem, sed te nolle venire, queror;
dumque queror lacrimae per amantia lumina manant

I marvel upon what can keep you from your way. Looking forth upon the sea, I chide the billows stirred by the hateful wind in words almost your own. When the heavy wave has laid aside a little its fierce mood, I complain that you indeed could come, but will not. While I complain, tears course down from my eyes that love you.

λάζεο πῦρ, κραδίη, μὴ δείδιθι νήχυτον ὕδωρ.
δεῦρό μοι εἰς φιλότητα· τί δὴ ῥοθίων ἀλεγίζεις;
ἀγνώσσεις, ὅτι Κύπρις ἀπόσπορός ἐστι θαλάσσης,
καὶ κρατέει πόντοιο καὶ ἡμετέρων ὀδυνάων

Seize the fire, my heart, fear not the full-flowing water. Come forth to love! What care you for the surge? Do you not know that Cypris is offspring of the sea and mistress over the deep and over our sufferings?

hanc ego suspiciens, “faveas, dea candida,” dixi,
“et subeant animo Latmia saxa tuo!
non sinit Endymion te pectoris esse severi.
flecte, precor, vultus ad mea furta tuos!
tu dea mortalem caelo delapsa petebas;
vera loqui liceat! — quam sequor ipsa dea est.
neu referam mores caelesti pectore dignos,
forma nisi in veras non cadit illa deas.
a Veneris facie non est prior ulla tuaque.”

Lifting my eyes to the Moon, I say, “Favor me, bright goddess, and let the stones of Latmos rise in your mind. Endymion would not allow you to be austere of heart. Turn your face, I pray, to aid my secret enterprise. Goddess, you came down from the sky to seek a mortal. May I speak truth! – she whom I follow is herself a goddess. Without calling to mind her virtues, worthy of heavenly breasts, her beauty doesn’t appear except among true goddesses. After the beautiful face of Venus and yours, there’s none greater than hers.”

ἄλλη Κύπρις ἄνασσα, σαοφροσύνῃ τε καὶ αἰδοῖ.
οὐδέ ποτ᾿ ἀγρομένῃσι συνωμίλησε γυναιξίν,
οὐδὲ χορὸν χαρίεντα μετήλυθεν ἥλικος ἥβης
μῶμον ἀλευομένη ζηλήμονα θηλυτεράων —
καὶ γὰρ ἐπ᾿ ἀγλαΐῃ ζηλήμονές εἰσι γυναῖκες —,
ἀλλ᾿ αἰεὶ Κυθέρειαν ἱλασκομένη Ἀφροδίτην
πολλάκι καὶ τὸν Ἔρωτα παρηγορέεσκε θυηλαῖς
μητρὶ σὺν Οὐρανίῃ φλογερὴν τρομέουσα φαρέτρην.

She is a second Cyprian goddess in temperance and reverence. Never does she mingle among the gatherings of women, nor enter the graceful dance of young girls of her years. She shuns the word of blame, the envious word of women, for always at sight of beauty are women envious. Yet often she appeases Aphrodite the Cytherean, and often she would assuage Love too with sacrifices, together with his Heavenly mother. She fears his quiver of flame.

iamne putas exisse domo mea gaudia, nutrix,
an vigilant omnes, et timet ille suos?
iamne suas umeris illum deponere vestes,
pallade iam pingui tinguere membra putas?
adnuit illa fere; non nostra quod oscula curet,
sed movet obrepens somnus anile caput.
postque morae minimum “iam certe navigat,” inquam,
“lentaque dimotis bracchia iactat aquis.”

Old maid, do you think my joy has left her house already, or perhaps everyone is awakening, and she fears her family? Do you think she is now slipping off the robe from her shoulder and rubbing rich oil into her limbs? The old maid nods assent, not that she cares for our equal kissing, but slumber creeps upon her and slacks her ancient head. Then, after slightest pause, I say, “Now surely she is setting forth on her voyage, and she is parting the waters with the stroke of her tender arms.”

an medio possis, quaerimus, esse freto.
et modo prospicimus, timida modo voce precamur,
ut tibi det faciles utilis aura vias;
auribus incertas voces captamus, et omnem
adventus strepitum credimus esse tui.
Sic ubi deceptae pars est mihi maxima noctis
acta, subit furtim lumina fessa sopor.

I ask whether you could be mid-way across the strait. And now I look forth, and now in timid tones I pray that a favoring breeze will give you an easy course. My ears grab at uncertain notes, and at every sound I am sure that you have come. When the greatest part of the night has passed for me in such delusions, sleep steals upon my wearied eyes.

Saevus Amor ultima
urget in discrimina.
non ignis incendia,
Bosfori non aspera
perorrescit equora.

Cruel love drives us into the utmost dangers. It shrinks from neither raging fire nor the rough seas of the Bosporus.

Vincit Amor omnia,
regit Amor monia.
fuga tantum
fallitur amantum.

Love conquers everything, love rules everything. Only by the flight of lovers is he cheated.

forsitan invitus mecum tamen, inprobe, dormis,
et, quamquam non vis ipse venire, venis.
nam modo te videor prope iam spectare natantem,
bracchia nunc umeris umida ferre meis,
nunc dare, quae soleo, madidis velamina membris,
pectora nunc nostro iuncta fovere sinu
multaque praeterea linguae reticenda modestae,
quae fecisse iuvat, facta referre pudet.
me miseram! brevis est haec et non vera voluptas;
nam tu cum somno semper abire soles.

Perhaps, false one, you pass the night with me although against your will. Perhaps you will come, though yourself you do not wish to come. For now I seem to see you already swimming near, seem to feel your wet arms about my neck. You throw your usual clothes about your dripping limbs and warm your bosom clasped to mine. We do many things of which a modest tongue should not speak. Memory delights in them, but telling brings a blush. Ah me! Brief and unreal pleasures are these, for you always leave when sleep leaves.

Παρθένε, σὸν δι᾿ ἔρωτα καὶ ἄγριον οἶδμα περήσω,
εἰ πυρὶ παφλάζοιτο καὶ ἄπλοον ἔσσεται ὕδωρ.
οὐ τρομέω βαρὺ χεῖμα τεὴν μετανεύμενος εὐνήν,
οὐ βρόμον ἠχήεντα περιπτώσσοιμι θαλάσσης·
ἀλλ᾿ αἰεὶ κατὰ νύκτα φορεύμενος ὑγρὸς ἀκοίτης
νήξομαι Ἑλλήσποντον ἀγάρροον· οὐχ ἕκαθεν γὰρ
ἀντία σεῖο πόληος ἔχω πτολίεθρον Ἀβύδου.

“Young man, for the sake of your love I will cross even the wild surges, even should they seethe with fire, and the water be closed to ships. I fear no heavy storm in journeying to your bed. I would not cringe before the resounding crash of the sea, but every other night, I your wife, wet and sea-tossed, will swim the strong-flowing Hellespont. Not far off, opposite your city, is mine, the city of Sestos.”

firmius, o, cupidi tandem coeamus amantes,
nec careant vera gaudia nostra fide!
cur ego tot viduas exegi frigida noctes?
cur totiens a me, lente morator, abes?
est mare, confiteor, non nunc tractabile nanti;
nocte sed hesterna lenior aura fuit.
cur ea praeterita est? cur non ventura timebas?
tam bona cur periit, nec tibi rapta via est?
protinus ut similis detur tibi copia cursus,
hoc melior certe, quo prior, illa fuit.

O more firmly let our eager loves be knit, and our joys be faithful and equal! Why have I passed so many cold and lonely nights? Why, O tardy loiterer, are you so often away from me? The sea, I grant, is not now fit for the swimmer, but yesterday night the gale was gentler, and it was your turn. Why did you let it pass? Why did you fear what was not to come? Why did so fair a night go by for nothing, and you not seize upon the way? Grant that a similar chance for coming be given again to you soon. But this chance was better, surely, since it was earlier.

ferre tamen possum patientius omnia, quam si
otia nescio qua paelice captus agis,
in tua si veniunt alieni colla lacerti,
fitque novus nostri finis amoris amor.
a, potius peream, quam crimine vulnerer isto,
fataque sint culpa nostra priora tua!
nec, quia venturi dederis mihi signa doloris,
haec loquor aut fama sollicitata nova.
omnia sed vereor—quis enim securus amavit?

Yet I could with greater patience bear all things other than to have you linger in the bonds of some other man’s charms, see other arms clasped round your neck, and a new love end the love we bear. Ah, may I rather perish than be wounded by such a crime! May fate overtake me before you incur that guilt! I do not say these words because you have given sign that such grief will come to me, or because some recent tale has made me anxious, but because I fear everything — for who that loves was ever free from care?

effice nos plures, evicta per aequora lapsus,
o penitus toto corde recepte mihi!
in tua castra redi, socii desertor amoris;
ponuntur medio cur mea membra toro?
quod timeas, non est! auso Venus ipsa favebit,
sternet et aequoreas aequore nata vias.
ire libet medias ipsi mihi saepe per undas,
sed solet hoc maribus tutius esse fretum.

Ah, make us one more, glide over the conquered wave, O you, you whom I have welcomed to all my innermost heart! Come back to camp, deserter from mutual love. Why should my body be alone in the center of our bed? There is nothing for you to fear. Venus herself will smile upon your venture. She, born of the sea, will make the paths of the sea smooth for you. Often I myself feel prompted to swim through the midst of the waves, but it’s your turn, and the strait is usually safer for women.

Forsitan ad reditum metuas ne tempora desint,
aut gemini nequeas ferre laboris onus.
at nos diversi medium coeamus in aequor
obviaque in summis oscula demus aquis,
atque ita quisque suas iterum redeamus ad urbes;
exiguum, sed plus quam nihil illud erit.

Perhaps you fear no time for you to return, or that you won’t be able to endure the effort of coming and going. Then let us both from opposite sides come together in mid-sea, give each other kisses on the waters’ crest, and then return again each to our own places. That would be little, but equal, and better than nothing at all.

πάντοθι δ᾿ ἀγρομένοιο δυσάντεϊ κύματος ὁρμῇ
τυπτόμενος πεφόρητο, ποδῶν δέ οἱ ὤκλασεν ὁρμή,
καὶ σθένος ἦν ἀνόνητον ἀκοιμήτων παλαμάων.
πολλὴ δ᾿ αὐτόματος χύσις ὕδατος ἔρρεε λαιμῷ,
καὶ ποτὸν ἀχρήιστον ἀμαιμακέτου πίεν ἅλμης.

As the wave on every side hunted him with irresistable force, he was beaten and hurled along. The thrust of his feet grew slack, and useless was the strength of his ever-flailing hands. Great waves of water poured themselves into his throat, and he drank unneeded drinks of the irresistible brine.

He yielded to her. He didn’t insist: “No more women first. Staying at home is much less dangerous than swimming the sea. Hero, it’s your turn to be a hero.”

Hero laments dead Leander

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


Hero and Leander is myth that was well-known in the Roman Empire more than two thousand years ago. Leander and Hero lived across the Hellespont strait from each other; he in Abydos, she in Sestos. Hero was a beautiful woman who made men feel sexually harassed. Leander was an equally beautiful and splendidly charming man. Hero fell in love with Leander. They began secretly to spend nights together, with Leander undertaking the burden of swimming across the Hellespont every night to be with Hero. One stormy winter night, Leander, unwilling to just say no to Hero, died attempting to swim across the Hellespont to her. Hero realized that she was complicit in the gynocentric oppression that took her beloved Leander’s life. She then committed suicide, a relatively rare event for women compared to men.

The earliest reference to Hero and Leander is Virgil, Georgics 3.258-263. Horace, Epistles 1.3.3 probably also refers to the myth. Ovid and Musaeus provide the most extensive ancient treatments of Hero and Leander. With keen insight into gynocentric oppression, Lord Byron in 1810 swam across the Hellespont starting from Sesto and going to Abydos. That’s the initial swim Hero would have undertaken in sharing the burden of swimming with Leander. Byron then wrote a sardonic poem about his experience, “Written after swimming from Sestos to Abydos.” In a purer romantic vein, John Keats in 1817 wrote a sonnet “On a Picture of Leander.” The best-known version of the myth today is that of Christopher Marlowe and George Chapman (1598). For the literary history of the myth, Dümmler (2012) p. 414, Montiglio (2016), and Montiglio (2017).

All the Greek quotes above are from Musaeus’s Hero and Leander. Little is known about Musaeus. Some manuscripts give him the epithet “grammarian {γραμματικός}.” His Hero and Leander is now dated to the second half of the fifth century. Dümmler (2012) p. 413. Only 343 verses long, Hero and Leander generically called an epyllion (little epic). It shows Christian influences and has been been read as a Neo-Platonic Christian allegory concerning the soul. Gelzer (1973), introduction. Hero and Leander generically has features of both ancient Greek epics and ancient Greek novels. It’s an unusual “hexameter novel.” Dümmler (2012) passim. On sexual symmetry in the ancient Greek novels, Konstan (1994).

In the above quotations of Musaeus’s Hero and Leander,  Gelzer (1973) supplies the Greek text. I’ve used Gelzer’s translation, adapted it slightly, and made small but significant changes. A Greek text is freely available online. The English translations of Stapylton (1645) and Sikes (1920) are also freely available online. Specific citations for the above Greek quotes are (by line number in Gelzer’s Greek): 21-23 (She dwelt in Sestos…), 247-50 (Seize the fire…), 33-40 (She is a second Cyprian goddess…), 203-9 (Young {man}, for the sake of your love…), 324-8 (As the wave on every side…).

The above Latin quotes in elegiac couplets are from Ovid, Heroides 18, “Leander to Hero {Leander Heroni}” (Latin, A.S. Kline’s translation) and Heroides 19, “Hero to Leander {Hero Leandro}” (Latin text; A.S. Kline’s translation). The English translations above draw upon the English translation in Showerman (1914), which is a fairly literal, prose translation. I’ve made small but significant changes to Showerman’s translation. Specific citations are (by poem and line number in the Latin of Heroides): 18.1-6 (Leander, he of Abydos…), 19.1-8 (So that I, Leander…), 18.9-18 (We men, now hunting…), 19.20-25 (I marvel upon what…), 18.61-69 (Lifting my eyes to the Moon…), 19.41-48 (Old maid, do you think…), 19.50-56 (I ask whether you could be mid-way…), 19.57-66 (Perhaps, false one…), 19.67-76 (O more firmly let our eager loves…), 19.101-109 (Yet I could with greater patience…), 19.155-162 (Ah, makes us one more…), 19.165-170 (Perhaps you fear no time…). For an earlier cultural appropriation of Ovid’s Heroides, “Leander to Hero” and “Hero to Leander,” Radcliffe (1673).

The three quotes above from the Latin sequence are from Parce Continuis, an eleventh-century poem. It survives in two manuscripts: Florence, Bibliotheca Laurenziana, Aedilium ecclesia codex 197, fol. 131v, and Augsburg, Bibliothek des Bischöflichen Ordinariats 5, fol. 1r. The Latin texts and English translations (de-lineated) are from Traill (1986), except for the first English translation. That I’ve taken from Stock (1969) on the grounds of its better poetic merit to my ears. Specific citations are (by line numbers in Traill’s text): 1-5 {1a} (Cease, I beg you…), 59-63 {from 4b} (Cruel love drives us…), 124-7 {from 7b} (Love conquers everything…).

[images] (1) Last Watch of Hero (looking for Leander). Painting by Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton. Made in 1880. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Hero laments the dead Leander. Painting by Jan van den Hoecke. Made about 1636. Preserved under accession # GG_727 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna, Austria). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Dümmler, Nicola Nina. 2012. “Musaeus, Hero and Leander: Between Epic and Novel.” Pp. 411-446 in Baumbach, Manuel, and Silvio Bär, eds. Brill’s Companion to Greek and Latin Epyllion and its Reception. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Gelzer, Thomas, ed. and trans. 1973. Musaeus. Hero and Leander. Pp. 291-420 in C. A. Trypanis, T. Gelzer, Cedric H. Whitman, eds and trans. Callimachus, Musaeus. Aetia, Iambi, Hecale and Other Fragments. Hero and Leander. Loeb Classical Library 421. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Konstan, David. 1994. Sexual symmetry: love in the ancient novel and related genres. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Montiglio, Silvia. 2016. “The End? The Death of Hero and Leander from Antiquity to the Rediscovery of Musaeus in Western Europe.” Antike Und Abendland. 62 (1): 1-17.

Montiglio, Silvia. 2017. The Myth of Hero and Leander: the history and reception of an enduring Greek legend. London: I.B. Tauris. (Hardin’s review)

Radcliffe, Alexander. 1673. Ovidius exulans, or, Ovid travestie: a mock-poem on five epistles of Ovid: viz. Dido to Ænæas, Leander to Hero, Laodameia to Protesilaus, Hero to Leander, Penelope to Ulysses: in English burlesque, by Naso Scarronnomimus. London: Printed by Peter Lillicrap for Samuel Speed and sold by most booksellers in London and Westminster.

Showerman, Grant, ed. and trans., revised by G. P. Goold. 1914. Ovid. Heroides. Amores. Loeb Classical Library 41. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sikes, E. E., trans. 1920. Hero & Leander: translated from the Greek of Musaeus. London: Methuen.

Stapylton, Robert, trans. 1645. Musaeus. Erotopaignion / The Loves of Hero and Leander: a Greeke poem. Oxford: Printed by Henry Hall.

Stock, Brian. 1969. “Parce Continuis: Some Textual and Interpretive Notes.” Mediaeval Studies. 31: 164-173.

Traill, David A. 1986. “Parce Continuis: A New Text and Interpretive Notes.” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 21: 114—24.

curing Encolpius’s impotence: Proselenos & Oenothea unlike Jesus

Jesus healing blind man

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, persons sought the help of gods and physicians to cure their infirmities and diseases. Jesus of Nazareth about two millennia ago quickly acquired the reputation of a good physician among many bad ones. In the Satyricon, written about 65 GC, the old women Proselenos and Oenothea attempted to cure Encolpius of his impotence. These women’s healing techniques had similarities with Jesus’s methods of healing. But unlike Jesus did for the blind man, Proselenos and Oenothea effected no lasting cure for Encolpius’s impotence.

Jesus, who was a fully human man, acted in earthy ways. Here’s how Jesus cured a blind man:

he spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So the blind man went and washed and came back able to see.

{ ἔπτυσεν χαμαὶ καὶ ἐποίησεν πηλὸν ἐκ τοῦ πτύσματος καὶ ἐπέχρισεν αὐτοῦ τὸν πηλὸν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὕπαγε νίψαι εἰς τὴν κολυμβήθραν τοῦ Σιλωάμ ὃ ἑρμηνεύεται ἀπεσταλμένος ἀπῆλθεν οὖν καὶ ἐνίψατο καὶ ἦλθεν βλέπων } [1]

According to Christians, this was a cure that lasted longer than life. The formerly blind man declared that Jesus was a prophet and a man from God. He witnessed to the miracle Jesus had done for him. He became a disciple of Jesus. Jesus promised his disciples resurrection and eternal life. Christians believe that promise for the blind man who gained sight.

Proselenos sought to cure Encolpius’s impotence in a way that seems to mock Christian belief. “To sign with a cross {cum cruce signare}” persons’ foreheads was already a common Christian practice by the second century.[2] Imagine that the impotent Encolpius knew this Christian practice and watched Proselenos do this to him:

She pulled from her bosom a twisted strand of various-colored threads and bound it around my neck. Then she mixed some dust with her saliva, dipped her middle finger in it, and signed my forehead as I tried to disengage from her.

{ Illa de sinu licium protulit varii coloris filis intortum cervicemque vinxit meam. Mox turbatum sputo pulverem medio sustulit digito frontemque repugnantis signavit } [3]

A profoundly wise Greek woman counseled Maximianus that men’s impotence signifies “universal chaos {generale chaos}.” Did Proselenos tell Encolpius when she signed his forehead, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return”?[4] That would seem not a cure for impotence, but a ritual expression of it.

Apart from Christian practices, similar practices of anointing are attested in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Persius, a Latin poet who died in 62 GC, described the behavior of an old woman:

Look — a grandma or superstitious aunt has from his cradle
lifted a boy and first protects his forehead and wet lips
with her wicked finger and magical saliva.
She’s an expert at warding off the withering evil eye.

{ Ecce avia aut metuens divum matertera cunis
exemit puerum frontemque atque uda labella
infami digito et lustralibus ante salivis
expiat, urentis oculos inhibere perita } [5]

The “wicked finger {infamis digitus}” is the middle finger. Like Proselenos, this old woman anoints a male’s forehead with her middle finger and saliva. She sought not to overcome his impotence, but to ward off the evil eye. That evil eye connects to Jesus’s cure of the blind man. However, unlike Jesus and Proselenos, this woman didn’t mix saliva with mud.

In treating Encolpius’s impotence, Proselenos moved from a Christian analogue to a Homeric one. The phrase “she pulled from her bosom a twisted strand of various-colored threads {illa de sinu licium protulit varii coloris filis intortum}” would be interpreted, within a culture sophisticated enough to understand both Virgilian centos and Homeric centos, as a translated quote of “she loosed from her bosom the embroidered, interwoven strap {ἀπὸ στήθεσφιν ἐλύσατο κεστὸν ἱμάντα ποικίλον}” from Iliad 14.214-5. That describes Aphrodite giving her love girdle {κεστὸς ἱμάς} to Hera.[6] By the time the Satyricon was written, Aphrodite’s love girdle reportedly had sewn into it an obsidian stone engraved on both sides. One side showed a castrated man; the other side showed Aphrodite turning his back on him. Touching this stone was thought to make an man impotent.[7] That’s not Christian. Jesus touched and healed. Jesus taught love for men and didn’t seek to make men impotent. The ancient Greek allusions in Proselenos’s cure for Encolpius’s impotence pushed against its Christian allusions.

After a lacuna in the Satyricon, Proselenos engaged in traditional magic to cure impotence. A fragment from the ancient Greek iambic poet Hipponax describes a man apparently seeking to cure his impotence by dying his penis’s head red with mulberry juice and then spitting three times.[8] Proselenos similarly had Encolpius spit three times. In what was probably an allusion to Aphrodite’s love girdle, she also manipulated stones wrapped in fabric:

After reciting this chant, she ordered me to spit three times, and then throw stones into my bosom three times after she had pronounced a spell over them and wrapped them in purple cloth.

{ Hoc peracto carmine ter me iussit exspuere terque lapillos conicere in sinum, quos ipsa praecantatos purpura involverat } [9]

That’s far more complicated than Jesus’s healing practices. Unlike traditional magic, Jesus would only say the words “be healed,” and a person would be healed. He could say “love one another,” and a man would no longer be impotent.

Proselenos’s cure succeeded, but only temporarily. Encolpius’s penis failed again in his next attempt at sexual intimacy. His highly privileged lady partner Circe was furious. She ordered Encolpius to be hoisted and flogged. She threw Proselenos out of her house. In despair, Proselenos viciously belittled Encolpius:

What demonic owls have gnawed your nerve-ends? Or did you step on some shit or a corpse at the crossroads after dark? You could not prove yourself even with a boy; what an effeminate, tired weakling you are, puffing like a cab-horse on a hill, toiling and sweating to no purpose!

{ Quae striges comederunt nervos tuos, aut quod purgamentum in nocte calcasti in trivio aut cadaver? Ne a puero quidem te vindicasti, sed mollis, debilis, lassus tanquam caballus in clivo, et operam et sudorem perdidisti. }

Proselenos then beat him with a cane. Fortunately the cane broke; otherwise, Encolpius’s head and arms would have broken first. Encolpius wept profusely. Men’s burden of performance is an enormous, often crushing gender inequality.

Encolpius went to the temple of Priapus to try to appease whatever force was oppressing his penis. Proselenos and the self-proclaimed priestess of Priapus Oenothea were there. Proselenos explained:

this young man that you see here was born under an evil star. He can sell his goods to neither boy nor girl. You never set eyes on such an unhappy person. He has a piece of wash-leather instead of a penis. In short, what do you think of a man who would leave Circe’s bed without a spark of pleasure?

{ hunc adulescentem quem vides: malo astro natus est; nam neque puero neque puellae bona sua vendere potest. Nunquam tu hominem tam infelicem vidisti: lorum in aqua, non inguina habet. Ad summam, qualem putas esse, qui de Circes toro sine voluptate surrexit? }

Oenothea responded:

I’m the only person who knows how to cure this illness. Don’t either of you imagine that my treatment is complicated. I want the little young man to sleep a night with me. See if I don’t make that thing stiffer than a horn.

{ Istum inquit morbum sola sum quae emendare scio. Et ne putetis perplexe agere, rogo ut adulescentulus mecum nocte dormiat (perhaps a lacuna) nisi illud tam rigidum reddidero quam cornu }

In addition to kissing Encolpius repeatedly, Oenothea also prepared folk pharmacopeia to cure his impotence. She prepared burning coals, beans, and a moldy end of a pig’s head. After a mishap in her dilapidated kitchen, she briefly left to get additional supplies.

While Oenothea was out, three geese sacred to Priapus attacked Encolpius. One ripped his shirt. Another stole his shoelaces. The third bit him in the leg. Encolpius pulled a leg off the rickety kitchen table and counter-attacked. He killed the lead goose. The other two fled.

When Oenothea returned and heard what had happened, she cried out in horror. She exclaimed in a frenzy:

Do you not know what an enormous crime you have committed? You have killed the favorite of Priapus, the goose beloved by all married women.

{ Nescis quam magnum flagitium admiseris: occidisti Priapi delicias, anserem omnibus matronis acceptissimum. }

The great woman leader Empress Theodora had enjoyed a goose pecking with his long, strong neck. That was the sort of goose that would be a favorite of Priapus. Only an ignorant, impotent man wouldn’t understand.

Even after Encolpius killed the favorite goose of Priapus, Oenothea continued her effort to cure his impotence. She had them all quickly drink cups of strong wine. Then she soaked Encolpius’s genitals in nasturtium juice mixed with southernwood and flailed his genitals with green nettles. She burned his thighs with a peppery spray. She also worked his backside:

Oenothea pulled out a stiff-leather penis, sprinkled it with oil, ground pepper, and crushed nettle-seeds, and proceeded to insert it by degrees into my anus.

{ Profert Oenothea scorteum fascinum, quod ut oleo et minuto pipere atque urticae trito circumdedit semine, paulatim coepit inserere ano meo. } [10]

Encolpius pulled loose, got up, and ran. Proselenos and Oenothea, drunk and sexually aroused, chased after him. His legs fortunately had enough strength in them for him to outrun those old women.

Men’s impotence has long been rightly regarded as an enormous problem. Can men’s potency be established and strongly supported within a humane society? Petronius seems to have written the Satyricon with awareness of the works of Jesus.[11] Proselenos began her effort to cure Encolpius’s impotence with actions closely paralleling Jesus’s cure of a blind man. But her attempted healing, and the subsequent effort of Oenothea, depended mainly on intricate, traditional Greco-Roman magic. That magic had no enduring effect. The best hope for humanely promoting and supporting men’s potency is that which Jesus taught: love one another.

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[1] John 9:6-7. The Greek text is the morphological Greek New Testament via Blue Letter Bible. The English translation follows current English Biblical translations. For similar miraculous healings, Mark 7:32-5, 8:22-5. The healing in John 9:6-7 is distinctive in that Jesus mixes mud with his saliva. That mixture is allusively significant. Genesis 2:7 describes God making Adam from the dirt of the earth. In classical love poetry, saliva of the beloved was figured as ambrosia, the food of the gods. Jesus thus brought together heaven and earth to heal the blind man.

Non-canonical infancy gospels state that Jesus as a youth fashioned twelve sparrows from mud on a sabbath day. Infancy Gospel of Thomas 2.3, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 27. This miraculous work of creation violated the Sabbath, as did Jesus’s healing of the blind man. But miraculously creating sparrows and healing the blind man seem otherwise not closely related. Cf. Setaioli (2011) p. 358, n. 9.

[2] Drawing upon the work of Dögler (1958-59), Setaioli declared:

about the mid II century A.D. the custom to trace the sign of the cross on their own and other people’s foreheads {signaculum frontium} was already widespread among the Christians.

Setaioli (2011) p. 361. Tertullian, writing perhaps in 204 GC, provided important evidence. He stated:

At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.

{ Ad omnem progressum atque promotum, ad omnem aditum et exitum, ad uestitum, ad calciatum, ad lauacra, ad mensas, ad lumina, ad cubilia, ad sedilia, quacumque nos conuersatio exercet, frontem signaculo terimus. }

On the military garland {De corona militis} 3.4, Latin text from Fontaine (1966), English trans. from Thelwall (1869), both via Tertullian.org. Here are further ancient references to making the sign of the cross.

[3] Petronius, Satyricon 131.4, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913) (with some non-substantive adaptations), English translation mainly from Walsh (1996), but with some adaptations drawing on Heseltine & Rouse (1913). Subsequent quotes from the Satyricon are similarly sourced. Here’s an freely available Latin text; Allinson (1930) provides a freely available English translation. In recognition of its diversity, scholars now tend to call the Satyricon the Satyrica.

[4] “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” are words commonly said in English liturgies celebrating Ash Wednesday in the Christian liturgical calendar.

[5] Persius 2.32–4, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Braund (2004). Writing in Greek in the fourth century, John Chrysostom ridiculed a similar custom:

What then is this so very ridiculous custom? It is counted indeed as nothing (and this is why I grieve), but it is the beginning of folly and madness in the extreme. The women in the bath, nurses and waiting-maids, take up mud and smearing it with the finger make a mark on the child’s forehead. If one ask, “What means the mud, and the clay?” the answer is, “It turns away an evil eye, witchcraft and envy.” Astonishing! What power in the mud! What might in the clay! What mighty force is this which it has? It averts all the host of the devil. Tell me, can you help hiding yourselves for shame?

Chrysostom, Homilies 12, “On the first epistle to the Corinthians,” para. 13, cited as 12.7 (PG 61, 106) in Setaioli (2011) p. 360, n. 14, English translation (adapted slightly) from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.12.

Horace in Epode 8 discussed erection labor under difficult circumstances:

So what if tomes of Stoics nestle
on your plush cushions of Chinese silk?
Do they stiffen an illiterate dick,
make an ivory cock droop less?
To gain from my superb crotch,
you must go down to work with your mouth.

{ quid quod libelli Stoici inter Sericos
iacere pulvillos amant?
inlitterati num minus nervi rigent
minusve languet fascinum?
quod ut superbo provoces ab inguine,
ore adlaborandum est tibi. }

Epode 8.15-20, my English translation. A scholiast known as pseudo-Acron commented on l. 18: “they think they ward off the evil eye by wiping their tongues on their newborns’ foreheads {lingua enim detersa fronte mulieres amputare se infantibus fascinum putant}.” An evil eye was thought to produce impotence in men. Setaioli (2011) p. 259, n. 13.

[6] Setaioli (2011) pp. 363-6 points out this parallel and discusses it.

[7] Setaioli (2011) p. 365, discussing Kyranides 1.10.53-57 and 1.10.64-65. For Kyranides, Waegeman (1987). On impotence and its cures in classical literature, McMahon (1998).

[8] Hipponax 78, Greek text and English translation in Gerber (1999) pp. 412-3. This fragmentary poem treats impotence in a way that has “obvious parallels” with Satyricon 131. West (1974) p. 142.

[9] Satyricon 131.5. The subsequent four quotes are from Satyricon 134.1-4 (What demonic owls…), 134.17-21 (this young man…), 134.22-25 (I’m the only person…); 137.2-4 (Do you not know…).

[10] Satyricon 138.1-3. Scholars regard this passage as being derived from Hipponax 92. Setaioli (2011) p. 367 (incorrectly referring to Hipponax 95). For analysis of Hipponax 92, West (1974) pp. 144-5.

Oenothea is a Latin transliteration of a Greek word meaning “wine goddess.” She falsely claimed that her cure for impotence wasn’t complicated. Oenothea appears to be a charlatan who “prescribes sexual medicines to satisfy her own desires rather than to cure the illness of her patients.” Panayotakis (2015) p. 44.

A school of literary criticism arising over recent decades analyzes imaginative literature to identify fictional characters that have engaged in sexual acts without affirmative consent. Professors then charge those characters with rape. On this school of criticism, see note [13] of my post on PamphilusAccording to their principles, Proselenos raped Encolpius. Schmeling (2011), a highly detailed commentary on the Satyricon, discussed Satyricon 138.1-3 without any commentary on the rape.

[11] On purported allusions to Christianity in the Satyricon, Ramelli (2006), pp. 41-50, and Blocker (2016). Proselenos’s effort to cure Encolpius has arguably the most plausible Christian reference, yet it has attracted relatively little attention. Setaioli (2011) pp. 358-9, which expresses considerable skepticism about the most extensive claims about the Satyricon’s allusions to Christianity. Apuleius’s Metamorphoses has fairly clear allusions to Christianity.

[image] Jesus healing the Blind Man. Painting by Duccio di Buoninsegnam; made between 1308 and 1311. Preserved as accession NG1140 in the National Gallery (London). Image via Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


Allinson, Alfred R, trans. 1930. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. New York: Panurge Press.

Blocker, David. 2016. “Allusions to Christianity and Post Neronian texts in the Satyricon’s Cena Trimalchionis, The Satyricon and Allegations of Christian Cannibalism: A Proposal that Titus Petronius Secundus, not Titus Petronius Arbiter, was the author of the Satyricon.” With table of claimed correspondences. Online post on 28 December 2016 at Jesus Granskad.

Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gerber, Douglas F., ed. and trans. 1999. Archilochus, Semonides, Hipponax. Greek Iambic Poetry: From the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries BC. Loeb Classical Library 259. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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

McMahon, John M. 1998. Paralysin Cave: impotence, perception, and text in the Satyrica of Petronius. Leiden: Brill. (Holoka’s review)

Panayotakis, Costas. 2015. “Encolpius and the Charlatans.” Pp. 31-46 in Panayotakis, Stelios, and Gareth Schmeling, eds. Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel. Groningen: Barkhuis & Groningen University Library.

Ramelli, Ilaria L.E. 2006. “The Ancient Novels and the New Testament: Possible Contacts.” Ancient Narrative. 5: 41-68.

Setaioli, Aldo. 2000. “La scena di magia in Petr. Sat. 131.4-6.” Prometheus: Rivista di studi classici. 26: 159-172.

Setaioli, Aldo. 2011. “Magic at Petr. 131.4-6.” Appendix II (pp. 357-368) in Setaioli, Aldo. Arbitri nugae: Petronius’ short poems in the Satyrica. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. An earlier version of Appendix II appeared in Italian as Setaioli (2000).

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

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

Waegeman, Maryse. 1987. Amulet and alphabet: magical amulets in the first book of Cyranides. Amsterdam: Gieben.

West, Martin Litchfield. 1974. Studies in Greek Elegy and Iambus. Berlin: W. de Gruyter.

Judgment of Paris teaches economics of female sexual competition

judgment of Paris with three nude goddess

A leading U.S. high-brow magazine recently published an interminably boring article on the “sex recession.” One missing observation is that, while having less sex, women are dressing more provocatively. Women in yoga tights showing in close definition everything are omnipresent on the streets. Women in college classes and libraries dress as if they were at the beach. Is it sexual harassment via the male gaze for an old man to read what’s printed on the rear of a young woman’s short-short shorts? I’m still waiting for my lawyer’s advice, but I’ve heard that one word written there is “PINK.” As always, classical literature provides enduring truths about beauty and humanity. Consider a classical story commonly known as the Judgment of Paris.

To celebrate the marriage of Achilles’s parents Thetis and Peleus, the nominal head god in charge of the cosmos Zeus held a wedding banquet. He naturally didn’t invite Eris, the goddess of discord. She arrived uninvited, enraged as usual. To stir up strife, she threw a golden apple amid a throng of women. On the golden apple was written “to the most beautiful one {καλλίστῃ}.” The goddesses Juno, Minerva, and Venus all quickly claimed sole right to the golden apple. Having learned from the wisdom of Solomon, Zeus didn’t want to incur the ire of women by choosing one as the most beautiful. Zeus thus ordered the shepherd-prince Paris to judge their beauty and give the golden apple to the most beautiful one. That’s the backstory for the Judgment of Paris.

Juno, Minerva, and Venus were fully clothed when they initially presented themselves to Paris. Each of these women had her special personal attributes. Each was arguably quite beautiful in her own way. Paris couldn’t decide which was the most beautiful one. Then Venus took her clothes off. The others had to do likewise to have any hope of competing. But Venus, with the stunning beauty of her naked body, easily dominated her rivals. Paris, after all, wasn’t even able to resist the beauty of the married woman Helen of Troy, who later rightfully called herself a “shameless whore.” When Paris saw the naked Venus, he fell at her feet in adoration and awarded her the golden apple.

Writing in the fourth century, the eminent Roman author Ausonius recognized in the Judgment of Paris general wisdom about competition. Ausonius observed:

The listener who wishes to induce one who is afraid to speak should hide learning, and veteran cunning should not brandish seasoned weapons against raw recruits. Venus realized this concerning the palm of beauty long delayed by doubtful judgement. She had competed modestly veiled as if before her father, and equal apparel didn’t deter her rivals. But after the contest of the goddesses was brought to the examination of the shepherd, she competed as she had come forth from the sea or come together with Mars. She thus both caused the judge to bow down to her and overcame the competition of her rivals.

{ tegat oportet auditor doctrinam suam, qui volet ad dicendum sollicitare trepidantem, nec emerita adversum tirunculos arma concutiat veterana calliditas. sensit hoc Venus de pulchritudinis palma diu ambiguo ampliata iudicio. pudenter enim ut apud patrem velata certaverat nec deterrebat aemulas ornatus aequalis; at postquam in pastoris examen deducta est lis dearum, qualis emerserat mari aut cum Marte convenerat, et consternavit arbitrum et contendentium certamen oppressit. }

A novice speaker cannot compete against one highly learned in rhetoric. A shrewd, well-practiced warrior can easily defeat a raw recruit. Women with their clothes on compete for men’s favor with their dress, their words, and their general character. When women get naked, a man can quickly choose the most physically beautiful woman.

The underlying competitive fundamental is the scope of competition. In economic terms, product differentiation helps to sustain competition. If one party has too clear of an advantage in a relatively narrow field of competition, then rivalry quickly vanishes. A broad scope of competition helps to sustain different competitive niches.

One reason that women are having less sex is that they are wearing less clothes. Wearing less clothes intensifies female sexual competition. That means a larger share of men sexually desire a smaller share of women. As a result, fewer men and fewer women actually have sex. To end the sex recession, men must stop groveling to women as white-knighting, chivalrous fools, and women must start wearing more clothes.

Judgment of Paris with only Venus nude

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The above quote is from Ausonius, Epistles 5a (7 in Evelyn-White’s Loeb edition) “Reply to Paulus {Rescriptum Paulo}” ll. 4-11, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Knight (2006) pp. 370-2. For these lines, Knight’s Latin text is the same as that in Green (1991). Paulus is Ausonius’s close friend and fellow professor of rhetoric Axius Paulus. On rejecting Venus’s competitive advantage in being nude relative to the more modestly dressing Minerva (Pallas Athena), Martial, Epigrams 8.1.

While the Homeric epics indicate knowledge of the Judgment of Paris, it’s more fully represented in surviving fragments of the Cypria, a seventh-century BGC Greek epic about the Trojan War. On the Judgment of Paris in Euripides, Stinton (1965). Here’s an online collection of ancient references to the Judgment of Paris.

[images] (1) Judgment of Paris, with three nude goddesses. Oil on copper painting made by Pacecco De Rosa about 1645. Preserved in the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Judgment of Paris, with only Venus getting nude. Painting made by François-Xavier Fabre in 1808. Preserved in the Virginia Museum of Art, Richmond. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Green, R. P. H., ed. 1991. The Works of Ausonius. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (review)

Knight, Gillian R. 2006. “Ausonius to Axius Paulus: Metapoetics and the Bissula.” Rheinisches Museum Für Philologie. 149 (3): 369-385.

Stinton, T. C. W. 1965. Euripides and the Judgement of Paris. London: Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies.

believing that his wife never farts, husband nearly loses everything

husband-merchant wonders about wife

In relation to their wives and girlfriends, men are prone to gyno-idolatry. Lucretius, the great Roman dispeller of delusions, ridiculed men’s gyno-idolatry. Few rational persons have reasonably understood. The heroic, self-sacrificing Christian apostle Paul of Tarsus instructed men not to engage in gyno-idolatry. Few Christian men have been faithful to Paul’s teaching. Consider the case of a merchant in early fifteenth-century Italy.

This merchant served a nobleman, but he wasn’t afraid to assert his personal views. The merchant highly praised his wife:

among other things in praise of his wife, he said she had never farted.

{ uxorem inter caetera commendans, cum dixisset illam nunquam ventris crepitum edidisse }

Wives are flesh-and-blood human beings. Human beings fart. The merchant’s wife surely farted.

The nobleman was no gyno-idolatrous fool. He bet the merchant a lavish dinner that within the next three months he would hear his wife fart more than once. The merchant agreed to that bet.

The nobleman created financial worry for the merchant. The day after the wife-farting bet was established, the nobleman borrowed from the merchant 500 gold ducats for a week. The merchant was reluctant to lend such a large sum, but he yielded to his royal patron. Eight days went by and the nobleman still hadn’t repaid. When the merchant sought repayment, the nobleman asked to borrow another 500 gold ducats. He said he would pay back the full amount by the end of the month. The merchant resisted making the loan, but the nobleman insisted. To avoid losing his first 500 gold ducats, the merchant lent the second 500 gold ducats.

The merchant was in a difficult position. If he didn’t get back his 1000 gold ducats, he would be ruined:

he went home, sad and sick in spirit. Thinking about many things, full of doubts, his nights became sleepless. While he was lying awake, he frequently heard his wife fart in her sleep.

{ Domum reversus, moestus atque animo aeger, multa cogitans, plurima dubitans, agebat noctes insomnes. Vigilans saepius, audivit uxorem dormientem edere ventris crepitus. }

The merchant didn’t realize his wife farted because normally he was asleep. Too many men are asleep in relation to women. Men, wake up and stay awake!

After the month had passed, the nobleman asked the merchant if he had heard his wife fart. The worry-filled merchant admitted he had heard her fart many times. The nobleman then repaid the loan. But since the nobleman won the wife-farting bet, the merchant had to buy the nobleman a lavish dinner.

About two centuries earlier, the Italian literary luminary Giovanni Boccaccio published a similar story about the merchant Bernabò  and his wife Madonna Zinevra. Merchants, like most men, tend not to read imaginative literature. Most men thus don’t appreciate the fullness of life. Is it any wonder that gynocentrism continues?

Many things escape those who are asleep.

{ Multa itaque subterfugiunt dormientes. }

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The above story and quotes are from Poggio, Facetiae 184, “A merchant who, praising his wife, asserted that she had never farted {De mercatore qui, laudando uxorem suam, asserebat eam nunquam crepitum edidisse},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 99-101, my English translation. Here’s the Latin text in a machine-readable form.

[image] Husband believing his wife has never farted. Image made available by Witizia under Pixabay License.


Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

Homeric cento subtly reverses gender to refigure men’s sexuality

As if she were incapable of thinking about power differently, a widely acclaimed classicist speaking from the commanding heights of the symbolic economy declares that women’s voices are silenced. No one laughs. About three hundred years after a woman translated the Odyssey into French, the first woman with a first name that begins with a vowel translated the Odyssey into English. The nightingale Itylus sings mournfully for her dead son. Should we hope that a woman whose first name begins with a consonant will pioneer a new Odyssey translation that breaks from the dominant English meter and finally offers fresh insights into gender? We must overturn the intellectual hierarchy. A Homeric cento written in Late Antiquity offers reason for hope.

Men being killed or raped haven’t counted as significant. King Alcinous, eager to serve his princess-daughter’s interests, hosted a farewell feast for the promising young man Odysseus. The blind bard Demodocus sang of epic violence:

A woman wails as she throws herself upon
dear husband’s body. He has fallen in battle
before the town walls, fighting to the last
to defend his city and protect his children.
As she sees him dying and gasping for breath,
she clings to him and shrieks, while behind her
soldiers prod their spears into her back,
and as they lead her away into slavery,
her tear-drenched face is a mask of pain.
So too wept Odysseus, pitiful in his grief.

{ ὡς δὲ γυνὴ κλαίῃσι φίλον πόσιν ἀμφιπεσοῦσα,
ὅς τε ἑῆς πρόσθεν πόλιος λαῶν τε πέσῃσιν,
ἄστεϊ καὶ τεκέεσσιν ἀμύνων νηλεὲς ἦμαρ·
ἡ μὲν τὸν θνήσκοντα καὶ ἀσπαίροντα ἰδοῦσα
ἀμφ᾿ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει· οἱ δέ τ᾿ ὄπισθε
κόπτοντες δούρεσσι μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμους
εἴρερον εἰσανάγουσι, πόνον τ᾿ ἐχέμεν καὶ ὀιζύν·
τῆς δ᾿ ἐλεεινοτάτῳ ἄχεϊ φθινύθουσι παρειαί·
ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς ἐλεεινὸν ὑπ᾿ ὀφρύσι δάκρυον εἶβεν. } [1]

Odysseus wasn’t weeping for the man, the husband who was killed. That husband was killed along with many other men in the horrific violence against men of the Trojan war. After Odysseus stopped weeping, he told an epic account in which he engaged in similar gender-specific killing:

From Ilion the wind took me to the Cicones
in Ismaros. I pillaged the town and killed the men.
The women and treasure that we took out,
I divided as fairly as I could among all hands

{ Ἰλιόθεν με φέρων ἄνεμος Κικόνεσσι πέλασσεν,
Ἰσμάρῳ. ἔνθα δ᾿ ἐγὼ πόλιν ἔπραθον, ὤλεσα δ᾿ αὐτούς·
ἐκ πόλιος δ᾿ ἀλόχους καὶ κτήματα πολλὰ λαβόντες
δασσάμεθ᾿, ὡς μή τίς μοι ἀτεμβόμενος κίοι ἴσης. }

Kill the men and capture the women remains a dominant symbolic strategy in today’s democratic politics. Women’s lives have long been valued more highly than men’s lives. Today, about four times more men than women are murdered, yet violence against men generates no public concern. Violence against men is normalized and obscured as merely violence.

Calypso, blonde goddess

Even while anti-sexual Stalinism is descending on decaying democracies, few dare speak about sexual violence against men. In the Odyssey, the goddess Calypso held Odysseus by force and had sex with him repeatedly against his will. Echoing the sexual violence of castration culture at the origin of the cosmos, Odysseus enters the epic weeping while being held captive in sexual servitude:

I saw him on an island, shedding salt tears,
in the halls of Calypso, who keeps him there
against his will. He has no way to get home.

{ τὸν δ᾿ ἴδον ἐν νήσῳ θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυ χέοντα,
νύμφης ἐν μεγάροισι Καλυψοῦς, ἥ μιν ἀνάγκῃ
ἴσχει· ὁ δ᾿ οὐ δύναται ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἱκέσθαι· }

The god Zeus, showing more concern for men being raped than many do today, ordered that Calypso let Odysseus leave. When Hermes arrived conveying that order, Calypso was singing and weaving within her vast cave in a remote, isolated place of natural pleasure, at least for her. Calypso declared that she had made Odysseus her “bed-companion {ἀκοίτης}.” He was an unwilling bed-companion. Calypso went to speak with Odysseus:

She found him sitting where the breakers rolled in.
His eyes were perpetually wet with tears now,
his life draining away in homesickness.
The nymph had long since ceased to please.
He still slept with her at night in her cavern,
an unwilling lover mated to her eager embrace.
Days he spent sitting on the rocks by the breakers,
staring out to sea with hollow, salt-rimmed eyes.

{ τὸν δ᾿ ἄρ᾿ ἐπ᾿ ἀκτῆς εὗρε καθήμενον· οὐδέ ποτ᾿ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν τέρσοντο, κατείβετο δὲ γλυκὺς αἰὼν
νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη.
ἀλλ᾿ ἦ τοι νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
ἐν σπέσσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ᾿ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ·
ἤματα δ᾿ ἂμ πέτρῃσι καὶ ἠιόνεσσι καθίζων
δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων
πόντον ἐπ᾿ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων. }

Calypso told Odysseus that now she willing to let him go home. She deceptively mentioned nothing of Zeus’s order. Like a husband who had endured years of lies and verbal abuse from his wife, Odysseus was suspicious of Calypso’s motives and statements. He insisted that Calypso swear a binding oath that she wasn’t plotting some new intrigue to harm him. So she did. She didn’t break her oath. She sent Odysseus on his way home with a favorable wind, warm and gentle.[2]

Odysseus weeping as captive of Calypso

More prevalent than rape of men is brutalization of men’s sexuality. Reflected today in the huge gender protrusion among persons incarcerated and laws criminalizing men seducing women, a man’s sexuality is readily represented as a vicious attack upon a woman. A Late-Antique poem drew upon epic Greek phrases from the battle between Amazon warrior-women and Greek warrior-men to figure brutally men’s sexuality:

Swiftly he pierced the god-like maiden. His stout spear went right through her belly and dark blood spurted out, and her dear bed was stained. With sharp spear he pierced the maid between her thighs, her with the fair ankles, unwed, and cut through her blood-filled veins, and the dark blood bubbled swiftly through the wound that had been dealt, and the sinewy spear brought her low.

{ Αἶψα δ’ ὅγ’ ἀντιθέην κούρην βάλε· τῆς δὲ διαπρὸ
ἦλθε δόρυ στιβαρὸν κατὰ νηδύος, ἐκ δέ οἱ ὦκα
κήκιεν αἷμα μέλαν, φορύνοντό τε δέμνια φίλα·
ἔγχεϊ δ’ ὀξυόεντι μεσηγὺ κόρην βάλε μηρῶν
εὔσφυρον, ἀδμῆτιν, διὰ δὲ φλέβας αἱματοέσσας·
κέρσε· μέλαν δέ οἱ αἷμα δι’ ἕλκεος οὐταμένοιο
ἔβλυσεν ἐσσυμένως, δάμνα δέ ἑ νεύρινον ἔγχος. } [3]

Widely read newspapers deceptively reported that a nearly 25% of Asian-Pacific men admitted to raping women. Many persons probably believed that claim. Who would believe that Sabina and Ausonius, wife and husband, loved each other?

A Homeric cento written in Late Antiquity subtly reverses gender to refigure men’s sexuality.  On its surface, the poem seems disjointed:

My cruel-hearted mother, an evil mother to me;
it pains me much, the wound that a mortal man inflicted on me
in the dark night when other mortals sleep.
Naked, without a helmet and shield, nor had he a spear,
and all his sword was bathed in hot blood, but afterwards
he sent forth a favorable wind, warm and gentle.

{ Μῆτερ ἐμὴ δύσμητερ, ἀπηνέα θυμὸν ἔχουσα,
λίην ἄχθομαι ἕλκος, ὅ με βροτὸς οὔτασεν ἀνὴρ
νύκτα δι᾿ ὀρφναίην, ὅτε θ᾿ εὕδουσι βροτοὶ ἄλλοι,
γυμνὸς ἄτερ κόρυθός τε καὶ ἀσπίδος, οὐδ᾿ ἔχεν ἔγχος.
πᾶν δ᾿ ὑπεθερμάνθη ξίφος αἵματι· αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
οὖρόν τε προέηκεν ἀπήμονά τε λιαρόν τε. } [4]

The poem seems to tell a reluctant bride’s story of her wedding night. The bride blames her mother for forcing her into marriage. The middle four lines figure the penis as a sword in painful, wounding sexual intercourse. But the final line expresses appreciation for the groom’s erection labor.

This poem should be appreciated as a Homeric cento subverting dominant gender representations. A meaningful relationship exists between the underlying Homeric source text (hypotext) and the surface text of the poem (hypertext). The six lines of the poem have the following Homeric sources:

1: Odyssey 23.97, Telemachus to his mother Penelope, she not recognizing Odysseus
2: Iliad. 5.361, Aphrodite to Mars, after Diomedes speared her
3: Iliad 10.83, Nestor to Agamemnon, worriedly waking him
4: Iliad 21.50, Lycaon, by the river Scamander, before Achilles killed him
5: Iliad 16.333, Oilean Ajax (little Ajax) killing Trojan Cleobulus
6: Odyssey 5.268 / Odyssey 7.266, Calypso sending Odysseus on his way

The first and last lines of the poem reverse the gender of the subject. In the first line, the wife, not the son, disparages the mother. In the final line, the groom, not the goddess Calypso, provides a helpful, gentle, warm flow. Yet a concluding difference is telling. Calypso actually dominated and raped Odysseus, despite classical scholars longstanding blindness to that clear representation. The husband is figured as brutalizing his bride on their wedding night, yet that figure is only a shallow, conventional representation. The Homeric cento ingeniously encodes a subversive thrust against poetically stale and oppressive representations of men’s sexuality.[5]

Creative forms of literature are necessary to liberate men from conventional, prejudicial representations. The great heroines of today’s classical scholarship are mainly apparatchiks serving gynocentrism. In contrast, Decimius Magnus Ausonius, Faltonia Betitia Proba, John Tzetzes, and Joseph of Exeter demonstrate that daring and innovative classical scholarship can sound unheard voices and help to make gynocentric power work differently.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Odyssey 8.523-31, Latin text from Murray & Dimock (1995), English translation (adapted slightly) from Lombardo (2000). All subsequent quotes from the Odyssey are similarly sourced. They are: Odyssey 9.39-42 (From Ilion the wind…), 4.556-8 (I saw him on an island…), 5.120 (bed companion), and 5.151-8 (She found him sitting…). The Perseus Digital Library provides online a Greek text of the Odyssey and the English translation of Samuel Butler (1900), as revised by Timothy Power and Gregory Nagy.

The starting point for Odysseus’s journey home is revealed in the very beginning of the Odyssey:

Calypso detains the poor man in his grief,
sweet-talking him constantly, trying to charm him
into forgetting Ithaca. But Odysseus,
longing to see even the smoke curling up
from his land, simply wants to die.

{ τοῦ θυγάτηρ δύστηνον ὀδυρόμενον κατερύκει,
αἰεὶ δὲ μαλακοῖσι καὶ αἱμυλίοισι λόγοισιν
θέλγει, ὅπως Ἰθάκης ἐπιλήσεται· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεύς,
ἱέμενος καὶ καπνὸν ἀποθρῴσκοντα νοῆσαι
ἧς γαίης, θανέειν ἱμείρεται. }

Odyssey 1.55-59(partial). Odysseus’s son Telemachus subsequently learns that Proteus told Menelaus that Calypso was holding Odysseus by force. Calypso held Odysseus captive for seven years. She had been raping him for a long time. When Hermes arrived at Calypso’s cave,

Odysseus was sitting on the shore,
as ever those days, honing his heart’s sorrow,
staring out to sea with hollow, salt-rimmed eyes.

{ ἀλλ᾿ ὅ γ᾿ ἐπ᾿ ἀκτῆς κλαῖε καθήμενος, ἔνθα πάρος περ,
δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων.
πόντον ἐπ᾿ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων. }

Odyssey 5.81-3. This passage echoes Proteus’s description of Odysseus weeping in Odyssey 4.556-8. It emphasizes Odysseus’s grief from Calypso’s sexual violence against him. Calypso boasted that she, a goddess, was more beautiful than his wife Penelope. Odysseus, however, preferred having mutually loving sex with Penelope.

[2] Calypso is among “passionate models of female power” to a professor writing from a pinnacle of symbolic power:

The divine Calypso, Aphrodite, and Circe provide passionate models of female power — idealized fantasies of how much agency mortal women might have, if only social circumstances were completely different.

Watson (2017). Women already have astonishing power to escape punishment for raping men and boys. Only through suppressing thought of gynocentrism does this authority have true insight into Homer:

I read Homer’s great poem as a complex and truthful articulation of gender dynamics that continue to haunt us.

Id. Another authority ran the standard gynocentric trick of making the victimization of men be about women:

At the opening of the poem Odysseus languishes on the island of Ogygia, transfixed by the spellbinding words of Calypso (1.56-58), who also compels him to have sex with her — a very obvious conflation of the twin dangers of women’s language and sexuality.

Fletcher (2008) p. 78. In a similar line of thinking, men’s gender loss in lifespan and the gender bias toward killing men hurts women’s ability to collect compulsory sex payments.

McCarter questioned, “Is Homer’s Calypso a Feminist Icon or a Rapist?” The correct answer is both. McCarter shows little concern about women raping men. Her primary concern is how Homer’s Calypso relates to “feminist potential” and “feminist empowerment.” McCarter (2018).

[3] Anthologiae Planudeae, Appendix Barberino-Vaticana (Anthologia Barberina) 7, Greek text and English translation from Cameron (1992) p. 172. For philological notes, see id. p. 173, n. 14 and Sternbach (1890) pp. 7-11. The Anthologia Barberina was compiled about 919 GC in Byzantium. Lauxtermann (2003) pp. 123-8.

This poem has an anonymous attribution in the manuscript. Cameron attributes it to the same period as the ninth-century polymath Leo the Philosopher / Leo the Mathematician. Cameron (1992) p. 173, n. 14. But it would be a highly unusual Byzantine poem. It may have been written centuries earlier. Lauxtermann (2003) p. 101.

The first two lines are nearly identical to Quintus Smyrnaeus, Posthomerica 1.235-6. Thematically, the whole poem is similarly to Posthomerica 1.235-43. The language of the Posthomerica is drawn largely from Homer’s work. However, as Sternbach (1890) pp. 7-11 makes clear, this poem is not a Homeric cento, nor is it a cento, strictly speaking.

[4] Greek Anthology 9.361, Greek text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Paton (1920). The manuscripts attribute the poem to “Leo the Philosopher {Λέοντος Φιλοσόφου}.” Lauxtermann describes it as a “late antique” Homeric cento that “cannot have been written by Leo the Philosopher.” Lauxtermann (2003) p. 101. Cameron believes Leo wrote it. Cameron (1992) pp. 172-3.

Lauxtermann described this Homeric cento as “a girl’s complaint about the painful experience of her defloration.” He further characterized it as having a “scabrous subject.” Lauxtermann (2003) p. 101. Sex, of course, is a subject central to the evolution of species. Moreover, sex is vitally important in the everyday lives of a large share of adults. The term “defloration” pejoratively characterizes a woman’s first heterosexual intercourse of reproductive type. It reflects the symbolic brutalization of men’s sexuality.

[5] Late Antique poetry has long been under-appreciated. Agosti perceptively observed:

A long-established critical tradition speaks of the ‘ivory tower’ of the late antique poets (and especially of Nonnus and his ‘school’), stressing the literary side of their activity. As for myself, I am firmly convinced this is only one side of the coin and that we cannot float on the calm surface of literary analysis without considering the possible reactions of Nonnus’ contemporary audience.

Agosti (2014) p. 312. The Homeric cento on a wedding night is an ingenious, socially engaged literary work. It should be interpreted with appreciation for the dominant pattern of representing men’s sexuality, gynocentrism, and the transgressive tradition of Ausonius’s Wedding Cento.

Recent study has shown that Homeric verses had a variety of applications. On using Homeric verses for divination, Martín-Hernández (2013). See similarly the oracles of Astrampsychus. Context of use is critical for interpretation:

Any interpretation of the homeromanteion as it currently survives is based on the reciprocity of answer and question, a concept which invites us to ask to what inquiries the homeromanteion responded; how, more precisely, Homer’s lines were used from a performance perspective; and how meaning was further constructed.

Karanika (2011) p. 273. Homeric verses also were used apotropaically.  Renberg (2017). The Homeric cento on a wedding night addresses a plague-like representational problem.

[images] (1) Calypso, blonde goddess. Painting by Jan Styka. Made early in the twentieth century. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Odysseus weeping on the shore as a captive of Calypso. Painting by Arnold Böcklin. Made in 1882. Held as accession # 108 in Kunstmuseum Basel (Switzerland). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Agosti, Gianfranco. 2014. “Greek Poetry in Late Antique Alexandria: between Culture and Religion.” Pp. 287-312 in Guichard, Luis Arturo, Juan Luis Garcia Alonso, and María Paz de Hoz, eds. 2014. The Alexandrian Tradition: interactions between science, religion, and literature. Bern: Peter Lang.

Cameron, Alan. 1992. The Greek Anthology: from Meleager to Planudes. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fletcher, Judith. 2008. “Women’s Space and Wingless Words in the Odyssey.” Phoenix. 62 (1-2): 77-91.

Karanika, Andromache. 2011. “Homer the Prophet: Homeric Verses and Divination in the Homeromanteion.” Ch. 13 (pp. 255-278) in A. P. M. H. Lardinois, Josine Blok, and Marc van der Poel, eds. Sacred Words: orality, literacy, and religion. International Conference on Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World. Leiden: Brill.

Lauxtermann, Marc D. 2003. Byzantine Poetry from Pisides to Geometres. Vien: Der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Lombardo, Stanley, trans. 2000. Homer. Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Martín-Hernández, Raquel. 2013. “Using Homer for Divination: Homeromanteia in Context.” CHS Research Bulletin 2, no. 1 (online).

McCarter, Stephanie. 2018. “Is Homer’s Calypso a Feminist Icon or a Rapist?Electric Lit (online, Jan. 30).

Murray, A.T., trans., revised by George E. Dimock. 1995. Homer. The Odyssey. New ed. Loeb Classical Library 104-5. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Paton, W.R. 1920. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16).

Renberg, Gil H. 2017. “Homeric Verses and the Prevention of Plague? A New Inscription from Roman Termessos and its Religious Context.” Pp. 165-171 in Coleman, Kathleen M., ed. Albert’s anthology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sternbach, Leo, ed. 1890. Anthologiae Planudeae: appendix Barberino-Vaticana. Lipsiae: Teubneri.

Watson, Emily. 2017. “A Translator’s Reckoning with the Women of the Odyssey.” The New Yorker. Dec. 8.

non-traditional marital partnerships: ancient & medieval examples

procuress offering a female prostitute to man

Men have traditionally been confined to the gender role of working away from home to earn resources for women and children. Many men want to escape from this oppressive gender role, but what are the alternatives? Is it possible for a man to marry, yet not be forced into the role of obligatory wage-worker outside the home? Ancient and medieval literature shows possibilities for non-traditional marital partnerships.

Under the Roman Empire, most men lived in difficult circumstances, as have most men throughout history. The Roman Emperor Augustus enacted laws that pressured men into marriage. Moreover, Augustus established the lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis {law of Julius restraining adultery}. Throughout history, punishment for adultery has been gender-biased against men. The lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis apparently was less gender-biased against men than earlier adultery laws. However, sources on the lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis are fragmentary, specific provisions showing clear punishment bias against men are well-attested, and law in action is commonly more biased against men than formal law is.[1] Even thought they weren’t subject to eighteen years or more of compulsory, monthly sex payments for doing nothing more than having consensual sex of reproductive type, men’s sexuality was considerably constrained under the Roman Empire.

Living within the Roman Empire, Zoilus shrewdly established a non-traditional marital partnership. He was a man who actively enjoyed being sexual penetrated by another man. To avoid penalties imposed on men who remained unmarried, and because men at this time weren’t allowed to marry other men, Zoilus married a career woman. Specifically, he married a woman pursuing a career of prostituting herself. Zoilus similarly pursued a career of prostituting himself. Zoilus and his wife thus lived today’s ideal of gender-egalitarian marriage.

Anti-men bias in punishing adulterers benefited Zoilus as well as his wife. An epigram disparaging Zoilus recognized his shrewdness:

Zoilus, you half-man / half-woman, you have married an adulteress.
Oh, how much profit will you two make at home,
when he who grinds you pays your wife the penalty, and her adulterer pays you.
How much will those men caught in the act be fined for their immodesty!

{ Semivir uxorem duxisti, Zoile, moecham.
O quantus fiet quaestus utrimque domi,
cum dabit uxori molitor tuus et tibi adulter.
Quantum deprensi damna pudoris emunt! } [2]

Suppose that lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis were gender-neutral. Then an adulteress and adulterer would pay an equal, symmetric fine when they were caught. Suppose that Zoilus, who actively enjoys being sexually penetrated, as many women do, were fined as an adulteress under a gender-neutral lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis. Then the home-based, sex-work enterprise of Zoilus and his wife would generate zero profit to them when they encountered prosecution under lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis. But since only the penis-wielder paid, lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis profited Zoilus and his wife.

While gynocentric society can create a wide range of laws privileging women, gynocentric society cannot repeal facts of nature. The second part of the epigram on the marital partnership of Zoilus and his wife taunted them about their future:

But lust, which now seems profitable to you,
will soon causes expenses when you unexpectedly become old,
for adulterers will soon charge you for their work;
only your procuring youth now keeps them generous.

{ Sed modo quae vobis lucrosa libido videtur,
iacturam senio mox subeunte feret,
incipient operas conducti vendere moechi,
quos modo munificos lena iuventa tenet. }

When an old man self-identifies as a young, alluring man, others often don’t respect his identity. No human-made law requires anyone to respect the old man’s new self-identity. Hellenistic epigrams sang of the sexual allure of old women, but those epigrams probably did that only for their paying customers. The unpleasant truth is this: old men and old women are less sexually desirable on the open market than are young men and young women. A marital partnership in the business of sex, as Zoilus and his wife’s was, will be most successful when both partners are young. Such a marriage can easily go bankrupt with age.

Men stuck in a dishonorable job can benefit from marrying a career woman. In the fifteenth century, the great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini recounted:

In Avignon, a French notary, well known among church officials, was captivated with love for a common prostitute. He gave up his notary practice and lived by the profits of her prostitution. On the first day of January, he put on new clothes and wrote on his sleeves in French in silver letters: “from good to better.” He regarded being a pimp as more honorable than his previous profession.

{ Erat Notarius Gallicus Avinione, in Romana Curia admodum scitus, qui, cum publici scorti amore captus artem Notarii descisset, quaestu meretricio vitam agebat. Is, cum Calendis Januarii, quod est anni principium, novam vestem induisset, in manica litteris argenteis adscripsit verbis Gallicis: De bene in melius. Visum est sibi lenonis exercitium priori esse honore praeferendum. } [3]

Avignon in the fourteenth century was at the center of intrigues among leading church officials. The notary in seeking to make a living probably attested to written deeds that were fake or misleading. His wife, in contrast, provided actual, well-understood deeds for her customers. Historically, marketing assistants for female prostitutes have been predominately women, usually old women. The notary courageously took up a position in a female-dominated profession. His marital partnership allowed him to retire from his dishonorable profession and have a higher standard of living through sharing in his wife’s earnings as a prostitute. That’s an advantageous marriage for a man.

Men must be shrewd and innovative to make the most of their lives under gynocentrism. Traditional marital partnerships usually serve women’s interests. Men should value their own lives equally to those of women and explore non-traditional options for their lives.

* *  *  *  *

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[1] During the Roman Republic, adultery was less often punished, but punishment was more biased against men:

The punishments {of the male adulterer) were invariably violent, either death, voluntary suicide, or a beating. Moreover, the punishments that are mentioned are for the male adulterer and little attention is made to the punishment of the {female} adulteress. It seems therefore that even in cases where the adulterer was tried publically, the adulteress’ punishment {if any} remained the responsibility of the family.

Dixon (2012) pp. 87-8. The lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis heightened regulation of adultery, but retained a variety of anti-men biases in punishment. A man convicted of adultery lost half of his property, while a woman convicted of adultery lost only a third of her property. Id. p. 62. If a husband caught his wife engaging in adultery with a low-status man, he could kill that man, but not his wife. Id. p. 65. If an adulteress remarried, the adulterer had to be prosecuted before she was prosecuted, and if he wasn’t convicted, she couldn’t be. Id. p. 50. The time limit for bringing a charge against an adulterer was five years, while the time limit for bringing a charge against an adulteress was six months. Id. p. 53. Dixon observed:

There is no suggestion within the sources as to why there was such difference between the time allowed for accusations against the adulterer and the adulteress.

Id. Criminal law, particularly the crime of seduction, has always been gender-biased against men. That’s not explained because it’s been accepted without questioning as natural and appropriate.

[2] Ausonius, Epigrams 101 (94 EW), Latin text from Green (1991) (with my changes to editorial punctuation and capitalization), my English translation benefiting from that of Evelyn-White (1919) v. 2, p. 209. Evelyn-White records the title of the epigram, which is ancient but probably not from Ausonius, as “To Zoilus, who had married an adulteress {Ad Zoilum qui uxorem moecham duxerat}.” Green noted that Zoilus appears in the Greek Anthology (11.82, 12.76) and in Martial (2.16). The subsequent quote is the second half of the full epigram.

[3] Poggio Bracciolini, Facetiae 189, “About a pimp who had been a notary {De lenone facto ex notario},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 106-7, my English translation. Latin was the language within the Roman Curia where the notary worked. Having vernacular text written on his sleeves emphasizes his turn to a popular profession. A notary is different from an actuary, who is a person who lacked sufficient personality to become an accountant.

[image] The Procuress. Painting by Johannes Vermeer in 1656. Preserved under accession # AM-1335-2-PS01 in Old Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Dixon, Jessica Elizabeth. 2012. The Language of Roman Adultery. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Manchester.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G., ed. and trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1Vol. 2.

Green, R. P. H., ed. 1991. The Works of Ausonius. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

Ausonius’s Bissula & Jerome’s captive maiden: Rabbi Akiba understood

Among primates generally, male sexual coercion of females is rare. Among humans specifically, females rape males about as frequently as males rape females. The same is probably true of primates generally. In contrast, human warfare throughout history has tended to have a highly asymmetric gender structure: men kill other men and take captive their young women. A captive maiden figures in Ausonius’s Bissula and Jerome’s epistles, both written in the fourth century. As Rabbi Akiba understood centuries earlier, erotic love and marriage between a captive maiden and her captor is no mere metaphor.

captive Greek maiden

Ausonius’s Bissula was a young, blonde, blue-eyed captive German girl known only through Ausonius’s poem Bissula. Ausonius indicated that he received her as a war prize after Emperor Valentinian I’s victory against the Alamanni in 368. Ausonius loved Bissula, taught her Latin, and let her rule his house. According to Ausonius, she was too beautiful for a painter to represent:

Bissula, whom no wax nor paint can imitate,
can’t fit her natural beauty to fakes of art.
Vermilion and white, paint pictures of other girls.
Your hand, painter, can’t mix these like her face.
Away, mingle red roses with lilies,
and let their coloring of air be hers.

{ Bissula nec ceris nec fuco imitabilis ullo
naturale decus fictae non commodat arti.
sandyx et cerusa, alias simulate puellas;
temperiem hanc vultus nescit manus. ergo age, pictor,
puniceas confunde rosas et lilia misce,
quique erit ex illis color aeris, ipse sit oris. } [1]

Ausonius thus claimed that Bissula could defeat a painter’s power of mimesis. Men killed and women kept as prizes is a real, historical pattern of human warfare. But who can believe that a young captive maiden and her old-man master could have an intimate relationship as Ausonius depicted his with Bissula? If Ausonius’s myth of his masculine desire defeated the painter’s power of mimesis, that’s no real victory for him.[2]

While Ausonius indicated a historical origin for Bissula, Jerome’s captive maiden came from sacred literature. Deuteronomy 20:12-14 instructed the Israelites that in waging warfare against a town, they should kill all the males and take the women as war prizes. Deuteronomy 21:11-14 set out rules with respect to a particular type of captive woman:

When you go forth to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hands, and you take them captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you have desire for her and would take her for yourself as wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and do her nails. And she shall put off her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house and bewail her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her, and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. Then, if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she will; but you shall not sell her for money, you shall not treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.

{ כי־תצא למלחמה על־איביך ונתנו יהוה אלהיך בידך ושבית שביו׃
וראית בשביה אשת יפת־תאר וחשקת בה ולקחת לך לאשה׃
והבאתה אל־תוך ביתך וגלחה את־ראשה ועשתה את־צפרניה׃
והסירה את־שמלת שביה מעליה וישבה בביתך ובכתה את־אביה ואת־אמה ירח ימים ואחר כן תבוא אליה ובעלתה והיתה לך לאשה׃
והיה אם־לא חפצת בה ושלחתה לנפשה ומכר לא־תמכרנה בכסף לא־תתעמר בה תחת אשר עניתה׃ ס
} [3]

Jerome understood this captive maiden as a typological representation of classical culture:

A type of this sort of wisdom {classical, secular literature} is described in Deuteronomy under the figure of a captive woman. The divine voice commands that if an Israelite desires to have her as a wife, he shall make her bald, pare her nails, and shave her hair. When she has been made clean, then she shall pass into the victor’s embrace. If we understand this literally, isn’t it ridiculous? But in such a way we are accustomed to act when we read the philosophers, when books of secular wisdom come into our hands. If we find anything useful in them, we apply it to our own doctrine. But anything beyond this, having to do with idols or love or the care of secular things, we shave off. We prescribe baldness, and we cut them away like nails with a very sharp knife.

{ Huius sapientiae typus, et in Deuteronomio sub mulieris captivae figura describitur, de qua divina vox praecipit ut, si Israelites eam habere voluerit uxorem, calvitium ei faciat, ungues praesecet, pilos auferat, et cum munda fuerit effecta, tunc transeat in victoris amplexus. haec si secundum litteram intellegimus, nonne ridicula sunt? itaque et nos hoc facere solemus, quando philosophos legimus, quando in manus nostras libri veniunt sapientiae saecularis: si quid in eis utile repperimus, ad nostrum dogma convertimus, si quid vero superfluum, de idolis, de amore, de cura saecularium rerum, haec radimus, his calvitium indicimus, haec in unguium morem ferro acutissimo desecamus. } [4]

With keen appreciation for masculine heterosexual vulnerability, Jerome associated classical culture and the captive maiden with sensual desire:

Food of demons are the songs of poets, secular wisdom, the display of rhetorical language. These delight all with their loveliness but, while they captivate the ears with flowing verses of sweet rhythm, they penetrate the soul as well and bind the depths of the heart.

{ daemonum cibus est carmina poetarum, saecularis sapientia, rhetoricorum pompa verborum. haec sua omnes suavitate delectant et, dum aures versibus dulci modulatione currentibus capiunt, animam quoque penetrant et pectoris interna devinciunt. }

Jerome understood the allure to men of a captive maiden like Ausonius’s Bissula. The allure of the captive maiden is like the allure of classical culture:

What is surprising if I too, because of the charm of her speech and the beauty of her form desire to turn secular wisdom from a captive handmaid into an Israelite, or if I cut or shave off whatever is dead in her, idolatry, pleasure, error, and lust, and joining myself to her pure body, beget by her slaves born in my house for the Lord of hosts?

{ quid ergo mirum, si et ego sapientiam saecularem propter eloquii venustatem et membrorum pulchritudinem de ancilla atque captiva Israhelitin facere cupio, si quidquid in ea mortuum est idolatriae, voluptatis, erroris, libidinum, vel praecido vel rado et mixtus purissimo corpori vernaculos ex ea genero domino sabaoth? } [5]

Understood literally, the captive maiden wasn’t actually ridiculous to Jerome. A leading scholar of Jerome accused him of having a “dirty mind.” This scholar perceived a “note of prurience” pervading one of Jerome’s letters.[6] Jerome’s natural masculine heterosexual sense, far too commonly pathologized and brutalized under gynocentric ideology, apparently informed his response to the captive maiden. She for him was a representation of reality, not just a typological figure of classical culture.[7]

Ancient Jewish biblical interpreters understood the effects of women’s beauty on men and the risks of gyno-idolatry. A rabbi sometime between 70 and 250 GC (Tannaitic midrashim) narrated how Moab women at Shittim seduced Jewish men into worshiping the Baal of Peor. An old Moab woman would sell a Jewish man delightful food, then encourage him to go into a young Moab woman’s hut to buy more such food there. The young woman would offer him wine to drink:

Then the wine would inflame him, and he would say to her: Give yourself to me. And she would say to him: Do you wish me to obey you? Then renounce the law of Moses. [8]

Getting a man intoxicated in order to have sex with him is now formally regarded as rape. Coercing him into idolatry is an additional offense. The first would be prosecuted as rape if the victim were a woman or if criminal law were gender-neutral in actual application. Men must understand the power of young women over them. Men must be wary not to be exploited as captives to young women’s beauty.

Man can become captives even to a captive maiden’s beauty. Rabbi Akiba in Tannaitic midrashim rationally interpreted Deuteronomy’s rules about a beautiful captive maiden as preventing Jewish men from being exploited. In the ancient world, a woman’s long hair was highly important to her beauty.[9] Shaving a young women’s head disfigured her in sense of eliminating her superficial attractiveness to men: “she looks like a pumpkin-shell, and he sees her in all her disfigurement.”[10] Rabbi Akiba interpreted “do her nails” to mean that the captive maiden would be required to grow her nails so long that her hands would become hideously ugly and hurtful to encounter. With respect to “discard her captive’s garb,” Rabbi Akiba explained:

This indicates that the captor must divest her of her attractive dress and clothe her in widow’s somber attire, for these accursed {gentile} nations make their daughters adorn themselves in time of war in order to cause their foes to go whoring after those women.

A highly privileged woman about to be captured in war would rationally dress in fine clothing to emphasize her royal status. All else equal, men prefer to have as wives wealthy, high-status, well-dressed women. Yet taking as a wife a captive woman of that type likely would make for a difficult marital relationship. Deuteronomy thus made explicit provisions for divorce from the captive maiden. Rabbi Akiba warned, “you will come to hate her.”[11]

captive maiden

Ausonius’s Bissula and Jerome’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:11-14 show that both Ausonius and Jerome appreciated Rabbi Akiba’s understanding of a captive maiden’s allure. Because men value women so highly, men will kill other men, take their young women captive, and even fall in love with those captive maidens and seek to marry them. Societies must do more to raise men’s sexual welfare and reduce violence against men.[12]

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[1] Ausonius, Bissula 5, Latin text from Green (1991), my English translation benefiting from those of Evelyn-White (1919) and Warren (2017). Bissula was probably written in the 370s. For contextual background on Bissula, see note [1] in my post on Ausonius and Sabina.

[2] On the metapoetics of mimesis in Bissula, Pucci (2016).

[3] Common English translations of Deuteronomy 21:12 have “pare her nails.” I use the more literal translation “do her nails.” What that specifically meant was an issue among ancient Jewish biblical interpreters. Stern (1998) p. 120.

[4] Jerome, Epistles 21, “To Damasus about Two Sons {Ad Damasum de duobus filiis}” (about the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32) 13.5-6, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), English translation (adapted slightly) in part from Mierow (1963) and Mohr (2007) p. 308. I follow Hutchinson (2014) p. 55, n. 26, in reading itaque rather than Hilbert’s atqui. This letter is dated 383 GC. Here’s Migne’s Patrologia Latina (1845) Latin text. The subsequent quote is from Jerome, Epistles 21.13.4, with the English translation from Mohr (2007) p. 307.

Ausonius sent Bissula to Axius Paulus, a close friend who was also a professor of rhetoric. Axius Paulus frequently visited Ausonius. Paulus probably lived in Saintes, in the southwestern Charente-Maritime department of France. Both Ausonius and Paulus knew Greek.

Jerome may have been aware of Ausonius’s Bissula. Ausonius was an eminent, widely known poet. He creatively engaged closely with Virgil’s poems. Jerome’s teacher was Aelius Donatus, the leading Virgil expert of Ausonius’s time. Mohr (2007) p. 313. Ausonius taught Paulinus of Nola and maintain correspondence with him. Paulinus of Nola in turn corresponded with Jerome about secular and sacred literature. On Ausonius’s correspondence, Green (1980). Jerome explicitly recognized Attius Patera’s distinguished family of rhetoricians in Bordeaux. They were originally from Bayeux. Sivan (1993) p. 87.

[5] Jerome, Epistles 70, “To Magnus, an orator of the city of Rome {Ad Magnum oratorem urbis Romae}” 2.5, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), English translation (adapted slightly) from Mohr (2007) pp. 310-11. This letter is dated 397 GC. Here’s Migne’s Patrologia Latina (1845) Latin text.

[6] Adkin (2003) pp. 230, 17.

[7] Mohr doesn’t adequately appreciate the importance of the captive maiden’s feminine beauty to Jerome:

He is wary of the maiden, even in her cleaned-up condition. His caution seems to stem, initially, from fear of her captivating charm which might compromise Christian commitment. … The voluptas and libido, pleasure and lust, that he wishes to excise from the captive are not, in fact, features of herself, but rather the response her beauty arouses in others.

Mohr (2007) pp. 309, 311. Jerome’s own Christian commitment was quite earthy. Jerome, who associated extensively with women, undoubtedly received pleasure from them in a way consistent with his Christian commitment. Moreover, Jerome was a highly sophisticated writer. He didn’t literally want all the women around him to be “emaciated, filthy, and joyless.” Cf. Mohr (2007) pp. 311-2. Jerome also wasn’t opposed to the attractive surface itself of secular literature. Hutchinson (2014) p. 54, n. 23.

Captivity has great social and gender significance even today. About 10 million persons are currently held behind bars in prisons and jails around the world today. Among them, men captives outnumber women captives by about fifteen to one. Showing little understanding of men’s sexuality or current practices of captivity, Stern stated:

it is necessary to remember that the sign of captivity is just a metaphor, a constructed representation, for the process of cultural influence: an ancient metaphor as much as a modern one, but nonetheless, solely a metaphor.

Stern (1998) p. 118. Gynocentric society works to suppress discussion of violence against men and highly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men. Never forget those in prison.

[8] From Tannaitic midrash on Numbers, Sifre Bamidbar, on 25:1-3, from Hebrew trans. Stern (1998) p. 108. College administrators today are intensively concerned that college men are seducing women from their studies using a gender-reversed version of this script.

[9] On the importance of long hair to a woman’s beauty, see note [5] in my post on Paul and Thecla.

[10] All the quotes in the above paragraph are from Tannaitic Midrashim on Deuteronomy 21:10-14, trans. Stern (1998) pp. 118-23. I’ve adapted Stern’s translation slightly and non-substantially to be more readable and to use more accessible English. I follow Stern in using the name Rabbi Akiba as “purely a matter of convenience,” not as an assertion that all the interpretations quoted actually were his.

Deuteronomy 21:11 refers to, among captives, “a beautiful woman whom you desire.” A Tannaitic midrashim rabbi interpreted this passage:

I conclude that this refers only to a beautiful woman; whence do we learn that this includes also an unattractive one? From the following: “whom you desire.”

Trans. Stern (1998) p. 119 (adapted non-substantially). An ancient Jewish principle of biblical interpretation is that no words of scripture are superfluous. Kugel (2007) p. 15. The ancient Greek idea of beauty was closely associated with sexual desire. Konstan (2015). The rabbi, however, understood that men suffering extreme sexual deprivation, or pursuing women in the dark of night, might desire even an unattractive woman. Hence the particular reference to a beautiful woman is an initial incidental description associated with the broader class of women whom men desire. As the great dispeller of delusions Lucretius recognized, gyno-idolatry can occur even when a woman isn’t objectively beautiful.

[11] Rabbi Akiba’s understanding of the captive maiden in Deuteronomy was “adopted by many of the most important medieval Jewish exegetes.” Those following Rabbi Akiba include Rashi, Abravanel, and Ibn Ezra. Stern (1998) p. 113.

Stern interprets Rabbi Akiba to be expressing “an extreme misanthropy of the sort of which Jews were sometimes accused by pagan authors.” Id. p. 106. Echoing misrepresented medieval literature of men’s sexed protest, Stern claims, “For Akiba, the captive woman is less a person than a poison.” Id. p. 104. Stern traces the source of Rabbi Akiba’s view to “Greco-Roman erotic narratives of the kind found in Parthenius’ Peri Erotikon Pathematon.” Id. passim. Apparently imagining that Rabbi Akiba wrote in the context of the strict sexual regulations of modern universities, Stern interpreted details of the midrashim with no understanding into men’s actual, gendered circumstances. For example, Stern claims that the “plain sense” of “captive’s garb” is clothing of “inferior, poor quality.” Id. p. 121. That wasn’t the “plain sense” in context to Rabbi Akiba, nor is it to me.

[12] Under gynocentrism, discussion of the captive maiden generally doesn’t include recognizing the similarly situated young men who were killed. Earnestly working to advance moral education among gynocentrism, Resnick passed by without gendered moral concern the Deuteronomic instruction to kill men and capture women. He, however, declared:

the contemporary educator would rightfully be concerned that teaching this passage {Deuteronomy 21:11-14, on the captive maiden} may perpetuate the view of woman as sexual object, privileging male desire and dominance.

Resnick (2004) p. 309. Dilating upon this gender ideology, Rey (2016) seems to me to be viciously hateful, willful bigotry that works to advance gender inequality in incarceration and more tyrannical gynocentrism. That work shows a broader and deeper development than the U.S. Mann Act of 1910.

[images] (1) La Captive Grecque {The Captive Greek Girl}. Painting by Henriette Browne in 1863. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Captive | B. Excerpt from photograph by comeonandorra. Made on July 20, 2011. Released on flickr under CC by-nc-2.0 license.


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