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

Roman naval ram like at Octavian's Actium memorial

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

Tusculum Octavian: heroic nude

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

ass mounting lion painting at Pompeii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Priapus sculpture at Pompeii

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

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

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

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

May the words of the seer not come to pass!

᾿Αλλὰ μὴ ἔστω <τὸ> τοῦ μάντεως [12]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bath attendant mosaic from Pompeii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Anderson, Benjamin. 2011. “Classified Knowledge: the epistemology of statuary in the Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 55 (1): 1-19.

Bassett, Sarah. 2004. The urban image of late antique Constantinople. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berger, Albrecht, ed. and trans. 2013. Accounts of medieval Constantinople: the Patria. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 24. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cameron, Averil, and Judith Herrin. 1984. Constantinople in the early eighth century: the Parastaseis syntomoi chronikai: introduction, translation, and commentary. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Clarke, John R. 1998. Looking at lovemaking: constructions of sexuality in Roman art, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Clarke, John R. 2007. Looking at laughter: humor, power, and transgression in Roman visual culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Clarke, John R. 2008. “The Philological, the Folkloric, and the Site-Specific: Three Models for Decoding Classical Visual Representation.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes. 7: 301-316.

Cutler, Anthony. 1968. “The De Signis of Nicetas Choniates. A Reappraisal.” American Journal of Archaeology. 72 (2): 113-118.

Gyori, Victoria. 2013. From republic to principate: change and continuity in Roman coinage. Thesis (Ph.D.)–King’s College London (University of London).

Hallett, Christopher H. 2005. The Roman nude: heroic portrait statuary 200 B.C.-A.D. 300. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harrison, Stephen J. 2012. “Interpreting the anteludia (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.8).” Trends in Classics. 4: 377-87.

James, Liz. 1996. “‘Pray Not to Fall into Temptation and Be on Your Guard’: Pagan Statues in Christian Constantinople.” Gesta. 35 (1): 12-20.

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

Kaldellis Anthony. 2016. “The forum of Constantine in Constantinople: What do we know about its original architecture and adornment?Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. 56 (4): 714-739.

Kazhdan, Alexander P., Lee Francis Sherry, and Christina Angelide. 1999. A history of Byzantine literature. Vol. 1. 650-850. Athens: National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute for Byzantine Research.

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

Mango, Cyril. 1963. “Antique Statuary and the Byzantine Beholder.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 17: 53-75.

Murray, William M., and Photios M. Petsas. 1989. “Octavian’s Campsite Memorial for the Actian War.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. 79 (4): i-172.

Papamastorakis, Titos. 2009. “Interpreting the De Signis of Niketas Choniates.” Pp. 209-24 in Simpson, Alicia, and Stephanos Efthymiadis, eds. Niketas Choniates: a historian and a writer. Geneva: La Pomme d’Or.

Stevenson, Tom. 1998. “The ‘Problem’ with Nude Honorific Statuary and Portraits in Late Republican and Augustan Rome.” Greece & Rome. 45 (1): 45-69.

Tissol, Garth. 1997. The face of nature: wit, narrative, and cosmic origins in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Van Dieten, Jan Louis, ed. 1975. Nicetae Choniatae Historia. Berolini {Berlin}: De Gruyter.

Wardle, D. 1993. “Did Suetonius write in Greek?” Acta Classica. 24 (36): 91-103.

Zachos, Konstantinos L. 2003. “The tropaeum of the sea-battle of Actium at Nikopolis: interim report.” Journal of Roman Archaeology. 16: 64-92.

Zachos, Konstantinos L. 2015. “An Archaeological Guide to Nicopolis.” Athens: Greek Ministry of Culture & Sports. Directorate of Prehistoric & Classical Antiquities. Scientific Committee of Nicopolis.

Zanker, Paul. 1988. The power of images in the Age of Augustus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Drosilla and Charikles shows college sex police can be redeemed


The old woman Maryllis hadn’t laughed or danced for eight years. She was a single mother, and her son’s death had crushed her spirit and judgment. How could she not now hate young men? So it might be for college officials who staff today’s tyrannical college sex tribunals. Is there any hope for them?

The twelfth-century Byzantine novel Drosilla and Charikles shows that a couple’s passionate love can redeem even a dour old woman. Through lengthy ordeals of pirate captivity, separation, dangers at sea, slavery, and so on, Drosilla and Charikles were finally re-united:

like ivy clinging to an oak, they kissed each other gladly.
So difficult was their embrace to bring to an end
that it occurred to Maryllis
that the two had indeed become one body
who in speech had become one soul.
Thus it is with every lover who is redolent with desire;
for when after a long time he sees her whom he desires,
he kisses her insatiably until his desire is assuaged. [1]

Did Charikles ask Drosilla for affirmative consent before he embraced and kissed her? No sane person would even ask that question.

Drosilla and Charikles’s passionate love astonished and delighted Maryllis. She had never before encountered a passionately loving couple, nor experienced such passion herself. She exclaimed:

What a novel sight I see, strangers!
For I am an old woman and advanced in age,
and I have had experience of much good and evil,
but I have never known such desire

She generously prepared for the couple and other guests a feast (symposium) in honor of Dionysos, the god of revelry. She even danced for them:

she got up from her seat
and, being already prepared for this,
took a napkin in both hands
and began a somewhat Bacchic dance,
producing a snuffling sound,
which initiated festivity and instigated mirth.
However, the constant gyrations quickly
tripped Maryllis up in her movements
and so the poor wretch fell over
with her legs in a tangle;
she promptly lifted her feet over her head
and pushed her head into the ground.
The symposiasts let out a huge guffaw.
Old Maryllis lay where she fell
and farted three times,
because she could not bear the pressure on her head.
She did not get up — the poor wretch
said she could not, and lying there
she held out her hands to the young men.

Her gesture represents welcoming men in masculine social-educational activities. Maryllis’s performance generated joy, laughter, and a sense of hospitality. That’s often lacking in educational institutions that sexually persecute men. One young man, sympathetically concerned that “she might go one better and foul herself,” helped Maryllis to an upright posture.[2] All experienced great pleasure. None was subsequently punished, and there was no subsequent expulsion.

The twelfth-century Byzantine novel Drosilla and Charikles ends with passionate education. The young couple married.[3] Then they spent the night together:

and the girl who in the evening was a virgin,
arose from her bed in the morning a woman.

Higher education today teaches careerism and sexual persecution, rather than true love. All public officials should strive to abolish college sex tribunals and renew higher education.[4]

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[1] Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles 7.230-7, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 438. This novel is in nine books of twelve-syllable verse lines. Eugenianos apparently wrote it about 1156. It survives in four manuscripts. That suggest that it “did not attract the interest of {pre-eighteenth-century} western humanists.” Drosilla and Charikles includes considerable intertextuality with the earlier Byzantine novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles. Id. pp. 343-4, 348-9.

The oldest manuscript of Drosilla and Charikles (M: Venetus Marcianus graecus 412, ff 1r-71v, from the thirteenth century) names the old woman Baryllis. Id. pp. 431 (n. 244), 350, 344. Scholars differ as to whether Maryllis or Baryllis most plausibly represents Eugenianos’s original manuscript. Cf. Roilos (2005) Ch. 4, n. 221.

Maryllis originally supported Drosilla marrying Kallidemos. Kallidemos lied to Drosilla about Charikles. Moreover, Charikles was an urban, handsome young man from Constantinople. Kallidemos was a villager who lived far from the Byzantine capital. Maryllis urging Drosilla to marry Kallidemos plausibly indicates bad judgment regarding love affairs. College sex tribunal officials are notorious for bad judgments.

Subsequent quotes are from Drosilla and Charikles (cited by line number and page in Jeffreys’s translation): 7.248-51, p. 438 (What a novel sight…); 7.274-92, p. 439 (she got up…); 9.299-300, p. 458 (and the girl…).

[2] The “snuffling sound” refers to “a song that is as melodic as the noise of someone who blows her nose.” Roilos (2005) p. 288 (Ch. 4). In contrast to more repressive norms in liberal democracies today, elite Byzantine culture enjoyed ludic and sarcastic references to bodily functions such as snuffling, farting and defecating. Garland (1990a) p. 27. Constantine V, Byzantine emperor from 741 to 775, was known as Kopronymos (crap named) by his detractors. He alleged disgraced himself by defecating in the holy font at his baptism. Id. p. 14. When the Byzantines were besieging a fortress at Zemun (in present-day Belgrade), a strong, independent, elderly Serbian woman reportedly assailed the Byzantine forces:

standing atop the {fortress} walls, {she} threw down filth; indecently pulling up her garments and turning around, she displayed her rear to the Romans’ {Byzantine} army; while singing some endless babble, she thought to bind the Romans with a diabolical spell

Id., p. 16, citing the account of the Byzantine historian Joannes Kinnamos. The Byzantine forces killed the woman with an arrow shot into her ass.

While Maryllis’s performance is obviously funny, it has greater significance. It shows the realism emerging in twelfth-century Byzantine fiction. Within the literary structure of Drosilla and Charikles, “Baryllis’ {Maryllis’} performance should be viewed as a grotesque reenactment of the conviviality of the happy feast that marked the first meeting of the two protagonists.{3.101-338}” Roilos (2005) p. 291. Maryllis’s performance also has a more universal allegorical dimension in its re-vitalization of a dour, old woman who poorly understands young persons’ love.

[3] Sexuality in Byzantine literature and Byzantine life wasn’t merely a matter of atomistic, act-by-act licentious agreements. For sexual morality in twelfth-century Byzantine novels, Garland (1990b). For sexual morality in the twelfth-century Byzantine court, Garland (1995).

[4] On the functioning of college sex codes and college sex tribunals, Gersen & Suk (2016).

[image] Statue of Dionysos. Marble, 2nd century GC (after Hellenistic model), found in Italy. The statue’s arms and legs were heavily restored in the 18th century. Held in Louvre Museum (Paris), item Ma 578, MR 73. Image thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen and Wikimedia Commons.


Garland, Lynda. 1990a. “‘And His Bald Head Shone Like a Full Moon …’ : an appreciation of the Byzantine sense of humour as recorded in historical sources of the eleventh and twelfth Centuries.” Parergon. 8 (1): 1-31.

Garland, Lynda. 1990b. “‘Be Amorous, But Be Chaste’: Sexual morality in Byzantine learned and vernacular romance.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 14 (1): 62-120.

Garland, Lynda. 1995. “‘How Different, How Very Different from the Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen,’ Sexual Morality at the Late Byzantine Court with Especial Reference to the 11th and 12th Centuries.” Byzantine Studies / Études Byzantines 1–2: 1–62.

Gersen, Jacob, and Jeannie Suk. 2016. “The Sex Bureaucracy.” California Law Review. 104 (4): 881-948.

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

Roilos, Panagiotis. 2005. Amphoteroglossia: a poetics of the twelfth-century Medieval Greek novel. Hellenic Studies Series 10. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

do whatever necessary to make your mother happy

A friend’s mother is obsessed with U.S. national politics. She said that she was deeply wounded by the election results and still needs time for emotional healing. Here’s how my friend helped her.

“Hillary’s a strong, independent woman. That’s why she lost. Too many people are racist and sexist,” she said.

“She’s a harridan,” he said.

“What’s a harridan?” she said.

“She’s a shrew. She’s a bitter, old, men-hating bitch,” he said.

“That’s really mean.”

“Do you think I’m a harridan?”

“You’re like Hillary Clinton.”

“How can you say that?”

“You’re a strong, independent woman. Don’t you admire Hillary? Aren’t you happy to be like Hillary?”

His mother was happy. Women love drama. My friend would do whatever was necessary to make his mother happy.

Rhodanthe as back-biting bitch: the real world of Byzantine romance

back-biting bitch

In a twelfth-century Byzantine romance, Rhodanthe and Dosikles were passionately in love. Each was enthralled with the other’s beauty. Only a few weeks before Rhodanthe was to marry another, Dosikles with armed friends abducted her and carried her off across the sea. Bride abduction, even if consensual, was an offense incurring the death penalty for the man.[1] Rhodanthe praised Dosikles’s decisive amorous action:

Fare you well, brigands who practise sound brigandage
and who have carried out my own wishes,
kindly practitioners of a kindly abduction,
excellent despots in an excellent despotism. [2]

Despite not being formally married to Dosikles, Rhodanthe called him husband. Dosikles in turn regarded himself as eternally bound to Rhodanthe and preferred death to being separated from her.

The Byzantine romance of Rhodanthe and Dosikles isn’t just a romantic fairy tale. No flesh-and-blood human, not even a woman, is wonderfully perfect. With the pioneering literary realism of Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe occasionally showed that she could be a back-biting bitch.

Consider Rhodanthe’s words at a banquet celebrating the return of a long-lost son thought to be dead. Dosikles had also suffered through a long ordeal of captivity and mortal dangers. He returned with the long-lost son to the parental home in Cyprus. Rhodanthe was there serving as a slave, unrecognized by Dosikles. Addressing Dosikles’s good friend, who also didn’t recognize her, Rhodanthe particularly harshly attacked Dosikles:

I would never have suspected (the gods are my witnesses) that you
would not have recognized Rhodanthe, standing thus before you,
and Dosikles even more than you.
He swore that he had engraved my appearance
in the very tablet of his heart;
for his sake I dwell in Cyprus with a slave’s fate,
and he knows what country I abandoned,
what house, what wealth, what parents,
even if he now pretends not to know me when he looks at me.

Rhodanthe didn’t merely criticize Dosikles for obtuseness in not recognizing her. She claimed, without good reason, that he was pretending not to know her. Rhodanthe spoke with bad faith and remarkable meanness, especially within the context of a joyful reunion.

Rhodanthe isn’t just a figure showing gender neutrality in the mean character of the elder son in the biblical parable of the prodigal son. Rhodanthe engaged in even more vicious back-biting toward her beloved Dosikles. At the reunion banquet, the host’s daughter Myrilla fell in love with the beautiful Dosikles. Myrilla out of envy attempted to poison Rhodanthe. For Rhodanthe to remain in close quarters with Myrilla was obviously dangerous. Rhodanthe implored Dosikles to flee hastily with her:

Do you not know whence and for what reason
came the cup of poison given to me
and through which my circulation was paralysed?
Were you not able to perceive the plot against us,
the machinations of a jealous heart?
Or did you notice it but perhaps support the deed
and, as if Rhodanthe had become an abomination,
preferred instead to be Myrilla’s bridegroom?
If this is so, be united with your beloved
and let Rhodanthe take death as her bridegroom.

Without any justification whatsoever, Rhodanthe accused Dosikles of being in love with Myrilla. Even worse, she accused him of supporting Myrilla’s attempt to poison her. That’s like a crazy, psycho woman.

Apparently appreciating the manly virtue of Dosikles’s masculine beauty, Rhodanthe seemed fearful of potential rivals. Nothing that Dosikles said allayed Rhodanthe’s fears. For example, with Rhodanthe and Dosikles in captivity, the warrior leader Gobryas, who served the barbarian-in-chief Mistylos, fell in love with Rhodanthe. Gobryas promised that he would arrange for Dosikles to marry Mistylos’s daughter if Dosikles would persuade Rhodanthe to marry him. In Rhodanthe’s presence, Dosikles resolutely refused:

For what favour is it, most evil robber Gobryas
(for see, I address my words to you,
even if you are far from us, most savage creature),
if you tear me away from my own maiden
and give me another’s as a gift?
You slaughter me bitterly and you announce a marriage.
What has a marriage to do with those who are about to die?
Grant one favour alone to Dosikles:
do not tear him accursedly away from Rhodanthe.

Rhodanthe responded with disparagement of Dosikles’s love for her:

may I be kept pure and preserved either for you
or for the sword, but not for Gobryas.
But I have no little fear in your connection
that, united with Mistylos’ daughter,
you may have not the least concern for a prisoner {Rhodanthe}. [3]

Defying social constraints on men’s emotions, Dosikles wept at Rhodanthe’s nasty, sarcastic jab. Rhodanthe, finally showing some love for her beloved, wiped the tears from his face.

Women are capable of being vicious, back-biting bitches, even to their beloveds. Many women show no concern about men’s lack of reproductive rights, enormous anti-men sex discrimination in child custody and child support rulings, much greater violence against men than violence against women, and criminal justice systems that vastly disproportionately imprison men. Yet many men similarly show no concern about these issues. Flesh-and-blood women are no better in loving than are men.

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[1] Bride abduction (bridal capture) has existed throughout history and across cultures as a highly ritualized and socially sanctioned, if not required, practice. See note [2] in my post on the Sabine women. Under Constantine the Great’s edict of 326 GC (CTh 9.24.1), bride abduction was declared a crime that subjected the man and the woman, if she had been openly willing, to the death penalty. Marriage between the abductor and the abducted was outlawed. Showing historically prevalent anti-men discrimination in criminal justice, Justinian’s civil code of 533 GC excluded women from the death penalty for consensual participation in a bride abduction. Burton (2000) pp. 380-1. Rhodanthe and Dosikles differs from all surviving ancient Greek novels in having the hero (Dosikles) participate in an abduction. Id. p. 377.

Burton insists that Dosikles engaged in “violent, non-consensual abduction” of Rhodanthe. She quotes (twice!) her tendentious translation of words of Dosikles to Rhodanthe:

You have coercion as your pretext for the flight.
Address Dosikles insultingly as a pirate,
a villain, and a robber, since he stole you,
for yes, I used violence by pirate custom
and forcibly snatched Rhodanthe away.

Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles 9.265-9, from Atticizing Greek trans. Burton (2000) p. 390, repeated at p. 394. Compare Jeffrey’s translation of those same lines:

You have an overwhelming reason for your flight;
he {Rhodanthe’s father} addressed Dosikles insultingly,
calling him a brigand, a violator, abductor, a thief who stole you;
for yes, I had acted violently using the rules of brigandage,
yes, I abducted Rhodanthe by force.

Dosikles subsequently addressed Rhodanthe’s father:

See, I am here before you, beat me, punish me,
consume my flesh, take your fill of my blood.
The thief, the brigand is in your hands; bind my feet,
contrive every torture — except one.
Do not take Rhodanthe from me.

Rhodanthe and Dosikles 9.294-8, trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 150. Dosikles pleaded for brutal punishment with eucharistic imagery. Moreover, Kratandros’s false confession of having murdered Chrysochroe is clearly relevant context  for interpreting Dosikles’s similar declaration of forcible abduction. In evaluating recent literary scholarship, recent, absurd claims about rape are also relevant.

The most specific description of Dosikles’s action in abducting Rhodanthe is this:

So, on my own and finding the girl on her own,
picking her up from the ground and taking her in my arms,
I went down to the sea with all speed

Rhodanthe and Dosikles 2.449-51, trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 49. That doesn’t clearly describe a “violent, non-consensual abduction.” Rhodanthe herself explained that Dosikles didn’t need Eros as an accomplice in her abduction because he was so handsome:

it was not Eros whom he summoned as his accomplice
(for his mere appearance was a sufficient substitute for Eros)

Id. 7.242-3, trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 118. With appreciation for the diverse cultural practices associated with bridal “abduction,” one can well imagine Dosikles taking Rhodanthe in his arms as a consensual, loving, and daring act. The novel on the whole makes clear that, after this act, Rhodanthe and Dosikles loved each other deeply in a realistically flawed human relationship.

[2] Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles 3.475-8, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 50. For brief background on Prodromos and this novel, see note [1] to my post on Kratandros and Chrysochroe.

Subsequent quotes above are (cited by line number and page in Jeffreys’s translation) 8.350-7, pp. 136-7 (I would never have suspected…); 9.31-40, p. 143 (Do you not know…); 3.510-18, pp. 65-6 (For what favour is it…); 3.521-25, p. 66 (may I be kept pure…). For an early example of Rhodanthe calling Dosikles “husband,” 2.61, p. 37. On Dosikles preferring death to separation from Rhodanthe, 2.311-5, p. 45; 6.177-81, pp. 101-2.

[3] Rhodanthe both implored Dosikles to save her as a damsel in distress, and blamed him for destroying her:

save, Dosikles, your dear maiden,
rescue me from the robberly brute.
You have destroyed me; make haste, indeed I am ruined.

3.291-3, trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 59.

In Niketas Eugenianos’s twelfth-century Byzantine novel Drosilla and Charikles, Drosilla imagined that Charikles had forgotten about her:

Charikles, my husband in name only,
you are now asleep in some corner of the prison
without the slightest thought in your mind for Drosilla,
but, as a result of your evil situation, you have forgotten
both the pledge willingly exchanged between us
and the god who once joined me
to you, Charikles, though only by a promise.

1.290-6, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 360. Drosilla at least invoked extenuating circumstances (“as a result of your evil situation”) for the betrayal she imagined. That’s consistent with the redemptive dimension of the old woman Maryllis’s dance in this novel.

[image] Back-biting bitch. Photo by smerikal on flickr, generously made available under Creative Commons license by-sa-2.0.


Burton, Joan. 2000. “Abduction and Elopement in the Byzantine Novel.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. 41 (4): 377-409.

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

ancient Constantinople statues identified virgins & cuckolded men

ankh within female-male couple above snake

For good evolutionary reasons, men throughout history have been interested in the sexual fidelity of women. Unlike a woman, a man in the absence of modern DNA testing lacks certainty whether a child is his biological offspring. Parental knowledge thus naturally features vitally significant gender inequality. Yet today, discussion of paternity establishment tends to be trivialized and suppressed. That wasn’t the case in Byzantium.

Theodore Prodromos’s twelfth-century Byzantine novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles suggests the extent of men’s concerns about women’s sexual fidelity. Distraught over long separation from her beloved, Rhodanthe declared:

I will not be false to my oath, nor to my pledge;
I will not defile my ardour, nor my love;
I will not outrage my gifts of kisses;
I will not shame our marriage that is of lips only
or the couch that permits only an embrace.
Have confidence, throng of fellow maidens,
who desire lovers, beloved young men
and who are desired by lovers, by beloved young men;
you will not be hated by those most dear ones,
who have suspected that women kiss duplicitously;
for I have now given a good example to women who are adored.
Emulate, yes, emulate me. [1]

Rhodanthe’s insistent disavowals suggests the salience of women’s betrayals. Her proclamation of her good example and her urging of other women to emulate her supports learned men’s suspicions. According to a romance of the twelfth-century French cleric Chrétien de Troyes, the bad example of the Byzantine Empress Fenice caused subsequent Byzantine emperors not to trust their wives. Fenice’s failure to emulate Rhodanthe deprived uncastrated men of the politically important opportunity to lobby personally the Empress.[2] More generally, women’s betrayal of men contributes to the weak political position of almost all men.

The first, great Christian Roman Emperor Constantine sought both to ensure well-regulated sexual services for men and men’s ability to identify sexually promiscuous women. According to the popular tenth-century Byzantine text known as the Patria, Constantine the Great built a large brothel in Constantinople. It was then the only brothel in Constantinople. Moreover, Constantine decreed that sexually promiscuous women in Constantinople could live only in that brothel.[3] Drawing upon Solon’s wise public policy to improve men’s sexual welfare, Constantine apparently sought to help men identify which women were sexually promiscuous and which weren’t. Constantine’s brothel aptly came to be known as the hospital of Theophilos.

Constantine’s initiative helping men to identify women who engage in extra-marital sexual relations apparently failed. Some women not working in the brothel engaged in extra-marital sex. A new initiative shifted from Constantine’s statutory requirement to a statue of Aphrodite:

The statue was a touchstone for chaste women and virgins, both rich and poor, who were held in suspicion. If someone defiled a girl’s virginity, and many or few of them did not admit this, their parents and friends would say to them: “Let’s go to the statue of Aphrodite, and you will be tested as to whether you are chaste.” When they approached the place below the column, if she was without blame, she passed by unharmed, but if she was defiled or her virginity destroyed, a sudden apparition would confuse her, reluctantly and against her will, as soon as they approached the column with the statue, and lifting her dress in front of all, she would show her genitals to all. A similar phenomenon befell married women, if they had secretly committed adultery. And all were amazed, and all believed when the women confessed the adultery they had committed. The sister-in-law of the former kouropalates Justin smashed this statue, for her genitals too had been revealed when she had committed adultery and had passed by on horseback [3]

The truth can be painful to learn. That’s why some seek to suppress it.

Another statue in Constantinople served men more directly. A bronze arch had at its top a statue with four horns on its head:

if someone suspected that he was cuckolded, he would go there and approach the statue. If it was as he had assumed, the statue immediately turned around three times. If it was not as he suspected, it stood quietly, and in this way the cuckolded men were revealed. [4]

This statue in Constantinople should be regarded as an ancient precursor to modern DNA paternity testing. Yet like DNA testing for paternity, such statues never became widely used around the world. Few persons today even know that such a statue reportedly existed in Byzantium.

Women’s sexual fidelity and the cuckolding of men should be considered seriously now just as these issue were in Byzantium.

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[1] Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles ll. 7.112-23, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) pp. 114-5. For brief background on Prodromos and this novel, see note [1] to my post on Kratandros and Chrysochroe.

[2] On Empress Fenice, Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 6746-66. For an English translation from the French, Raffel (1997) p. 213.

The annals of Niketas Choniates makes clear the importance of courtiers’ personal interaction with the empress. In 1195, immediately after Alexios III Angelos seized the crown from his brother Isaac II, courtiers personally sought favor with Alexios’s wife Euphrosyne:

they prostrated themselves before the alleged emperor’s wife and placed their heads under her feet as footstools, nuzzled their noses against her felt slipper like fawning puppies, and stood timidly at her side, bringing their feet together and joining their hands.

Niketas Choniates, from Greek trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 250.

[3] Patria 2.65 states:

Lovers went there and consorted with the adulterous women living there, for there were no other brothels than this house nor such adulterous women elsewhere.

From Latin trans. Berger (2013) p. 95. The Patria was written / compiled about 990. A relatively popular work, it has survived in more than sixty manuscripts. Id. pp. xii, 281.

In its rhetorical context, the claim that there were no adulterous women elsewhere (outside of the brothel) suggests a statutory requirement. With respect to history, the story about Constantine building the brothel apparently isn’t historical:

The original legend about this house, as contained in the Chronicle of Symeon Logothetes, claims that it was first built by Isidoros, a patrician who had come from Rome with Constantine the Great, served later as a brothel, and was turned into a hospital by Leo III (717-741)

Id. p. 301, n. 86. The story about the statue of Aphrodite “has no historical background.” Id. p. 301, n. 87.

[4] Patria 3.179, trans. Berger (2013) p. 213. The statue with horns on its head was reported to be appropriately on top of the Keratoembolin (“horn-shaped portico”) along the bay of the Neorion harbor. Id. p. 321, n. 181.

Cuckolded men probably constituted a significant share of men. Andronikos I, who rejected men’s gender role as soldiers subject to violence, ridiculed cuckolds in Constantinople:

the horns of the deer that he had hunted and which excited wonder because of their height, he suspended from the arches of the agora {of Constantinople}, ostensibly to show the size of the wild beasts that he had caught but in actuality mocking the citizenry and defaming their wives for their incontinence.

Niketas Choniates, Annals 322, trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 178.

[image] Hieroglyphs on doorway in Memphis, Egypt (Palace of Merenptah). From Dynasty 19, Reign of Merenptah (1213 – 1204 BGC). Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania, PA), item E13554A-C, detail. Photo by Douglas Galbi.

The top left hieroglyph is an ankh. It represents life, and thus tends to be associated with women. The meanings of the other hieroglyphs are obvious in context.


Berger, Albrecht, ed. and trans. 2013. Accounts of medieval Constantinople: the Patria. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 24. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

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

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Prodromos with Dosikles challenged instrumental valuation of men

Lysippos sculpture of Hermes as exemplar of masculine beauty

Many men feel they must work and achieve to be manly (virtuous). That oppressive social construction of manhood is pervasive historically — from ancient Greece and ancient Rome to present-day societies. Social depreciation of men’s intrinsic value is associated with acute sexual welfare inequality by gender. Critical responses to these social injustices are regrettably rare. About two millennia ago, the eminent Roman historian Titus Livius (Livy) provided a brief, subtle critique of social instrumentalization of men’s bodies. In twelfth-century Byzantium, the brilliant literary writer Theodore Prodromos in his novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles more transgressively asserted that men and women have equal intrinsic bodily beauty.

Close to the beginning of the first book of his nine-book novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles, Prodromos described a girl’s beauty. The banality of describing feminine beauty implied the need for extraordinary rhetoric to be interesting. The narrator described the maiden Rhodanthe:

The girl’s beauty was something extraordinary,
an august figure, a replica of a divine image,
wrought in the form of Artemis.
Her flesh mimicked white snow,
the congruence of her every limb was consistent,
each dexterously linked to the other
and every one fitting together gracefully.
Her eyebrows were naturally well-drawn
in the graceful imitation of a half-circle,
her nose somewhat hooked and her pupils deep black,
circles were inscribed on her cheeks,
four on both but two on the one spot;
of which the outer and more extensive
one might say were snow drifts
while the inner were, as it were, glowing
with the self-combusting coals within.
A mouth that was quite narrow and closely compressed;
elbow, arm and harmony of fingers
were wrought by a natural craftsman;
the posture of her ankles was trim, a support for her legs,
the foundation one might say of the structure.
And all else was proper, and every feature beautiful. [1]

When a savage barbarian robber captured Rhodanthe, he was so overwhelmed with her beauty that he thought she was a goddess. He freed her from all her chains, for he didn’t want to risk the danger of keeping a goddess in chains. But he kept her captive.[2] Most men want to have a beautiful woman.

Dosikles, who loved Rhodanthe, compared himself to her. He described her face as beautiful and his own face as not repulsive:

Rhodanthe’s complexion is beautiful;
for it is not possible to remove or add anything
from its excellent and perfect composition,
for the geometer nature had constructed it
beautifully and according to the rules.
But neither is my face besmirched,
nor is my appearance strange and repulsive.

Dosikles depreciated his own beauty. He was, according to the narrator, a “comely youth.” The barbarian robber chief appreciated upon first sight of Dosikles and Rhodanthe the beauty of both:

The robber chief saw Dosikles,
and then saw Rhodanthe immediately afterwards.
He could not have been more astonished,
for both were so handsome in appearance.
Astounded by the grace of their countenances,
“This lovely couple,” he said

In contrast to the barbarian, the learned Hellenist Dosikles, imbued with social instrumentalization of men, differentiated beauty by gender. He associated masculine beauty with violence against men:

For masculine beauty has a different quality of steadiness,
powerful strength, bravery in battle,
unshakeable might, a sturdy right arm,
a steadfast resistance in the face of battle,
a blade reddened with enemies’ blood,
a sword satiated with hostile flesh.
If someone were to make a judgment on beauty by masculine standards,
he would consider me handsome to look at.
For often in many battles
I have received gloriously many crowns.
The bronze-dipped tip of my dagger has fed
on much flesh from many enemies,
has quaffed copious streams of blood,
and has feasted on the deaths of many barbarians.

Dosikles then all but exposed war-wounds on his chest. He described his father Lysippos, named after a classical sculptor of beautiful figures, as an excellent tutor in martial skills. Rhodanthe’s mother was Phryne. In classical Greek literature, Phryne was a courtesan who, while being tried on a capital charge, bared her breasts to the jurors. They then regarded her as like a goddess and acquitted her. With contrasts in parental names and his own rhetoric, Dosikles affirmed classical gender valuations of men and women.

Dosikles subsequent action showed that he was far from the programmed warrior-drone of a Spartan mother. Another barbarian group conquered the city where Dosikles and Rhodanthe were held captive. The raiders placed the captive women and men on separate ships. Being again separated from Rhodanthe in incredible events of serial brutality and captivity drove Dosikles to deep despair:

When Dosikles realized the division
he said, “But if you tear me away
from my maiden sister {Rhodanthe}, leader of the satraps,
I shall put an end to the drama of my fate
by throwing myself into the midst of the sea.”

That’s a more human reaction than to respond with attempted violence as a unarmed captive facing overwhelming armed forces. Warriors nurtured on the ethos of Spartan mothers wouldn’t be captured alive. They wouldn’t express despair within utterly hopeless circumstances. The contrast between Dosikles and an inhumane brute is explicit in the immediately subsequent lines:

As he {Dosikles} said this an uncouth barbarian
who was standing nearby, a huge ruthless giant,
struck the handsome young man in the face
and threw him against his will into the middle of the vessel.

The barbarian wounded Dosikles face, yet Dosikles didn’t lose face with Rhodanthe. She grieved for his injury. With his words and actions, Dosikles implicitly showed that he too had an emotionally capable heart.[3]

Rhodanthe valued Dosikles’s beauty and his natural amorous initiatives. Rhodanthe explained in confidence to the maiden Myrilla:

There was in my country a noble youth,
Dosikles by name, comely in appearance,
with his beard just blooming on his chin
and his face gracefully surrounded
by the first down on his jaw,
with hair, ye gods, beautiful to see
(how it curled!); the blond hue —
its beauty is amazing; his whole complexion —
incredible beyond description; his whiteness —
quite astonishing; his redness —
altogether impossible. What should I say
of his eyes, his cheeks, his eyebrows, his lips,
his sturdy, well-proportioned figure
close kin to a cypress,
his shoulders, his ankles, his hands, his feet

Descriptions of beautiful woman in classical and medieval literature typically proceed from the top down (from hair, forehead, or brow). The narrator’s earlier description of Rhodanthe had that direction. Rhodanthe herself, in describing Dosikles’s beauty, apparently was too emotionally agitated to follow that order. She joyfully imagined, as women continue to do despite present-day tyrannical college sex tribunals, her beloved making amorous initiatives without first asking for affirmative consent:

his hand is beautiful, but much more beautiful
when it has made advances, moved by forces of nature
(I blush to speak of advances,
but yet I am in love, Myrilla, and what have I to lose?),
and it is clinging enthusiastically to my neck.
His lips are lovely, but so too is his mouth;
and when they move and make sounds,
calling and laughing and kissing me,
oh indeed how great is their beauty.
But why should I go on and why should I speak at length?
His whole bearing was that of a god.

Rhodanthe didn’t associate masculine beauty with martial prowess. She described Dosikles’s beauty much like a man would describe a woman’s beauty. Unlike Dosikles himself, Rhodanthe valued Dosikles’s intrinsic bodily beauty.

Other maidens responded to Dosikles’s beauty as did men to Rhodanthe’s beauty. When Rhodanthe and Dosikles finally returned to their home city, the city held a celebratory procession and festival. The narrator observed:

the entire throng of maidens in the procession
who gazed at Dosikles with wide-open eyes
received a massive arrow in their souls
(the kind that Eros always shoots —
poisoned, bitter and enflaming hearts).
For one, abandoning modesty,
came up close and gazed at him with insatiable eyes,
as if by looking from close by she would really see clearly;
another came up and touched his tunic,
and received a second arrow from the contact;
another, in a far greater frenzy than the other two,
breaking all the restraints of decency
and losing her sober wan complexion,
came up and kissed the youth,
and was pierced in every part of her soul.

Men typically enjoy gazing upon beautiful women. A particularly bold man might kiss a beautiful women without her affirmative consent. However, the male gaze and male amorous initiative have become subject to oppressive censure, if not actual criminalization. At the same time, that women gaze upon men and amorously assail men without men’s affirmative consent can scarcely be said in respectable public discourse today. With amazing boldness, Rhodanthe and Dosikles represented women and men’s bodily beauty as similarly moving men and women.[4]

A man’s virtue exists in his having the intrinsic bodily beauty of a man. A man’s value shouldn’t be reduced to being an instrument for fighting wars and providing resources to women and children. In his brilliant twelfth-century Byzantine novel, Theodore Prodromos offered that critical perspective on gender. It remains deeply relevant today.

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[1] Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles ll. 1.39-60, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) pp. 21-2. For background on Prodromos and this novel, see note [1] to my post on the thwarted amorous meeting of Kratandros and Chrysochroe. Byzantine novels are highly rhetorical. Roilos (2005) Ch. 2. Ekphrasis was a well-established rhetorical practice.

Despite their deep engagement with rhetoric, writers in Byzantium described female beauty more truthfully than is generally acceptable today. See the epigram on Archeanassa of Colophon, the social construction of misogyny, and Marciniak (2015).

The subsequent quotes above are from Rhodanthe and Dosikles (cited by line numbers and pages in Jeffreys’s translation): 2.246-52, p. 43 (Rhodanthe’s complexion…); Dedication l. 18, p. 20 (comely youth); 1.441-6, p. 33 (The robber chief…); 2.253-66, pp. 41-2 (For masculine beauty…); 6.177-81, pp. 101-2 (When Dosikles realized…); 6.182-5, p. 102 (As he {Dosikles} said this…); 7.213-27, pp. 117-8 (There was in my country…); 7.228-38, p. 118 (his hand is beautiful…);  8.195-209, p. 132 (the entire throng of maidens…).

[2] Rhodanthe and Dosikles ll. 1.61-70.

[3] Roilos recognized the irony in Dosikles’s self-presentation, but mis-interpreted it:

Dosikles indulges in a pompous and detailed enumeration of his heroic achievements in a manner recalling Daphnis’ naive self-acclamation in Longos’ novel. Seen, though, in retrospect from the narrator’s point of view, Dosikles’ self-praise appears as a proleptic ironic delineation of his ēthos. … Dosikles’ future actions prove him unworthy of his self-encomium. In book six, when Artapes separates the two lovers, Dosikles’ heroism is reduced to a timorous threat of suicide, which is responded to with a strong strike by a giant barbarian (6.182–186). This incident constructs a real and therefore conclusive anaskeuē (refutation) of Dosikles’ verbose rhetorical self-presentation.

Roilos (2005) p. 67 (Ch. 2). The point isn’t that Dosikles is “unworthy of his self-encomium.” His self-encomium echoes the dominant, oppressive social construction of masculine beauty. Dosikles’s actions, as well as the actions of others in relation to him, refute that oppressive social construction of masculine beauty.

Prodromos himself seems to have been highly capable of emotional expression. Consider an apparently autobiographical poem by Prodromos:

The poet’s powerful invective against the illness concludes with an almost elegiac expression of his weariness and of the dejected conditions of his body, which have been aggravated by years of poverty and exhausting studies …. he manages to express feelings and to convey a sense of his world, sometime with strong emotions, very often with wit and intelligence.

Bazzani (2007) pp. 7, 11.

[4] Sexual symmetry is a distinctive characteristic of the ancient Greek novels. Konstan (1994). Rhodanthe and Dosikles, which drew significantly on the ancient Greek novels, addressed that distinctive characteristic critically.

[image] Statue of Hermes. 2nd century GC copy of a fourth-century BGC sculpture by Lysippos. Called the Hermès Richelieu, the statue is held in the Louvre (Paris), item Ma 573 (MR 272). The statue’s missing penis aptly represents historical disparagement of men’s penises, including by men’s own wives. Photo thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen and Wikimedia Commons.


Bazzani, Marina. 2007. “Theodore Prodomos’ Poem LXXVII.” Byzantinische Zeitschrift. 100 (1): 1-12.

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

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

Marciniak, Przemysław. 2015. “Prodromos, Aristophanes and a lustful woman: A Byzantine satire by Theodore Prodromos.” Byzantinoslavica (Prague) 53(1-2): 23-34.

Roilos, Panagiotis. 2005. Amphoteroglossia: a poetics of the twelfth-century Medieval Greek novel. Hellenic Studies Series 10. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

saintly Fenice in Cligès shows scope of medieval Latin literature

Bodhisattva Guanyin, Song Dynasty, China

In Chrétien de Troyes’s late-twelfth-century Arthurian romance Cligès, Empress Fenice represents a saint in the Latin tradition of Saint Marina. Other motifs and structures in Cligès apparently came from Latin literature connecting to Byzantium and the Islamic world. Although Chrétien wrote Cligès in the vernacular (French), he built Cligès upon the broad scope of medieval Latin literature.

Cligès explicitly describes Empress Fenice as a saint. When Fenice apparently died, persons all around the city of Constantinople wept and lamented that Death had killed “the best, most saintly woman”. She was “someone better / Than best, better than them all.” The craftsman John built a magnificent tomb intended to hold “the remains of some holy saint.” John told the Emperor that Empress Fenice could be buried in that tomb:

By placing her body there,
Surely it would hold a saint. [1]

The Emperor agreed:

We’ll bury her body with those
Of the other saints, in front of
Saint Peter’s holy cathedral.

Fenice was thus positioned as a saint to be venerated for her holiness.

Fenice’s death was a deception that she designed to enable her to live with her lover Cligès. A woman cuckolding her husband wasn’t regarded as a saintly in the Middle Ages. Yet Cligès is more than a romance featuring a false saint and a duped populace.

Fenice experienced torture like that which martyr-saints suffered. While in her potion-induced death-like state, Fenice was slapped, hit, and kicked. She was whipped on her bare back. Blood ran freely from the lines cut into her flesh. Molten lead was then poured onto her palms. Finally her entire body was to be roasted on a grill.[2]

Three “wizened doctors” from Salerno administered these tortures. Salerno was where, late in the eleventh century, Constantine the African had translated Arabic medical texts into Latin. The most learned doctor of the three began the treatment of Fenice by placing his hand on her chest. That suggests sexual healing like the young medical student applied to a beautiful woman’s corpse in the Latin Apollonius of Tyre. The literature of Christian martyrdom, Salerno, and sexual healing all point to Latin literature.

Moreover, the Latin Solomon and Marcolf seems to have informed two aspects of the story about the torturing doctors. Cligès states:

These clever doctors remembered
Solomon’s wife, who hated
Her husband so much she pretended
Death to deceive him.

The story of Solomon’s wife faking death to deceive her husband is part of the Solomon and Marcolf tradition.[3] Just as in Solomon and Marcolf, a mob of women storming the nominal center of ruling power pushes the story in Cligès forward:

Women poured through the palace
Door like a charging army

Acting without respect to formal political authority, the women administered “natural” punishment to the doctors for torturing Fenice. The women gave:

The three doctors what they’d asked for,
Not waiting for the emperor to return
Or any of his stewards. They threw
the doctors through the open
Windows, down to the courtyard
Below, where all three died,
The necks broken, and their ribs,
Their arms, and their legs. No woman’s
Work was ever better
Done! The three doctors
Had earned the wages they’d gotten,
And the mob of women had paid them.

The earliest Latin manuscript of Solomon and Marcolf dates to 1410, but the story of Solomon and Marcolf seems to have been well-known no later than 1000.[4] The Latin text of Solomon and Marcolf has a peculiar literary form that points to Hebrew literature created in the ninth-century in the Abbasid Caliphate. Solomon and Marcolf likely existed as Latin literature when Chrétien wrote Cligès.

The literary scope of Cligès has tended to be under-appreciated. A romance written in French and infused with Frankish customs, Cligès also has strong Byzantine elements. A large section of its plot is set in Constantinople, with emperors, empresses, eunuchs, and court intrigue. The double-romance structure of Cligès is the same as that of the slightly earlier twelfth-century Byzantine novels. Fear that subsequent Byzantine empresses would emulate Fenice might relate to a peculiar passage in the Byzantine novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles. A medieval scholar has suggested that Chrétien used as a source “a Byzantinized version of the Persian tale of Vis and Ramin.”[5] Such a broad literary scope is consistent with Cligès’s use of Solomon and Marcolf. Just as with Solomon and Marcolf, Latin literature is the most plausible medium connecting Chrétien to literature across western Eurasia.[6]

In sharp contrast to courtly glorification of women, Cligès presents the saintly Empress Fenice as a flesh-and-blood human being. Social appearance, rather than saintly values, largely motive Fenice’s actions. Unlike a saint, Fenice complains of her fleshly suffering as a martyr under the three doctors’ tortures:

I can’t believe I’m still
Alive: those doctors hurt me.
They beat me and tore at my flesh.

The saintly, adulterous Fenice incorporates appreciation for women well-known through the Indian Sukasaptati and the western Eurasian Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus. Fenice points forward to the comedic humanism of Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.[7] Underneath it all, Fenice is a figure of the transgressive and subversive humanism and cosmopolitanism of medieval Latin literature.

Love had committed no crime,
joining these two together,
For when they lay in each other’s
Arms, hugging and kissing,
Their joy, their pleasure, seemed
To make the world a better
Place. Can one ask for more?

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 6076-7, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 192. I cite quotes from Cligès using line numbers and pages from Raffel’s translation. Raffel’s line numbers are close to the Old French line numbers.

The three previous short quotes are from Cligès, l. 5782, p. 182 (the best…); ll. 5830-1, p. 184 (someone better…); l. 6073, p. 192 (remains of some holy saint). Subsequent quotes are from ll. 6079-81, p. 192 (We’ll bury…); ll. 5788-9, p. 183 (wizened doctors from Salerno); ll. 5857-60, p. 185 (These clever doctors…); ll. 6014-5, p. 190 (Women poured…); ll. 6024-35, p. 190 (The three doctors…); ll. 6255-7, p. 197 (I can’t believe…); ll. 6317-23, p. 199 (Love had committed no crime…).

[2] Cf. e.g. the martyrdom of Saint Juliana of Nicomedia.

[3] Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 288-98 (ABE 2: alternate ending of Latin text), p. 334 (SAT 16: Cligès references), pp. 339-42 (SAT 19: Middle High German Salman und Morolf), 355-6 (SAT 30: fourteenth-century German poem Salomon und Markolf (Spruchgedicht)). Regarding the parallel between the wife’s feigned death in Solomon and Marcolf and Cligès, “This parallel is one of a few indications that strongly suggest a Byzantine origin for the motif.” Id. p. 296.

[4] Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 6-9.

[5] Grimbert (2005) p. 123, citing Polak (1974). Ziolkowski observed that Cligès “seems indebted in several of its major motifs to Eastern sources.” Ziolkowski (2008) p. 334.

Agipitos presents a rather different view. “Needless to say, no Medievalist ever saw the Byzantine color of the Cligès as an indication of the text’s ‘Byzantine character’.” Agapitos (2010) p. 161. What would constitute “Byzantine character” is unclear. More generally, Agapitos sees only a late, narrow channel for interaction between medieval Greek and Latin literature:

If examined dispassionately and with due consideration for the available evidence, the only time where some form of cultural osmosis between the Greeks and Latins could take place under Byzantine administration was the Laskarid empire of Nicaea after its stabilization and the first six decades of the Palaiologan government in Constantinople, in other words the hundred years between 1220 and 1320.

Agapitos (2012) p. 331. This view seems to me to greatly under-estimate the extent of cultural osmosis.

[6] Green noted:

Where, before Chrétien’s works, we do find more than episodic or incipient fiction, informing the whole structure and permitting invention without ties to historicity, is in such medieval Latin epics as Ecbasis Captivi and Ruodlieb (to these Ysengrimus could possibly be added). However few these ‘forerunners’ may be, they suggest that here, too, Latin literature, although soon to be overtaken by the vernacular, was still in the lead. … In acting as a bridge between Latin and the vernacular, the French poet {Chrétien de Troyes} was performing one of the culturally most important tasks of the cleric at the court of the lay aristocracy.

Green (2012) p. 61. The cleric not only bridged Latin and the vernacular, but also cultures separated spatially by long distances.

[7] Beaton concluded:

there is a balance of probability that Boccaccio really was acquainted with aspects of Byzantine and ancient Greek fiction through the mediation of contemporaries active in the Frankish-controlled regions of Greece and the Levant.

Beaton (2013) p. 220.

[image] Photo of a wooden figure of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. China, Song Period (960-1279 GC). Item 54-6-6 in the Penn Museum (University of Philadelphia, PA). Photo by Douglas Galbi. I’ve modified the image to remove some background clutter.


Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 2010. “From Persia to the Provence: Tales of Love in Byzantium and Beyond.” ACME: Annali della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell’Università degli Studi di Milano. 63(2): 153-69.

Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 2012. “In Rhomaian, Frankish and Persian Lands: Fiction and Fictionality in Byzantium and Beyond.” Pp. 235-367 in Agapitos, Panagiotis A., and Lars Boje Mortensen, eds. Medieval narratives between history and fiction: from the centre to the periphery of Europe, c. 1100-1400. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Beaton, Roderick. 2013. “Boccaccio and the Greek World of his Time: A Missing Link in the ‘True Story of the Novel.'” Pp. 212-20 in Brownlee, Marina Scordilis, and Dimitri Gondicas, eds. Renaissance encounters: Greek East and Latin West. Leiden: Brill.

Green, Dennis H. 2012. “The Rise of Medieval Fiction in the Twelfth Century.” Pp. 49-61 in in Agapitos, Panagiotis A., and Lars Boje Mortensen, eds. Medieval narratives between history and fiction: from the centre to the periphery of Europe, c. 1100-1400. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Grimbert, Joan Tasker. 2005. “Cligés and the Chansons: A Slave to Love.” Ch. 10 (pp. 120-36) in Lacy, Norris J., and Joan T. Grimbert, eds. A companion to Chrétien de Troyes. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Polak, Lucie. 1974. “Tristan and Vis and Ramin.Romania. 95 (378): 216-234.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. and trans. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.