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Bisexuality in the Ancient World

In response to:

The Love that Dared to Speak its Name from the October 22, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Reading the review of my book Bisexuality in the Ancient World by Jasper Griffin [NYR, October 22, 1992] I got the impression that I had inadvertently stepped on somebody else’s turf. More precisely the philologist’s turf, legitimately claimed by the reviewer. However, as in addition Professor Griffin makes several references to the current political debate on gender and sexual relations in the US, I think it necessary, before going into the specifics, to clear the ground on this count.

Griffin starts his review observing that the recently published books on sexual (and in particular on homosexual) behavior in the ancient world, as well as the ones on the sexual behavior of the animals, “tend to have a strong flavor of propaganda.” I know of course that there is a hot current debate on these issues. But taking any side in it was absolutely out of the scope of my book, which was written in Italy several years ago. A period when some of the issues I am supposed to propagandate were not even on the table in this country.

As for Professor Griffin’s philological remarks, it has to be pointed out that, being an historian of law, and not a philologist, I use the philologists’ material only as far as it is relevant for my arguments. For instance, the discussion whether one line in a Greek tragedy is interpolate, while being in itself entirely legitimate, does not affect the main thrust of my historical argument. Therefore, while I am very grateful to Griffin for his very expert remarks, I think it more relevant to concentrate on his criticisms to the substance of my thesis.

Among the many, I select four examples of these criticisms. They are in fact very well representative of the misleading impression that Professor Griffin’s review often gives about my book.

1) Professor Griffin acknowledges that I repeatedly make the point that Greeks and Romans alike thought of homosexual love as between an elder and a younger partner, regularly called a boy. “And yet,” he observes, “the author drifts to a more twentieth-century formulation, in which ‘boys’ are repeatedly replaced by ‘men.”’ As an example of this shifting in language he quotes among others this statement of mine: “For Catullus man and women are interchangeable love objects.” As everyone knows, the meaning of a single phrase, isolated from the text, can easily be distorted. In this case my statement comes after the comparison between the two great Catullus loves, Lesbia and Juventius (a boy, as repeatedly stated in the text). Since my aim was to show Catullus’ bisexuality, it is evident that, in this context, “men” (meaning “male”) is opposed to “women,” and not to “boys.” Idem in all the other passages quoted by Professor Griffin to prove my tendency to slip from ancient to modern homosexual behavior.

2) Professor Griffin does not agree with my presentation of female homosexuality. In my opinion, it was different from paederasty. Even if it was part of the life in the thiasoi (which were educational institutions), this kind of relationship was not an initiatory rite per se. In the initiatory rites (as in the paederastic relationship) the distance in age and life experience between the lovers was an essential component. However, the well known Parthenion written by Alcman in order to celebrate the ritual marriage between two girls living in a thiasos shows that in the case of female homosexuality such a distance was not a necessary requirement. Of course, Professor Griffin has the right to disagree, and to consider my evidence insufficient. But why does he affirm that my treatment of female homosexuality sounds a “contemporary note”? As evidence of this he cites my phrase that “sex between women takes place on an equal basis, it does not involve submission.” Thinking of the physical aspects of the so called lesbian love, this assertion can hardly be considered limited to “contemporary” female homosexual behavior.

3) Professor Griffin finds it hard to believe in the picture of early Rome proposed in my book: “Roman males, ‘powerful and inexhaustible,’ ‘exuberant and irrepressible,’ being admired for sexually subjugating the whole world, male and female.” Now it should be clear to anybody that the predicates used by me (and quoted verbatim by the reviewer) were intended to ironize the sexual ideology’ of Romans. They purport to describe not the actual sexual virtues of Roman males, of which there is indeed little evidence, but the idea that Romans wanted to give of these virtues and of themselves. Griffin criticizes my “insensitivity to the tone and point” of ancient texts, but his own lack of sensitivity to my own text has prejudiced the argument.

4) Professor Griffin writes that “the reader gasps” at Paul Veyne’s assertion, quoted approvingly by me, that “the plays of Plautus, which predate the craze for things Greek, are full of homosexual allusion of a very native character….” The plays of Plautus, Griffin observes, “are themselves loose translations and adaptations of named Greek originals; they cannot predate Greek influence.” Now, we all know that Plautus draws from the Greeks, and I said it very clearly. Veyne’s point (and mine) was different. Namely that Plautus’ plays predated the main period of Greek influence in Rome, and were also full of day-to-day references to the local (Roman) sexual mores (this tends to happen in theatrical transpositions, especially if intended to be funny).

On the other hand I have to acknowledge two mistakes pointed out by my reviewer. One on p. 65 about Aristotle’s wife’s name. And the obvious lapsus calami on p. 157, in the translation of Cat., 93, where more should be read less. Neither of them, however, as far as I can see. appears to bear any relevance on my argument.

Eva Cantarella
Milan, Italy

Jasper Griffin replies:

In reply to Professor Cantarella’s four points: 1) What I quoted was not merely “a single phrase, isolated from the text.” I also quoted three others to the same effect: that there was “evidence…of the total acceptance of love between men…in the first century BC”; that “for Horace…it was a law of nature that men should inspire male desire”; and that like the Greeks, the Romans also “felt that it was normal for a man to have sexual relations with other men as well as women.” In all four, what is asserted of “men” is quite misleading; even of the love of boys, far more acceptable in antiquity, these generalizations are not beyond challenge. There is for instance no reason that I can see for thinking that Cicero, the Roman about whom we know most, took this view of pederasty.

2) Alcman’s poem is incomplete, allusive, and extremely hard to interpret. We don’t know that it is about homosexual love at all. It is therefore a slippery basis from which to argue. As for lesbian love, then or now, I should hate to lay down the law about it; but I do not have the impression that between partners inequality, and even dominance, are things unknown.

3) I may have been obtuse here; but I still don’t think the description which I quoted represents “the idea that Romans wanted to give of these virtues and of themselves.” Romans of the Republican period did not want to give an image of themselves as exuberant sexual freebooters: that was left for a man’s enemies to say, and when they said it they did not mean to flatter or to please—e.g., Cato’s attacks on the looseliving brother of the great Flamininus, or Cicero’s attacks on Lucius Piso and Mark Antony.

4) I don’t think that Rome was free from Greek influence in 200 BC—if it ever was. That makes Plautus, again, tricky as evidence. I went on to criticize in detail the next, most startling, sentence about Plautus, quoted approvingly by Cantarella—a statement that appears to misread the evidence regarding the relations between masters and slaves in his plays. I stand by that criticism.

It is not a matter of the literary turf being “mine” rather than Professor Cantarella’s. It is rather a matter of this turf being slippery and needing great caution as one strides across it.

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