Unabridged review of Craig Williams' Roman Homosexuality

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Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality. Second Edition (first published 1999).

Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. $29.95 (pb). ISBN 9780195388749.

Reviewed by Beert Verstraete, Acadia University (beert.verstraete@acadiau.ca)

(submitted on July 8, 2009; a somewhat abbreviated version will be published shortly in an online journal, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review)


When the first edition of Roman Homosexuality appeared eleven years ago, it was rightly hailed as the first comprehensive scholarly study, in any language, of its subject, and for its pioneering scholarship was compared to Sir Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality. Williams (henceforth referred to as W.) himself says in his Afterword to the second edition that with this title he intended “to pay tribute to Dover’s pathbreaking Greek Homosexuality of twenty years earlier.” (253) In fact, thanks to his deployment of a much longer chronological time-frame—approximately 200 BCE to 200 CE—than Dover, who restricted himself to the one-and-a-half centuries of the classical period of Greek culture in his use of literary sources, thereby bracketing the great repository of invaluable evidence post-classical Greek authors had to offer, it could be claimed that the later scholar had a significant edge over his predecessor. Now, eleven years later, although a number of more specialized studies making important contributions to the study of the Roman construction of (homo)sexuality have appeared since 1999, W.’s work still stands alone in a class by itself.

New to the second edition, in addition to its engagement throughout with post-1999 scholarship, are a Foreword by Martha Nussbaum, the author’s Afterword to the second edition, and a new Appendix (no. 4), “Pompeiian Graffiti in Context.” I am somewhat puzzled by the fact that the title of the second edition is not followed by the subtitle of the first, or at least some suitable variation thereof, “Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity,” since this registers the crucial central thesis of both editions, namely that, in Roman culture as in Greco-Roman antiquity as a whole, what we still often call “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” were constructed, i. e., experienced, conceptualized, and regulated, on the basis of gender-role appropriateness, not what would be in our parlance“ sexual orientation,” and that therefore W. applies, as he puts it in his Introduction, “the concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality heuristically, temporarily and strategically reifying them in order to expose their historical specificity and their inadequacy as categories of analysis in a description of Roman ideological traditions”; (4) indeed W. says he employs them “with a certain ironic distance.” (6) Thus, words such as “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are not be used as “nouns referring to persons (e.g. “Juvenal criticizes homosexuals”),” but only are “sometimes useful as adjectives referring to acts or combinations of sexual agents (e.g. “heterosexual anal intercourse”)”; (6) similar adjectival use should be made , and is made, by W. of “homoerotic”, “heteroerotic,” “same-sex,” and “opposite-sex.” (6) All this has been conventional thinking and methodology in anthropology and the other social sciences for a long time, even before the terms “social construction” and “social constructionism” (the latter as opposed to the so-called “essentialism ) came into vogue, but the awareness has come only recently to classical scholars, as W. himself rightly notes (p. 5).

I must single out the new Appendix, “Pompeiian Graffiti in Context,” as an especially invaluable addition which indeed by itself justifies the new edition. Here W. offers a representative selection of sexually colored graffiti and makes earlier textual and interpretative scholarship (which he does not hesitate to correct or amplify on when needed) conveniently accessible to the non-specialized reader, all the while supplying his own vigorous translations. His interpretative approach is an empirically cautious one, being “fundamentally semiological, aiming less to understand what happened on a street or in a house in Pompeii two thousand years ago than to determine what kinds of messages are being communicated, using which vocabulary and informed by which conceptual systems.” (292) Despite the non-elite class provenance of these sub-literary, almost exclusively male-authored texts, they reveal almost all a masculinist conceptualization and vocabulary of sexuality that is basically identical to what we find in some of our literary sources, e.g. in parts of Catullus and Martial, and in the Priapea.

W. mainly uses his “Afterword to the Second Edition,” to elucidate further his “Methods, Aims, and Approach” (254) as well as to respond to the critiques of the first edition, especially those that questioned his synchronic (as opposed to a diachronic) approach and his use of the so-called “Penetrative Paradigm.” (258). In it he underlines for the first time his indebtedness to the “interpretative anthropology as theorized and practiced by [Clifford] Geertz,” (254), one of the twentieth century’s most influential cultural anthropologists, quoting him directly as advocating a process of “searching out and analyzing the symbolic forms—words, images, institutions, behaviors—in terms of which, in each place, people actually represented themselves to themselves and to one another.” (254). W.‘s overall interpretative approach, too, is therefore “fundamentally semiological.” In the first edition, this had not been spelled out as clearly. W. relates approvingly Geertz’s adoption of the distinction between “experience-near” and “experience-distinct” concepts (255)—a most useful distinction, I would suggest, also for pedagogical purposes; thus, his “book argues that “homosexuality,” “heterosexuality,” and “bisexuality” are experience-near concepts in modern Western cultures, but not in the ancient culture we call Roman.” (255)

Already in the first edition, W. notes, he had “invoked the concept of gender as performance, most closely linked with the work of Judith Butler…” and had also used the related metaphor of the script of masculinity... (256) I am pleased with his qualification of these concepts, useful and telling as they can be in some contexts, as metaphorical , for like any metaphor, they should not be overworked. Further to his interpretative approach, W. says he “deliberately brackets the concept of the homosocial… (256); this will be an “active category” (256) in his forthcoming study of Roman friendship. W. vigorously defends against some critics, including myself, his basically synchronic approach: : “in the transition from republic to principate … there is no sign of transformation in the descriptive and evaluative terms and conceptual categories relating to gender and sexuality ... .” (257-258: see also note 15 on p. 412). This, in my judgment, undervalues the impact of Hellenization on Roman culture which started large-scale in the 2nd century BCE; without this, among others, the impressive body of Roman erotic (including homoerotic) poetry as we know it from Catullus to Martial—snippets of which find their way even into the graffiti—could not have been created. Even the satirical poetry of that stalwart of 2nd century BCE Romanitas, Lucilius, the polemically driven sexual explicitness of which is more than once cited by W., shows the Hellenizing impact in its rich use of Greek vocabulary and Greek metrical forms. However, I grant this impact should be not be overestimated, let alone misperceived, as though Hellenic norms and practices transformed, as the prejudice of some Romans, too, would have it, the supposedly traditional puritanical mores of the Romans into a wholesale sexual permissiveness.

Relatedly, I would also note the explosive growth in the slave population of Rome and Italy of the second and first centuries BCE which, among others, eventually led to the creation of a large and distinctly new class of liberti. These developments were probably an even more acute factor for far-reaching and deep-going changes in the sexual culture of Rome and Italy (one need think only of the ubiquitous prostitution that was much facilitated by slavery), even though— and here I certainly agree with W.—much of the traditional ideology of sexuality remained untouched. Closely linked to this factor is the increasingly elaborate stratification of Roman society during this period on the basis of wealth and status. W. devotes a section of several pages in his Afterword to the “Penetrative Paradigm,” (254-258), and the major points he makes there are also most germane the following two sections, “Acts and Desires,” (262-263), and “Gender and Sexuality, Masculinity and Femininity,” (263-267). As he says, he prefers to formulate this paradigm more precisely as the distinction between (male-normative) “insertive” and (female-normative) “receptive roles.” (258) W. recognizes “that paradigm has sometimes been argued for in somewhat too fervent terms or too rigidly applied,” not excepting himself, and that “what some [critics] have succeeded in doing is to demonstrate that this was not the only paradigm available to those who wrote and read ancient texts.” (258); however, “attempts to challenge or supplant the penetrative paradigm have generally failed to achieve their goal.” (258)

I would like to make two comments here. First of all, I do not understand why the “penetrative paradigm” has been foisted on Michel Foucault to the degree it has, to the point that W. and others term it as “Foucauldian” or “Foucaultian” (258). Even a cursory reading of Foucault’s brilliant second volume, The Use of Pleasure, of his History of Sexuality, with its subdivision of major topics including, “The Moral Problematization of Pleasure,” “Dietetics,” “Economics,” “Erotics,” and “True Love,” (the last two devoted primarily to Greek pederasty) shows that there the male- normative “penetrative paradigm,” or W.’s more nuanced rephrasing of it, is hardly proffered as paramount for the sexual conduct of the classical Greek male, but takes its much lesser place alongside such fundamental paradigms (or norms) as enkrateia and rightful chrêsis , and, in the love of adolescent boys, should be subsumed under what Foucault calls “moral aesthetics.” Secondly, while not altogether discarding the “penetrative paradigm,” I would certainly challenge its absolute pre-eminence also in Roman sexual culture. In the large majority of the surviving discourses of Roman (homo)sexuality, whether in poetry and prose, even in some graffiti and in many of the material representations of love-making, the ultimate paradigm for sexual intimacy is what I would call the “unitive” one. It is in the spirit, one might say, of the Homeric philotêti migênai. With few exceptions (cf. e.g. in Propertius 2.15 and Ovid, Amores 1.5, 2.15, and 3.17), the most common discourse in prose and poetry is the representation of the lover’s desire for physical closeness and emotional harmony with his loved one, along with all the obstacles he faces, without going into the more intimate physical specifics—among the Augustan elegists in this respect Ovid is bolder and more explicitly sexual than his predecessors Propertius and Tibullus. It is the literature of erotic desire and longing, not of accomplished or to-be-accomplished sexual acts. W. indeed recognizes the importance of “the distinction between sexual acts and sexual acts,” admitting that it is “perhaps not been sufficiently emphasized” (262) in Roman Homosexuality.

The desire for closeness with the beloved boy also informs the homoerotic poetry of Catullus, Horace, Tibullus, and Martial, as well as Petronius’ Satyricon. These texts, too, are almost completely the literature of desire and longing, as in the lover’s kissing his beloved or his longing to do so (Catullus 47, 99 and Martial 3.65, 10.42) or in his ardent desire always to be with his loved one (Tibullus 1.4), or in the lover’s fruitless pursuit of his beloved in his dreams (Horace, Odes 4.1). Martial 4.42 is unique in Roman homoerotic poetry for its elaborate detailing of the physical charms of the ideal boy desired by both the poet and his friend. The sumptuous, even celebratory depiction of male-male copulation on the famous Warren Cup (discussed by W. on pp. 101-102) takes the viewer much farther. Incongruously perhaps, it is in the well-known attack on romantic amor in Lucretius 4. 1037-1287 that the passionate love-making of a man and a woman towards achieving a perfectly interfused physical union —doomed to fail, of course, from Lucretius’ moral-satirical perspective—finds its most powerful expression (4.1076-1120) in Roman literature. Only in literary and sub-literary texts and in material representations which are blatantly dominated by satirical or scatological motives or by phallic (self-) aggrandizement, or by both, can one speak of anything likean ubiquitous penetrative paradigm with its connotations of aggression and subjugation. Moreover, the hyperphallicism, whether in the Priapea or in the material representations, is often best appreciated as self-referentially comic or satiric rather than as uncomplicatedly boastful or minatory. W. himself recognizes, with reference to both Martial and the erotic frescoes of Pompeii, that “humor can be one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of a dominant ideology.” (262)

It should be clear, therefore, that I regard the “penetrative paradigm” as a too restrictive framing of the gender-appropriate sexual roles supposedly conceptualized and valorized by Roman men. W. cites from Seneca’s De constantia sapientis ( Dial. 2.1) in order to underline the “basal contrast between masculinity and femininity, ” (264), which is constituted by the male’s natural propensity to rule (imperio) and female’s to follow and obey (ad obsequendum). But, not surprisingly, Seneca does not spell out the sexual-role implications of this male-female dichotomy. I would also observe that W ‘s comprehensive and perceptive typology of the notorious cinaedus , the supreme anti-masculinist scare-figure in Roman literature and material representations—who in no way, as W. well argues in more than one place, must be understood as a so-called “pathic” or “passive homosexual” (a very misleading term, anyway: see, e.g., W. on p. 200)—has no need for this model for its explication.

In her Foreword, Martha Nussbaum expresses her expectation “that in a larger enquiry this book’s emphasis on power relations would be enlarged and complicated by reflection on how Romans thought it was right to treat other people, what they thought about friendship and virtue, and how sex interwove with all these other concerns.” (xiv) Such reflection will probably be forthcoming in the aforementioned monograph on friendship W. says he is working on. Despite my critiques, which I offer in the spirit of qualification and nuanceing rather than as flat-out disagreements, I must emphasize that I join Nussbaum in her warm praise of the author’s “meticulous “ and “ambitious” (xiv) scholarship. The second edition confirms once more that W’s book is indeed pioneering in its monumental scope and that no future scholar can afford not to be instructed by it.

Like the first, the second edition is attractively produced, and is likewise equipped with extensive notes at the back (a total of 131 pages), a Bibliography, which shows the additional scholarship that has gone into the second edition, and an Index of Passages Cited (from ancient authors and texts). I have not come upon any significant typos. However, “Clauss-Slaby’s database for Pompeii” mentioned in note 8 on p. 426 should have been further identified, perhaps in the Index. The cover illustration elicited a smile from me. It shows Peter Paul Rubens’s magnificent painting of Ganymede’s abduction by Zeus’ eagle (see the Preview). However, Rubens’s Ganymede is a strapping, fair-haired young man, more post-adolescent than adolescent, who, I think, does not represent—unlike the cover illustration of a 2nd century bust of Hadrian’s Antinous in the first edition— Greco-Roman antiquity’s ideal of the pais kalos or puer, but could be the brother of the two voluptuous, blondish young women in Rubens’s painting, “The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus by Castor and Pollux.”

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