by David Konstan
Let me begin with a passage in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, to which we shall have occasion to return again in what follows. The women, having agreed earlier to withhold sex from their husbands into order to compel them to end the Peloponnesian War, have now seized control of the Athenian acropolis. The purpose of this second stratagem is to prevent the Athenian men from gaining access to the treasury; thus, they will no longer be able to maintain the fleet, and will be obliged to accept peace. At this point in the action, a πρόβουλος, one of the officials elected to exercize plenipotentiary powers in the aftermath of the defeat of the armada in Syracuse, arrives at the propylaea in order to force an entry into the citadel (on the πρόβουλοι, see Henderson 1987: 117). When he learns the nature of the women’s plot, he complains that the Athenian men themselves are to blame if their wives are now behaving in so outrageous a manner: “ὅτανγὰραὐτοὶξυμπονηρευώμεθα
The πρόβουλος gives as an example a husband who summons a jeweller to fix his wife’s necklace on an evening when he himself is away, and asks him to adjust the peg in the aperture (413). The double entendre is not subtle. It is the proboulos’ second example, however, that interests me in the present context. “ἕτερος δέ τις πρὸςσκυτοτόμον ταδὶ λέγει
νεανίαν καὶ πέος ἔχοντ᾽ οὐ παιδικόν.
The joke that follows is somewhat obscure, but I wish to concentrate here on the description of the potential seducer of a citizen’s wife. He is a youth (νεανίας), but, despite his years and, presumably, his boyish appearance, his penis is not that of a child (παῖς). Part of the husband’s mistake is to imagine that the youth is not a threat because he is still only a boy, and hence not ready for an active role in sex; implicit in the phrase πέος παιδικόν, I think, is an allusion to the expression τὰ παιδικά, which signifies the ἐρώμενος or passive partner in a pederastic relationship. But appearances are deceptive, and this child, the πρόβουλος makes clear, is fully capable of assuming the active role with a woman.
The husband’s mistake, however, is not simply that of misjudging the sexual maturity of the shoemaker. He has also erred in inviting into his home a male who is at the age when he is most attractive to women. The position of νεανίας at the beginning of the verse is emphatic: far from being harmless, the humble shoemaker is especially dangerous just because he is a juvenile. Aristophanes is playing here, I suggest, on the conventional idea that women are particularly susceptible to the erotic charms of adolescents.n1
We shall return, as I have said, to this passage in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, but I would like briefly to leap forward about eight hundred years and examine a passage in a Christian Latin writer of the late fourth century A.D. In the last poem of the Peristephanon, a sequence of compositions narrating the martyrdoms of various saints, Prudentius relates the persecution of St. Agnes. Agnes is punished first by being exposed naked in a brothel, where the one man who is brazen enough to gaze at her is blinded. But her persecutor, undaunted by this miracle, orders a soldier (miles) to draw his sword and execute the orders of his prince (63-66). Prudentius continues (14.67-80): “Ut vidit Agnes stare trucem virum
mucrone nudo, laetior haec ait:
“Exulto, talis quod potius venit
vesanus, atrox, turbidus armiger70
quam si veniret languidus ac tener
mollisque ephebus tinctus aromate,
qui me pudoris funere perderet.
Hic, hic amator iam, fateor, placet;
ibo inruentis gressibus obviam75
nec demorabor vota calentia:
ferrum in papillas omne recepero,
pectusque ad imum vim gladii traham.
Sic nupta Christo transiliam poli
omnes tenebras aethere celsior.” 80
” “As Agnes saw the savage man standing with naked tip, she grew cheerful and said: “I exult that such a man, mad, fierce, violent and armed, comes to me rather than a mild ephebe, tender and soft, drenched in perfume, who would ruin me by the murder of my modesty. This is the lover — I confess it — who delights me, I shall meet his stride as he attacks me, and not defer his torrid desire. I shall receive his whole blade in my breasts, draw the force of his sword into my deepest bosom. Thus, as the bride of Christ, shall I overleap all the darkness of the firmament, loftier than the heavens.””
The vividly erotic language in which Agnes expresses her willingness to be immolated retains all of its power in our more prudish age (I think particularly of the scandals that are currently afflicting the president of my own country). Averil Cameron (1994: 164) remarks how the dying Macrina — the sister of Gregory of Nyssa — “made plain to those present the `pure and divine desire (ἔρος) for her invisible husband’…; the `race’ which she was running was `truly towards her lover.'” Cameron adds: “We can begin to see now how it is that early Christian discourse attaches so much importance to the concept of desire, ἔρος, for it is desire which effects unification between human and divine, as between male and female.”
I would like here, however, to call attention to the contrast that Agnes draws between the soldier, whose brutal assault stands in for the metaphysical embrace of Jesus Christ, and the young ephebe who, she says, might have truly ruined her by destroying her virginity (the passage is discussed briefly in Clark 1998: 104). It is the delicate adolescent rather than the ferocious warrior who threatens, not the life of Agnes, but rather her chastity. The adult soldier can violate her body, but the boy might have seduced her will.
Prudentius’ Agnes is quite young (about thirteen, perhaps), although St. Ambrose (De officiis ministrorum 41) says that she had many suitors (her martyrdom occurred around the year 300).n2
But the allure of the dainty ephebe does not depend on Agnes’ own age so much as on the literary tradition to which Prudentius was heir. Today, we are accustomed to the idea that women fall into a swoon in the presence of strong, experienced men — in the American cliche, the attractive male is “tall, dark and handsome,” and the type is easily illustrated from the cover jacket of almost any popular romance. Ancient Greek women, however, may be pictured as adoring a young, beardless, and often languorous male, as in the fifth-century B.C. representations of Aphrodite and Adonis (Louvre MNB 2109; Martin von Wagner-Museum [Würzburg] H 5333 = Servais-Soyez 1981: plates 8, 11), rather than — as one might perhaps have expected — a mature and powerful figure such as Heracles or Theseus (on representations of nude youths, cf. Osborne 1997: 523-24).n3 The example of Adonis, indeed, brings us back to the passage in the Lysistrata with which we began.
” “Has the licentiousness [τρυφή] of the women flared up again, the drumbeats and myriad “O Sabazios”‘s, and that Adonis-cry upon the roofs which I kept hearing once, when I was in the assembly?” (387-90)
The πρόβουλος goes on to complain that the women’s laments for Adonis interrupted deliberations about the Sicilian expedition in 415; apart from nuisance caused by the noise, the implication is, of course, that cries of mourning were a bad omen during preparations for a military campaign. But the πρόβουλος‘ reference to “lascivious songs” (ἀκόλαστ᾽ ἄ σματα, 398) suggests also the more festive aspect of the Adonia, which was viewed with some suspicion by the men of Athens (Reed 1995: 318).
The Adonia was unusual among Athenian festivals, in that it was “neither an official festival of the state nor a festival of a private foreign cult,” but rather “was celebrated by ad hoc groups of women … who gathered in private homes, apart from men, but not unseen or unheard by them” (Simms 1998: 125). Grieving for the young god was certainly a crucial element in the rite, but the very act of mourning permitted the women also to identify with the goddess who had loved him. As Brigitte Servais-Soyez (1981: 222) observes in her article on Adonis in the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, “Quoi qu’il en soit de ses ascendants qui sont tous orientaux ou chypriotes, A. apparaît comme un enfant dont la beauté retient la sollicitude d’Aphrodite.” Joseph Reed (1995: 345) subtly captures the complex spirit of the festival: “part of the appeal of the Adonia may have lain in the sheer luxury of mourning, perhaps mingled with a rarely indulged sexual expressiveness. It is true that in playing the role of Aphrodite over a doll-like effigy of her beautiful lover the women of Athens were taking on a sexual role quite different from the one they showed to their older, dominant husbands, and it would not be surprising if the cult offered them an escapist outlet.”
The echo between τρυπηή (387), referring to the behavior of women celebrating the Adonia, and τρυφᾶν (405), in the πρόβουλος‘ description of how men encourage the licentiousness of their wives, suggests that, for Aristophanes, there was a connection between the enthusiasm of Athenian women for the prematurely slain Adonis and their weakness for young men like the well-endowed shoemaker, whose sexual organ belied his boy-like appearance.
Like the worship of Adonis, the cult of Attis, another god who died young and was beloved of Aphrodite, was being increasingly celebrated in Athens toward the end of the fifth century B.C. (Reed 1995: 335). Sir Kenneth Dover comments (1978: 172): “The attributes which made a young male attractive to ἐρασταί were assumed to make him no less attractive to women.” Dover cites a case in Xenophon’s Hellenika in which Alexander, the tyrant of Pherai, executed his ἐρώμενος despite his wife’s plea for his release; the wife then murdered her husband in turn. Dover remarks: “It sounds as though Alexander suspected a love-affair between his παιδικά and his wife, and he may have been right.”
Later Greek and Roman literature furnishes various cases of a husband and wife as rivals for the same youth. For example, Apuleius, in the Metamorphoses (9.28), recounts the story of a baker who, upon discovering his wife’s young lover concealed in the house, takes his revenge by making love with the boy and then whipping him: “You so soft and tender,” the baker exclaims, “you a mere boy, you scorn the lovers of your own budding age and run after full-grown women?” (trans. Lindsay 1962: 201). Another instance is provided by a witty fragment of Iamblichus’ novel, Babylonika (Habrich 1960: 27-29), composed in the second century A.D. In the manuscripts, the segment is given the title: “A master accuses his slave of adultery with his [the master’s] own wife after she related that, in a dream, she made love with him [the slave] in the temple of Aphrodite.” The master affirms before the king: “the adulterer is a slave and mean in spirit, even if he seems handsome to this woman…. I am in doubt about whom to accuse as the counsellor and teacher of error to the other: for the one is a lad, and it seems persuasive that such a one was persuaded and did not persuade, was corrupted and did not corrupt; but this other is a woman, and a woman seems to be a thing easily deceived…. Summing up, then, I may say that both are handsome…. For he is young and seems handsome, o King, even to me.”
In the Greek romantic novels, moreover, the adolescent protagonists are attractive not only to their equally young partners, who reciprocate their desire, but also to older women; the passion of Lycaenium for Daphnis in Longus’ romance, that of Cyno for Habrocomes in the novel by Xenophon of Ephesus, Melite’s infatuation with Clitopho in Achilles Tatius and Arsace’s desire for Theagenes, the hero of Heliodorus’ Aithiopika, are all instances of an older, married woman in love with an ephebic youth.
Returning to fifth-century Athens, we may note that tragedy too seems to afford instances of the erotic appeal of pubescent youths. Dover (loc. cit.) mentions the depiction of the god Dionysus in Euripides’ Bacchae; I have suggested elsewhere that Euripides’ obsessively virginal Hippolytus may be another example of the pattern (Konstan 2000). Taken together with the commentary of the πρόβουλος in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, such passages suggest that boys were imagined as objects of female desire in the classical era of the Greek city-state.
Youth, of course, is perennially (if mistakenly) regarded as attractive, and it is as easy to find complaints about the joylessness of old age in modern as in Greek poetry; for the latter, one need look no further than the first fragment of Mimnermus. But the fascination that young adolescents seem to have exercized upon women in Greek antiquity may have been particularly related to elements in contemporary attitudes toward ἔρως. Jeffrey Carnes (1996: 26), reflecting a view that is associated especially with the researches of Kenneth Dover, Michel Foucault, and David Halperin, writes: “In Greek myth, the desiring subject is by nature masculine.” A woman in the role of active lover is thus an ideological anomaly, inasmuch as she occupies a position normally reserved for men. The irregularity of a dominant woman in an erotic relationship may have as its corollary the representation of her subordinate male partner as weak and ineffectual. Thus, Carnes cites Froma Zeitlin’s description of Aegisthus in Aeschylus’ Oresteia(1978: 154): “The subordinate male, the strengthless lion (Ag. 1224-25) is the only possible partner for the dominant female.” The mythological fates of mortals beloved of goddesses, like Tithonus and Endymion, also conform to this paradigm (for discussion, cf. Stehle 1990).
In a culture in which pederasty is valorized, however, women’s erotic passion may be normalized, so to speak, by assimilating it to the adult male’s desire for boys. Athenian men thus naturally tended to conceive of women’s passion as analogous to their own. Whether there was a comparable disposition in the archaic Greek world is, nevertheless, debatable, particularly since the evidence for pederasty in the literary sources we possess is scant and ambiguous.n4
The character most famous for his erotic disposition in the epic tradition is, of course, Paris. In the Iliad, he is subtly feminized. As he shirks from the encounter with Menelaus, Hector rebukes him:
“Evil Paris, beautiful, woman-crazy, cajoling,
Better had you never been born, or killed unwedded….
Surely now the flowing-haired Achaians laugh at us,
thinking you are our bravest champion, only because your
looks are handsome, but there is no strength in your heart, no courage….
And now you would not stand up against warlike Menelaos?
Thus you would learn of the man whose blossoming wife you have taken.
The lyre would not help you then, nor the favours of Aphrodite,
nor your locks, when you rolled in the dust, nor all your
”(3.39-40, 43-45, 52-55; tr. Lattimore 1951).Carnes remarks (1996: 26 n. 40) on the “tendency to consider adulterers effeminate” (cf. Pembroke 1967: 27-28): on the one hand, the adulterer’s lack of self-control compromises his masculinity; on the other hand, delicate looks are assumed to arouse passion in women. On this basis, Carnes relates the representation of the adulterer to “the desirability of boys” (ibid.). There is no indication in the poem, however, that Paris is particularly young, and the connection between seductive beauty and the attractions of a παιδικάis absent in the Iliad. n5
The brief catalogue of couplings between goddesses and mortal men at the end of Hesiod’s Theogony is again silent on the matter of men’s ages. The only exception is the reference to Phaethon, who is plainly described as a boy: “ἴφθιμον Φαέθοντα, θεοῖς ἐπιείκελον ἄνδρα.
τόν ῥα νέον τέρεν ἄνθος ἔχοντ᾽ ἐρικυδέος ἥβης
παῖδ᾽ ἀταλὰ φρονέοντα φιλομμειδὴς Απηροδίτη
ὦρτ᾽ ἀναρεψαμένη, καί μιν ζαθέοις ἐνὶ νηοῖς
νηοπόλον νύχιον ποιήσατο, δαίμονα δῖον.
” “…mighty Phaethon, a man similar to the gods; this youth, who had the tender flower of noble youth, a boy with childish thoughts, laughter-loving Aphrodite lifted up and carried off, and established him as temple-keeper in a corner of the divine temples, a godly spirit.” (987-91)
But precisely in this case, there is no suggestion that Aphrodite’s interest in the lad is in any way sexual. As for the rest, one may suppose that Hesiod is concerned principally with the offspring of these unions, and so conceives of them more as marriages than as erotic relationships.
In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Anchises fears a diminution of his powers if he should have sex with the goddess, and begs her to have pity upon him (185-90). His anxiety is not misplaced, as Aphrodite’s own narrative of Tithonus’ fortune confirms. But while mating with a goddess is often damaging to a mortal, Anchises’ vulnerability is, again, not represented as a function of youth, despite the analogy of the rape of Ganymede, which Aphrodite recounts rather in order to illustrate the divine favor bestowed upon Anchises’ family (200-17). Neither, in fact, does Aphrodite clearly assume the role of ἐραστής in the relationship. Rather, she takes it upon herself to inspire ἔρως in Anchises (cf. Ankhisên d’eros heilen, 91; θέα γλυκύν ἵμερον ἔμβαλεθυμῶ ./ Α᾿νχισήν δ᾽ἔρος εἷλεν, 143-44). Once more, emphasis is placed on the issue of their sexual congress (196-201).
To get a picture of the kind of male deemed attractive to women in archaic epic, we may consider how Athena transforms Odysseus when she seeks to beautify him in the eyes of Nausicaa and Penelope (6.229-31, 236-37 approx. = 23.156-58, 102): “τὸν μὲν Α᾿θηναίηθῆκεν, Διὸς ἐκγεγαυῖα,
μείζονά τ᾽εἰσιδέειν καὶ πάσσονα, κὰδ δὲ κάρητος
οὔλας ἧκε κόμας, ὑακινθινῶ ἄνθει ὁμοίας….
ἕζετ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἀπάνευθε κιὼν ἐπὶ θῖνα θαλάσσης,
κάλλεϊ καὶ χάρισι στίλβων.
” “Athena, born of Zeus, rendered him larger and broader in appearance, and draped curly locks from his head, similar to the flower hyacinth…. Then he sat, drawing apart, on the shore of the sea, dripping with beauty and charm.”
While the thick, dark hair (presumably the point of the comparison with the hyacinth) suggest rejuvenation, the emphasis is on Odysseus’ size and strength, which would appear to be the traits of a full-grown warrior rather than of an adolescent boy, although Socrates, in Plato’s Charmides, praises the youth who is beseiged by ἐρασταί for his exceptional “size and beauty” (θαύμαστος ἐφάνη τό τε μέγεθος καὶ τὸκάλλος, 154c1-2).n6
In a recent article on The Dynamics of Beauty in Classical Greece, Richard Hawley argues that the Homeric appreciation of physical beauty declined in the classical period. On the one hand, masculine grace was perceived in a more functional manner; a contest like the Athenian εὐανδρίας ἀγών, for example, “was not simply one of beauty, but also of more general bodily strength. As far as men were concerned, the emphasis was less on a merely pleasing appearance and more on constructive and useful attributes” (1998: 50).n7 On the other hand, Greek tragedy, according to Hawley, reveals a new emphasis on virtue as opposed to beauty in women: “This stress on virtue and reputation over beauty may … be a sign of a change of emphasis in thought about women taking place during the fifth century BCE. It complements the crystalisation of contrived or self-obsessed beauty as a hallmark of the disreputable prostitute” (42, citing Xen. Oec. 10.13).
In spite of the denigration of cosmetic good looks in both men and women, Hawley observes that “beauty becomes more strongly `feminised’ in the fifth and fourth centuries” (51): “Mere bodily attractiveness seems to have shifted to become a characteristic of the feminine gender or of boys” (50). Hector’s depiction of Paris’ effete appearance in the Iliad (cited above) undercuts the contrast Hawley draws between Homeric and the classical views of beauty; that Hecuba, in Euripides’ Trojan Women, refers disparagingly to Paris “as outstanding for beauty” (κάλλος εὐπρεπέστατος, 987; cit. Hawley p. 51), seems to me to be entirely consistent with the image of the adulterer in the archaic tradition. What is perhaps new, however, is the assimilation of effeminacy to boyishness. This alteration in perspective, in turn, is coordinate with the representation of youths as objects of feminine desire.n8
Hawley remarks that Hellenistic and imperial literature, by contrast with the conventions of fifth- and fourth-century Athens, is “not averse to praising male beauty in detail” (p. 51). However, for the interest in young men as objects of desire, and in particular of female desire, the Hellenistic period is, as we have already remarked, continuous with the classical. The story of Hylas in Apollonius’ Argonautika and in Theocritus’ thirteenth idyll is a case in point (cf. Ovid’s narrative of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis [Metamorphoses4.28-389], with Nugent 1990): Apollonius describes how a nymph, having risen to the surface of her spring, “had just perceived him, rosy in his beauty and sweet charms” (τὸν δὲ σχεδόν εἰσενόησεν,/ κάλλεϊκαὶ γλυκερῆ σιν ἐρευθόμενον χαρίτεσσιν, 1.1229-30). While the language recalls Homer’s description of Odysseus (κάλλεϊ καὶκχαρίτεσσιν = κάλλεϊ καὶ χάρισι), the additional details of Hylas’ blushing complexion and the sweetness of his favors are suggestive of youth (cf. Plato Charmides 158c5-6: “When he blushed, Charmides first appeared even more beautiful” [ἀνερυθριάσας οὖν ὁ Χαρμιδὴςπρῶτον μὲν ἔτι καλλίων ἐφάνη, H14]).
By contrast, there is no description of Jason’s appearance at the moment when Medea first falls in love with him; the entire responsibility for her enamorment lies with Cupid’s arrow (3.275-98), and Apollonius refrains at this point from embellishing the divine cause with a human or naturalistic motivation. Only upon the departure of the Argonauts from their first interview with Aeetes does Apollonius remark how Jason stood out from his companions for his “beauty and charms” (θεσπέσιον δ᾽ἐν πᾶσι μετέπρεπεν Αἴσονος υἱὸς´ καλλέϊ καὶ χαρίτεσσιν, 3.443-44). When he is gone, Medea recalls every detail of his appearance — what he wore, the sound of his voice — but there is no indication of his age or special beauty (3.454-58). She is moved above all by pity (ἔλεος, 3.462) at the thought of Jason’s premature death in the tasks her father has set for him. Only when Jason prepares to meet Medea at the shrine of Hecate does Hera intervene to beautify the hero; once again, however, Apollonius contents himself with the barest of physical descriptions: “ἐνθ᾽ οὔπωτις τοῖος ἐπὶ προτερῶν γενετ᾽ ἀνδρῶν…
οἷον Ιήσονα θῆκε Δίος δάμαρ ἤματι κεινῶ
ἦμεν ἔσαντα ἰδεῖν ἤδε προτιμυθήσασθαι.
τὸν καὶ παπταίνοντες ἐθάμβεον αὐτοὶ ἑταῖροι
” “then never had there been among previous men… such a one as Zeus’ wife made Jason on that day, whether to look upon or converse with; his own comrades were stunned to see him, glowing with charms.” <3.919, 922-25)
I should like to conclude this discussion of the kinds of men women fall in love with in Greek literature by widening the scope of the topic to include two Roman epics, both of which exploit the motif of the beautification of the hero by a patron goddess. In the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid, the cloud that has surrounded Aeneas and Achates suddenly dissipates (the cloud, of course, derives from Homer [Odyssey 7.39-42] by way of Apollonius [3.210-14]), and Aeneas appears bathed in light, “os umeroque deo similis; namque ipsa decoram
caesariem nato genetrix lumenque iuventae
purpureum et laetos oculis adflarat honores.
” “similar to a god in face and shoulders; for his mother herself had breathed lovely hair upon her son and the rosy light of youth and happy charms upon his eyes.” (1.589-91)
The mention of Aeneas’ shoulders is inspired by Homer’s description of Odysseus’ augmented size and breadth; so too the reference to Aeneas’ hair is adopted from the Odyssey. However, “the rosy light of youth” is Virgil’s innovation, as is the allusion to Aeneas’ eyes (on iuventae, cf. Servius ad 1.590 [Harvard ed.]: “iuventus” est multitudoiuvenum, “Iuventas” dea ipsa, sicut “Libertas,” “iuventa” vero aetas). I venture to guess that Virgil adapted the phrase lumen purpureum from Apollonius’ description of Hylas’ pink complexion (ἐρευθόμενον), and that the detail emphasizes the image of Aeneas’ rejuvenation (for the connection with youth, cf. Austin 1971: 186 ad loc).
The motivation for Dido’s enamorment is complex, and may include, among other things, her pity for the long-suffering hero (1.597; cf. Medea’s ἔλεος in Apollonius). I shall return to the Aeneid in just a moment, but first I wish to look ahead briefly to Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, which cleverly combines elements from Apollonius and Virgil to produce a remarkable blend. As Jason approaches for the first time the palace of Aeetes, he encounters Medea on the way; at this point, “Iuno, pulchrum longissima quando
robur cura ducis magnique edere labores,
mole nova et roseae perfudit luce iuventae…
” “Juno — since long anxiety and great toils had eaten away the beautiful might of the leader — drenched him in new heft and the rosy light of youth.” (5.363-65)
The reference to massiveness recalls the original Homeric model in the Odyssey, but the luminous ruddiness of youth clearly owes its inspiration to Virgil. Unlike his sources, Valerius stresses the deterioration that Jason’s appearance has suffered in the course of his travails, in part, I presume, to explain why his hero should be in need of divine rejuvenation at all. For Jason, in contrast to Odysseus and Aeneas, is in fact young: Valerius regularly calls him iuvenis (cf. 1.38, 5.526, et passim).
Having received directions to the palace from Medea, Jason proceeds, wrapped in the obligatory mist that hides him from the view of others (5.399-401). But even though Medea is struck by Jason’s handsome form, this is not the occasion of her enamorment. Juno will infuse her with Venus’ potions (venenis, 6.477; the pun on poison and Venus is already in Virgil) only later, when Medea watches from the city wall as Jason shines in battle against the attacking Scythians; and what most inspires her love is not the hero’s beauty, but his valor (virtute, 6.590). This is a Roman imperial epic, after all; even so, Medea still resists the passion that will induce her to betray her country, until Venus herself goes into action and, disguised as Circe, inflames the girl to madness (7.210-99). In the hands of Valerius Flaccus, the power of beauty alone to move the plot is very much attenuated.
In the Aeneid too, of course, the hero’s looks play only a minor role in arousing Dido’s passion, and it is Venus’ active intervention that brings about her ruin; she instructs Cupid to assume the form of Ascanius and implant an irresistible love in Dido’s bosom (1.657-88; cf. veneno, 688). The plan works perfectly: “praecipue infelix, pesti devotafuturae,
expleri mentem nequit ardescitque tuendo
Phoenissa, et pariter puero donisque movetur….
…haec oculis, haec pectore toto
haeret et interdum gremio fovet inscia Dido
insidat quantus miserae deus.
” “Above all, the unhappy Phoenician queen, consecrated to the plague to come, cannot fill her mind with him and burns as she looks, and is moved equally by the boy and his gifts… Dido hangs on him with her eyes, with her entire bosom, and from time to time fondles him on her lap, unaware of how great a god sits upon her wretched self.” (1.712-14, 717-19)
In an article published, like that of Richard Hawley, in a recent collection entitled Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings: Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity, Angus Bowie (1998: 66) inquires: “But why is Dido described as passionate about the child, if the claim is that it is Aeneas’ body that is in question? The answer,” Bowie goes on to explain, “lies in the description of Ascanius in iv 84 as `the image of his father’ (genitoris imago). There, as here, in an image of considerable erotic power, Dido seeks to console herself with a bodily substitute for Aeneas.” In the latter passage, Virgil describes how Dido, alone at night, still hears and sees Aeneas, “aut gremio Ascaniumgenitoris imagine capta
detinet, infandum si fallere possit amorem
” “or else she detains Ascanius in her lap, captivated by the image of his father, if perhaps she may cheat her unspeakable passion.” (4.84-85)
It is unclear, as Bowie notes, whether Dido actually fondled Ascanius while Aeneas was away — the view defended by Page — or whether she merely remembers how she had hugged him previously in the company of Aeneas, as Austin argues.
The difficulty with Bowie’s account, however, is that Dido’s original fascination with Ascanius, or rather, with Cupid disguised as Ascanius, precedes her infatuation with Aeneas, and is the cause of it. Bowie, taking as his point of departure Lacanian psychological theory, points to a series of displacements or substitutions that characterize Dido’s passion, for example, her desire for a child whose looks would remind her of Aeneas (4.327-30, cit. p. 72), and the odd detail that she places on her funeral pyre an effigy of Aeneas (4.508; discussed pp. 73-74). This is indeed a promising line of speculation (it is unfortunate that Bowie seems not to have known Maurizio Bettini’s recent book, Il ritratto dell’amante).
But I would like to suggest rather that, with Dido’s quasi-erotic fixation on Ascanius, Virgil has incorporated the motif of seductive ephebe into the austere medium of epic, which was in principle inhospitable to it (save in a subordinate context, like the episode involving Hylas in Apollonius’ Argonautika). It is impossible to ascertain the precise age of Ascanius in the Aeneid: upon departing from the burning Troy, he follows his father non passibus aequis(2.724), whereas in Sicily he is old enough for the equestrian exercizes that will later be called the Trojan Games (5.545-603).n9 One of the three troops is led by a youth named Priam; “alter Atys, genus unde Atiiducere Latini,
parvus Atys pueroque puer dilectus Iulo.
extremus formaque ante omnis pulcher Iulus
Sidonio est invectus equo, quem candida Dido
esse sui dederat monimentum et pignus amoris
” “another is Atys, whence the Latin Atii derived their ancestry, little Atys, the boy most beloved of the boy Iulus. Last, and beautiful in appearance beyond all others, is Iulus, carried on a Sidonian horse which brilliant Dido had given him as a memorial and pledge of her love.” (5.568-72)
The mention of Dido’s love need not carry a sexual connotation (shortly before this passage, Virgil describes in the same language a bowl which the Thracian Cisseus once gave to Anchises: sui dederatmonimentum et pignus amoris, 5.538).n10 But the emphasis on Ascanius’ beauty is at least suggestive of Dido’s passion for the child. What is more, Iulus’ proximity here to a youth named Atys may have summoned up, to Roman ears, an association with Attis, the boy beloved by Cybele.n11 However this may be, Ascanius is not an infant in the Aeneid but rather an adolescent or ephebe.
Like the wives who engage in the sex strike in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Dido is a mature woman who has herself been married once before. Why she falls in love with Aeneas is a question to which there is no simple or single answer. She knows his history and admires him (cf. Austin 1971: 185). She also meets him at a moment when he is helpless and dependent upon her, and she takes pity on him, as Medea did on Jason and Ariadne on Theseus in similar circumstances: this inversion of roles, in which the male is submissive and the female has control, facilitates the reversal of amatory positions. Of course, the gods too have a hand in the matter. But at least since the classical epoch of Athens, the active erotic passion of a grown woman might also be represented analogously to the masculine desire for a youth. Perhaps, as Joseph Reed suggests, women really did find such a fantasy fulfilling, inasmuch as it permitted them to experience a sense of sexual mastery usually reserved for men. One may speculate further that the frustrated adoration of a pubescent boy corresponds to a transition in the relation between mother and child — that moment at which the infant, freely fondled and caressed, begins to assume the aspect of a young man, and what had been (or seemed) an innocent expression of affection runs the risk of becoming consciously, if subtly, eroticized.n12 Or again, the image of maternal devotion may represent, in part, the projection of a childhood fantasy on the part of Greek males, who were, after all, the chief producers and consumers of literature in classical antiquity.n13 But even if the myth of Adonis and similar narratives reflect, on one level, a universal tension inherent in the maturation and individuation of the adolescent child, the symbolic manifestation of this experience in rituals and narratives involving a woman’s passion for a tender youth may have been enabled by the cultural idealization of pederasty in fifth-century Athens, which permitted a relaxation of the psychological inhibitions that commonly function to repress the recognition of the sexual charge latent in the maternal bond.n14
In an elegant article on the fifteenth epistle in Ovid’s Heroides, Pamela Gordon asks the question: “Why is Phaon a Boy” (1997: 284). Her answer is that, in the masculine imaginary, “a couple can have only one active, virile partner, and that the other must be passive (and preferably young and pretty)” (p. 285). Gordon observes that, “of all the heroes in the Heroides, only Phaon is formosus,” a figure “at that delectable stage of pubescence” (p. 284): “o nec adhuc iuvenis, nec iampuer, utilis aetas.
” “Not yet a man but no longer a boy, a useful age.” (15.93 trans. Gordon, p. 285)
Gordon interprets the exceptional construction of Sappho’s desire within the context of the Heroides as a function of Sappho’s lesbianism or tribadism; citing the work of Judith Hallett (1989), she remarks that “there are few Latin texts that do not attempt to masculinize, anachronize, and Hellenize women who engage in homoerotic activity” (p. 286). The question of the authenticity of Sappho’s letter in the collection is a vexed one, and need not detain us here. I should like, however, to modify Gordon’s conclusion by observing that the erotic passion of any powerful, mature woman, and not just of lesbians, was susceptible to being assimilated to model of pederastic love. We found a trace of it in the πρόβουλος‘ description of Athenian wives, who at that very moment had taken control of the masculine space of the acropolis, and a distant echo of it in Prudentius’ account of the martyrdom of Saint Agnes. It surfaces as well as a theme in women’s rites, particularly in connection with the Adonia and the cult of Attis. Later, it is a pervasive motif in the Greek novels and, to all appearances, the Roman mime. I believe that, thanks to the daring genius and sensitive intuition of Virgil, it makes an appearance also in the noble genre of epic, in the form of Dido’s passionate reponse to the beauty of young Ascanius.
- Austin, R.G., ed. 1971. P. Vergili Maronis Aeneidos Liber Primus. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Bettini, Maurizio. 1992. Il ritratto dell’amante. Turin: G. Einaudi. English trans. by Laura Gibbs, The Portrait of the Lover. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
- Bömer, Franz. 1976. Metamorphosen, Buch 4-5: Kommentar. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.
- Bowie, Angus. 1998. “Exuviam Effigiemque: Dido, Aeneas and the Body as Sign.” In Montserrat 1998: 57-79.
- Cameron, Averil. 1994. “Early Christianity and the Discourse of Female Desire.” In Léonie J. Archer, Susan Fischler, and Maria Wyke, edd., Women in Ancient Societies: An Illusion of the Night (New York: Routledge) 152-68.
- Carnes, Jeffrey. 1996. “The Ends of the Earth: Fathers, Ephebes, and Wild Women in Nemean 4 and 5.” Arethusa 29: 15-55.
- Clark, Gillian. 1998. “Bodies and Blood: Late Antique Debate on Martyrdom, Virginity and Resurrection.” In Montserrat 1998: 99-115.
- Dover, Kenneth J. 1978. Greek Homosexuality. London: Duckworth.
- Gordon, Pamela. 1997. “The Lover’s Voice in Heroides 15: or, Why is Sappho a Man?” In Hallett and Skinner 1997: 274-91.
- Habrich, Elmar, ed. 1960. Iamblichi Babyloniacorum reliquiae. Leipzig: Teubner.
- Hallett, Judith P. 1989. “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature.” Yale Journal of Criticism 3:209-27; reprinted in Hallett and Skinner 1997: 255-73.
- Hallett, Judith P. and Marilyn B. Skinner, edd. 1997. Roman Sexualities. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Hawley, Richard. 1998. “The Dynamics of Beauty in Classical Greece.” In Montserrat 1998: 37-54.
- Henderson, Jeffrey, ed. 1987. Aristophanes: Lysistrata. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Hoffmann, Geneviève. 1992. La jeune fille, le pouvoir et la mort dans l’Athènes classique. Paris: De Boccard.
- Kleijwegt, Marc. 1991. Ancient Youth: The Ambiguity of Youth and the Absence of Adolescence in Greco-Roman Society. Amsterdame: J.C. Greben.
- Konstan, David. 2000. “Enacting Erôs.” In Martha Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola, edd., The Night of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
- Lindheim, Sara. 1998. “Hercules Cross-Dressed, Hercules Undressed: Unmasking the Construction of the Propertian Amator in Elegy 4.9.” AJP 119: 43-66.
- Montserrat, Dominic, ed. 1998. Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings: Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity. London: Routledge.
- Nugent, Georgia. 1990. “This Sex Which is not One: De-Constructing Ovid’s Hermaphrodite.” differences 2.1: 160-85.
- Osborne, Robin. 1997. “Men without Clothes: Heroic Nakedness and Greek Art.” Gender and History 9: 504-28.
- Pembroke, S. 1967. “Women in Charge: The Function of Alternatives in Early Greek Tradition and the Ancient Idea of Matriarchy.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 30: 1-35.
- Percy, William Armstrong, III. 1996. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Petrini, Mark. 1997. The Child and the Hero: Coming of Age in Catullus and Virgil. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Reed, Joseph D. 1995. “The Sexuality of Adonis.” Classical Antiquity 14: 317-47.
- Servais-Soyez, Brigitte. 1981. “Adonis.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae. Vol. 1.1-2. Zurich: Artemis Verlag.
- Silveira Cyrino, Monica. 1998. “Heroes in D(u)ress: Transvestism and Power in the Myths of Herakles and Achilles.” Arethusa 31: 207-41.
- Simms, Ronda R. 1998. “Mourning and Community at the Athenian Adonia.” Classical Journal 93: 121-41.
- Spivey, Nigel. 1996. Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings. London: Hudson and Thames.
- Stehle, Eva. 1990. “Sappho’s Gaze: Fantasies of a Goddess and a Young Man.” differences 2.1: 88-125.
- Ussher, R.G. ed. 1973. Aristophanes: Ecclesiazusae. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Zeitlin, Froma. 1978. “The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth and Mythmaking in the Oresteia.” Arethusa 11″ 149-83.
1 Shoemakers were conventionally imagined as pallid; cf. the proverb quoted in schol. to Peace 1310: οὐδὲν λευκῶν ἀνδρῶν ἔργον εἰ μὴ σκυτοτομεῖν (“Pale men are of no use except as shoemakers”). Because of their pallor, they were also associated with women; thus, in Aristophanes’ Ecclêsiazusae, Blepyrus remarks of the women disguised as men in the assembly: “As we looked at them, we all kept likening them to shoemakers” (πάντες σκυτοτόμοιςἠικάζομε?. ὁρῶντες αὐτούς, 385-86). A young shoemaker, then, might seem particularly attractive because of his girlish looks; thus, Chremes says of Praxagora, as she rises to speak in the assembly: “After this, moreover, some young fellow, handsome and pale, leaped up” (μετὰ τοῦτο τοίνυνεὐπρεπὴς νεανίας´ λευκός τις ἀνεπήδης᾽, Eccl. 427-28). As menial craftsmen, shoemakers were also regarded as lowly; cf. Plato Theaetetus 180D, and Aristophanes Knights 738-40, where they are included in a list of humble tradesmen. See also Ussher 1973: 129-30 ad Eccl. 383-85.
2 Ambrose too speaks of her as choosing virginity over life (PL 17.1210); for the τόπος, cf. Tertullian Apol. 50. Damasius has an epigram on her (PL 13.402-03), but these sources do not seem substantially to have influenced Prudentius’ treatment.
3 In Greek myth, powerful males, like Achilles and Heracles, may assume female garb at critical junctures in their careers; cf. Silveira Cyrino 1998: 238, who interprets such transvestism as a way of highlighting “a safe and successful passage to another stage of the hero’s career”; cf. also Lindheim 1998.
5 André Lardinois reminds me that Phoenix was young (νέον ἡβώοντα, Il. 9.446) when he seduced the concubine of his father; the age of the concubine, however, is not given.
7 On beauty contests for men, cf. Theophrastus in Athenaeus 13.565-66a, 609 ff.; Hawley 1998: 39 notes that in these contests, “The military nature of the prizes gives us a clue to the slightly different ethos of the male beauty contest [in relation to female contests]. Here beauty seems connected with heroism or martial prowess.” Cf. also Spivey 1996: 36-38.
8 Hawley writes (p. 51): “One might expect to find such references [to male beauty] in Euripides’ Hippolytus, a play about a woman’s desire for an athletic youth. But one would look in vain. There are references to Hippolytus’ body, but they are few and vague and mainly refer to the destruction of his body by the chariot crash.” But the point is not Hippolytus’ appearance but his immaturity. Thus Theseus, when he accuses his son of libidinousness, asks rhetorically: “Such foolishness is not in men but innate in women? But I know that young men are no safer than women when Aphrodite excites their adolescent hearts: their own masculinity assists them” (966-70).
9 The division of the life cycle into youth into childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in antiquity poses certain theoretical problems that cannot be discussed here; cf. Kleijwegt 1991: 92, who notes that, after the classical period of Athens, at least, the ephebate seems to have begun at around age fourteen (Xenophon Ephesiaca 1.2.2 is cited in support).
11 Cf. Ovid Metamorphoses 5.47-73, where two youths, modelled on Virgil’s Nisus and Euryalus, are called Lycabas and Athis; the latter is sixteen years old (bis adhuc octonis integer annis) and egregius forma (he is also oriental, haling from the Ganges). As Bömer 1976 notes ad loc., Lycabas and Athis, unlike the Virgilian pair, are manifestly ἐραστής and ἐρώμενος; cf. Lycabas, iunctissimus illi et comes et veri non dissimulator amoris.
14 Contrast the furor raised by a Seattle school-teacher named Mary K. Letourneau, who became pregnant by a thirteen-year-old boy. Letourneau was convicted of rape, and after having violated a court order not to see the boy again (he is now fourteen), has been ordered to serve a seven-and-a-half-year jail sentence (Providence Journal, 12 February 1998: p. A 10). Letourneau describes the boy as “the love of my life.” Coincidentally, The New York Times reports (12 February 1998: p. A 11): “A new type of testosterone-reducing drug, coupled with psychotherapy, greatly reduces desire among men to molest children and engage in deviant sexual behavior”; a sub-headline declares: “A breakthrough in the treatment of a troubling illness.” In modern American discourse, a sexual attraction to a pubescent child is classified either as a crime or as a sickness.The Pre-Pubescent Lover in Greek Literature. David Konstan. Brown University. 2001. Diotima: Materials for the Study of Women and Gender in the Ancient World. Ross Scaife. Stoa Consortium. 2001.
Forthcoming under the title, “El amante adolescente,” in Juan Antonio López Férez, ed., Actas del Primer Simposio Internacional de Filología Griega: El amor in la literatura griega 1998 (Madrid: Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, 2001). Published in Diotima with permission of the editor, February 2000.