Translation copyright 2000 Andrew Kallimachos; all rights reserved.
Lucian of Samosata, the prolific second century CE Greek satirist and tireless traveler, is thought by many not to have authored the present text, Erotes. The various descriptions of the places visited by the protagonists seem rather to fix the date of the work around the beginning of the fourth century CE. Nonetheless, even though its style is unlike that of his other works, its essence is in keeping with Lucian’s custom: ‘ridendo dicere verum,’ ‘laughingly to say the truth.’
1. All day long, my dear Theomnestus, you’ve spoken of nothing but love and its games. Still I have not tired of listening to you pour out your joyful themes. I’d had an earful of serious matters, and thirsted for such diversion. The spirit does not suffer restraint gladly; it needs a bit of relaxation, a taste of pleasure. The whole morning your stories, as delightful as they are vivid, have so thrilled me that I felt like Aristides of Miletus, that enchanting spinner of bawdy yarns. I swear upon these loves, to which you have presented such a large target, I would resent it greatly were you not to tell me more! I beseech you — in the name of Aphrodite herself should you think I am not serious — to draw from your memory another of your sweet adventures with this or that sex. Besides, today is Hercules’ holiday, to whom we must sacrifice, and you are not unaware, I trust, of how much this god was captivated by the subject of Aphrodite; your tales will please him more than victims.
2. You could sooner, Lycinus, count the waves in the sea, or the rushing flakes of snow, than my many loves. I truly believe I have exhausted all their arrows so that, should they want to mount another attack, their unarmed hand will only draw laughter. Almost from the day my childhood gave way to youth I yielded myself to them to feast upon me. Loves followed thick upon each other – before one had ended another began; true Lernean heads, more numerous than that of the Hydra, and defying the flaming brands of Iolaus, as if fire could ever put out fire. Without a doubt there is a lodestone in my eyes that tirelessly draws all who are beautiful. I have even asked myself more than once whether so many favors were not some curse of Aphrodite. And yet I’m not a daughter of the Sun, nor an insolent Lemnian, nor some hypocritical Hippolytus.
3. Spare me your hypocrisy, Theomnestus! What? You would blame Fortune for a life awash in pretty women, and boys in the flower of their youth? Perhaps we should hold atonement sacrifices to cure you of such a dread disease. All kidding aside, consider yourself lucky that the gods did not fate you to the grimy toil of the farmer, the peregrinations of the merchant, or the dangers of army life. Your only care in the world is to stroll through the athletic fields, to primp the folds of your purple robe, or to do up your hair more artfully. Besides, these torments of love you gripe about only heap delight upon delight, and desire’s bite is sweet. When you have set upon a conquest you know the joys of hope. When you are the victor you know those of enjoyment: the present and the future hold nought but delectation for you. Just now, as you were drawing up the tally of your loves with a precision worthy of a Hesiod, your eyes were bathed in joyous drunkenness, your voice flowed more sweetly than that of the daughter of Lycambes, and your whole demeanor shouted out that you were not left cold by the recollection of your delights. Therefore I beg of you, if you have neglected some little corner of your voyage with Aphrodite, repair the fault right away: Hercules will have his victim whole.
4. This god, Lycinus, is an eater of oxen. What’s more, he likes his victims steaming. If we should limit our offerings to stories, mine have dragged on long enough and will soon become tiresome. Your turn, please. Let your own Muse, casting off her usual gravity, chant us songs to put a pleasing end to our day with the god! There is a subject you have not broached, and which I would like to put to the test of your judgement: Which in your opinion is best: the love of boys, or that of women? I, who am smitten by both, lean neither this way nor that, but keep in balance the two arms of the scale. You who are not involved, give me your impartial opinion. Tell me frankly, o dear friend, which side you are on, now that I have told you of my loves.
5. Do you imagine, Theomnestus, this is some kind of game? This is a matter requiring serious study. I myself have recently given it thought, and well do I know its complications, having been present at a heated debate between two friends whose words still ring in my ears. Their arguments reflected the opposition of their views, which was absolute. They did not enjoy this happy mean for which I congratulate you, and which lets you collect double pay, since you, sleepless shepherd, ‘First guard the cattle, and then the sheep.'<1> The first of these gentlemen found his delight in boys, and compared feminine Aphrodite to the pit of doom; the second, unstained by male love, was crazy about women. They asked me to referee their battle of words, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. Their arguments are engraved in my memory as if they had just uttered them. I will try to recall them faithfully, to give you some small proof of my good will.
Allow me to shift my seat the better to see you, ‘Waiting for Achilles to make an end of his song,'<2> and you, please give voice to the melodious glory of this debate on love.
6. Intending to head for Italy, I had a speedy vessel readied, the kind of bireme used above all by the Liburnians of the Ionian Gulf. After having paid my respects to the gods of the fatherland, and supplicated Zeus the Protector to look with favor upon this lengthy expedition, I had the mules saddled and headed for the shore. I said my goodbyes to the men who had accompanied me; they were gentlemen of wit and knowledge who, after having sought my company, wanted to convey their sadness at my leaving. Upon boarding the vessel I took my seat at the stern beside the helmsman. The oarsmen had already rowed us offshore when the wind rose. Soon the mast was stepped, the yard was run up and we made sail. The canvas filled, and we shot like an arrow over the foaming waves, noisily rent asunder by our plunging bow.
7. But the details of our voyage, interesting or not, are beside the point. After having followed the Cilician coast and having reached the Gulf of Pamphylia we passed, not without some trouble, the Swallow Islands, those happy boundaries of ancient Greece. Then we visited the main towns of Lycia, interesting more for their history than for their monuments, since they have retained none of their former splendor. Finally, upon reaching Rhodes, the City of the Sun God, we decided to take a break from our travels.
8. The ship was hauled out and the sailors pitched their tents nearby. As for me, having taken lodgings across from Bacchus’ temple, I headed for it at my leisure, abandoning myself to a thousand impressions, one sweeter than the other. By its beauty, the City of the Sun God is indeed worthy of the name. Along the way I made the rounds of the portico in the temple of Bacchus, admiring the paintings that retrace the heroic fables and are as pleasing as they are instructive. At any rate, two or three guides had already taken charge of me and, in exchange for a couple of obols, explained that which I had not understood or only suspected.
9. After having my fill of this spectacle I was getting ready to return to my lodgings when I had the most enjoyable surprise that a trip abroad can offer: that of meeting old friends, ones who are not unknown to you since you have run into them often at my house. One was Charícles of Corinth, a young man whose good looks are matched by his elegance, since he always wants to stand out to please the ladies. With him was Callicratídas, the Athenian, a man of the simplest appearance, as behooves one of our principal orators and lawyers. This latter besides is devoted to physical exercise, not so much for the love of the gym as for the love of the boys, a passion which totally transports him – he detests the fair sex to the point where he often curses Prometheus. As soon as they saw me, the two ran up, overjoyed; after the customary embraces each clasped me by the hand and insisted that I accept his hospitality. Seeing that their friendly rivalry was growing heated, I said, “Today, Callicratídas and Charícles, I will resolve your dispute by inviting you to my place. The following days, for I expect to stay here three or four, I will take turns being the guest of each of you, and we will draw lots to determine who will be first.”
10. And so it was decided. That day they were my guests. The next day I was hosted by Callicratídas, and the following by Charícles. I discerned in the arrangements of each household the proof of their tastes. The Athenian was surrounded by beautiful boys. All his servants were beardless, and remained at his side only upon that condition. As soon as the least down shaded their cheeks they were sent to work his lands in Attica. Charícles, in comparison, was surrounded by a veritable orchestra of female dancers and musicians, and his house was filled with women as if at a feast of Demeter. You could not have found a single representative of the other sex, unless it was perhaps a little child or some old cook who, due to his age, could not inspire any jealousy. There you had, as I have said, clear indications of their respective inclinations. Often brief skirmishes broke out between them on this topic, but the issue was never settled. That is how things stood when the time came for me to continue my voyage. But this time I was no longer leaving alone: my two friends had decided to accompany me, wanting to visit Italy as well.
11. We could not pass up the chance to stop in Cnidus, where there is so much to be seen, notably the temple of Aphrodite which encloses the statue by Praxiteles, so admired for its beauty. We made a gentle landfall amid a splendid calm, as if the goddess herself had propelled our vessel. After alighting, and while rooms were being arranged, I took the two experts on love by the arm and we went round Cnidus, delighting in the erotic terra cottas, worthy of a town dedicated to Aphrodite. After having seen the portico of Sostratos and a couple of other landmarks, we directed our steps towards the temple of the goddess, Charícles and I with the greatest satisfaction, but Callicratídas not without some reservations, as if this visit were an homage to a woman. He would have, I believe, willingly traded the Aphrodite of Cnidus for the Eros of Thespiae.
12. As soon as we reached the confines of the temple we felt as if caressed by the very breath of the goddess. The floor of the court had not been doomed to sterility by a stone pavement, but on the contrary, it burst with fertility, as behooves Aphrodite: fruit trees with verdant foliage rose to prodigious heights, their limbs weaving a lofty vault. The myrtle, beloved by the goddess, reached up its berry-laden branches no less than the other trees which so gracefully stretched out. They never know foliage grown old, their boughs always being thick with leaves. To tell the truth, you can notice among them some infertile trees, but they have beauty as their fruit. Such were the cypress and the planes which towered to the heavens, as well as the tree of Daphnis, who once fled Aphrodite but now has come here to seek refuge. Ivies entwine themselves lovingly around each of these trees. Heavy clusters of grapes hang from the gnarled vines: indeed, Aphrodite is only more attractive when united with Bacchus; their pleasures are sweeter for being mixed together. Apart, they have less spice. Under the welcome shade of the boughs, comfortable beds await the celebrants – actually the better people of the town only rarely frequent these green halls, but the common crowds jostle there on festive days, to yield publicly to the joys of love.
13. When we had exhausted the charms of these places we pressed on into the temple itself. The goddess stands in the center; her statue made of marble from Paros. Her lips are slightly parted by a lofty smile. Nothing hides her beauty, which is entirely exposed, other than a furtive hand veiling her modesty. The art of the sculptor has succeeded so well that it seems the marble has shed its hardness to mold the grace of her limbs. Charícles, dazed by this spectacle, impulsively burst out, “Lucky Mars, to be chained by such a goddess!” He rushed forward as he spoke, lips pursed, neck stretched to give her a kiss. Callicratídas watched the display in silence. The temple has a second entrance for those who wish to contemplate the goddess from behind, for none of her parts should escape admiration. It is easy in that fashion to gaze upon her hind beauty.
14. Wanting to see the goddess entire we approached this gate. Upon being let in by the woman who kept the keys, we were overwhelmed by her abundant beauty. As soon as the Athenian, who had so far been indifferent, glimpsed this side of the goddess, which reminded him of boys, he exclaimed with even greater enthusiasm than that of Charícles, “By Hercules, what a harmonious back. What rounded thighs, begging to be caressed with both hands! How well the lines of her cheeks flow, neither too skinny, showing the bones, nor so voluminous as to droop! How inexpressible the tenderness of that smile pressed into her dimpled loins! How precise that line running from thigh, to leg, to foot! Now I can understand why Zeus’ nectar is so sweet when Ganymede pours it. As for me, I would never take it from Hebe’s hand.” While Callicratídas was declaiming this speech with much elan, Charícles remained fixed in place, the tenderness of his gaze betraying his emotions.
15. Filled with admiration, we noticed behind one of the thighs a stain like one on a robe, which only brought out the whiteness of the marble. It seemed a flaw in the stone. This kind of defect is not uncommon, and fate thus tends to thwart that which otherwise would reach perfection. Supposing this dark stain was natural, my admiration for Praxiteles only increased, for having so skillfully hidden it where it would least be noticed. But the groundskeeper, who had stayed by our side, recounted an extraordinary and barely believable tale on this subject. “A young man from a distinguished family,” said she, “but whose act has made the name unspeakable, came often to the temple, where an evil spirit had made him fall in love with the goddess. As he spent his whole day there, it was first believed to be due to a faith bordering on superstition. In fact he was up way before the dawn, and only went home after sunset, having spent all his time seated before the goddess, his eyes constantly fixed upon her. You could hear him murmuring sweet nothings to her.
16. When he wanted to quench his passion a bit, he would make an invocation, cast on the table four small bones of Libyan gazelle, and read the future in them. If the throw was lucky, especially if it was the one called ‘of Aphrodite,’ when none of the dice shows the same number, he would prostrate himself, certain his desire would soon be fulfilled. But the opposite was more common, and when the dice were unfavorable he cursed all of Cnidus and, as if his misfortune were incurable, was overwhelmed by sadness. In the next moment he would gather up the dice and try his fortune again. His passion only grew stronger, and he carved on every wall and tree the name of Aphrodite the Beautiful. He worshiped Praxiteles as equal to Zeus. Any beautiful or valuable thing he found in his house he offered to the goddess; finally, the violence of his desires made him lose his reason, his audacity serving him for pimp. One evening, at sunset, he slid unseen behind the temple door and hid in the darkest corner, holding his breath. The keepers closed the gate as usual, and this new Anchises found himself alone inside. Who would dare recount the sort of deeds he consummated that wicked night? In short, at daybreak this sign of his amorous embraces was discovered, a sign which ever since has marked the goddess as a reminder of her suffering. As for the young man, they say he threw himself upon the rocks, or into the sea. In any case he disappeared forever.”
17. Before the attendant could make an end to her story Charícles exclaimed, “So! Even made of stone, a woman wants loving. How then if such a beauty came to life? Would not a night with her be worth Zeus’ very scepter?” Callicratídes replied, smiling, “We don’t know yet, Charícles, whether many more such stories lie in store for us once we reach Thespiae.”<3>”What do you mean?” asked Charícles. Callicratídes answered, not without reason. “It is claimed,” said he, “that this young lover had a whole night to satisfy his passions at his leisure. Yet he dealt with the statue as with a boy, thus proving he was not seeking the woman in front.” When other comments along these lines brought tempers to a boil, I said to them, after calming them down, “O very dear friends, if you are going to argue, do it properly, according to the blessed rules of contest. Stop this disorderly and fruitless spat. Let each of you defend his cause in proper fashion. It is not yet time to board. Let’s put this moment to good use in the service of enjoyment, exploring these serious matters in a way that combines pleasure and profit. Let’s leave this temple since people are starting to crowd in for their devotions, and let us repair to the garden, there to listen and talk to our heart’s content. But remember, he who is bested today is never again to reopen this discussion.”
18. It seems I had not spoken in vain, for both agreed. We left, I thrilled to have nought to do but listen, they deeply absorbed in thought, as if upon this debate hung in balance an Olympic prize.<4> When we arrived in a suitably shady nook, offering shelter from the heat of the day, I said to them, “Here is a splendid spot. The songs of the cicadas overhead will be our accompaniment.” I sat down between the two antagonists like a true judge, the weight of the Athenian Tribunal heavy on his brow. I had them draw lots to choose the first speaker. Charícles won, and I bade him begin his speech at once.
19. He passed his hand over his brow and, after a moment of silence, began thus: “O Lady mine, O Aphrodite, my prayers call upon you to sustain my plea for this your cause. Every undertaking, no matter how small, attains perfection if you but bestow upon it the least measure of your mercy; but matters of love have special need of you, for you are after all their natural mother. Come as a woman to defend women, and grant that men remain men, as they were born to be. At the very start of this debate I call as witness of the truth of my words the primordial Mother, original source of all creation, by which I mean the sacred nature of the universe, she who, having been the first to unite the elements of the world — earth, air, fire and water — wrought through their mingling all living creatures. As she knew we were a meld of perishable stuffs, granted an all too short existence, she made it so that the death of one would be the birth of another, and that procreation would keep in check mortality, so that one life could send forth another in infinite succession. Since a thing cannot be born of a single source, to each species she has granted the two genders, the male to which she has given the seed principle, and the female which she has shaped into a vessel for that seed. She draws them together by means of desire and unites one to the other in accordance with the healthy requirement of necessity, so that, each remaining within its natural bounds, the woman will not pretend improbably to have become a man, nor will the man wax indecently effeminate. It is thus that the unions of men with women have perpetuated to this day the human race, through an undying chain of inheritance, instead of some man claiming the glory of being uniquely the product of another man. Quite the contrary, all honor two names as equally respectable, for all have a mother and at the same time a father.
20. Thus in the beginning, when men lived imbued with feelings worthy of heroes they honored that virtue that makes us akin to the gods; they obeyed the laws fixed by nature and, conjoined with a woman of appropriate age, they became fathers of virtuous children. But little by little the race fell from those heights into the abyss of lust and sought pleasure along new and errant paths. Finally, lechery, overstepping all bounds, transgressed the very laws of nature. Moreover, the man who first eyed his peer as though a woman, could he have helped but resort to tyrannical violence, or else to deceit? Two beings of one sex met in one bed; when they looked at one another they blushed neither at what each did to the other, nor at what each had suffered to be done to him; sowing their seed (as the saying goes) upon sterile rocks they traded slight delight for great disgrace.
21. Effrontery and tyrannical violence have gone as far as to mutilate nature with a sacrilegious steel, finding, by ripping from males their very manhood, a way to prolong their use. But these unfortunates in order to remain like young boys no longer remain men, and are nothing but an ambiguous enigma of dual gender, not having kept the one they were born to, and not having acquired the one they have attained. This flower of childhood, having thus lingered a while into their youth, wilts into a premature old age. Yes, we still count them boys, who are already old, for they know not real maturity. Thus vile lust, mistress of all evils, contriving ever more shameful pleasures and ready to stoop to any baseness, has slid all the way to that vice which cannot decently be mentioned.
22. If all obeyed the laws given us by Providence, relations with women would satisfy us, and the world would be washed clean of all crime. Animals cannot corrupt anything through depravity, and the law of nature remains unpolluted. Male lions do not get excited over other male lions, and when in their heat, Aphrodite awakens their desires for females. The bull, master of his herd, mounts the cows; the ram fills all the sheep with his male seed. What else? The boars, do they not cover the sows in their sty? The wolves, do they not mix with she-wolves? In one word, neither the birds who ride the winds, nor the fishes fated to their wet element, nor the animals on land seek dealing with other males, and for them the decrees of Providence remain inviolate. But you, men of over-estimated wisdom, you truly perverted animals, what novel raving drives you to rise up against the laws and commit a double crime? What blind insensibility blankets your souls, to doubly stray from the good road, chasing that which you should flee? If everyone did like you there would be no one left!
23. Socrates’ disciples wield truly admirable arguments with which they fool young boys not yet in full possession of their reason, but anyone endowed with a modicum of sense could hardly be swayed by them. They feign love of the soul and, as if ashamed to love the beauty of the body, style themselves ‘lovers of virtue.’ Often I had a good laugh over that. How is it, o venerable philosophers, that you dismiss with such disdain that age where one has long since proven one’s worth, and whose gray hairs vouch for its virtue? How come your love, so full of wisdom, lunges avidly for the young, whose judgement is not yet fully formed, and who know not which road to take? Is there some law tainting lack of beauty as perverse, and decreeing the beautiful as always good and praiseworthy? Yet, to quote Homer, that great prophet of truth:
His looks were wanting,
But a god granted him beauty of speech,
And all were charmed. He speaks sweetly
Yet firmly too, amid the crowd.
Throughout the city he walks like a god.<5>
And elsewhere he also said:
In your case, wits do not match beauty.<6>
Indeed, prudent Odysseus is favored over beautiful Nireus.
24. How is it your love does not pursue prudence, or justice, or the other virtues which upon occasion crown maturity, and why is the beauty of the young the only thing to inflame your ardent passions? Ought one have loved Phaedrus, the betrayer of Lysias, o Plato? Was it right to love the virtues of Alcibiades, he who mutilated the statues of the gods, and revealed the Eleusinian mysteries between cups of wine? Who would confess to being his lover when he fled Athens to make his stand in Decelea and aspire openly to tyranny? As long as he remained beardless, according to the divine Plato, he was loved by all, but as soon as he became a man and his intellect, previously unripe, acquired its full dimension, he was hated by all. Why is that? It is because these men who call ‘virtue’ the beauty of the body put an honorable label on a shameful affection, and are sooner lovers of children than lovers of wisdom.<7> But so as to not seem to recall the famous only to besmirch them I will not speak further of these matters.
25. Let’s now descend from these lofty considerations to an examination of your lusts, Callicratídas; I will demonstrate that the use of women is better far than that of boys. To start, I deem enjoyment to be more satisfying the longer it continues. Desire that departs too quickly ends, as they say, before it has begun. Real pleasure lies in that which lasts. Would that it had pleased the gods for stingy Fate to spin long the thread of our life, granting enjoyment of perpetual health with no foothold for grief. Then we would spend our days in feasts and celebrations. But since some nefarious demon has begrudged us such great boons, the sweetest of real pleasures are the lasting ones. And woman, from maidenhood until middle age, before the wrinkles of old age have carved her face, is worthy indeed of commerce with men and, even when her beauty is gone,
With wiser tongue
Than can the young.<8>
26. On the other hand, the one who courts boys of twenty seems to me a seeker of passive pleasures, a votary of an ambivalent Aphrodite. The body of those become men is hard, their chin, once soft, has become bristly, and their muscular thighs are soiled by hairs. As for what is most hidden, I leave that knowledge to you, men of experience. Any woman’s skin, on the other hand, shines with grace. Her thick locks crown her head like the purple flower of the hyacinth — some spill over her back to embellish her shoulders, others frame the ears and the temples, curlier than parsley in a field. Her entire body, devoid of the least hair, has, as has been said, more brilliance than amber or glass from Sidon.
27. Why not seek, when it comes to desires, those which are mutual, and which equally satisfy the one who gives and the one who receives? We do not like, in truth, to lead a solitary life like the dumb beasts, but rather, joined by our mutual feelings, we find our happiness greater and our pains lighter when shared. Hence the invention of the communal table, which one brings out to be the center of a gathering of friends. If we grant our belly the pleasure it demands, we will not, for example, drink Thasian wine by ourselves, and we will not stuff ourselves in solitude with fancy dishes. Each finds more pleasant that which is shared with another, and we prefer enjoyments which are reciprocal. One unites with a woman in mutual desire; the two partners part equally satisfied one with the other, after having tasted the same delights, unless we are to believe Tiresias, who claimed the pleasure of the woman far surpasses that of the man. I consider therefore that men should value not the selfish pleasure which they aim to take, but the one which they can afford in exchange. Nobody, lest he be mad, could say that to be the case with boys: the lover gets up and leaves after having tasted pleasures to him beyond compare, but his victim begins with pains and tears; even later, when, I am told, his suffering grows less acute, you will never be anything other than a bother to him, because of pleasure he has none. If we can speak more freely, as suits the woodlands of Aphrodite, I will say, Callicratídas, that it is allowed to make use of a woman in the fashion of a boy, the road being open to a double enjoyment, but the male must never lend himself to effeminate delights.
28. That is why, if a woman can satisfy the lover of boys, let him abstain from the latter, or else, if males can conjoin with males, then in the future allow women to love each other. Come, men of the new age, you legislators of strange thrills; after having blazed unfamiliar trails for men’s pleasures, grant women the same licence: let them comingle as do the males; let a woman, girded with those obscene implements, monstrous toys of sterility, lie with another woman, just as a man with another man. Let those filthy lesbians – a word that only rarely reaches our ears since modesty forbids it – triumph freely. Let our schools for girls be nothing but the domain of Philenis, dishonored by androgynous loves. And yet would it not be better to see a woman play the man than to see men take on the role of women?”
29. Having uttered these words with fire and conviction, Charícles grew quiet, his gaze still terrible, almost ferocious. He seemed to have made a conjuration to atone for all love of boys. As for me, I glanced at the Athenian with a gentle smile and said, “I had thought, Callicratídas, that I would merely be judging some game, or lark, but here I find myself, due to Charícles’ vehemence, referee over a more serious cause. He has grown heated beyond measure, as if on the Aeropagus, pleading for a murderer, or a criminal arsonist, or, by Zeus, for an affair of poison. It is time now to make recourse to Athena’s help: may the eloquence of Pericles and the tongues of the ten orators marshaled against the Macedonians make your harangue worthy of those declaimed on the Areopagus!”
30. Callicratídas collected his thoughts a moment or two. To the extent I could judge by his expression, he too seemed ready for combat. Finally he began his reply: “If women took part in government meetings, in the courts and in public affairs you would surely be a general, Charícles, or a president, and they would raise bronze statues in the public squares to you. In fact, the wisest among them, were they to speak in favor of their cause, could not have outdone you — neither Telesilla, who fought against the Spartiates and in whose honor, at Argos, Ares is considered one of the gods of women, nor Sappho, that sweet glory of Lesbos, nor Theano, daughter of the wise Pythagoras. It may even be that Pericles defended Aspasia with less eloquence. But if men are now to speak on behalf of women, then let us men speak on behalf of men. And you, Aphrodite, grant me favor, for we too honor Eros, your son!
31. I had thought our argument would remain on friendly footing, but since Charícles in his speech started philosophizing on the topic of women I will readily seize the opportunity to tell him this: only male love is the joint product of virtue and desire. I wish we stood, were such a thing possible, beneath that plane tree that upon a time heard Socrates’ speeches – happier tree than the Academy or the Lycaeum – and against which young Phaedrus leaned, as the holy man,<9> best beloved of the Graces, tells us. From its branches, as from those of the talking oak of Dodona, we might have heard a voice defending the love of boys, in memory of handsome Phaedrus. Alas, that cannot be,
For between us stretch
Shady mountains and the bellowing sea.<10>
We have halted here, strangers in a foreign land, and Cnidus is the domain of Charícles. But I will not succumb to fear.
32. Only do you come to my aid divine spirit, protector of friendship, hierophant of its mysteries, Eros, not the mischievous child drawn by the hands of painters, but Him whom the first principle of the seed made perfect from birth: it is you, in fact, who formed the universe, until then shapeless, dark and confused. Pulling the world as if out of a grave you have pushed back Chaos which enveloped it and flung him into the deepest abyss of Tartarus, there where there truly are ‘gates of iron and doorsteps of bronze,'<11> so that he may never return from the prison in which he has been chained. Then, beating back the night with your dazzling light, you became the demiurge of all beings, animate or inanimate. You have inspired in men, by means of the exalted sentiment of harmony, the noble passions of friendship, so that a soul still innocent and tender, nurtured in the shade of goodwill, will ripen into maturity.
33. Marriage is a remedy devised by the necessity of procreation, but male love alone must rule the heart of a philosopher. Everything fashioned uniquely for luxury is valued far above that which arises from need, and everywhere people prefer the beautiful to the merely useful. As long as men were ignorant and lacked the ease for seeking something better than the fruit of their daily experiences, they deemed themselves content with bare necessities – they had not the time to worry about a better way of life. But once urgent needs were satisfied, the men who followed after, freed from the shackles of necessity, could improve things; the whole gradual development of the sciences and of the arts that we see today is one interesting result. The first men were hardly born before they had to seek a remedy for daily hunger. Caught by these pressing needs, and deprived by poverty of the freedom to pursue refinements, they subsisted on roots and herbs, or above all on the fruits of the oak tree. But shortly thereafter these foods were relegated to the beasts, and the farmer’s toil was directed to sowing wheat and oats, which they had noticed grew anew each year; no one is so mad as to claim the fruit of the oak is tastier than grain.
34. Furthermore, in ancient times did men not cloak themselves in the pelts of flayed animals? Did they not seek refuge from cold in mountain caves or in the hollows of old stumps or in the old trunks of dead trees? But leaving behind little by little these primitive ways, they wove wool, built houses, and imperceptibly the art of these diverse crafts, with time for teacher, produced beautiful lace in place of simple cloth and lofty roofs instead of simple cabins; magnificent stonework was erected and the sad nakedness of the walls was painted in flowery colors. Thus these arts and sciences, once mute and sunk in oblivion, shone bright after their sleep. Each artist handed down to his successor that which he had invented, and successive beneficiaries, each adding to his own heritage, filled out what was lacking.
35. Let us not expect male love from these ancient times; men had to conjoin with women so that the race would not die out for lack of seed. Multifaceted wisdom and the virtuous desires, fueled by love of the beautiful, could only come to light in a century that has left nothing unexplored; thus love of youths has blossomed together with divine philosophy. That’s why, Charícles, do not condemn as evil all which was not invented long ago and, just because commerce with women has an older pedigree than that with boys, do not disdain the latter. Let’s remember that the very first discoveries were prompted by need, but those which arose from progress are only the better for it, and worthier of our esteem.
36. I could barely stifle my laughter when I heard Charícles praise the beasts, and the barren wastes of the Scythians — in the heat of the argument he seemed almost sorry to be Greek. Heedless of undermining his own argument, he did not hide his thoughts by speaking in low tones. Quite the contrary, he raised his voice and fairly roared: “Neither lions, nor bears, nor boars love another male, but their desires drive them solely towards their females.” What’s so amazing about that? What man chooses by dint of reason cannot be attained by animals, blocked from thought by their stupidity. If Prometheus or some other god had endowed them with human reason they would not be living in the desert or the forest and they would not be devouring each other but, like us, they would be building temples, living in houses by the hearth, and subjecting themselves to common laws. Animals are condemned by their own nature to miss out on the Providential gifts afforded by intellect. Is it any wonder that they should be deprived, among other things, of male love? Lions do not love each other, but they are not philosophers; bears do not love each other, but they have no understanding of the beauty of friendship. Among men, however, wisdom joined with knowledge, having chosen after numerous trials that which it found most beautiful, has decreed that male loves were the most sound.
37. So, Charícles, spare me these lectures more befitting the wanton lives of courtesans. Don’t insult our dignity and modesty in such crude terms, and do not make out Divine Eros to be a little fool. Consider, though it is late to educate oneself at your age, consider now, since you have not done so before, that Eros is a double god, who does not always arrive by the same path, and who does not always excite the same desires in our souls. One, I would say, is a ceaseless prankster; no reason governs him; he inhabits the souls of the foolish and from him come the yearnings for women; he is the inspirer of rapes, for he pushes with irresistible force towards that which we crave. But the other Eros – father of the Ogygian age, honest and profoundly sacred vision, the propagator of healthy desires – fills the souls with sweetness. Under the protection of this god we taste pleasure mixed with virtue. As the tragic poet once said, love has two breaths, and two completely different passions bear the same name. Shame also is a twofold goddess, simultaneously good and evil:
Shame can good and evil weave alike
And men in warring camps divide.
For the first she can’t be praised too highly
From the bottom of our hearts we blame her for the other.<12>
So it is not at all surprising if, passion taking the name of virtue, we should call “Eros” both sordid lust as well as compassionate affection.
38. “Is marriage nothing then,” said Charícles, “and shall we banish the race of women? How then will men perpetuate themselves?” I shall answer with the words of the all-wise Euripides: ‘It will be better, rather than have dealings with women, to go into the temples and the sacred places and purchase children in exchange for gold and silver, so as to assure our posterity.’ In truth, necessity burdens us down under her heavy yoke, and forces us to obey. If, by dint of intellect, we choose the beautiful, then on the other hand let what is useful yield to what is needful: Let there be women for making children, but as for the rest, I will have none of it. What sane man could stand a woman who, from morning on, bedecks herself with strange artifices? Her true figure is devoid of beauty, and she covers up the indecencies of nature with borrowed ornaments.
39. If we were to see women as they rose from their bed we would consider them uglier than those animals which it is thought ill luck to mention before noontime — the monkeys that is. That is why they lock themselves in and do not wish to be seen by any man. A flock of old and young servants, equal to them in beauty, swarm around them, offering the disagreeable face all sorts of pomades. They do not refresh their mistress after the sloth of sleep with a splash of clear water before moving on to serious concerns; no, they merely lend, by means of their cosmetics, a bit of color to an unpleasant appearance. Just as at public processions, each one has her function: one holds a silver plate, another a pincushion, a mirror, a host of little boxes just like in a drugstore, vases filled with a thousand poisons which hold the secret of whitening teeth, or blackening eyelids.
40. But it is above all the care of the hair that takes the most time. Some, by means of concoctions which make the curls shine brighter than the noonday sun, dye them as if they were wool and turn them blond, making them lose their natural tint; others, imagining themselves more beautiful with black hair, spend on that the wealth of their husbands, and reek of all Arabia. The iron heated over glowing embers will curl even the most unruly hair, and the forehead, rimmed with curls to the very eyebrows, is only glimpsed through a narrow opening, while behind them their tresses drape magnificently over their shoulders.
41. Next, they put on flower-colored shoes that cut into the the flesh and pinch their feet. A veil light as air keeps them from appearing totally naked. All that is hidden by this veil is even more evident than their face; only women with ugly breasts wrap them in a net. Why bother listing here their spendthrift ways? those Eritrean pearls hanging from their earlobes, worth many a talent! those serpents twisted around their wrists and arms – were they were real and not golden! A crown star-studded with Indian gems circles their forehead, rich necklaces hang from their neck; the gold must lower itself even to their feet to wrap what’s left showing of their heels — it were better to put their legs in irons. After their whole body, through some kind of witchcraft, has traded in its bastard ugliness for an ersatz beauty, they redden with makeup their shameless cheeks, so as to spruce up their oily skin with a bit of purple.
42. How do they behave, after all these preparations? They promptly leave the house, and all the gods take their side against the husbands: the women have in fact such gods as wretched men do not even know their names. They are, I believe, Coliades, Genetylides, or that Phrygian goddess whose ceremonies commemorate her unfortunate love for a shepherd.<13> Later they go to unspeakable initiations, to suspicious mysteries that exclude men — I will not reveal any further the corruption of their souls. Upon their return they take interminable baths, then they sit down to sumptuous meals and ply their men with come-ons. When their gluttony has had its fill and they can no longer stuff their mouth they daintily finger the foods brought before them, and talk among themselves about their nights, their multi-colored dreams, and about their beds, filled with such feminine softness that one needs a bath upon rising.
43. That is how the more subdued among them live. But if we look closely at those who are less so, we would curse Prometheus, all the while reciting the imprecations of Menander:
Is it not good justice, O Prometheus,
To have you chained to the Caucasian rock?
The torch is your only notable gift,
And all the gods hate you, I am sure,
For having made woman, a race impure.
The men marry, alas they wed!
And then begin furtive desires.
Adultery lies down in the nuptial bed,
And poison in the end, and jealous torment:
That is what woman brings to your life.<14>
Who would seek such boons? Who would enjoy such a miserable life?
44. It is only fair now to contrast to these foul women the manly conduct of a boy. Rising early from his solitary bed he splashes pure water over his eyes, still veiled by the night’s sleep; then he pins his sacred mantle over his shoulder with a clasp. ‘He leaves his father’s house with downcast eyes,'<15> not staring at any passers by. His slaves and tutors are his honorable entourage, carrying the revered implements of virtue: not combs with close-set teeth to caress his hair, nor mirrors where shapes reflect as in a portrait, but many-leaved writing tablets, or tomes relating the virtues of olden days or, if bound for his music master, his melodious lyre.
45. After having well tempered his mind with philosophical teachings and nourished his soul with all kinds of knowledge, he develops his body with noble athletics. He takes an interest in Thessalian horses and, his youth once tamed, he makes use of peace to prepare for war, hurling spears and javelins with a sure hand. Then come the games of the palestra, glistening with oil, wrestling in the dust under the searing noonday sun, his sweat running in rivulets, a quick bath, then a frugal meal, allowing him shortly to resume his activities. Anew his tutors return to relate to him the ancient deeds, and engrave into his memory which heroes distinguished themselves by their courage, by their prudence, by their restraint, or by their fairness. After thus pouring upon his soul the dew of these virtues, evening brings his labors to an end. He metes out the tribute demanded by his stomach, and then sleeps surrounded by dreams all the sweeter for that his rest follows the toils of the day.
46. Who would not be the lover of such a youth? Who so blind of sight, or dense of mind? How could one not love him, a Hermes at the palestra, an Apollo with his lyre, as fine a horseman as Castor, manifesting divine virtues in a mortal body. As for me, heavenly gods, may my life eternally be spent seated before such a friend, hearing his gentle voice up close, sharing with him in all things! A lover would wish to see him reach, after joyful years, an old age free of ills, without ever having felt the spite of Fate. But if, as is the wont of human nature, he is struck by sickness, I will ail with him; and should he put to a stormy sea, I will sail with him; and if a powerful tyrant should cast him in irons, I will be chained with him. Whoever would hate him will be my enemy, and I will love those who would wish him well. If I were to see bandits or enemies fall upon him I would take up my weapons and fight beyond my strength. If he were to die I could not bear to live, and my last wishes to those, after him, dearest to me would be these: That one grave be dug for both of us, and that our bones be mixed so that none could tell apart our dumb ashes.
47. Nor is my love for those worthy of it the first one to be written down: those heroes close to the gods have thought up this law whereby the love born of friendship breathes till the moment of death. Phocis joined Orestes and Pylades together from infancy; they took a god for witness of their mutual love, and sailed through life on one ship. Together they put Clytemnestra to death, as though both had been sons of Agamemnon; by both was Aegisthus slain. Pylades suffered more than Orestes, when the latter was hounded by the Furies; he stood by his side when he was accused of being a criminal. Their loving friendship was not bounded by the boundaries of Greece, they sailed together to the farthest shores of Scythia, one ill and the other nursing him. When they had reached the land of the Tauri, the Fury, avenger of a mother’s death, welcomed them, and the barbarians attacked them from all sides at the very moment Orestes was laid low by his mad ravings, ‘but Pylades wiped away the foam and tended him, covering him with a well-woven robe,'<16> showing not so much the tenderness of a lover as that of a father. When it was decided that one would remain behind to be sacrificed while the other was to journey to Mycenae to deliver the letter, each wanted to remain to spare the other, deeming he would live on in the one to survive. Orestes refused the letter, as if Pylades was worthier of carrying it, and was the beloved and not the lover: ‘If he were to die I could not bear the torment, for my ship is already overburdened with misery.'<17> And later he says: ‘…Give him the letter. He will go to Argos as you have wished, and as for me, let me die as you see fit.'<18>
48. That’s how things stand. When an honest love, nourished from childhood, gathers strength and reaches the manly age of reason, then he whom we have long loved is able to return that love. It is hard to tell who is whose lover; just like in a mirror, the tenderness of the lover is reflected by that of the beloved. Why ever do you reproach us with a lust alien to human life, when it is one decreed by divine law, and handed down from one generation to another? That which we have received with joy we cherish as sacred treasure. Truly happy is he, as the wise have justly said, who has:
Young boys and strong-hooved horses!
Joyfully ages the old man
Whom youths do love.<19>
The precepts of Socrates, that admirable judge of virtue, were sanctified by the Delphic tripod. The Sybil spoke sooth when she said: ‘Of all men, Socrates is the wisest…’ Besides all the teachings by which he benefited the human race, did he not teach us that there is nothing better than the love of boys?
49. There is no doubt that we must love boys the same way in which Socrates loved Alicibiades, who slept with him under one cloak the sleep of a father. As for me, I will end this speech with a bit of advice useful for all, taken from these verses of Callimachos:
You who upon youths cast your longing eyes,
The sage of Erchius<20> bids you be lovers of boys.
Love then the young, the city with upstanding men to fill.
But know this, young lovers, if you would be wise: have dealings only with virtuous boys: Do not barter a long term devotion for a cheap thrill, otherwise your love will in short order be nothing but a lie. If, on the other hand, you worship divine Eros, your beloved’s sentiment will remain constant from childhood until old age. Those who love in this fashion live delightful lives, their conscience unstained by anything shameful, and after death their glory spreads their renown to all men. If one is to believe the children of philosophers, the heavens receive, after their departure from this world, those who gave themselves over to this love: they go towards a better life, enjoying that immortality which is the reward of virtue.”
50. After Callicratídas had thus spoken, with a certain gravity and at the same time filled with youthful elan, I stopped Charícles, who was about to reply, and pointed out that it was time to go down to the ship. They however pressed me to pass judgement. I reflected briefly on their speeches, and then said, “You do not seem, my friends, to have spoken thoughtlessly or idly; by Zeus, your words are proof of lengthy and profound thought. You have left hardly anything for another to use of what needs be said on this topic, and your eloquence was equal to your knowledge; that is why I wish I were Theramenes the Buskin<21>, so that you could both remain on equal footing, winners both. But since you will not spare me, and also since I wish the rest of our trip to not be troubled by such debates, I will tell you what, at this point, seems the most fair.
51. Marriage is a useful thing for men, and a happy one, if one makes a good match. But I believe that boyish loves, to the extent they obey the chaste laws of friendship, are the only ones worthy of philosophy. Therefore all should be compelled to marry, but let only philosophers be permitted the love of boys. In truth, virtue does not reach perfection among women. So do not be angry, Charícles, if Corinth yields to Athens.”
52. Having pronounced this verdict in spare and subdued terms I rose to my feet. Charícles hung his head like a man condemned to death. But the Athenian, his brow held high, stepped forward joyfully. He looked as if he had just defeated the Persians in the bay of Salamis. I received from him the reward for my decision, for he invited us to a splendid triumphal feast; he was truly quite magnificent in his style of life. I quietly consoled Charícles, praising the force of his eloquence, and I told him I admired him all the more for having defended the weaker cause.
53. Thus ended our stay in Cnidus and our conversation by the temple of the goddess, which mixed playfulness with erudition. But you, Theomnestus, who have evoked these old remembrances of mine, what would have been your decision, had you been appointed judge?
In the name of the gods, do you think me such a fool as Melitides or Coroebus to render an opinion contrary to yours? Through my great enjoyment of your words I felt I was in Cnidus myself, and I almost took this little house to be the temple of Aphrodite. Nevertheless — since one is allowed to say anything on a holiday, and the merriment, even if excessive, is a part of it — I was somewhat surprised at the pretentious seriousness of the discussion on the love of boys. In fact, it seems to me hardly pleasant to pass all your days in the company of a boy already past puberty, bearing the torments of Tantalus and suffering from thirst, his beauty bathing your eyes yet you unable to drink of it. It is not enough to see the one you love, to remain seated before him, nor to just listen to him talk. Pleasure to Eros is like a ladder; the first step is sight, but as soon as he has beheld, he desires to get closer and to touch; and as soon as he has touched with his fingertips, enjoyment runs through his whole body. When the occasion presents itself, he risks, thirdly, a discreet kiss, lips gently touching lips, and hardly have they met when he draws back, to quell suspicion. Taking advantage of new opportunities he indulges in longer embraces; his mouth draws back time and again, but his hands must not remain still – daring caresses through the clothes excite desire. Or perhaps he will gently slide his furtive right hand into the bosom, to press nipples that swell a bit more than usual; he then slowly explores the whole expanse of a firm stomach, then the flower of puberty in its early down.
But why must I spell this out?<22>
Finally, Eros, having attained the power, goes about a warmer business and, leaping from the thighs, as the comic poet says,<23> ‘strikes where he must.’
54. That, in my opinion, is how one should love boys. May these sublime sayers of nothings and all those who aspire to highbrow philosophy nourish the ignorant with the ringing sound of honest words. Socrates was a true lover, if ever there was one, and Alcibiades who lay down under the same tunic with him did not get up unstruck. Do not be surprised: Patroclus in fact, was not loved by Achilles just because he was seated before him,
Waiting for Achilles to finish his song…<24>
but it was lust that mediated their friendship. For Achilles, moaning upon the death of Patroklos, allows his unrestrained passion to burst out with the power of truth when he says,
…the holy commerce of your thighs my tears do mourn…<25>
I also believe that those whom the Greeks call ‘comastes'<26> are none other than professional lovers. Some might call this a shameful thing to say, but at least it is the truth, by the Aphrodite of Cnidus!Lycinus:
I will not allow you, my dear Theomnestus, to lay the foundation for a third speech, only the beginning of which would I be able to hear this holiday – the rest remaining far from my ears. Let us not tarry any further, and let’s get to the marketplace: The pyre of Hercules is about to be put to the torch. The show is not devoid of interest, and brings to mind his sufferings on Oeta.
- Ironic allusion to a passage in the Odyssey X.85
- Another ironic allusion, this time to the Iliad IX.191
- At the time, the location of a famous statue of Eros, Aphrodite’s son.
- I apologize for substituting the Olympics for the prize mentioned in the text (leading the procession at Plataea), but it is an occasion of such modern obscurity that it would leave even some historians perplexed.
- Odyssey XIII.169
- Odyssey XVII.454
- A play on philoneoi (lovers of the young) and philosophoi (lovers of wisdom).
- Euripides, Phoenissae, 529-530
- Plato, Phaedrus, 229 B
- Iliad I.15, 6
- Iliad VIII.15
- Hesiod, Works and Days, 318, 11, 12, & 13.
- Menander, Koerte, 718
- Comic fragment of uncertain origin.
- Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 311
- Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 598
- Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 603
- Callimachus, Aetia Fr. 41
- Xenophon, Symposium VIII, The Lacedemonian Republic, II
- A buskin is a thick-soled shoe that can be worn on either foot.
- Euripides Orestes 14.
- Iliad IX.191 (cited at the beginning)
- Aeschylus, Myrmidons, fragment 136
- Participants at certain feasts of Bacchus
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