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“Mature Praeceptor Amoris Seeks Tops (Discreet): Desire and Deniability in Tibullus 1.4”

Robert Matera

Tibullus 1.4 is ostensibly a poem about aging men trying to attract the affections of boys, but a coded solicitation of a different sort is legible at verses 77-8.  This paper argues that the poetic Ego of Tibullus 1.4, an adult man, uses ambiguous wording to express his desire to be sexually penetrated by other men without running afoul of social conventions and the generic conventions of Roman elegy, both of which proscribed this desire.   The Ego in Tibullus 1.4 maintains plausible deniability and so eschews an overt challenge to the dominant standards of gender performance and avoids the negative social consequences that could follow such a challenge (Richlin 1993: 528 et al.; Williams 1999: 81, 103-4, 208-12, et al.; Clarke 289-92; and Habinek 2005: 189-92 discuss Roman conventions of masculinity and consequences for flouting them).  The plausible deniability in verses 77-8 also protects readers or audience members unsympathetic to the Ego’s desire:  they can remain, willfully or otherwise, unaware of a gender performance that might destabilize their understandings masculinity.

In verses 77-8 of Tibullus 1.4 we can read the Ego as inviting other old men, who have also failed to win the love of beautiful boys, to consider him as a willing alternative to the boys.  He announces, “let lovers who are spurned consult with me: my door stands open to all” (me, qui spernentur, amantes / consultent: cunctis ianua nostra patet, Tib. 1.4.77-8).  Smith 1913: 288 writes that verse 78, “suggests the iuris consultus whose clients call upon him for advice... Tibullus is now, so to speak, an amoris consultus...”  At the same time, the verse plays on the familiar metaphor of the door as the anus to be penetrated: “Most examples of the metaphor [door for orifice] in Latin refer to the anus, (e.g. Catull. 15.18, Pers. 4.36; cf. Priap. 52.5)” (Adams 1982: 89).  Furthermore, in the trope of the exclusus amator (locked-out lover), entry through the house door stands in for sexual penetration of the body of the girlfriend.  The word pateo and its derivatives also appear with reference to doors in several instances of the exclusus amator trope (Prop. 1.16.1-2; Tib. 1.2.9, 1.5.67-8, 1.9.58) and when Propertius’ Ego worries that Cynthia will have sex with a praetor while he is away (Prop. 2.16.6).  These sexually evocative open doors further support my reading of the Ego’s open door in Tibullus 1.4 as sexual.   

Despite the suggestiveness of the image of the open door, the literal reading of verses 77-8 protects both the Ego and the reader/audience with plausible deniability.  The Ego and the reader/audience can dissociate themselves from the idea of a man who desires to be penetrated by insisting on the literal reading.  The reader/audience can also remain, intentionally or unintentionally, unaware of the metaphorical reading of verse 78.  Pellegrini 2002: 138 has noted the efficacy of this kind of ignoring and some people’s “commitment” to it in a modern, American context, and Sedgwick 1990: 8 has argued that “ignorances” of specific phenomena can be forms of social power that maintain “particular regimes of truth.”  By not reading verse 78 as a come-on, the reader/audience avoids the complications that a man who desires to be penetrated would present to the “particular regimes of truth” that constituted the mainstream Augustan and elegiac ideologies of masculinity.  In this way, plausible deniability could shift into compulsory and compulsive denial for many readers or audience members. 

In Tibullus 1.4, deniability provides hermeneutic cover for socially unacceptable desire.  Verse 78, though, is not just an expression of desire but rather a solicitation; it seeks to move from talking about receiving penetration to actually receiving penetration.  By turning compulsory deniability to his own purposes, the Ego of Tibullus 1.4 demonstrates that the unspeakable is actually speakable and suggests that it may also be doable, even in the face (and in fact right under the nose) of coercive social conventions.

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Stifling Sexuality?

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