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Suetonius Περὶ Βλασφημιῶν, and the invective of masculinity

Konstantinos Kapparis

A surge of interest in the invective in Greek and Roman authors has surprisingly ignored the only extant study on the invective written in antiquity by the prolific Roman biographer and scholar Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (late 1st – early 2nd c.). From the perspective of a social historian this study preserves a subliminal, authentic voice for the attitudes, perceptions, values, norms, and stereotypes which generated this invective. In this paper I will focus upon the invective of masculinity, in particular upon insults directed at lustful men (Ἐπὶ ἀνδρῶν ἀκολάστων), and the “metrosexuals” of the ancient world, namely men who looked after their appearance to the point of raising suspicion (Ἐπὶ ἐκδεδιῃτημένων καὶ ἐξηταιρημένων ἀρρένων). My objective here is to explore concepts of masculinity, especially in connection to same sex relationships and place them in the context of the established model of Dover (1978).

The broadly accepted pattern of Greek same-sex relations in the past 30 years has been that an older man typically pursued a younger boy, who was supposed to repel his advances, and only give in as a favor (χάρις), and even then the only approved form of contact was intercrural sex. The view that this practice was mostly limited to an aristocratic elite has also become a scholarly orthodoxy (e.g. Hubbard 1998). Dover’s primary source for drawing most of his conclusions was a highly rhetorical and uniquely untypical Attic lawcourt speech, (Aeschines, Against Timarchos) in combination with evidence from Attic vase iconography, which he treated as historical. In recent years two independent commentaries have strongly contested the reliability of the evidence provided in the speech Against Timarchos (e.g. Fisher 2001; Wolpert-Kapparis 2011), while several significant studies have strongly suggested caution in the interpretation of vase iconography, especially the obscene representations made for the Etruscan market, as a source for the social history of classical Athens, (e.g Lewis 2002 and 2003; Kilmer 1993; Kreilinger 2007). One would imagine that Dover’s model would be crumbling from its foundations, but despite substantial objections (e.g. Davidson 2007;  Cantarella 1992), it is still widely accepted. This paper will suggest that the study of the invective on male sexuality further disproves Dover’s model and asserts the continuum of ancient sexuality, where terms such as homosexuality, bisexuality, or heterosexuality had no meaning, and roles such as “active” or “passive” have no fixed significance. In the continuum of ancient sexuality desire was transient, and could shift at a moment’s notice, according to the mood, the person or the occasion, while the perception of a permanent sexual identity or orientation fixed in adolescence for the rest of one’s life is a post-classical concept.

In Suetonius terms implying an aggressive pursuer are intermingled with those implying the pursued, with no separation or ranking. Terms implying excessive enjoyment of anal intercourse are mixed with those implying rugged masculinity, sometimes in the same entry. Lecherous enjoyment of sex is what inspires a colorful insult, not the form of it, as all forms and positions are part of the game, and all are fair game for a put-down. The libidinous “top” is not superior or inferior to the insatiable “bottom”; both deserve to be made fun of. The coifed male is not necessarily “passive”, but can be just as much the cocky adulterer, the pursuer.

This paper argues that as an outsider viewing Greek invective from the perspective of a Roman polymath, Suetonius has provided us with a dispassionate and significant perspective to Greek concepts of masculinity and sexuality over a millennium, drawn from high literature as well as colloquial slang, and has allowed us some privileged insights into the evolution of such concepts in an ever changing world. 

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Men and War

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