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Cleomachus: A Case Study in “Cinaedism”

Thomas Sapsford


Cleomachus, we are told, was a fourth-century BCE boxer who later became a poet. The various ancient accounts concerning his transformation detail several interrelated qualities that can be seen to constitute the figure of the kinaidos/ cinaedus in classical antiquity: sex/ gender deviancy, poetics, and dissimilitude. 

The cinaedus has a history of being viewed through single and often competing axes of significance: thus for Victorian philologists he is seen as a form of banausic performer or lewd dancer (Ellis 1889); for classicists at the turn of our century he has been understood either as a (proto-) homosexual (Richlin 1993, Taylor 1997), or as a gender deviant (Williams 1999, Halperin 2002). While such readings are certainly valid, their singleness of focus flattens out this figure so noted in Greco-Roman sources for his unusual sexual, social, and mimetic performances. This paper uses the case study of Cleomachus of Magnesia to argue that the cinaedus is an intersectional identity that, although legible if viewed solely along any of these individual axes of significance, can only be understood accurately if its manifold qualities (ethical, poetical, and paradoxical) are considered as being enmeshed and mutually constitutive. 

Cleomachus’ erotic life and gender ambiguity draw comment from a series of ancient sources: Trichas (de metris 34) mentions that Cleomachus abandoned boxing to take up poetry because of his love for a certain youth; Strabo (14.1.41), that Cleomachus falls for a cinaedus. Yet Cleomachus is at the same time mentioned by these sources for his poetic output. For some (Trichas, Hephaestion) he is simply, the inventor of a new form of verse using the ionic a maiore. Strabo offers more detailed commentary in saying that Cleomachus was the first poet to imitate the words and poses of the cinaedi. The fragments of Cleomachus’ poetry (S.H. 341-2) certainly echo the meter of what is considered a more traditional cinaedic verse-form, the Sotadean; the subject matter of Cleomachus’ fragments, although not sexual in any sense, also draws on cinaedic licentiousness with its ribald and invective tone. One account, Tertullian (Pall. 4.4), describes the boxer as undergoing a form of sex change both inside and out which leads to Cleomachus being both the producer of, and subject matter for, comic verse. 

Yet Cleomachus’ former career as a pugilist also fits well within cinaedic narratives. First, it conforms to anecdotes of men exhibiting masculinity on the exterior while harboring deeply cinaedic desires internally (Juvenal 2), or conversely men with deeply effeminate appearances who then display ferocious savagery (Phaedrus FabApp. 10). Second, it links the figure of the cinaedus to the proverb of the Samian boxer mocked for his flowing hair who subsequently thrashes his opponent ([Plutarch] Prov. 2.8). 

This proverb, also mentioned by the kinaidos Battaros in Herodas’ second mimiamb (2.73), becomes known not only as a way of communicating the mismatch between gender-appearance and gender-performance in antiquity, but more notably this proverb registers beyond the fields of gender and sexuality to gain broader meaning as an ability to wrong-foot one’s audience more generally; a paradoxical move, this paper contends, that is a particularly cinaedic maneuver.

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Searching for the Cinaedus in Classical Antiquity

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