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Normal for Byzantium is Queer for Us

Mark Masterson

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

We are increasingly aware that civil and ecclesiastical law in the Byzantine empire of the 800s-1000s was not overly anxious about sex and desire between men (e.g., Laiou 1992, 68, 78; Messis 2006, 779 n170; Pitsakis 2008, 8). Sex between men was one carnal failing among many. We should consider Byzantine epistolography and rhetoric, both of which are filled with tropes of all kinds, with this relatively liberal situation in mind. Byzantine epistolography features homoeroticism and pederastic terminology hearkening back to golden-age Athens. It has also, rightly, been characterized as "rhetorical." Scholarly understandings of Byzantine letters generally propose that expressions of desire are not real (e.g., Messis 2006, 823) and that the language itself is merely artificial (e.g., Jeffreys 2008, 830).

In this talk, I suggest that we instead take the depictions of same-sex desire and troped language seriously. In the examples to be discussed, friendly feeling is troped as sexual desire and the rhetorical trope of correctio/ἐπανόρθωσις audaciously underscores the presence of desire. Of a piece with the relatively liberal legal situation mentioned above, elite male discourse is queerer than we are usually told it is. And these are words that matter. I agree with Papaioannou when he says that troped rhetorical language was not a sterile game but instead was "the art and science of self-representation, determined by the politics of the moment and the politics of the subject" (2017, 111).

The texts to be discussed are two letters from the 940s that passed between emperor Konstantinos VII Porphyrogennetos and Theodoros of Kyzikos (Darrouzès 1960/Tziatzi- Papagianni 2012). In letter three Konstantinos tropes his relation with Theodoros as a sexual one, calling himself erastes and Theodoros eromenos. He hopes for the opportunity "to desire and bite his desired one in a friendly way" (ποθῆσαι τὸν ποθούμενον καὶ δακεῖν...φιλικῶς). In his answering letter (number four), Theodoros continues with the language of desire, offers a double-entendre for an erection (μοι “παρέστηκας”), and corrects Konstantinos' friendly biting (δακεῖν...φιλικῶς) to δάκνειν ἐρωτικῶς. When Theodoros changes φιλικῶς to ἐρωτικῶς, this is the rhetorical trope correctio/ἐπανόρθωσις. Pseudo-Iulius Rufinianus (De schematis lexeos 17, Halm 1863, 52; TLL correctio [IV.1027.28-1029.7]) has the following to say: "Ἐπανόρθωσις est, cum supra dictum verbum verbo sequenti corrigitur...Latine dicitur correctio." In an addition to ἐπανόρθωσις, we also may wish to associate Theodoros’ correction with other rhetorical tropes, discussions of which are to be found in rhetorical treatises by John of Sardis (800s; Rabe 1931 and Walz 1834) and John the Sicilian (c. 1000; Walz 1834): αὔξησις ("amplification"), διόρθωσις ("correction" again), ἐπίτασις ("intensification"), and even the amusingly ironic μετάνοια ("repentance").

We should not regard this language as artificial but as evidence of a culture of exaggerated affect in interpersonal relations. This language should not be drained of significance but rather related to the situation around same-sex desire, which, as noted above, was more liberal than it would be until modern times. Normal for Byzantium is queer for us.

Session/Panel Title

Turning Queer: Queerness and the Trope

Session/Paper Number


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