In this paper, I consider closely the meeting between the late-ancient desert fathers, Paul and Antony, in the Vita Pauli of Jerome (late fourth-century). In addition to detailing the way in which an appearance of courtship and emotional connection is present, I also suggest that this seeming courtship is not only a simple metaphor but also has perceptible relations to masculine admirability and politics in the secular world.
Antony has heard of the marvelously sanctified Paul and he wants to meet him. Paul plays hard to get and Antony, outside Paul’s door for more than six hours, complains thus:
Qui sim, unde, cur venerim, nosti. Scio me non mereri conspectum tuum; tamen nisi videro, non recedam. Qui bestias suscipis, hominem cur repellis? Quaesivi et inveni, pulso ut aperiatur. Quod si non impetro, hic, hic moriar ante postes tuos. Certe sepelies vel cadaver... (Jerome, Vita Pauli 9)
Citing prior scholarship that sees Antony “playing Romeo to Paul’s Juliet,” Virginia Burrus persuasively suggests that the opening moves of the eventual communion of these two saints are an “almost parodically groping rite of courtship” (2004, 30). I expand considerably on her suggestion. As it is the case that Antony complains outside the locked door of his desired one, a reader will be thinking of the many paraklausithyronsin the erotic poetry of centuries previous. The repeated “hic”s certainly recall Roman elegy. Furthermore, when Antony threatens suicide if he is not admitted, Jerome’s text recalls the scene of boyish cruelty to the importuning lover exemplified by Theocritus’ Idyll 23. In this poem, the lover, driven to despair by rejection, commits suicide by hanging himself in front of the locked door of the boy’s house (49-52). Careless of the protocols (ceaselessly intoned in the secondary literature [which, granted, Jerome could not hear]) that say that man will not desire man in the ancient world (and so this is a “queer” courtship), Jerome figures the respect and reverence that Antony has for Paul as same-sex desire and devotion. And this particular dynamic continues in the vita with words that make Antony seem the distracted lover and even Achilles bereft of his Patroclus (sections 14-16).
When we think about it, this will all seem rather outrageous. These sanctified monks are supposed to be utterly chaste. But such outrageousness is typical of late antiquity and it was, in any case, not an unparalleled procedure. The use of carnal metaphors to figure relations that were not carnal had been around for a long time. One need only think of the use of the Song of Songs as a bank of images to be drawn upon to express relations between God and men/women (e.g., Jerome’s Letter 22) or, indeed, of the frequently recurring image of Christ the Bridegroom. And so here, the desired connection is sought through courtship of one man by another and indeed a man’s admirability is able to be troped as sexual attractiveness: the excitement of getting a new boyfriend becomes a metaphor for the happiness attending the commencement of a chaste communion with an admirable man in the desert.
I don’t see this neat metaphorization via (complete?) opposites exhausting the significance of the courting of Paul. In the first place, the arguable evocation of the grieving Achilles (and of the grieving Aeneas too) is an aspect of the vita that marks it as a learned production destined for a secular readership; the vita has a role in the broader secular world in addition to its role among a Christian readership. Furthermore, making erotic relations between males into a metaphor renders legible a relation between the vita and secular politics at the highest levels. One need only remember Emperor Julian’s fourth oration (360s) and his elaborate use there of intertextuality with pederastic literature to express the power of his connection to Salutius (Masterson 2010). We also recall that emperors in the early fifth century (especially in the Sirmondian Constitutions) address elites as amantissimeand á¼€γαπητá½³ (Corcoran 1996, 335-336).
The conclusion I draw is that male/male courting in late antiquity provides an image that is able a) to metaphorize communions and friendships of various kinds, b) to mark certain men as admirable, and c) to indicate the presence of powerful political connections. This image is worth detailing for doing so takes these sexual matters out of the ghetto they are in in too many considerations of late antiquity.
Burrus, Virginia. 2004. The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Corcoran, Simon. 1996. The Empire of the Tetrarchs: Imperial Pronouncements and Government, AD 284-324. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Masterson, Mark. 2010. “Erotics and Friendship in Emperor Julian’s Fourth Oration.” Scholia19.