I argue that ambiguous gender expression on the part of the protagonists of the Roman novel can be explained partly by their involvement in religious cults. Konstan (1994) argues that the hero and heroine of the Greek novel are equal romantic partners. This erotic mutuality is a product of the equalizing combination of traditional gender expectations, the heroine’s unusual boldness, and the hero’s curious tendency toward passivity. I would suggest that a significant portion of the heroine’s confidence and agency results from her special relationship with the divine, while the hero generally engages in acts of religious devotion only at the urging of others. Yet the hero’s gender expression cannot be classed as anything other than fully male.
Something different occurs in the Roman novels, Petronius’ Satyrica and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, which, as Konstan suggests, reveal unequal erotic relationships consisting of dominant and subordinate partners as opposed to the balanced romantic equality of the Greek novels. In particular, Petronius’ Encolpius and Apuleius’ Lucius play almost exclusively submissive roles in their various erotic encounters. Unlike the heroes of the Greek novels, their performance of gender is also problematized. Petronius depicts Encolpius as decidedly effeminate. He often takes a passive role in sexual encounters (many of which involve beatings and bondage), including one with a cinaedus during a ritual for Priapus (21.2, 23.2-24.4). At various points in the narrative we hear that he wears makeup (126.2), ornate hairstyles and wigs (110.5, 126.2), and effeminate Greek slippers (82.3). Twice he is mistaken for a male prostitute (7.1-8.4, 126.1-4). Encolpius’ submissive roles in his sexual encounters are reinforced by his impotence (probably resulting from the anger of Priapus), which leaves him feeling emasculated (129.1). At one point he contemplates severing his penis while reciting a poem in Sotadeans (132.8), a meter associated with cinaedi. Apuleius’ Lucius is likewise dominated, sexually or otherwise, by almost every female character he meets. Even as a proverbially hypersexual ass, he is not in control of his sexual encounters. When he accepts Isis as his savior goddess, he submits yet again to a powerful female figure. His vow of sexual abstinence and shaved head do not feminize him per se, yet they signal his willingness to compromise his youthful virility in order to please his new mistress. Apuleius seems to imply that the reader should view Lucius alongside the effeminate galli (8.24-9.10), priests who (like Lucius’ Isiac mystagogues in certain interpretations of the novel), engage in charlatanry. Something similar seems to be happening in the Iolaus, a Greek prosimetric fragment that seems more aligned in tone with the lowlife adventures of the Roman novel than the idealistic Greek novel. The fragment includes instruction in mimicking the cult practices of the galloi (including their adoption of feminine clothing), a mention of a kinaidos, and a poem in Sotadeans.
I argue that a partial explanation for this difference in erotic power dynamics and gender expression may reside in the need for the male protagonist of the Roman novel to take on the role of religious votary himself, without a female partner to take the lead. Lucius becomes an initiate of Isis at the end of the Metamorphoses and though it is unclear what happens to Encolpius at the conclusion of the fragmentary Satyrica, a god likely restores his virility. A healing miracle (perhaps temporary) occurs at 140.12-13. It is possible that Encolpius, like Apuleius’ Lucius, accepts initiation into the cult of the deity who saves him. Schmeling theorizes that Encolpius becomes a priest of Priapus (1994, 210, 223; 2011, xxii-xxv). A mystic marriage is Apuleius’ clever solution to the problem of how to end a novel that concludes without a traditional conjugal marriage, and perhaps it was Petronius’ solution as well. Ultimately religious devotion is empowering for women in the ancient novel, yet ambiguous in its effects on male gender expression, particularly for the protagonists of the Roman novels.