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Juvenal (ca. 55 or 60 - ca. 130)  
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The Lex Scantinia

In the Second Satire, Juvenal (or, more precisely, the woman Laronia) refers to an obscure law, probably enacted after 227 B. C. E. (possibly as late as 149 B. C. E.) and first mentioned by Cicero (our four other sources being Suetonius, Ausonius, Tertullian, and Prudentius). The Lex Sca[n]tinia de nefanda venere (the Scantinian Law about venereal wantonness) may have regulated male same-sex activity, but little is known about what exactly it penalized. Juvenal also calls it dormant.

Still, some critics, on the basis of this law, have made such outrageous claims as that Rome set the death penalty for convicted homosexuals or that Rome forbade male homosexuality.

Rather, the law probably targeted a specific group of people, the molles. Cantarella explains: "molles were the sort of men who, by taking a subordinate position like a woman, revealed their basic unsuitability to be Roman citizens; they were incapable of playing a dominant role, and thus exposed themselves to the ridicule and jokes of real men . . . molles, then, were those men who broke the Lex Scatinia." Craig Williams, however, proposes that the law penalized stuprum (rape of freeborn Romans), both homosexual and heterosexual.

Whatever the exact letter of the law, punishing homosexual activity entirely would have been unthinkable in a culture like Rome. It is, thus, unfortunate that Green translates the term as "Sodomy Act." Also, the law seemed to have had little effect: "Boys continued to be pestered, just like women. The law punished those who had sexual liaisons with them . . . but the Romans went on courting them just the same," Cantarella concludes.

Essentialist or Constructionist?

Citing Juvenal's Second Satire (and other primary literature), Amy Richlin has challenged Michel Foucault's idea of (homo)sexuality as a social construction that can be dated to the end of the nineteenth century. She argues that what we call a "homosexual" nowadays was in Rome a "male penetrated by choice" (the cinaedus or mollis), characterized by a "social identity and social burden," and at home in a subculture surrounded by "homophobia."

Richlin proposes: "On the level of the stereotype, certain attributes and styles recur throughout the period as characterizing the mollis man: lisping speech; putting the hand on the hip, or, more commonly, scratching the head with one finger; use of makeup; depilation; and wearing certain colors, especially light green and sky blue." Duly modified (e.g., for "lisping speech" read "affected speech"), these stereotypes are still apposite--possibly to homophobes and homosexuals alike.

Certainly, Juvenal's depiction of homosexual activity seems more "modern" than, say, Plato's rather somber account in the Symposium, and Juvenal does present several characters who seem to band together in a subculture: magna inter molles concordia ("great is the concord among passive homosexuals"). Likewise, Juvenal's condemnation of a certain type of homosexual seems to us.

Based on the evidence that she uses, Richlin proffers a good thesis. That evidence, however, is satiric literature, which does not always reflect reality. Satire, to be sure, in order to resonate with the audience, has to reflect something about reality, but, in Juvenal's case, it is surely a heightened, exaggerated version of it, even a caricature.

Moreover, Juvenal is notorious for contradicting himself and seems to be willing to say whatever he needs to in order to advance his cause. What Laronia proclaims about women in the Second Satire, for example, is completely at odds with what Juvenal writes about women in the Sixth Satire. Can we really base a completely convincing argument on such evidence?

Needless to say, it is dangerous to impose modern categories on ancient sexuality. Richlin has been widely attacked for her article, but she helpfully complicates our understanding of Roman homosexual activity and points out some transhistorical continuities in conceptions of homosexuality, especially as a transgression of gender roles.

Roman society (unlike the earlier ancient Greek world) may have been moving toward an idea of sexual orientation, but we cannot be sure that it had actually gotten there. All that we can really say with some certainty is that Juvenal entertained the idea of an essentialist view of sexuality, though he may have done so for specific literary reasons.

John Boswell, even more radically than Richlin, gathers from the description of Gracchus' wedding ceremony that it was "commonplace" and stresses the "casual and accepting reception by [Juvenal's] contemporaries." Again, Boswell may be extrapolating more social history than this particular literary (and tendentious) representation actually embodies.

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