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literature

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Roman Literature  
 
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Plautus

The first important Latin comic writer, Plautus, borrowed plots from the Athenian stage. However, the treatment of homosexuality in Plautus' comedies probably reflects Roman manners of his own time, that is ca 200 B.C.E.; all the sexual encounters are between masters and slaves. Intrigues or joking banter based on homosexuality occur in the Casina, Asinaria, Captivi, and Mostellaria. Plautus' braggart soldier in the Miles Gloriosus has an eye for both genders.

These plays were popular entertainment for unlettered crowds. Among cultivated Romans, ambivalence about erotic poetry in the Greek tradition is dramatically highlighted in Aulus Gellius' Attic Nights (ca 140 C.E.). Here Greek and Latin literati meet in Athens to argue in favor of their own languages.

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The Greeks point out that Latin poetry lacks the charms of Aphrodite. In response, the Latin rhetorician Julianus covers his head (like Socrates when he repeats the libertine ideas of Lysias in the Phaedrus) and recites in "exceedingly tender tones" four love poems, two addressed to males. The homoerotic poems, which show a strong Greek influence, are by Quintus Catulus, a Hellenized Roman general who was consul with Marius in 102 B.C.E., and his contemporary, Valerius Aeditus.

Cicero and Tiro

Roman inconsistency in matters of love is amusingly demonstrable in the case of Cicero himself. Despite his public posture in the Senate and his philosophical writings, in which he attacks Greek love and erotic poetry, we have evidence, in the letters of Pliny the Younger, that Cicero in private life was less austere.

Pliny, wondering whether it might be respectable for a Roman official to write erotic verse, plucks up courage from the example of Cicero, who, he tells us, wrote poems about kissing his freedman, Tiro.

Tiro, who began life as a slave, became Cicero's secretary and literary executor. After his mentor's death, he wrote his biography and had a distinguished literary career of his own. The relation thus provides a parallel in Roman life with the Greek erastes-eromenos bond and the traditions of the Platonic Academy.

Roman literature in the last days of the republic and the reign of Augustus exhibits a deep cultural conflict. Livy, in his history, had painted a picture of early Rome as a society of unpolished, hard-working farmers who despised luxury and dissipation.

Catullus

Catullus reacted violently against such a lifestyle. "Let us live and love," he tells Lesbia, and ignore the criticism of "crabbed old men." Catullus is most famous for his passionate poems to his mistress, but his poems to a boy named Juventius go even further in breaking taboos.

"Lesbia" was a pseudonym for Clodia; Catullus calls Juventius the "flower of the Juventii," thus violating the convention that had made pseudonyms in love poems de rigueur by revealing that his beloved was not a slave but a youth from a distinguished family.

Catullus' aggressive machismo finds expression in the abuse he repeatedly heaps on cinaedi (sexually passive males), whom he threatens with anal and oral rape. Nevertheless, in his longest poem, "Atthis," he shows a strange fascination--almost an identification--with this mythological figure who, as part of the ritual of the cult of "great Mother" is feminized by his self-emasculation.

Tibullus

The poetry of Catullus is passionate, vivid, and often brutal. Tibullus is a gentler soul. But in his own way, he is also in revolt against the mos maiorum, the ancient Roman code, especially that part of it that glorified conquest and domination. He prefers love to war, which he denounces as mere spoliation.

Tibullus, in his love elegies, contributes something unique to Latin poetry, a verse essay on how to court a boy. In a sense this elegy (1.4) prefigures Ovid's Art of Love as a treatise on seduction. But it lacks Ovid's sophisticated, detached, man-of-the-world tone; instead, the poem is suffused with what can only be described as a kind of tender wistfulness as Tibullus describes his susceptibility to the touching mixture of shyness and self-assurance he finds in male adolescents.

It is also hard to imagine, as he describes these elaborate, devoted wooings, that he is writing about slaves. At the end of the poem, he reveals his own passion for the unresponsive Marathus. In elegy nine, we find that Marathus, who had sworn devotion, has now deserted him for a wealthier suitor; the wounded Tibullus hopes this rival's wife will be just as unfaithful.

These vicissitudes are a standard part of Latin love elegies, and identical with the complications we find in the heterosexual affairs they usually describe, as, for instance, in Tibullus' poems about his mistress Delia.

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