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Roman Literature  
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Bisexuality as a Given

Even poets who do not write about their own involvements with boys take bisexuality for granted. When Propertius' affair with Cynthia goes awry, he makes an exasperated wish: If my enemy is in love, may it be with a girl, if my friend, with a boy.

He provides sympathetic counsel to his fellow-poet Gallus who loves a boy, warning him to keep the youth away from women. To make his point, he retells at length Theocritus' tale of Hercules' love for Hylas whom he lost to the nymphs of the pool.

Though bisexuality is all but ubiquitous in Latin love poetry, it was mainly three poets who transmitted knowledge of this tradition to medieval Europe: Horace, Virgil, and, above all, Ovid. Since awareness of Greek literature was largely lost in the west after the fall of Rome, they were unique conduits for the gay literary heritage to later times.


Horace himself had a first-hand knowledge of Greece, having been a student at Athens. He felt sufficiently at ease with its ancient literature to experiment with the archaic meters of Archilochus, Sappho, and Alcaeus, poets as remote in his time as Chaucer is in ours.

He sings of Anacreon's love for Bathyllus, perhaps hinting at his friend Maecenas' love for a handsome contemporary actor of that name. He tells us that his protective father always chaperoned him on the way to school to preserve him from "infamy." This reminds us that male "chastity" in Roman culture meant not abstinence from affairs with women (these did not count) but only with males, and then only from participation in a passive role.

But Horace had no compunction about sex with boys when he matured. In the second poem of his third book of satires, he imagines a dour Stoic philosopher named Damasippus scolding him for his "thousand boys" and "thousand girls," a rebuke Horace shrugs off. In his eleventh epode, he complains (or boasts?) that "love sets me as it sets no other man, / Yearning for soft lads or tender girls."

His attitude to sex is that of Diogenes and the Greek Cynics; such urges should be satisfied with the least possible fuss. Again, slavery made such easy gratification possible. He is an Epicurean not in the style of Epicurus, who was wary of sexual pleasure, but of Lucretius, though he does not manifest Lucretius' specific fear of emotional involvement.

Only once in his many poems about women and boys do we feel a real poignancy. In the first poem of his fourth book of odes, published when he was fifty-two, Horace laments that he can no longer hope for the reciprocal love of "woman or boy," and mourns the indifference of Ligurinus who haunts his frustrated dreams.

In the eleventh century, Norman clerical poets, writing medieval Latin verse, harked back to Horace, referring pointedly to his love poems to boys. In a later age, Byron used Latin phrases from Horace's poems to communicate his own homosexual interests in letters to knowledgeable friends and made the adjective "Horatian" a code word for "bisexual."


Virgil, as the author of Rome's national epic the Aeneid, ranks as Rome's greatest poet. He is of importance for the gay literary heritage for two reasons. He wrote the most famous of Latin homoerotic poems (his second, or Corydon, eclogue) and he also made a serious attempt to introduce the heroic tradition of Greek love into Latin literature.

Virgil found a place at the center of Roman political culture. This set him apart from poets like Catullus, who had mocked his elders; Tibullus, who renounced war for peace on his farm; and Propertius, who, hearing of a new law that might separate him from his mistress, wondered why he should be expected to supply sons for the battlefield. In effect, much classical Latin poetry belongs to what we would today call a counterculture.


Ovid was just as little interested in the heroic as a theme, and rejected it for love and romantic myths. In this, he took his place with the poets of the erotic revolt, but at a cost. He was exiled by the irate Augustus, ostensibly for publishing the Art of Love, a treatise that made no careful distinction between the seduction of citizens' wives and more conventionally accessible Roman demimondaines.

Ovid's treatment of homosexuality was less inflammatory. He writes no poems to boys himself but, like his fellow-poets, he assumes the universality of bisexuality. At the beginning of his Loves, he laments that he has "no boy to sing of" or "long-haired girl," these being equally acceptable subjects for the erotic poet.

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