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literature

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Roman Literature  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  

Unlike most Romans he does, however, state a clear preference. In the Art of Love, he says he favors the embraces of a woman because boys get less pleasure from sexual encounters.

But this lack of personal involvement did not prevent him from exploiting the homoerotic elements in Greek myth to the full when he came to write the Metamorphoses. Such myths were to evoke the special wrath of the Fathers of the Church as evincing the immorality of Greco-Roman paganism.

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For Ovid, however, stories of the loves of the gods for beautiful boys were simply raw material to be exploited poetically. As a result, Ovid was the main source for such myths in the middle ages, when he became, somewhat surprisingly, the favorite poet of Christian Europe, much admired and widely quoted and imitated in what has been called "the Age of Ovid."

Ovid sets the homoerotic stories of the Metamorphoses within a particular narrative frame. The Greek poet Phanocles, writing in the third century B.C., had produced a poem called The Loves, or Beautiful Boys in which he anthologized the legends of gods (such as Dionysus) and heroes (such as Tantalus and Agamemnon) who had loved youths.

Among these stories was the tale of Orpheus who, after the death of his wife Eurydice, had turned from the love of women to the love of boys. Ovid adopts this version of the Orpheus legend in book ten of the Metamorphoses. He speculates philosophically about the causes of the change in Orpheus' erotic interests: perhaps, he conjectures, this was Orpheus' way of remaining faithful to his dead wife.

The women of Thrace, however, are jealous and insulted by his neglect. To make matters worse, the Thracian men, who had not experienced such loves before, imitate Orpheus' example. Because of this myth, Orpheus was sometimes identified as the "inventor" of pederasty.

For this distinction, he competed with several other figures in Greek legend--Zeus, King Minos of Crete, Thamyris (another Thracian bard of early times), and Laius of Thebes. Ovid has Orpheus, in this new phase of his life, sing of "pretty boys whom gods desire."

We hear the story of Jupiter who turns himself into an eagle to carry off the Trojan prince Ganymede. Through Ovid's tale, and a plenitude of Hellenistic works of art, Ganymede entered the literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as the archetypal beloved boy.

Orpheus' stories make book ten the preeminently gay book of the Metamorphoses. Two of Orpheus' tales involve boys beloved of Apollo who die pathetically in early youth, Cyparissus and Hyacinth. Cyparissus dies of grief over the death of a pet deer and is turned into a tree. Hyacinth is killed when Apollo throws a discus that accidentally strikes him; from his blood springs the "sanguine flower inscribed with woe" of Milton's "Lycidas."

Ganymede and the eagle and Apollo and Hyacinth both inspired sculpture in the Renaissance by the bisexual Benvenuto Cellini. The death of Hyacinth at the hands of his lover is a common theme in early medieval poetry. Byron, on the eve of his departure from England in 1809, looked forward to finding "hyacinths" and other exotic flowers in Greece.

Orpheus' own death is equally tragic but more brutal. The angry Thracian women, in the guise of fierce Maenads, kill him with spears and stones, and dismember his body. Their master Bacchus, incensed at the death of the poet, punishes them by turning them into oak trees.

The fable made a strong impression on the Middle Ages. The unknown author of the Ovide Moralizé, writing in the early fourteenth century, blamed Orpheus for having invented a love "against nature and against the law." In that part of the Romance of the Rose assigned to Jean de Meun, the allegorical figure of "Genius" declares that Orpheus deserved hanging for having led men to abandon heterosexuality.

After 1600, the Orpheus story, as in the libretti for famous operas by Peri, Monteverdi, and Gluck, almost always centers on the poet's love for Eurydice, and the homosexual coda to his story is suppressed.

However, the Renaissance humanist, Angelo Poliziano, used the Ovidian ending in the finale of a play he wrote for the court of Mantua about 1480. In La favola di Orfeo, Poliziano has Orpheus "pluck the new flowers, the springtime of the better (!) sex, when men are all lithe and slender."

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