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Roman Literature  
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A decade later Albrecht Dürer made an impressive drawing of the scene from Ovid. It shows Orpheus on his knees as two Maenads club him to death; the drawing bears a revealing inscription in German, "Orfeus, der erst puseran"--"Orpheus, the first ."

Not all the homoerotic stories of the Metamorphosis are in book ten. Book three tells the tale of Narcissus. In Ovid's version, Narcissus is loved by girls and boys, but it is specifically a boy he scorns who sets the curse on him; he falls fatally in love with another "lovely boy" when he sees his image reflected in a pool.

Lesbianism in Ovid

Lesbianism is a theme rarely treated in Latin literature, but one story in book nine describes the love of two girls. Iphis, who has been raised as a boy, falls in love with Ianthe. But though Ovid regards the love of boys as commonplace, love between females is unthinkable in his world. Ovid represents Iphis as shocked and horrified when she discovers her feelings; a benevolent goddess resolves the impasse by changing her into a boy.

An unknown medieval author borrowed this last detail for the parallel episode of Princess Ide and Olive in the Huon of Bordeaux romance, probably written in the early fourteenth century. Here the Virgin Mary performs a similar miracle to save the lesbian lovers, who have done no more than kiss and embrace, from being burned at the stake.


Latin writers produced little prose fiction; by far the most significant achievement in this genre is the Satyricon of Petronius, which has been acclaimed as the first gay novel. The main plot involves homosexual intrigues, as the low-life protagonist Encolpius ("the crotch") fights to keep possession of the effeminate Giton.

The novel is a masterwork of satirical realism, probably written for the court of Nero. The nouveau riche ex-slave Trimalchio admits to having served his former master in bed; he fondles his own handsome slave boy at the most monstrously extravagant feast in literature.


The poet Statius was a younger contemporary of Petronius; one of the poems in a collection he entitled Silvae is unique in Latin poetry (2.6). It is an elegy in which Statius expresses his sympathy for his friend Flavius Ursus, who has suffered the loss of a beloved slave boy.

It shows that such slaves were not always pretty darlings, for the fifteen-year-old Philetus is compared, not to Ganymede but to Theseus and Achilles, and his love for his master is assimilated to the heroic tradition of Greek pederasty; Statius characterizes Ursus' love as Cecropian, that is, Athenian. With Virgil's Nisus and Euryalus, this poem stands alone as an instance of this kind of idealistic Hellenizing in Latin literature.


Both Statius and Martial flattered the tyrannical emperor Domitian (r. 81-96), but this is all they have in common. Martial's fourteen books of Epigrams are a veritable sexual encyclopedia, which throw a flood of light on popular attitudes in imperial Rome.

Martial is unabashedly bisexual and represents himself as defending his pederastic escapades to his wife, citing the examples of Jupiter, Hercules, Apollo, and Achilles. He writes many poems about kissing boys in the style of Catullus' poems to Juventius. He professes to like effeminate youths but also fantasizes an affair with an exotic blond Egyptian who is "a man to others" but a girl to him.

Although astonishingly candid about his own tastes, he is also relentless in exposing, in poems in which the victim is safely pseudonymous, what he perceives to be transgressions against the Latin code of sexual behavior on the part of others. In these epigrams, Martial excoriates adult male passives, stereotypical lesbians, and women or men who perform oral sex with either gender, but admits to enjoying fellation by women.

His epigrams are the equivalent of a modern scandal sheet, reporting spicy vignettes from contemporary Roman life, for example, the shocking news of a mock-marriage between "brawny Callistratus" and "bearded Afer."


Like his friend Martial, Juvenal is a satirist. His second satire attacks effeminate adult male homosexuals. Indeed, its 170 lines make it the longest pronouncement on homosexuality by any Latin writer in any genre.

Where Martial does not profess to be a moralist but merely reflects the everyday prejudices of the man in the street, Juvenal presents himself, in his much more elaborate essays, as an austere defender of traditional Roman values in a degenerate age.

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