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Roman Literature  
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The Hellenic Renaissance of the Second Century A. D.

In Suetonius and in the satire of Martial and Juvenal, we find a clear contrast between Greek and Latin traditions at the beginning of the second century A.D. Nevertheless, other evidence shows that the Hellenic renaissance that marked the age of the Antonines also influenced Latin literature on love.

We have noted the poem Statius wrote to his friend to console him for the death of a loved slave boy in which the heroic Greek ideal is pervasive.

This confluence of the two cultures is also notable in a speech of Apuleius. The author of the The Golden Ass had been arraigned on a charge of sorcery in a Roman court in North Africa about 150; his accuser made use of Apuleius' love poems to boys to argue against his claim that he was a serious philosopher.

To defend himself, Apuleius cites Greek poets like Anacreon and Alcman, and to demonstrate that serious men might also write homoerotic lyrics, quotes verse by Solon and Plato. But he adds to this tradition Latin poems by Valerius Aeditus and Quintus Catulus--though not, surprisingly, the Juventius poems of the more famous Gaius Catullus, and even poems by the emperor Hadrian, who had died a few years previously.

Since Apuleius' use of pseudonyms in his poems had been represented as a sinister detail, Apuleius is at pains to show that this was accepted as proper, and that those poets (like the early satirist Lucilius) who had used real names had been strongly criticized.

But the most striking touch in his oration is his appeal in the peroration to the Platonic ideal of love as set forth in Pausanias' speech in the Symposium. This is very far from Cicero's contemptuous ridicule of such ideas two centuries earlier.

The Second Sophistic

This confluence of the two cultures manifests itself also in the literary movement known as the Second Sophistic, which came to fruition near the end of the second century. It included rhetoricians like Maximus of Tyre, who delivered speeches on Socratic love in Rome in the reign of Commodus (ca 190), and Philostratus, another Greek rhetorician at the court of the Severan empress Julia Domna.

Philostratus' works include a collection of Love Letters by imaginary characters; almost half of his sixty letters are addressed to boys.

His Latin contemporary Aelian, writing in Greek for a Roman audience, included a significant number of anecdotes about Greek love relations from Sparta, Thebes, Athens, and Macedonia in his popular Historical Miscellanies.

Hadrian and Antinous

Nothing in the second century, however, so well symbolized the convergence of Greek and Latin traditions as the love of the emperor Hadrian for the Bithynian boy Antinous. Perhaps the most brilliant of all the emperors, Hadrian was an ardent student of Greek literature, religion, and history.

He commemorated Epaminondas and the Sacred Band by raising a monument with a laudatory poem on the battlefield of Leuctra where the Theban hero had died and been buried with his lover. Hadrian had lived in Athens as its archon under his predecessor Trajan, and added to the city a new suburb, a magnificent temple of Jupiter, a library, and a gymnasium.

At Thespiae in Boeotia, site of a famous temple of Eros, Hadrian inscribed a poem to the God of Love and the Uranian Aphrodite. Apuleius, as we have seen, claimed to have read Hadrian's own love poems to boys, which have, unfortunately, been lost.

However, fragments of a poem by the Alexandrian poet Pancrates on a dramatic episode in the life of Hadrian have survived; they tell how the emperor saved the life of Antinous in a lion hunt in Libya. When Antinous, still in his early youth, drowned in the Nile, Hadrian mourned his death extravagantly, built a majestic new city on the site in his honor, had him deified as the founder of a new mystery religion, and filled the empire with statues of the beautiful youth, some of which rank among the greatest masterpieces of the Hellenistic period.

In modern literature, the love affair of the emperor and his favorite is acutely and sympathetically analyzed in Marguerite Yourcenar's historical novel, Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), which purports to reconstruct Hadrian's lost autobiography. It was this work, equally impressive for its literary quality and for its historical erudition, that led to Yourcenar's election to the French Academy as its first woman member.

Louis Crompton

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Cantarella, Eva. Bisexuality in the Ancient World. Trans. C. Ó. Cuilleánáin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Cody, Jane. "The Senex Amator in Plautus' Casina." Hermes 104 (1976): 453-474.

Dynes, Wayne. "Orpheus without Eurydice." Gai Saber 1 (1978): 268-273.

_____, ed. Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. 2 vols. New York: Garland, 1990.

Lambert, Royston. Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous. New York: Viking, 1984.

Lilja, Saara. Homosexuality in Republican and Augustan Rome. Helsinki: Societas Scientificarum Fennica, 1983.

MacMullen, Ramsay. "Roman Attitudes to Greek Love." Historia 31 (1982): 484-502.

Richardson, T. Wade. "Homosexuality in the Satiricon." Classica et Mediaevalia 35 (1984): 104-127.

Verstraete, Beert. "Slavery and the Social Dynamics of Male Homosexuality in Ancient Rome." Journal of Homosexuality 5 (1980): 227-236.


    Citation Information
    Author: Crompton, Louis  
    Entry Title: Roman Literature  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated April 12, 2009  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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