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Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.)  
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Virgil's Reputation and Influence

The middle ages held Virgil in high regard, esteeming him as a prophet and seer as well as a poet. Dante, who apparently knew the Donatian biography, made him his guide through Hell and Purgatory, and the unusual courtesy he shows to in both domains may stem partly from his knowledge of his mentor's tastes.

Nevertheless, an unamiable medieval legend (traceable to the thirteenth century) held that all sodomites had died at the moment of Christ's birth, and some ecclesiastics who were confused about the date of Virgil's death maintained that he too had died in the holocaust.

In the Renaissance, Christopher Marlowe appears to have been inspired by the Corydon eclogue to issue his own seductive invitation to the pastoral life--"Come live with me and be my love." No doubt Marlowe's own homosexuality drew him to the poem.

Richard Barnfield published in 1594 a work called The Affectionate Shepherd, which bore the inflammatory subtitle "The Complaint of Daphnis for the Love of Ganymede." When he found himself attacked by unsympathetic English readers for the homoeroticism of his verses, his rather disingenuous defense was to maintain that his poem was only "an imitation of Virgil, in the second eclogue of Alexis."

In English translations, references to homosexual love in Greek and Latin classics were typically handled in one of three ways: Passages were omitted (as with Ovid's account of Orpheus' turning to the love of boys in George Sandys's 1626 translation of the Metamorphoses), pronouns were changed to disguise genders (as in renderings of Sappho and Plato), or more rarely, the translator added some editorial moralizing.

This last was the case with the lines on Cydon as they appeared in Dryden's famous rhymed version of the Aeneid (1698). Where Virgil had simply called Clytius Cydon's "latest joy" and remarked that Cydon's amorous life was almost ended on the battlefield, Dryden saw fit to interpolate a very un-Virgilian comment: "The wretched Cydon had received his doom, / Who courted Clytius in his beardless bloom, / And sought with lust obscene polluted joys."

Byron, in search of literature that would validate his own youthful homosexual feelings, found inspiration in the episode of Nisus and Euryalus, and published his own translation while he was still in his teens.

His contemporary Jeremy Bentham, arguing for the reform of England's lethal sodomy law, cited the episode as proof that the Romans tolerated male love.

The anonymous author of Don Leon (a poem that purported to be Byron's own account of his homosexual experiences) included a list of famous homosexuals that began with Virgil: "When young Alexis claimed a Virgil's sigh, / He told the world his choice, and may not I?"

In 1924, André Gide published four dialogues in defense of homosexuality under the title Corydon.

Louis Crompton

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literature >> Overview:  Classical Mythology

The Greco-Roman myths concerning same-sex love have been of crucial importance to the Western gay and lesbian literary heritage, both as texts and as icons.

literature >> Overview:  Elegy

A poetic response to the death of a greatly loved person, the elegy has had since classical times a homoerotic component.

social sciences >> Overview:  Galli: Ancient Roman Priests

In ancient Rome, the galli were castrated priests of Cybele, the Asian Mother Goddess, and of the Syrian goddess Atagartis; they were widely riducled for their effeminacy, cross-dressing, and sexual passivity.

literature >> Overview:  Greek Literature: Ancient

Ancient Greece holds a unique place in the heritage of homosexual literature as it was a society that openly celebrated same-sex love in its poetry and prose.

literature >> Overview:  Pastoral

Both the elegiac and the romantic pastoral have been associated with homoerotic desire from their beginnings in classical literature to their echoes in contemporary literatures.

literature >> Overview:  Poetry: Gay Male

The gay tradition in literature from ancient times to the present is primarily a tradition not of prose but of verse.

literature >> Overview:  Roman Literature

Roman writers on homosexual or bisexual themes generally followed Greek models; but unlike the Greeks, Romans condoned sex with slaves.

social sciences >> Overview:  Rome: Ancient

Ancient Rome's attitude toward same-sex sexual activity was remarkably various, with role, age, and status as important as gender in the regulation of sexual relations.

literature >> Barnfield, Richard

The English Renaissance poet Richard Barnfield wrote two volumes of homoerotic verse.

literature >> Bentham, Jeremy

The most notable law reformer in the English-speaking world, English philosopher, jurist, economist, and political scientist Jeremy Bentham argued for a tolerant attitude toward homosexuality in a series of papers first published in full in 1985.

literature >> Byron, George Gordon, Lord

The bisexual Lord Byron treated many of his homosexual love affairs in his poetry, encoding them by the use of classical references or by purporting that they were affairs with women.

literature >> Catullus

The Roman poet Catullus incorporated homoerotic themes in his verse, both reflecting the passionate character of same-sex friendships and describing several of his own homosexual adventures.

literature >> Dante Alighieri

In the Divine Comedy Dante treats male homosexuality first as violence against God and then more sympathetically as merely one of the kinds of love.

literature >> Gide, André

André Gide, one of the premier French writers of the twentieth century, reflected his homosexuality in many of his numerous works.

literature >> Horace

In his highly accomplished and influential poetry, Horace reflects the easy bisexuality of the Roman upper class in the first century B. C.

literature >> Marlowe, Christopher

Christopher Marlowe represents homoerotic situations and incidents in his plays and poems more frequently and more variously that any other major English Renaissance writer.

literature >> Plato

Among Greek writers on homosexual themes, Plato is preeminent not only as a major philosopher but also as the greatest master of Greek prose.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.


"Life of Vergil." Suetonius. Vol. 2. Trans. J. C. Rolfe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Lilja, Saara. Homosexuality in Republican and Augustan Rome. Helsinki: Societas Scientificarum Fennica, 1982.

Makowski, John F. "Nisus and Euryalus: A Platonic Relationship." Classical Journal 85 (1989): 1-15.

Oliensis, Ellen. "Sons and Lovers: Sexuality and Gender in Virgil's Poetry." The Cambridge Companion to Virgil. Charles Martindale, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 294-311.

Virgil. The Eclogues and Georgics. Trans. C. Day Lewis. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1964.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. R. Fitzgerald. New York: Random House, 1983.


    Citation Information
    Author: Crompton, Louis  
    Entry Title: Virgil  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 28, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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