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Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.)  
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Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.

The pastoral setting of so many of Virgil's shorter poems was not merely a literary convention; he was in fact born on a farm near Mantua and throughout his life struck his contemporaries as shy, awkward, and countrified. Of sturdy build, Virgil, nevertheless, suffered from poor health and was often ill from headaches and hemorrhaging lungs; his modesty and lack of aggressiveness earned him a nickname--"the Virgin."

His earliest patron, Asinius Pollio, encouraged him to write of rural life in his first important poems, the Eclogues, completed when Virgil was about thirty. Pollio, a former general, had retired from public affairs to devote himself to authorship and the encouragement of literature. He had known Catullus and was a friend of Horace. He also owned a slave named Alexander, with whom Virgil, who never married, fell in love.

We know this last detail from a biography of Virgil appended to the Commentary of Donatus, a fourth-century critic. (It is possible that this Life is by Suetonius rather than Donatus; scholarship has been unable to decide the issue.) Virgil is characterized as "inclined to passions for boys," an unusual instance of a man's being assigned a specific preference by a Latin biographer.

We are also told that Virgil "especially favored" two boys named Cebes and Alexander, that the boys were educated by him, and that Cebes even became a poet. We also learn that Alexander was a slave given to Virgil by Pollio and that he was, in fact, the "Alexis" of Virgil's second eclogue.

Both of the boys had, presumably, been slaves, but apart from this, Virgil's relation to them seems to have approximated to the Greek ideal, according to which the older man became the protector and mentor of the younger.

One other ancient document also seems to attest to Virgil's homosexuality. The collection of epigrams and short poems called the Catalepton has two poems that are probably by Virgil, the fifth and seventh. In the former, the poet says farewell to a friend in Rome and to all the city's "beautiful boys"; in the latter, he confesses to Varius that he is in love with a boy.

The Second or Corydon Eclogue

Five of Virgil's ten pastoral Eclogues make at least some incidental reference to homosexuality. By far the most famous of these is the second or Corydon eclogue. Though Romans were theoretically supposed to limit their male amours to slave boys, this is one of the few poems in which the boy's slave status is explicitly mentioned.

He is introduced as Alexis, "the darling of the master" (delicias domini). The poem invites reflection on the paradoxes involved in "courting" a slave. By custom and by Roman law, a master might simply command any slave's sexual compliance.

Yet the literary conventions of verse, which the Romans took over from the Greeks, required that the poet should express frustration, be at the mercy of the boy's refusal, and even suffer his disdain.

Arab rulers, in love with male slaves in tenth-century Spain, relished the piquancy of the situation in poems that declared frankly, "You are my slave, I am yours." Roman poets, less given to paradox, stuck to the Greek convention, so that we are, in fact, often in doubt about the boy's status.

Ancient writers (such as the Donatian biographer, Martial, Apuleius, and Servius) all assume that Corydon is simply a persona assumed by the modest Virgil, and equate the two. Corydon is described in the poem as a simple shepherd (whether free or slave is not made clear), presumably also the servant of "the master." Though he is wealthy enough to own a thousand sheep, he has no proprietary rights over Alexis.

Corydon wants them "to live together" a life devoted to hunting and herding, and risks sunstroke to pursue the youth, who is indifferent to his suffering despair. We may find in all this a kind of humorous self-deprecation. Corydon reminds himself, "You are only a rustic," as if he fears Alexis may prefer some sophisticated city dweller. At the end, he judges himself a lunatic for neglecting the homely tasks of the farm for this mad passion.

The Corydon eclogue became the most famous poem on male love in Latin literature. It is Corydon's love for Alexis, not Catullus' passion for Juventius or Tibullus' for Marathus, that is cited by later Latin poets and critics when they discuss the poetry of male love.

It is noteworthy, however, that, whatever Virgil's own sexual preference, Corydon represents himself as bisexual: He complains that Alexis is so cruel that he (Corydon) would have been better off with the temperamental Amaryllis (a woman) or swarthy Menalcas (another male).

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