Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity

Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford University Press 1999, xii 395, ISBN 0-19-512505-3 (pbk.) Review originally published in the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History Newsletter 14(2) 2000
(n.b.: This review is of the first edition. Williams has published a second edition, which I have not read.)
The tension between scholars who apply Fouceault's constructionist theory to the study of Roman sexuality and more 'essentialist' scholars who oppose or modify such views has been the driving force behind extensive research in this area in the Nineties. The 'essentialist' label has not been helpful, since it applies indiscriminately both to progressive scholars aware of cultural relativism who challenge constructionist views and to conservative classicists who preceded Fouceault or have not concerned themselves with the constructionist critique. (1)

Williams holds a fairly strong constructionist view. His title is ironic. Strictly speaking, he does not believe that 'homosexuality' existed in the Roman mind. The Roman sexual paradigm was relatively indifferent to sexual orientation, and based instead on dichotomies of dominance vs. submission, free vs. slave, and active vs. passive roles: Essentially, a Roman man could use a male or female 'bottom', as long as he was always the 'top'. Williams supports this position with an impressively erudite analysis of the relevant Latin concepts (stuprum, pathicus, etc.) not only in the commonly used sources which have become familiar to readers in this area (such as Juvenal and Martial), but in others new to the discussion. He repeatedly demonstrates the Romans' focus on active/passive, and their indifference to male/female, categorizations. The range of material examined and the quality of the analysis make interesting reading and an indispensable contribution to the subject.
Williams' thorough, unrelenting demonstration of the active/passive paradigm and its indifference to female/male distinctions is a critical step in clearing away modern preconceptions and understanding Roman attitudes and values on their own terms. His broom effectively sweeps aside modern assumptions projected by progressive 'essentialists' like Taylor(2)- who identifies the cult of Cybele as a gay subculture, but whose own comparison of Cybele's devotees with Indian hijras shows that these priests were not essentially same-sex oriented so much as transgender individuals- as well as by conservative classicists, who casually apply to Romans even such culturally laden expressions as "overt homosexual practise".(3)

There are positive contributions as well. Williams shows how the Romans assumed that a man would as likely be attracted to a boy as to a female, and many of the moral and legal strictures cited in the past as suppressing 'homosexuality' were instead aimed at protecting the dominant (i.e., non-passive) status of freeborn males. And he offers a perceptive analysis of Priapus, a characteristically Roman minor deity armed with a major erection ready to penetrate any orifice, as a popular exemplar of the established universal top-man paradigm.

Of course, like any correction, Williams' goes too far.

Perhaps most annoying for historians is his insistence that there was no diachronic change in Roman sexual values from 200 BCE to 200 CE. Although attitudes toward the norms may have shifted, he argues, the norms did not change.

But the normative sexual paradigms which modern theorists can deduce from the ranting of moralists have to be 'fleshed out' with social realities to achieve a sound historical understanding. Lilja (4) established change even in the Republican period, as Rome grew into a sophisticated urban culture. With the Principate, which sacrificed legitimacy for stability, Rome became a cosmopolitan metropolis in which foreign communities such as Asians and Greeks exerted significant influence. The evidence of altered social mores in authors like Martial, Juvenal, and Seneca, the previously unprecedented repressive legislation, and the surprisingly tolerant attitudes of Petronius and Statius are all indicative of a growing malaise with the Priapic paradigm which merits further study.

In fact, my reservations regarding Williams' insistence on the normative paradigm are best illustrated by his presentation of Priapus as an identification model for Roman men. Priapus was a comic figure, ugly, and almost always unsuccessful in his sexual aggressions. He does embody the Roman phallocentric paradigm very nicely. But no intelligent, adult Roman male could have wished to identify with him.
Indeed, Williams' broom brushes past the main objective of Fouceault's own efforts- viz., understanding the role of sex in power and domination-- when he sweeps aside Richlin's comparison of the loathing vented by the Roman moralists on passive men with modern homophobia(5. Granted, the thrust of the Romans' phobia was directed at a man being submissive rather than at a man having sex with another man. However, just like modern homophobia, it served as a kind of 'rear-guard' defense for an oppressive paradigm of masculinity. As such, it targeted traitors to the norm, men who should have been members of the dominant sexual category, but who sacrificed that status; and it inflicted vindictive sanctions. Finally, it betrayed the insecurity of the dominant group by imposing a permanent loss of status even for a single deviant act, regardless of whether or not the individual was assumed to have a lasting preference for his deviant behaviour.

Maud Gleason(6)has shown how insecure the ancients were about their masculinity. She argues that they were especially sensitive because they regarded males and females as innately bisexual and masculinity as an achieved, rather than an innate status. This she regards as differing from our society's assumptions, but I suppose she was never a Boy Scout.

If, as many theorists believe, homophobia is the more basic force which created the social category 'homosexual' in the nineteenth century, then perhaps we should not be asking whether there were homosexuals in Rome, but whether there was something essentially akin to homophobia, and what role it played in the dynamics of power. Although Williams does not draw all of the inferences in this connection, the implications of the information which he presents are fertile.

1. Perhaps the most important progressive critic of constructionism writing specifically on Roman sexuality is Amy Richlin. A concise presentation of her view and its position in the controversy may be found in her article "Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men" (1993) in the Journal of the History of Sexuality 3: 523-573. The title responds to a collection of constructionist articles edited by David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, Before Sexuality: Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (Princeton 1990). More recently, a collection of papers has been issued on Roman Sexualities by Judith P. Hallett and Marylin Skinner (Princeton 1997).

2. Rabun Taylor, "Two Pathic Subcultures in Ancient Rome", Journal of the History of Sexuality 319-371.

3. Elaine Fantham, "Stuprum: Public Attitudes and Penalties for Sexual Offences in Republican Rome", Echoes du Monde Classique/Classical Views 35 (1991), 267-291 (p. 279).

4. Saara Lilja, Homosexuality in Republican and Augustan Rome, Helsinki 1983.

5. op. cit. (above, Footnote 1).

6. Maud Gleason, "The Semiotics of Gender: Physiognomy and Self-Fashioning in the Second Century CE", p. 389-415 in Before Sexuality... (above, Footnote 1).
7 (1997)

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