Lucian’s Triumphant cinaedus and Rogue Lovers

 “Lucian’s Triumphant cinaedus and Rogue Lovers”, Helios 36, 1 (2009) 55-65: This paper examines two neglected texts of Lucian which illustrate his relevance for our understanding of ancient social values relating to sex, and the relevance of ancient sexual conventions for interpreting his own work. In Dialogues of the Dead 19 (numbered as in the Loeb edition), Lucian, following Cynic values, reveals a more tolerant attitude towards pathic sexuality than most sources, by eliciting unconventional admiration for a cinaedus who outwits his legacy hunters. And a study of Alexander the False Prophet 5 in view of conventional Greek expectations regarding pederasty casts new light on the interpretation of that controversial work.

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Many of our sources regarding ancient sexuality—e.g., Plato the philosophical reformer, Cicero the politician, or Juvenal the reactionary satirist—could adopt distinctly moralistic stances. Not everybody held the values they preached, and it would be naive to assume, for example, that Greeks would never countenance using slaves sexually as the Romans did, or tolerate older men liking a passive sexual role. Little wonder that some historians of sexuality turn from literature to art for evidence of attitudes beyond those of the literate elite. But the cliché that all written texts were composed by and for elite males insensitive to the rest of society acknowledges neither the sophistication of that elite nor the diversity of the textual corpus. Lucian is a promising source for balancing the information of the moralists with a more transparent reflection of sexual values in a social context; and it should not be surprising if those values are particularly unconventional when he draws his inspiration from the Cynic school. In turn, a more nuanced understanding of ancient sexuality can cast new light on the interpretation of those texts whose full implications were previously either unnoticed or deliberately ignored. In this paper, I examine two neglected texts of Lucian that illustrate his relevance for recovering ancient social values relating to sex, and the relevance of ancient sexual conventions for interpreting his own work: Dialogues of the Dead 19 and Alexander the False Prophet 5.[1]

The Triumphant Cinaedus

Scholars mining Lucian for evidence on ancient sexuality have been drawn especially to Dialogues of the Courtesans 5 for its treatment of female homosexuality, which is exceptional in ancient Greek literature. Yet in spite of detailed discussions of its ancient sources and modern philosophical affinities, the question whether or not it is sympathetic toward these women has proven elusive.[2] This is not surprising, because throughout the Dialogues of the Courtesans, Lucian toys with ambivalence, presenting two views but seldom if ever taking sides. His treatment of a girl prostituted by her mother shows equally sensitivity to the girl’s loss of innocence and understanding of the mother’s economic dilemma. A philosopher is accused of corrupting his student, but his accuser is a jealous courtesan working toward the same goal. The conflict is amusing, but the authorial bias is elusive. The humor in the Dialogues of the Dead, set in Hades, is more straightforward. The dialogues are Menippean and are usually controlled by a single protagonist who worries clueless deviants from Cynic values.[3] Because this difference applies throughout the two respective dialogue series, we may expect Lucian’s sympathy to show more clearly in the Dialogues of the Dead.[4]
The Dialogues in places target and consistently satirize legacy hunters. As we might expect from Lucian, there are a few amusing momentary reversals of sympathy, as for example, in Dial. Mort. 22, a man who was killed by his son for his fortune is told it was his own fault for being so stingy with the boy. But these are exceptions, not systematic ambivalence. The context of the nineteenth dialogue in particular leads to the expectation that it will target the gold-diggers, as it is one of a series of dialogues showing their ironic reversals and congratulating old men who could fool them.
A recurring theme describes gold-diggers as rival ‘lovers’ (erastai) of their aged victims. Often this seems to be but a metaphor for extravagant generosity and flattery; but Lucian elsewhere suggests that sexual favors were not uncommon.[5] In Dial. Mort. 19, for example, Lucian teases the reader by suggesting ever more explicitly that the favors are sexual and the old man is a cinaedus. Yet the dialogue still directs sympathy toward the old man and antipathy toward the legacy hunters.
Pathic older men, i.e., those who enjoyed a passive sexual role even long after reaching adult age, were stereotyped in antiquity as cinaedi. It was a negative stereotype. A cinaedus was assumed to be effeminate and deficient in the capabilities of control expected of adult men. Just as ‘real men’ were expected to control their own passions as well as their subordinates (women, slaves, boys), it was assumed that if an adult male yielded control to others, he was unable to exercise it over himself. So he was thought to be dissolute, even prone to adultery. And as Richlin (1993) shows, these men were subjected to social and legal harassment.
Scholars who would assimilate cinaedi to modern homosexuals and the prejudice against them to homophobia tend to downplay their involvement with women.[6] But Craig Williams (1991, 261, note 18, 355, note 319) refuses to speak of ‘homophobia’ in the ancient world because, following a rigid theory of social construction of sex and gender, he does not believe there were ‘homosexuals’ at that time. He (1991, 206 ff.) and Hubbard (2003, 7) cite considerable evidence of cinaedic involvement with women.
One need not obscure the differences between the ancient and modern stereotypes to see both, in important respects, as homophobic. In surveys extending beyond the classical period, such as Crompton’s (2003), it is clear that regardless of paradigmatic shifts in legal and cultural attitudes, the phobia of homosexuals in the modern West has directly descended from the phobia of the cinaedus. The modern phobia relates to sexual acts and orientation, while the Greek phobia was essentially ageist. However, both involve social harassment of men whose sexual proclivities with other men transgress the reigning sexual paradigm and deviate from scripts of male dominance. And both could be challenged by persons with a broader outlook based on, e.g., the modern value of the right to privacy, or the Cynic value of independence. Lucian would satirize any such phobia.
Richlin (1993, 549), analyzing Roman homophobic literary sources, observes that cinaedic relations with women were always “set up as a surprise.” Lucian, in the nineteenth dialogue of the Dialogues of the Dead, emphasizes the cinaedus Polystratus’s ‘normal’ relations with women and boys to “set up” his pathic affair as the surprise; this old man, though pathic, is very independent and always in control.
Simylus meets his friend Polystratus in the Underworld. Polystratus can boast that he lived to the age of 98, “old, frail and childless,” but still living the life of Riley—plenty of pretty boys, women, and wine. Simylus is puzzled, because the Polystratus he knew was thrifty. “But all this was given to me”, says Polystratus. “What, were you a tyrant?” “No. I had many lovers [erastai].” “What, at your age, and with only four teeth?” Polystratus’s age and unattractiveness are comically emphasized, and he admits that it was his legacy they were after. Yet he persists with the ‘romance’ theme: the men vied for his attention, he played the role of the beloved holding out behind a locked door, etc. He led them all on, but secretly wrote a surprising will.
Simylus conjectures that Polystratus’s chosen heir was a relative. But Polystratus is appalled by that idea: “Heavens no! It was a young man from Phrygia I’d just bought.” Notice that this is not another ‘boy’ (pais), like those offered by his ‘lovers,’ but a young man (meirakion). Age is just as important a factor in this dialogue as money. Here we might expect Simylus to ask about the Phrygian’s character, or how he won Polystratus’s favor, but instead, Simylus asks his age. Told he was 20, Simylus immediately infers: “Oh. Now I understand what kind of favors he did for you.” The significance of this exchange may elude a modern reader. After all, why ask the precise age of the young man? And what sudden revelation does the answer convey? The answers become clear only in view of the ageist conventions of Greek love.
According to these conventions, an erōmenos (the loved one) was generally expected to be a teenager. Twenty marked the beginning of full adulthood. In Athens, the ephebe stage ended at this age, while in imperial Rome young men celebrated the first shaving of their beard, the depositio barbae, which, according to Richlin (1993, 547), also signaled that they “should no longer attract sexual attention from males.” It is true that some Greeks took exception to drawing a rigid line at this age. Hubbard (2003, 6) cites evidence that philosophers especially tended to expand the ‘age of eligibility,’ which the early Stoics extended to 28. They, however, were interested in character and intellectual maturity. Strato’s homoerotic poetry and the Lucianic Erotes, both dating to the Roman imperial period of Greece, attest that boys were conventionally thought to lose their physical attractiveness with the appearance of the beard. In fact, the Erotes refers specifically to age 20.[7] These Greek sources contemporary with Lucian demonstrate that Simylus’s inference, which can only be based on conventional expectations familiar to Lucian’s readers, cannot be that the new slave became Polystratus’s erōmenos; after all, Polystratus had already said he had plenty of toy boys. So what was this special favor that the new slave could offer? Another poem by Strato points to the obvious answer: Anth. Pal. 12.4.
In the Greek, Apameibomenos is a Homeric formula for ‘answering back,’ and ouketi paizei is a warning, as it were echoing ouketi pais: “Watch out . . . this one will answer you back.” That is, the erōmenos is a man now, he will want an active role. Hine’s (2001, 6) translation preserves the coyness of the original: “Child’s play no more but tit-for-tat.” Below I offer a free translation that makes the implications clearer:
For me, a boy is ripe at twelve,
Though thirteen is much nicer.
At fourteen, cherry is sweeter still
And five times three is spicier.
Sixteen-year-olds are fit for gods,
The next year just for Jupiter.
But after that the kid will say
“It’s your turn now; roll over.”[8]

At this point, Simylus has, so to speak, ‘outed’ Polystratus. The romance motif was no joke after all. Although it was never suggested that the legacy hunters actually made love to Polystratus, he did show his passive, effeminate bent by the delight he took in being courted and leading them on. The Phrygian slave had nothing to offer other than a young adult body, a young man’s body.
Lucian’s sketch contrasts in many ways with Juvenal’s treatment of a similar situation in his Satire 9. Perhaps the most striking difference is that while Juvenal, through crass physical details, expresses his disgust with the deviants—e.g., Naevolus, the penetrator, complains of colliding with “yesterday’s dinner” (9.44)—Lucian uses meaningful hints that are tactfully expressed and so are all the more amusing. For example, Polystratus says that the Phrygian deserved to inherit, even though he was a barbarian and an olethros (pest). This affectionately negative expression suggests something like the tension of a romantic, or at least personal, relationship. It would be difficult to back Polystratus’s choice more concretely, especially given his own extreme age. The Stoics may have indulged ‘boys’ up to age 28. But 98? Polystratus’s age is a comical exaggeration debunking the ageism of Greek sexual conventions.
Of course, Polystratus does not expect Simylus to admire his relationship. He strikes in fact a mildly defensive tone: “Yes, but [plēn alla] he was much more deserving than they.” But Simylus is readily won over. Polystratus points out, with irony, that the young fellow is now prestigious in the city and assiduously courted, and Simylus replies: “That’s fine with me; I don’t care if they make him commander-in-chief, as long as those legacy hunters don’t inherit.” Thus, although moralists were appalled at cinaedi and machos scoffed at them, Lucian regarded their vice as trivial in comparison to the baseness of legacy hunters. Why?
The reason is that the Dialogues of the Dead is a distinctly Cynic work. At Dial. Mort. 21, two dead Cynics, Crates and Diogenes, list their “inheritance,” namely the individualistic values against which they judge their dialogue partners throughout this series: wisdom, independence, truth, speaking out (parrhēsia), and freedom. Now, one might quibble over Polystratus’s wisdom, but the other traits of the Cynic are all manifest in his character in the text. In particular, by initiating his own, however unconventional, choice of heir, Polystratus displays the Cynic virtue of independence that the legacy hunters so conspicuously lack, and his own frankness (parrhēsia) contrasts with their hypocrisy.
In Dial. Mort. 15 and 16, the god Pluto himself speaks for the Cynics. Although he condemns the gold-diggers’ greed, he regards hypocrisy as their worst vice. Pluto instructs Hermes to deliberately allow Thucritus, a childless old man, to enjoy longevity while he drags down to Hades every one of the young legacy hunters in pursuit of his fortune. Terpsion is the first to arrive, and he argues with Pluto over the fairness of legacy hunting; but his position collapses when, delighted to learn that the same fate awaits all of his rivals, he abruptly changes sides. Interestingly, his discredited argument turns on age: the old should get out of the way and give the young a chance to enjoy the wealth. This casts more light on Lucian’s flouting of ageist norms in 19. For Lucian in his Cynic mode, Terpsion’s ageism is but a hypocritical mask for greed.
Another classical norm that Lucian flouts in 19 is the presumptive correspondence between physical beauty and moral worth.[9] The emphasis on Polystratus’s ugliness makes his erotic involvements ridiculous, but does not alter the moral judgment.
Lucian does not present Polystratus’s relationship with his slave as an ethical ideal. The coy revelation of Polystratus’s passivity by means of the slave’s age simultaneously respects and teases the conventional sensitivity of the topic; and Polystratus himself, though frank, is mildly defensive. Perhaps by the second century the Roman attitude that the slave was only doing his job had gained some ground in Greece. However, this dialogue is not about the slave, but about Polystratus; and in his case the Cynic values are especially relevant.
Cynics did not disapprove of a man having sex with boys, but they differed in their views on whether one should accept the passive role. Hubbard (2003, 264) cites some Cynics who cautioned boys against risking their manhood but he also cites the strikingly unconventional position of Bion of Borysthenes that it is better to offer one’s prime than to pluck others’. These Cynics’ views were based largely on the value that Cynics placed on independence. Bion’s Cynic youth, like Alcibiades, presumably had sufficient self-confidence to grant his favors without endangering his own masculinity or independence. The same applies to Polystratus. His economic success and his capers with women and boys, not to mention his manipulation of the gold-diggers, establish his independence, and it is difficult to imagine how passive indulgence in old age with a slave would diminish it—unless, of course, it affected his choice of an heir. But that line of criticism, of which I find no trace in Lucian’s text, would apply only if Polystratus were induced to choose the slave over another, more deserving candidate; and the situation presupposed in the dialogue is that no such candidate was available. The old man is admired not for his sexual predilection, but for outsmarting his suitors; indeed, part of the joke on them is that they are foiled by a cinaedus. Nevertheless, his predilection is not denigrated; rather, it is simply an amusing surprise in the comical defeat of the legacy hunters, as author, interlocutor, and reader (or the audience, if these dialogues were composed for public readings) cheer the triumphant cinaedus.

The Rogue Lovers

My second text, chapter 5 of Lucian’s Alexander the False Prophet, illustrates how important clues for literary interpretation can be missed when sexual references are glossed over. The text describes Alexander’s adolescent occupation as a prostitute and how it led to his apprenticeship as a charlatan. As recently as 1997, Ulrich Victor (1997, 132) could write a detailed commentary discussing at length the drugs and rituals therein, with nary a word on the erotic component. C. P. Jones (1986, 135) asks only whether Alexander was really a prostitute, since a charge of prostitution was too common to take seriously. But there is much more here.
Alexander’s prostitution is mentioned primarily to provide the occasion for introducing into the text his first teacher. This teacher, we are told, was a talented fraud, a disciple of Apollonius of Tyana. He found Alexander handsome and also eager to help in his work, since the boy loved him for his knavery (kakia), much as the teacher loved the boy’s beauty. So, the teacher taught him all of his tricks—particularly pharmaceutical knowledge and showmanship (tragōidia)—and kept him on as his assistant and successor.
The relationship between Alexander and his teacher, though comical, is grounded in reality. Philosophical apprenticeship was only one of a spectrum of possible pederastic educational relationships—good, bad, and neutral—which, at least among the aristocrats of the Archaic period, also involved athletics and fighting. Hubbard (2001, 140-1), citing Marrou 1956 and the evidence of iconography, notes that pederastic training is attested not just in athletics but also in technical disciplines like medicine and music. The young Marcus Aurelius apparently developed a love for his rhetoric teacher Fronto greater than his love for his philosophy teacher.[10] John R. Clarke (2007, 52) suggests that even Roman tradesmen’s apprenticeships could involve erotic relationships. Pederasty, therefore, could provide, in the context of the ageist model of bisexuality prevalent in ancient Greece, alternative access to training or advancement for some boys lacking wealth or family connections, although the elite born with wealth would disdain the mercenary motives of others striving to acquire it. Alexander’s case, however, is extraordinary, for an ancient reader would recognize it as an exact ethical inversion of philosophical pederasty. In the lofty Platonic tradition, the philosopher was supposed to be attracted to the boy’s beauty, while the youth would respond in kind through love of the older man’s wisdom and virtue and learn philosophy from him. In Alexander’s travesty, the boy admires the older man’s guile and learns his con game.
This parody of Platonic love is an important part of the text’s narrative. For a boy prostitute, like Alexander, it must have been the jackpot to have secured such a relationship. Young Alexander’s eagerness suggests that he was the aggressor, already showing his assertive, amoral character and its success. The ethical inversion also illustrates the statement in chapter 1 that this second Alexander excelled in vice (kakia), just as Alexander the Great had excelled in virtue. Indeed, this is but one of a series of reversals. In chapter 8, Alexander and his partner are said to excel as confidence men, since they exploit the very same fears and desires from which Epicurus sought to free mankind. In 16, the arrangement enabling a queue of people to file through a tent, used by the first Alexander to accommodate his well-wishers when he was ill, is used by the second for a superstitious exhibition. Finally, the inversion provides a link with Apollonius of Tyana, showing, as the narrator himself states, what sort of background and associates the teacher has to offer.
Most scholars believe that the impassioned Epicurean narrator of this work, who betrays his own lack of philosophical peace of mind (ataraxia) when he rudely bites Alexander, cannot represent Lucian. However that may be, Lucian names himself as the narrator (55), and provides specific datable references suited to confirm his identity to historians as well as his own readers.[11] Lucian also gives specific information about Alexander himself, so much so that the historical data in this work make it read like a documentary.
In chapter 5, however, Lucian obstinately avoids naming the teacher. The man is introduced as erastēs tis (a certain lover), then referred to as houtos (he), autos (himself), and finally autos ekeinos (this same man) although the narrator knows that he was a physician from Tyana and a follower of Apollonius. Why conceal the teacher’s identity? Perhaps not only the prostitution, but the entire apprenticeship story, followed so conveniently by the death of the teacher at the moment Alexander matures and is ready to commence his own career, is fictitiously elaborated from more meager information in order to develop Alexander’s character and interests.[12]


As I have demonstrated in this paper, certain texts of Lucian offer new insights into the sexual history of Greece during the Roman Empire. The Dialogues of the Dead 19, when examined in the context of ancient sexual conventions and stereotypes, especially as seen in the contemporary Strato and the Lucianic Erotes, and in the context of a Cynic background, reveals a more sophisticated point of view that challenges those very stereotypes. Alexander the False Prophet is a controversial work—historians are unsure whether it can provide documentary evidence or is largely fictional—and its fifth chapter, studied here, cannot in itself resolve this issue. However, we have seen that this chapter does offer important information towards its solution. Setting aside modern sensitivities, and acknowledging the pederastic content, was necessary, but not sufficient, for arriving at this insight. To grasp the implications of the comic inversion of philosophical pederasty in this treatise, we had to interpret it in the light of relevant ancient social models. Only in this way could we trace how the text complements the narrator’s argument, so neatly that this chapter, at any rate, seems likely to be fictional. These findings, coupled with our recovery of the satirical strategy in the Dialogues of the Courtesans, show the desirability of an integrated approach to sexual history and literary studies.[13]

Works Cited

Butrica, James L. 2005. “Some Myths and Anomalies in the Study of Roman Sexuality.” In Verstraete and Provencal 2005, 209-70.
Clarke, John R. 2007. Roman Life: 100 BC to AD 200. New York.
Crompton, Louis. 2003. Homosexuality and Civilization. Cambridge, MA.
Haley, Shelley P. 2002. “Lucian’s ‘Leaina and Clonarium.’” In Nancy Rabinowitz and Lisa Auanger, eds., Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. Austin. 286-303.
Harmon, A. M. 1913-1967. Lucian. 8 volumes. Loeb Classical Library, 14, 54, 130, 162, 302, 430, 431, 432. Cambridge, MA.
Hine, Daryl. 2001. Puerilities: Erotic Epigrams of the Greek Anthology. Princeton.
Hubbard, Thomas K. 2003. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Berkeley and London.
———. 2005. “Pindar’s Tenth Olympian and Athlete-Trainer Pederasty.” In Verstraete and Provencal 2005, 137-72.
Jones, C. P. 1986. Culture and Society in Lucian. Cambridge, MA.
Jope, James. 2005. “Translating Strato: The Role of Translations in the Study of Ancient Sexuality and the Understanding of Classical Erotica.” Mouseion Series 3, volume 5: 47-57.
Marrou, H.-I. 1956. A History of Education in Antiquity. English translation by George Lamb. New York. (Originally published as Histoire de l’éducation dans l’antiquité. 2. éd. rev. et augm. [Paris 1950])
Richlin, Amy. 1993. “Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 34: 523-73.
———. 2007. Marcus Aurelius in Love. Chicago.
Relihan, Joel C. 1987. “Vainglorious Menippus in the Dialogues of the Dead.” ICS 12: 185-206.
Verstraete, Beert C., and Vernon Provencal, eds. 2005. Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West. Special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality 49.3/4.
Victor, Ulrich. 1997. Lukian von Samosata: Alexandros oder der Lügenprophet. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 132. Leiden.
Williams, Craig A. 1991. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. New York. 

[1]I refer to the Greek text of the Loeb editions (Harmon 1913-1967). Translations are my own, unless otherwise stated, and are free.
[2]Haley (2002), for example, admits the possibility of various interpretations and seems to struggle to accommodate their different implications.
[3]Relihan (1987) argues that Menippus is satirized as well as his interlocutors, because he was not regarded as a true Cynic. The standard by which he is measured, however, is still Cynic.
[4]For the same reason, we may be confident that the point of view examined here is Lucian’s own, rather than simply that of his sources. Both the cultivated ambivalence of the CourtesansDialogues of the Dead are characteristic of other Lucianic works as well. and the consistently Cynic attitude of the
[5]Gold-diggers are described as lovers of old “men and women” in 16, while the quack rhetorician of A Professor of Public Speaking shamelessly details his embraces of his own benefactor (24).
[6]Even they do not, as a rule, categorically deny the possibility of such relations. An exception is Butrica 2005, 221-3, who attempts to demonstrate that all alleged references to cinaedi having oral sex with women are invalid. Butrica appears to consider these men exclusively homosexual. But the evidence cited for sex with women is not exclusively oral, and oral sex is not specifically relevant to Lucian’s satire.
[7]Lucian, Erotes 26.1ff. The author is commonly cited as ‘Pseudo-Lucian,’ but I argue in a forthcoming publication for the authenticity of this work.
[8]This poem, incidentally, illustrates the difficulty of writing an effective erotic translation without distorting the meaning of an ancient poem—a problem that I have discussed in connection with Strato (Jope 2005). Hine’s translation does preserve the coyness of the original, but at the cost of explaining the meaning. A living poet, Dennis Kelly (2008 personal communication), sent me the following adaptation: Twelve is okay—Thirteen even better. Fourteen’s a rosebud—Fifteen full-blown rose. Sixteen in god we trust—Seventeen ask Zeus. Older ones smirk—Pay them to not tell. Kelly may have been using Hine’s translation, where he understood “tit-for-tat” to refer not to sexual reciprocation, but to financial compensation.
[9]Lucian the Cynic debunks this correspondence, perhaps the silliest conceit of Platonic love, repeatedly in his writings.
[10]I have not seen Richlin’s (2007) edition of Marcus’s correspondence with Fronto.
[11]E.g., his intimacy with Celsus (61) and his involvement of the consul Aritus (57).
[12]Andreas Bendlin (2008 personal communication) suggests that it may have been a topos.
[13]I am indebted to Andreas Bendlin and to A. P. Booth and Beert Verstraete, and especially to the referee for Helios, for helpful comments on this paper.

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