Sources familiar with Governor Andrew Cuomo‘s thinking explain to The Chronicle that — if he were to come out as ‘openly bisexual’ as many Albany politicos have been rumoring for weeks — it would be a more nuanced announcement. “Italian-Americans don’t consider sex between men as gay, because it’s a cultural practice that goes back to the gladiators of ancient Rome,” he explains.
The source — one of Cuomo’s closest political operatives — insists that Italians see sex between men as being “a demonstration of hyper-masculinity,” and do not believe it is indicative of a lack of masculinity.
Homosexuality in ancient Rome often differs markedly from the contemporary West. Latin lacks words that would precisely translate “homosexual” and “heterosexual”. The primary dichotomy of ancient Roman sexuality was active/dominant/masculine and passive/submissive/feminine. Roman society was patriarchal, and the freeborn male citizen possessed political liberty (libertas) and the right to rule both himself and his household (familia).
If Cuomo is nominated to President-elect Joe Biden‘s cabinet, he may use the confirmation hearings to “have a deeper and more wide-ranging conversation about sexual identity and sexual diversity, and we know from his COVID Powerpoints that is capable of really informing the public’s understanding.”
Critics worry that such a wide-ranging conversation could captivate the national attention, creating a distraction that obfuscates other important national controversies that Senate Republicans hope to focus on during Cabinet confirmations. Of course, they contend, that Cuomo would want to distract from issues like nursing home deaths, rising crime in New York City, and Albany’s looming fiscal cliff, which are sure to be brought up during confirmation hearings if he is nominated as some have speculated.
The Cuomo operative explains that Italian American culture has long embraced many of the values of ancient Rome, and believes that “Rome’s architecture of human understanding” underlies the Italian American community’s conceptualization of modern-day realities.
“Virtue (virtus) was seen as an active quality through which a man (vir) defined himself. The conquest mentality and ‘cult of virility’ shaped same-sex relations. Roman men were free to enjoy sex with other males without a perceived loss of masculinity or social status, as long as they took the dominant or penetrative role,” the operative, who is a respected member of the Italian American community.
Given the vast body of Roman literature, there is an extraordinarily deep recorded history of sexual activity between men in Western civilization. Acceptable male partners were slaves and former slaves, prostitutes, and entertainers, whose lifestyle placed them in the nebulous social realm of infamia, excluded from the normal protections accorded a citizen even if they were technically free. Although Roman men in general seem to have preferred youths between the ages of 12 and 20 as sexual partners, freeborn male minors were off-limits.
Same-sex relations among women are far less documented and, if Roman writers are to be trusted, female homoeroticism may have been very rare, to the point that one poet in the Augustine era describes it as “unheard-of”.
During the Republic, a Roman citizen’s political liberty (libertas) was defined in part by the right to preserve his body from physical compulsion, including both corporal punishment and sexual abuse. Roman society was patriarchal, and masculinity was premised on a capacity for governing oneself and others of lower status. Virtus, ‘valor’ as that which made a man most fully a man, was among the active virtues. Sexual conquest was a common metaphor for imperialism in Roman discourse, and the “conquest mentality” was part of a “cult of virility” that particularly shaped Roman homosexual practices.
Roman ideals of masculinity were thus premised on taking an active role that was the prime directive of masculine sexual behavior for Romans. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, scholars have tended to view expressions of Roman male sexuality in terms of a “penetrator-penetrated” binary model; that is, the proper way for a Roman male to seek sexual gratification was to insert his penis into his partner. Allowing himself to be penetrated threatened his liberty as a free citizen as well as his sexual integrity.
“Not that it matters, but the Governor is a total top,” the source adds. “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a bottom, but it’s just not Governor Cuomo’s cup of tea.”
It was expected and socially acceptable for a freeborn Roman man to want sex with both female and male partners, as long as he took the penetrative role. The morality of the behavior depended on the social standing of the partner, not gender per see. Both women and young men were considered normal objects of desire, but outside marriage, a man was supposed to act on his desires only with slaves and prostitutes (who were often slaves).
Gender did not determine whether a sexual partner was acceptable, as long as a man’s enjoyment did not encroach on another man’s integrity. It was immoral to have sex with another freeborn man’s wife, his marriageable daughter, his underage son, or with the man himself; sexual use of another man’s slave was subject to the owner’s permission. Lack of self-control, including in managing one’s sex life, indicated that a man was incapable of governing others; too much indulgence in “low sensual pleasure” threatened to erode the elite male’s identity as a cultured person.
It’s unclear how deeply Cuomo will parse the issue of sexual identity through a historical lens at a potential confirmation hearing — but he will certainly have a great volume of Latin and Greek literature, poetry, and historical record to make his point if he does.
Homoerotic themes are introduced to Latin literature during a period of increasing Greek influence on Roman culture in the 2nd century BC. Greek cultural attitudes differed from those of the Romans primarily in idealizing eros between freeborn male citizens of equal status, though usually with a difference of age. An attachment to a male outside the family, seen as a positive influence among the Greeks, within Roman society threatened the authority of a stratified patriarchal social structure.
Since Roman women were active in educating their sons and mingled with men socially, and women of the governing classes often continued to advise and influence their sons and husbands in political life, homosociality was not as pervasive in Rome as it had been in Classical Athens, where it is thought to have contributed to Athens’ pederastic culture.
In the Imperial era, a perceived increase in passive homosexual behavior among free males was associated with anxieties about the subordination of political liberty to the emperor. The sexual license and decadence under the empire were seen as a contributing factor to the decline of the Empire and a symptom of the loss of the ideals of physical integrity (libertas) under the Republic.
Love or desire between males is a very frequent theme in Roman literature. A man or boy who took the “receptive” role in sex was variously called cinaedus, pathicus, exoletus, concubinus, spintria, puer, pullus, pusio, delicatus, mollis, tener, debilis, effeminatus, discinctus, pisciculi, spinthriae, and morbosus.
The contemporary western syntax does not easily translate. ‘Gay’ is not exact, ‘penetrated’ is not self-defined, and ‘passive’ misleadingly connotes inaction.
Some terms, such as exoletus, specifically refer to an adult. Romans who were socially marked as “masculine” did not confine their same-sex penetration of male prostitutes or slaves to those who were “boys” under the age of 20. But an adult male who desired to be penetrated (morbosus) was considered a sickness (morbus). The desire to penetrate a handsome youth was thought normal.
Cinaedus is a derogatory word denoting a male who was gender-deviant. His choice of sex acts, or preference in a sexual partner, was secondary to his perceived deficiencies as a “man” (vir). Although in some contexts cinaedus may denote an anally passive man and is the most frequent word for a male who allowed himself to be penetrated anally, a man called cinaedus might also have sex with and be considered highly attractive to women. Cinaedus is not equivalent to the English vulgarism “faggot”, except that both words can be used to deride a male considered deficient in manhood or with androgynous characteristics whom women may find sexually alluring.
The clothing, use of cosmetics, and mannerisms of a cinaedus marked him as effeminate, but the same effeminacy that Roman men might find alluring in a puer became unattractive in the physically mature male. The cinaedus thus represented the absence of what Romans considered true manhood, and the word is virtually untranslatable into English.
Originally, a cinaedus (Greek: kinaidos) was a professional dancer, characterized as non-Roman or “Eastern”; the word itself may come from a language of Asia Minor. His performance featured tambourine-playing and movements of the buttocks that suggested anal intercourse. The Cinaedocolpitae, an Arabian tribe recorded in Greco-Roman sources of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, may have a name derived from this meaning.
Some Roman men kept a male concubine (concubinus) before they married a woman. It described this form of concubinage as “a stable and privileged sexual relationship, but not exclusive, and subordinated to a primary marital relationship”. Within the hierarchy of household slaves, the concubinus seems to have been regarded as holding a special or elevated status that was threatened by the introduction of a wife.
The relationship with a concubinus might be discreet or more open. The concubina, a female concubine who might be free, held a protected legal status under Roman law.
Exoletus (pl. exoleti) is the past-participle form of the verb exolescere, which means “to grow up” or “to grow old”. The term denotes a male prostitute who services another sexually despite the fact that he himself is past his prime according to the ephebic tastes of Roman homoerotism. Though adult men were expected to take on the role of “penetrator” in their love affairs, such a restriction did not apply to exoleti. In their texts, Pomponius and Juvenal both included characters who were adult male prostitutes and had as clients male citizens who sought their services so they could take a “female” role in bed. In other texts, however, exoleti adopt a receptive position.
Exoleti appear with frequency in Latin texts, both fictional and historical, unlike in Greek literature, suggesting perhaps that adult male-male sex was more common among the Romans than among the Greeks. Ancient sources impute the love of, or the preference for, exoleti (using this or equivalent terms) to various figures of Roman history, such as the tribune Clodius, the emperors Tiberius, Galba, Titus, and Elagabalus.
Pathicus was a “blunt” word for a male who was penetrated sexually. It derived from the unattested Greek adjective pathikos, from the verb paskhein, equivalent to the Latin deponent patior, pati, passus, meaning “to undergo, submit to, endure, suffer”. The English word “passive” derives from the Latin passus.
Pathicus and cinaedus are often not distinguished in usage by Latin writers, but cinaedus may be a more general term for a male not in conformity with the role of vir (a “real man”), while pathicus specifically denotes an adult male who takes the sexually receptive role. A pathicus was not a “homosexual” as such. His sexuality was not defined by the gender of the person using him as a receptacle for sex, but rather his desire to be so used.
Because in Roman culture a man who penetrates another adult male almost always expresses contempt or revenge, the pathicus might be seen as more akin to the sexual masochist in his experience of pleasure. He might be penetrated orally or anally by a man or by a woman with a dildo, but showed no desire for penetrating nor having his own penis stimulated. He might also be dominated by a woman who compels him to perform cunnilingus.
In the discourse of sexuality, puer (“boy”) was a role as well as an age group. Both puer and the feminine equivalent puella, “girl”, could refer to a man’s sexual partner, regardless of age. As an age designation, the freeborn puer made the transition from childhood at around age 14, when he assumed the “toga of manhood”, but he was 17 or 18 before he began to take part in public life. A slave would never be considered a vir (a “real man”); he would be called puer, “boy”, throughout his life.
Pueri might be “functionally interchangeable” with women as receptacles for sex, but freeborn male minors were strictly off-limits. To accuse a Roman man of being someone’s “boy” was an insult that impugned his manhood, particularly in the political arena.
The puer delicatus was an “exquisite” or “dainty” child-slave chosen by his master for his beauty, also referred to as deliciae (“sweets” or “delights”). Unlike the freeborn Greek eromenos (“beloved”), who was protected by social custom, the Roman delicatus was in a physically and morally vulnerable position.
Funeral inscriptions found in the ruins of the imperial household under Augustus and Tiberius also indicate that deliciae were kept in the palace. The deliciae was sometimes castrated in an effort to preserve his youthful qualities; the emperor Nero had a puer delicatus named Sporus, whom he castrated and married.
In the erotic elegies of Tibullus, the delicatus Marathus wears lavish and expensive clothing. The beauty of the delicatus was measured by Apollonian standards, especially in regard to his long hair, which was supposed to be wavy, fair, and scented with perfume. The mythological type of the delicatus was represented by Ganymede, the Trojan youth abducted by Jove (Greek Zeus) to be his divine companion and cupbearer.
Pullus was a term for a young animal, and particularly a chick. It was an affectionate word traditionally used for a boy (puer) who was loved by someone in an obscene sense. The 4th-century Gallo-Roman poet Ausonius records the word pullipremo, “chick-squeezer”, which he says was used by the early satirist Lucilius.
Pusio is etymologically related to puer, and means boy or lad. It often had a distinctly sexual or sexually demeaning connotation. Juvenal preferred the pusio to women because he was less quarrelsome and would not demand gifts from his lover. Pusio was also used as a personal name.
Scultimidonus (“asshole-bestower”) was rare and “florid” slang that appears in a fragment from the early Roman satirist Lucilius intended to refer to those who bestow for free their scultima, their anal orifice.
The abstract noun impudicitia (adjective impudicus) was the negation of pudicitia, “sexual morality, chastity”. As a characteristic of males, it often implies the willingness to be penetrated. Impudicitia might be associated with behaviors in young men who retained a degree of boyish attractiveness but were old enough to be expected to behave according to masculine norms. Julius Caesar was accused of bringing the notoriety of infamia upon himself, both when he was about 19, for taking the passive role in an affair with King Nicomedes of Bithynia, and later for many adulterous affairs with women.
Seneca the Elder noted that “impudicita is a crime for the freeborn, a necessity in a slave, a duty for the freedman”. He argued that male–male sex in Rome asserted the power of the citizen over slaves, confirming his masculinity.
Although in general the Romans regarded marriage as a male–female union for the purpose of producing children, a few scholars believe that in the early Imperial period some male couples were celebrating traditional marriage rites in the presence of friends. Male–male weddings are reported by sources that mock them; the feelings of the participants are not recorded. Both writers Martial and Juvenal refer to marriage between males as something that occurs not infrequently, although they disapprove of it. Roman law did not recognize marriage between males, but one of the grounds for disapproval expressed in Juvenal’s satire is that celebrating the rites would lead to expectations for such marriages to be registered officially. As the empire was becoming Christianized in the 4th century, legal prohibitions against marriage between males began to appear.
Various ancient sources state that the emperor Nero celebrated two public weddings with males, once taking the role of the bride (with a freedman Pythagoras), and once the groom (with Sporus). The ceremonies included traditional elements such as a dowry and the wearing of the Roman bridal veil. In the early 3rd century AD, the emperor Elagabalus is reported to have been the bride in a wedding to his male partner. Other mature men at his court had husbands, or said they had husbands in imitation of the emperor. Although the sources are in general hostile, Dio Cassius implies that Nero’s stage performances were regarded as more scandalous than his marriages to men.
The earliest reference in Latin literature to a marriage between males occurs in the Philippics of Cicero, who insulted Mark Antony for being promiscuous in his youth until Curio “established you in a fixed and stable marriage (matrimonium), as if he had given you a stola”, the traditional garment of a married woman. Although Cicero’s sexual implications are clear, the point of the passage is to cast Antony in the submissive role in the relationship and to impugn his manhood in various ways; there is no reason to think that actual marriage rites were performed.
Roman law addressed the rape of a male citizen as early as the 2nd century BC, when it was ruled that even a man who was “disreputable and questionable” (famosus, related to infamis, and suspiciosus) had the same right as other free men not to have his body subjected to forced sex. The Lex Julia de vi publica, recorded in the early 3rd century AD but probably dating from the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, defined rape as forced sex against “boy, woman, or anyone”; the rapist was subject to execution, a rare penalty in Roman law. Men who had been raped were exempt from the loss of legal or social standing suffered by those who submitted their bodies to use for the pleasure of others; a male prostitute or entertainer was infamis and excluded from the legal protections extended to citizens in good standing. As a matter of law, a slave could not be raped; he was considered property and not legally a person. The slave’s owner, however, could prosecute the rapist for property damage.
Fears of mass rape following a military defeat extended equally to male and female potential victims. According to the jurist Pomponius, “whatever man has been raped by the force of robbers or the enemy in wartime” ought to bear no stigma.
The threat of one man to subject another to anal or oral rape (irrumatio) is a theme of invective poetry, most notably in Catullus’s notorious Carmen 16, and was a form of masculine braggadocio. Rape was one of the traditional punishments inflicted on a male adulterer by the wronged husband, though perhaps more in revenge fantasy than in practice.
In a collection of twelve anecdotes dealing with assaults on chastity, the historian Valerius Maximus features male victims in equal number to female. In a “mock trial” case described by the elder Seneca, an adulescens (a man young enough not to have begun his formal career) was gang-raped by ten of his peers; although the case is hypothetical, Seneca assumes that the law permitted the successful prosecution of the rapists.
Another hypothetical case imagines the extremity to which a rape victim might be driven: the freeborn male (ingenuus) who was raped commits suicide. The Romans considered the rape of an ingenuus to be among the worst crimes that could be committed, along with parricide, the rape of a female virgin, and robbing a temple
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