Carry on loving, the Roman way

Ancient mores met modern times at a conference exploring 'Romosexuality'. Matthew Reisz writes

April 19, 2012



Credit: Alamy
Forum play: did gay sex in the Eternal City deserve its infamous reputation?


Ancient drag queens, Carry On Cleo, early advocates for gay rights, even the strange figure of the gallus - "the self-castrated eunuch often depicted as a dancing, frenzied transvestite" - all came up for discussion at a conference in Durham earlier this week entitled Romosexuality: The Reception of Rome and the Construction of Western Homosexual Identities.

While we sometimes think of ancient Greek sexuality in high-minded, "Platonic" terms, the "reputation of Rome is rather filthy. The sex is much more upfront," said Jennifer Ingleheart, the conference's organiser and lecturer in Classics at Durham University. That has led to a long-standing contrast between "Greek virtue" and "Roman vice".

Dr Ingleheart's own paper explored how the "early gay apologists and activists" who forged a "modern homosexual identity" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries "used Hellenism to give a legitimating aura to their own desires", while they "simultaneously either censored or censured Roman examples of homosexual acts because of their perceived obscenity".

Yet, although many people have studied such "strategic deployment of Greek models" by later homosexuals, Dr Ingleheart argued that the equally important impact of Rome has been largely neglected. Her paper went on to examine the case of Teleny, an anonymous gay pornographic novel of 1893, in which Rome is seen as "an example of a society in which the pleasures of sex, and in particular of a huge phallus, are celebrated".

Jenny Grove, studying for a PhD at the University of Exeter, examined the career of the American collector and same-sex activist Edward Perry Warren (1860-1928).

In his autobiography, she said, he described how "he saw his first crushes as having 'the features of a Greek statue' and being aroused by looking at nude statues". He went on to amass hundreds of Roman antiquities, including several explicit images of men engaged in anal sex, and presented them to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Other speakers considered the clash between accuracy and sensationalism in depictions of Rome in film and on television, and the continuing "cult" of Antinous, the beautiful beloved of the Emperor Hadrian, "as an online, global phenomenon and its role of choice for gay and bisexual men in an increasingly secular society".

Also up for debate was the history of classical scholarship itself, which has often been characterised by prudery and homophobia - as well as the occasional "extremely graphic discussion" of topics such as lesbian oral sex.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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