Historical figures from ancient Greece and Rome have played a vital part in the construction of modern queer identities, via both identification and difference.1 The politics of sexuality has in turn influenced both the study of such figures and their representation in creative and scholarly works. As Scott Bravmann (1997, 4) puts it, “The importance of history to gay men and lesbians goes beyond the lessons to be learned from the events of the past to include the meanings generated through retellings of those events and the agency those meanings carry in the present.” Such meanings are the focus of this special issue of Helios, which results from a panel sponsored by the Lambda Classical Caucus for the 2007 meeting of the American Philological Association in San Diego. The panel was originally conceived in the wake of the controversies surrounding Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie Alexander, which brought such matters into a larger and more public arena. The film broke new ground in its representation of an openly gay heroic protagonist in a big-budget Hollywood movie, thereby prompting threatened lawsuits from the self-appointed custodians of Hellenic history; yet it proved insufficiently gay for the admirers of Alexander the Fabulous.2 When the film was lambasted by critics and left audiences cold, Stone blamed its failure on its frankness about Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion, and responded by re-editing the film (repeatedly).
Inspired by this controversy, the Lambda APA panelists were invited to focus on recent appropriations and exploitations of iconically gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered figures from ancient Greek and Roman history. Panelists examined the reception—by queers and others—of five such figures, ranging from Sappho to Elagabalus via Plato, Alexander, and Antinous, asking how these characters’ queerness has been represented, or suppressed, in diverse media; how such figures have been used to construct, celebrate, and/or deny contemporary queer identities; how these constructions have played back into scholarship and/or popular ‘historical’ or fictional representations; how individual representations have [End Page 113] been shaped by their particular medium, cultural and historical moment, marketplace, or audience. The revised papers are arranged here in chronological order of the receiving text (as opposed to the historical order of the ancient iconic figures in question). They thus provide a series of glimpses into the history of the use of ancient history from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth-first century, that is, from the richly significant period in which homosexuality was ‘invented’ up to our own time.3 As such, they attest powerfully to sexual minorities’ “overwhelming desire to feel historical,” a desire that, Christopher Nealon argues, supports the “ethnic” or “tribal” sense of lesbian and gay identity that became increasingly dominant in the course of the twentieth century (2001, 4–8).
Of the historical figures who make an appearance in this volume, the emperor Hadrian made his love-object, Antinous, iconic in the most literal fashion, by littering the ancient Mediterranean world with statues of his idealized beloved. The fascination exercised by the sculpted Antinous is the subject of the first paper, “Sculpting Antinous,” by Bryan Burns. Burns shows how eagerly biographers, poets, playwrights, novelists, and scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries accepted the emperor’s implied invitation to immortalize his beloved as an iconic object of unattainable desire, sculpting and re-sculpting him for each new generation. That process has recently taken a new turn thanks to the resources of the internet, which have allowed Antinous’s admirers to recreate him yet again as a divinity for the twentieth-first century.4
The second paper, by Jody Valentine, “Lesbians Are from Lesbos: Sappho and Identity Construction in The Ladder,” looks at the use of Sappho and her fictional companion Bilitis in a Lesbian periodical published from 1956 to 1970. When it comes to queer women from the ancient world, Sappho has been overwhelmingly dominant in the historical imagination of lesbians and the larger public alike. This reflects the paucity of queer foremothers in our ancient sources, which is in turn reflected in this volume, where Sappho is far outnumbered by her male counterparts. Yet despite this singularity, her...