Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 334-337
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The Priapus Poems:
Erotic Epigrams from Ancient Rome
The Priapus Poems: Erotic Epigrams from Ancient Rome. Translated by Richard Hooper. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Pp. 147. $35.00 (cloth). $14.95 (paper).
Richard Hooper's recent translation of The Priapus Poems: Erotic Epigrams from Ancient Rome is refreshing, witty, and, in the words of Judith Hallett, "absolutely brilliant." Hooper has managed to capture the essence of the original poems, portraying the humor, social background, and sexual innuendos of the Latin. He has even managed to create rhyme schemes where no such scheme existed in the original, the mark of a truly creative classicist. The collection of poems, written by an unknown author or authors, consists of epigrams regarding the god Priapus, whose function in the Roman pantheon of gods was to protect both the house and gardens from thieves by punishing them with rape, using his incredibly large phallus. The Priapea (as the collection is called in Latin) is followed by several poems by known Latin authors that also mention Priapus. English translations are printed side by side with the original Latin. Hooper's commentary serves as an excellent reference, helping the nonspecialist understand innuendos in the poems and providing technical notes for the classicist. The work would be useful for those studying the history of sexuality, Greek and Roman history, and, of course, Latin. It should be noted that the poetry is graphic (in a modern sense) but entertaining and is sure to keep the open-minded student interested. While Hooper is aware of gender [End Page 334] issues in his analysis, some of the poems are misogynistic. This, unfortunately, is the reality of history, and thus the reality of the primary sources from which we study history.
The introductory essay has three major elements: (1) a description and assessment of the god Priapus, (2) a summary of ancient Greek and Roman sexual/social history, and (3) an overview of issues pertaining to the authorship, poetic format, and nature of the collection. Hooper provides an easy-to-understand, quick survey of ancient Mediterranean sexuality. He is careful to look at sexuality within a larger framework of society and to include women in his survey. I agree with Hooper's assessment that analysis of ancient sexuality "must go beyond the semantic game of redefining homosexual and bisexual" (p. 6).
Since Priapus is a male god, the poems focus on relations between men and boys or women and are written from a male point of view. The reader should be aware that women are treated as objects rather than subjects. This, of course, is a major problem in the study of ancient sexuality since modern analyses often echo the sources; however, Hooper does at least refer briefly to female homoeroticism.
Hooper theorizes that because ancient Greeks sequestered women, they created "social pressures" that gave rise to pederasty, but because the Romans "offered a less closed environment than Athens" for women, they did not foster it (p. 15). This is in contradiction to Eva Cantarella, who believes that pederasty became more acceptable in Rome during the late republic and the empire, though pederasts had been prosecuted in early Rome. 1 The exact nature of Roman law regarding pederasty is hard to pin down. Scholars have long argued over the infamous lex Scantinia, which purportedly outlawed passive homosexual behavior in freeborn Roman males, but not in male slaves. However, the wording, date, and enforcement of the law are all a controversial mystery; extant references to the law in literature are vague; and, in any event, Juvenal suggests that the law was not enforced in the second century a.d. (Satire 2.43-50).
Epigram 3 may not support Hooper's theory of Roman pederasty: "Cast about for what, though given freely, won't run out. Give to me now what you may later seek to give in vain, once fuzz invests your cheek . . ." (p. 48); nor do the extant stories, preserved by Suetonius and later...