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  • Lucian's Triumphant Cinaedus and Rogue Lovers
  • James Jope (bio)


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 have been 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 [End Page 55] 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, that is, 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...


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pp. 55-65
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