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  • The Boy as Metaphor:The Hermeneutics of Homoerotic Desire in Tibullus 1.9
  • Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos (bio)

This paper examines Tibullus 1.9, the closing poem of the Marathus cycle, in an attempt to depart from traditional interpretations of the elegiac puer as a real-life male beloved and establish the 'boy' as a distinct gender category in the genre, analogous to 'man' and 'woman.' The paper builds on Nikoloutsos 2007, which discussed Tibullus 1.4, the opening poem of the cycle. Challenging the autobiographical mode in which Tibullus's homoerotic poetry has commonly been analyzed, in that article I showed that the erotic discourse of 1.4 forges such a strong link between the theme of boy-love and the collection's central concerns (namely, elegiac composition, gender roles, economics, and the state) that any attempt to look into the poem for reliable information about same-sex practices in Roman antiquity is doomed to fail. Furthermore, I argued that in 1.4 Tibullus introduces a new strand in the collection, parallel to that about Delia and unique in the corpus of Augustan elegy. In this poetic strand, the puer is cast, like the puella in the heterosexual cycle, as a literary construct, a fictitious character with strong intertextual connections that serves as a vehicle through which the poet expresses his artistic and socio-moral ideology. Unlike a typical puer delicatus who is expected to be submissive, the puer that the god Priapus recommends in his erotodidactic speech in Tibullus 1.4 is demanding. He crosses gender and social boundaries and so defies binary categories, such as active/passive or elite/non-elite. As such, he highlights the precarious position of a man, such as the poet but also the reader/listener, in hierarchical spheres. Given the power asymmetries in both the private and the public domain, a man, as I argued, often can (or is forced to) play the role of the 'boy' (2007, 79).

This paper applies this theoretical model to poem 1.9; its aim is to contextualize further Tibullus's choice of the theme of pederasty and thus restore a neglected group of poems to visibility in contemporary scholarship on gender and sexuality in classical antiquity. I shall argue that far from being a flesh-and-blood boy, as he has traditionally been understood, 1 Marathus is a scriptus puer modeled in accordance with the [End Page 27] aesthetic principles of Latin elegy and the pressing social, moral, and political issues of a rather liminal period in Roman history. Published in late 27 or early 26 B.C.E., 2 Tibullus's book 1 was the product of a period during which Rome changed, after a series of civil wars, from Republic into an Empire under Augustus. Fashioned discursively, Marathus operates as a medium through which Tibullus achieves self-expression and communicates to his reader his goals and ambitions as a practitioner of elegy, as well as his concerns and anxieties as a male and citizen in post-civil war Rome.

Although the subordination of the beloved to the protocols of writing elegy is an issue already explored in connection with the puella by Maria Wyke (2002, 1-191) and other critics, 3 a separate study of the elegiac puer and his semiotic role in the genre is necessary for two reasons. First, it can shed more light upon elegy's engagement with the big ideological debates of its time. Second, it can help build intellectual bridges between feminist and queer classical scholarship. A dialogue between these two strands of scholarship, as this paper proposes, can enrich and at the same time complicate the theorization of the interconnection between power, sex, gender, class, economics, and poetic practice in late Republican and early Augustan Rome.

Triangulating the Pederastic Affair

I begin my analysis by focusing on the way the relation between amator and puer is portrayed in Tibullus 1.9. My goal in choosing to do so is to show that homoerotic desire is in intimate relation with power, a finding that can effect a smoother transition to the examination of the dynamics and asymmetries of amor puerilis as a poetic practice in the section 2 below...


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