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  • Interpretation and Authenticity of the Lucianic Erotes
  • James Jope (bio)


In Greek literature under the Roman Empire, a number of works debated the merits of women versus boys as objects of desire (Fleury 2007, 776). The Erotes contains such a debate between two characters named Charicles and Callicratidas, framed within a discussion between two others named Lycinus and Theomnestus. This dialogue has come to us among Lucian's works, where Lycinus would, at least initially, represent the authorial persona, and Lycinus in this work does seem to have that role. However, the Erotes, regarded as inauthentic, was neglected through most of the twentieth century until Michel Foucault (1984) examined it as a document for the history of sexuality. Following Foucault, David M. Halperin (1992) argued that even though Charicles pursues only women and Callicratidas only boys, the argument is about not heterosexuality versus homosexuality, but a difference of taste. 1 To trivialize the ancient debate as a question of taste or, at the other extreme, to denounce the Erotes as simply a defense of pederasty involves a loss of historical perspective. In Charicles' discourse, the issue of same- versus opposite-sex relations does assume serious importance, but the modern obsession over 'intergenerational' sex is strikingly absent in the ancient debate.

It is true that Callicratidas and Charicles both assume bisexual attraction. Indeed, Charicles, who represents the 'heterosexual' preference, condemns same-sex relations as overindulgence in pleasure; similarly, Plutarch (Erotikos 766E), who also championed women, felt obliged to assert that women are just as desirable as boys. Still, Charicles wishes to ban all same-sex relations, regardless of age. The only mention of age in the Erotes occurs when he asserts the conventional Greek view that adult males are no longer desirable. Callicratidas envisions man-boy romances as evolving into equal relationships lasting to old age—a less conventional vision that, however, is also evidenced by, e.g., Plato's Symposium and the early Stoic view of eros (love/desire) leading to philia (love/friendship).

Whereas Foucault and Halperin were concerned more with sexuality [End Page 103] than with a literary interpretation of the Erotes, Simon Goldhill (1995, 102-11) and Michael Klabunde (2001) compared the debate here with women versus boys arguments in Plutarch and Achilles Tatius. While this comparative method is a logical approach to the highly mimetic literature of the Second Sophistic, a full appreciation of the Erotes has actually been impaired by the habitual desire to contextualize it within that debate without first understanding its internal dynamics.

Plutarch's Erotikos was an innovative essay, a major station in an apparent shift of Greek sexual interest from boys to women in the imperial age; and the Erotes too certainly was a response to that shift. However, the Erotes does not advance the philosophical debate—Lycinus and Theomnestus share conventional values, and the position that is ultimately affirmed is traditional. Rather, the Erotes is a sophisticated literary composition that must be understood rhetorically and dramatically as well as philosophically. In the present paper I begin with a closer reading of the Erotes in order to isolate what is unique about this work, which turns out to be remarkably Lucianic in content and values. Then I will demonstrate its authenticity by reexamining the key issue of its style.


As stated above, the debate here is not a philosophical dialogue, it is an amusingly formal rhetorical contest—amusing because it is held in private, as a kind of duel to settle a grudge. Both speakers have some rhetorical background, 2 and they each have one turn to speak. When Lycinus is obliged to pick a winner, he assesses their rhetorical skill, and even credits them for covering all of the topical arguments (50)—which would hardly distinguish them philosophically. Lycinus congratulates Charicles for his brave defense of what Lycinus considers the weaker case (52), praise that a philosopher would not appreciate. Callicratidas goes so far as to blame Charicles for making their argument far more serious by unexpectedly "philosophizing" (31). Evidently it was not the purpose of the Erotes to advance the philosophical debate. But neither does Lycinus take the rhetorical contest seriously. The two speakers are not seeking...


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