Lesbia: a Construction of the Elite Male's Desire




a Roman frieze


The poems of Catullus which specifically refer to or address Lesbia are few: only eleven. Some of these poems reflect on the sexual relationship between lover and poet with subtly erotic language ("a thousand kisses"), in contrast with other poems of aggressive themes of penetration in which the most obscene and explicit language is used. His corpus spans their relationship from its inception to its end and also spans the variety of emotions felt by the speaker of the poem, from intoxicating love to anger and resentment. However, Lesbia is not the only lover within Catullus' work. There is also a boy names Juventus. Both names, Lesbia and Juventus, fall under what can be called categorizations of lovers of leisure and cultus, reflecting a life of luxury, specific to the private realm and the banquet, Hellenistic in source. Although Lesbia was thought to have truly existed and was actually a woman named Clodia, the victim of Cicero's diatribe in Pro Caelio,, no evidence can prove that Catullus himself did have an affair with her. The boy, Juventus, can also be considered a construction, because he falls under Greek epigram's stereotype of the desirable passive noble boy. Both Lesbia and Juventus represent desired passive partners of privileged love in Roman aristocratic ideology, under which Catullus wrote. Whether or not they were actually Catullus' lovers is irrelevant to understanding what types of sexual partners were preferred by aristocratic males in relationships outside of marriage. Lesbia and Juventus were epitomes of sexual desire. Therefore, to wonder who Lesbia was is to wonder who Juventus was, the latter a topic never approached in scholarly discourse. Lesbia is a fictional woman with traits taken from the married noble woman and the sexually loose freedwoman.

A hierarchical organization of sexual objects in antiquity was based on the social status of the passive partner, the basest being the slave, either a domestic or a prostitute, who by coercion, not by will, is subjected to sexual penetration. The concubine, also a slave, falls into the same category, but her life was less likely to involve violence since she was embedded into her master's familia, and was treated better. The roles of the concubine, prostitute, and courtesan, all represent different levels of a sexual social hierarchy. The slave has no rights and is always present in the house, visible and available to the master on a daily basis. The prostitute also has no rights and lives in the public realm of the brothel. Those who are not slaves, either freed or freeborn, are the next class, but the social structure of the free is also hierarchical. One could be freeborn but live the life of a slave in poverty, less suited to float among elite circles, such as farmers or urban menial workers. In contrast, one could be freed and, despite the status of former slave, comfortably partake in activities suited for the aristocracy because of previous close ties with one's patron and his milieu. A life of luxury requires a woman in close proximity to the lifestyles of the wealthy for desired sexual partners.

The freedwoman possessed characteristics of people of higher status and was therefore more suitable as a participant of an elite male's lifestyle. However, the stigma of being a former slave must have been crippling to the progress of status for the wealthy freedman or freedwoman behaving like an aristocrat. The freedwoman, as slave and as a freed slave, was not expected to adhere to the moral guidelines set for a freeborn woman and was the only ideal partner for elevated, but promiscuous and permitted sexual behavior. The next in the hierarchy was a woman from freeborn society, who as a type, was prohibited from sexual involvement outside of marriage. Sexual affairs with her would be immoral, unethical and illegal according to Julian Law (passed before Catullus' time). The matrona was idealized more as a wife than as a lover. Of course, literature attests to the promiscuity of noble women, an example being Clodia of Cicero's Pro Caelio. Evidently, the boundaries between the wealthy freedwoman lover and the libertine freeborn woman is never made clear. The term meretrix has been used to designate a woman either freed or freeborn, involved in numerous extramarital love affairs with men of high society. Catullus designed Lesbia to conform to both standards of desirability. She is a matron because she is married (poem 83) and is also of noble status, but she partakes in multiple extramarital sexual affairs (poem 72).

The object of the elite male's desire is a construction of parts. The qualities which make a woman sexually desirable are derived from features of matrona and lupa, conforming to the elite male's vision of sex and love. These two polarities which are also formed in visual art, are not reflections of reality, but are symbolic of the male gaze's tendency to categorize woman, "the other", into two governable entities. There is the idealized matron. Her behavior (her virtue symbolized by the image of spinning and weaving) and her appearance (her stola, her simple beauty) define her status as a non-sexual object. The roles which have been given to her by her husband confine her to the domestic sphere with her familia. She is idealized as faithful and devoted to her husband as his lifetime companion. Her sexuality must be suppressed by her fertility, which is her primary function. Sexual passion between a man and wife were not popularized themes. Roman morality's power over social hierarchies dictates the indispensability of these dichotomies, which act as exemplars to the Roman public. Patriarchal restrictions of sexual conduct are imposed on all citizens, especially on the upper-class woman. The matrona is what every woman should strive to be.

The basest of all women lack the virtues of the matron. She is ungovernable and base because she is purely sexual. Ideally, this woman is uncivilized, uneducated and should serve only to satisfy the insatiable libidos of Roman men. The female sexual object has no home. She belongs to the public realm, the brothel. Her fertility is not a redeeming quality. Her function is purely sexual and she is integral to society because of the male's hunger for sexual release. Her ungovernable nature necessitates aggression and brutal force. So that she is less threatening to the moral fiber of Rome, she could only be a slave, a prostitute. Horace's account of Cato implies these polarities when he differentiates the public, legitimate sex of the brothel from private, immoral, extra-marital sex with a domestic woman. The former is sexual, the latter domestic and fertile. Both types of women have been constructed to suit the ideal and the unreal.

Desire necessitates a figure which is situated in between the polarities of matron and prostitute, domestic and public, civilized and uncivilized. The elite male's erotic ideal is shaped by a life of luxury and leisure, a highly privatized aspect of life, separated from the public political realm of the Forum. Erotic desire requires an environment which allows the coexistence of two disparate worlds, where elements of the matrona, the domestic sphere, the cultured elite urban world intermingle with the vulgar features of the prostitute, the public sphere of the streets, and the rustic uncivilized plebeian world. The courtesan or meretrix is the chief ideal in the demi-monde of erotic desire. She is comprised of select qualities of the two realms, lingering in between the norms of utility and the vices of pleasure. Since she is a generalization, not a reality, the courtesan's exact role in the demi-monde is ill-defined and apparently limited. Latin love elegy has used this type of woman as chief actor in failed mock love affairs. She manifests herself in different forms and under a variety of guises. Catullus' Lydia is thought to be the first immortalized female lover, sexually promiscuous, yet still respectable.

Catullus' followers such as Horace and Ovid, who wrote love poetry, approached the ideal of the female lover rather differently. One could say that the corruption of Lesbia as a trope began when the Republic finally toppled and Rome became an empire. Perhaps the change of ideals brought on by the stability of the empire and the lack of military participation by noble Roman males changed the outlook on sex and love and the constructions became more illbred. Unlike Horace and Ovid, Catullus approaches his love for Lesbia as a lifelong commitment, even though he himself is not monogamous. Within his poetry, there are intimations of a deep faith and love which is usually characteristic to nuptial union. Here we see once again the mixture of marriage with a purely sexual relationship. In poetry after Catullus, the epitomes are portrayed more clearly as debased women, like Propertius' Cynthia. Even passionate love in Catullus is mixed with sexual desire. Lydia is the manifestation of a product of two worlds, the elite marriage and the elite sexual object.


To the main page
The Life of Catullus
Examples of Catullan poetry
The Life of Luxury
Power in Roman Relationships
A list of works cited