casta nec antiquis cedens Laevina Sabinis
et quamvis tetrico tristior ipsa viro
dum modo Lucrino, modo se permittit Averno,
et dum Baianis saepe fovetur aquis,
incidit in flammas; iuvenemque secuta relicto
coniuge Penelope venit abit Helene.
“Laevina is chaste, is more decent than
the Sabine matrons of old,
is more uptight than her upright husband.
Still, while dipping into the Lucrine lagoon,
and now into the Avernian lake,
and now often indulging herself in the waters at Baiae,
she takes a fall into flames of fire:
she’s off after a young guy and abandons her yokemate —
a Penelope she arrived, she left a Helen.”
By all measures, the greatest Roman epigrammatist, Martial (c. 40 – c. 104 CE), poured forth a Tiber of topical poems intended to toy with the glitterati of his day and taunt them with their peccadillos and transgressions, not exactly like a People magazine or The National Inquirer, but not exactly unlike either one either. Baiae, located on the Bay of Naples near the other watering holes mentioned in the poem, was a kind of combo of Club Med and Cap d’Antibes where the better sets went to be naughty with each other and escape the malarial humidity of the Roman summer.
This particular poetic effort about one Laevina is of general cultural interest as revealing a paradigmatic assumption about the narrow rôles available to non-slave women in antiquity. Either they were a Penelope or a Helen, that is, a domesticated spouse or a public slut. There really wasn’t much room for variation in the gaping interstices between these two extremes. From the real world, the liberated examples of Pericles’ Aspasia or Socrates’ Diotima (whether or not she was fictitious is here irrelevant – as a type she was obviously believable) in the Athens of the fifth century BCE, or the sophisticated Sempronia in the Rome of the first century BCE mentioned by Sallust (de coniuratione Catalinae 25), are anomalous precisely for their rarity; and from the world of myth, female characters like a Clytemnestra or a Medea who finally say to men, in effect, “enough is enough” and take matters decisively and terrifyingly into their own hands, become shuddering models of malfunctioning womanhood. As a woman, it was hard to win.
Both Penelope and Helen are of course prominent in Homeric poetry, and thus haunt the beginnings of Western literature as exemplars of the right kind of woman and the wrong kind of woman. Penelope, the dutiful wife, stays at home for 20 years raising a kid and chastely fighting off ardent lechers while Odysseus spends 10 years fighting at Troy and the another 10 fighting his way back to Penelope through cloyingly beautiful women. Helen, in turn, ran off with (or was abducted by) Paris when he came calling from Troy; in any event, she left her husband Menelaus and was thus the immediate casus belli. It was really all her fault.
Martial’s Laevina, then, plugs right into a constricted tradition about women that was even then (the poem was published probably around 85 CE) over a thousand years old. This procrustean view of women would not have seemed unreasonable to a Roman male of Martial’s day. indeed, Laevina’s dour husband probably thought Martial quite lenient. Had the poet elected to dramatize an expanded version of Laevina’s fateful fall into the flames of lust, as he did with others, she might have been turned into a fussy hooker like Thais (4.84, 6.93) or, worse, a horny butch groupie like the swaggering Philaenis (7.67, 7.70). These two women were, admittedly, Greek, as their names demonstrate, and Roman prejudice toward Greeks being what it was, one did not need to be too scandalized at their deliciously shocking penchants. The former liked to do unmentionable things to guys, and the latter, whose name in Greek suggests ‘monstrous lover’, liked to do chicks (puellas) unspeakably. Being compared to a relatively unkinked and illustrious Greek tramp like Helen would have seemed mild in comparison.
There is a point here in addition to commentary on the pernicious obduracy of culturally embedded stereotypes of women, and that is a pernicious stereotype of antiquity itself.
For antiquity was not just about the heady ontological constructs of philosophical idealists like the Greek Plato or the lofty political moralizing of Roman nationalists like Cicero, but as much about the tacky and the frivolous, about furtive sex straight and furtive sex not so straight. The ancient Greek and Latin languages each have a lexicon rich not only in the refined vocabulary of philosophy and law and poetry, but also in the metaphorically inventive terminology of scatology, of sexual parts and of positional practices.
Being human, in this too they were not unlike us.