Camping It Up in Ancient Rome: A Queer Take on Catullus 16

rome  imperial statue of...
rome imperial statue of...

Once upon a time, I was sitting around a Fordham University seminar table in a graduate class on the Roman satirist Juvenal, who lived and wrote in the second century A.D. The professor, an adorable grandfatherly man named Harry Evans, was trying to pin some slackers like me down to an oral presentation on one of Juvenal's 16 satires. Only a few of the poems were not already spoken for by other students, and we had not yet read them all, so Prof. Evans ran through his little stack of index cards, telling us what was left: Satire 15, about cannibalism in Egypt (okay, not bad). Satire 8, about noble pedigrees (retch).

And then he said, "Satire 9, about a male prostitute who has sex with his patron and his patron's wife and fathers their two children."

"Stop!" I called out. "That's the one. I'm doing my report on Satire 9."

That oral presentation led to a term paper, which led to my dissertation and to my obsession with an idea that has proved very controversial in academia: the ancient Romans, it turns out, invented camp.

Surprised? Well, the Romans gave us aqueducts and concrete. Why not acid wit, incongruous humor, over-the-top theatricality, and drag queens?

In this post, I'm not going to give you my whole spiel on Juvenal 9, a 150-line poem that spawned a 350-page dissertation. Perhaps another day. Instead, I want to talk about a 14-line poem by Catullus, a Roman poet who lived in the first century B.C. (Hmm, could the Romans have invented the sonnet, too? Stay tuned.)

Catullus' poems have numbers, not names. This one is called "Poem 16," and it goes something like this (the translation is by me):

I will butt-fuck you and skull-fuck you,

Aurelius, you pussy-boy, and Furius, you cocksucker!

Both of you think I'm not man enough

because my little poems are a little soft.

But while a decent poet should be manly,

his bits of verse need not be manly at all.

In fact, poems are witty and charming

if they're a little soft and a bit shameful,

and can get a rise, well, not out of boys perhaps,

but these hairy men who can barely get it up.

Because you read about my "many thousands of kisses,"

you think I'm not a real man?

I will butt-fuck you and skull-fuck you!

The technical literary term for this torrent of ridicule and verbal abuse is "invective," but I prefer to call it a shady day in Rome and the library is wide open!

Now, since I started arguing for the Roman invention of camp at academic conferences in 2009, I've received some support, but more pushback. A generation of classics scholars staked their careers on the idea that this sort of ridicule was deadly serious and was all the proof we needed that every homophobic bone in our modern social body could be traced back to ancient Rome. These folks don't take kindly to my claim that Catullus, more than simply being ironic, is a kind of proto-queer figure. Others insist that I cannot use the 20th-century term "camp" to describe a type of poetry and a social milieu found in ancient Rome. Like so many gay voices today, my critics claim, I'm just hell-bent on "seeing us in them," of finding evidence for gayness wherever I look in history. Both of these sins fall under the general charge of "presentism," applying modern categories inappropriately to the past. But now I'm on The Huffington Post, not at an academic conference. You make the rules around here. So read on and tell me what you think.

Camp has been defined in various ways, but my favorite definition is the one suggested by sociologist Esther Newton in her 1972 book Mother Camp, a study of female impersonators in America. Newton argues that camp is a kind of performance, whether onstage or in everyday life, that embraces the stigma of homosexual identity by calling attention to incongruous juxtapositions in a way that is both theatrical and humorous. By incongruous juxtapositions, she means any pairing of things that don't seem to go together: a beauty in love with a beast, an old woman living in a shoe, or a man wearing a dress. She argues that by fully embracing the stigmatized identity, camp can "neutralize the sting and make it laughable." She continues:

Not all references to the stigma are campy, however. Only if it is pointed out as a joke is it camp, although there is no requirement that the jokes be gentle or friendly. A lot of camping is extremely hostile; it is almost always sarcastic. But its intent is humorous as well.

Hostile, sarcastic humor about men acting like women is precisely what Catullus' Poem 16 is all about. In the poem, Catullus is pissed off at his friends, Aurelius and Furius, because they say his sissy poems prove that he's a sissy. Catullus does not mention a specific lover here, but any Roman reader would know that Catullus pleads for "many thousands of kisses" from both his girlfriend Lesbia (in Poems 5 and 7) and from his boyfriend Juventius (in Poem 48). Moreover, in Poem 99, Catullus "steals" a single kiss from Juventius, who proceeds to wash his lips clean, a gesture that Catullus interprets as a devastating rejection.

You may wonder what is so "unmanly" about asking your girlfriend or boyfriend for kisses, even for thousands of them. Keep in mind that manliness for the Romans meant dominance -- sexual dominance above all. The Romans were fine with a man having sex with another man, as long as he stayed on top. In modern terms (which of course I'm not supposed to use when talking about ancient Rome), being a gay male top was fine, but being a gay male bottom was not. In contemporary grindr-ese: masc for masc, no fems, no btms (sorry, nothing personal, just a cultural imperative).

Wow, things have really changed a lot in 2000 years, haven't they?

The way I read this poem, Catullus is making fun of exactly that kind of hypermasculine Roman sexual morality. His friends say he's a sissy because he writes sissy poems. To prove them wrong, he's going to skull-fuck them and butt-fuck them. On the one hand, Catullus is challenging the traditional Roman assumption that submission is unmanly: he can assume a submissive role or a dominant role as he pleases -- his manliness is independent of his society's rigid sex and gender roles. On the other hand, he's reminding us that masculinity is only skin-deep: even if he skull-fucks and butt-fucks Aurelius and Furius, he's still the same Catullus who begged Lesbia and Juventius for kisses. It's the same type of camp irony we see these days on grindr, where guys sprinkle their profiles with quips like, "Tell me how masculine you are while my dick is in your mouth."

There's another way in which Poem 16 is camp: the way Catullus pretends to buy into moral standards that he actually rejects. In defending himself against the charges of being effeminate, he does not go all "We're here, we're queer, get used to it" on us. Instead, he deflects. He says he can be manly while still writing unmanly poems, and that unmanly poems are witty and charming. He's no sissy, he's just pretending to be one for the entertainment value. Wink wink. Does Catullus really accept traditional Roman standards of masculinity? Which is the "real" Catullus, the manly Catullus who only writes mushy love poems to give hard-ons to hairy old men, or the sissy Catullus who begs Lesbia and Juventius for kisses? The fact is, we don't know for sure which is real and which is pretend, and that's precisely how camp works. Camp is all about insider audiences and outsider audiences. In the 1960s, drag queens were called "female impersonators" to make straight audiences feel more comfortable. They could believe that once the man in the dress went home, he was a "normal man," just like them. Meanwhile, the camp audience members knew that after the show, the drag queen was going to the nearest gay bar to cruise some trade. Catullus is wielding that same kind of double-edged sword.

For years, gay readers have been told that we should despise this kind of poetry because it devalues us and has historically contributed to our stigmatization and marginalization. And yet, much of this poetry can be great fun if we approach it as camp frivolity rather than earnest homophobic ridicule. What's more, reading these poems in this spirit makes a lot of sense: how morally serious do we really think Catullus can be when he goes around threatening to sexually assault friends who question his manhood? If gay readers approach this poetry as camp, we are reclaiming it for ourselves, making it a part of our history, and re-inscribing ourselves into a part of the Western literary tradition from which we have long been excluded.

Note: A very different version of this essay previously appeared in the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide.