three pairs of lovers with space



De Viris Illustribus (Lives of Illustrious Men) is a putative work, some of it lost, which treated of Romans who were eminent in the field of literature, apparently written by the Roman historian C. SuetoniusTranquillus as his earliest work, between AD 106 and 113.

The two extracts presented here, the only ones to mention Greek love, both come from the section “De Poetis” (“On Poets”), and survive only in the writings of the 4th-century grammarian Aelius Donatus.

The translation is by J. C. Rolfe in the Loeb Classical Library volumes 38 (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1914), with three amendments explained in footnotes.


The Life of Terence

Publius Terentius Afer (184/3-159/8 BC)[1] was a Roman playwright of Carthaginian origin. The biography of him from which the following extract is taken survived as Commentary on Terence by Donatus, who attested to Suetonius’s authorship of it.

Publius Terentius Afer, born at Carthage, was the slave at Rome of Terentius Lucanus, a senator, who because of his[2] talent and good looks not only gave him a liberal education, but soon set him free. […] He lived on intimate terms with many[3] of high rank, in particular with Scipio Africanus and Gaius Laelius. It is even thought that he won their favour[4] by his youthful beauty, but Fenestella denies this too, maintaining that he was older than either of them.[5] Nepos, however, writes that they were all three of an age, and Porcius rouses a suspicion of too great intimacy in the following words:

“Though he courted the wantonness of great men and their counterfeit praise, though with greedy ears he drank in the divine voice of Africanus, though he thought it fine to frequent the tables of Philus and Laelius, though he was often taken to the Alban villa because of his youthful charms, he later found himself stripped of his all and reduced to utmost want.”

Terence, probably copied from a 3rd century original (Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868)

[I] Publius Terentius Afer, Karthagine natus, serviit Romae Terentio Lucano senatori, a quo ob ingenium et formam non institutus modo liberaliter sed et mature manumissus est. […] Hic cum multis nobilibus familiariter vixit, sed maxime cum Scipione Africano et C. Laelio. Quibus etiam corporis gratia conciliatus existimatur, quod et ipsum Fenestella arguit, contendens utroque maiorem natu fuisse, quamvis et Nepos aequales omnes fuisse tradat et Porcius suspicionem de consuetudine per haec faciat:

“Dum lasciviam nobilium et laudes fucosas petit, Dum Africani vocem divinam inhiat avidis auribus, Dum ad Philum se cenitare et Laelium pulchrum putat, Dum in Albanum crebro rapitur ob florem aetatis suae: Post sublatis rebus ad summam inopiam redactus est.”

Vergil (1st century AD bust in the Parco della Grotta di Prosillipo, Naples)


The Life of Vergil

Publius Vergilius Maro (70-19 BC) was one of the greatest Roman poets. The life of him here quoted from here has also survived as a work of Donatus, but is by “experts unhesitatingly identified as almost wholly Suetonius’.”[6]

He was especially given to passions for boys, and his special favourites were Cebes and Alexander, whom he calls Alexis in the second poem of his “Bucolics.” This boy was given him by Asinius Pollio,[7] and both his favourites had some education, while Cebes was even a poet. It is common report that he also had an intrigue with Plotia Hieria. But Asconius Pedianus declares that she herself used to say afterwards, when she was getting old, that Virgil was invited by Varius to associate with her, but obstinately refused. Certain it is that for the rest of his life he was so modest in speech and thought, that at Naples he was commonly called “Parthenias,”[8] [IX] libidinis in pueros pronioris, quorum maxime dilexit Cebetem et Alexandrum, quem secunda “Bucolicorum” ecloga Alexim appellat, donatum sibi ab Asinio Pollione, utrumque non ineruditum, Cebetem vero et poetam. [X] Vulgatum est consuesse eum et cum Plotia Hieria. Sed Asconius Pedianus adfirmat, ipsam postea maiorem natu narrare solitam, [XI] invitatum quidem a Vario ad communionem sui, verum pertinacissime recusasse. Cetera sane vitae et ore et animo tam probum constat, ut Neapoli Parthenias vulgo appellatus sit,
Vergil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, ca. 1791


[1] Suetonius says (V) he died in his 25th year in the consulship of Dolabella and Nobilior, ie. 159-8 BC.

[2] Rolfe here interpolates “young man’s” into his translation instead of “his”, but not only is there no justification of it in the Latin, but it is contradicted by Suetonius who implies that this was before he produced his first play for the consular games of C. Sulpicius Gallus in March 166 BC, so he must have been at 17 at the very most when Terentius Lucanus set him free.

[3] Rolfe translates “multis nobilibus” as “many men of high rank”, but not only is there nothing in the Latin to justify the interpolation of “men”, but it is actually contradicted by Suetonius, who later on (IV) says Scipio and Laelius were still “adulescentuli”.

[4] Rolfe similarly interpolates “of these two men” here instead of “their”: again, not only is there nothing in the Latin to justify the interpolation of “men”, but it is actually contradicted by Suetonius, who later on (IV) says Scipio and Laelius were still “adulescentuli”.

[5] Note the implications for the general character of Roman homosexuality that for this author the consideration that Terence was older than Scipio or Laelius was enough to rule out the possibility of an erotic entanglement with them.

[6] J. C. Rolfe, the translator, in his Prefatory Note, p. 374. There is, however, an expanded version with content that is thought really to be the work of Aelius Donatus.

[7] Vergil’s love of Alexis is mentioned in five of Martial’s epigrams (written between AD 86 and 103): V 16, VI 68, VII 29 and VIII 55. In the last of these, Alexis is said to have been given to Vergil, not by Pollio, but by Maecenas, and to have inspired his genius. “That most beautiful of youths used to stand at his master's feasts, pouring the dark Falernian with hand white as marble, and to present him the cup just sipped with his rosy lips; lips which might have attracted the admiration of Jupiter himself.” Juvenal, Satires VII 69-71 put it more sarcastically: “If Virgil had lacked a slave-boy and decent lodgings, All the snakes would have slid from the Fury’s hair, There’d have been no fierce blast from her war-trumpet.”

[8] The last sentence is included to show how neither a strong inclination towards boys nor a single alleged extra-marital affair with a woman was incompatible with a reputation for sexual moderation.