three pairs of lovers with space

THE HIDDEN EROTIC MEANING OF ONE OF STRATON’S POEMS

 

Straton of Sardis was, probably in the early second century AD, the Greek who put together the Mousa Paidike Μουσα Παιδικη, meaning The Boyish Muse, an anthology of Greek love poems, and was himself the author of ninety-eight epigrams on the subject. Most were fairly straightforward in their meaning, but sometimes he used double-entendre and their sexual meaning can easily be lost in translation.

One of those where the meaning can be hidden even to those understanding the Greek is number 252 in The Boyish Muse, which W. R. Paton translated as:

I will burn thee, door, with the torch; and burning him who is within, too, in my drunken fury, I will straight depart a fugitive, and sailing over the purple Adriatic, shall, in my wanderings, at least lie in ambush at doors that open at night.[1]

Its sexual meaning was unravelled by the classical literature professor Paul Murgatroyd in the following article, “Strato A. P. 12,252”, published in Hermes, 113. Band, Heft 2 (2nd Quarter, 1985), pp. 253-255.

 

Strato A. P. 12, 252

Ἐμπρήσω σε, θύρη, τῇ λαμπάδι, καὶ τὸν ἔνοικον
     συμφλέξας μεθύων, εὐθὺς ἄπειμι φυγάς,
καὶ πλώσας Ἀδριανὸν ἐπ᾿ οἴνοπα πόντον, ἀλήτης
     φωλήσω γε θύραις νυκτὸς ἀνοιγομέναις.

Although a purely literal interpretation of A.P. 12,252 does provide sense, it leaves the epigram a not particularly pointed exercise in a pointed form and something of a disappointment from the normally ingenious Strato. However, very frequently the poet's words possess (hitherto unnoticed) connotations, most of which are well-established in erotic puns, and their presence here seems deliberate since they all go together well, forming a quite ambitious combination and making for a clever and witty poem in line with Strato's penchant for risqué verbal play[2].

Man and unwilling youth at a symposium (Fresco on a Greek tomb, ca. 480 BC, Paestum, Italy)

Beneath the epigram's surface meaning there are latent suggestions which amount fundamentally to a threat to get drunk and rape the addressee and then leave him for other boys who do grant sexual favours. With regard to the first couplet, the use of θύρα and similar words to denote the anus (specifically its entrance) was common[3], and so too words connected with burning were often applied to the penis and its effect in sexual intercourse[4]; by a natural extension the penis so employed might be referred to as a torch[5], so that Ἐμπρήσω σε, θύρη, τῇ λαμπάδι implies sodomy. The burning metaphor recurs in συμφλέξας, and by a somewhat strained but intelligible progression if the opening of the anus is called a θύρη then the part of the body that resides within beyond that entrance could be described as τὸν ἔνοικον; accordingly τὸν ἔνοικον / συμφλέξας suggests a deep (and presumably painful) penetration by the poet's penis, “burning” the insides as well as the anus' opening[6].

In the second couplet the door image re-appears in θύραις, with the addition of νυκτὸς ἀνοιγομέναις, and since “to open the door” in Greek was commonly used of granting access to the penis[7], Strato's phrase would seem to allude to boys who allow their lovers to have anal intercourse with them of a night (unlike the addressee). The verb φωλήσω fits well with this interpretation, and in addition its literal meaning is to lurk in a hole, cave or den, and as in English so in Greek words for holes of various types were applied to the anus[8]; there may also be in ἀλήτης a related pun, on ἀλέω (cf. English “grind” of sexual intercourse)[9]. The phrase πλώσας Ἀδριανὸν ἐπ᾿ οἴνοπα πόντον is more problematical. It may denote an actual voyage, although one rather wonders why Strato should feel the need to flee quite so far away. It may also constitute another piece of imagery. In that case the idea could be that the poet will go elsewhere or rove more widely in his search for boys, perhaps specifically that he will go looking for Italian boys as well as or instead of Greek ones[10]. But a definitely sexual reference would be more consistent with the word play elsewhere in this epigram, and there is one possibility in this connection that is both witty and novel: since in Greek people copulating were often said to be “sailing”[11], and since the Adriatic was synonymous with storms[12], the phrase could well be intended to conjure up a picture of Strato tossing about wildly, like a ship in a storm, while engaging in vigorous pedicatio[13], and the Homeric epithet οἴνοπα (not to mention the humour of employing it at all in such a context) may be meant to suggest epic storms and so particularly violent agitation.

 

University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg                                             P. MURGATROYD

 

[1] W. R. Paton in The Greek Anthology, Volume IV: Loeb Classical Library Vol. LXXXV (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1918).

[2] For sexual double entendre in Strato see especially Maxwell-Stuart, Hermes 100 (1972), 215-240 and 103 (1975), 379-382 (although I do not agree with all his suggestions and interpretations). [Author’s footnote]

[3] See Henderson, The Maculate Muse (New Haven and London 1975), 199, 202 and Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (London 1982), 89; cf. also (of the female pudenda) Henderson Op. Cit. 137 f. For the address to the anus cf. Rhianus A. P. 12,38. [Author’s footnote]

[4] See Henderson, The Maculate Muse (New Haven and London 1975), 48. 143. 177f. and (of pedicatio) Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (London 1982), 114. [Author’s footnote]

[5] Various phallic-shaped objects were used to signify the penis (see Henderson, The Maculate Muse (New Haven and London 1975),  120ff.; Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (London 1982), 14ff.). See in particular Aristophanes Lys. 306ff., where there are similar sexual connotations in the attack by the men armed with burning logs on the gates closed by the women (cf. Henderson op.cit. 48. 137). [Author’s footnote]

[6] This application of  τὸν ἔνοικον seems to be Strato's own invention. For a similar architectural image in Strato see A. P. 12,223 (ὀπισθόδομος). For such penetration in pedicatio cf. e. g. Priapea 6. 25. [Author’s footnote]

[7] See e. g. Aristophanes Vesp. 768; Lys. 250; Eccl. 962 (and Henderson, The Maculate Muse (New Haven and London 1975), 137), and cf. (of the anus) Catullus 15, 18. [Author’s footnote]

[8] See especially Strato A. P. 11,22, and cf. also (of the vagina too) Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (London 1982), 85 f. and Henderson, The Maculate Muse (New Haven and London 1975), 139ff. [Author’s footnote]

[9] See Headlam and Cunningham on Herondas 2,20; Gow on Theoc. Id. 4,58, Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (London 1982), 152f. [Author’s footnote]

[10] For a similar use of the figure see Meleager A. P. 12,157,4: παμφύλῳ παίδων νήχομαι ἐν πελάγει. For the “sea of love” generally see Nisbet and Hubbard on Horace C. 1,5,16. [Author’s footnote]

[11] See Henderson, The Maculate Muse (New Haven and London 1975), 161 ff.; Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (London 1982), 167. [Author’s footnote]

[12] Cf. e. g. Nisbet and Hubbard on Horace C. 1,3,15 and 1,16,4. For the use of a named sea see Meleager A. P. 12,157,4 and cf. Ovid Rem. 739f. [Author’s footnote]

[13] For a person engaging in intercourse described as so tossing about cf. Dioscorides A. P. 5,54,4: τῆς μὲν ἐρεσσομένης, σοῦ δὲ σαλευομένου and 5,55,6 ἀμφισαλευομένης. [Author’s footnote]

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