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No ancient concept of homosexuality, Classics prof says

November 22nd, 2010 Posted in Arts and Life

By Satenik Sargsyan

LOGAN—Women living on the Greek island of Lesbos were Lesbians—just as women who live in Logan are Loganites. Julius Caesar was a greedy, power-seeking aristocrat undeterred by any obstacle, including same-sex relationships, in his rise to the top. On the other hand, Alexander the Great’s lack of romance still makes historians question his sexuality.

Classics professor Mark Damen of the USU History Department discussed these and other questions on the topic of homosexuality in ancient times with USU students at a meeting of L.I.F.E., a campus gay-straight alliance group, Tuesday evening.

The energetic conversation between Damen and the predominantly LGBT audience bounced back and forth, with a number of frequently-asked questions, such as “Was Caesar gay?” and whether homosexuality was viewed as shameful or wrong in ancient times.

“We can only read the literature and interpret things,” Damen said. “We can’t talk to Sappho herself, and there are no YouTube videos.”

While ancient historians didn’t have a word for “homosexuality,” there are numerous accounts of same-sex behavior in Biblical times, which did not always determine one’s sexuality but rather depended on the context of the relationship.

“Julius Caesar was a greedy, bloodthirsty aristocrat, and if he saw his way up through someone’s bed, he didn’t hesitate,” Damen said.

However, while same-sex relationships didn’t necessarily indicate one’s sexuality, the lack of romance with the opposite sex in the lives of the most prominent figures leaves historians wondering about their sexual preferences, Damen said.

Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) and Virgil (70-19 BCE) never married, and historians have no accounts of romance in their lives, he said. In an era when conquerors could have all the women in the world, having sex with numerous women was seen as nothing extraordinary.  So it is curious that Alexander left no heirs, Damen said.

“Big Al conquered the world and did not impregnate a single woman?” Damen mused. “How gay is that?”

“Now if we want to argue that sexual orientation is something that existed in the ancient world, Big Al is as close as you are going to get to that evidence.”

Damen’s dynamic responses, his excited march from one side of the room to the other and his sometimes outrageous statements took the audience some getting used to.

USU’s gay-straight alliance also hosted Damen last year. Club president Athena Dupont said she always enjoys Damen’s lectures, yet she was amused by the audience’s initial response to Damen’s shocking statements.

“As a classics minor, I am in his classes, and since he presented last year as well, I am a little more used to his method of lecturing,” Dupont said.

“Those who are not are always startled to hear him use phrases like, ‘It’s OK if you’re on top’ or, ‘He can stick it wherever’ without so much as a pause,” Dupont said.

One member of the audience, Marco Bodini, said he wasn’t concerned with the language.

“I didn’t care about the terminology he used,” he said. “It was funny, and you could tell he doesn’t mean it in an offensive way.

“To me, he was obviously making fun of the stereotypes and stigmas.”


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