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Soranus (2nd C. CE): On Pathic Men

[as in Latin trans. by Caelius Aurelianus]


This text, reflecting medical opinion, is multiply interesting. First, in contrast to other sources, it supposes that pathic men are unknown to some readers - which calls into question just how commonly they were seen. This contrast with the common occurrence of such men in literary sources. Second, while Soranus is not talking about all homosexually active men (he does not present "active" desire as a disease), his assertion that adult "passive" men, and of women who have sex with women, as having a "disease" of the soul, and that, their "affliction" may be inherited, is strikingly at odds with some modern writers' beliefs that "sexual identity" was not an a issue in Greece and Roman constructions of sexuality. To be specific, Soranus notes the following:

  • Desire for passive sex is a disease of the soul.
  • It cannot be cured.
  • It may be hereditary
  • This diseases afflicts both men and women

Now, this is not the same as "modern" conceptions of homosexuality because it does not include men who penetrate, but it is sufficiently close to discussions over the past hundred years to suggest that the more extreme claims of authors like Foucault, Halperin, and Weeks are to be taken with caution. Amy Richlin's article in the cinaedi in the Journal of Sexuality [see bibliography on main page] is recommended.

People find it hard to believe that effeminate men or pathics [Greek malthacoe] really exist. The fact is that, though practices of such persons are unnatural to huamn beings, lust overcomes modesty and puts to shameful use parts intended for other functions. That is, in the case of certain individuals, there is no limit to their desire and no hope of satisfying it; and they cannot be content with their own lot, the lot which divine providence had marked out for them in assigning definite functions to the parts of the body. They even adopt the dress, walk and other characteristics of women. Now this condition is different from a bodily disease; it is rather an affliction of a diseased min. Indeed, often out of passion an in rare cases out of respect for certain persons to whom they are beholden, these pathics suddenly change their character and for a while try to give proof of their virility. But since they are not aware of their limitations, they are again the victims of excesses, subjecting their virility to too great a strain and consequently involving themselves in worse vices. And it is our opinion that these persons suffer no impairment of sensations. For, as Soranus says, this affliction comes from a corrupt and debased mind. Indeed, the victims of this malady may be compared to be the women who are called tribades because they pursue both kinds of love. These women are more eager to lie with women than with men: in fact they pursue women with almost masculine jealousy, and when they are freed of temporarily relieved of their passion…They rush, as if victims of continual intoxication, to new forms of lust, and sustained by this disgraceful mode of life, they rejoice in the abuse of their sexual powers.

Soranus goes on to discuss possible treatments. He held that no bodily treatment could be applied to a "disease" of the mind, and quoted Parmenides to the effect that people were born with this "disease". Others, he said, held that people were born with the "disease" and that individuals should not be blamed. He noted that, unlike other hereditary diseases, this one became stronger as the body grew older causing an ever increasing lust. This was because in the:-

..years when the body is still strong and can perform the normal functions of love, the sexual desire of these persons assumes a dual aspect, in which the soul is excited sometimes by playing a passive role and sometimes by playing an active role. But in the case of old men who have lost all their virile powers, all their sexual desire is turned in the opposite direction and consequently exerts a stronger demand for the feminine role in love. In fact many infer that this is the reason why boys too are victims of this affliction. For, like old men, they do not possess virile powers, that is, they have not yet attained the powers which have already deserted the aged.

From, Caelius Aurelianus, On Acute Diseases and On Chronic Disease, IV, 9, 131-137
trans. in. Vern L. Bullough, Sexual Variance in Society and History, (Chicago: 1975), 143-144