Inevitably, when the Romans encountered Greek civilization they encountered Greek homosexuality. Here, in particular, the two cultures diverged. The Greeks were able to conceive of love between an older and a younger male as a protective and affectionate mentorship, while the Romans, generally speaking, did not accord this privileged status to male relationships. There was no taboo of silence such as developed under Christianity—the Romans were quite willing to acknowledge the prevalence of same-sex desire. Indeed, the earliest Latin literature treats it quite openly. The swaggering hero of Plautus’s comedy The Braggart Soldier (c. 200 bce) has an eye for handsome young men as well as women, and numerous casual references to male homosexuality appear in Plautus’ other plays. But male love was not, as with the Greeks, a theme for philosophical or forensic panegyrics. It did not have the same high cultural import and was not regarded as the root of deep, inspiring personal devotion.
On the contrary, homosexual relations were perceived primarily as a form of dominance, an extension of the will to power. We see this in early Roman comedy, where the same-sex intrigues are not between men and freeborn youths but exclusively between masters and slaves. The Greeks deprecated such servile liaisons as ungentlemanly, but these relationships were the only ones that Roman society accepted unreservedly. Since the slave population of Italy increased dramatically in the late third and second centuries bce—some authorities calculate that slaves made up as much as 40 percent of the population—opportunities were ample for Roman masters. By 200 bce Cato the censor was to complain that a good-looking slave boy cost as much as a farm. The spread of slavery had a paradoxical effect, preventing any general prohibition against male homosexuality per se from taking root but casting a special stigma on the passive partner and preventing Romans from idealizing male passion as the Greeks had.
For the Romans, homosexual relations were not in themselves good or bad. But to submit to penetration was to be feminized and humiliated. Such an experience, if it became public knowledge, invited reproach and ridicule from a man’s enemies. The analogy between military and sexual defeat was strongly felt. A striking instance was the teasing of Rome’s greatest general at his triumph, when Caesar’s soldiers sang mockingly of his youthful affair with the king of Bithynia: “Caesar conquered the Gauls, but Nicomedes conquered Caesar.”
In Greece, to be the beloved protégé of a respected ruler was an honor. In Rome, it was an embarrassment and an occasion for ribald humor. The amorous-sexual vocabularies of the two languages reveal the distinction. In the line just quoted, the same verb, subigere, “to subjugate,” signifies both the public and the private “conquest.” Greek usage incorporated some form of the root eros (love) into such words as paiderastia, erastes, eromenos. Roman men did not embrace lovers (amantes) but rather pathici, cinaedi, exoleti— terms suggestive of passivity, degradation, and abuse. No cultural heroes exemplified male love in Rome, as Achilles did in Greece, the Yellow Emperor in China, and an exalted bodhisattva in Japan. What homoerotic myths the Romans knew were borrowed from Greece.
Indeed, if we look for the first records of homosexuality in Roman history, we find them not in legends but in Valerius Maximus’s Memorable Facts and Sayings, a handbook compiled about 30 ce for rhetoricians and orators. Book VI recounts a dozen notorious offenses against “chastity,” half of them homosexual and involving military or civil officials who abused their rank to coerce subordinates. Family honor might also be at stake: Fabius Maximus Servilianus (126 bce) is said to have killed his son for his complacence to men and then voluntarily exiled himself for shame at this dishonor. The earliest anecdote, dating from 326 bce, is perhaps the most revealing. Livy tells the story at length as an important development in Roman jurisprudence. A freeborn boy enslaved for debt had been beaten by his master when he rejected his advances. The populace, hearing his cries and seeing his lacerated back, objected to these indignities. What is significant, however, was the Senate’s response. They did not pass a law to protect slaves from assault; instead, it was decreed that freeborn Romans could no longer be enslaved for debt. Faced with a choice between limiting sexual access to slaves or limiting slavery, the Romans chose to limit slavery.
Valerius Maximus’ cases were handled by administrative or paternal action with no reference to any specific law against homosexuality. Such a measure has been assumed to exist in the so-called Lex Scantinia. Our knowledge of this statute is, however, fragmentary and uncertain; its date, scope, and rele- vance have all been called into doubt. It has been suggested that it was en- acted in 226 bce, when a Roman tribune, C. Scantinius Capitolinus, was convicted of soliciting another aristocrat’s son. But Roman laws were named not after offenders but after the men who proposed them. The first known mention of the Scantinian Law appears in 50 bce in two letters to Cicero, but the context provides no hint of what it dealt with. The Emperor Domitian (81–96 ce) invoked it in a campaign to enforce sexual morality, but again exactly what it punished is not clear.10 The only text in the pre- Christian period to connect the law definitely with homosexual behavior is Juvenal’s second satire, c. 100 ce, where it seems to be understood as penalizing cinaedi, that is, passive males. Writing shortly before this, Quintilian, in his Institutes, tells us that a fine of 10,000 sesterces ($2,000?) was the penalty for seducing a freeborn boy.12 Most authorities think he is referring to the Scantinian Law, but the matter remains unclear.
Nevertheless, sex with freeborn boys was certainly frowned on in Roman society, along with adultery and the seduction of virgin daughters, all of which violated the honor of the paterfamilias. An orator named Haterius, pleading in the courts in the Augustan age, put the matter succinctly: “Losing one’s virtue is a disgrace [crimen] for a freeborn boy, a necessity in a slave, and a duty [owed to his emanicipator] for the freedman.”13 (In Rome emancipation was a civil and religious procedure by which the freed slave might still be required to render certain services, including, on occasion, sexual ones, to his former master.) But though sex with freeborn boys was disapproved, it was not seen as degrading. The “conqueror” was regarded with the ambivalent mixture of censure and envy successful Don Juans have met with in most societies.
Bill Moyers: What do you make of it - that in these two stories the principal actors point to someone else as the initiator of the Fall?
Joseph Campbell: Yes, but it turns out to be the snake. In both of these stories the snake is the symbol of life throwing off the past and continuing to live.
Bill Moyers: Why?
Joseph Campbell: The power of life causes the snake to shed its skin, just as the moon sheds its shadow. The serpent sheds its skin to be born again, as the moon its shadow to be born again. They are equivalent symbols. Sometimes the serpent is represented as a circle eating its own tail. That’s an image of life. Life sheds one generation after another, to be born again. The serpent represents immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again. There is something tremendously terrifying about life when you look at it that way. And so the serpent carries in itself the sense of both the fascination and the terror of life.
Furthermore, the serpent represents the primary function of life, mainly eating. Life consists in eating other creatures. You don’t think about that very much when you make a nice-looking meal. But what you’re doing is eating something that was recently alive. And when you look at the beauty of nature, and you see the birds picking around — they’re eating things. You see the cows grazing, they’re eating things. The serpent is a traveling alimentary canal, that’s about all it is. And it gives you that primary sense of shock, of life in its most primal quality. There is no arguing with that animal at all. Life lives by killing and eating itself, casting off death and being reborn, like the moon. This is one of the mysteries that these symbolic, paradoxical forms try to represent.
Now the snake in most cultures is given a positive interpretation. In India, even the most poisonous snake, the cobra, is a sacred animal, and the mythological Serpent King is the next thing to the Buddha. The serpent represents the power of life engaged in the field of time, and of death, yet eternally alive. The world is but its shadow — the falling skin.
The serpent was revered in the American Indian traditions, too. The serpent was thought of as a very important power to be made friends with. Go down to the pueblos, for example, and watch the snake dance of the Hopi, where they take the snakes in their mouths and make friends with them and then send them back to the hills. The snakes are sent back to carry the human message to the hills, just as they have brought the message of the hills to the humans. The interplay of man and nature is illustrated in this relationship with the serpent. A serpent flows like water and so is watery, but its tongue continually flashes fire. So you have the pair of opposites together in the serpent.
Bill Moyers: In the Christian story the serpent is the seducer.
Joseph Campbell: That amounts to a refusal to affirm life. In the biblical tradition we have inherited, life is corrupt, and every natural impulse is sinful unless it has been circumcised or baptized. The serpent was the one who brought sin into the world. And the woman was the one who handed the apple to man. This identification of the woman with sin, of the serpent with sin, and thus of life with sin, is the twist that has been given to the whole story in the biblical myth and doctrine of the Fall.
Bill Moyers: Does the idea of woman as sinner appear in other mythologies?
Joseph Campbell: No, I don’t know of it elsewhere. The closest thing to it would be perhaps Pandora with Pandora’s box, but that’s not sin, that’s just trouble. The idea in the biblical tradition of the Fall is that nature as we know it is corrupt, sex in itself is corrupt, and the female as the epitome of sex is a corrupter. Why was the knowledge of good and evil forbidden to Adam and Eve? Without that knowledge, we’d all be a bunch of babies still in Eden, without any participation in life. Woman brings life into the world. Eve is the mother of this temporal world. Formerly you had a dreamtime paradise there in the Garden of Eden — no time, no birth, no death — no life. The serpent, who dies and is resurrected, shedding its skin and renewing its life, is the lord of the central tree, where time and eternity come together. He is the primary god, actually, in the Garden of Eden. Yahweh, the one who walks there in the cool of the evening, is just a visitor. The Garden is the serpent’s place. It is an old, old story. We have Sumerian seals from as early as 3500 B.C. showing the serpent and the tree and the goddess, with the goddess giving the fruit of life to a visiting male. The old mythology of the goddess is right there.
Now, I saw a fantastic thing in a movie, years and years ago, of a Burmese snake priestess, who had to bring rain to her people by climbing up a mountain path, calling a king cobra from his den, and actually kissing him three times on the nose. There was the cobra, the giver of life, the giver of rain, as a divine positive figure, not a negative one.
Bill Moyers: But how do you explain the difference between that image and the image of the snake in Genesis?
Joseph Campbell: There is actually a historical explanation based on the coming of the Hebrews into Canaan and their subjugation of the people of Canaan. The principal divinity of the people of Canaan was the Goddess, and associated with the Goddess is the serpent. This is the symbol of the mystery of life. The male-god-oriented group rejected it. In other words, there is a historical rejection of the Mother Goddess implied in the story of the Garden of Eden.
Bill Moyers: It does seem that this story has done women a great disservice by casting Eve as responsible for the Fall. Why are women the ones held responsible for the downfall?
Joseph Campbell: They represent life. Man doesn’t enter life except by woman, and so it is woman who brings us into this world of pairs of opposites and suffering.
Bill Moyers: What is the myth of Adam and Eve trying to tell us about the pairs of opposites? What is the meaning?
Joseph Campbell: It started with the sin, you see — in other words, moving out of the mythological dreamtime zone of the Garden of Paradise, where there is no time, and where men and women don’t even know that they are different from each other. The two are just creatures. God and man are practically the same. God walks in the cool of the evening in the garden where they are. And then they eat the apple, the knowledge of the opposites.
And when they discover they are different, the man and woman cover their shame. You see, they had not thought of themselves as opposites. Male and female is one opposition. Another opposition is the human and God. Good and evil is a third opposition. The primary oppositions are the sexual and that between human beings and God. Then comes the idea of good and evil in the world. And so Adam and Eve have thrown themselves out of the Garden of Timeless Unity, you might say, just by that act of recognizing duality. To move out into the world, you have to act in terms of pairs of opposites.
There’s a Hindu image that shows a triangle, which is the Mother Goddess, and a dot in the center of the triangle, which is the energy of the transcendent entering the field of time. And then from this triangle there come pairs of triangles in all directions. Out of one comes two. All things in the field of time are pairs of opposites. So this is the shift of consciousness from the consciousness of identity to the consciousness of participation in duality. And then you are into the field of time.
Bill Moyers: Is the story trying to tell us that, prior to what happened in this Garden to destroy us, there was a unity of life?
Joseph Campbell: It’s a matter of planes of consciousness. It doesn’t have to do with anything that happened. There is the plane of consciousness where you can identify yourself with that which transcends pairs of opposites.
Bill Moyers: Which is?
Joseph Campbell: Unnameable. Unnameable. It is transcendent of all names.