Sunday, November 24, 2019

What's in a Name? Pueri & Puellae in Latin Love Poetry

TRIGGER WARNING: human trafficking, slavery, rape

Just like English speakers use the term "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" to describe romantic relationships between adults, the Romans used the term pueri [boys] and puellae [girls] for their romantic partners. Although the literal meaning for these terms is "boys / girls," most textual evidence supports that the Romans used these terms to refer to adult partners old enough to engage in sexual activity (e.g., cum puero ut bello bella puella cubet, Catullus 78.4; vir reliquis, uni sit puer mihi, Martial Epig. IV.42.14). The use of these terms, particularly puer, usually implies that the object of the lover's desire was still in their youthful bloom.

Despite the fact that both partners were of consenting age, there was nevertheless a massive power disparity between a puer and his amator in love poetry. Many pueri described in the passages of Catullus, Martial and other lyric poets are either well-trained slaves or courtesans, and the relationship would always be in the absolute control of the puer's wealthy noble-class patron.

Regardless of their gender, the career of a Roman courtesan was short, and it was necessary to stockpile wealth for the few short years that they remained beautiful to support themselves once their looks faded. A perfect example of this can be found in the poetry of Martial, who states

Femina praeferri potuit tibi nulla, Lycori:
praeferri Glycerae femina nulla potest.
Haec erit hoc quod tu: tu non potes esse quod haec est.
Tempora quod faciunt! Hanc volo, te volui (Epig. VI.40).

Lycoris, no woman *could* compare to you,
but no woman *can* compare to Glycera.
She will be what you are now, but you cannot be what she is.
Oh, what time does! I *want* her, but I *wanted* you.

Roman lyric poetry is full of references to courtesans past their prime. No longer beautiful, a woman courtesan would become the stereotypical caricature dipsa ["thirsty," i.e., an alcoholic; cf. Ovid, Amores I.8]; a man courtesan would become an exoletus, ["past-his-prime;" cf. Martial, Epig. XII.91].  Life was brutal and harsh for a out-of-date courtesan; unable to use their social connections or their skillsets, they had to find employment wherever they could, or become pimps to continue the brutal cycle of human trafficking.

Furthermore, although these relationships between a literary amator and his puer may have been full of caring, intimate moments, the terrible fact remains that the patrician nobleman [vir optimus] was always free to engage in any sexual activity with any of his slaves--man, woman, or child--regardless of their consent.  It is this terrible practice of slavery, coupled with the massive disparity of rights for women and non-citizens, that made living in the Roman Empire so dangerous for anyone not an elite patrician.