Sexual Slander and Ancient Invective

There are perhaps few characters in Roman history as devious, greedy, and full of lust as Antony and Cleopatra, if we believe the representations of them found in ancient history and biography. Following the battle of Ac-tium, Cassius Dio tells us, Cleopatra tricked Antony into taking his own life. Antony chose to enslave himself to her in life, and he remained her slave in death, demonstrating his servile nature (douloprepeia), even at the end (Cass. Dio 51.10—11, 15.2). Cleopatra, Cassius Dio concludes, had an insatiable appetite for pleasure and material wealth, an appetite that led, ultimately, to both her and Antony's demise (51.15.4). According to Plutarch, Cleopatra disarmed Antony and made sport of him (Demetr. .3; Antony 10.3; 25.1—28.1). From the perspective of many ancient authors, therefore, "Marcus Antonius was not merely a ruffian and a gladiator, a drunkard and a debauchee—he was effeminate and a coward"1 and Cleopatra was "the Egyptian whore, a drunkard, and the mistress of eunuchs."2 These representations have left their mark. According to Paul Zanker, Antony must have been utterly captivated by the infamous and beautiful Cleopatra, for how else could he have behaved like an "Oriental" instead of a "soldierly Roman"? "Antony had become totally corrupt, godless, and soft and was bewitched by Cleopatra. What else could explain why a Roman general would award conquered territory to the children of an Egyptian queen and even put in his will that he wanted to be buried in Alexandria beside Cleopatra?"3 In the tradition of ancient biographers and historians before him, Zanker concluded that Antony was truly "a victim of the decadence and debauchery of the East."4

Whether or not Antony was a victim of decadence and debauchery, especially of the "Eastern" type, is for others to decide. Yet, it is worth noticing that the charges lodged against him by some modern and many ancient historians—decadence and debauchery—are standard fare in Roman political discourse. Cicero had accused Catiline of similar crimes:

What mark of family scandal is there not branded upon your life? What deplorable episode in your personal affairs does not help form your reputation? What lust has never shone in your eyes, what crime has never stained your hands, what shameful deed has never fouled your entire body?

Catiline's private life was so monstrous, his disgrace so complete, Cicero argues, that it scarcely needs to be mentioned, though Cicero spent a great deal of time doing so. What is one to make of all this? Shall we assume that Catiline was a degenerate, Antony a reprobate, and Cleopatra a conniving seductress?

Catherine Edwards has argued that the vilification of Antony must be placed in the context of the Roman invective tradition.6 References to proper "morality" were offered to support claims of legitimacy in the competitive rivalries between elites.7 Accusations of corrupt morals were intended to delegitimize these claims. The period between the assassination of Caesar and the battle of Actium was marked by relentless denunciations of Octavian by Antony and Antony by Octavian. Both were accused of adultery, bribery, and luxury. Similarly, in the war of words between Cicero and Piso, Cicero was also accused of indulging in the very things of which he so vociferously accused Piso.8 Allegations of moral turpitude made by rival Roman nobles against one another can be read as part of a long rhetorical tradition. Ancient Greek rhetorical theorists emphasized the importance of morality to orators, especially the knowledge of the virtues and their opposites.9 Roman rhetorical theorists acknowledged their debt to Greece in this regard, though they did endeavor to differentiate themselves from the Greek tradition.10 During the Roman period, economic and political crises were represented as crises of morality.11 The virtues were personified, worshiped, celebrated on coins, listed on inscriptions honoring the exemplary virtue of famous Romans from the past.12 Historians explained historical events "not in terms of social and economic forces but almost entirely in terms of the moral attributes of the characters involved."13 Cicero assumed that evaluations of character are standard subjects in history (De or. 2.63). Suetonius assessed each Caesar by means of a "minute examination of his record in certain areas of moral behavior."14 The effects of these competitions in virtue and vice were felt not only in the small circle of the Roman senatorial class, but beyond: "All Romans and non-Romans living within the Empire's borders ... were eventually exposed to the dissemination of the virtutes Romanae, even if only through the odd coin or family epitaph."15 It is perhaps naive, therefore, to take at face value the lurid representations offered of Cleopatra, Antony, and others.16 Nevertheless, these depictions do indicate something about what was considered "good" or "bad" behavior.

This chapter illustrates the importance of claims regarding virtue and vice to the discourse of the imperial period. Sexual slander, ancient and contemporary, is tied to power relations and to knowledge production. Assigning meaning to words, in this case words signaling virtue or vice, is a power-laden process, a site of conflict and contention within which the dynamics of power relations are negotiated. This was no less true for Greeks and Romans than for Christians. Literate Christians, those under consideration here, shared a great deal with other literate people in the ancient Mediterranean world.17 They were trained in similar rhetorical techniques, informed by popular philosophical arguments, at least to some degree, and exposed to the same coins, inscriptions, legal pronouncements, building projects, and statuary as their neighbors. When Christians employed charges of sexual licentiousness to define themselves over and against others, they relied upon a long-standing discursive strategy that would have been familiar to everyone. Since definitions of sexual impropriety shift, it becomes important to explore the content and significance of these charges, both for Christians and those whom they attacked, to delve into the ancient fascination with virtue and its opposites in order to better situate Christian discourses discussed in later chapters.

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