Review of S. Sara Monoson’s Citizen as Erastes: Erotic Imagery and the Idea of Reciprocity in the Periclean Funeral Oration by Jason Maas

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Jason Maas: Review of S. Sara Monoson’s Citizen as Erastes: Erotic Imagery and the Idea of Reciprocity in the Periclean Funeral Oration in Political Theory, Vol 22, No. 2 (may, 1994), pp. 253-276

S. Sara Monoson’s Citizen as Erastes is an impressive work that manages to cover the complex subjects of Greek democracy and sexuality with both depth and clarity. Having used this piece to teach courses on sexuality as well as in classics courses covering philosophy and governance, I can attest to its usefulness for the novice and the specialist throughout numerous disciplines.

Monoson begins by explaining that the metaphor of the citizen as erastes used by Pericles via Thucydides’ record of the funeral oration was no mere rhetorical flourish. Rather, the metaphor served as a core component of Pericles’ speech and his views on democracy. Monoson points out that, in urging Athenians to view their city as a lover views his beloved, as a man views his loved boy, Pericles was using an image that would be undeniably potent and immediately understood by his audience, as she says “not only to be dramatic, but to be precise.”

Monoson then goes into precise detail about the nature of the erastes-eromenos relationships that Pericles was invoking. She is refreshingly frank in dealing with a subject that has often been the target of censorship and obfuscation. Indeed, she specifically indicts translators who have Pericles speaking only about “love” when, as Monoson reminds us, he was talking about something that has clear sexual, erotic components. She explains the term erastes refers “to a complex web of attitudes an individual may feel toward the object of his eros – affection as well as physical desire.”

On one hand, the idea of the erastes codes an active dominance, a virile pursuer. Pericles was toasting citizens for their manliness with his metaphor. On the other hand, the image suggests restraint. As comely as the eromenos / polis may be, as much as the citizen is smitten by the beauty of boys or a polis as beautiful as a boy, it is also the expectation that the citizen /suitor is the master of his ardor. As Monoson quotes Pericles’ combination of exhortation and admonition, “We are lovers of beauty without extravagance, and of wisdom without softness.”

In explaining the ideal forms of these affairs between Athenian citizens and free-born boys, Monoson clings altogether too firmly to the strictly hierarchical views proffered by those like Dover and Halperin, and she quotes Winkler who describes these relationships as a “zero-sum game” between clear “winners and losers.” Like them, Monoson constructs erastai as strictly active, penetrating, dominant tops, and eromenoi only as demure, passive recipients. This piece does date from 1994, however, before some of the more recent criticisms by Hubbard, Hupperts, Davidson, and DeVries (among others) of the so-called “frigid eromenoi” thesis, to use DeVries’ term. This completely mono-directional rendering has clear implications for a political balance that both Monoson and Pericles continually remind us should be mutual.

Monoson devotes the next portion of her work to this question of reciprocity between erastes and eromenos, between Athenian and Athens, in an attempt to reconcile this paradox. She insists that, in order for the speech to perform its intended purpose of lauding both citizen and city, Pericles must avoid any suggestion of submissiveness that the comparison between Athens and eromenoi would seem to suggest. Monoson argues that it was the idealization and ritualizing of pederasty that relived the junior member from the shame that such a subservient position would otherwise have entailed. Despite the fact that there was a clear asymmetry, there were also clear expectations, duties, and roles that each party to the bond was expected to fulfill and that ennobled both despite the imbalance involved.

This is the portion where I find Monoson’s argument most contradictory and ironically least convincing of one aspect of her argument, yet more convincing of another aspect. Having first insisted that pederastic relationships are characterized by total dominance of one person over another, Monoson now goes on to elucidate just how mutual such relationships could be. She claims that it was the courtship formalities involved in the affairs that ultimately established a kind of reciprocity. Thus she claims that the “ideal relationship between erastes and eromenos was not simply a transient erotic encounter. The two parties were expected to develop long-term bonds of mutual affection and special responsibility…” She goes on to inform us that the “interaction between erastes and eromenos is represented in literature and iconography…as a reciprocal game of mutual exchange where both parties are imagined together to create bonds of mutual affection that lead, ultimately, to the bonds of friendship and camaraderie on which the community of citizens is based.” Monoson also states that vase painting “confirms that the Athenians of the fifth century did not represent the personal relationship between an erastes and eromenos as one of dominance and subordination but, rather, as one of mutuality.”

It is with such admissions that we begin to guess the dominance of the erastes, the “yielding” of Dover’s eromenos, and the asymmetry ascribed to pederastic relationships may not be native to them but are rather the products of later interpolation. The credit Monoson gives Pericles for masterfully resolving what seems to be a paradox is really owed to her for attempting to resolve a paradox that it the result of those like Dover, Halperin, and Monoson herself, not Pericles.

This is not to say that erastes-eromenos relations were completely mutual. As scholars of sexuality like Gert Hekma point out, asymmetry is likely a feature of all relationships – sexual and non-sexual, romantic and not. Even more complicated is the fact that privilege and power differentials often may not be so clear cut and one sided. Partners can each bring their own set of privileges to the table (or the bed) that balance, compensate, and compete with each other. Thus, who has more or less power is frequently a dynamic, contextual, dialogical question. I think this is likely how relationships between adult citizens and free-born future citizens functioned, despite the claims of strict hierarchical asymmetry of Dover et al. and the initial claims of Monoson herself. Indeed, her own subsequent arguments attest to just such dynamic, but ultimately mutual, affairs.

Monoson is entirely correct that Pericles’ speech is a masterpiece. While not the first nor only treatise on democracy, and not even the only one to use sexual, erotic imagery, it posited a relationship between Athenian and Athens (and among Athenians) that was mutual, not beset by questions of citizen versus city. And it implied romantic relationships premised on a similar mutuality, not conquest. Monoson’s own thesis is even more correct than she herself allows when she allows for other relational possibilities besides those of Dover et al. And Pericles’ metaphor is even more elegant, inspired, and inspiring when we relieve ourselves of its supposed paradox by dispensing with the strictly hierarchical renderings of later interpreters and allow for the reciprocity between lovers and citizens that Pericles proclaimed.

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