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Putting the Roman Back into Romance: The Subversive Case of the Anonymous Teleny

Ingleheart, Jennifer

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The Introduction to this volume outlines the frequent demonization of Roman homosexuality as lewd and basely sensual in tandem with the valorization of ‘Greek love’ as noble and sexless in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the period in which a recognisably ‘modern’ homosexual identity is usually agreed to have begun to take shape. However, in contrast with such public apologetic attempts to disown or censure the frankly physical aspect of Roman homosexuality, it was possible in more ʽprivateʼ contexts to embrace Rome and thereby challenge the sanitized version of homosexuality (both contemporary and ancient) found in other writings of the period. This chapter explores a non-canonical text of the late Victorian age which subverts contemporary responses to sex in antiquity: the anonymous pornographic novel Teleny (1893). This text suggests that ‘Greek love’ can hardly be separated from sex; moreover, it turns the contemporary condemnation of Rome on its head by using Roman (rather than Greek) models to portray a loving, long-term relationship between adult males. Significantly, it does not depict a Greek-style erastes/ eromenos relationship, the configuration in which male desire usually appears in the period. Furthermore, Teleny demonstrates a detailed knowledge of Roman discourse on sex and sexuality, and it uses this to challenge Roman ideas and ideals of masculine behaviour. My conclusion briefly explores a modern gay novel which perceptively responds to Teleny's reception of Roman homosexuality, Alan Hollinghurst's justly acclaimed 1988 debut, The Swimming-Pool Library. Like much of Hollinghurst's work, this novel is deeply concerned with gay history and gay histories, and it riffs on Teleny and its portrait of gay men who look back to ancient Rome to see images of their own desires. It thereby effectively dramatizes the difficulties that face the would-be interpreter of Roman homosexuality, and emphasizes the inscrutability of ancient desires for modern audiences


Ingleheart, J. (2015). Putting the Roman Back into Romance: The Subversive Case of the Anonymous Teleny. In J. Ingleheart (Ed.), Ancient Rome and the construction of modern homosexual identities (144-160). Oxford University Press

Acceptance Date Nov 18, 2014
Publication Date May 1, 2015
Deposit Date Oct 15, 2015
Publicly Available Date May 1, 2017
Publisher Oxford University Press
Pages 144-160
Series Title Classical presences
Book Title Ancient Rome and the construction of modern homosexual identities.
Publisher URL


Accepted Book Chapter (244 Kb)

Copyright Statement
This is a draft of a chapter that was accepted for publication by Oxford University Press in the book <br /> 'Ancient Rome and the construction of modern homosexual identities' edited Jennifer Ingleheart in 2015.

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