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Unmanly men and the flexible meaning of kinaidos in Classical antiquity

Unmanly men and the flexible meaning of kinaidos in Classical antiquity

The kinaidos (cinaedus in Latin) was the homosexual “bogeyman” of Greco-Roman literature: a man so willing to be sexually penetrated by other men that scholars think he was perhaps just an imaginary figure. Reading more broadly, however, we can see that men bearing this identity marker did exist in antiquity. Financial records, letters, and even a dedicatory message on a temple wall complicate our understanding of this ancient sexual and social deviant.

In fourth-century BCE Athens, the orator Demosthenes is labelled a kinaidos in the courtroom by his opponent in order to besmirch his masculinity and accuse him of shameless conduct. In the Gorgias, Plato cites the “life of the kinadoi” as being the prime example of hedonistic living. Roman authors are more detailed as to what exactly makes the cinaedus’ behaviour so wretched: Catullus, Martial, and Juvenal all portray cinaedi as desiring sexual penetration by other men and often as displaying extreme effeminacy.

The word “cinaedus” also occurs frequently in insulting graffiti on the walls of Pompeii. Appearing more than 30 times, it is often accompanied by the name of the specific individual it mocks. On occasion a little more information is provided. For instance, a graffito uncovered recently reads: NICIA CINAEDE CACATOR. Nicia, or Nicias, is a personal name, that it is Greek suggests it may have belonged to an enslaved person who had subsequently been manumitted. A cacator is a person who defecates. Therefore, this slur, “Nicias, a cinaedus and a crapper,” bluntly attacks an individual as being filthy in his social, sexual, and digestive behaviour.

Painting of a dog with the inscription NICIA CINAEDE CACATOR above it.
(Via pompeiisites.org)

Yet if we turn to Egypt during Ptolemaic and Roman rule, the word kinaidos is used in very different contexts and so takes on a rather different meaning. Instead of being used as a negative slur, the term appears in several financial documents as a way of identifying particular individuals. A pot sherd and a papyrus survive in which kinaidoi are recorded as paying tax contributions. More interesting, however, are the documents in which payment is made to kinaidoi and which demonstrate that they provided some form of valued service. Since their appearance in these documents is accompanied by mention of pipe players it can also be inferred that they were hired to provide some kind of entertainment be that song, dance, or some combination of the two.

The notion of the kinaidos as a specific kind of performer is corroborated elsewhere. The Roman poets Martial and Juvenal specifically associate this individual with a particular form of dance in which the cinaedus wiggles his buttocks salaciously. He is also connected with a particular kind of poetic speech that is noted by the ancients for its racy rhythms and is employed for parodic, and sometimes pornographic, content. However, in a letter to a friend complaining about such tawdry entertainment, Pliny the Younger states that such performances (though not to everybody’s taste) ought to be tolerated at other people’s parties. He writes that although “in no way does it please me if something effeminate is performed by a cinaedus”. . . “let us pardon the amusements of others so we may obtain the same pardon for our own” (9.17).

Frustratingly, all of these mentions are examples where the term kinaidos is applied externally. Only two examples of men self-identifying as kinaidoi exist in the ancient record. As with the financial documents mentioned above, this evidence comes from Egypt: at the temple of Isis at Philae located at the southern-most edge of the Roman world. In around 5 CE two kinaidoi left their names in messages scratched amongst countless others left by pilgrims to the site. Their words read: “Tryphon son of the same, the god’s kinaidos I came to Isis of Philae,”“Strouthion the kinaidos I came with Nikolaos” (I.Philae II 154–5). The names of these two individuals are also quite telling. Tryphon derives from the Greek word, tryphē, meaning “daintiness” and Strouthion from strouthos which can mean either sparrow or ostrich. Such names certainly give an impression that their bearers could have been somewhat effeminate or extravagant.

If Greco-Roman authors single out the kinaidos as a bad example of masculine behaviour across a spread of centuries, this does not necessarily provide a complete picture. As noted, graffiti from Pompei corroborate this term as being negative and carrying with it a sense of shame. However, by reading around our extant sources, another type of figure comes into view: one who pays taxes and therefore sits officially within a fiscal framework; one who is renumerated (and most likely valued) for his appearance alongside pipe players in performance settings; and finally one who exhibits a sense of pride in completing his pilgrimage to the temple of the extremely popular goddess Isis in the early years of the Roman empire. 

Feature image: Isis temple from lake, Philae Island, Egypt, by Rémih from Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 1.0

Recent Comments

  1. Rod Fleming

    This is a great article. The phenomenon of the kinaedos is disregarded by most historians, yet it is crucial to understanding similar expressions extant today, eg the kathoey of Thailand, baklas of the Philippines etc (there are far too many to list here). So than you. I’m going to comment on this article in a post and link back here, it deserves to be seen.

  2. DMc

    Hi, you need a content warning on this hot one :-)
    It would be nice to have a link to the Isis of Philae. I was very lucky to visit this amazing temple and the Nile.
    (I think you have a typo in sherd and mean shard or shred?)

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