Alcibiades: A 17th Century Gay Novel

Alcibiades The Schoolboy is a book from the 1630s praising homosexuality and providing us with evidence that a self-aware gay identity existed long before the 19th century, when such a self-conscious identity is generally supposed to have been formed. Originally in Italian, the novel was finally translated and published into English in the year 2000.

Writer D.H. Mader says that Alcibiades is “the first clear expression of a homosexual identity and subculture in the modern West; and it is significant as a reminder of the cultural importance and heritage of age-structured homosexual relationships in European culture.” Love between men and youths has in fact been a feature of many cultures around the world, and was held in very high esteem in the philosophies of ancient Greece, which left Europe with a cultural legacy that men who loved men would draw on throughout the dark, homophobic Christian ages.

The earliest editions bore the attribution “D.P.A.,” which the reader was clearly supposed to expand into “di Pietro Aretino.” Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) was the bad boy of Renaissance culture… A true Renaissance man, he was a painter, art critic, poet, playwright, religious biographer, epistler, gossip monger, political satirist and pornographer… He rose to fame in the mid-1520’s with a series of lewd sonnets … Not just his pornographic works, but all the fruit of his pen proved wildly successful commercially, making Aretino the best-selling author of his day, and for a long period afterward.”

However, Mader points out – “To create the impression that a text came from his hand – particularly an erotic text – was merely smart advertising.” Written, or at least published, a century after Aretino’s death, there is debate about the actual author, with the most likely candidate being Antonio Rocco (1586-1652), a priest and philosophy teacher in Venice, who was denounced for his religious views and sexual behaviour and is recorded as arguing “that tool was made by Nature for us to have from it our pleasures and delights.”

Antonio Rocco

Alcibiades the Schoolboy is presented as a conversation between the pupil and his teacher, echoing debates from ancient Greek texts and similar offerings from the medieval Christian monasteries. The story rises to a sexual climax following a detailed discussion of the joys of sexual relations between men. At first hesitant, Alcibiades ends up hot, horny and eager to please his master.

The teacher, Philotemus, is not holding back: having pointed out many examples of male bonding amongst animal species, he advises that:

To acquire more virtue, to rid themselves of sorrow, it is necessary, too, that men will mount the one upon the other, and it is they who are made in the image of God, it is they who must truly make the most of themselves and be fully self-sufficient.”

However, this is not always easy…

…if a man cannot find the love of a boy to complement his imperfect existence, a stream to extinguish his ardours, he will lose his liberty, his mind, his activity; he will become the most miserable, the most wretched of creatures.”

Give up your love for boys, then,” replied Alcibiades, “And in an instant you will have put an end to your torments.”

It is not within our power, my dear Alcibiades, to decide to love or not to love someone who has captured our heart, who attracts us with an incomprehensible force, whose very soul we endlessly gaze upon. A divine appearance, provoking dreams of the infinite joys of possession, inflames love, ignites desire. And if it cannot become intoxicated at the spring of such a coveted pleasure, if it cannot bathe in it, dive in it, it will burn until it becomes reduced to ashes. And if a coveted liquor invites the lips to bathe in its sweetness, what matter, provided that we drink, whether the drinking-vessel is round or square? When we want to extinguish the flame, can we? When we could, should we? He who wants to do it cannot, and he who can do it does not wish to.”

The novel is also a polemic against the religious disapproval of same sex relations, stating bluntly…

…it is boys who carry the sceptre of love; women stand only in the second rank of authority, as those to whom power is delegated. So those who believe that this sovereign desire is an affront to the gods, and that they who taste of it consign themselves to dreadful punishments, are as far divorced from truth and justice as is the man who punishes a slave for following the orders of his master. If you subscribe to this belief, you could equally well believe, like the common people, that, at night, the sun hides himself in a hole in the moon.

Those who, in their own interests, have believed it convenient to forbid this form of love, know very well that their proscription is, to those of wisdom, contrary to all reason, so they have sought to attribute their pathetic law to the dictates of God. In the same way do deceitful men use the Oath to cover their lies and to introduce their false dogmas, mingling the sacred and the profane.

Nothing is more capable of perverting our reasoning than the threat of dreadful torments awaiting us. All men have a natural respect of God at the bottom of their heart, because the eternal soul, a man’s very essence, communicating through all aspects of Creation, penetrating his spirit and his substance, awakens in them the deepest sentiments of awe and reverence. This is why, everywhere, God is more or less the object of worship – and of fear – among men. It is on this basis, then, that our rulers frame their delightful laws. In attributing to the will of God what is nothing more than their own self-serving whims, they give them credence and ensure that they are promptly observed. This causes us to reject with horror any act which would violate them. And they have made us take in their beliefs with our milk, our souls have been imbued with them in our cradle, they are part of us.”

Alcibiades asks why passive sexual partners are held in low esteem by the populace and called ‘bum-boys’. The master says:

The name of bum-boy,” replied the master, “Should neither be given to nor taken by boys who, out of pure affection and courtesy, give themselves graciously to good and honest men who have merited their favour. One does not inflict such epithets upon Love, who comes so kindly to heal suffering hearts. Thus, it right that persons of wisdom have replaced these odious terms with the names of gods and goddesses, for such is the true rank of those who heal human miseries, the comforters of souls that are feeble and afflicted. In other times, many great princes have raised altars and temples to these deities, consecrated by priests, and have offered to them sacrifices and incense; the histories of Greece and Rome are full of the records of such devotions. By contrast, ‘bum-boy’ refers to a mercenary lad who wants nothing but money, who does not give himself but sells himself, who makes love into something base and commercial.

Between a loving and courteous boy and a ‘bum-boy’ there is the same difference as exists between a venerable priest and a low Simonite. They are both attired as priests, they both administer the same sacraments, but we see in the ministry of one the sterling worth of his character, his joy in ministering to the spiritual needs of his flock, in his fulfilling of the divine laws; the other does only what is useful to him, what is in his interest, what brings him profit.”

Alcibiades and Socrates in Socratic Love by Edouard-Henri Avril, 1906

The master makes a plea for moderation and respect for a boy’s innocence and purity. He attacks men who abuse younger guys, but he also makes clear how holy he considers the sexual connection between men can be:

When you play with a boy, one is deprived neither of the sweetness of a kiss, nor the pleasure of breathing the breath that fills the amorous mouths. With a boy, too, union is complete and the intoxication of love is shared, so long as the beloved takes up a position which allows him to turn his face easily towards that of his lover, while the gherkin is either planted in his garden or quivering gently between his hands, according to the caprice of the delightful imp. And even if that position is in any degree uncomfortable – far from harming pleasure, it sharpens it, the wrigglings – like those of a young eel – stimulate it, sharpen and spice the sensual appetite. To feel this pixie twist, rise, gasp, twitch and quiver in your hands, frolic against you in a thousand ways – does not this delight beckon you, urge you to further attack, multiply the blows born of your burning ardour?”

Listen well,” replied Philotimes, “The human brain, which is both the abode of the human spirit and the place from which intelligence derives, is, by its nature, excessively damp and cold; if nothing warms it, it will remain sluggish and obtuse, incapable of comprehension, full of foul humours. So one can understand how fluids that are sweet, warm and temperate will serve powerfully to purify it. And nothing fulfils this purpose better than the sperm of a man who is wise and spiritual; this substance has miraculous virtues in this regard. Infused through the little gate of the garden, thanks to its natural warmth, it carries living and subtle spirits to all the farthest regions of the brain – spirits which carry with them the qualities of the giver. A boy who wishes to be the equal of his master has no other way than this. I admit that to be fucked by any man, given that his fluid is warm and temperate, can make the brain of a boy develop wonderfully, but to bear the true fruits, let him be fucked by a man who is noble and distinguished.”

The magic cast, the argument won….

the loving boy smiled delightedly and, wishing to show his great willingness, he disposed himself to satisfy his master, who was by now panting with desire.

I give myself to your wishes,” said Alcibiades, “It is your desire to instruct me, more than other reason, that decides me. See, I prepare myself for you.”

So saying, he lifted his robe and modestly adopted the posture appropriate to the circumstances. The master, assisting him, soon saw revealed such glorious treasures of love as made heaven and all the stars blush with shame; even the sun, vanquished by more celestial splendours, could only hide his face. Who could ever detail the incredible marvels spread out in profusion in this little Paradise; the two rounded hemispheres like celestial globes, coloured with warm blood, a garden planted with lilies and narcissi. At the slightest touch of the hand there trembled therein a thousand rubies, exploding on a background of milk and amber. All was flowering gardens, white radiance, and twinkling stars. The regular, amorous movements, such as could be expected from this glorious child, would have given an erection to a marble statue…

Very soon, overflowing with immense joy and getting ready for a higher enterprise, the master broke into a hymn of joy:

If wise men name as Paradise the place where we enjoy celestial happiness, you would be the Paradise of Athens, you in whom living men find their happiness, and, since man is a creation more complete than the soul alone, you would be a paradise far more glorious because in one only the soul is happy, while in you the body is also happy. Since you are the seat of happiness where the true god of love resides, and gives true happiness, I consecrate myself to you with total devotion, and, if there are any other paradises, I renounce them all for yours. What is the glory of heaven in comparison to such a prize?

While thus speaking, the passionate master, multiplying his sweet caresses, continued to play with the adorable child. Which he did with such skill that, from then onwards, Alcibiades knew no greater pleasure than to have his master’s prick in his asshole, nor did he believe it possible to attain perfection by any other path. Happy preceptor who knew how, by making himself the slave of such beauty, to satisfy his desires to their uttermost limit!”

Translation by J C Rawnsley, taken from https://www.greek-love.com/fiction/to-read-on-this-website/rocco-antonio-alcibiades-the-schoolboy

Published by shokti

i am shokti, lovestar of the eurofaeries, aka marco queer magician of london town. i explore the links between our sexual-physical nature and our spirits, running gatherings, rituals and Queer Spirit Festival. i woke up to my part in the accelerating awakening of light love and awareness on planet earth during a shamanic death-and-rebirth process lasting from January 1995 to the year 2000, and offer here my insights and observations on the ongoing transformation of human consciousness, how to navigate the waves of change, and especially focusing on the role of queer people at this time.

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