Slave to Boy Love:
Tibullus, Marathus, and the servitium amoris

Megan O. Drinkwater

Davidson University

            This paper examines the servitium amoris motif in Tibullus' homoerotic poetry as a complement to, rather than a deviation from, the elegiac norm of heterosexuality. Sharon James' insightful study of gender dynamics in Roman Elegy correctly focuses on the centrality of unequal male-female relationships to the genre's creative impulse.[1] Yet her insistence on the heterosexual nature of elegy leads her to make light of the role of homoeroticism in Tibullus 1.4, 1.8, and 1.9. In particular, her conclusion that "the homoerotic passions of Tibullus's alter ego are not as overwhelming as his heterosexual passions—and certainly he never assumes anything like servitium amoris for the sake of a boy" (10) overstates the case. The overall thrust of James' argument—that Roman Elegy predicates itself on the unequal relationship of the male poet lover (amator) and his powerful female beloved (domina)—is doubtless correct. Yet the submission of the socially dominant adult male speaker to his young male love object in Tibullus' homoerotic cycle does, in fact, follow the pattern of the male elegiac speaker's submission to his mistress.

            Through close reading of the homoerotic poems of the Tibullan corpus, this paper shows that the tropes of elegy common to heterosexual relationships are much in evidence. The puer in 1.4, for example, is presented much like the puella of heterosexual elegy and the servitium amoris is especially central to Priapus' advice to the speaker of the poem. The exhortation that the speaker serve as his beloved's oarsman (45-6) and menial hunting companion (49-50)[2] has strong parallels in the Ovidian elegiac letters of Oenone to Paris (Her. 4) and Phaedra to Hippolytus (Her. 5). These and other examples from poems 1.8 and 1.9 suggest that the erotic submission of the speaker to his beloved is not based upon gender, but rather upon the roles of dominance and submission in the elegiac relationship. By examining these divergent poems within the larger scope of the genre as a whole, we may gain new insights into alternate modes of elegiac praxis that look beyond the paradigm of the docta puella.

[1] Sharon James, Learned Girls and Male Persuasion (Berkeley, 2003) 10.

[2] Noted by Guy Lee, ed. and trans., Tibullus: Elegies (Leeds, 1975) 124.

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