Alcibiades the Schoolboy

Alcibiades the Schoolboy
Antonio Rocco
Difficulty: Medium
Full Text, American Translation (cannot vouch for accuracy)

Published in the year 1652, Alcibiades the Schoolboy is a defense of pederasty, or love between men and pubescent boys, presented in the style of a Platonic dialogue and attributed to the Italian priest Antonio Rocco. The setting is ancient Athens, and the schoolmaster Philotimes, clearly intended to be Socrates, is desperately trying to convince his angelic and well spoken pupil Alcibiades to sleep with him by offering arguments defending the practices of pederasty and sodomy. His major points are that laws are arbitrary and often unjust, that nature gave men urges so they could act on them, and that women are icky and want things from you (putting it nicely). Bookending his argument are long poetic passages extolling the virtues of boys in startlingly explicit detail, even by today’s standards. In fact, the most striking attribute of the whole text is its incredibly frank discussion of sex, both its pleasures and mechanics. Such explicit writing leads me to believe it was also intended to double as pornography. As you might imagine, such a book was not particularly popular with the church and it was promptly destroyed, with the few surviving copies hidden away for the next 200 years. It wasn’t until 1862 that it would finally be reprinted in the original Italian, before being translated into French in 1866. The novel wouldn’t appear in English until the year 2000, translated by Oxford Professor J. C. Rawnsley, now out of print.

The preface to the 1891 French translation calls it the first homosexual novel, and as far as I know they’re right. How is it that such a historically significant piece of writing has flown almost completely under the radar, not receiving an English translation for almost 350 years? The obvious answer is subject matter, I suppose, Rawnsley didn’t even want his translation published until after his death. But we willingly engage with other pederastic dialogues like Phaedrus and Corydon, though they’re nowhere near as explicit (Phaedrus gets a little steamy though, stop loosening your robe Socrates). It seems like an arbitrary line in the sand to me, but there it is. Erotica and pederasty are only okay as long as they aren’t both present in the same text.

As an argument, Alcibiades the Schoolboy comes off so-so. His points about arbitrary laws and natural urges are reasonable but not particularly persuasive, certainly not to the early modern church. After all, resisting our urges is pretty much the cornerstone of Christianity. It’s very jarring to hear Christian arguments delivered by Greek characters, especially the invocation of Sodom and Gomorrah, the setting and subject just don’t mix. The allusion to Socrates’ pursuit of Alcibiades is similarly confusing, as Socrates famously eschewed physical love in favor of the spiritual kind (as told by Plato). But for me, what really detracts from the argument is Philotimes’ descent into masturbatory rapture as he goes on and on about the beauty of a boy’s buttocks. Seriously, there are paragraphs upon paragraphs about it. It’s a little difficult to be enthusiastic about his argument when his motivation is so obviously base.

One more strange thing: at one point in the argument, Philotimes claims that it’s good to love young boys because dolphins, yes, dolphins, also love young boys. And he offers no less than three examples. I thought this was a very strange thing to say, and with so much evidence, so I did a little research. It turns out, according to “When A Dolphin Loves A Boy: Some Greco-Roman and Native American Love Stories” by Craig A. Williams, there are at least TEN separate stories in Greek history and myth of dolphins falling in love with boys. And they’re not ambiguous in the slightest. In several of the stories, the dolphin and boy are buried together. In another, a dolphin beaches himself to commit suicide after his boy dies. Apparently dolphins are associated with Dionysus, god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy (among other things), so perhaps Philotimes claim is that these sacred creatures love boys, so it clearly must be a good thing? I have no idea what to do with knowledge of this tradition of interspecies dolphin-boy love so I’m telling everyone. The world needs to know.