Sex and Empire

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Sex and Empire

Sex and empire have been linked in European thought from antiquity to the present in a direct line of inheritance that descends from ancient Athens via Rome and the Roman Empire to Portugal, Spain, France, Britain, and America.

In Greek myth, city foundation is frequently the result of divine rape: characteristically, an Olympian male deity violates a local nymph whose name is taken by the city founded on the location of the rape. This mythic paradigm figures city-foundation as the conquest of "culture, male, and Olympian" over "nature, female, and locality" (Dougherty 1993, p. 67) and assumes a landscape uninhabited except by the indigenous nymph. Throughout the history of classical Greece, beginning in the Archaic period (eighth-sixth centuries bce) and continuing well into the Hellenistic age (323–31 bce) in the wake of Alexander's conquests, the Greeks founded cities throughout the Mediterranean from Spain to the Black Sea. Colonization brought the Greeks into contact—and conflict—with indigenous peoples, whom they either expelled from the land they occupied or whose women they took in intermarriage. A wide-ranging propensity in Greco-Roman (and later European) literature to characterize the earth as a generative female body and, conversely, the generative female body as a fertile field to be ploughed enabled Greek authors to redescribe, through the rhetoric of marriage, the violent seizure of land a harmonious union of Greeks and indigenous peoples. The assimilation of (foreign) women and (foreign) landscape, in conjunction with the agricultural metaphor implicit in descriptions of Greek marriage as "a form of ploughing, with the woman as the furrow and the husband as the labourer" (Vernant 1977, p. ix), legitimizes Greek (male) colonists' mastery of foreign (female) ground.

If, in classical Greek thought, marriage and landscape are assimilated in the association of the marriageable woman with the fertile field, in ancient Roman thought women and landscape are linked still more closely by the association of marriageable foreign women with Roman territorial expansion. The metaphorical association of territorial expansion with marriage is particularly visible in the Roman republican myth of the rape of the Sabine women, rehearsed by Livy (59 bce–17 ce) and Ovid (43 bce–17 ce), among others. The marriage of Roman men with Sabine women that results from the women's rape underwrites, through the familiar association of foreign women with neighboring territory, the political transfer of Sabine country to Roman domination (Hemker 1985, Keith 2000).

The Roman association of sex and empire is most fully elaborated, however, in the late first century bce when the Battle of Actium (31 bce) brought to a close a century of Roman civil wars. In this period, the propaganda of Octavian (63 bce–17 ce, Julius Caesar's grand-nephew and heir, the future emperor Augustus) recast civil war between Roman strongmen as a conflict between a feminized East, represented by the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (69–30 bce—who has sexually enslaved Marc Anthony (c. 82–30 bce) and threatens to enslave all Roman men politically—and a masculine West, represented by Octavian, the "son" of Caesar who restores male liberty and Mediterranean hegemony to Rome by conquering Cleopatra and reducing Egypt to a province of the Roman empire (Keith 2000, Quint 1993).

Augustus's territorial assignments of gender are reflected in Virgil's Aeneid. With the loss not only of most Hellenistic epics (some commemorating Greek city-foundations, others Alexander's Greek empire) but also of the Roman poet Quintus Ennius's epic Annales (celebrating Rome's rise to Mediterranean dominion), Virgil's Aeneid stands as the inaugural European epic of empire, "tied to a specific national history, to the idea of world domination, to a monarchical system, even to a particular dynasty" (Quint 1993, p. 8). The opening lines of the Aeneid announce the goal of Aeneas's journey to Italy as Latium, particularized in the phrase "Lavinian shores" (1.1-2), where tradition located the original Trojan foundation of Lavinium. Virgil derives the name of Lavinium from Lavinia, the daughter of the indigenous Latin king Latinus, and he predicates the political foundation of Lavinium, which lies beyond the narrative scope of the Aeneid, on the dynastic marriage of Aeneas with Lavinia (Keith 2000). Sex and empire are further linked in the poem through Aeneas's dalliance in North Africa with the Carthaginian queen Dido, which constitutes a divergence from his imperial mission and an indulgence in the "wrong" dynastic marriage. In the disastrous coupling (and subsequent rupture) of Aeneas and Dido, Virgil locates the origin of the Punic wars, a century of conflict between the empires of Rome and Carthage for control of the western Mediterranean (264–146 bce).

Both Aeneas and Augustus constituted significant prototypes for subsequent classical and medieval authors as models of sexual and imperial conquest. On December 25, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne "Emperor of the Romans." The Pope's act envisaged a renewed Roman Empire in the Latin west superseding the eastern remnants (which we call the Byzantine Empire) at that time ruled by a woman, the Empress Irene (c. 752–803), to whom Charlemagne sent envoys proposing marriage. Scholar Alcuin of York (735–804) saw in Charlemagne's coronation the possibility of realizing a Christian empire, but the Frankish king's renewed Roman Empire was short-lived. Nonetheless, the title "Emperor of the Romans" eventually passed (in 962) to a German king, Otto the Great (912–973), whose vision of a Holy Roman Empire—more in keeping with that of Charlemagne than Augustus—lasted for almost a millennium (to 1806).

The author of the Roman d'Eneas (twelfth century ce) rehearsed more insistently the precedent of Aeneas for contemporary Angevin imperialism. Henry II (r. 1154–1189), like Aeneas, claimed Trojan ancestry, moved westward to build his empire, and "gained his largest territory through a wife (Eleanor of Aquitaine) who had been attached to another ambitious prince (Louis VII)" (Baswell 1994, p. 151). The romance, however, displaces Aeneas's affairs with women (Dido and Lavinia) from the center of the work to focus instead on the military and homoerotic union of Nisus and Euryalus, Virgil's fortunati ambi whose celebrated love threatens to undo the Angevin Eneas's sexual and imperial designs (Baswell 1994, Boswell 1980, Williams 1999). Walter of Chatîllon, however, offers perhaps the most thoroughgoing medieval literary meditation on empire and its subversions in his epic Alexandreis (also twelfth century), which considers the place of Alexander's conquests—carnal and spiritual—in the succession of empires that prepares for the coming of Christ (Wiener 2001).


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                                           A.M. Keith