A note on Hemitheon of Sybaris

I was reading the old Loeb Martial, and came to one of the obscene epigrams (12:95).  This mentions some of the dirty books of antiquity, and begins:

Musaei pathicissimos libellos,
qui certant Sybariticis libellis,…

The mega-pathicus books of Musaeus,
which rival the books of the Sybaritis,…

and the footnote said that the Sybaritis was a work by a certain Hemitheon.  The latter is otherwise mentioned only by Ovid, Trist. ii, 417, and also by Lucian, Adversus Indoctum (Against an uneducated book-collector) c. 23.  A lost writer, then, albeit of dubious sort.

What can we find about this man?  An English translation of the Lucian book is here, but silently omits the relevant passage (which I don’t blame) without signalling the fact (which I do).  A Greek text with French translation does include it, here.  Another French translation appears in a History of syphilis in antiquity, rather appropriately.  Here’s a rough version of what these say:

What! monster of impurity, do you think that the Emperor is so intoxicated with the juice of the mandrake, that he can learn of just some of your actions without being informed of the rest, without knowing the life you lead by day, the excess of your table and your debauchery at night? Do not you know that the eyes and ears of the emperor are everywhere?

But, O pathicus, your doings are so public that the blind and the deaf are not strangers to them, if you just say a word, if you have to undress yourself in a bathroom, or rather, without getting undressed yourself, letting your slaves take off your clothers. Do you suppose that the secrets of your nights will not appear in broad daylight?

Tell me, if Bassus (19), your sophist, if Battalus (20), the flute player, if the cinaedus Hemitheon of Sybaris (21), who wrote for you such a noble set of instructions on how to soften the skin, on waxing, on how to practise pederasty or have it practised on one; if I say, we saw someone of this sort coming towards us, wearing a lion skin, armed with a club, would he be mistaken for Hercules? No, of course not. Not unless we were blind!

A thousand things betray this lie; the gait, the appearance, the sound of the voice, the bent neck, the white lead, putty and paint which you use, in sum, as the proverb says: “It is easier to hide five elephants under your armpit than hide one cinaedus.”

Well! Such a man can not dress up in a lion skin, and yet you imagine you can hide under a book? It is impossible, everything betrays you, your characteristics reveal you.

The Ovid is easy to find, here.  He was exiled by Augustus for his vices, and he complains of being singled out, when so many others go unpunished (!):

There’s”‘tragedy” too, involving obscene laughter,
with many exceedingly shameful words:
it didn’t harm one author to show an effeminate
Achilles, belittling brave actions with his verse.
Aristides associated himself with Milesian vice,
but Aristides wasn’t driven from his city.
Eubius wasn’t exiled, writer of a vile story,
who described the abortion of an embryo,
nor Hemitheon who’s just written Sybaritica,
nor those who’ve not concealed their adventures.
These things are shelved with records of learned men,
and are open to the public through our leaders’ gifts.

This links the Martial with the Lucian, and indicates that Hemitheon lived in the days of Ovid.  The mention in Lucian tells us that his book was still circulating and notorious a century later.  These three references are his footprints in the sands of time, in Longfellow’s phrase.   I think most of us would rather choose oblivion!


2 thoughts on “A note on Hemitheon of Sybaris

  1. Oblivion is indeed better for this kind of work. It is quite disgusting already to read what Tiberius taught small children to do while he was bathing in Capri in Suetonius, more of the same is unnecessary…

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