Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Roses are My Heart's Desire

The Gay Love Letters of Flavius Philostratos

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Virtually nothing is known about the Greek rhetorician, "Sophist" and biographer Flavius Philostratos (c. 170–245), who studied in Athens before settling in Rome. About half of his amatory Epistles are addressed to handsome boys, unnamed and perhaps idealized lovers. Many of the letters appeared in pairs, for example one praising boyish purity being matched later by one praising male prostitution. Although the letters may therefore be literary exercises, and although they have been characterized as "continuous cooing in a hot-house," they nevertheless have great charm and contain more truly poetic images than a good many heterosexual cliches about rosy-fingered maidens. Even anti-gay critics agree that the letters addressed to the lads are less artificial than those addressed to the girls, and seem more likely to reflect the writer's genuine sentiments. His letters take it for granted that paiderastia – best translated as ladslove rather than boylove (as the beloved’s age can range from thirteen to eighteen years) – is the natural state of affairs in any civilized society. They have often been plundered for material to enrich modern heterosexual love letters and love lyrics. Philostratos also wrote a life of Apollonius of Tyana, written at the request of the Empress Julia Domna, which is full of homosexual gossip although this mystical philosopher and seer who is praised for his chastity, and held up as a pagan rival to Christ.


3rd century AD


The roses, borne on their leaves as on wings, have made haste to come to you. Receive them kindly, either as mementos of Adonis or as tinct of Aphrodite or as eyes of the earth. Yes, a wreath of wild olives becomes an athlete, a tiara worn upright the Great King, and a helmet crest a soldier; but roses become a beautiful boy, both because of affinity of fragrance and because of their distinctive hue. You will not wear the roses: they will wear you.


Nests are hosts to birds, rocks to fish, eyes to handsome boys; birds and fish migrate, moving from one place to another and shifting their abodes, for they wander as the seasons lead them; but when beauty has once made its way into eyes it never departs again from the lodging it there finds. Even so have I become your host and carry you everywhere in the snare of my eyes: if I go forth a wayfarer as it were, you appear to me in the guise of a shepherd, of one who sits and by his beauty charms the very rocks; and if I go to the sea, out from the sea you rise, as Aphrodite rose from the depths; and if to a meadow, above the very flowers you stand out — yet no such thing as you grows there, for verily, though the flowers are in other ways fair and lovely, yet they last but a single day. Yes truly, if I come near a river, the river, I know not how, vanishes suddenly from my sight, and in its place, methinks, I see you flowing fair and great and greater far than is the sea. If I look up into heaven, I think that the sun has fallen and is making his way afoot somewhere below, and that in his place my heart's desire shines. And if night comes, I see but two stars, Hesperus and you.


How many times, do you think, have I unclosed my eyes to release you, even as hunters open their nets to give their quarry a chance to escape? And you sit fast, like those vexatious squatters who, when once they have seized on other people's land, will not hear of moving off again. Lo, once more, as so often in the past, I raise my eyelids; now at long last, I pray you, fly away, and raise the siege, and become a guest of other eyes. You are not listening, not you! You are pressing ever farther on, into my very soul! And what is this new fiery heat? In my perilous plight I cry for water; but no one assuages the heat, for the means of quenching this flame is very hard to find, whether one brings water from a spring or from a stream; yes, for love's fire sets even the water ablaze.


The handsome boy, if he is wild and cruel, is a fire; but if he is tame and kind, a shining beacon. Therefore do not consuume me with flame, but let me live; and keep the altar of Compassion in your soul, gaining a firm friend at the price of a short-lived favour; and take time by the forelock – time which alone makes an end of handsome boys even as the populace makes an end of princes. For I fear – yes, I will speak out my thoughts – lest, while you linger and hesitate, your beard may make its advent and may obscure the loveliness of your face, even as the concourse of clouds is wont to hide the sun! Why do I fear what one may see already? The down is creeping on, and your cheeks are becoming fluffy, and over all your face the hair begins to grow. Ah me! In hesitating we have waxed old – you because you would not divine my love sooner, I because I shrank from asking. So before your springtime quite departs and winter comes upon you, grant springtime’s gifts in the name of Love, I pray, and of this beard by which I must swear tomorrow.


You have done well to use the roses for a bed also; for pleasure in gifts received is a clear indication of regard for the sender. So through their agency I also touched you, for roses are amorous and artful and know how to make use of beauty. But I fear that they may actually have been restless and oppressed you in your sleep, even as the gold oppressed Danae. If you wish to do a favour for a lover, send back what is left of them, since they now breathe a fragrance, not of roses only, but also of you.


The chastity about which you have so great an obsession I know not what to name, whether perhaps perverse opposition to the promptings of nature, or philosophy fortified by philistinism, or unyilding fear of pleasure, or even scornful disdain of life’s delights. But whatever it may be, and whatever it may seem in the opinions of the sophists, nevertheless however respectable it is in repute, it is grotesquely unhuman in practice. And what is so great about being, forsooth, a chaste corpse long before leaving life? Crown yourself therefore with flowery wreaths in revel before you too wither away; preserve your beauty wth anointing of sweet oil before all corrupts; find and cherish lovers before you find yourself completely alone. For it is good to fortify yourself at night against that other eternal night; to drink before you thirst; to eat before you hunger. What day do you imagine yours? Yesterday? It is dead. Today? You are not making it yours. Tomorrow? I do not know if you will live so long. You and your days are toys of fate.

SOURCE: Letters 1, 2, 11, 13 and 46 from The Letters of Alciphron, Aelian and Philostratus, trans. Allen Rogers Benner and Francis H. Fobes (Loeb Classical Library; London: William Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949); Letter 64 from J. Z. Eglinton, Greek Love (London: Neville Spearman, 1971).

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