Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus's Bellum Judaicum

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus's Bellum Judaicum

Article excerpt

WHEN IT COMES TO TYRANTS, or at least literary portrayals of tyranny in political invective, decadence knows no limits. The goal, it seems, is to conjure as terrifying a specter of lurid debauchery as is possible, a grotesque monster whose deviant ways portend social and political devastation. And in this history of "making monsters," colorful images of gender deviancy play an especially privileged role. To take but one rather extreme example, the twelfth-century Ka'ucrchronik - a poetic account of Roman and German emperors - includes a particularly decadent tale of the emperor Nero, who supposedly ingested a magic potion in order to become pregnant, and then proceeded to give birth to a toad out of his mouth. On one level it is perhaps tempting to dismiss this bizarre tale, one of numerous medieval legends of Nero's pregnancy,1 as nothing more than the figment of a wildly inane imagination, the product of an author still trapped - to borrow a Petrarchian paradigm of historiography - in the regressive dark ages after the intellectual lights of the classical era had long since dimmed. But such a dismissal ignores a crucial detail. The Kaiáerchronik, however bizarre its portrayal of male parturition may seem to the modern reader, is heir to a longstanding tendency - attested abundantly even in the so-called classical era - to view Nero, and indeed political enemies in general, through a lens of transgressive gender behavior.2

What we are speaking of is, of course, a literary (or oratorical) phenomenon, a discursive strategy that ultimately functions to mediate a particular view of the social, cultural, and/or political landscape. In other words, the gender deviant topos at the core of the present investigation only marginally pertains to the actual behavior of putative tyrants. The more fundamental issue is the extent to which gender deviancy serves as a mode of representation, a means of constructing an imagined world within which gendered characters become critical reference points for a particular notion of "self" and "other." However much these literary monsters distort the underlying historical realities of the objects of invective, they nevertheless offer a crucial glimpse into the ideological realities at work within a particular historical context. The pervasive presence of gender deviancy within political invective, not only in antiquity but also today, thus underscores its rhetorical potency, its capacity to map boundaries, be they social, political, cultural, or ethnic.

I argue in this analysis that the Judaean historian Flavius Josephus partakes in this discursive strategy, deploying within his BeUum Judaicum (hereafter B.J.) the topos of gender deviancy in order to "tyrannize" his arch rival John of Gischala. Specifically, in B.J. 4.560-563 Josephus portrays the Judaean rebels under John's command, and by association John himself, as effeminate objects or sexual penetration. In so doing, he draws on a widespread tendency in Roman discourse to link perceived gender anomalies with an excessive and uncontrollable lust for power, constructing an image of "Eros unleashed" as a symbolic framework through which to define and disparage tyrants.3 Moreover, this image of effeminate and penetrable tyranny in B.J., although dubious as a source of reliable information for the Gischalan's exploits in Galilee and Judaea, taps into a resurgent masculinizing impulse in Flavian Rome, offering an important glimpse into Josephus's own attempt to navigate the cultural and political anxieties of the capital city shortly after the tumultuous demise of the Julio- Claudian regime.

IDEOLOGIES OF GENDER IN THE ROMAN MEDITERRANEAN

Before examining the nexus of effeminacy and tyranny in B.J., it is perhaps necessary to reflect on the larger issue of gender within the Roman world. To speak of effeminacy as a gender-"deviant" trait presumes, of course, a gender "norm" by which an individual's status could be measured. Defining this norm, however, is a complicated matter, in part due to the tendency to read into the past modern Western perceptions of gender, that is, to presuppose - usually on the basis of an essentialist, transcultural definition of gender deriving from observed differences in external genitalia - a fundamental continuity between antiquity and the present. …

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