Virgo, uirginitas, uirginalis, uirginalis, uirgineus, uirguncula in Petronius’ Satyrica and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses – Donald Lateiner (Ohio)
The Oxford Latin Dictionary recognizes four senses with gender implications (apart from the Roman aqueduct and zodiac sign) : a] marriageable young female ; b] female or male (human or animal) without sexual experience ; c] woman or goddess perpetually without sexual inexperience ; d] (figuratively) object yet unused. Romans applied the honorific title uirgo to respectable females, usually but not necessarily young, unmarried, and therefore (presumed) sexually inexperienced females. The emphasis shifted from respectable nubile citizen female to female unacquainted with sexual relations, the physiological view of an honorable status.
Virgo. Petronius’ Encolpius refers to unreal females (VIRGINES) that populate rhetorical literature. Twice he employs uirgo sarcastically of a little girl following priestess Quartilla.
Petr. Sat. 1.3 : Encolpius sermonizes on the decadence of speech to Agamemnon : he describes worthless compositions in which imaginary oracles order the sacrifice of sexually intact young women for community salvation, one topos of Roman artificial rhetoric (Tac. Dial. 35). Oracles command : responsa in pestilentiam data uirgines tres aut plures immolentur.
Petr. 17.1 : The Priestess Quartilla arrives with one young girl attendant : una comitata uirgine. Encolpius’ description suggests religious ritual purity, a thought soon demolished.
19.5 : Ascyltus to fight Quartilla’s ancilla, while Giton masters another little girl : cum uirgine.
25.4 : Quartilla brags that she cannot remember being a virgin : si umquam me meminerem uirginem fuisse. The minister of Priapus could not be more different from Vesta’s uirgines.
35.4 : Trimalchio’s serving tray exhibits the twelve signs of the zodiac, each covered with a food dish : Encolpius on the sign of Virgo sees the womb of a barren sow (steriliculam).
39.10 : Trimalchio professes that the astronomical sign of the “Virgin” portends womanish sissies, runaways, and men born for chain gangs : mulierosi, fugitiui, et compediti.
Virgineus . Petr. 134.4v12 : Oenothea sings her magic, associating physically intact females with rites for asexual/ presexual beings : flamma quiescit/ uirgineis extincta sacris.
Virguncula . Petr. 18.7 : Encolpius recognizes the same little girl re-entering the chamber who had entered with Quartilla : uirguncula quae una intrauerat. Gendered diminutives furnish Encolpius with vocabulary to diminish foes or potential threats (Lateiner).
Petr. 20.8 : a little lass embraces Giton while Encolpius and Ascyltus are immobilized : uirguncula ceruicem eius inuasit... Virgo or uirguncula four times (17-20) conveys Encolpius’ scorn for young members of the “inferior” sex. His male superiority proves to be mistaken.
Deuirginatur . Petr. 25.1 : Quartilla, sexually active early on (infans cum paribus inquinata sum), endorses the idea that Pannychis, at most seven years old, should “lose her virginity.”
Virgo appears in all genres and epochs of Latin prose and poetry. The Muses, Vesta and her Vestal acolytes, Diana, and Minerva qualify (Catul. 65.2, Ovid. Fast. 6.383, Hor. Carm. 1.2.27, 3.22.1, Virg. A. 11.483 ; cf. Suet. Tib. 61.5). This word marks naive youth, an unspoiled state that attracts those seeking wives or non-normative sexual relations (e.g., paederasty in Pergamum, 85.2-3). Therefore, Satyrica’s young girls (or boys : 85.2-3), when not figures of fancy, the children that one might expect or think to be pre-sexual, are already raunchy, semi-professional sex-workers. The matron of Croton (140.4-10), in order to win childless Eumolpus’ non-existent inheritance, prostitutes her filiam speciosissimam cum fratre ephebo. He consequently enjoys anal intercourse with the girl’s full cooperation (pugiciaca sacra [= πυγησιακά] ; Buecheler/ Mueller : Aphrodisiaca). Meanwhile, her younger brother, already doctissimus in sex, offers his buttocks to Encolpius. Encolpius’ own impotence prevents sexual consummation. While the word uirgo does not appear in either included tale, the pimping mother and the pseudo-virgin children lure the con-men into sexual mime-comedies : both Eumolpus’ heterosexual anal sex and Encolpius’ failed homosexual effort.
Apuleius’ fabulist employs VIRGO 6x for Princess Psyche (puella 8x), the unbearably beautiful and unmarriageable daughter of a king. The disrespected Venus scorns Psyche as ista uirgo (4.31). The hag narrator of Psyche’s inset tale oxymoronically deems her teenaged heroine a uirgo uidua, or “widowed [i.e., husbandless] virgin,” because no man dared to marry her (4.32 ; cf. GCA Met., ad loc.). This virgin is “deemed unsuitable” or “unpleasing,” ingrata (4.32), and “most pathetic,” miserrima (4.33) for that gender-specific reason. With no adjective, she is merely the virgin (4.29) whose human subjects worship her ‘incredible’ beauty when she strolls by. She is eventually scapegoated, the virgin to be sacrificed per Miletus’ oracle (4.35 ; cf. Petr. Sat. 1 supra). Psyche prays for help where Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, rules (Samos, Argos, cunctus Oriens ...et omnis Occidens). Psyche mentions that the Carthaginians worship her as the virgin Juno [Tanit] flying on lionback (6.4) : siue celsae Carthaginis, quae te uirginem uectura leonis caelo commeantem percolit.
Charite, the human heroine, is uirgo 12x (cf. less restrictive puella, 22x). Brigands kidnap Charite the day before her wedding. The plan to obtain ransom for the virgin, pudicitia unharmed. Her disguised fiancé, Haemus, proposes to sell her to a brothel for more. Charite is sexual spoil, unicam uirginem, filo liberalem, et... summatem regionis, puellam ... concupiscendam (4.23). The captiua uirgo heroine (6.27) escapes (7.9 [2x], 13). She imagines herself a royal virgin princess of legend (6.29 : asino uectore uirgo regia). After recapture, a bandit pornographically imagines her as a uirgo nuda, a humiliated naked maiden destined for obscene execution, bound inside an eviscerated ass (6.31). The speaker designs a “fatal charade.” Lucius was to be sacrificed to summon the haute bourgeoise virgin’s death-spirits (7.4 : manibus uirginis decretam me uictimam recordabar...).
Virgo describes two young girls who portray lascivious “pagan” goddesses, Juno and Venus (10.31 : singulae uirgines quae deae putabantur). Virgo never describes or names the goddess Minerva, traditionally denominated the “Virgin Goddess,” but when Isis saves Lucius (11.5), her epiphany claims status as Cecropian Minerva. The toponym “of Cecrops” recalls Minerva’s Greek epithet, parthenos or “virgin.” The metaphorical use for untouched or virgin flourishing roses (3.29 : rosae uirgines matutino rore florebant) suggests supernatural powers (cf. Vestal virgins). Other references to uirgo intensify allegations of sexual impropriety. The wood-gathering boy falsely alleges that the rapist ass attacks mulieres and untouched maids, uirgines (7.21). The timid ass considers himself a virgin male sex toy (8.26) for the Syrian cinaedi. A murdering wife tortures and kills a youngster engaged properly as a virgin by her brother. The wife suspects her to be her husband’s mistress (10.23-4, paelicatus).
In the novels, uirgo may supply “elegant variation” for puella and vice-versa, although the terms are distinct. Before Psyche’s marriage, she is puella and uirgo (see 4.29 ; Watson (1983. “Puella and Virgo,” Glotta 61 : 119-43.n.57 ; Hallett in Eugesta 3), while afterwards she is called puella, but never uirgo. Lucius juxtaposes the two words to moralize (7.11 : puella uirgo ; cf. Livy AUC 3.44, Verginia ; Hist. Ap. 33, Panayotakis). Psyche and Charite contrast entirely to the novel’s depraved wives.
Virginalis. The adjective nails young male Lucius, when Milo sizes up his noble but inexperienced guest (Met. 1.23). Psyche is paradoxically described as a virginal Venus (4.28 : Venerem aliam uirginali flore praeditam)—a sex-deprived sex goddess. Charite will adorn Lucius with girlhood’s jewels (6.28 : uirginalibus monilibus). A robber designs punishment for Lucius’ abetting “maidenly escape” (6.31 : uirginalis fugae sequester ministerque).
Virginitas. Psyche fears for her intact virginity (uirginitati suae ...metuens), before Cupid makes her his “wife” (uxorem sibi fecerat). The next morning servants bathe their mistress, her virginity “nullified” (5.4 : nouam nuptam interfectae uirginitatis curant). Jupiter abridges the narrative : Cupid chose a girl and took her virginity (6.23 : puellam elegit et uirginitate priuauit). This descriptor is absent from Satyrica.
Apuleius’ Metamorphoses portrays two wary virgines, but gods and men threaten a vulnerable status. Charite the betrothed is kidnapped (4.26). Tlepolemus later murders her husband in order to corrupt the widowed matrona’s chastity, her sexual “virtue”. Jupiter’s quid pro quo for saving Psyche and allowing Cupid’s marriage is that Cupid turn over earth’s most beautiful “girl” for his sexual pleasure (6.22 : qua nunc in terris puella praepollet pulchritudine)..
See Lateiner, “Gendered and Gendering Insults and Compliments in the Latin Novels,” Eugesta 3. (> article pdf)
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Virgo, uirginitas, uirginalis, uirginalis, uirgineus, uirguncula in Petronius’ Satyrica and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses – Donald Lateiner (Ohio), EuGeStA Lexicon, 15 May 2014