Rewriting masculinity with male bodies: The sexualization of male martyrs in Prudentius’ Peristephanon
It is now generally accepted that Saint Agnes is portrayed in the Peristephanon as ambiguously gendered (she is masculinized and refeminized), sexualized and objectified in such a way as to intentionally lead the reader to view her as a sexual object. Scholars have used philology, intertextual readings, gaze theory and, most successfully, Laura Mulvey’s conception of the workings of voyeurism4 in order to explicate and examine the portrayal of Agnes in Prudentius’ Peristephanon. However, as the above quotations indicate, there is a similar though different, subtler mode of sexualization, sexual allusion and, therefore, objectification that may be read in the Peristephanon’s martyrdoms-- those of the male saints. The passages quoted above show Agnes welcoming her executioner as a lover in strident rhetoric while Cassian’s executioners are exhausted from torturing him to death and are described in terms similar to lovers near the end of their exertions, giving new meaning to his exhortation that they ‘be vigorous’. This highlights the importance of the virility of the executioner/s as they stand in for God as agents whose actions will complete the contract of martyrdom and bring the martyr into a union, or marriage, with Christ. The eagerness and ability of the executioners is integral in this transaction. Agnes’ lover with his ‘eager steps’ and ‘hot desires’ is masculine and forceful enough to please even the masculinized Agnes. While Cassian’s torturers fail because they are not fully-grown and cannot therefore bring the contract to completion. Indeed Cassian only speaks once in the entire poem and it is to exhort his torturers to finish him off, to exhort his lovers to (at last) become men. Cassian is presented with exactly the kind of lover that Agnes has spurned, soft effeminate boys. Yet Cassian does not speak against their suitability as the chosen instruments of his bridegroom. He is feminized through his passive acceptance of the manner of his death. Then, much like Agnes, is remasculinized as the boys’ penetrations fail to kill him and God must step in. Cassian’s masculinity is undermined by that which is not present: ability in rhetoric, agency, and virility. And although it is recouped by God, it is interesting that he and his masculinity have taken a detour through mute objectification and passivity, a sort of sexualization.