Special Episode – Classical Reception in Lil Nas X with Yentl Love

We sit down with Yentl Love to talk all about classical reception in Lil Nas X’s 2021 music video for ‘Call Me By Your Name’. Yentl Love is the famous Queer Classicist and we recommend checking out her blog for accessible analysis of the ancient world. We are thrilled to have Yentl return to the show – you may remember her from the insightful conversation we had about the reception of Cleopatra.

Lil Nas X has enjoyed great success with his debut album Montero and we were keen to learn more about how he utilised allusions to the ancient world to drive conversations about black identity and queerness as well as to complicate ideas about the heroic and how we might derive meaning when we analyse the past.

It’s definitely worth watching the music video before getting into the episode itself!

The ancient world has a wealth of symbolism and allusion that has built up and developed over time through the use and reuse of imagery and ideas and this conversation really just touches some of the potentials.

Special Episode – Classical Reception in Lil Nas X with Yentl Love

The Ideal Man

What makes the ideal man? Lil Nas X poses the question with a visual allusion to Doryphoros, the famous sculpture by the Greek Polykleitos, which is thought to represent the physical ideal in ancient Greek culture. Doryphoros was a favoured subjected in later Roman sculpture as well.

Doryphoros from Pompeii. A Roman marble sculpture of a man standing contraposto with his left arm raised slightly.

Doryphoros from Pompeii – A Roman marble reimagining of a Greek sculpture by Polykeitos.
Now in the MAN Napoli.

Architectural Influences

The opening of the music video provides a sweeping vista that on the surface has the appearance of paradise but is dotted with ruined buildings and structures. What could this mean? We ask Yentl’s perspective.

Still from 'Call Me By your Name' showing a Doric Temple in the foreground and an Aqueduct in the background.

Still from ‘Call Me By your Name’ showing a Doric Temple in the foreground and an Aqueduct in the background

Just a regular symposium…

Famously, Plato’s Symposium gets a shout out in ‘Call me By Your Name’ with a quotation that roughly translates as “After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half…” We consider the significance of this phrase in context and enjoy the fact that every so often someone uses an ancient language in a modern setting!

Still from 'Call Me By Your Name' Ancient Greek from Plato's Symposium on the Tree of Knowledge

Still from ‘Call Me By Your Name’ Ancient Greek from Plato’s Symposium on the Tree of Knowledge

I like my hair like I like my Flavians!

As the music video progresses, we see Lil Nas X shift scenes to an arena. The hairstyles on display in this scene recall the gravity defying hair styles favoured by the Flavian dynasty.

Still from 'Call Me By Your Name' showing hairstyles echoing the Flavians

Still from ‘Call Me By Your Name’ showing hairstyles echoing the Flavians

For comparison, consider the hair style of the portrait bust below. Although the identity of the subject is not certain, this piece is often identified as Julia Titi, the daughter of the Flavian emperor Titus. She was reputed to be a great beauty, but it’s the very high ringlets that win the day here!

Portrait bust of a young woman with an extremely high hair style made of ringlets.

Portrait bust of a young woman with an extremely high hair style made of ringlets.
Capitoline Museum. Source: Tumblr

Things to listen out for

  • Lizzo’s music video for ‘Rumors
  • Katabasis – a traditional heroic descent to the Underworld
  • Nero taking a man as wife and also being a bride
  • The sacred band of Thebes
  • Hadrian and Antinous
  • Correction – Dr G meant Patroklos not Paterculus when discussing Achilles!

Black women writers on Medusa

Interested in learning more about the writers mentioned in this episode? Consider the following:

Sound Credits

Our music was composed by Bettina Joy de Guzman.

Still from 'Call Me By your Name' Music Video by Lil Nas X. Notes that the video was directed by Tanu Muino and Lil Nas X, song produced by D. Baptiste, D. Biral, O. Fedi, R. Lenzo.

Still from ‘Call Me By your Name’ Music Video by Lil Nas X.
Notes that the video was directed by Tanu Muino and Lil Nas X, song produced by D. Baptiste, D. Biral, O. Fedi, R. Lenzo.

Automated Transcript

Lightly edited for clarity.

Dr Rad 0:12
Welcome to The Partial Historians.

Dr G 0:15
We explore all the details of ancient Rome.

Dr Rad 0:20
Everything from political scandals to love affairs, the battles waged, and when citizens turn against each other. I’m Dr. Rad.

Dr G 0:30
And I’m Dr. G. We consider Rome as the Roman saw it by reading different ancient authors and comparing their accounts.

Dr Rad 0:41
Join us as we trace the journey of Rome from the founding of the city.

Dr G 0:57
Hello and welcome to a brand new episode of The Partial Historians. I’m one of your hosts, Dr. G.

Dr Rad 1:06
And I am Dr. Rad.

Dr G 1:08
And we are thrilled to be joined today by Yentl Love, who is working on her PhD at Potsdam University and is universally famous for her blog as The Queer Classicist. Thank you so much for joining us.

Yentl 1:26
Thank you so much for having me. Yeah, I’m so glad to be back chatting to you more.

Dr Rad 1:31
So we’re very excited because we’re discussing something extremely cool. And actually, quite frankly, a little out of our comfort zone today.

Dr G 1:41
Yeah, look, I don’t think we are known as paragons of popular music. Nevertheless, we were super fascinated to see the rise. And the continued rise, I think of Lil Nas X, and what he is doing with his musical journey. And it is a thrill to sit down today with anto to talk about one specific music video that has come through and his debut album, and that is Montero “Call Me By Your Name”.

Dr Rad 2:09
So let’s kick it off with our first question. So let’s think about maybe classical reception more broadly. Because of course, the video clip is kind of what’s intrigued us all, I think with its imagery and whatnot. So classical reception can obviously take many forms. I personally like the film side of things, but can you talk us through what the phrase classical reception means to you?

Yentl 2:30
So yeah, I mean, as you said, this is a really, really broad field that we’re talking about, and it encompasses so much within it. On its most basic level, I’d say that when we are talking about classical reception, we’re kind of considering how the classical world so really looking at ancient Greece and Rome, and how it has been received and portrayed or represented across time. So this can be anything from an architecture, when we see buildings deliberately kind of evoking this ancient Greco Roman kind of period. Or in literature, like, famously Madeline Miller’s “Song of Achilles”, or in music, like Lizzo’s music video for “Rumors”, and we’re going to talk about Lil Nas X’s music video. And as well as like, where we see these parts of ancient history depicted. I think another big part of classical reception is thinking, why do we see these particular parts down? Why is there this use of like Greek and Roman material? What is the specific message that the work of reception is trying to put through? Through using it? But yeah, the field really is just massively wide. And what I really like about it is I think that all uses of classical reception are equally valid and equally worthy of study, like a piece of fanfiction about, like Mark Antony and Augustus, could be discussed in like just as much detail as like the architecture of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. All of this is just different types of classical reception.

Dr G 4:08
Yeah, there’s really a wide array of uses and reuses of ancient imagery. And when we’re talking about classical reception, hinting back at particularly Greece and Rome are though I imagine at some point, we’re also going to see in our lifetimes, the interrogation of classical in a more robust way, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes. But taking off from where we’re starting with, like this idea of classical reception in modern culture, for a little bit of context for our listeners out there who spend all ages and all interests, who is Lil Nas X?

Yentl 4:43
Okay, so Lil Nas X is a stage name for Montero Lamar Hill. He is a black, queer American rapper and singer songwriter, and I think probably he’s most famous for his song “Old Town Road”, but then he released his first studio album “Montero” in 2021. And yeah, the music video we’re going to be talking about is from one of the songs on that debut album.

Dr Rad 5:11
Absolutely. I mean, I had never heard of it before. I know everyone’s gonna be really shocked that I don’t follow rap. In any, you know, I really stopped listening after “Shoop”. And so I’m really glad that I had my attention directed towards his music video, because it is really fascinating. And we’re not the only ones to be interested in it. Because there’s some really intriguing representations and expressions of queerness. And the ways that the music video explores allusions to the ancient world. So what are some of the significant images and symbols that come through in the music video?

Yentl 5:47
So one of the things that’s like, most interesting, I think about the video is the way it forms almost like a long heroic art are a long narrative around this central character. But we can really split the whole video into three sections. There’s this kind of chasing at the start. And that’s taking place in a landscape where we see like architectural ruins of Greek buildings and temples, we see Greek inscriptions. And then that continues as we move into the second thematic section, which is in this kind of arena, big quality and style venue. So again, we’ve got this repeated association with Greco Roman architecture, which kind of really grounded it and discussion of the video as a work of receptions. And what’s really interesting with the second thing is that the figures are all depicted with these very, very tooled like elaborately cold wigs, which almost perfectly mirror the statues that we have of women from this period of Rome called Flavian. Rome. And in that period, we start to see a lot of concerns emerging about female independent about female sexuality. And so it’s the start of this like real discussion about almost like changing gender roles and concerns about sexuality. So it’s a really kind of niche insight into this ancient discussion of what was happening with gender and sexuality and then brought through into, you know, Lil Nas X’s exploration of this kind of queerness. And we also then, in the same scene have known as a pairing and chain, which has both been read through this kind of biblical lens as a reflection of John the Baptist, or of Samson with like Samson and Delilah, but also seems similar to Herakles or Hercules in Rome, in his outfit the way he’s portrayed, like in modern strongman, that’s not my area. But we see that same pose when you’re holding up columns with big chains, and that is referred to as the Hercules pose. So we get this kind of reflection of Hercules and no knights portraying himself as this kind of hero throughout the throughout the music video. And then again, when the venue changes, he descends into hell or Hades. And we see statues outside the gates which seem very, very Greek. They’re looking like these depictions of Doryphoros, which was sculpture, Polykleitos says he was sculpting like the ideal man. And so it’s like the spear bearer, and we see them standing outside the gate to hell. And then as he enters, we see statues of Medusa, which again, is a kind of image we’ve seen all throughout this music video. And that in itself has massive ties to both classical mythologies, classical receptions, and also to black culture. We have a lot of poems by black and diasporic women, where they kind of claim Medusa as a collective ancestor. Or they compare the way that Medusas hair is treated to the way that black women’s hair has been historically shamed. And kind of reviled by white western culture. If you want to read up more on that poets like Dorothea Smartt, and Shara McCallum really talk about this and exemplify this in their work. But yeah, so we have these kind of repeated motifs of different eras, the heroic area, the Medusa kind of metaphor, and the Medusa symbols, and then also this repeated discussion of like the architecture, the ruined architecture, and throwback to specific period and Roman history.

Dr Rad 9:36
I have to say, I am blown away by how much has actually been packed into this video clip because it’s like less than three minutes long.

Yentl 9:45
Yeah unbelievable. Literally, when I presented on this topic at a conference in April, I think, and when I was looking through the music video, it was almost like every two seconds just pausing it and being like taking note that oh, okay, and another thing on thing? So yeah, it’s just massively like you said, it’s really packed in.

Dr G 10:07
And I think it has this amazing capacity to draw on multiple sources at once and sort of enrich itself through its sort of intertextuality. So you’re storing that sort of reference, not just to Roman history, not just to the Greek heroic mode, but also those connections between queerness and blackness, and how that representation might be filtered through these different types of lenses. I really love the Flavian hair, I have to say, I think that’s amazing. And the Flavian is have this really tricky period where it’s this sort of backlash against the jeweler chlorians and the excesses of that, and some of the perceived power plays of women within that former dynasty. And so it’s like, how will Flavian women be perceived, and the way that this video sort of touches on that as well, and has that sort of call back to that sort of constraint in the feminine, that is happening through the way that hair is dressed is really interesting.

Yentl 11:09
Yeah, absolutely.

Dr G 11:10
So on that note, not only does Lil Nas X engage in classical illusion, visually, but we also get this direct intertextual reference to Plato’s Symposium. So there is a tree of knowledge in this video. So there’s no way to separate out the classical reception with the Christian reception that is going on here. But this tree of knowledge is a really prominent symbol in the video. And there is this moment where we get this close up of the tree trunk, and it’s inscribed with ancient Greek. And we never get a translation for that in the video, it’s just left there for the viewer to ponder on and enjoy. Or if you study ancient Greek to be like, Oh. My. God. Something is happening. So even though the phrase remains untranslated, it doesn’t really take long for the collective world to come together and look at what is being considered here, which is this really particular idea of “the division of two parts of men, each desiring his other half.” And I’m interested in the significance you read in this intertextual illusion.

Yentl 12:20
Yeah, I completely agree with the excitement when I first saw it as like, this is why all of those like hard use of doing ancient Greek, they are worth it for this specific music video. But yeah, this quote is one of my favorite, I think aspects of the whole video. So it’s referencing, as you said, Plato’s Symposium. And the specific part has been quoted comes from this discussion by the character s Aristophanes, talking about how early humans were double formed by two bodies in one. And then when their bodies were split by Zeus, they will always like search for their original half. So if you’re a woman that was in a female female body, you will search for another woman, if you are a man from a male male body, who search for another man, if you’re from a male female body, you will be searching for the other gender. So obviously, this discussion is supposed to be taken literally, they’re just swapping stories about ideas that they have about love in this passage. But it forms a really interesting kind of early discussion of the idea of soulmate, but also explaining why different people might be attracted to certain genders. So this quote, to me has this really important like dual meaning, not only the fact that it’s untranslated ancient Greek, I think really, like we said before, kind of grounds this as a work of classical reception, and grounds the whole piece in this discussion of kind of Greco Roman antiquity. But it’s also this deliberate reference to ancient discussions of sexuality. And the ways that ancient people were talking about same sex attraction, attraction, same sex love, which really establishes this video as, like beautiful queer performance. And also kind of brings up the idea of collective ancestors, or that queer desire has always existed, which I think is very important to be talking about now, especially when we’re saying, you know, there’s a lot of anti like homophobic, transphobic legislation going on in lots of different parts of the world, but particularly in America, where this video is being produced. And so yeah, I think it’s a really important reference back to the ancient Greek tradition.

Dr G 14:39
Yeah, definitely. I think it’s giving us an opportunity to think a little bit more deeply about where our attitudes first of all sprang from, and also just how embedded in the human experience queerness is and thinking about where people sit in terms of their identity and where they sit in terms of their sexuality, how has always been a conversation that people are having with each other, and sometimes in a much more structured, and dare I say polite way than is happening today?

Yentl 15:12
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I completely agree.

Dr Rad 15:15
And it’s really interesting to consider because I, when I was doing a bit of research in preparation for this conversation, I believe that when you look at the lyrics and the the meaning of those that Lil Nas X was drawing on some of his own romantic experiences as the sort of story for this particular song. And I think I think it was about somebody who he was having a form of relationship with, and that person wasn’t out yet. So it is kind of interesting, I think, to consider having that inscription in this video clip with that in mind as well, I guess.

Yentl 15:52
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, like, the kind of one of the repeated kind of refrains in the chorus is like, tell me you love me in private? And so yeah, I think it’s a very interesting kind of divide between the discussion of love, which has been had to be kept private, because of, potentially someone’s in the closet potentially worried about repercussions, versus this kind of very public discussion of all different types of love that they’re having in Plato’s Symposium at the dinner party where they are treating, you know, a different character at one point says, oh, there are two types of love. There’s like the common love which men have for women, and then there’s the Heavenly love which men have for other men. And so, you know, we’re, we’re even saying at times that like, this kind of same sex attraction, same sex love is like on the highest level here, this is what we should all aspire to, in the in this like, wider kind of piece by Plato. And then yeah, to then have that comparison there between this very public discussion. And then the, “tell me you love me in private”, like this very secretive kind of way that they’re discussing that throughout the lyrics of the music video, I think is a very emotional and very interesting device that we have.

Dr G 17:11
Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. And while you were going into the detail about that, I was also put in mind of the fact that we’ve got this sort of like layering of this tree of knowledge with the ancient Greek philosophical outlook as well. And so there’s this really sort of rich questioning that I think that is brought to the forefront by placing the ancient Greek within that context, because they were all for context. But there is a suggestion over time that symbolism around Christianity has really taken on its own kind of significance. And yet, something like this is bringing those two worlds back together and back in conversation with each other, which I think is absolutely fascinating as well.

Yentl 17:56
Yeah, I completely agree. I think, also, in my undergrad degree, that was the first time that I’d really got the opportunity to study kind of like early Christianity. And I think it’s very interesting to consider, you know, that when we’re talking about specifically kind of like coming into late antiquity, that these two worlds are happening at the same time. And so I think it’s really interesting to discuss, you know, when we have when we talk about, you know, allusions to like John the Baptist, or different kinds of figures like that from, you know, celebrated in the Christian faith, we also see them then being talked about and the similarities to how, you know, we see other Christian persecutions in ancient history and ancient Rome specifically. And yeah, it’s a really interesting kind of overlap, that I think is easily forgotten about, it’s easy to just pin Christianity into like that this is a religion, we don’t really need to study it, because it’s just a belief. It’s just, you know, that kind of religious practice. And so it’s very interesting to them. Consider, especially in early Christianity, and that’s happening in the same time as all this other kind of ancient history. And yeah, I think it’s really interesting to see the two being brought together like that.

Dr Rad 19:13
Yeah, we definitely have a really interesting overlap in the opening sequence of the video, which you could potentially interpret to be taking place in the Garden of Eden. And yet, it’s also littered with all these ruined buildings that are obviously meant to remind us of ancient Greece in ancient Rome. So the layered symbolism that we see here kind of offers the potential to read the garden as a place beyond Christian archetypes. Why do you think this might be important within the scope of Lil Nas X’s work?

Yentl 19:42
So yeah, as we’ve talked about, we have like two equally interesting, I think interpretations of the music video here. Both are equally valid, both are equally important. And you can certainly see a lot of from the kind of references to Christianity there. As this kind of act of reclaiming that as a queer artists, obviously we have seen throughout history sees still see now there is potentially a lot of backlash against the queer community, from religious people from some Christian people, obviously not all that there has been historically some backlash. And so then this acts kind of as an act of reclaiming then to use these symbols associated with Christianity and to use them in this celebration of, you know, the queer experience. But on the other hand, bringing in this kind of more Greco Roman ancient history perspective, I think the depiction of the ruined building is very interesting if you do this kind of deep reading, arguably way too intense analysis that was completely unintentional, but it’s very well within that kind of overall video and beam. So like the two main types of building that we see, there’s this Doric Temple, which is just an artistic type of Temple, and this aqueduct or viaduct. Now, Doric temples, especially in Rome, were associated with masculinity and manhood by particular authors, and disco Vitruvius, who’s like an architect and engineer, that he said, like Ionic tempos are feminine. Doric temples are masculine, direct temples, if you’re going to have a male god has to be in a dark temple, because they’re masculine, and all curvy, little architecture, they’re just strikes narrow, that masculine and manly.

Dr Rad 21:33
Such nonsense! Never heard of it.

Yentl 21:40
So yeah, and then when we see viaducts, they’re kind of a massive part of Roman propaganda, in the like, politics of their expansion there and the empire building, because through bringing water to areas that were previously like, arid, didn’t have water, they thought they had conquered the quote, unquote, savageness of the natural world. And so these kind of massive buildings like acted as this like monument of the symbol of like their victory of civilization over the rest of the world. So through showing these kind of both of these buildings as ruined and destroyed, I think we get this, the start of this motif, or this theme of the destruction of traditional masculinity and manhood, as well as the queer potential for kind of disrupting civilization disrupting social order. And yeah, instead kind of challenging the like political, cultural, societal norms. And so, yeah, this theme of like queer disruption, and the challenge to like hetero masculinity really flows throughout the whole video. And so I think it’s interesting that we see this depicted in the specific ruined buildings that are included within this kind of Garden of Eden, early scene.

Dr G 23:03
Yeah, we get the sense of the ways in which society can be challenged, how it can be overcome. And I think this actually, these ideas feed in really nicely to thinking about Lil Nas X and the intersection of his identities as both being black and queer as an artist, both of which have been historically marginalized. And I’m interested in how this context that he is bringing to the table as an artist is influencing how he might interpret this music video, and its significance.

Yentl 23:38
So to me, I think this is one of the most important parts of the whole music video. See, yeah, Lil Nas X is a black man. And unfortunately, when we see classics being used outside of scholarship, and also traditionally within classical scholarship, it’s often associated with white supremacy or with racism. If you look at any reports of like the alt right or white supremacist rallies in America, you see people with “molon labe” signs, which is like ancient Greek term meaning come and take them, which by them, they mean weapons or in US politics, guns, which distributed to the Spartans. And I mean, speaking of Spartans, like man who did outright love they’re literally everything, the 300 they’ve seen themselves as these kind of hyper masculine macho men fighting against like all effeminate Eastern culture that these like yeah, effeminate foreigners are coming to, like, destroy our culture, I think

Dr G 24:41
Nothing says manhood, like sprayed on abs.

Yentl 24:45
Know exactly, and a bunch of men are naked together holding spears.

Dr Rad 24:49
Yup, that is true masculinity.

Yentl 24:54
I mean, yeah, it’s horrific, but they just love these ancient kind of heroic men. They see like Ancient Greece and Rome as all whites hypermasculine heroic ideal, which let’s be clear, untrue, for so many reasons, every part of that is untrue. So for Lil Nas X to represent himself kind of as a territories figure or this ancient hero, he embodies this ancient heroism as a black man, while he simultaneously also embraces femininity. And I think this really challenges on multiple levels, this hateful, racist rhetoric that is massively associated specifically with ancient Greek warfare and heroes. And so we see Lil Nas kind of reclaim Herakles and these heroes from the hands of the alt right. And he turns this heroic narrative from this, like hyper masculine kind of white call to power into a celebration of Black excellence, femininity and beauty, which is just massively important and powerful. And then kind of on top of that, you have the constant constant references to his queer identity. And the historic presence of queer desires queer relationships, which are solidified by there’s a Latin inscription right at the very end of the music video, which reads, “they condemn what they do not understand”, which is a very, very emotive reference that you can read to, towards, you know, LGBT experiences, LGBTQ plus lives, and this kind of discrimination against them, which is, sadly still kind of present at the moment.

Dr Rad 26:36
Yeah, and I think particularly if we think about the imagery of that potential Hercules/Herakles scene, we probably should mention for people who haven’t seen the video clip yet, although I’m sure they will stop this episode and kind of watch to me that the coloring as well I think is really feminine. The fact that he’s got like, almost like a fairy floss pink wig and yeah, accessories. Yeah.

Yentl 27:03
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Dr Rad 27:05
I mean, if you didn’t if you didn’t know, it was a potential allusion to like the flavors to me. It almost gave like Sofia Coppola “Marie Antoinette” vibes.

Yentl 27:14
Yeah, absolutely. I completely agree with that. Yeah. With a massive tulle, over-the-top hairpieces? Yeah.

Dr Rad 27:22
And the color scheme being almost like candy.

Yentl 27:25
Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Dr Rad 27:30
So, so think about that Herakles scene in particular, obviously, like a key, it’s a key scene in the video to show him under arrest and being led into this building, which, as you’ve noted, seems very sort of Colosseum like, or like an ancient arena of some kind. So I think we could definitely see this a number of ways you could see it as an allusion to Christian persecution under the Romans, particularly when the scene later reveals that Lil Nas X’s in chains before our large crowd, which is seated really high above him, but what do you take away from this particular scene? And how do you see this particular classical illusion operating?

Yentl 28:06
Yeah, I think definitely, you can read this as that. Christians were largely persecuted within this period of Roman history, because they were seen as being kind of other not acting the way they should. Part of this strange almost like sound family vibe, which really threaten the way that society worked at the time, this kind of patriarchal, family-centered norms of society, the idea that Christians were being really threatened that. And so actually, a lot of that backlash really kind of parallels the experience of LGBTQ plus people in today’s society. And so yeah, I think that definitely just acts as a mirror in itself right there. But then, from a classical perspective, we have this parallel to the figure of Herakles, Lil Nas enters wearing what looks like the skin of like a lion, albeit pink, which is how we see Herakles depicted in art. And he’s also got chains similar to kind of the modern concepts that we talked about earlier. But a lot of Herakles’ mythologies are actually very queer in nature. When he’s with the queen of the Amazon to politics, they swap clothes and swap gender roles. So he’s out there like almost in drag, you know, dressed as a woman. And then he also has a massive amount of boyfriends. Plutarch actually says that it will be impossible to name all of his male lovers. But most famously, one of his relationships with this guy called Iolaus. I actually have never said that out loud, I’ve only read that so apologies if I’m saying that wrong. But with this other hero, Plutarch actually says that pairs of male lovers would go to his tomb to pay their respects because of this kind of queer association. So yeah, I think his characterization is heritage is also really plays on this really interesting thing kind of balanced between masculinity and queerness. And all of these questions about traditional heteronormative ideas of manhood and how femininity and sexuality can influence and kind of play with these ideas.

Dr Rad 30:16
Yeah, so against our modern version of Hercules, I think because he is your strong man, Arnold Schwarzenegger type figure. It’s yeah, I think it’s bizarre to most people who haven’t spent much time in sort of the classical world to see him as being queer.

Yentl 30:32
I mean, did The Rock play him at one point, I swear there’s a film?

Dr Rad 30:35
Yes, he did.

Yentl 30:37
I would love to see that and take into account like these, when he goes to the Amazon see him in this little dress, just like doing all the women’s jobs and like not not being annoyed. He doesn’t seem fussed. He just gets on with it.

Dr Rad 30:50
I think The Rock would be up for that.

Yentl 30:52
I think he would be.

Dr Rad 30:53
Yeah, I think he’s up for that.

Yentl 30:55
Yeah, if he listens to your podcast,

Dr Rad 30:58
He definitely does!

Yentl 31:00
I’m sure he does, yeah.

Dr Rad 31:02
That’s where he got the idea for the movie naturally.

Dr G 31:07
I think this actually draws a parallel as well to the other really famous sort of heroic figure from the Greek side of things, which is Achilles, because he also has these moments where he hides at certain points amongst groups of women dresses, takes on the dress of women, and is also reputed to be very close with Patroclus. And that sense of that intense loving relationship between those two men is something that drives the Iliad in many respects. So it’s fair to say, I think that Lil Nas X is drawing upon a really rich tradition of Greek masculinity. And the way that that intersects really clearly and boldly with queer identity.

Yentl 31:56
Yeah, absolutely. And I think in a way that doesn’t necessarily translate to how people might view this kind of heroic, hyper masculine man in the modern day. And I think it’s really important and interesting kind of drawback, because, yeah, all so many of these kinds of heroes have these queer storylines behind them? And yes, I think it’s really powerful, and also a challenge to the idea that when we think of like, a super masculine man, we think are, must have like loads of women, or must be, you know, has to be straight. And so I think it’s a really interesting challenge to be like wellness, like all of these, you know, heroes from Greek myths, that are really also held up as being like, oh, yeah, these are like the best, the strongest, most manly macho man. And so to say, actually, you know, there wasn’t this supposed incompatibility between queerness and femininity, and also being a very strong, very powerful man. So yeah, I think it’s a really important discussion.

Dr Rad 32:58
I mean, there’s six guys, but they’re six guys for all. It actually does make you think when you look at when you unpick all of these examples, and all of these, you know, ways of interpreting the classical world that the alt right throw around, it does make you sort of wonder like, have you studied the classical world at all? started using this so called evidence?

Yentl 33:25
Yeah, it’s even like with the “molon labe” signs like “come and take them”. They seem to like conveniently forget that the Persians did indeed take those. The Persians very successfully defeated. It’s like what you just, yeah. I mean, obviously, they’ve done little to no research whatsoever. No reason.

Dr G 33:45
I feel like they’ve just missed all of the good bits, guys. The Spartans lost, and you can love whoever you want. It’s okay.

Yentl 33:55
Yeah, don’t worry. It’s fine.

Dr Rad 33:57
Look into Spartan marital practices. And you’re like, Yeah, talk about complicated relationships.

Yentl 34:03
Yeah, exactly.

Dr Rad 34:05
And a slight difference between ancient Spartan weaponry and semi automatic weapons.

Dr G 34:17
Well, but you know, getting back to the subject. So in the third section of this video clip for that you’ve mentioned, we have this descent to hell, and it appears to be initially an extension of the arena. If anything, it’s here that it becomes really clear that we’ve got a reference visually to the Colosseum, because it seems like the Colosseum is operating as a portal to another plane of existence. I’m curious about the sort of commentary you see Lil Nas X making about the ancient world in this sort of transition.

Yentl 34:58
Yeah, it’s a really interesting They make part of the music video. And I think, you know, you can read from that, potentially, you know, a lot of people did die in the Colosseum, especially with like Christian persecution. People don’t think that, like, historians don’t really think the whole like fed to the lions thing rarely happened as much as we actually, like. It is said that it happened in kind of modern culture, I don’t think that really happened as much as so you know, people did die here. And so the idea of this being like, on the journey to death really, I think, is a very valid kind of way to look at it. But also, I think it’s particularly interesting if you consider it as part of this heroic narrative that we’ve seen happening kind of throughout the music video. So just after the Coliseum scene, and before he kind of descend down, we see Lil Nas X kind of ascend to what might be seen as like heaven, potentially, or this like paradise. This winged figure appears above him that he can’t make it there. And he falls back down. And we get this very famous, very sexy pole dancing descent into hell. Definitely worth watch if anyone hasn’t seen it already.

Dr Rad 36:12
I only wish I could pole dance like that.

Yentl 36:16
If we consider heroes in ancient Greek tradition, for example, we have this kind of katabasis, or this descent into hell, forming a massive part of their heroic identity, their heroic narratives. We see this, again with Herakles, but also with Odysseus, with Theseus even with Aeneas. So this really emphasizes Lil Nas X’s kind of character is being one of these typical Greco Roman heroes, is really brought into the ranks of all of the heroes that we’ve seen before him. And then after, again, this incredible kind of lap dance to the devil theme, we see Lil Nas X defeat the ruler of hell or of Hades, and he immediately gain once he’s like completed this task, he gains the like wings, these massive wings that he would have needed in order to reach this kind of heaven or paradise that we’ve just seen earlier. So he’s kind of just completed his heroic narrative there, because you’ve gained what he would have needed to be successful at the start. And so I think this aspect of the video can really be read. And yeah, it’s like cementing them as exes character as a classic Greek hero, completing the same kind of narrative arc, and then bringing with that all of the challenges to the heteronormative hypermasculine, white supremacist adoption of Greco Roman heritage that we’ve discussed earlier.

Dr Rad 37:43
I must admit, I will say it still boggles my mind how much has been packed into this short video? Do you have any sense? Because I mean, I know that Yentl and Lil Nas X, you guys are as close as people can be. Do you have any sense whether this all came from him? Or whether this was part of like a creative team he was working with?

Yentl 38:01
I don’t know. I’ve actually tried to look this up, because I wanted to see if there was any ancient historian on the team, because I felt like surely there must have been, but I couldn’t actually find any of the details. But obviously, Lil Nas X listens to your podcast as well.

Dr Rad 38:14
Naturally, naturally, all the greats do.

Yentl 38:17
If he could get in contact with me, and let me know, I’d be very interested. Because yeah, I tried to use that when I was speaking about this topic at a conference. And I couldn’t actually find whether there were historians involved. But I would really like to. I volunteer my services, of course, for later music videos, I’m available.

Dr Rad 38:36
We could all become part of his advisory team.

Yentl 38:41
Yeah, exactly. Yes, I see that as a very real possibility.

Dr Rad 38:47
All he needs to do is listen to this episode, he’ll be like, Oh my god, they’ve been wanting me to contact them. And I was too shy.

Yentl 38:52

Dr G 38:53
Get in touch, man. Get in touch. We’re out, we’re ready.

Dr Rad 38:58
Just as a an interesting question, I suppose to sort of wrap everything up. I suppose that by talking about all the challenges that Lil Nas X is posing to some interpretations of like the classical world, and, and all of that kind of stuff that we’ve been, we’ve been talking about, it kind of makes the ancient world sound like this queer paradise where anything goes in terms of your sexuality. I was wondering if maybe we could wrap up with maybe a bit of a chat about about that, and about what we can tell about how people were living their lives and exploring their sexualities in the ancient world.

Yentl 39:34
Yeah, so I think, by no means we should consider ancient Greece and Rome is kind of this utopian paradise, which is very easy to do. We choose specific sources and we look at specific things. But that wasn’t actually the case. And there were a lot of, although in some scenarios, same sex relationships, same sex attraction was considered to be Eat good. And to be honest, like ideal, it was in very, very select situation. So in ancient Greece, we see if there’s an adult man, and a kind of younger, like 14-15 year old boy, then that’s acceptable, because we have this kind of pederasty, this, like erotic relationship. And it’s seen as a way of kind of almost like a social ritual to transition from boys into adult men. But even then it seemed like, the adult man should be very into it, and the boy shouldn’t really be that into it. So it’s very, there are very a lot of restrictions on that. And adult men potentially shouldn’t be in a relationship like that. That’s not proper, if the man is too old. Some sources say like, if the young man has a beard when he’s too old, then that’s it. But then we do have in Plato’s Symposium, you know, one of the characters is saying that people that have this kind of upper level of love, this desire for men will continue on into adulthood, and will have wives and children because they have to, but would rather live with other men by themselves in a fake kind of union, and will be very happy just living with a man just by themselves, they do have the recognition that obviously like this did still happen, even if that wasn’t the ideal way that sexuality should be portrayed. And in ancient Rome, it’s kind of the idea is that the, there is no shame if you’re a man, having sex with anybody else. But if you’re the kind of receiver of the sex, and that is shameful, because that’s being like a woman. And as we all know, women are shameful, it’s literally a word. Men should not be like a woman in any way, because that will be awful and wrong. So yeah, so again, we have this kind of split between what was acceptable, and then the kind of role that then wasn’t acceptable. But then obviously, if you are a powerful person, whatever goes, you know, like when Nero took was married to two different men, one of them, he was, like, took the role of the bride. One, he was like the groom, as we would say, I guess. And you know, he’s the Emperor who’s going to do anything to him, like, he what he says go, you know,

Dr Rad 42:31
Until he gets stabbed, of course.

Yentl 42:38
So we have this whole spectrum of what was considered acceptable, what wasn’t considered acceptable. But then also, we have these kind of pockets of same sex attraction, same sex relationships, like the Sacred Band of Thebes, are this band of warriors that are said to all be in kind of erotic relationships with each other, so that they would fight better. And, as far as I know, there’s not much I haven’t seen a lot of ancient sources saying, like, oh, this was wrong, because they were all men that were fighting together, you know, there are certain areas where it’s considered acceptable. But also, it’s just evidence that queer relationships were happening, and happened, you know, in all kinds of ways, a lot of our sources just come from these main city points, like in Athens, in Rome, whatever. But the ancient world goes so much further than just these kind of hotspots of where a lot of our sources come from. And so I think that what we can take from them is that yeah, there was obviously same sex attraction. People were in queer relationships, and we have from loads of sources talking about even when, you know, a relationship might have started as this kind of socially acceptable pederasty in ancient Greece, they didn’t break up then when the younger one got to a certain age, they just carried on dating. And so yeah, there’s I mean, you just have to read the works of Sappho as well to see that we do have, you know, also romantic relationships or same sex attraction between women occurring and see it written down in different places.

Dr Rad 44:15
Yeah, it is so fascinating when you look at the ancient world, because whilst obviously some of our sexual norms are quite different to the rules that were in place in these different places, I kind of feel like there is one commonality and that power is so often a hallmark of all of our sexual standards or our sexual relationships, it even though it might not play out in exactly the same way, I feel like power always has a role that it always is what people are kind of really concerned about.

Yentl 44:44
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. But I think also that it’s an important thing that we shouldn’t overlook. Like when certain figures from history are kind of, you know, I went to an exhibition on kind of, like queer love, race. something or a few years ago, and they were kind of celebrating, like Hadrian and Antinous as this kind of beautiful queer relationship, but also like Hadrian was an emperor who was a lot older, and Antinous was like a 16 year old boy. And so it’s like, can we really? Should that be the kind of relationship that we’re celebrating? Was there a lot of agency there? And so I think we definitely can’t look back on this as kind of this paradise of Oh, and it was completely accepting. And, yeah, and it was so forward thinking, because it wasn’t in massive amounts of waves for many, many reasons. And so yeah, while we can see that queer people have always existed, that people have always experienced, same sex attraction, same sex love, we can’t kind of hold this up as like this perfect kind of paradigm of what society should be like, because it was very problematic in so many different ways.

Dr Rad 46:02
Yeah, especially in Rome, because it was often that, you know, like, a man could have sex, as you say, with, with, with most people who were seen as being beneath him. So like his, like slaves or women. But he wouldn’t be able, I don’t think to have sexual relationships with say, like a citizen boy, without that being frowned upon, regardless of the role he was taking.

Yentl 46:25
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And so. So yeah, I think it’s very important that we don’t, it can be tempting, obviously, to look back at these figures and see collective ancestry or whatever, you kind of searching for to see that. And it’s definitely valid to, you know, see these examples of queer desire and LGBTQ plus slides. That also I think we need to take it with a pinch of salt, and also be just thinking, okay, yeah, thinking critically about these things as well.

Dr G 46:55
Yeah, there’s that sense of there is both the ideas which is central to the way that we understand the world and drawing upon that history to further deepen our understanding and appreciation of humanity in all of its facets. But then keeping note of that critical lens on particular contexts and how these things are embedded in real worlds and the consequences they have for the people who lived in those periods of time.

Yentl 47:22
Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more.

Dr Rad 47:24
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because obviously, with pride month, there have been so many episodes of podcasts coming out about Oscar Wilde. And I love Oscar Wilde writing so much. And he obviously studied the classics, and he really adored them. And he did. So he did talk about, you know, Greek ideals of homosexual love and homosexual relationships, and that sort of thing. And it is really tempting to obviously see him as this tragic persecuted victim, which, obviously, I think on so many levels, he was a victim of his context and that sort of thing. But one thing I had forgotten was how many of his relationships were with much younger boys, because he was at he was sort of holding up that Greek sort of plastic ideal in quite a few of his relationships. And it is easy to sort of overlook that kind of aspect of his life as well.

Yentl 48:19
Yeah, absolutely. I think, yeah, we can’t hold up certain figures. I don’t know what the equivalent I’ve been talking about some in like teaching about, like, not holding up female figures and saying, like, don’t want to, like go boss them, but I don’t know what the equivalent for.

Dr G 48:36
I think it’s “boy boss”.

Yentl 48:38
boy boss – yes. Let’s not boy boss characters as queer heroes. But yeah, and just an important thing with pederasty as well, because I think it can link to and be used in like, certain aspects of like, homophobic rhetoric, the in ancient Greece, also, this age that the boys were when they entered these kind of relationships is the same age that girls were considered ready for marriage. That wasn’t like a specific thing, just because it was a same sex relationship. That was the idea at the time was okay. By the time someone is around 15, they are ready to have a sexual relationship and they are ready to like, either if they’re a girl to be married, if they’re a boy to then begin this transition into becoming a man and then they will marry when they are older. So I think that it’s an important thing to remember that it’s not just that this is to do with it, the fact that it was queer or fact that it was like homoerotic. And I just think that’s an important. That’s an important thing to remember.

Dr Rad 49:36
Definitely. And in fact, that was something that again, come out came out at the time with Oscar Wilde’s trials in that people were some people were highlighting that everyone was getting in such a tizzy about his relationships with men at the time, but they didn’t seem too concerned about the age that women were when they were being, you know, either married or for you Maybe forced into sex work or whatever. So yeah, it’s it’s funny that there Yeah. There’s also that caveat to that particular example as well.

Dr G 50:09
Yeah, I think this conversation has gone in in so many different directions. Now. It’s really like yeah, like, and it’s, I think it opens up the conversation in really important ways. Because it’s like, there is a historical through line for us when we think about how we understand ourselves. And also, like the contextual differences over time as well, that become really those points that you hold on to as well, because it’s like, yeah, as you say, there’s not necessarily a utopia out there in the in the past, but there is ways in which we can utilize the ancient world in the way that like Lil Nas X has done in this music video, to think about and to requestion, some of the values that are on display in the mainstream today.

Yentl 51:01
Yeah, I completely agree. I think the music video just wraps all of this up and really emphasizes the discussions that this can that it can foster about antiquities, sexuality, and also the modern day.

Dr Rad 51:15
Well, hopefully, a lot of the people who have been persuaded by the views of the alt right will be super keen to listen to this episode, and check out Lil Nas X’s work. And so to see the lies that have been fed, the classical way of looking at this particular song, and I must admit, I felt like my mind was really opened up by looking at this particular example, which I don’t think I would have come across, if not for your work, Yentl, so thank you so much.

Yentl 51:42
I’m glad you enjoyed. Yeah, I think everyone should watch the music video. Critical piece of art.

Dr G 51:47
And I think as you say, like every time you look at it, you see more in it. Like, I’ll admit that like Latin is by far more preferred ancient language of ancient Greek and I did not spot the Latin.

Yentl 52:02
Yeah, literally, every single time I watch it, there’s something that I haven’t seen before. Oh, wait. Actually, that’s, maybe that’s a reference to this thing, this very nice, ancient historical fact.

Dr Rad 52:14
Well, people should definitely check out your blog on this particular music video, because I know I remember from when I was reading it, that there’s so many more allusions to episodes in mythology that we haven’t even touched on. I mean, the snake. We haven’t mentioned the snake and, and I mean, there’s so much more. So please go and check out Yentl’s blog. She is the Queer Classicist.

Dr G 52:34
And thank you so much for coming on the show. Yeah. And so it’s been an absolute pleasure.

Yentl 52:38
Thank you both for having me. It’s been, yeah, so much fun to chat to you both.

Dr G 52:55
Thank you for tuning in it to this interview episode are The Partial Historians, we want to say a huge shout out, thank you to all of you, our beautiful listeners. And if you’d like to show your love for the show, there’s a few ways you can do it. We would love to read your positive reviews on whichever platform you choose to listen to us on. You can also follow us on our social media – we’re on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Mastodon. You could buy us a coffee on Ko-Fi or join our Patreon crew for early releases. We are so thankful for your listenership and we’ll catch you next time soon.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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Drs R and G laugh and spar their way through the ancient Roman world!

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