Kitagawa Utamaro-Lovers in the Upstairs Room of a Teahouse 1788 The Meiji Restoration in 1868 opened Japan’s ports again to foreign trade after 200 years of international isolation. Soon Japanese art and artefacts found their way to Paris and London which resulted in a craze known as Japonisme. Ukiyo-e, particularly the works of the masters, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kitagawa Utamaro, would have a profound effect upon the first of all modern art movements, Impressionism.
Utamaro was renowned for his psychologically astute portraits of courtesans. Employing sophisticated compositional techniques of partial views, striking mannerism and subtle gradients of light and shade, Utamaro was collected by many luminaries of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, notably Degas, Gaugain and Toulouse-Lautrec. The serenity of his female studies were clearly a major influence on the ground-breaking female artist Mary Cassett.
Utamaro, like every ukiyo-e artist produced a large body of shunga. His sensitivity to female beauty combined…
Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads. We invent animals and events that don’t exist, we rerun history with alternative outcomes, we envision social and moral utopias, we revel in fantasy art, and we meditate both on what we could have been and on what we might become. Animators such as Hayao Miyazaki, Walt Disney and the people at Pixar Studios are masterful at imagination, but they’re only creating a public version of our everyday private lives. If you could see the fantastic mash-up inside the mind of the average five-year-old, then Star Wars and Harry Potter would seem sober and dull. So, why is there so little analysis of imagination, by philosophers, psychologists and scientists?
Apart from some cryptic passages in Aristotle and Kant, philosophy has said almost nothing about imagination, and what it says seems thoroughly disconnected from the creativity that artists and laypeople call ‘imaginative’.
Aristotle described the imagination as a faculty in humans (and most other animals) that produces, stores and recalls the images we use in a variety of mental activities. Even our sleep is energised by the dreams of our involuntary imagination. Immanuel Kant saw the imagination as a synthesiser of senses and understanding. Although there are many differences between Aristotle’s and Kant’s philosophies, Kant agreed that the imagination is an unconscious synthesising faculty that pulls together sense perceptions and binds them into coherent representations with universal conceptual dimensions. The imagination is a mental faculty that mediates between the particulars of the senses – say, ‘luminous blue colours’ – and the universals of our conceptual understanding – say, the judgment that ‘Marc Chagall’s blue America Windows (1977) is beautiful.’ Imagination, according to these philosophers, is a kind of cognition, or more accurately a prerequisite ‘bundling process’ prior to cognition. Its work is unconscious and it paves the way for knowledge but is not abstract or linguistic enough to stand as actual knowledge.
This rather mechanical approach to the imagination is echoed in more recent computational and modular theories of the mind, according to which human thinking is packaged by innate processors. The American philosopher Denis Dutton, for example, argued in The Art Instinct (2009) that landscape paintings are popular because they trigger an innate instinctual preference for distant scouting positions in our ancestors, who were evaluating the horizon for threats and resources. That view – dominant in contemporary evolutionary psychology – seems very far away from the artist’s or even the engineer’s view of creative imagination.
It is perhaps unsurprising that philosophers and cognitive theorists have a rather arid view of the imagination, but our everyday ideas about the imagination are not much better. Following the Greeks, we still think of our own creativity as a muse that descends upon us – a kind of spirit possession or miraculous madness that flooded through Vincent van Gogh and John Lennon, but only trickles in you and me. After the great Texas guitar improviser Stevie Ray Vaughan died, Eric Clapton paid tribute by describing him as ‘an open channel … music just flowed through him’.
We’ve romanticised creativity so completely that we’ve ended up with an impenetrable mystery inside our heads. We might not literally believe in muse possession anymore, but we haven’t yet replaced this ‘mysterian’ view with a better one. As the Austrian painter Ernst Fuchs said of the mysterious loss of self that accompanies the making of art: ‘My hand created, led in trance, obscure things … Not seldom, I get into a trance while painting, my state of consciousness fades, giving way to a feeling of being afloat … doing things I do not know much about consciously.’ This mysterious view of imagination is vague and obscure, but at least it captures something about the de-centred psychological state of creativity. Psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have celebrated this aspect of creativity by describing (and recommending) ‘flow’ states, but the idea of ‘flow’ has proven little more than a secular redescription of the mysterian view.
Evolutionary thought offers a path out of this confusion. In keeping with other evolved aspects of the human mind, the imagination has a history. We should think of the imagination as an archaeologist might think about a rich dig site, with layers of capacities, overlaid with one another. It emerges slowly over vast stretches of time, a punctuated equilibrium process that builds upon our shared animal inheritance. In order to understand it, we need to dig into the sedimentary layers of the mind. In TheDescent of Man(1871), Charles Darwin says: ‘The Imagination is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty he unites former images and ideas, indepe, dently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results … Dreaming gives us the best notion of this power; as [the poet] Jean Paul Richter says: “The dream is an involuntary art of poetry.”’
Richard Klein, Maurice Bloch and other prominent paleoanthropologists place the imagination quite late in the history of our species, thousands of years after the emergence of anatomically modern humans. In part, this theory reflects a bias that artistic faculties are a kind of evolutionary cheesecake – sweet desserts that emerge as byproducts of more serious cognitive adaptations such as language and logic. More importantly, it is premised on the relatively late appearance of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period (c38,000 years ago). It is common for archaeologists to assume that imagination evolves late, after language, and the cave paintings are a sign of modern minds at work, thinking and creating just as we do today.
Contrary to this interpretation, I want to suggest that imagination, properly understood, is one of the earliest human abilities, not a recent arrival. Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.
Lions on the savanna, for example, learn and make predictions because experience forges strong associations between perception and feeling. Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be. On this view, imagination extends back into the Pleistocene, at least, and likely emerged slowly in our Homo erectus cousins.
When we hear the word ‘cup’, the motor parts of our brain ‘pick up’ a ‘cup’
In contemporary philosophy, representation tends to be mostly understood in terms of language. A representation is an inner mental entity that has meaning via its correspondence with the external world or via its coherencewithin a context of other meaningful experiences (that is, other representations, rules, schema and so on). My representation of a ‘dog’ stands in for real flesh-and-blood mammals out in the world. Traditional semantic theories, from empiricism, positivism and even some semiology assumed that the basic element of meaning was the word – ‘dog’ or ‘chien’ or ‘gou’. However, philosophers such as Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon have challenged this model of meaning by showing that there are deep embodied metaphorical structures within language itself, and meaning is rooted in the body (not the head).
Rather than being based in words, meaning stems from the actions associated with a perception or image. Even when seemingly neutral lexical terms are processed by our brains, we find a deeper simulation system of images. When we hear the word ‘cup’, for example, our neural motor and tactile systems are engaged because we understand language by ‘simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes’, as the cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen puts it in Louder Than Words (2012). When we hear the word ‘cup’, the motor parts of our brain ‘pick up’ a ‘cup’.
This has been important research in how we understand the mind, but to fully understand the imagination we also need to explore the evolutionary period before language (a layer of prelinguistic mind to which I believe we still have access). Like prelinguistic toddlers, or even non-human primates, adult humans have an emotive, associational representation of a dog, for example. It might have cute associations that orient us to approach, or negative feelings that orient us to avoid. The image of a dog, in perception or in memory will be loaded with feelings and action possibilities. The word ‘dog’, by contrast, is a later, more attenuated and abstract level of representation – neutered of most emotional and motor content.
The imagination, then, is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning. Our modern imagination originates in this early era of image meaning, or image semantics. This historical moment (probably initiated during the early Pleistocene, c2 million years ago) is replicated or recapitulated in the processes of our contemporary imaginative activities. It is the power to take the mind offline – decoupled from the immediate flow of perception – and run simulations of counterfactual virtual realities.
Our improvisational and imaginative life today has an oblique access to the ancestral human mind. Understanding this connection is the aim of a growing research movement – called biosemantics – that seeks to ground human meaning in the embodied interaction of social primates, not just in human language. As great apes, we humans almost certainly engaged in the kind of subtle, antiphonal, body-language communication that we see throughout all social primates. Primate psychologists such as Louise Barrett in Beyond the Brain (2011) are starting to track the interaction networks that build up slowly during development, giving primates the local lexicon of gestures that ultimately serve the bigger functions of dominance and submission, mating, alliance, food sharing, provisioning and so on. But we too operate in these embodied gestural systems of meaning far more than we acknowledge. For a hilarious example of baby communication that is really about emotional expression, turn-taking and bonding, rather than describing the world or conveying information, see this video of ‘talking’ twin babies.
Our primate cousins have impressive abilities (grounded in the cerebellum) for sequencing motor activities – they have a kind of task grammar for doing complex series of actions, such as processing inedible plants into edible food. Gorillas, for example, eat stinging nettles only after an elaborate harvesting and leave-folding sequence, otherwise their mouths will be lacerated by the many barbs. This is a level of problem-solving that seeks smarter moves (and ‘banks’ successes and failures) between the body and the environment. This kind of motor sequencing might be the first level of improvisational and imaginative grammar. Images and behaviour sequences could be rearranged in the mind via the task grammar, long before language emerged. Only much later did we start thinking with linguistic symbols. While increasingly abstract symbols – such as words – intensified the decoupling of representations and simulations from immediate experience, they created and carried meaning by triggering ancient embodied systems (such as emotions) in the storytellers and story audiences.
The imaginative musician, dancer, athlete or engineer is drawing directly on the prelinguistic reservoir of meaning (sometimes called the ‘hot cognition system’ – a fast, ventral pathway through the brain that gives us emotional and semi-instinctual solutions to problems in our environment). A music improviser or intuitive problem-solver has to tap into that ancient call-and-response cognition of body language and emotional expression in order to navigate the social world properly. We try this move and watch for a response, try that move and watch. We dodge and parry this incoming gesture, accept that one. Flying by the seat of our pants, in these cases, is not just some analogy to prelinguistic communication – it is the thing itself.
Humans can just daydream about a desirable body, and the sexual equipment will begin to ramp up for action
Call-and-response, for example, is one of the oldest improvisational techniques, as is synchronisation of our melodies and our body movements (as in dance). These are ancient procedures for cementing communities, captured in performances that express and inspire emotion. At a simple level, humans synchronise their movements to dance in time. At a more complex level, they remember the dance later and experiment with it, reinventing it for themselves. Such simulation techniques allow us to explore open-ended options at the fringes of social and technological rules. Eventually such socially constrained exploration evolves into more and more offline experimentation, growing into forms of thinking with images, with sounds, with gestures.
The emotionally charged aspect of this kind of offline simulation is obvious when we consider that our animal cousins need chemical triggers and explicit perceptions of a sexually attractive body to become aroused, but humans can just daydream about a desirable body, and the sexual equipment will begin to ramp up for action. First our ancestors simulated others in real time, replicating dances and tool-making, but then these simulations became available offline (with no real-time model) as memory and executive function developed.
Computational theories of mind – that equate our minds with the binary blaze of a Google search – can jibe with our more recent linguistic thinking, but not with our earlier imaginative cognition. Image-based thinking employs gestalts of information-rich detail, and emotional and motor associations. We encode and manipulate images and gestures, thereby forming the basis of subsequent meaning. As Eric Kandel puts it in TheAge of Insight (2012):
Perhaps in human evolution the ability to express ourselves in art – in pictorial language – preceded the ability to express ourselves in spoken language. As a corollary, perhaps the processes in the brain that are important for art were once universal but were replaced as the universal capability for language evolved.
I believe that the pictorial and gestural languages are still with us, and when we quiet our discursive consciousness long enough – as we do in improvisational and creative activities – we can still converse in these more ancient tongues.
Arare case from the medical literature gives us suggestive evidence that pictorial thinking has its own power independent of language. In a striking case study, in 1998 the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey at the University of Cambridge revealed the remarkable similarities between cave painting styles at Chauvet and the drawings of a 20th-century autistic girl named Nadia. Nadia’s case raises the possibility that painting and drawing, far from being the preserve of the fully modern mind, might have preceded language altogether.
Nadia was born in 1967 in Nottingham in England, and suffered from severe developmental disability. At age six, she still could not speak, had physical impairments, and many social incapacities. But even with these substantial deficits, Nadia could draw pictures with great accuracy and expression as early as age three. Humphrey placed Nadia’s toddler drawings next to the images from Chauvet and noticed striking similarities in the rendering of animals such as horses and elephants.
It is possible that Homo sapiens of 40,000 years ago were graphically literate before they were verbally literate
The contour lines of the creatures are remarkably similar, as are their dynamic poses, but also the way in which the figures are reiterated and overlaid on top of each other. This parallel is not mystical or a sign of innate representations, but rather an indication that the human mind is primed for accurate simulations. And graphic simulation – just as much as linguistic description – is a kind of knowledge.
We cannot place too much confidence in anecdotal data, but Nadia’s case should at least provoke some skepticism about the notion that Upper Paleolithic peoples had modern minds. If Nadia was so good with pictorial representation, while lacking the foundation of linguistic symbolism, then it is possible that Homo sapiens of 40,000 years ago were graphically literate before they were verbally literate. An even stronger interpretation is that Nadia was pictorially sophisticated because she had little to no conceptual/linguistic distraction in her mind. Without the alienating aspects of linguistic symbols, Nadia might have been more perceptually sensitive – leading to greater accuracy and expression in her drawing.
Nadia made meaning very effectively without propositional tools. Our recent ancestors could also have had impressive non-linguistic minds – perhaps always in imagination mode. Image-thinking could have had a complementary evolutionary pathway, alongside language, or could have evolved earlier from natural selection upon tool-making capacities and adornment techniques.
The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate my internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in my mind that carry an intense emotional charge. Fantasy that really moves us – whether it is high or low culture – tends to resonate with our ancient fears and hopes. The associational mind of hot cognition – located more in the limbic system – acts as a reservoir for imaginative artists. Artists such as Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch and H R Giger can take controlled voyages to their primitive brain (an uncontrolled voyage is madness), and then bring these unconscious forces into their subsequent images or stories.
The imagination is proficient at image associations, but it’s also extremely adept at mixed-media associations. Thinking and communicating with images requires access to inner representations, but the artist is shuffling these images into unnatural and unexpected combinations. Our very ancient cognitive abilities to free-associate become interwoven with more sophisticated aspects of cognition, such as executive function and the ability to mix or violate taxonomic categories – hybridising images. When we imagine, we blend pictures and propositions, memories and real-time experiences, sounds, stories and feelings. It is a multimedia processor that jumps laterally through connotations, rather than downward through logical inference. Much of this is unconscious, which is why the muse simile is so powerful, but this phase is followed by a reentry phase, where the free associations or stream of consciousness are brought back under executive control, and integrated into the more focused projects of the agent or artist.
Hominin waking life might have been closer to the free associations of our contemporary dream life
The mysterians have focused on this egoless stream-phase of imagination, while the mechanists have focused on the combinatorial results, produced in the dark machinery of imagination. Each model captures an aspect of imagination, but when we consider the evolution of mind we see how the two models are integrated in the activity of our embodied cognition.
In the earliest phase of this evolutionary process (probably during the Pliocene epoch) we had a kind of involuntary imagination. At this time, hominin waking life might have been closer to the free associations of our contemporary dream life. Our ancestors could obviously perceive a lion on the savanna, but random memory images of lions might also rise up unpredictably while engaged in daily work. Next, during the Pleistocene, a semi-voluntary imagination arose, like we find in real-time hot cognition (still accessible in our contemporary improvisational creativity). We can imagine, for example, how ritualised behaviours guided by shamans would have brought imaginary beings (some based on lions) into consciousness through habitual actions and gestures.
And finally (from Upper Paleolithic through Holocene epochs), the voluntary imagination emerges, which harvests associational products from the first two phases and brings them under the executive control of cold cognition (slow, logical deliberation). For example, the cave paintings ‘lion man’ at Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany and ‘bison man’ in the Grotte de Gabillou in France might be early examples of the voluntary mixing of animal and human forms in the visual arts. Hybridised or composite creatures occupy some of our earliest cultural expressions – from cave painting to Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Vedic mythologies. Such zoological category violations appear to be early (and persistent) manoeuvers in the logic of imagination.
Between the modular circuitry and mysterious flights of fantasy lies the humble realm of evolutionary degrees. Before you have a modern eye, you need a simpler optical predecessor, and before that you need responsive light-sensitive tissue. Evolution scales up from the ground, so to speak. Similarly, evolution built a crude imaginative faculty before language and culture refined it into a sophisticated one. The raw system (dominated by emotional and perceptual associations) is still alive and well in the basement of our psychology. You can get a glimpse of it in your dreams, or just pick up a musical instrument or a brush and paper, and open the ancestral mind’s eye.
If you could fast-forward some 1,000 years and peek into a college science textbook from the year 3000, what would you see? I doubt you’d find many of our current theories still in there. Today, the Standard Model of particle physics and Albert Einstein’s general relativity seem like twin pinnacles of human intellectual achievement. Tomorrow, they might be cast into history’s dustbin, relegated to mere footnotes alongside old ideas about the Earth-centred solar system and the deterministic Universe. It would be a humbling sight – and a tremendously reassuring one.
Given the choice, I would prefer to see our current theories not validated. I’d much rather live in a Universe where we discover that today’s view of physics is comically naïve. If I am so lucky as to live to see deep new discoveries about the true nature of reality, I hope to find them bizarre and shocking. In 1,000 years, physics and mathematics will probably have progressed so far that the very nature of the questions will be incomprehensible to us. Researchers will have moved on to bigger, more mind-blowing questions that today’s deepest thinkers are not yet even equipped to ask.
Consider the recent total solar eclipse that transfixed North America. Thousands of years ago, such an event might have seemed like a clue about the divine order of the world or a portent of the future. Modern astronomers recognise the eclipse as a cosmic coincidence – the Sun and the Moon just happen to be the same size in our sky – but one that is useful for studying the plasma physics of the solar atmosphere.
How will physicists in the year 3000 view our current consternation over the apparent coincidences within the Standard Model of particle physics? The charge of the electron and the proton are thought to be unrelated arbitrary constants, yet they balance exactly. The mass of the Higgs boson would be many thousands of times heavier if two other seemingly unrelated constants didn’t match for many decimal places. Are these clues that will help us unravel the secrets of nature, or are they simply more misleading coincidences that future physicists will chuckle over at our expense?
If we really could get our hands on that future science text, I like to think we would have just about zero chance of understanding it. If you have the opportunity to visit the year 3000, don’t waste your time sneaking into university libraries. You’d be better off snatching children’s books from kindergartens if you want to have any chance of comprehending them. Better yet, you can peek into the future right now by exploring the biggest things we already know that we don’t know about the Universe.
For starters, there is much that we do not understand the nature of matter. We don’t know why there is both matter and antimatter, and why there’s much more of one than the other. Most of the observable Universe consists of four basic particles called fermions (the up quark, down quark, electron and neutrino). They each have two cousins that mimic them in nearly every way but are much more massive. Why? We have no idea.
Even this limited knowledge is relevant only to the 5 percent of the Universe made of these familiar particles. Physicists refer to the ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ that make up that 95 percent. In this case, dark means not just that we do not see these components, but that we have no idea what they are or where they come from. Nearly all we know about dark matter is that there is about five times as much of it as what we used to think of as normal matter – the stuff that makes up you and me and ice cream and stars. The bulk of the energy density of the Universe is devoted to dark energy, about which we know even less, except that it’s busy pulling the Universe apart.
Connecting the mysteries of matter and energy are questions about the nature of gravity. Quantum mechanics and general relativity don’t agree about what happens when gravity gets extremely strong, such as inside black holes. This discrepancy is an exotic symptom of a serious gap between our two most successful physics theories.
Behind the curtain loom even larger mysteries. What – if anything – is outside the observable Universe? What – if anything – came before the Big Bang? There are also open questions about basic elements of existence. What are space and time? We have learned recently that space is much more than an abstract backdrop on which events of the Universe play out. It bends in the presence of mass, and ripples with gravitational waves. Some theorists propose that space can be quantized, built up out of discrete units. Such speculations sound to us like science fiction but might make physicists in the year 3000 smirk at our cluelessness.
And even these questions can understate how little we know. The most dramatic insights are likely to appear not in places where our ignorance is obvious, but where we are not even aware of our conceptual errors. Humans have a long track record of overgeneralising. When J J Thompson discovered the electron in 1897, he imagined it as the building block of all matter, simply because it was the first fundamental particle discovered. Now, as we wonder what dark matter is made of, the leading candidates are undiscovered particles known as WIMPs (for weakly interacting massive particles), because they fit neatly into our current theories. Maybe so… or maybe our extrapolations will again fail, and future discoveries will upend bedrock assumptions.
I get impatient to have the cosmic mysteries solved right now. You probably do, too. After all, the answers must exist, and the clues to piece them together are likely all around us. Confronting our profound ignorance is frustrating, but it is also crucial. It is the force driving us forward. Real progress in understanding the Universe requires recognising that every instance of our ignorance is a scientific opportunity and then resolving to chip away at it. Advancing our understanding requires venturing beyond the edifice of current thought and opening our minds to new ideas.
Someone might reasonably ask: why bother? Does it matter how many cousins the electron has, or whether the Universe is finite or infinite? To me, those seemingly abstract questions help us answer the deepest questions we all face: why are we here, and how should we live our lives? Think how different our modern mindset is from that of 1,000 years ago. Learning that Earth is not the centre of the cosmos changed our view of our significance, for scientists and non-scientists alike. Discovering the basic structures and ordering principles of the Universe will reveal something even more fundamental about our place in the natural world.
That is why it’s important to fund the basic research that lets us stumble into great new discoveries. By acknowledging what we don’t know – the areas where we have no idea, really – we give direction to this stumbling. Then we can press, slowly but inexorably, toward a future in which our children will read about astonishing new discoveries in the colourful pages of a kindergarten picture book.
In Greek Mythology The Moirae or Moirai (in Greek Μοῖραι, meaning the “apportioners”, often called The Fates), were the three white-robed personifications of Destiny (Roman equivalent: Parcae, “sparing ones”). They assigned to every person his or her fate or share in the scheme of things.
Their number became fixed at three: Clotho, (spinner), Lachesis (allotter) and Atropos (unturnable).
•Clotho(“spinner”) spun the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle. Her Roman equivalent was Nona, (the ‘Ninth’), who was originally a goddess called upon in the ninth month of pregnancy.
•Lachesis(“allotter” or drawer of lots) measured the thread of life allotted to each person with her measuring rod. Her Roman equivalent was Decima (the ‘Tenth’).
•Atropos (or Aisa, “inexorable” or “inevitable”) was the…
Was the eunuch Earinus the lover of Domitian, one of Rome’s ‘Bad Emperors’? Llewelyn Morgan pieces together the extraordinary relationship between them.
Roman poetry offers many pleasures, but one thing it does not often provide is insight into the lives and experiences of the socially marginalised. We hear a lot about members of the social and political elite, from whom came both the authors and most of the readers of literature in Rome. We also see a fair amount of abuse directed at figures who might threaten the control exerted by this elite, such as influential women or powerful ex-slaves. Sympathetic accounts of the lives and aspirations of such people are, however, thin on the ground.
No group in Greco-Roman society was more maligned than the one to which Earinus belonged. He was a eunuch. To a culture that associated sexual potency with social respectability, eunuchs were beneath contempt. Yet for a brief moment in AD 94 Earinus transcended his contemptible condition, or at least that is how it appears from examination of the historical record. The story of Earinus tells us something about an individual’s efforts to achieve dignity in a culture that despised him.
Earinus was a slave owned by Domitian, Roman emperor from AD 81 to 96. Our evidence for Earinus’ life comes almost entirely from the poetry of Statius and Martial, the leading lights of Rome’s literary culture during Domitian’s reign. Like Caligula, Nero or Caracalla, Domitian is one of the ‘bad emperors’. He was undoubtedly paranoid (‘Shortage of funds made him rapacious’, wrote his biographer Suetonius, ‘and fear made him savage’). Yet there is a case to be made that, while less tactful than other emperors, he understood the essential character of imperial rule and was a competent and assiduous administrator. The greater prominence of Domitian in the public eye and the more blatantly autocratic nature of his regime left its mark on contemporary literature: one reason for the comparative neglect of Statius and Martial in modern scholarship is their sycophantic treatment of the emperor. But there is more to both poets than flattery and, even when they do schmooze Domitian, there is considerable historical interest in how they go about it.
Fragments of a colossal statue of Domitian from Ephesus, first century AD, Photograph by Sophie HayOne aspect of this more autocratic tendency under Domitian has special relevance for Earinus. Domitian had appointed himself Perpetual Censor, the guardian of traditional Roman morality. Among his enactments as Censor, courtesans were forbidden from travelling in litters, a conveyance that conveyed status, and a senator was expelled from the Senate for being too keen on dancing. More disturbingly, when a Vestal Virgin committed adultery, Domitian had her buried alive. (Her lovers were beaten to death with rods in the Forum.) But this puritanical zeal also saw him ban child prostitution and child castration; with a characteristic eye for detail he also introduced price controls, thereby ensuring that slave dealers who still had eunuchs on their books would not benefit from a rise in price as the commodity became more scarce.
Six poems by the epigrammatist Martial, all from his ninth book, and one longer composition by Statius, from his occasional poems known as Silvae, describe an elaborate, international ceremony in AD 94. Earinus, at the time aged between 16 and 18 years old, cut his long hair short and sent the cuttings, enclosed in a gold box studded with precious stones and accompanied by a golden mirror, as an offering to Asklepios, god of medicine, at his shrine in Pergamon (Pergamon is now Bergama in western Turkey, but was then an important city in the wealthy Roman province of Asia).
Statius’ poem recounts Earinus’ life up until that moment in AD 94, in the highly stylised manner of court poetry. It is the poetic counterpart, consciously so, of the gold, bejewelled box that bore his hair to Pergamon. Extracting dependable biographical information about Earinus from it (and from Martial’s epigrams on the same topic) is a challenge, but what we can gather is that Earinus had been born at Pergamon and was either a slave from birth or had been sold into slavery (perhaps by impoverished parents) at a very early age. Trafficked to Rome, in conditions certainly grimmer than those Statius describes (a swan-drawn chariot driven by Venus herself …), Earinus entered the service of the emperor.
At some point, but most likely when still a very small child, Earinus had been castrated. A Byzantine medical treatise by Paul of Aegina describes the kind of procedure he underwent:
When still infants, children are placed in a basin of hot water. Then, when the parts are relaxed, the testicles are squeezed with the fingers while still in the basin until they disappear and, being dissolved, no longer feel solid to the touch.
Castration of male children, by this or by a surgical method, produced a commodity for which dealers could ask high prices: a slave considered more malleable and docile, representing no threat to an owner’s womenfolk and whose boyish good looks would be preserved beyond the natural age of puberty.
Eunuch slaves and ex-slaves of the emperor’s household would become a significant phenomenon in the later Roman Empire, in some cases wielding immense power. In Earinus’ day, however, the imperial eunuch was still a rarity. One interesting exception is Posides, an official of the Emperor Claudius half a century earlier, who was involved in some capacity in the conquest of Britain. Posides was notorious for his immense wealth and extravagant building projects. There is an attractive theory that he gave his name to Positano, jewel of the Amalfi Coast: a spectacular Roman villa underlies much of the modern town and may have been called Posidetanum, the villa of Posides.
The sources never let us forget that Posides was a eunuch. His condition both fascinated and appalled Romans. They also encountered eunuchs in the cult of Cybele, notable for the galli, eunuch acolytes of the goddess, who processed through Rome to the accompaniment of drums, cymbals and raucous music. Self-castration for the galli was a way of distancing themselves from ordinary life and drawing closer to the divine. (The Skoptzy, a Christian sect in 19th-century Russia, are another example of such a phenomenon.) Cybele’s festival was an important one in the Roman calendar, but the galli were never something the Romans could feel comfortable with.
Eunuchs were a decadent, eastern phenomenon, an alien and alarming presence to many in Rome. Representative of this attitude is the poet Claudian in his attack on Eutropius, a political rival of Claudian’s patron Stilicho, also a eunuch. Claudian runs through a litany of horrifying events – speaking animals, showers of stones, fountains turned to blood – but insists that all fall short of the ultimate prodigy Eutropius, a eunuch consul. The consul, chief magistrate of the traditional Roman state, represents Rome’s austere traditional values; a eunuch their polar opposite. Claudian was writing three centuries after Earinus and Posides, but his prejudices were entirely in tune with Roman tradition.
Boiled down to its essence, Greco-Roman sexual morality was about maintaining the integrity of the male body. Domitian, meanwhile, was Roman morality in human form, the censor perpetuus. Yet by the time we encounter him, Earinus had become one of Domitian’s closest retainers, seemingly held in great affection by the emperor. (Suetonius mentions ‘a small boy clad in scarlet with an abnormally small head’, to whom Domitian would chat during shows in the Colosseum; I have wondered whether this is a glimpse of Earinus.) His precise role in the palace was as Domitian’s minister, which in Latin means cupbearer: Earinus prepared and served the emperor’s wine. This brought him into intimate contact with the emperor, allowing Statius to inflate the privilege he enjoyed, having contact as he did with ‘the right hand [of the emperor] that the Getae seek to know, and Persians, Armenians and Indians to touch’. But a Greco-Roman cupbearer was unlike a wine butler in one critical respect. The slave that poured the wine was expected to serve the master in other ways as well: Seneca writes of the minister who, ‘dressed like a woman, wrestles with his age: he cannot escape his boyhood … and remains awake all night, dividing it between his master’s drunkenness and his master’s lust’.
Martial and Statius imply that Earinus was Domitian’s lover as well as his wine server and dwell at length on his attractiveness. Martial spends three poems riffing on his name, its meaning being ‘springlike’, which the poet associates with delicacy, youth and beauty. Statius has Venus, goddess of love, first setting eyes upon him at Pergamon, ‘a boy radiant with the star of exceptional beauty’ and mistaking him for one of her own sons, a Cupid. Both poets also work hard to assimilate Earinus to Ganymede, Jupiter’s cupbearer and lover. It is also true that, throughout history, eunuchs have been the object of sexual exploitation and that was as true in antiquity as for castrati in 18th-century Europe. So it may seem obvious that Domitian and Earinus’ relationship was the same as that between Ganymede and Jupiter.
The Kidnapping of Ganymede by Peter Paul Rubens, 1611-12
For all that, there is no proof that relations between Earinus and Domitian were carnal in nature. The task facing these poets was to exalt the emperor’s cupbearer and one way to achieve this, in a highly artificial literary culture, was by amplifying stereotypical traits of beauty and sexual attractiveness. It is worth considering Earinus’ appearance in his later teens, when the physical consequences of his castration were no doubt becoming more obvious: the unnaturally high voice, the lack of facial hair and his youthful features. In Late Antiquity the rather otherworldly appearance that eunuchs developed would make angels and eunuchs interestingly interchangeable artistic categories; similar language was used of the castrato’s uncategorisable voice. Depicting Earinus as an ethereal beauty comparable to Ganymede may be a similar strategy. Above all, Earinus must be a fitting attendant for Domitian himself and the emperor’s own facial beauty was a regular theme of these poets: ‘You are sans pareil, boy’, says Statius’ Venus. ‘The only one more beautiful is he to whom you will be given.’
We can speculate all we like on Earinus’ wider experiences, but all we really know is what happened in AD 94. The primary significance of his offering to Asklepios is clear enough and confirmed by the poets. It is a coming of age ceremony. Martial uses the key word ephebus, meaning a boy at the point of puberty, but the cutting and dedication of long hair, which was associated with boyhood, as a mark of transition to manhood was a well-established ritual. The golden mirror that Earinus also sent to Pergamon carried a similar symbolic force. As Statius describes it, it appears to function like a photograph, an item that captures and perpetuates his youthful beauty but which now, like the boy’s long hair, is surrendered and dedicated to the god as he leaves his childhood behind him.
What is peculiar about all this is that, as a eunuch, Earinus could never ‘come of age’ in the standard fashion. As Statius writes, had Earinus never been castrated, ‘You would have sent more than one offering to Asklepios’ threshold’. As it is, Earinus can only send his hair to indicate his change in status; an uncastrated teenager would have dedicated both his hair and the first shavings of his beard. In other words, the ritual Earinus had secured for himself (and for what it is worth the poets do seem clear about his agency in persuading Domitian to allow it) is an approximation of a ritual appropriate only to an uncastrated man. Earinus is insisting on becoming an adult, notwithstanding the insurmountable obstacles, and is asserting his maturity in the most conventional way he can.
A Romano-British castration clamp
Growing up was not the only significant transition Earinus experienced in AD 94. From an introduction to Statius’ third book of Silvae and from an ancient title to his poem about Earinus we learn that he was also no longer a slave. He is introduced as Domitian’s libertus and named ‘Flavius Earinus’. In other words, he had been freed by the emperor and had adopted the coveted ‘three names’ of a free man, T. Flavius Earinus, adding elements of his former master’s name to his own. Manumission of favoured slaves was a common practice in Rome, but the late teens was an astonishingly early age to achieve it and a sign of the esteem in which Domitian held him. Earinus’ escape from slavery seems as relevant to his ritual as his age. Long hair was a mark of slaves as well as children and cutting it was symbolic of one’s achievement of freedom. Slavery and childhood were conditions easily assimilated in antiquity: male slaves, whatever their age, were addressed as pais or puer, ‘boy’, a reflection of their subordinate status; a freed slave, however, could proclaim himself homo inter homines, ‘a man as good as the next man’.
So when Earinus cut his hair short, it symbolised in two parallel ways his transformation in status: he is no longer a slave and he is no longer a boy. Statius is vague about the precise rationale of the dedication to Asklepios, but Martial talks of the offerings sent to Pergamon as rata uota, ‘vows fulfilled’. The implication seems to be that Earinus had promised these offerings to Asklepios, if he secured something he desired from the god. Surely what Earinus had requested of Asklepios was to be relieved of his role as cupbearer, which entailed at one and the same time an end to his childhood and his servile status.
After this flurry of activity, ceremonial and poetic, Earinus returns to obscurity. Domitian, no longer Earinus’ master after his manumission, but still his patron, was assassinated two years later in AD 96, so the silence may have many explanations. The only possible glimpse of his future life is an inscription that survives in Florence, originating in Rome, seemingly an epitaph erected by ‘T. Flavius Earinus’ for Luria, dead at 21; the text indicates a marital relation between the two. We cannot be certain that this is our Earinus, but if the inscription has been accurately rendered, there cannot have been many of that name wandering around the Eternal City.
Earinus may have left a trace of an entirely different kind behind him, or so at least scholars of Pergamon suspect. The evidence is a rapid expansion of the cult of Asklepios at Pergamon, datable from the turn of the first and second centuries AD; in other words, to precisely the time when the shrine had been the scene of Earinus’ act of dedication. During Domitian’s reign, significantly, the hereditary priests of the cult were given the honour of Roman citizenship and henceforth, like Earinus, bore Domitian’s family name of Flavius. Domestic events within the Imperial court could have a disproportionate impact in the Empire at large and it is safe to assume that the ceremony in AD 94 for the emperor’s favourite was magnificent. At Pergamon the theory is that the patronage bestowed upon the shrine of Asklepios by Earinus and, by extension, the emperor himself, was the spark that propelled the Asklepieion at Pergamon into its period of greatest celebrity.
In the decades after Earinus’ dedication, the cult centre, which had existed since the fourth century BC, was remodelled on a much grander scale, becoming nothing less than the premier health resort of the Roman Empire. The Asklepieion at Pergamon was a religious spa, like a combination of Lourdes and Harrogate. Alongside treatment spaces, there were temples and a library and a theatre for the distraction of patients who might spend extended periods of time at the shrine. ‘Asia flocks to Pergamon’, we hear, though ‘Asia’ here is the Roman province (now, roughly, western Turkey), not the continent. In a passage from the satirist Lucian, Asklepios is one of the young, upstart gods that the head of the gods, Zeus, complains have robbed him of the respect that humanity used to give him:
Since Apollo founded his oracle at Delphi and Asklepios his hospital in Pergamon and the temple of Bendis arose in Thrace and the temple of Anubis in Egypt and the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, these are the places where they all run and celebrate feast-days and bring hecatombs, and offer up ingots of gold, while I, they think, being past my prime, am sufficiently honoured if they sacrifice to me once every four whole years at Olympia.
In its heyday the Asklepieion must have been quite something to behold. Treatment began with ‘incubation’, sleep within the precincts of the shrine: Asklepios communicated the appropriate course of therapy through dreams. One of the many instructions received from the god by Aelius Aristeides, a long-term patient at Pergamon, was to smear himself in mud from the Sacred Well and run three times around the temples. With potentially hundreds of people at any one time undertaking therapy dictated in their sleep, among them the great and good of the province of Asia, the mind boggles. It was also a dream of Asklepios that brought to the shrine at Pergamon its most famous alumnus, Galen, the greatest physician of the ancient world. He had been following a conventional education of philosophy and politics until Asklepios visited his father in a dream and instructed him to send Galen to study medicine (the Asklepieion was a place of education, too: think Lourdes-Harrogate-Oxford). Galen’s influence on medical practice in antiquity and the Middle Ages stretched from western Europe to India. It is strange to imagine that Earinus’ ceremony may have been its source.
But Asklepios is not just a fortuitous presence in Earinus’ story. He was born in Pergamon and Statius claims, somewhat implausibly, that he had had a connection to Asklepios from the beginning. But there is a logic over and above private loyalties in making these offerings to this of all gods. Asklepios was the healer god, ho Soter Asklepios in Greek, ‘Asklepios the Saviour’; his shrine was the place you went to be cured. Paul of Aegina, who provided us with the technicalities of castration earlier, did so only grudgingly. Castration is contrary to medical principle, he insists, since ‘the object of our craft is to restore parts of the body from an unnatural to a natural state’. Earinus’ condition, in ancient medical terms, was unnatural, but what his dedication to Asklepios symbolised is his escape from the two handicaps to which his castration had consigned him, immaturity and slavery. In social terms, Earinus has been cured, restored to a natural state, and I think his prayer to Asklepios, in fulfilment of which he vowed his hair and the boyish image captured by the mirror, has a simple explanation. Like all supplicants to the god of medicine, Earinus prayed to be made good.
By making his dedication as he does, T. Flavius Earinus indicates that his prayer to Asklepios has been granted. And while we read all of this through the filter of a deeply conservative set of values, in which uncompromised manhood represents the ideal state, one is impressed and moved by Earinus’ efforts to achieve what the ancient world considered respectability, having been dealt the grimmest of hands in a society that saw physical and social disability as moral failings.
We should not forget the emperor, whose permission was a prerequisite of everything that Earinus achieved. Some scholars of these poems have seen a contradiction between Domitian’s intolerance of the practice of castration and his affection for a eunuch, even suggesting that Martial and Statius may be hinting at Domitian’s hypocrisy: the moralist who slept with a eunuch. There is a precedent in antiquity for reading the story of Earinus as evidence that Domitian was a bad ’un, too. The historian Cassius Dio, writing a century or so later, makes the lurid claim that, although Domitian ‘entertained a passion for a eunuch named Earinus’, he outlawed castration across the Empire out of spite towards his dead elder brother Titus, who had a particular penchant for eunuchs. In actual fact, Dio probably had no better idea about Earinus than we have and was, like us, extrapolating as best he could from the writings of Statius and Martial.
The poets certainly do not downplay the tension: Martial precedes his epigrams on Earinus in Book Nine with poems celebrating Domitian’s anti-castration law and Statius explicitly refers to Domitian’s legislation, commenting that it came too late to save Earinus. Whether Domitian slept with Earinus or not, there seems to be no contradiction here at all. The flipside of banning castration is precisely the rehabilitation of a eunuch, his reinvention as a ‘proper’ man. Both are the hallmark of an emperor who styled himself the unrelenting champion of moral decency. Domitian’s censoriousness could lead him to acts of intolerance and despotism, but in the case of Earinus he did the decent thing.
Llewelyn Morgan is Tutorial Fellow in Classics at Brasenose College Oxford and University Lecturer in Classical Languages and Literature.