Who’s Afraid of a Queer Achilles? Thetis delivers new armour to grieving Achilles. Copper engraving (1795) by Tommaso Piroli after a drawing (1793) by John Flaxman. PD.

Who’s Afraid of a Queer Achilles?

Queer theory offers original perspectives from which to revise theoretical framings of Classics as a discipline. In this post, LUCAS postdoc in Latin literature Francesco Busti reflects on the urgency of queering Classics amid the current surge in nationalist and anti-LGBTQIA+ stances across Europe

On 4 March 2024, the Scuola Normale Superiore (SNS) in Pisa hosted a lecture on “Achilles’ Gender: A Queer and Trans Perspective on the Iliad.” “This approach,” so the abstract went, “offers new opportunities to consider Achilles’ character and experience as a queer and trans affective experience.”

Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa (Italy). By kajikawa (CC BY 3.0 DEED). No changes were made.

Two days later, the Italian right-wing newspaper Libero [“Free”] published an article denouncing the lecture, presumably on the sole basis of its title and abstract, as “supreme woke anachronism” and “the most absurd caricature of political correctness” in thrall to “rainbow carnival and gender ideology.” This article triggered a plethora of analogous reactions on websites and social media, which either reproduced excerpts of the Libero article or offered variations on its themes.

An article published by Il Giornale [“The Newspaper”], another Italian right-wing newspaper, spoke of “the triumph of woke religion, the evolution of cancel culture into reset culture” and “an integralist ideology, verging on the Taliban.” The tone of other reactions was similarly hostile (Il Primato Nazionale [“The National Primacy”]: “the latest delirium of LGBT dictatorship”; Ricognizioni [“Reconnaissances”]: “the monstrous, perverted decadence of Western thought”) if not homophobic (Vox News: “deranged lecture on the faggot Iliad”).

This outbreak of digital frenzy climaxed with a press release issued by the Italian anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQIA+ rights group Pro Vita & Famiglia [“Pro-Life and Family”], demanding the Minister of University and Research to prevent Italian universities from becoming “mass ideological re-education camps at the disposal of fanatical minorities.” The press release was headed by a picture of the SNS entrance on which a giant rainbow “WOKE” was superimposed.

Anti-abortion rally held in Rome on May 18, 2019. By https://www.corrispondenzaromana.it/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/marciaperlavita2019.jpg (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED). No changes were made.

Amid the fuss, the SNS released a statement debunking the claims made about the lecture by people who did not attend it in the first place, and the hubbub promptly died down. Yet, even after a few months, unpacking the arguments of these attacks remains tricky, primarily because of their randomness. Online communication dynamics, of course, play a significant role in this kind of process by amplifying the noise in size and strength to the point that arguments tend to lose any consistency and grow increasingly detached from reality.

What seemingly sparked a storm of verbal violence with no relevance to the content of the lecture was the sole presence of the words “gender,” “queer,” and “trans” in its title, a trinity of bugbears to most right-wing movements, and specifically to the current Italian government led by Giorgia Meloni’s populist far-right party, Fratelli d’Italia [“Brothers of Italy”]. In fact, the same reasoning underpinned Italy’s decision not to sign an EU declaration ensuring the protection and promotion of LGBTQIA+ equality because it mentions “gender,” a decision which ironically was announced this past May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

Much of the abuse launched against the SNS lecture can be explained precisely within the context of the conservative backlash Europe has witnessed in the past few years. When opponents of the SNS lecture liken “gender ideology” to totalitarianisms like “the Taliban,” their position echoes a common overlap in political discourses of populist far-right leaders between anti-LGBTQIA+ and anti-immigration stances. This overlap is based on the assumption that both “gender ideology” and “Islamization” threaten the “traditional family,” the former for wanting to eliminate sexual differences, the latter for oppressing women.

In this political context, Achilles becomes the symbol of the “natural order.” The Libero article claims that analysing Achilles’ experience from a queer and trans perspective goes “against ourselves, against what we are before we are even born, Western men.” The Italian word for “to be born” is nascere (from the Latin nascor, “to be born”) and shares its root with the Italian word for “nature,” natura (from the Latin natura, literally “the conditions of birth”).

Another Italian word cognate with both looms large in the background of these political discourses: nazione, “nation,” from the Latin natio, which an ancient gloss possibly going back to the Augustan grammarian Verrius Flaccus interestingly defines as “a race of people, who did not come from elsewhere but were born there” (Paul. Fest. 165 Lindsay genus hominum, qui non aliunde venerunt, sed ibi nati sunt). The emphasis placed in the Libero article on our prenatal condition as “Western men” signifies the slipping of the national into the natural which allows nationalistic politics to present their actions as the “natural” way of doing things.

In his capacity as the character mentioned in the first line of the first Greek literary work (Homer, Iliad 1.1 “The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus’ son Achilles”), Achilles is instrumental in naturalizing the identity of “Western men.” It is precisely in relation to Achilles’ wrath as the driving force behind the entire Iliad that the Libero article speaks of Achilles’ “substantial heterosexuality” and defines his relationship with Patroclus as a “homosexual life phase.” This reasoning anchors Achilles’ dispute with Agamemnon over Briseis to Achilles’ substance, his essence—in other words, his nature. He is identified with what we can read about him in the proem of the Iliad, and every other aspect of his character is dismissed as unsubstantial, inessential—in other words, unnatural.

Achilles surrendering Briseis to Agamemnon. Fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum, Naples. PD, PD-US.

In the last few years, Classics as a discipline has been increasingly involved in a theoretical approach which calls into question such traditional understandings of identity as that upheld by the Libero article. This approach, known as “queer theory,” addresses specifically the processes that made social constructions and cultural fictions about sex, gender and sexual desire into “natural” categories. Queer theory is particularly promising in the study of the ancient world because it allows us to highlight historical differences between ancient and modern categorizations of sex, gender and sexuality and to point at both systems of norms, values and assumptions as socially constructed and not naturally permanent.

Queer Classics is experiencing a surge in interest, but its potential is vastly uncharted. Given the increasing spread of nationalist and anti-LGBTQIA+ stances across Europe and their use of classical culture as an anchor, this call to revise standard theoretical framings of Classics becomes critical.

© Francesco Busti and Leiden Arts in Society Blog, 2024. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Francesco Busti and Leiden Arts in Society Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Further reading

Butler, Judith. “Why is the idea of ‘gender’ provoking backlash the world over?” The Guardian, October 23, 2021.

Haselswerdt, Ella, Sara H. Lindheim, and Kirk Ormand, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Classics and Queer Theory. Abingdon: Routledge, 2024.

Indelicato, Maria Elena, and Maíra Magalhães Lopes. 2024. “Understanding populist far-right anti-immigration and anti-gender stances beyond the paradigm of gender as ‘a symbolic glue’: Giorgia Meloni’s modern motherhood, neo-Catholicism, and reproductive racism.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 31, no. 1: 6–20.

Schiesaro, Alessandro. “Quei venti d’intolleranza che soffiano nei dintorni della Normale di Pisa.” Il Sole 24 Ore, March 20, 2024.