Paradox Incarnate:
Phaborinos the Hermaphrodite Sophist of Arles

A second century congenital "eunuch" profoundly influenced the Roman world by presenting himself as the embodiment of paradox


Phaborinos the Sophist was born around 90 AD in the town of Arles, in the Rhone Valley of southern France to an aristocratic family. He likely had what is now diagnosed as Reifenstein's syndrome, for he was born a congenital eunuch, with a penis but no testicles. His family could have followed tradition and had him killed by exposure to the elements as a monstrum, but instead chose to raise him as a hermaphrodite or eunuch in a very masculinist culture. Even though the population of Arles was Celtic by race (as was Phaborinos), that whole area had been colonized by Greeks for several hundred years by the time he was born, so he was schooled primarily in Greek (and secondarily in Latin) in the local gymnasium of Arles. His talent as a prodigy in rhetoric was immediately apparent to his teachers, so he was sent to Marseilles while still quite young to further his Greek education.

Entertainment consisted of public spectacle like religious ritual, theater, gladiatorial games, and oratory, amongst others. Rhetoric or oratorical declamations became such an important public display that the rules of rhetoric had been rigorously codified and it was even seen as a mystery cult, like the Eleusinian and Christian mysteries, with only the well-trained, properly initiated being allowed to present their declamations in a public forum. Oratory was also thought to be a form of "erotic magic" because of its power to gain mastery over an audience. And the audiences, who demanded that the rhetors include as many obscure classical references, word plays, and grammatical twists as possible, carefully scoured these verbal displays of rivaling orators. (Rhetorical declamations as carefully controlled improvisations have a contemporary manifestation in modern jazz.) In addition to these verbal requirements, rhetors also had to wear appropriate clothing and hold their bodies in a prescribed deportment. Deviations from this brought crowd displeasure, for this was seen as a burlesque of the Mysteries. Often huge amounts of money went to the winning orator, as well as prestige, power, and honors such as having a town erect a statue in the orator's honor in the public square (which was seen as a guarantee of divine favor lasting as long as the statue did).

Phaborinos learned to speak such perfect Attic Greek that he could even hold huge audiences of non-Greek speakers "enchanted" with the beauty of his cadence and voice. He could have stayed at home as a wealthy landowner and priest in the service of his hometown, but instead decided to take the riskier and more glamorous road of becoming an itinerant scholar, sophist, and eventually philosopher within the school of Skepticism. The Celtic orator was allowed into the ranks of the most esteemed philosophers because he was a polymath, conversant in natural philosophy, medicine, logic, epistemology, grammar, poetry, ethics, and Roman law, inter alia.

The emboldened prodigy Phaborinos studied under Dio Chrysotom in Greece and then went on a lecture tour of the cities of Greece and Asia Minor, establishing friendships with both Plutarch and the famous sophist Herodes Atticus (who was also a pupil of Phaborinos). Phaborinos eventually settled in Rome (where he became known by the Latin version of his name, Favorinus) but his home in Celtic France did not forget him, electing him as their High Priest in the cult of Augustus - an honor which also brought great responsibilities that Favorinus did not exactly relish.

Once in Rome, Favorinus began the great rivalry of his life with the master sophist Polemo, who displayed a conventional, hypermasculine self-presentation to his audiences, in direct contrast to the effeminate, beardless, and high-voiced Favorinus. In his declamations that still exist, Polemo openly despised double-meanings, ambiguities of language and physical deportment, and covert allusions.

Favorinus, on the other hand, decided to embrace these and make a career of his effeminacy, by flaunting some of the masculinist traditions of rhetoric, emphasizing a flamboyant effeminacy through the artifice of dress, hairstyle, and physical deportment. And his audiences ate it up, which annoyed and bewildered his gruff and outspoken rival. In a very unflattering description of Favorinus, Polemo wrote that the hermaphrodite was "libidinous and dissolute beyond all bounds.... He had a bulbous brow, fleshy cheeks, wide mouth, a gangling scraggly neck, fat calves, and fleshy feet. His voice was like a woman's, and likewise his extremities and other bodily parts were uniformly soft; neither did he walk with an upright posture: his joints and limbs were lax. He took great care of his abundant tresses, rubbed ointments on his body, and cultivated everything that excites the desire for sexual intercourse and lust...gathering crowds in order to display his wickedness and indulge his taste in sexual debauchery" (which apparently included both heterosexuality and homosexuality; the conservative Polemo later wrote that sexually Favorinus "both did and had done to him everything that is disgraceful".) But even more scandalous to Polemo, Favorinus was "a charlatan in the magic arts", making very popular love potions, selling lethal poisons (possibly some kind of abortifacient herbs), and even claiming the power to raise the dead!

Another more favorable view of Favorinus was written by Philostratus, who informs us that the hermaphrodite sophist simply "charmed [his audiences] with the resonance of his voice, with the expressiveness of his gaze, and with the rhythm of his speech." Audiences adored his vocal mannerisms, giving his declamations in his high-pitched, sing-song voice.

The Celtic sophist with the beautiful, enchanting voice became so popular that the cities of Corinth and Athens bestowed their greatest honor upon him and erected a statue of him in their plazas. Favorinus also became known as "the darling of Ephesus" (where he lived for a time), the Greek colonial city on the Turkish coast that was renowned for its splendid temple to Artemis (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), whose officiants were an elaborate, powerful, and extremely wealthy priesthood of transgendered and/or homosexual priests called the Megabuzoi. (More on this temple and its wealthy and powerful Queer priesthood will appear in a future article.)

At some point in the middle of his popular career, Favorinus the "eunuch" was accused of having an adulterous affair with the wife of a man of consular rank. And sometime after this was cleared up, the Celtic sophist, who had become a protege of the pederastic emperor Hadrian, had an argument with the emperor, apparently over some trivia of Greek grammar. Initially Favorinus had refused to back down but then sagaciously realized that he was no true competition for the master of thirty Roman legions. These events led one observer to relate that Favorinus "used to speak in oracular riddles about the three paradoxes of his life: he was a Celt who could speak Greek, a eunuch who was prosecuted for adultery, and he quarreled with the emperor and lived." (Philostratus, Lives, 489)

As feminist writer Maud Gleason has recently noted, it was because of this paradoxical nature he embodied that Favorinus felt that the gods had specially equipped him to be "a universal cultural paradigm for Greeks, Romans, and barbarians". In my opinion, the genius of Favorinus lies in his ability to prove that one of the "manliest" and courageous of virtues was to be viewed as uncompromisingly effeminate, to upset the dominant masculinist paradigm through rigorous and exact imitation of the socially constructed feminine; indeed, to believe and practice, as Favorinus did, that his ambiguous, fluid, and confusing "condition" was not a handicap, but in fact a gift of divine Providence to be shared freely with the entire Roman world.

Favorinus also met criticism from others besides Polemo for his embracing of effeminacy. Those who tampered with the most visible variables of masculinity (hairiness, full beard, low voice, etc.) in their self-presentation provoked vehement moral criticism from Christians and pagan alike (especially the Stoics), because they were rightly suspected of undermining the symbolic language in which male privilege and female submission were written.

Ironically, even some Cynics (who were oft rumored to be voraciously bi- or homosexual) were horrified by Favorinus' mass popularity and Lucian the Cynic wrote a book about the fictional encounter between a young Cynic named Demonax and Favorinus the Hermaphrodite. Now the ideal Cynic led an itinerant, mendicant lifestyle and did whatever he or she pleased whenever he or she felt like it, believing that the chief aim of humanity was to live fully according to nature and to eschew all pretense of social convention and custom. (Cynicism was also the only school of Greek philosophy that allowed women to gain full access to its ranks.)

In Lucian's story, when Demonax criticizes Favorinus' vocal mannerisms on the basis that they are low-born, womanlike, and inappropriate to philosophy, Favorinus confronts Demonax. Intending to make fun of the fact that the Cynics were generally uneducated (since education is a major form of social conditioning), Favorinus pointedly asks the young Demonax what qualifications he has to suspend his schooling in order to commence practicing philosophy, and Demonax responds with a classic Cynic one-liner: "balls" (orcheis), replies the non-plussed youth. Of course, this encounter was fictional, but still it reveals the uneasiness that some of the nature-focused Cynics must have felt around the artificially-enhanced effeminacy of a hermaphrodite, although the two schools of thought were attacking the same masculinist institution but from exactly opposite strategies. The Cynics eschewed all social constructions of masculinity and femininity; and Favorinus embodied them both because his identity was a product of nature but enhanced and exaggerated by the art and artifice of clothing, hairstyle, and physical deportment.

Eventually, despite Favorinus' immense public popularity and the emperor Hadrian's immense tolerance, he found himself in exile by the emperor (we do not know why) on the Ionian island of Chios, not far from his beloved Ephesus. While there he wrote a serene discourse called "On Exile" (an unauthenticated fragment of which was found in 1931 in the Vatican), in which he portrays himself "like a wild beast raised in a Persian garden".

Apparently Favorinus remained in exile until the end of Hadrian's reign in 138 AD, at which time he returned to Rome and recovered his status in the imperial court. Over the course of his life, he wrote philosophical discourses, declamations, a Miscellaneous History, and his memoirs, but only fragments of any of these exist. We do not know when or where Phaborinos died, this prolific sophist and philosopher who profoundly influenced the culture he critiqued with his body and his deportment, with his voice and his words.


For a brilliant reading of the dichotomous masculinities represented in the rivalry of Phaborinos and Polemo, see Maud Gleason's Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome. For further information on Phaborinos and his works (only available in Italian), see Adelmo Barigazzi's Favorino di Arelate: Opere.