COULD what we call “camp” turn out to be, like aqueducts and concrete, an invention of the ancient Romans? Roman poets such as Catullus, Martial, and Juvenal are notorious for their ridicule of freeborn Roman males who submit to sexual penetration. These poets regularly label their male peers with Latin terms such as cinaedus, pathicus, impudicus, and mollis, none of which has a precise English equivalent, but all of which are pejorative words that mark men as effeminate and sexually submissive. I ask you to consider here the possibility that some Roman poems that use this kind of language are not earnest homophobic ridicule at all, but a very early instance of what we in the 20th century came to call “camp.” This is a controversial claim for at least two reasons. For one thing, many experts question whether we can apply such a contemporary cultural category to ancient poetry. Others chafe at the idea that there might be something subversively “homophilic” going on in what we generally consider to be forthrightly homophobic verse.
Camp has been defined in various ways, but the best working definition is the one suggested by sociologist Esther Newton in her 1972 book Mother Camp, a study of female impersonators in America. Newton argues that camp is a kind of performance, whether onstage or in everyday life, that embraces the stigma of homosexual identity by calling attention to incongruous juxtapositions in a manner that is both theatrical and humorous. By incongruous juxtapositions, she means any pairing of things that seem not to belong together: a beauty in love with a beast, an old woman living in a shoe, or a man wearing a dress. She argues that by fully embracing the stigmatized identity, camp can “neutralize the sting and make it laughable.” She continues: “Not all references to the stigma are campy, however. Only if it is pointed out as a joke is it camp, although there is no requirement that the jokes be gentle or friendly. A lot of camping is extremely hostile; it is almost always sarcastic. But its intent is humorous as well.”