Wrestling with Greco-Roman Mores

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NOW in his eighties, Charles Rowan Beye holds the title Distinguished Professor of Classics Emeritus at Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Beye is better known to the world as a translator of the ancient Greek classics and as a scholar whose books include Odysseus: A Life (2005) and Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil (1993). He has now written a memoir about his life and work titled My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey.

The new book is a personal testament to the unpredictability of human nature and sexuality. In 2008, Beye married his longtime partner Richard at a chapel on the edge of the Harvard University campus, where he had received a doctorate in classical philology nearly fifty years earlier. Beye’s stated goal in writing his memoir was the hope that, upon conclusion, it would leave the reader “with a better understanding of the obstacles and shoals the gay male must navigate just to grow up and assume the responsibilities of adulthood.”

As an expert in the Homeric and Virgilian epics, Beye knows instinctively how to spin a good yarn. In his quest for self-discovery, and his own personal Eros, he looks to the ancient model to make sense of his own experience. Although a sexual maverick over time, Beye suffered during puberty and into adulthood from a sense of guilt

The fresco from the Tomb of the Divers, Paestum, Italy, circa 470 B.C.E.
The fresco from the Tomb of the Divers, Paestum, Italy, circa 470 B.C.E.

instilled in him by his Christian (Episcopalian) upbringing. A childhood fall off a balcony, which damaged his lower back and forced him to wear a corset and brace until he was eighteen, left him on the school sidelines at Andover: “My schoolmates were a congenial lot, but I was not part of their athletic program, which is the true glue of teenage male relationships.” However, this turned into a sexual jackpot for the fourteen-year-old outsider, as he was placed in a dorm for the older beginning students, where each had his own room: “a lucky stroke, as it gave me the privacy to experiment sexually, without fear or shame.” This included orally pleasuring many of his horny (straight?) fellow students. Beye jokes that his first title for the book was “Blowjob: An Iowa Boyhood.”

It is difficult to decide whether Beye’s precipitous jump into heterosexual marriage, not once, but twice, was prompted by pure lust or an unconscious bid for conformity and social acceptance (or both). Perhaps it was “Fate,” a recurring leitmotif in this memoir, one that also relates to Beye’s lifelong refutation of Christianity and all its dogma, and to his embrace of all things Greek. Following his bliss into the avid study of Greek classics helped Beye “to forge an aesthetic, ethical, and moral system to take the place of the Christianity I discarded.”

The attempt to juggle marriage, raising children, forging an academic career in an institutionally straight old boy network, and falling in and out of gay relationships proved too much for Beye, and he experienced a breakdown during his last term at Yale. (The triggering event seems to have involved a drunken Beye groping a classics student after a graduation party.) He voluntarily admitted himself for a stay in the Grace-New Haven psychiatric ward.

Beye’s long life has indeed been an odyssey, as promised in his subtitle. To be sure, there are times when Beye comes off as the stereotypical absent-minded professor, times when he seems too needy or narcissistic. But in the end his honesty and open-mindedness trump everything else, and the upshot of his story is a life-affirming one.

In an interview conducted through e-mail, Beye shared his insights about same-sex relationships in classical Greece.

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