Thursday, March 12, 2009

Murderous Cross-Dressing

My favourite passage from Josephus is his colourful description of the likes of John and his Galilean brigands during the Jewish War. Here Josephus highlights their murderous effeminacy in order to demonstrate what he believed to be the rightful end of those who attempt to circumvent the laws of nature, countries and God. It reads:

‘With their insatiable hunger for loot, they ransacked the houses of the wealthy, murdered men and violated women for sport; they guzzled their loot washed down with blood and from mere satiety, they shamefully gave themselves up to effeminate practices, plaiting their hair and putting on women’s clothes, drenching themselves with perfumes and painting their eyelids to make themselves attractive. They copied not merely the dress, but also the passions of women, devising in their excess of licentiousness unlawful pleasures in which they wallowed as in a brothel. Thus they entirely polluted the city with their foul practices. Yet though they wore women’s faces, their hands were murderous. They would approach with mincing steps, and, whipping out their swords from under dyed cloaks, they would impale passers-by.

Flavius Josephus – the Jewish War (iv.ix.10.)

Cross dressing thereby symbolises the nation’s demise and as the Zealots push the boundaries of moral decency the boundaries of gender disintegrate. This image of effeminacy and sexual promiscuity reflected a long and recurring trend within classical historiography, the idea that the ‘bad guys’ in civil conflict and war would inevitably reach a state of moral decadence. We are told by Tactius for example that Fabius Valens acquired a ‘long and luxurious train of harlots and eunuchs, advancing at a pace too sluggish for battle’ (Tacitus, Hist III 39-40), and presumably they weren’t much use when they eventually got there either. Presumably, if Josephus or another Classical author were to script a Bond movie, it would have the main villain depicted as a sinister, limp wristed, cross dresser who sits in his lair preening himself and applying generous quantities of makeup; all the while surrounded by prancing eunuchs and harlots. Sounds less like James Bond and more like ‘Carry on Up the Khyber’.

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