by Mina Kelly
Never Before Touched by Cupid is inspired by the introduction of the translation of Propertius I studied at university. The editor lavished pages on describing this beautiful, virile young man insinuating himself in Maecenas’s set, flirting his way around garden parties and being adored and petted by the older poets. It was not very academic, but a lot more fun for it.
In writing this story, one thing I had to be aware of (and my editor helped a lot with!) was making sure I didn’t go full geek on it. I wanted to keep the references to the period and the poetry accessible enough that they added depth without knocking readers out of the story. Erotic stories shouldn’t require a classics degree to understand.
One of the most interesting things about writing m/m/m during the golden age of Roman poetry is how different the attitudes to sexuality are. Though the concepts of straight, gay, bi and ace do appear in classical literature (check out Lucian’s dialogue regarding the Cnidos Aphrodite), the most commonly perceived binary was top versus bottom. To top during sex was to assert your superiority, so cismen were always superior to ciswomen, because they topped by default. In a group of cismen, especially a bunch of high ranking poets, establishing who got to top whom involved the kind of social politics more commonly associated with who sits next to the dowager duchess at dinner in Downtown Abbey.
Horace is pretty clear in his poetry that he perceives himself as a top in all but the most exalted company. Meanwhile, the very fact that Propertius writes elegies, a feminine form of poetry, makes him suspect of being a bottom. Virgil comes across as very repressed in his poetry; relationships end in bloody death or go unrequited because the socially superior narrator is uncomfortable approaching the more attractive and masculine inferior—he knows he ought to top, but he doesn’t have the nerve. He’s willing to sacrifice his social standing with Horace, because their friendship is free from judgement.
Never Before’s original title was contactum nullis ante cupidinibus, which is a line from Propertius’ first book of Elegies. The full line is “Cynthia first caught with her eyes, miserable old me who’d never before been touched by Cupid.” It’s a poem about how passion can take you by surprise and set up residence in your breast, where it can withstand the rejection from your paramour, the scorn from your friends, and your own desperate attempts to force it out.
You can read Propertius with the cynical eye of adulthood, or embrace it with the rawness of an adolescent crush. And the story I wanted to tell with Never Before is that no one’s too old for an adolescent crush, no matter how long they’ve been around.