Sexual Inversion, Homosexuality, and 33 Case Studies

            “Sexual Inversion” is a book written by John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis that was published in 1897. While published posthumously, it still remains one of Symonds’ most influential works and encompasses many of his thoughts pertaining to the ancient world as well as conceptions of homosexuality throughout history. “Sexual Inversion” is the first scientific study written in English on the subject of homosexuality, or “sexual inversion” as it was called before the origin and widespread use of the word “homosexuality”. The book is the product of four years of research across a variety of fields, such as anthropology and psychiatry. The result is a series of case studies of homosexual men and women that portray homosexuality (or sexual inversion) as a natural phenomenon and not something that should be considered morally wrong or shameful.[1] The book also includes Symonds’ shorter text “A Problem in Greek Ethics”, which has been one of our most important texts for the Lab throughout the semester.

Cover of “Sexual Inversion” (New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1984). Photo by Ellen Harty

This book truly epitomizes much of what John Addington Symonds believed about the history of homosexuality as well as its origins in the Classical world. The text begins with a scientific discussion about animals and their sexual practices. After this, using a series of 33 case studies of homosexual individuals, Symonds and Ellis discuss the nature and theory of sexual inversion. These case studies are extremely detailed and thoroughly describe several of the most intimate aspects of individuals’ lives. These range from details about the ages that people started experiencing certain attractions, their own individual sexual preferences, and their views on homosexuality (among many others). These case studies are extremely interesting because of just how detailed they are and how many areas are touched upon by a study of a single person. There is an incredible depth to these case studies and there is much to be learned by any reader of this book. Here is one such example of an excerpt from a case study from “Sexual Inversion”:

“Case II: – Highlander, age 37, a ‘chance’ child of rather poor birth, and employed as a portman. He is very amorous by nature, with good intelligence but feeble will. His heart is weak, and there is a tendency to hypochondriasis. Latterly he has taken drugs to a considerable extent to relieve his heart-trouble, and has also become almost impotent.

As a young man he was very fond of the girls and showed a morbid degree of erethism (emission at sight of women, etc.); he had one or two serious love affairs and disappointments. Then the passion gradually veered round to his own sex, he does not know why. At the present time his life is always wrapped up in some male friend, but without much response on the physical side from the other person. His sleeping and waking life is filled with a continual procession of images of physical and emotional desire. His temperament is somewhat artistic.”[2]

This is just one of the 33 case studies in “Sexual Inversion” that provide a detailed window into an individual’s private life. The nature of these case studies vary but this gives insight into the types of things that Ellis and Symonds were interested in highlighting with the publication of this book.

The edition of the text that I read was provided through digital scans via Internet Archive and while this was quite a convenient method, I would say that this is not a true substitute for reading the physical book. Some of the scans are better than others and often times, the text can be a little bit difficult to read. Additionally, it becomes a quite difficult to “flip” through the book so to speak without a physical copy. However, reading the book in this format has been particularly efficient for a project that I am personally contributing to. A few of us in the Lab have undertaken the task of transcribing the Greek text that Symonds included in “A Problem in Greek Ethics”. This is made much easier through the use of a digital version of “Sexual Inversion” because it allows me to use a split screen so that both the Greek and the document into which I am transcribing it are visible at the same time. 

In general, “Sexual Inversion” is a wonderful compilation of many of the themes that we knew Symonds was interested in throughout his entire life. The inclusion of personal sentiments as well as a scope of case studies shows just how universal of a topic homosexuality is and it is a great effort to normalize a taboo subject, particularly during the time period in which Symonds lived.

[1] Beccalossi and Chiara, “Sexual Inversion: A Critical Edition,” OUP Academic (Oxford University Press, February 21, 2009),

[2] Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, “Studies in the Psychology of Sex. [Electronic Resource] : Ellis, Havelock, 1859-1939 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming,” Internet Archive (London : Wilson & MacMillan, January 1, 1897),, 43.

One Hell of a Time: Pitture a fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa and a Young Symonds

“Il Guidizio Universale e L’Inferno/Le Jugement Dernier et Enfer”, Pitture a fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa, engraved by Carlo Lasinio. Florence, 1812. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kyle Bacon. (Right page)

The above image comes from Carlo Lasinio’s book Pitture a fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa. This book contains 40 double plates and was published in Florence in 1812. The engravings in this large, beautiful book are Carlo Lasinio’s personal reproductions of the frescos at the Campo Santo in Pisa. This particular image that I have chosen to write about is entitled “Le Jugement Dernier et Enfer” which translates to “The Last Judgement and Hell” and is a Biblical reference that has been depicted by countless artists throughout history. This book is mentioned by John Addington Symonds in his Memoirs and this book, along with many other plate books, were located in Symonds’ family library and were particularly influential in his youth.

            On page 18 of his Memoirs, Symonds writes: “I was very fond of picture books and drew a great deal from Raphael, Flaxman and Retzsch. Our house was well stocked with engravings, photographs, copies of Italian pictures and illustrated works upon Greek sculpture. Lasinio’s Campo Santo of Pisa, Sir William Hamilton’s vases, the Museo Borbonico and the two large folios issued by the Dilettante Society were among my chief favourites.”[1] It is no surprise that, given his interest in Greek and Roman antiquity, Symonds would find these Italian engravings of interest and that they would have been revered by not only Symonds but also his father, the senior John Addington Symonds. While perhaps not a direct influence on a book like A Problem in Greek Ethics, it is likely that engravings such as those by Lasinio would have influenced Symonds’ books on the Italian Renaissance and perhaps even his visits to Pisa later in his adult life. I myself have been to the Campo Santo in Pisa and it truly is stunning.

            The frescos at the Campo Santo depict religious scenes and were painted during the High Renaissance. The particular image that I have chosen is of the Last Judgement, and, more specifically, Hell. The archangel Michael and the Last Judgement are seen on the left-hand side of the page while Hell can be seen on the right-hand side. Arguably the most famous depiction of these scenes is by Michelangelo and is located on one of the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Lasinio’s depiction of Hell is honestly quite horrifying, which is one of the reasons why I was so drawn to it and I can imagine a young John Addington Symonds being quite intrigued by this engraving as well. Lasinio has included an incredible amount of detail in this engraving and has not hesitated to include some very gruesome images, such as a monstrous Devil consuming and giving birth to people in the center of the plate, men being strangled by serpents, roasted on spits, having their entrails pulled out, and so many more horrible tortures that, according to some theologians, await those who are sent to Hell. The entire scene is also quite reminiscent of Dante’s description of the nine circles of Hell in his Inferno. Dante is another author who we know Symonds read and is mentioned in his Memoirs, providing further context for this plate in the life of Symonds.

            Additionally, it is quite interesting to consider this image keeping in mind Symonds’ religious background as well as the various ailments that plagued him as a child. In Chapter 1 of the Memoirs, Symonds writes:

“I was persuaded that the devil lived near the door-mat in a dark corner of the passage by my father’s bedroom. I thought that he appeared to me there under the shape of a black shadow, skurrying about upon the ground, with the faintest indication of a slightly whirling tail.

When the cholera was raging in the year 1848, I heard so much about it that I fell into a chronic state of hysterical fear. Someone had told me of the blessings which attend ejaculatory prayers. So I kept perpetually mumbling: ‘Oh, God, save me from the cholera!’ This superstitious habit clung to me for years. I believe that it obstructed the growth of sound ideas upon religion; but I cannot say that I ever was sincerely pious, or ever realized the language about God I heard and parroted.”

(Memoirs, Chapter 1, pg 69)

This is just one section of the Memoirs that show the extreme influence that religion and fear of disease had on Symonds. Symonds himself wrote about the extent to which he “loathed evangelic Protestantism” (Chapter 1, page 67) and it is very likely that this image, in conjunction with his poor health as a child and his staunch, nonconformist values on religious would have provoked quite a violent response on the young boy. It is possible that Symonds himself might have even identified with the writhing, tortured figures that Lasinio depicts and may have stirred up some deeper emotions within his heart and soul as a young, sick boy coming to terms with his sexuality, morals, and beliefs.

            All in all, it is quite interesting to consider an image of Hell in connection to the life of John Addington Symonds and his interests. The ancient Greeks and Romans had a quite different conception of Hell that was manifested in the Underworld, a place that is under the rule of Pluto (or Hades), guarded by a three-headed dog named Cerberus, and reached by crossing the River Styx with Charon, the ferryman. The Underworld of antiquity looks quite different from both Dante and Lasinio’s Biblical versions of Hell in which non-Christians and pagans such as Aristotle and Homer are placed. Symonds undoubtedly was familiar with both of these versions of Hell and understood their distinctions. In my own mind, I am interested to know what Symonds’ personal thoughts surrounding homosexuality and Hell looked like. It is an unfortunate but common belief held by many Christians that homosexuals belong in Hell due to the word of God and what is written in the Bible but I am unfamiliar with what of this directly impacted Symonds’ life and what he had to deal with as a man who was romantically and sexually attracted to other men. Obviously, that same kind of condemnation was not the attitude towards same-sex relationships in antiquity so this is another layer that I would be interested in looking at more closely and was sparked by my viewing of Lasinio’s engraving of a particularly disturbing depiction of Hell.

[1] John Addington Symonds and Amber K. Regis, The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 118.

Aeschylus: The Father of Tragedy

Often dubbed the “Father of Tragedy”, Aeschylus wrote some of the most well-known Greek plays that survive from the ancient world, including the Oresteia and the Persians. Over the course of his life from 523 BCE to 456 BCE, Aeschylus wrote numerous plays about a variety of subjects and changed the way that theater was performed in ancient Greece, such as increasing the number of actors in a play as well as the way they interacted with each other.[1]

Herma of Aeschylus by Zde via Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

            Therefore, it is no surprise that the renowned playwright is featured heavily in the works and letters of John Addington Symonds. Like many who study the Classics, Symonds read many of Aeschylus’ plays and they greatly influenced the way he approached the topic of same-sex relationships both in the ancient world as well as 19th century London. Aeschylus and his plays are mentioned in Symonds’ letters, A Problem in Greek Ethics (1883), as well as his Memoirs (1889-91).

            In his letters, Symonds primarily mentions Aeschylus not in relation to his views on homosexuality but with reference to the difficulty of his Greek. In some of his earlier letters dating to 1860-65, Symonds wrote extensively to his sister Charlotte about the complex and sometimes tedious nature of translating ancient texts. In one letter to Charlotte written in 1860, Symonds writes at the end, “I must end now: for one of the most corrupt choruses in the “Choëphorae” of Aeschylus is awaiting my attention” (Letters I:125).[2] The date of this letter makes John Addington Symonds twenty years old and, as I am only one year older than he was at the time that this letter was written and a Classicist myself, I can more than relate to this feeling of being bogged down by challenging passages of Greek. In his later letters that date to the very end of his life, Symonds continues to mention Aeschylus to his friends and family but rather than griping about the difficult nature of the tragedian’s Greek, he quotes short passages from some of Aeschylus’ works, such as the Agamemnon and the Persians, that relate to whatever topic he is writing about and show off his rounded education as a connoisseur of the Classics.

            For similar reasons as in his letters, Symonds also makes reference to Aeschylus in his Memoirs, which were written from 1889-91. The Memoirs provide a detailed account of Symonds’ life and include all of the details about Symonds’ love of the Classics as well as his sexual awakening, as it were. In this text, Symonds mentions Aeschylus only a handful of times and most notably (and charmingly) with reference to his father and grandfather. Symonds writes, “These three generations of men—my grandfather, my father and myself—correspond to the succession of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, to the transition from early pointed Gothic through Decorated to Flamboyant architecture. Medio, tutissimus ibis. ‘You will go most safely by the middle course.’ The middle term of such a series is always superior to the first and vastly superior to the third. How immeasurably superior my father was to me, as a man, as a character, as a social being, as a mind, I feel, but I cannot express”.[3] As I wrote in my introduction, Aeschylus is often considered the “Father of Tragedy” and one of the three great Greek tragedians, along with Sophocles and Euripides. The works of Sophocles and Euripides would not be what they are without Aeschylus and it is hard to consider one author without the other two. This is sweet sentiment that, in my mind, links the two triads throughout history.

Symonds also mentions Aeschylus in A Problem in Greek Ethics, written in 1883, but references him in a way that differs from his more personal texts like his letters and the Memoirs. In this book, Symonds writes about a kind of “Greek love” that existed in the ancient world and what ancient authors had to say on the subject of same-sex relationships. In the second section of this book, Symonds includes Aeschylus, Pindar, and Sophocles among the poets of “an age when paiderastia was prevalent, (and they) spoke unreservedly upon the subject”.[4] Paiderastia is the Greek word that literally means “love of boys” and refers to a sexual relationship between a man and a younger boy, usually in his teens. Paiderastia was very common in the ancient world and is the subject of many of Symonds’ works. As a homosexual man himself and someone who was witness to a relationship of this sort while attending boarding school in his youth, Symonds writes extensively on paiderastia in A Problem in Greek Ethics. Symonds argues that this was characteristic of ancient Greece and Aeschylus was only one of many authors who “spoke unreservedly on the subject”.

            Symonds references Aeschylus’ lost play the Myrmidones as a popular example of a play that included examples of paiderastia. Numerous playwrights included the story of Achilles and Patroclus and the possible sexual nature of their relationship in their plays and the Mymidones is one example of such. While this play has been lost, its subject matter nevertheless has survived. This play deals with the same subject matter as is presented in Iliad 9-18 but Aeschylus has changed the nature of the relationship between the two men from Homer’s Illiad, making Patroclus older than Achilles but making Achilles the dominant lover. This was criticized by Plato due to the diversion from the original legend but, according to Symonds, “sufficiently establishes the fact that paiderastia was publicly received with approbation on the tragic stage”.[5] Symonds conjectures that Aeschylus may have written his play based off of a non-Homeric source, which would account for the change in the relationship between the characters, but does not change the fact that paiderastia was prevalent and accepted in ancient Greece. Regardless, it is a fascinating comparison to draw that reveals much about Symonds’ own opinion on the subject and on the work of Aeschylus in general, especially with regard to Symonds’ personal relationship to the author and the subject matter about which he writes.

[1] Daniel J. Campbell, “Aeschylus and Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy” (1946). Master’s Theses. 88.

[2] John Addington Symonds, Herbert M. Schueller, and Robert L. Peters, The Letters of John Addington Symonds, vol. 1, 3 vols. (Detroit, MI: Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1969), 223.

[3] John Addington Symonds and Amber K. Regis, The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 86.

[4] Sean Brady and John Addington Symonds, “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” essay, in John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality: a Critical Edition of Sources (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 44.

[5] ibid, 71-2.