Amy Richlin – Billy Johnson of Eton: Classics, the Closet, and the Schools

Thomas Spencer Jerome Lectures Series

Amy Richlin – Billy Johnson of Eton: Classics, the Closet, and the Schools

19th century photograph of a light skinned man sitting in a chair in a 3/4 pose; his arms are raised with his hands touching the back of his head

Detail of a portrait of William Johnson by an unknown photographer, ca. 1865 (artwork in the public domain)


The Thomas Spencer Jerome Lecture Series is among the most prestigious international platforms for the presentation of new work on Roman history and culture. The Jerome Lectures are delivered at both the American Academy in Rome and the University of Michigan. Amy Richlin, Distinguished Research Professor of Classics at the University of California, Los Angeles, will give the lectures in the series’s forty-ninth year.

One of the great mysteries of the history of sexuality is how the Greco-Roman sex/gender system disappeared. This series of three Thomas Spencer Jerome Lectures, titled Dirty Words: The Selective Survival of Latin Erotica, from St. Jerome to Mr. Jerome, will trace the story of that shift, showing how pederasty vanished from discourse at the beginning of a heterocentric Europe, yet continued underground through the mid-twentieth century. Lectures will discuss not only what was read by scholars and writers but what was taught in schools, where Latin literature was the curriculum through the mid-nineteenth century. The title Dirty Words embodies the problem of the moral control of the circulation of knowledge.

Lecture 1

Jerome’s Captive Slave Woman and the Latin Canon
November 14 – 6:00pm
American Academy in Rome
Villa Aurelia
Largo di Porta S. Pancrazio, 1

Lecture 2

Billy Johnson of Eton: Classics, the Closet, and the Schools
November 16 – 6:00pm
Finnish Institute in Rome
Villa Lante al Gianicolo
Passeggiata del Gianicolo, 10

Lecture 3

Uranian Love Goes Underground
November 21 – 6:00pm
American Academy in Rome
Lecture Room
Via Angelo Masina, 5

The second lecture, titled “Billy Johnson of Eton: Classics, the Closet, and the Schools,” will take place at the Finnish Institute in Rome’s Villa Lante al Gianicolo. It is no coincidence that the most famous work of pederastic pornography in the early modern period was Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, a seventeenth-century text that imagines the seductive Socratic Alcibiades as a schoolboy. As Saint Jerome’s Latin canon became the basic curriculum for English boarding schools, a tension arose between the schools’ Christian governance and the erotic content of the canon. At the same time, the secular crackdown on sodomy—now a capital offense—contrasted with the lives of sexual renegades like Lord Byron and with the well-documented sexual abuses within boarding schools. Billy Johnson, a beloved schoolmaster at Eton, was also the author of Ionica (1858), later considered the foundational poetry collection for the Uranian boy-lovers of the fin de siècle. Johnson, though, lived in the time before the closet was even a concept, and a close reading of his journal and teaching materials suggests a life free of definitions. His romantic longings were fostered by the invention of photography: a harbinger of things to come.

Portrait of William Johnson by an unknown photographer, ca. 1865 (artwork in the public domain)

Amy Richlin is Distinguished Research Professor of Classics at UCLA. She works on Roman society and culture, especially women’s history, Roman comedy and satire, and the history of sexuality. Her most recent book, Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy (2017), won the Goodwin Award from the Society for Classical Studies. Richlin’s Jerome Lectures spring from her career-long fascination with the simultaneous radical difference and deep continuities between ancient and modern sex/gender systems.

The lecture will be held in English.

This event, to be presented in person at the Finnish Institute in Rome, is free and open to the public.


Space in the Villa Lante al Gianicolo is limited, and seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Guests will be asked to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols (such as wearing FFP2 masks while indoors).

Giorno e ora
mercoledì 16 novembre 2022
Villa Lante al Gianicolo
Istituto finlandese di Roma
Passeggiata del Gianicolo, 10
Roma, Italia