I know I keep repeating myself, but the thing I find most impressive about Boehringer's work (and the thing most often lacking in general studies of classical homosexuality) is the meticulousness with which she sets up the cultural, literary, and textual context of each piece of evidence she examines. She points out how many previous interpretations of references to f/f relations like this one have taken them at face value, or as a genuine personal opinion of the author, or presented them without the context of the author's overall work. There is no way I can share with you the detailed analysis that builds up the foundations of Boehringer's conclusions. But whether or not you're interested in classical antiquity in particular, I highly recommend this study for the process and methods of analysis. It will rock your world.
Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 2d: Classical and Hellenistic Greece – Asclepiades and the Samian Women
Asclepiades of Samos was a poet of the late fourth/early third century BCE, best known for his epigrams, especially those on erotic topics. The epigram as a poetic style, was just coming into popularity and an understanding of the conventions and forms of the genre are essential to interpreting the one epigram referring to f/f erotics.
The poem itself is short and straightforward in interpretation. The poet-persona calls our attention to two women from Samos (like the poet) who “do not wish to frequent the realms of Aphrodite in accordance with her laws, but they desert to other practices that are not appropriate.” He calls on Aphrodite to “abhor them”.
On the surface, this has been interpreted as a condemnation of f/f relations and as indicating that they were socially disapproved. Boehringer argues that the poem must be interpreted in the context of the whole series of related epigrams in which Asclepiades works through an entire catalog of women and boys whom he has desires but who have all, in some way, rejected him. As a whole, the epigrams are humorously self-mocking and the individual romantic failures do not involve condemning the actions or nature of the subject, but rather create the image of the poet-persona as a feckless loser. To the extent that the subjects are criticized, it is as a means of shifting blame from the poet’s ineptness.
Boehringer presents this case with an extensive discussion of the epigram as a genre, the overall nature of Asclepiades’ work, and a comparative study of his erotic epigrams as a unified sequence. She reviews the interpretations put forth by other scholars that the women are courtesans or prostitutes, or that their offense against Aphrodite involves taking a masculine role in sex with women. Each of these is shown to be unsupported, or contradicted by the overall picture, or to be an anachronistic interpretation for the era when they were written.
Her overall conclusion is that this poem is consistent with the image of f/f erotics indicated by Plato’s writings: that it was a known, accepted, and unremarkable possibility, and that it was not viewed as involving differentiated sexual roles, whether as active/passive (as for men) or involving masculinity (as we see in later eras).
To the extent that Asclepiades condemns the women’s preference, it is a personal, selfish condemnation that they do not prefer him. And yet he can characterize f/f relations as “not part of the norm” which is a shift from the more neutral (or at least indifferent) attitude of previous centuries.